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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
The landing was safely made at the Foulon cove—now called Wolfe’s Cove. A band of picked volunteers clambered up the steep cliff, and overpowered the French picket on the summit. This coup covered the landing of the main body. Before dawn the army, reinforced by another twelve hundred troops under Colonel Ralph Burton direct from the south bank, was moving toward Quebec. Wolfe had found, on the Plains of Abraham, the open battlefield for which he had thirsted. Should he be beaten, he was certainly in a desperate position, but he had sure ground for confidence in the quality of his own men to offset the French quantity in an open battle. There was a danger that Bougainville’s detachment might hasten back from Cap Rouge and fall on his rear, but this menace can easily be exaggerated in retrospect, for the light infantry that Wolfe dispatched to guard his rear was capable of holding Bougainville in check. A worse danger was that Montcalm might still decline battle, in which case the difficulty of bringing up supplies and artillery might have made Wolfe’s position precarious. But a military appreciation must consider the moral as well as the material elements, and Wolfe’s appearance on the Plains of Abraham, close to the city, was a moral challenge an opponent could hardly decline.
Wolfe deployed his force in a single line—to gain the fullest value of his troops’ superior musketry —with his left thrown back to guard the inland flank, and one regiment (Webb’s Forty-eighth Foot, commanded by Colonel Burton) in reserve. Montcalm, warned too late, hurried his troops westward across the St. Charles and through the city. Wolfe’s bait this time had succeeded, even beyond expectation, and Montcalm attacked before his whole force was on the spot-probably because a large part of it was pinned by fear of the threatened landing below Quebec.
The clash was preceded by an attempt of the French Canadian irregulars and Indians to work around to Wolfe’s left, but although their fire was galling, their effort was too uncontrolled to be effective. About 10 A.M. the French main body advanced, but their ragged fire drew no reply from the British line, obedient to Wolfe’s instructions that “a cool well levelled fire is much more destructive and formidable than the quickest fire in confusion.” He himself was shot through the wrist, but, wrapping a handkerchief round it, continued his calls to the men to hold their fire. At last, when the French were barely forty yards distant, the word was given, and the British line delivered a shattering volley, repeated it, and then, on Wolfe’s signal, charged a foe already disintegrating.
At the head of his picked grenadiers Wolfe was an inevitable target. A bullet penetrated his groin, a second his lungs, and he fell, unobserved by the charging ranks. Only an officer and two others, soon joined by an artillery officer, saw what happened, and began to carry him to the rear. Realizing that the chest wound was mortal, he bade them put him down, and stopped them from sending for a surgeon. His dying words, when told that the enemy was on the run—“Now God be praised, I die happy”—are historic. But the words immediately preceding—uttered on the point of death—are a finer tribute to him as a general: “Go, one of you, my lads, with all speed to Colonel Burton and tell him to march Webb’s regiment down to the St. Charles River, and cut off the retreat of the fugitives to the bridge.”
Monckton, too, had fallen wounded, and the command thus passed to Townshend, who checked the pursuit—which might have rushed the city gates on the heels of the flying foe—in order to re-form the army and turn about to face Bougainville’s belated approach. The sight of the British, emphasized by a few preliminary shots, was sufficient to convince Bougainville that his small force had best seek a safe haven, and he retreated rapidly.
In the city all was confusion, for in the rout Montcalm had been gravely wounded, and that night the wreckage of the French army streamed away up the river in flight. With the death of the gallant Montcalm—to complete as dramatic a battle as history records—and Townshend’s energetic pressing of the siege, Quebec surrendered four days later.
The fall of Quebec, the gate of Canada, ensured the collapse of French power there unless it could soon be recaptured. After recuperating in Montreal during the winter, the French moved back against Quebec the following April. Murray, who had been left in command of the garrison, moved out to meet them, and by unwisely advancing too far got his troops and guns bogged in a stretch of frozen slush. As a result, he was driven to retreat within the walls in a badly mauled state. But the French abandoned the siege and retreated to Montreal when the first ships of the British relief fleet came up the river ten days later. They put up no serious resistance to the subsequent converging advance of the British forces, and on September 8 Vaudreuil signed the surrender of Canada.