- James Houser
September 13, 1759 - The Battle of the Plains of Abraham
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
September 13, 1759. The climax of the French and Indian War is about to occur in the hills of Canada. The French fortress city of Quebec was thought to be unassailable – until the young British General James Wolfe scaled the bluffs behind it. The servants of King George and King Louis are about to collide on the Plains of Abraham, the battle that will win Canada – and North America – for the English crown.
In a rare occurrence for my history posts, my French and Indian War saga has actually been – pretty linear, so I don’t need to do a lot of extensive backstory. If you will kindly open your Houser Hymnals to July 9, I gave you the “Young George Washington Adventures,” where the Father of Our Nation ended up starting the French and Indian War purely by accident. A dispute over the Ohio Country ended up with young Virginia militia officer Colonel Washington provoking a fight with the French and their Indian allies in the region. This blossomed into a British military disaster when General Braddock’s column was annihilated on the Monongahela in 1755, which officially made the French and Indian War a Very Serious Matter.
By 1756, the war had spread to Europe, India, and the Caribbean, where it became known as the Seven Years’ War (not until it was over, mind you. No one knew it would last that long until it was over.) The Europe and India stuff I have not had much of a chance to talk about this year, which is a *shame* because it is *fascinating.* There’s Frederick the Great, and Indian Sultans, and all sorts of stuff.
On July 26, I discussed how British Prime Minister William Pitt took over the direction of the war and set Britain on a successful global strategy. While the Bank of England kept mainlining money directly into the veins of England’s allies on the European continent – mainly to keep France busy – Pitt used the superiority of the Royal Navy to take apart the French empire across the globe. This culminated in a long, complicated campaign to conquer French Canada, which bore its first fruits in 1758 when a British invasion force captured the key fortress of Louisbourg. Central in the capture of Louisbourg was an ambitious young general named James Wolfe, all of 31 years old.
So now we are caught up. The French still hold most of Canada, but Louisbourg has fallen. Louisbourg was the key fortress that dominated the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, which flows deep into eastern Canada all the way to the Great Lakes. With Britain’s superior naval strength, it was a clear invasion route that would allow them to conquer and overrun French Canada – but it would not be that easy.
See, everything Britain did in the Americas operated on a shoestring. The British armies were thousands of miles away from the home country, and existing only on what could be shipped to them by the Royal Navy – which was large, yes, but still had a thousand other responsibilities to attend to. So while armies tens of thousands strong were fighting in Europe, even maintaining a small army in the Americas (still mostly wilderness) was both difficult and expensive. It took months to prepare any major expedition, and everyone had to contend with the weather, so it wasn’t like the British could go bouncing down the river in 1758. After the capture of Louisbourg, many of their men were sick or wounded, and their provisions were nearly spent. They needed to rest, refit, and get ready to launch their new offensive in 1759.
Of course, every military plan eventually has to deal with the big question: the enemy. And the enemy in this case was the reason that the British hadn’t conquered Canada after four years of war. The officer commanding the defense of French Canada was Louis-Joseph, the Marquis de Montcalm, a legendary figure who is still a hero to French Canadians today. Montcalm had run rings around the British for years with aggressive and devastating attacks on border forts and garrisons throughout New York and the Ohio Country. 1756 and 1757 saw the British not just stymied, but pushed back across the frontier, culminating in the bloody capture of Fort William Henry.
In 1758, the British had planned a multi-pronged offensive to advance and defeat the French forces holding Canada. Two of these prongs succeeded: the seizure of Louisbourg by the Royal Navy and Wolfe’s small army in the north, and the (final) capture of French Fort Duquesne in the Ohio Valley by a mixture of British and American troops including – of course – George Washington. The third prong however, came to naught, because the 1758 strategy called for an advance up the Hudson River to seize the critical fortress of Ticonderoga, which guarded the approaches between New York City and the Canadian heartland. It was at Ticonderoga that General Montcalm won his greatest triumph, defeating an attacking force of 18,000 British troops and American militia with only 3,000 men. This battle in particular gave Montcalm the mystical reputation that he enjoys to this day.
Nevertheless, by 1759 the British finally planned the operations to squeeze French Canada to death. Prime Minister William Pitt drew up the plans – this time a four-pronged attack. Renewed attacks were planned on the French Great Lakes forts at Erie and Ontario and on Fort Ticonderoga. Finally, Wolfe would lead a combined army-navy expedition to seize the main fortress city of New France, the great town of Quebec. With Quebec in British hands, French Canada would be utterly shut off from the outside world, and the trickle of reinforcements that had slipped past the British blockade would finally end.
Throughout the spring of 1759, Wolfe assembled almost 7,000 men at Louisbourg for the expedition to cork up French Canada forever. Montcalm awaited him with 12,000 French regulars and Canadian militia, preparing the defenses of Quebec for the great struggle to come. One of Montcalm’s greatest issues was his antagonistic relationship with France’s civilian Governor of Canada, the Marquis de Vaudreuil. Montcalm’s military logic and high-handed manner ran contrary to Vaudreuil’s political flexibility and pragmatism. The two men openly despised each other – which would gravely hamper New France’s defenses when the critical moment came.
The city of Quebec sits on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River on a spit of land created by that river and its smaller tributary, the St. Charles. Though the city is much larger today, in 1759 it sat on a high bluff overlooking the river junction, and fortifications lined the bluffs going all the way down the river. Further upstream, though, the St. Lawrence became nearly unnavigable for the big British sailing ships to ascend. Because of the bluffs, the only real way to attack the city was from the west, atop the bluffs – a stretch of ground known as the Plains of Abraham. The problem was getting there. Artillery placed on the southern bank of the river could bombard the city, but to little effect; any attempt to storm the bluffs would be suicide; and troops could land on the southern bank but without boats they could not cross farther up, and the French could see everything they did. Quebec was impregnable.
Well, that was Montcalm and Vaudreuil’s shared opinion. They also shared one mistake: checking that the river upstream was ACTUALLY impassable, rather than believing what they heard.
Wolfe and his men arrived by ship on June 28, with Captain James Cook – the future explorer – leading the scout ship that surveyed the lower St. Lawrence and guided them to the landing site. Montcalm tried to disrupt the British landing by launching fire ships, but the British managed to dodge these floating, flaming hulks, and by early July Wolfe had put his artillery into position. He began lobbing shells into the city, but they were more of an annoyance than an actual threat. Wolfe’s guns destroyed the lower town along the bottom of the bluffs, but barely scratched the paint on the fortress itself.
For the rest of July, Wolfe weighed and discounted various plans to breach the city, while Montcalm kept foiling his attempts. On July 31, the British made their first attempt to take the fortress city, which failed dramatically due to poor coordination, bad weather, and a quick response on the part of Montcalm. The British landed almost 3,500 men to seize one of the key outposts of the fortress. These troops came under immediate fire, suffered heavy casualties, and were forced to break off and retreat to the ships. This demoralizing failure caused Wolfe 600 casualties to Montcalm’s 45 – and Wolfe had started with fewer troops already. French spirits rose after this British defeat. Vaudreuil wrote in his diary 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."
With the direct approach having failed, Wolfe tried to draw Montcalm’s army out of the fortress for a straight fight. He did this by laying waste to local farms and villages, hoping to harm civilian morale and force the French to come out and fight. This accomplished nothing other than giving his American Rangers a chance to get revenge for years of French-allied Indian depredations. Wolfe carried on these harassing raids throughout August, increasingly aware that winter would be coming eventually and he was almost out of ideas. The British numbers were dwindling, too - disease was spreading thorough his camp, with Wolfe himself stricken and bedridden in late August. Based on his letters, Wolfe was probably on death’s door from tuberculosis by September 1. With the window for victory fading past, and looking down the barrel of his mortality, Wolfe decided to take a chance.
On September 1, Wolfe got his officers to agree to a risky, nearly suicidal plan. Some Royal Navy officers had discovered that the river above Quebec was not impassable – it was just possible to slip up the narrows and past the city’s weak shore batteries. There were still the bluffs to contend with, but Wolfe reasoned that a surprise attack might win the day. Wolfe planned a night movement to land his troops upstream, scale the steep bluffs, and emerge onto the Plains of Abraham to confront the French.
To be clear, this plan should not have worked, and many historians have castigated Wolfe for extending his own fatalistic, suicidal emotions to the soldiers who looked to him for leadership. Wolfe seems to have been determined that, if he was going to die, he would go out in a blaze of glory rather than die on a cot in a tent while his troops slunk home in defeat. Or, more charitably, maybe he believed he could win. Either way, he told his staff that he did not expect to survive the battle.
For a week before the planned attack, the British made as if they were getting ready to evacuate. The French were lulled, and on the night of September 12 around 4,400 British redcoats and colonial Americans loaded up on the ships to sneak up the St. Lawrence. The French pickets spotted the ships, but out of sheer coincidence they had all been told to expect a supply convoy from upriver at Montreal. Even though these ships were much too big and going the wrong way, they didn’t raise the alarm. A British diversionary bombardment farther downstream kept French attention focused there, and a French-speaking British officer managed to deceive the sentries long enough for the British troops to stream up a narrow, broken path to the top of the bluffs. In daylight, under fire, such a path would have been suicide.
This plan really should not have worked. But it did. On September 13, 1759, Montcalm awoke to see the British forces formed up on the Plains of Abraham, advancing on the defensive walls of Quebec.
Montcalm should have waited for the troops to come in from his defenses downriver to reinforce his garrison, and hunkered down in his defenses to receive the attacking British. Instead, whether out of some feeling of honor or a fatalistic sense of his own, he ordered his forces out of the city to meet Wolfe. The two sides were evenly matched – 4400 British and 4500 French. It had come down to this. (Again, Montcalm probably would have won if he had just stayed inside Quebec’s defenses. Did I mention Wolfe’s plan really should not have worked?)
Only about half of Montcalm’s men were regular French troops; the rest were Canadian militia and Indians. The militia and Indians made first contact, and opened up a skirmish fire as Montcalm led his regular troops out of the city. Wolfe had his men lie down to avoid the initial volleys, and by midmorning Montcalm’s French troops were formed up. When he ordered them to advance, the undisciplined militia fired high and from too far away, doing no harm, as the British lay in wait. As the French moved forward, they began to lose cohesion; the militia would kneel, fire slowly, and take aim, while the regular troops fired in volleys as they advanced. By fighting in two different styles, the mixed forces found themselves out of sync and falling apart even before they got in range of the British.
When the French were within 60 yards, the redcoats rose up and began to unroll a devastating string of volleys that cut their enemies apart. The superior British discipline and steadiness told true. As the French retreated in disorder, Wolfe’s men rushed forward with bayonets, and the Plains of Abraham were awash with casualties in red coats, white coats, and the plainclothes of militia.
Among them would be James Wolfe. Hit by sniper fire in three places, the 32-year-old British commander died on the field. The British were not the only ones struck by tragedy; Montcalm had been hit by grapeshot from a British cannon, and he lingered into the early hours of the morning before he too passed. With the defeat on the Plains of Abraham, though, the French defenses were shattered; Governor Vaudreuil slipped out, and on September 18 the British marched in. Quebec was conquered.
Though the rest of French Canada would not surrender until 1760, when General Amherst accepted Vaudreuil’s capitulation at Montreal, its fate was sealed. The victory at Quebec did more than that, though: it capped off a year of unbroken British victories across the world that became known as the “Annus mirabilis” or “year of miracles.” British conquests in the West Indies, the Ohio Country, and India; two overwhelming naval victories at Lagos and Quiberon Bay; a decisive victory at Minden in Germany; a threatening French invasion and Jacobite Uprising that both fell to pieces. This was all capped off by the dramatic, underdog victory at Quebec, which gave this whole narrative a noble martyr – the brave young General Wolfe. English diarist Horace Walpole wrote, “Our bells are threadbare with the ringing of victories.”
Wolfe and Montcalm both lived on as romantic heroes, with both their reputations significantly larger than their actual accomplishments deserve. Wolfe’s bold risk, though, did succeed, and Quebec was conquered, making practically the whole of North America an English-ruled domain. At least for a little while, until some protesters started destroying property.
You have General Wolfe to thank. We might all be speaking French today. (But probably not.)