How fortune played a roll in the "victory" over the French.
|On the morning of September 13th, 1759, the “brave and never to be forgotten” General James Wolfe lay fatally wounded on the battlefield of the Plains of Abraham, just before the moment of victory for the British . He was an extraordinarily fortunate commander, giving him an ideal image of bravery and strength, which was the preferred mark of any given leader. The timing of his death, for his men on the field, came as a sudden, unfortunate shock, making the British victory seem less complete . Though James Wolfe was predeceased by his father, Colonel Edward Wolfe, his mother, Henrietta, survived him. James Wolfe would never be forgotten by his widowed mother and Katherine Lowther, the daughter of Robert Lowther and soon Duchess of Bolton . Wolfe’s performance in Louisburg, his relationship with Katherine Lowther and his mother were the most important things in his life. For it would be his performance at Louisburg which grabs the attention of William Pitt , sending Wolfe to the Plains of Abraham were he would not return from and would live on in the memory of both the histories of the British and the French.
The thought of death to James Wolfe did not seem to have a hold on him, for as it was in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, he stood out from the line and exposed himself more than once to the French . Of course, this is debated by Stuart Reid, military historian, that even though Wolfe had ordered his men to lay down after a volley of musket shots had been fired at the French, he “recklessly” exposes himself for need see the visual proceedings of the battle, which were greatly restricted because he was not mounted . Yet, for Wolfe, fearing death was pointless. As stated by C. P. Stacey in the Dictionary of Canadian Biographies, General James Wolfe was a sick man and it would also jeopardize Wolfe’s reputation as a brave commander and ruin the golden image some biographies make of him .
Therefore, the biography of General James Wolfe is like all biographies, as explained by Hermione Lee, an author of literary criticism of biography, as shaping the person’s life to make it readable “roads not taken, accidents and hesitations, the whole ‘swarm of possibilities’ that hums around our every experience, too often disappears in the smoothing biographical process” . The reading of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography of James Wolfe provides detail into Wolfe’s life that considers his human flaws as well, and which fuels my primary point of focus into the misconceptions of the British victory of Battle of the Plains of Abraham as being wholly Wolfe’s ability to command.
On the 29th of January, 1759, James Wolfe wrote a letter to his uncle, Major Walter Wolfe , informing him of his recruitment in America along the St. Lawrence River. He explains to Walter Wolfe that he does not necessarily enjoy entertaining the idea of serving in America, for service across the sea was not popular . However, Wolfe complies and says in his letter, “I shall do my best, and leave the rest to fortune” . As it turns out, Wolfe had an extraordinary measure of good luck, which plays a great role in his success at the end of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham . Peter Landry, a lawyer historian and philosopher, agrees with the Dictionary of Canadian Biography and talks in his article about how Wolfe was so “demanding on himself and on his troops” and notes that he finds it surprising that Wolfe actually had a very weak constitution . Therefore, Wolfe was very indecisive and constantly changed his mind on the strategy of the battle, adding to the wonder of how he had managed to succeed the French in victory.
During the weeks prior to the battle on the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe took many risks, all of which, worked out for the best. In June of 1759, James Wolfe’s army sailed on down the St.Lawrence to Quebec with little interference. It is interesting to note that the French at this time were expecting supplies down the St. Lawrence River, but they had not been informed of a cancellation of the order. This lack of communication resulted in the French mistaking the British ships for their own and allowing them passage . As described, when they were stopped by a French provision boat, a French-speaking officer, Captain Donald MacDonald of the 78th Highlanders, replied to them in French, encouraging their belief that the boats were their own . It is with good fortune that the Wolfe’s fleet of ships were able to pass through the St. Lawrence River, which the French understood to be so well protected that it would deter the British from attempt .
As it turns out, the French were not so well off in their fortune at this time which added for Wolfe’s advantage. The lack of communication of the cancellation of products down the St. Lawrence River was not the only misfortune Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Lieutenant-General, was faced with. Montcalm had been trying to push the necessary reconstruction of Fort Foulon, but he was “severely handicapped” by the engineers who were apart of François Bigot’s network . For this reason, the labor was drawn out and the materials were of terrible condition, possibly adding to the French defeat .
As Montcalm was dealing with the lack of support from both Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil and François Bigot, Wolfe’s army was sailing past Quebec to make landing on a point four leagues above the town . The cliff is described as rigid and dangerous , but Wolfe’s luck was too great to let this deter him from achieving the climb over it. As Stuart Reid states Wolfe’s rash decision presented a difficult task, but it was a crucial advantage to be able to achieve surprise. Fortunately for Wolfe and his men, there was a narrow road cutting the edge to aide their climb .
The appearance of the British after they succeeded the cliff had the reaction Wolfe had predicted. The British encounter a French soldier on patrol and the exchange is described differently by some authors. Stuart Reid quotes some of John Knox’s writing where a French-speaking officer told the French soldier that he came with a large command, to take post, and for him to go to his guard and call off the other men of his party . Reid describes this as having the desired effect and that it saved many lives and this peaceful version is seconded by Charles Holmes . Yet, Ronald Dale’s version is less peaceful as he says that a confusion of gunfire broke out . Despite the different histories, the result was the same in that their climb over the cliff had certainly surprised the French and gave the British an advantage. As Holmes states in his letter “the greatest good Fortune seconded our Wishes” .
Wolfe was able to establish his troops at the top of the cliff quickly and easily before Montcalm even knew of his position. Reid explains that Montcalm had reckoned that the British would not take control of the road, therefore he had made a terrible mistake in leaving it under minimal watch . For, Montcalm still believed that the British would aim for below Quebec and so he stationed the body of his army at Beauport . According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, after the time of Wolfe’s landing he made no mistakes and claimed that the mistakes made were by Montcalm . Yet, it is fair to say that with the benefit of hindsight that Montcalm should have delayed the attack on the British in order to wait for a concentration of men arriving from Beauport. Reid recognizes this and mentions that Montcalm was stunned to find that he had been outmaneuvered . For Montcalm, he made the mistake in assuming that the only possible victory lay in an attack before the British could properly assemble their position . However, Montcalm’s army and advance, as explained by Henty, “badly conducted” and the army itself was lacking in experienced soldiers against Wolfe’s army made of mostly seasoned militia .
Wolfe shows some promise as a capable commander by ordering his men to double-shot their muskets that morning and this proves helpful in the first volley attack at the French. After which, Wolfe orders his men to lay down to reload, while he himself makes the mistake of exposing himself to the French and Montcalm . This is seen by many writers as a careless, perhaps reckless, action made by Wolfe , but it is also reasoned for being a tactic that Wolfe used to overlook the battlefield . Both reasons maybe true, for Wolfe stated in a letter to his mother, Henrietta Wolfe, that even though death may “frighten and terrify the half of Mankind” it did not frighten him .
In the second volley of shots from the French, Wolfe is struck in the breast and falls back on Lieutenant James Henderson, a volunteer grenadier. Wolfe lived long enough to hear that the French were retreating and that the British fled after them . Stuart Reid uses Captain John Knox’s account of Wolfe’s death, but Joy Carroll notes that John Knox was not actually present to witness Wolfe’s death, therefore his account may not be completely pure . Wolfe died shortly after the end of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham causing the victory to seem less complete. While on the French side, Montcalm had also been fatally wounded.
The ability of James Wolfe as commander has never gone unquestioned. Robin Reilly in convinced that Wolfe conquered because he had the qualities of a great leader, that he had the “capacity to inspire faith, respect and even devotion in those who followed him” . Yet, another account says that Wolfe was an ineffective planner, that he did not get along with his senior subordinates and that he had an “unpleasant policy of terror and devastation” .
It is impossibly to be certain whether James Wolfe was really a great leader or just a very professional soldier whose luck exceeded his ability to command, for he was still quite young and had been General for only a short amount of time. There is most probably a great extent of resources still not found today. One of those resources, which would prove much about the personal life of James Wolfe and give historians a broader view of his character, are the letters sent between himself and Katherine Lowther. It is still uncertain whether a formal engagement was made between them and it would be extremely interesting to find the letters. What is certain, James Wolfe was able to produce a famous victory which is identified by his name , and that “great opportunity gave him a place in history” .
Note: I apologize: this article/essay is scholarly, unfortunately it may not be used as a reference source because the endnotes failed to upload. A bibliography will be placed below.
Carroll, Joy. Wolfe and Montcalm: Their lives, Their times, and the Fate of a Continent.
First Edition. Firefly Books. Ontario. 2004. P. 20, 214-226.
Charles Holmes’ letter, situated at the University of Waterloo, was written September 18th, 1759. 1-5. Seven pages consist of a telling of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and quotes have been taken from the first five. A direct link is available to view a picture and transcription of the letter in its natural state: http://library.uwaterloo.ca/discipline/SpecColl/archives/holmes/holmes.html
Conrad, Margaret and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples: Beginnings to
1867. Vol. 1. Fourth Edition. Pearson Education. 2006. P. 155.
Dale, J. Ronald. The Fall of New France: How the French Lost a North American Empire
1754-1763. James Lorimer & Company. Toronto. 2004. P. 63.
Henty, G.A. With Wolfe in Canada. N. Faulkner Ed. Walker and Company. New
York.1961. P. 236-240.
Holbrook, Sarah. The French Founders of North America and Their Heritage. Atheneum.
New York. 1976. P. 169-170.
Landry, Peter. “James Wolfe: 1727-1759”. Historical Biographies. Nova Scotia. 2000. (accessed September 15, 2007).
Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woofle’s Nose: Essays on Biography. Princeton University
Press. New Jersey. 2005. Page 1.
Library and Archives Canada. “James Wolfe”. Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 3. http://www.biographi.ca/EN/ShowBio.asp?BioId=35842&query=.
Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe. Viking. Penguin Books. Markham, Ontario.
1984. P. 412-421.
Reid, Stuart. Quebec 1759: The Battle that Won Canada. L. Johnson, D. G.
Chandler Eds. Campaign 121. Osprey Publishing. Britain. 2003. p. 10-81.
Reilly, Robin. The Rest to Fortune: The Life of General James Wolfe. Cassell, London.
The Trinity Press. 1960. P. 309.
Reilly, Robin quoting James Wolfe’s letter to Major Walter Wolfe. Letter is dated 29th
January, 1759. Page 1.
Sergeant Major of the 40th Regiment’s Grenadiers (part of the Louisbourg Grenadiers), A Journal of the Expedition up the River St. Lawrence was published as a pamphlet in Boston in November 1759. A soldiers account of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham from June 1st, 1759, to September 19th, 1759. There is no visual of the journal, but a transcription has been typed out. The soldier who wrote the journal makes the mistake of dating September 13th, 1759, as September 14th. A direct link is provided: http://www.militaryheritage.com/quebec1.htm
Written in after the death of James Wolfe by an unknown author. Brave Wolfe. Penguin Books. 2003. The link to the page is provided: http://www.mysongbook.de/msb/songs/b/bravewol.html
Thank you for reading. Any opinions or comments are welcome.