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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
This understanding of Wolfe’s object and the conditions sheds light on Townshend’s statement, and complaint, that on inspecting his front, Wolfe “disapproved of it, saying I had indeed made myself secure, for I had made a fortress.” Townshend failed to realize that he was spoiling Wolfe’s bait, for if the French would not come out to attack the English in the open, they certainly would not venture against an enemy visibly in a strongly fortified position.
Far from Wolfe being in danger, neither this bait nor the gradual destruction of the city by bombardment could stir the cool and wary French commander—who remarked to his subordinates: “If you drive Wolfe and his two brigades away, they will be troublesome somewhere else. While they are there, they cannot do much harm. So let them amuse themselves.” By any normal gauge, he was justified in reckoning that he could keep his attackers at bay until winter compelled their retreat.
The next British move was a naval one. On the night of July 18, a frigate and some smaller vessels slipped past the guns of Quebec, under cover of a heavy British bombardment from Pointe Levi, and anchored above the city. This at least forced Montcalm to detach six hundred men to guard the few paths up the cliffs in the eight-mile stretch above Quebec between the city and Cap Rouge. Wolfe at once reconnoitered the upper river for a possible landing on the north shore, but after restless meditation decided that both the difficulties and the risks were too great. As he wrote to Pitt: “What I feared most was, that if we should have landed between the town and the river of Cap Rouge the body first landed could not be reinforced before they were attacked by the enemy’s whole army.” A landing still higher up the river, which some critics have suggested, would not only have given Montcalm time to occupy fresh lines on that side, but would have widely separated Wolfe’s army from the main part of the fleet and his base—a far more dangerous dispersion than that which these critics condemn at Pointe Levi and Montmorency. His communications would have been stretched like a narrow cord with a knife—Quebec—grazing the middle.
But the weeks were slipping by, and Wolfe felt bound to try some daring measure to draw out the French, if he could find one less desperate than a landing above Quebec. Below the town he was separated from the French by the Montmorency, which flows swift and deep for many miles until it tumbles over the falls, a 250-foot drop, just before entering the St. Lawrence. Wolfe had tried in vain to discover a practicable ford above the falls by which he could turn the front of the French. But only below the falls does it run broad and shallow. A mile to the west, up the St. Lawrence, there was a .narrow strip of land between the river and the heights where the French had built redoubts. Wolfe now planned to land here with all his available grenadiers and part of Monckton’s brigade from Pointe Levi—hoping, by the capture of a detached redoubt, to tempt the French army down to regain it, and so bring on a battle in the open. Meanwhile, the other two brigades were to be ready to join him by fording the lower reaches of the Montmorency, where it can be waded.
On July 31 the attempt was made, covered by the guns of several ships and by the batteries across the Montmorency gorge. But on nearing the shore Wolfe perceived that the redoubt was “too much commanded to be kept without very great loss,” and drew off. For several hours the boats rowed up and down, both to confuse the enemy and to enable Wolfe to sight another landing point. Late in the afternoon the enemy, marching and countermarching, seemed in some confusion, and Wolfe gave the signal for a fresh attempt. Unluckily many of the boats grounded on an unseen ledge, causing further delay. Worse was to follow, for when the troops got ashore, the grenadiers rushed impetuously on the enemy’s entrenchments without waiting for the main body to form up. As a storm of fire broke in their faces, a storm of rain broke on their heads, and the steep slopes, slippery with blood and water, became unclimbable, while the muskets became unfireable. Realizing that his plans had gone awry, Wolfe broke off the fight and re-embarked the troops. It was a severe setback, and the French were proportionately elated. The Governor wrote home: “I have no more anxiety about Quebec.”
Neither in his frank dispatches to Pitt nor to his troops did Wolfe show any loss of heart, but his last letter to his mother, on August 31, reveals his declining hope and his feeling that he was on the verge of professional ruin: “The enemy puts nothing to risk, and I can’t in conscience, put the whole army to risk. My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can’t get at him without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose.” Then he went on to say: “I approve entirely of my father’s disposition of his affairs, though perhaps it may interfere a little matter with my plan of quitting the service, which I am determined to do the first opportunity.” Wolfe knew that where age can blunder and be forgiven, youth must seal its presumption with success if it is to survive inevitable jealousy.
Dejected in mind, he fell ill in body, but saying to his surgeon, “I know perfectly well you cannot cure my complaint,” he demanded: “Patch me up so that I may be able to do my duty for the next few days, and I shall be content.”