Battle of Quebec
|Battle of the Plains of Abraham|
|Part of the Seven Years' War|
French and Indian War
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West. Oil on canvas, 1770.
|Kingdom of Great Britain||Kingdom of France|
|James Wolfe †||Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm †|
|4,800 regulars||4,000 regulars|
|658 dead or wounded||644 dead or wounded|
The Battle of Quebec, also known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, was a pivotal battle in the North American theatre of the Seven Years' War. The confrontation, which began on September 13, 1759, was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army, on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City. The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France, influencing the later creation of Canada.
The culmination of a three-month siege by the British, the battle lasted less than an hour. British commander General James Wolfe successfully broke the column advance of French troops and New French militia under Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe died on the field and Montcalm passed away the next morning.
The French and Indian War
|Jumonville Glen – Great Meadows – Fort Beauséjour – Monongahela – Lake George - Fort Bull - Fort Oswego - Kittanning – Fort William Henry – Louisbourg - Fort Carillon – Fort Frontenac - Fort Duquesne – Fort Ligonier – Ticonderoga – Fort Niagara – Beauport – Quebec – Sainte-Foy – Restigouche - Thousand Islands – Signal Hill|
In the wake of the battle, France's remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from British forces. Within four years, French control of what would become eastern Canada was ceded to Great Britain.
Quebec under siege
As the French and Indian War entered its latter stages through 1758 and 1759, French forces and colonies in northeastern North America came under attack from British troops. 1758 had seen British successes at Louisbourg in June, but that victory had been preceded earlier that month by defeat in the Battle of Carillon earlier. Fort Frontenac fell to the British in August, costing the French supplies for the Ohio Valley campaign. When some of the Indian supporters of the French made peace with the English, France was forced to draw their troops back. French leadership, specifically Governor de Vaudreuil and General Montcalm, were unsettled by the British successes. However, Quebec was still able to protect itself as the British prepared a three-pronged attack for 1759.
As part of the offensive, General James Wolfe arrived in Louisbourg in May 1759 to prepare his troops for the push inland while other British forces led an advance along Lake Champlain and inland from the west. Wolfe was met by a smaller force than he anticipated; he expected to lead 12,000 men, but was greeted by only approximately 400 officers, 7,000 regular troops, 300 gunners and a battery of Marines. Wolfe's troops were supported by a fleet of 49 ships and 140 smaller craft led by Admiral Charles Saunders. In preparation for the fleet's approach to Quebec, James Cook surveyed a large portion of the river, including a dangerous channel known as The Traverse. Cook's ship also was one of the first ships up the river, sounding the channel and guiding the fleet as it moved up, eventually landing Wolfe and his men on Île d'Orléans on June 28. The French attempted to attack the fleet by sending seven fire ships downriver to disrupt the landing, but the ships fired too early and British sailors in longboats were able to pull the flaming craft clear of the fleet. The following day, Wolfe’s troops landed on the south bank of the river at Point Levis, nearly directly across the river from Quebec; an artillery battery was established there in early July that nearly leveled the lower town by bombardment 
Despite an air of defeatism among the leadership, the professional French troops and New French militia defenders focused preparations for the British attacks on the Beauport shore. Montcalm and his staff, Major-General Francois de Gaston, Chevalier de Levis, Colonel Louis Antoine de Bougainville and Lieutenant-Colonel de Sennezergue, distributed some 12,000 troops in a nine-kilometer long collection of fortified redoubts and batteries from the Saint-Charles River to the Montmorency Falls, along the shallows of the river in areas that had previously been targeted by British attempts to land. Prior to the arrival of the British, a small fleet of supply ships had arrived in Quebec with much-needed supplies. Those supplies, along with 500 reinforcements, were likely behind the lengthened siege.
Wolfe, on surveying the town of Beauport, found that the houses there had been barricaded and organized to allow for musket fire from within; they were built in an unbroken line along the road, providing a formidable barrier. In addition, a screen of trees along the Montmorency River made an approach on that route dangerous. On July 31, the first serious attempt by Wolfe's troops to land on the northern shore led to the Battle of Beauport, also known as the Battle of Montmorency. Approximately 3,500 troops, supported by a heavy bombardment, attempted to land, but were caught under fire in the river shallows. Members of the Louisbourg Grenadiers, who reached the beach, attempted a generally undisciplined charge on the French positions, but came under heavy fire; a thunderstorm ended the fight and allowed Wolfe to pull his troops back after taking some 450 casualties to Montcalm's 60.
Some French officers felt the Montmorency defeat would be the last British attack; Vaudreuil wrote afterwards that "I have no more anxiety about Quebec. Wolfe, I assure you, will make no progress… He contented himself with losing about five hundred of his best soldiers." He predicted another attack would come within days. Others in the French camp felt the campaign was over.
For the remainder of the summer, Wolfe's focus changed, possibly due to frustration with Montcalm's tactics. His troops, along with American Rangers, attacked and destroyed small French settlements along the St. Lawrence. An estimated 1,400 stone houses and manors were destroyed, and many colonists killed. The effort was likely an attempt to force Montcalm's army out of its fortifications, but was unsuccessful. However, the attacks did reduce the amount of supplies available to the French, especially as the British navy, unable to control the St. Lawrence entirely, was successfully blockading the ports in France. 
Through the summer, illness spread through the British camps, and in August, Wolfe himself was bedridden, causing low morale to slump even further. With many men in camp hospitals, the fighting numbers were thinned, and Wolfe personally felt that action was needed by the end of September, or Britain's opportunity would be lost. In addition, his frustration with Montcalm's defensive stance continued to grow. In a letter to his mother, Wolfe wrote, "The Marquis of Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers, and I am at the head of a small number of good ones that wish for nothing so much as to fight him; but the wary old fellow avoids an action, doubtful of the behavior of his army." Montcalm also expressed frustration over the long siege, relating that he and his troops slept clothed and booted, and his horse was always saddled in preparation for an attack.
After considering and rejecting a number of plans for landings on the north shore, a decision was made in late August by Wolfe and his brigadiers to land upriver of the city. Such a landing would force Montcalm to fight, as a British force on the north shore of the St. Lawrence would cut his supply lines to Montreal. Initial suggestions for landing sites ranged as much as 32 kilometers up the St. Lawrence, which would have given the French troops one or two days to prepare for the attack. In the wake of the Montmorency debacle, Montcalm had shifted some of his troops, sending Bougainville and a column of approximately 1,500 regular troops, 200 cavalry and a group of New French militia - some 3,000 men in all - upriver to Cap-Rouge to keep watch on British ships in the area. The withdrawal, in early September, of British troops from Wolfe's base camp near Montmorency was seen as a feint by Montcalm, who redeployed other troops to the Beauport shore, despite warnings from commanders of potential dangers upriver.
While troops had been aboard landing ships and drifting up and down the river for several days, on September 12, Wolfe made a final decision on the British landing site, selecting Anse-aux-Foulons as a landing spot. Anse-aux-Foulons is a cove situated southwest of the city, three kilometers upstream. It lies at the bottom of a 53-meter high cliff leading to the plateau above on which Quebec City sits, and was protected by cannons. It was uncertain as to why Wolfe selected Foulon, as the original landing site was to be further up the river, in a position where the British would be able to develop a foothold and strike at Bougainville's force to draw Montcalm out of Quebec and onto the Plains. Brigadier-General George Townshend wrote that "by some intelligence the General had, he has changed his mind as to the place he intended to land." In his final letter, dated HMS Sutherland, 8:30 p.m. September 12, Wolfe wrote:
|“||I had the honor to inform you today that it is my duty to attack the French army. To the best of my knowledge and ability, I have fixed upon that spot where we can act with most force and are most likely to succeed. If I am mistaken I am sorry for it and must be answerable to His Majesty and the public for the consequences.||”|
It is possible that Wolfe's decision to change the landing site was less for secrecy and more a result of the general disdain he held for his brigadiers (a feeling that was reciprocated); he was also possibly still suffering from the effects of his illness and the opiates he used to reduce the ongoing pain.
Bougainville was tasked with the defense of the area, but was upstream with his troops at Cap Rouge and, the night of September 12, missed seeing numerous British ships moving downstream. A camp of approximately 100 militia led by Captain Louis Du Pont Duchambon de Vergor, who had unsuccessfully faced the British four years previously at Fort Beauséjour, was tasked to protect the top of a narrow road running up a streambank, the Coulée Saint-Denis. On the night of September 12 and morning of September 13, however, the camp may have contained as little as 40 men after others were allowed to go off harvesting. Vaudreuil and others had expressed concern with the Foulon being a possible approach route, but Montcalm dismissed them, saying 100 men would hold off the army until daylight. He stated, "It is not to be supposed that the enemies have wings so that they can in the same night cross the river, disembark, climb the obstructed acclivity, and scale the walls, for which last operation they would have to carry ladders."
Sentries did detect ships moving along the river that morning, but were expecting a French supply convoy to pass that night - a plan that had been changed without Vergor being notified. When the ships - loaded with the first wave of British troops - were hailed, a French-speaking officer, either a Captain Fraser or Captain Donald McDonald of the 78th Fraser Highlanders battalion, was able to answer the challenge and eliminate any suspicion.
The ships, however, had drifted slightly off course, and instead of landing at the base of the road, many of the soldiers found themselves at the base of a steep, rocky cliff. A group of volunteers with fixed bayonets were sent to clear the picket along the road, while three companies climbed the face of the cliff, a maneuver that allowed them to come up behind Vergor's camp and capture it quickly. Thus, by the time the sun rose over the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe's army had a solid foothold at the top of the cliffs on the Plains opposite Quebec.
Wolfe's success in gaining the Plains was, by many accounts, an act of sheer luck. They were undefended save for Vergor's camp, as Vaudreuil had ordered one of the French regiments to relocate to the east of the city not long before the landing. Had there been more substantial defense, the British would have been pushed back. An officer who would normally have patrolled the cliffs regularly through the night was unable to on the night of the 12th because one of his horses had been stolen and his two others were lame. The first notice of the landing came from a runner who had fled from Vergor's camp, but one of Montcalm's aides felt the man was mad and sent him away, then went back to bed. Saunders' diversionary actions off Montmorency, firing on the shore emplacements through the night and loading boats with troops, many of them taken from field hospitals, helped to draw attention away from the actual landing and added to the surprise.
Montcalm, upon being alerted of the army upon the Plains, found himself out-generaled for the first time in the North American campaign, a situation that may have forced him to make a precipitous decision under the circumstances. With several options beneficial to himself - waiting in the city for Bougainville to arrive and attack the British from behind while his forces conducted a frontal assault, march his army around the city to join Bougainville and attack in force, or simply withdraw and let Wolfe attack Quebec while the flying column harried the British rear - Montcalm instead fought on Wolfe's terms. Had he waited, the British would have been entirely cut off - they had nowhere to go but back down the Foulon, and would have been under fire the entire way. To an artillery officer named Montbelliard, Montcalm stated, "We cannot avoid action; the enemy is entrenching, he already has two pieces of cannon. If we give him time to establish himself, we shall never be able to attack him with the troops we have."
In total, Montcalm had 13,390 troops and militia available in Quebec City and along the Beauport shore, as well as 200 cavalry, 200 artillery, 300 natives (among which were upper Great Lakes Odawa warriors following Charles de Langlade), and 140 Acadian volunteers, but most of these troops did not fight in this action. A significant portion of these forces were inexperienced. On the morning of September 13, Wolfe's army formed a line first with their backs to the river, then spread out across the Plains with its right anchored by the bluff along the St. Lawrence and its left by a bluff and thick wood above the St. Charles River. The Quebec militia engaged the British first, sheltering in the trees and scrub that formed the northwest side of the fields. The militia held this position through the battle and fell back on this line during the general retreat. The militia ended the battle holding the bridge over the St. Charles River. 
The British troops, numbering approximately 3,300, formed into a shallow horseshoe formation that stretched across the width of the Plains, with the main firing line around one kilometer long. To cover the entire Plain, Wolfe was forced to array his soldiers two ranks deep, rather than the more conventional three ranks. On the left wing, regiments under Townshend exchanged fire with the militia in the scrub and captured a small collection of houses and gristmill to anchor the line. The defenders pushed the British from one house, but were repelled and, in retreat, lit several houses on fire to keep them out of the hands of the British. Smoke from the fires wound up masking the British left, and may have confused Montcalm as to the width of the lines. As Wolfe's men waited for the defenders, the steady fire became intense enough that Wolfe ordered his men to lie down amid the high grass and brush.
As French troops arrived from Beauport, Montcalm, one of few mounted men on the field, appeared to decide that without a quick response, there would be no way the attackers could be dislodged. Thus, he deployed the forces immediately available in and near Quebec City and prepared an immediate attack, without taking the time to call in further troops from further east along the Beauport shore. Arraying his approximately 3,500 soldiers into place with the intention of attacking in column formation, at approximately 10 a.m., Montcalm, riding his dark horse and waving his sword in encouragement, ordered his troops forward at the British lines.
As a European-trained military leader, Montcalm preferred large, set-piece battles in which regiments and soldiers moved in precision order. Training for such actions generally took up to 18 months on the drill ground for each soldier, ensuring they were able to march in time and stand up to bayonet charges and volleys. Inclusion of militia into the regular regiments caused problems. The militia were not trained for maneuvering, and tended to fire early, drop to the ground to reload, and led to a loss of concentrated fire at effective range.
The ground also favored Wolfe. Montcalm attacked from higher ground, and, as his lines moved forward, a rise near Montcalm's center slightly impeded his troops' movement. Montcalm's center weakened as ranks drifted, mainly to Montacalm's left. It would be the thin, sporadically-firing center, which would take the brunt of Wolfe's opening volley.
The "most perfect volley"
As the French approached, the British lines held their fire. Wolfe had devised a firing method for stopping French column advances in 1755 that called for the centre - in this case, the 43rd and 47th Foot regiments - to hold fire while waiting for the advancing force to approach within 20 yards, then open fire at close range. Wolfe had ordered his soldiers to charge their muskets with two balls each in preparation for the engagement. Captain John Knox, serving with the 43rd Foot, wrote in his journal that as the French came within range, the regiments "gave them, with great calmness, as remarkable a close and heavy discharge as I ever saw." After the first volley, the British lines marched forward a few paces towards the shocked French force and fired a second general volley that shattered the attackers and sent them into retreat. A British Army historian later described the British fire thus: "With one deafening crash, the most perfect volley ever fired on a battlefield burst forth as from a single monstrous weapon."
Wolfe, positioned with the 28th Foot and the Louisbourg Grenadiers, had moved to a rise to observe the battle; he had been struck in the wrist early in the fight, but had wrapped the injury and continued on. Volunteer James Henderson, with the Louisbourg Grenadiers, had been tasked with holding the hill, and reported afterwards that within moments of the command to fire, Wolfe was struck with two shots, one low in the stomach and the second, mortal wound in the chest. Knox wrote that one of the soldiers near Wolfe shouted "They run, see how they run." Wolfe, upon being told that the French had broken, gave several orders, then turned on his side, said "Now, God be praised, I will die in peace," and died.
With Wolfe dead and several other key officers injured, British troops fell into a disorganized pursuit of the fleeing French troops. The 78th Highlanders were ordered by Brigadier-General James Murray to pursue the French with their swords, but were met near the city by a heavy fire from a floating battery covering the bridge over the St. Charles River as well as militia that remained in the trees. The 78th took the highest number of casualties of all British units in the battle. Townshend took charge of the British forces and realized that Bougainville's column was approaching from the British rear, having taken some time to arrive from Cap Rouge. He quickly formed up two battalions from the confused troops on the field and turned them to meet the oncoming French, a day-saving maneuver; instead of attacking with a well-rested and ready force, Bougainville retreated while the rest of Montcalm's army slipped back across the St. Charles.
During the retreat, Montcalm, still mounted, was struck by either canister shot from the British artillery or repeated musket fire, suffering injuries to the lower abdomen and thigh. He was able to make it back into the city, but his wounds were mortal and he died early the next morning. He was buried in a shell crater left in the floor of the Ursuline chapel by a British shell. In 2001, his remains were moved to the military cemetery at the Hospital-General, near the St. Charles River, where they were placed in a mausoleum. The battle resulted in similar numbers of casualties on both sides of the field; the French had 644 men killed or injured, while the British were left with 658 killed or wounded.
In the wake of the battle, a state of confusion spread through the French troops. Vaudreuil, who later wrote to his government and put the full blame for the French rout on the deceased Montcalm, decided to abandon Quebec and the Beauport shore, ordering all of his forces to march west and eventually join up with Bougainville, leaving the garrison in Quebec under the command of Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay.
Meanwhile, the British, first under the command of Townshend and later with Murray in charge, settled into besiege the city in conjunction with Saunders' fleet. Within days, on September 18, de Ramezay, Townshend and Saunders signed the Articles of Capitulation of Quebec and the city was turned over to British control. The remaining French forces positioned themselves on the Jacques-Cartier River east of the city.
The British Navy was forced to leave the Saint Lawrence shortly after the capture of Quebec due to pack ice closing the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. Murray was left in charge through the winter, while the Chevalier de Levis marshaled the remaining French forces and planned an attack on Quebec with approximately 7,000 men. His plans led to the Battle of Sainte-Foy on April 28, 1760, on nearly the same site as the previous September's confrontation. The British suffered a defeat in the battle, but were able to withdraw within the walls of Quebec, which was taken under siege. A lack of artillery and ammunition, combined with British improvements to the fortifications, meant that the French were unable to take the city before the arrival of the British fleet in mid-May.
On September 8, 1760, the New France civil authorities surrendered to British forces in Montreal. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end the war and gave possession of New France (bounded westward by the Mississippi River and northward by the Great Lakes) to Great Britain. However, the peace was not to last.
Legacy of the Plains
The Treaty of Paris (1763) effectively reduced French influence in the Americas to a few insignificant holdings in the Caribbean. The British were granted control over all of Canada though the impact of years of French colonization there would be lasting, as the country still considers French one of its official languages (in addition to English, of course). The dawning of revolutionary sentiment occurred partially as a result of the French and Indian War, as officers like George Washington gained battlefield experience and the colonists began to suggest that the British, like the French before them, needed to be expunged from the continent. The death of Wolfe may have played a significant part in the outcome of the Revolutionary War. A man of his character and skill was not matched in the British Army during the Revolutionary Era, thus it is perplexing to consider the possible effect he would have had on stifling the colonists' cry for freedom had he lived that long. Even if he had not died of battlefield wounds though, it is doubtful he would have survived into the late 1700s since he was already heavily afflicted with tuberculosis.
Today, while much of the foreshore along the base of the cliffs that were scaled by William Howe's men the morning of the battle has been taken over by industry, the Plains of Abraham themselves are preserved within one of Canada's National Urban Parks. The Battlefields Park was established in 1908 and combines the Plains of Abraham with Des Braves Park, within Quebec City. An interpretive centre and walking trails have been built on the site, and outdoor concerts are held within the park. There is a monument on the site of the Battle of Sainte-Foy, and a monument has been raised to Wolfe as well. In 1790, the Surveyor-General of Canada, Major Holland, raised an astronomic meridian marker on the site where Wolfe was said to have died. In 1913, the National Battlefields Commission placed a column identical to one that had been built on the site in 1849. As well, there is a Cross of Sacrifice that was constructed on the Plains to commemorate soldiers who were lost in World War I; it continues to be the location of Remembrance Day ceremonies every year.
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All links retrieved May 19, 2016.
- A Soldier's Account of the Plains of Abraham
- The Plains of Abraham in Google Maps
- From the Warpath to the Plains of Abraham (virtual exhibition)
- National Battlefields Commission (Plains of Abraham)
- Montcalm and Wolfe, by Francis Parkman
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