Montcalm, Wolfe and the memory of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Montcalm, Wolfe and the memory of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham

The following article is an editorial written by The Canadian Encyclopedia staff. Editorials are not usually updated.

The battle of the Plains of Abraham, likely the greatest turning point in our history, has given rise to what historian C.P. Stacey called a "luxuriant crop of popular legends." However much military history falls out of favour, that battle remains there in our imaginations, full of drama, tragedy and pathos. There is, of course, that famous romantic painting by Benjamin West depicting the "Death of Wolfe." It was for centuries one of the most popular images in the English-speaking world, but in historical accuracy, it is one of the worst.

One of the more enduring legends (for it is likely true) about the campaign is the one relating to Wolfe and Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy in a Country Churchyard." As his boat slips down the dark stream towards the Anse au Foulon (Wolfe's Cove), bearing him to death and immortality, the general recites the lines:

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inexorable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

That little cove is one of the more celebrated bits of Canadian geography. We don't know exactly how Wolfe selected it. He might have been tipped off by deserters or he may have found it himself on his river reconnaissance. It was a risky choice. It lies about a kilometer west of the walls of Quebec and was dominated by an artillery battery and a camp of French soldiers. It would have to be approached at night. The French general, the Marquis de Montcalm, had no worries about an attack from there: "I swear to you that 100 men, well posted, could stop the whole army [there]," he declared.

In the event, a French sentry did challenge the British when they landed in the early morning of September 13, 1759. A Scottish Highlander who spoke French was one of the first people in Canada to prove the advantages of bilingualism. When asked his identity he replied "la France et vive le roi." The advance party scaled the cliffs, dragging two brass six-pounder cannon behind them. When the French woke it was to the shock of seeing the redcoats neatly lined up on the heights.

The background to the battle used to be known to every school child. By late June 1759 the British forces controlled the St Lawrence across the river from the walled fortress of Quebec, sitting impregnable atop a 70-metre cliff. Repeated efforts to force the French into an open battle failed and winter was approaching. This was to be Wolfe's last desperate gamble.

When Montcalm got news of the breach, he had a difficult decision. Should he wait for the return of nearby reinforcements? Or should he attack immediately, before the British could dig in? He could not simply sit behind the fortress walls and let the winter dissipate the siege. Wolfe's army now lay right across the French supply lines. The French would starve before the British.

Benjamin West's painting is among the most famous historical paintings of all time, although as a historical record it is among the worst. Although it contains numerous inaccuracies its depiction of heroic death on a foreign battlefield remains a powerful image (courtesy NGC/8007).

Montcalm formed up the militia, the First Nations allies and his crack regular troops. At about 10 A.M. he ordered the forward march and the drums began to roll. The mixture of militia and regulars is often blamed for the disorder of the advance. Some men fired too soon. Others broke ranks. Meanwhile, the scarlet line stood unmoved and held their fire until the enemy was within 40 yards.

One of the legends of the battle is the single crashing volley, "the most perfect ever fired on a battlefield." That may be simplistic but against the precision fire the French line quickly broke into a total rout. At this moment Wolfe met his fate. He had exposed himself recklessly on high ground. He was shot in the wrist and then in the chest. Only moments later Montcalm received his mortal wound. He rode painfully into the city and died the next morning. While Montcalm was buried in a shell hole, Wolfe received all the honour and prestige of a great military hero. He shares a monument in Westminster Abbey with Elizabeth I, Richard II and Mary Queen of Scots.

After the battle Quebec capitulated and all Canada was soon in British control. The battle had enormous consequences for all of North America. It may be of less historical moment, but the debate over the two fallen leaders continues unabated. The verdict on Montcalm is fairly clear. He was a gallant and attractive figure, but he made a fatal miscalculation. He attacked prematurely and his order of battle was flawed. History has been less and less kind to Wolfe. True, he was sadly ineffective in strategy before the battle. His ordered a campaign of terror in the French countryside. He had terrible relations with his subordinates. But how far can we degrade success? He may have rolled the dice and he may have been inordinately lucky, but he won.