Sunday, September 13, 2009

This Day in Canadian History (Wolfe Defeats Montcalm in Battle for Quebec)

September 13, 1759—One hundred and fifty years of French rule in Canada came to a sudden end, as the forces of British General James Wolfe surprised and routed those of General Louis Montcalm in less than a half hour on the Plains of Abraham in the Battle of Quebec.

Besides the larger meaning of the battle—a conclusion to the worldwide Seven Years War (called, in its North American component, the French and Indian War)—what electrified Great Britain was how it was accomplished.

“What a scene!” wrote Horace Walpole after learning the news. “An army in the night dragging itself up a precipice by stumps of trees to assault a town and attack an enemy strongly entrenched and double in numbers!”

The consequences of the battle, in which the two opposing commanders were mortally wounded, were enormous. At a stroke, Britain vastly enlarged its overseas empire, while France saw its own vastly diminished.

The defeat also brought with it the possibility of forced repatriation of a host of French-speaking citizens in Quebec. Four years before Wolfe and Montcalm engaged in their momentous clash, Col. Charles Lawrence, the acting governor of Nova Scotia, had ordered the deportation of disbelieving Acadians to be scattered “among the several colonies on the continent.”

Given that track record, as well as how Britain had exiled rebellious Irishmen to the West Indies, the French-speaking population of Quebec was amply justified in fearing for the worst.

“The worst” did not happen, at least partly because, through the Quebec Act passed in 1774, Britain gave legal recognition to French civil laws, the seigneurial system, and Roman Catholicism. (The legislation was lumped together by patriots to the south as part of the “Intolerable Acts.” The vehement anti-Catholicism thus expressed did not endear American forces under Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold when they invaded Canada in late 1775.)

Nevertheless, the French loss meant that North America, whether in the 13 colonies or the Canadian territory now in the hands of the Hanoverian monarchs, would now be a vast expanse in which Protestantism would be the dominant religious norm. Moreover, Canadiens would become accustomed to a government in which, unlike the absolute monarchy they had long known, the power of the head of state would be checked by elected representatives.

In the province of Quebec—a population increasingly aggrieved in recent years at the Anglophone Parliamentary majority in Ottawa—Montcalm’s loss can still rankle.

A year or two ago, one French-speaking Canadian, a work colleague of mine, dismissed the French commander as an idiot, noting that Montcalm was so startled by Wolfe’s daring strategy—as Walpole indicated above, scaling the cliffs west of Quebec—that he’d lost the battle in only about 15 minutes.

Before his audacious move, Wolfe had been stymied in an old-fashioned siege—a move necessitated both by Quebec's advantageous geographical position (on a great height overlooking the St. Lawrence River, where it would be easy to spot and fend off invaders) and by his adversary’s deft deflection of any attempt on the city.

“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,” Wolfe wrote at one point. He might have been surprised to learn that Montcalm shared his assessment, as well as an inability to get along with partners in his military adventure.

A fervent believer in the regular French army, Montcalm had little use for colonial troops, even though they had rebuffed Wolfe’s first attempt to seize Quebec, in July 1759, at Montmorency Falls. And, while Wolfe was squabbling with his subordinates on how to take the city, Montcalm was increasingly disregarding the man whose cooperation he should have courted, New France Governor-General Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil.

Throughout the long siege, Montcalm had been cautious to a fault—leading Wolfe to resort to what was, in effect, a Hail-Mary gambit. But Montcalm made some mistakes at the worst possible time that undoubtedly have fueled my friend’s annoyance:

* He dismissed Vaudreuil’s fear of a landing at Anse-au-Foulon: “We need not believe the enemy has wings!” Bad guess.

* He thought that even if the British scaled the cliffs, a light force in this commanding position would be enough to fight them off. Again, wrong.

* He was caught so off-guard by seeing an army of redcoats in front of him that he decided he couldn’t allow Wolfe any more time to consolidate his forces, and had to attack right then. Had he waited for cannon, he might have pummeled Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, where the British commander would be hard-pressed to retreat.

The great narrative of the fall of the campaign, Montcalm and Wolfe, was written by Francis Parkman. The New England historian—who struggled for years to complete his epic France and England in North America while plagued with nervous breakdowns and failing eyesight—completed this section about the great conflict out of chronological sequence in his multi-volume work, for he wanted the concluding volume to be finished in case he died.

For Parkman, the 32-year-old Wolfe became, in effect, a stand-in for himself—a representative of the Anglo-Saxon race who imposed his indomitable will over precarious health in order to achieve his great life’s work.

At one point, Parkman relates how Wolfe, perhaps to calm his nervous tension, recited Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” dwelling especially on “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”

“Gentlemen,” the general told his subordinates, “I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.” In his fatalistic acceptance of death, Wolfe reminds me of nobody so much as another poetry-loving military hero two centuries later: John F. Kennedy, asking his wife Jacqueline to recite his favorite poem, Alan Seeger’s “I Have a Rendezvous With Death.”

(The image accompanying this post is, of course, Benjamin West’s Death of General Wolfe. )

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