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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
He had been laid low on August 19, but before this he had initiated a “starvation” campaign against the French, sending detachments to lay waste the country around, although he gave strict orders for the good treatment of women and children. More important still was a move to cut off their main supplies, which came downstream from Montreal. For weeks, more and more British ships had slipped past the guns of Quebec, and on August 5, after being joined by Murray with twelve hundred troops in flatboats, they were sent upstream to harass the French shipping and shores. The diversion, moreover, forced Montcalm to detach another fifteen hundred men under Louis de Bougainville to prevent a landing west of Quebec.
Economic pressure is a slow weapon, however, and Wolfe feared that winter might stop operations before it could achieve its object. From his sickbed he sent a message asking his brigadiers to consult together on a fresh move, suggesting three possible variations of the Montmorency plan. Murray had now returned, and the three, in reply, proposed instead “to carry the operations above the town,” and try to “establish ourselves on the north shore”—but without any detailed suggestions as to how and where it was to be done. Wolfe, as we know, had conceived this idea before, and reluctantly abandoned it. But now the situation was modified, both because he had got so many of his ships upriver and because, after the Montmorency plan had failed, a gamble was more justified—and inevitable.
On September 3 Wolfe evacuated the Montmorency camp, and on the fifth, after concentrating his forces on the south shore, he marched the bulk, some thirtysix hundred men, overland up the river bank, and embarked them in the ships. Montcalm thereupon reinforced Bougainville, who was at Cap Rouge, with another fifteen hundred men, although feeling confident that it was a ruse of Wolfe’s—who, he remarked, “is just the man to double back in the night.”
Each day the ships drifted up and down with the tide, perplexing the French command and wearing out their troops with ceaseless marching and countermarching, while Wolfe reconnoitered the cliffs through a telescope for a possible point of ascent. While his brigadiers were searching elsewhere, he observed a winding path up the cliffs at the Anse au Foulon, only a mile and a half above Quebec, and noticed that it was capped by a cluster of less than a dozen tents. Deeming the spot almost inaccessible, the French had posted there only a small picket.
Wolfe’s choice was made, but he kept it secret until the eve of the venture. On September 10 he infnrmed Colonel Burton of the Fortx-eighth Foot, who was to be left in charge of the troops on the south shore, and on the eleventh he issued a warning order for the embarkation of the troops the next night. On the twelfth he issued his orders for the attack, ending on the note, “The officers and men will remember what their country expects of them … [to be] resolute in the execution of their duty”—the germ of Nelson’s message at Trafalgar. That evening, in his cabin on H.M.S. Sutherland , Wolfe sent for his old schoolfellow, John Jervis—later famous as Earl St. Vincent, but then commanding a sloop—and handed over his will, together with a miniature of his promised bride, Catherine Lowther, with instructions to return it to her in the event of his death.
Just before sunset, Admiral Saunders with the main fleet drew out along the shore opposite Montcalm’s camp below Quebec, and, lowering the boats to suggest a landing, opened a violent fire. This ruse fulfilled its purpose of fixing the enemy, for Montcalm concentrated his troops at Beauport and kept them under arms during the night—miles away from the real danger point. While the French were straining their eyes to detect the threatened landing, a single lantern rose to the maintop of the Sutherland , upriver, and sixteen hundred troops of the first division noiselessly embarked in their flatboats. At 2 A.M. , as the tide began to ebb, two lanterns rose and flickered, and the whole flotilla dropped silently downstream, the troops in boats leading. Discovery was narrowly averted when a French-speaking British officer twice replied to a sentry’s challenge from the shore—his deception being helped by the fact, of which two deserters had informed Wolfe, that the enemy was expecting a convoy of provisions.