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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
After reconnoitering the rocky and forbidding coast line, Amherst decided that Wolfe should carry out the main landing at Freshwater Cove in Gabarus Bay, some four miles west of Louisbourg, while the other two brigadiers feinted landings at points nearer the fortress. This was different from the plan that Wolfe had devised. The landing—on June 8, 1758—came at the most strongly defended point, and the boats were greeted with such a hail of shot that Wolfe had to signal them to sheer oil. However, three on the extreme right were partially sheltered by a projecting spit of land, and touched bottom among the rocks at this point. Wolfe immediately directed the rest of the boats toward this land; and although many were stove in, the bulk of the troops scrambled ashore led by Wolfe, who carried a cane as his only weapon. They pressed forward and took the nearest French battery by assault. Meanwhile, with the enemy’s attention occupied by Wolfe, another brigade landed farther west. The French, thus menaced on both flanks, fled before their retreat to Louisbourg was cut oil, leaving their guns in the hands of the British.
But the next steps were more prolonged, and the delay impaired the greater plan for the conquest of Canada, preventing the release of Amherst’s force for co-operation with General James Abercrombie in the campaign on the mainland. Eventually, the issue was decided by the demoralizing effect of a heavy battery that Wolfe had got into position on the hills overlooking Louisbourg harbor from the northwest—and on July 27 the French capitulated.
Seven weeks alter the landing, the strongest fortress in the New World had fallen, but Wolfe was dissatisfied. His letters are characteristic: “We made a rash and ill-advised attempt to land, and by the greatest of good fortune imaginable we succeeded. If we had known the country, and had acted with more vigour, half the garrison at least (for they were all out) must have fallen into our hands immediately we landed. Our next operations were exceedingly slow and injudicious. …” Then, as to the next move, he wrote: “I do not penetrate our General’s intentions. If he means to attack Quebec, he must not lose a moment.”
Since the naval authorities were reluctant to run the risks of the passage up the St. Lawrence River, Wolfe departed to harry the French settlements on the gulf—as a diversion to occupy the attention of the Marquis de Montcalm, the French commander in Canada, and prevent him from reinforcing the troops who were opposing Abercrombie’s overland advance. Before Wolfe returned to Louisbourg, Amherst had sailed for New York to support Abercrombie. A letter that Wolfe sent after him gives a side light on the influence Wolfe had won, allowing him to give advice to his superior: “An offensive, daring kind of war will awe the Indians and ruin the French. Block-houses, and a trembling defensive, encourage the meanest scoundrels to attack us.”
In October Wolfe sailed for England to recover his health, which had suffered from the strain. Pitt had intended him to remain in America, but the order missed him, and hearing this, Wolfe wrote to put himself right with the Minister, expressing his willingness to serve again “in America, and particularly in the river St. Lawrence.” Pitt had learned, from many sources, to whom was due the chief credit of the Louisbourg victory; and Wolfe’s letter gave him the assurance upon which to take the momentous decision of giving this young soldier of thirty-one command of the expedition now planned against Quebec.
On receiving Pitt’s summons, Wolfe hastened to London, and the two remaining months before he sailed were occupied with preparations. He named Robert Monckton and James Murray, an old enemy who had won his praise at Louisbourg, as two of his brigadiers, and accepted Pill’s suggestion of George Townshend as the third. The conservative George II was so far converted by Wolfe’s merit and the disasters that had befallen earlier commanders, that when the Duke of Newcastle declared that Wolfe was mad, he retorted: “Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals.”
Wolfe sailed from England in the middle of February after writing his mother a farewell letter which in its Spartan brevity shatters various imaginative accounts that have survived, ft said simply:
The formality of taking leave should be as much as possible avoided; therefore I prefer this method of offering my good wishes and duty to my father and to you. I shall carry this business through with my best abilities. The rest, you know, is in the hands of Providence, to whose care I hope your good life and conduct will recommend your son.
Although Pitt had intended him to have twelve thousand men, Wolfe found less than nine thousand available at Louisbourg, his base, and many deficiencies in equipment. Moreover, Amherst’s overland advance from New York was so tardy that the French were able to concentrate some sixteen thousand men around Quebec to oppose Wolfe. But their quality was low, and their great commander, Montcalm, suffered much hindrance from the governor of Canada, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, and his corrupt subordinates.