One autumn afternoon many years ago I stood on the Plains of Abraham high above the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. It remains one of the most memorable scenic views of my life along with the Grand Canyon and the English Lake District seen from the top of Helvellyn. Fierce winds flattened the grass, dark storm clouds threatened above, and the gleaming silver ribbon of the St. Lawrence far below made for a dramatic scene. In fact the sky reminded me of about the only thing I knew at the time about the history of this place, Benjamin West’s famous painting of the death of General James Wolfe. For it was here on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 that a decisive battle was fought in the great struggle for domination of North America. The name conjures a battle scene of Biblical proportions, a recent book on the subject is titled Armageddon, but the bleak windswept plain came by its name in a more prosaic way. The farmer who owned the land was named Abraham.
Educated in England, I had never officially studied the history of North America. But somehow the death of General Wolfe at Quebec was one of those things you just knew by virtue of being English. He was one of the pantheon of British heroes, including Lord Nelson and Gordon of Khartoum, who by their deaths in battle became martyred secular saints of Empire. In the painting Wolfe is shown swooned in the arms of his devoted officers, his eyes fixed on heaven above in saintly fashion. Benjamin West also painted the death of Lord Nelson showing him in a similar pose.
I would learn the full details of this battle in the French and Indian War years later when I discovered Francis Parkman’s magisterial seven volume history France and England in North America written in the late nineteenth century. I came across it quite by chance browsing the stacks in the library where I worked. I was drawn to it because I had just read Brian Moore’s novel Black Robe about a Jesuit missionary among the Native peoples of New France, later adapted into an excellent movie. Moore was inspired by Francis Parkman’s history, which devotes an entire volume to the French Jesuit missions. Parkman’s work is considered a classic of narrative history on a par with Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Though obviously dated in many ways, such as his attitude to Native Americans, it remains a prose masterpiece. I confess I did not make my way through all seven volumes. After reading about the Jesuits I skipped ahead to volume six, Montcalm and Wolfe, which recounts the story of the French and Indian War and the climactic battle at Quebec where Wolfe lost his life but won the field, leading to British control of Canada.
Each side in the war received support from Native American peoples. The Iroquois and Cherokee were aligned with the British while the French had the support of the Algonquin, the Ojibwa, the Ottawa, and the Shawnee among others. There are estimated to have been about a thousand Native American warriors with the French troops. The inclusion of a Native American in the group around the dying Wolfe in West’s painting is now interpreted as an example of the “Noble Savage” stereotype. There is no evidence that he was actually at the scene.
By late summer 1759 the British forces were based in the waters and islands of the St. Lawrence surrounding Quebec. The French, commanded by Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm, were camped above on the Plains of Abraham. Parkman describes the dramatic scenery:
The position of the hostile forces was a remarkable one. They were separated by the vast gorge that opens upon the St. Lawrence; an amphitheatre of lofty precipices, their brows crested with forests, and their steep brown sides scantily feathered with stunted birch and fir. Into this abyss leaps the Montmorenci with one headlong plunge of nearly two hundred and fifty feet, a living column of snowy white, with its spray, its foam, its mists, and its rainbows; then spreads itself in broad thin sheets over a floor of rock and gravel, and creeps tamely to the St. Lawrence. It was but a gunshot across the gulf, and the sentinels on each side watched each other over the roar and turmoil of the cataract.
From his encampment at Ile d”Orleans Wolfe could see:
the desperate nature of the task he had undertaken. Before him, three or four miles away, Quebec sat perched upon her rock, a congregation of stone houses, churches, palaces, convents, and hospitals; the green trees of the Seminary garden and the spires of the Cathedral, the Ursulines, the Recollets, and the Jesuits. Beyond rose the loftier height of Cape Diamond, edged with palisades and capped with redoubt and parapet.
The forces were in a drawn out stand-off, frustrating to Wolfe who wrote to his mother complaining that the French appeared just out of reach and ready to withstand a lengthy siege. To break the stalemate he conceived an audacious plan to surprise the enemy by scaling the sheer cliffs up from the river. But I will let Francis Parkman tell the story:
For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the St. Lawrence. The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The General was in one of the foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison, afterwards professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, with a low voice, repeated Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard to the officers about him. Probably it was to relieve the intense strain of his thoughts. Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate,—”The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” “Gentlemen,” he said, as his recital ended, “I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.”
As they neared their destination, the tide bore them in towards the shore, and the mighty wall of rock and forest towered in darkness on their left. The dead stillness was suddenly broken by the sharp Qui vive! of a French sentry, invisible in the thick gloom. France! answered a Highland officer of Fraser’s regiment from one of the boats of the light infantry. He had served in Holland, and spoke French fluently. À quel régiment? De la Reine, replied the Highlander. The sentry, expecting the convoy of provisions, was satisfied, and did not ask for the password.
The word was given; the troops leaped from the boats and scaled the heights, some here, some there, clutching at trees and bushes, their muskets slung at their backs. Tradition still points out the place, near the mouth of the ravine, where the foremost reached the top. Wolfe said to an officer near him: “You can try it, but I don’t think you’ll get up.” He himself, however, found strength to drag himself up with the rest. The narrow slanting path on the face of the heights had been made impassable by trenches and abattis; but all obstructions were soon cleared away, and then the ascent was easy. In the gray of the morning the long file of red-coated soldiers moved quickly upward, and formed in order on the plateau above.
Montcalm was amazed at what he saw. He had expected a detachment, and he found an army. Full in sight before him stretched the lines of Wolfe: the close ranks of the English infantry, a silent wall of red, and the wild array of the Highlanders, with their waving tartans, and bagpipes screaming defiance.
Wolfe was everywhere. How cool he was, and why his followers loved him, is shown by an incident that happened in the course of the morning. One of his captains was shot through the lungs; and on recovering consciousness he saw the General standing at his side. Wolfe pressed his hand, told him not to despair, praised his services, promised him early promotion, and sent an aide-de-camp to Monckton to beg that officer to keep the promise if he himself should fall.
Here Wolfe himself led the charge, at the head of the Louisbourg grenadiers. A shot shattered his wrist. He wrapped his handkerchief about it and kept on. Another shot struck him, and he still advanced, when a third lodged in his breast. He staggered, and sat on the ground. Lieutenant Brown, of the grenadiers, one Henderson, a volunteer in the same company, and a private soldier, aided by an officer of artillery who ran to join them, carried him in their arms to the rear. He begged them to lay him down. They did so, and asked if he would have a surgeon. “There’s no need,” he answered; “it’s all over with me.” A moment after, one of them cried out: “They run; see how they run!” “Who run?” Wolfe demanded, like a man roused from sleep. “The enemy, sir. Egad, they give way everywhere!” “Go, one of you, to Colonel Burton,” returned the dying man; “tell him to march Webb’s regiment down to Charles River, to cut off their retreat from the bridge.” Then, turning on his side, he murmured, “Now, God be praised, I will die in peace!” and in a few moments his gallant soul had fled.
The defeated Montcalm would die of wounds the next day and his death would also be immortalized in a reverential artwork. Unlike Wolfe, who lies on the ground, Montcalm is shown lying on a comfy mattress.
Montcalm, still on horseback, was borne with the tide of fugitives towards the town. As he approached the walls a shot passed through his body. He kept his seat; two soldiers supported him, one on each side, and led his horse through the St. Louis Gate. On the open space within, among the excited crowd, were several women, drawn, no doubt, by eagerness to know the result of the fight. One of them recognized him, saw the streaming blood, and shrieked, “O mon Dieu! mon Dieu! le Marquis est tué!” “It’s nothing, it’s nothing,” replied the death-stricken man; “don’t be troubled for me, my good friends.” Montcalm was dying; his second in command, the Brigadier Senezergues, was mortally wounded; the army, routed and demoralized, was virtually without a head; and the colony, yesterday cheered as on the eve of deliverance, was plunged into sudden despair.
The Battle Of the Plains of Abraham proved decisive and the French and Indian War ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1763 ceding Canada and the eastern half of French Louisiana to the British. But Colonial Americans who had fought alongside their English cousins at Quebec would in a few short years be at war with the British themselves. And the rest, as they say, is history.