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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
Even so, the French position seemed to be, and was deemed by the defender, “impregnable”—as Vaudreuil assured the government in Paris. The guns of the fortress of Quebec, perched loftily on the north shore of the St. Lawrence, commanded the river; the land approach from the east was barred by the tributary rivers Montmorency and St. Charles, and that from the west, above Quebec, by the cliffs of the Plains of Abraham. Trusting in this obstacle to cover his western Hank, and in the guns of the fortress to control the narrow passage that led to the upper reaches of the river, Montcalm posted his army in an entrenched position below Quebec—along the six-mile stretch of the north shore between the St. Charles and the Montmorency.
On reaching the American side of the Atlantic on April 30, Wolfe had found to his disgust that Rear Admiral Philip Durell was still at anchor at Halifax instead of carrying out Wolfe’s instructions to block the entrance to the St. Lawrence as soon as the ice began to melt. As a result of this delay, although Durell was sent off at once, three French frigates and a score of storeships slipped through and up to Quebec before the entrance was closed, strengthening Montcalm’s position and impairing Wolfe’s plan. Fortunately Admiral Charles Saunders, the commander of the main fleet that had sailed with Wolfe from England, was a man of greater vigor, and their co-operation was to provide one of the few good examples in Britain’s history of combined action between army and navy. More delay, however, was caused because Louisbourg harbor was still blocked with ice. Wolfe could not land there until the middle of May, but he completed his preparations and sailed for Quebec by June 1.
The voyage to Quebec was in itself a very hazardous part of the expedition, for the currents and shoals of the St. Lawrence are notorious, and its achievement without mishap astonished the French. Vaudreuil, the governor, wrote: “The enemy have passed sixty ships of war where we hardly dared risk a vessel of a hundred tons.”
Wolfe disembarked on the Isle of Orleans, four miles below Quebec, on June 27. His reconnaissance discovered the French dispositions and the extent to which Admiral Durell’s negligence had enabled them to prepare to meet the attack. The long line of steep brown cliffs, topped by entrenchments, was a daunting sight. Moreover, the French now had, besides floating batteries, more than a hundred guns mounted in well-chosen positions to command the river and likely landing places. Further evidence of their preparedness came on the night of the twenty-eighth, when the French loosed seven fire ships downstream against the British fleet. But the crews set light too soon to their explosive loads, and the danger was averted by the coolness of the British sailors, who rowed out and towed the blazing hulks ashore.
Wolfe retorted with a prompt counterstroke, seizing Pointe Levi on the south bank of the river opposite Quebec. Here the passage was little more than half a mile wide, and from this vantage point his guns were able to bombard the lower part of the city. Montcalm had wished to post a strong detachment on the south bank, but his proposal had been overruled by Vaudreuil—on the mistaken assumption that the French guns would make it impossible for the British to establish batteries in emplacements close enough for an effective bombardment of the city. But although Wolfe succeeded in getting his guns dug in, and then gradually crumbled the Lower Town into ruins, their galling effect was too gradual to solve his assault problem in the near future—before gales and frost would come to the relief of the French.
Faced with an enemy strongly entrenched in a position that commanded the approach to Quebec, Wolfe’s problem was to lure him out of his fastness. The only way of doing this was to bait a trap. To this end Wolfe—who had already dispatched Monckton’s brigade to Pointe Levi—now landed (during the night of July 9) the bulk of Townshend’s and Murray’s brigades on the north shore, just below the falls of the Montmorency River. This dispersion of his force has been much criticized by military historians. But the objections, while in accord with abstract theory, tend to overlook the actual circumstances.
In view of the almost impregnable position in which Montcalm was posted, Wolfe had to take risks to lure the enemy into the open. In this case the risks were slight. Wolfe’s command of the river gave him the power of movement, for reinforcement of either portion if engaged. His troop distribution gave him the power of surprise by keeping Montcalm in uncertainty and apprehension as to the direction of Wolfe’s real move. Moreover, Wolfe had ample evidence that the French were disinclined to take the offensive, and his confidence in the strong superiority of his own troops in any engagement on their own ground—a confidence which was abundantly justified—gave him security that any part that was attacked could hold its own for the time until reinforcements crossed the river.