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The Battle That Won An Empire

May 2024
22min read

By a brilliant maneuver young James Wolfe conquered “impregnable” Quebec—and secured North America for the English-speaking peoples

“This will, some time hence, be a vast empire, the seat of power and learning. … Nature has refused them nothing, and there will grow a people out of our little spot, England, that will fill this vast space, and divide this great portion of the globe with the Spaniards, who are possessed of the other half.”


That prophecy, two hundred and one years ago, about the future of Britain’s colonies in America, was written by the man who had scornfully said in another letter four days earlier: “The Americans are in general the dirtiest most contemptible dogs that you can conceive.” This hasty and violent generalization from a particular episode—the capture of Louisbourg—was as characteristic of the man as was the far-ranging vision shown in his next letter.

It was the same man who a year later, on the eve of his death and of the victory that made his name immortal, recited some verses of Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” and said to his staff: “I would sooner have written that poem than take Quebec.” In his own annotated copy of the “Elegy” he had underscored the line: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” It is yet another facet of the extraordinary character of James Wolfe.

The present year, 1959, marks the two hundredth anniversary of his victory at Quebec. By that astonishing coup, achieved in a very unconventional manner, he undermined the French position in Canada and quenched the French threat to the British colonies in North America. Thereby lie paved the way for those colonies to throw off British rule within less than a generation, and start on their independent path to the fulfillment of his vision of their great future. The United States might well be termed his grandchild, in the light of his conception coupled with the effect of his action.

Of the world’s historic battlefields, none is easier for the visitor to trace and visualizc than that of Quebec. The course of the preliminary moves, and their significance, is made clear by the contours of the St. Lawrence River. The scene of Wolfe’s decisive step, the landing at a cove a mile and a half upstream from the city, is close to where the transatlantic liners now disembark their passengers. The battle itself was fought out on top of the cliffs above this landing place—on the plateau called the Heights, or Plains, of Abraham, which lies immediately to the west of the city.


The capture of Quebec and its sequel, the conquest of Canada, formed the high-water mark of the tide of British imperialism in the eighteenth century. That was emphasized by Sir John Seeley, the Cambridge historian of the late Victorian Age, in his famous book, The Expansion of England . In his lyrical words:

That victory was one of a long series, which to contemporaries seemed fabulous, so that the nation came out of the struggle intoxicated with glory, and England stood upon a pinnacle of greatness which she had never reached before. We have forgotten how, through al! that remained of the eighteenth century, the nation looked back upon those two or three splendid years as upon a happiness that could never return and how long it continued to be the unique boast of the Englishman

That Chatham’s Language was his mother-tongue And Wolfe’s great heart compatriot with his own.

Englishmen had need of such comfort in the next war, the American Revolution. The retention of Canada then looked like poor compensation for the loss of their older colonies in North America.

Thus Wolfe’s fame glowed all the more in the contrast between the glory of the Seven Years’ War and the humiliation of the eight years’ war that followed. Even before that, the brightness of his lame owed much to the suddenness of its growth, and to the hero’s death in the hour of victory. He was a meteor that appeared above the horizon only a year before he died, and vanished in a blaze of glory at thirty-two.


In his meteorlike rise and course, Wolfe was the Wolfe Wingate—the brilliant, temperamental innovator and combat leader—of the eighteenth century, but his achievement was greater and more enduring. In personality there was much similarity between the two men. Both were supercharged with dynamism and audacity. Both were intensely ambitious, instinctively rebellious, and irreverent toward their elders and official superiors. Both were Riled with self-confidence, yet had streaks of humility. Both had the “divine discontent” of genius, but often expressed it in a way that was far from divine. Both had great pertinacity along with temperamental instability, so that they fell into moods of deep depression—or more often, “blew off” in exasperation against the momentary cause of frustration. Both made their marks as skilled trainers of troops in minor tactics on unconventional lines. Each was given his great opportunity by a great wartime prime minister—William Pitt (later Earl of Chatham) in the first case and Churchill in the second.

Wolfe’s birthplace was Westerham in Kent, and his boyhood association with this village made it a place of pilgrimage in later generations—drawing many visitors there until the village became a still greater draw as the country home of Winston Churchill. Constant reminder of Wolfe’s career through such propinquity could hardly fail to influence Churchill, a man so historically minded, when it came to a question of giving opportunity to another young soldier of similar stamp.

When Wolfe was sent to capture Quebec by Pitt, he was eight years younger than Wingate was when sent to Burma by Churchill, but their length of military service was almost equal at the time when the great opportunity came to each of them. For Wolfe was only fourteen when he became a junior officer in his father’s regiment of marines, and sixteen when he distinguished himself, as adjutant of the Twelfth Foot, in battle at Dettingen in 1743—the last battle in which an English king led his troops in person. Three years later Wolfe made a further mark in the Battle of Culloden Moor in Scotland, when the army of Prince Charles Edward, the Young Pretender, was defeated and the Jacobite hopes of regaining the throne from George II were extinguished. Wolfe then returned to the Continent, and by his twenty-first birthday was a veteran of six campaigns. Peace came soon afterward, and he went back to garrison duty in Scotland, soon becoming commander of his new regiment, the Twentieth Foot.

He made this regiment into what others termed the best-drilled and disciplined in the British Army. One of his officers described him as “a paragon. He neither drinks, curses, gambles, nor runs after women. So we make him our pattern.” But his own letters were full of discontent, complaining that his prospects were sterile, and that “barren battalion conversation blunts the faculties.” He liked the civilian society in Glasgow no better, saying that the men were “designing and treacherous, with their immediate interests always in view. — The women, coarse, cold and cunning, for ever enquiring after man’s circumstances.” While setting a good example by attending “every Sunday at the Kirk,” he bitingly remarked that “the generality of Scotch preachers are excessive blockheads.”

He found local society somewhat more congenial when the regiment moved to the rebel area of the Highlands. Here he gave fortnightly dances as a means of restoring good relations, and remarked of the women: “They are perfectly wild as the hills that breed them; but they lay aside their principles for the sake of sound and movement.” When the regiment was later moved to Devonshire, he applied the same treatmeant, and was soon able to say: “I have danced the officers into the good graces of the Jacobite women here abouts, who were prejudiced against them.”

For him, such play was only a means to an end, and he felt much relief when war broke out afresh with France, in 1756. Meantime he had devoted much time to reading current and classic books on the military art, in preparation for the leading role he hoped to fill. He had also developed the musketry skill of his men to a high pitch by constant firing practice at varied targets. His insistence on its value was to be proved at Quebec—where two quick, effective volleys won the battle, and gained an empire.

Like most reformers Wolfe was fiercely critical of obstruction and inefficiency, saying: “We are lazy in time of peace, and of course want vigilance and activity in war. Our military education is by far the worst in Europe.” And again: “We are the most egregious blunderers in war that ever took the hatchet in hand.”

His criticisms were borne out by the mismanaged seaborne expedition against Rochelort, on the west coast of France, in 1757, which ended in futility through defective combination between the military and naval leaders. But Wolfe himself, one of the junior leaders, emerged with credit from the court of inquiry. Moreover, a letter he wrote in reflection on the expedition was a model exposition of the way to conduct amphibious operations.

After this check, Pitt decided to strike at France’s overseas possessions. “In America, England and Europe were to be fought for,” he later declared. The main expedition was to be against the great French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which dominated the sea approaches to Canada; other campaigns were to be directed against the forts at Ticonderoga and Duquesne.

In Pitt, England had a minister strong enough to sweep aside military custom and seniority, and, “passing over whole columns of the army list,” to pick his own instruments. For command of the expedition he chose a colonel of forty, Jeffrey Amherst—making him a general—and appointed Wolfe, who was ten years younger, as one of the three brigadiers. A miserable sailor, Wolfe suffered badly during the voyage, but fought down his seasickness when action was imminent—as he always did his more deep-seated maladies.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

Quebec under the gun

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