- Historic Sites
The Battle That Won An Empire
By a brilliant maneuver young James Wolfe conquered “impregnable” Quebec—and secured North America for the English-speaking peoples
December 1959 | Volume 11, Issue 1
“This will, some time hence, be a vast empire, the seat of power and learning. … Nature has refused them nothing, and there will grow a people out of our little spot, England, that will fill this vast space, and divide this great portion of the globe with the Spaniards, who are possessed of the other half.”
That prophecy, two hundred and one years ago, about the future of Britain’s colonies in America, was written by the man who had scornfully said in another letter four days earlier: “The Americans are in general the dirtiest most contemptible dogs that you can conceive.” This hasty and violent generalization from a particular episode—the capture of Louisbourg—was as characteristic of the man as was the far-ranging vision shown in his next letter.
It was the same man who a year later, on the eve of his death and of the victory that made his name immortal, recited some verses of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” and said to his staff: “I would sooner have written that poem than take Quebec.” In his own annotated copy of the “Elegy” he had underscored the line: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” It is yet another facet of the extraordinary character of James Wolfe.
The present year, 1959, marks the two hundredth anniversary of his victory at Quebec. By that astonishing coup, achieved in a very unconventional manner, he undermined the French position in Canada and quenched the French threat to the British colonies in North America. Thereby lie paved the way for those colonies to throw off British rule within less than a generation, and start on their independent path to the fulfillment of his vision of their great future. The United States might well be termed his grandchild, in the light of his conception coupled with the effect of his action.
Of the world’s historic battlefields, none is easier for the visitor to trace and visualizc than that of Quebec. The course of the preliminary moves, and their significance, is made clear by the contours of the St. Lawrence River. The scene of Wolfe’s decisive step, the landing at a cove a mile and a half upstream from the city, is close to where the transatlantic liners now disembark their passengers. The battle itself was fought out on top of the cliffs above this landing place—on the plateau called the Heights, or Plains, of Abraham, which lies immediately to the west of the city.
The capture of Quebec and its sequel, the conquest of Canada, formed the high-water mark of the tide of British imperialism in the eighteenth century. That was emphasized by Sir John Seeley, the Cambridge historian of the late Victorian Age, in his famous book, The Expansion of England . In his lyrical words:
That victory was one of a long series, which to contemporaries seemed fabulous, so that the nation came out of the struggle intoxicated with glory, and England stood upon a pinnacle of greatness which she had never reached before. We have forgotten how, through al! that remained of the eighteenth century, the nation looked back upon those two or three splendid years as upon a happiness that could never return and how long it continued to be the unique boast of the Englishman
Englishmen had need of such comfort in the next war, the American Revolution. The retention of Canada then looked like poor compensation for the loss of their older colonies in North America.
Thus Wolfe’s fame glowed all the more in the contrast between the glory of the Seven Years’ War and the humiliation of the eight years’ war that followed. Even before that, the brightness of his lame owed much to the suddenness of its growth, and to the hero’s death in the hour of victory. He was a meteor that appeared above the horizon only a year before he died, and vanished in a blaze of glory at thirty-two.
In his meteorlike rise and course, Wolfe was the Wolfe Wingate—the brilliant, temperamental innovator and combat leader—of the eighteenth century, but his achievement was greater and more enduring. In personality there was much similarity between the two men. Both were supercharged with dynamism and audacity. Both were intensely ambitious, instinctively rebellious, and irreverent toward their elders and official superiors. Both were Riled with self-confidence, yet had streaks of humility. Both had the “divine discontent” of genius, but often expressed it in a way that was far from divine. Both had great pertinacity along with temperamental instability, so that they fell into moods of deep depression—or more often, “blew off” in exasperation against the momentary cause of frustration. Both made their marks as skilled trainers of troops in minor tactics on unconventional lines. Each was given his great opportunity by a great wartime prime minister—William Pitt (later Earl of Chatham) in the first case and Churchill in the second.