Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759

The Death of General Wolfe.  Benjamin West, oil on canvas, 1771 (Chris Taylor | National Gallery of Canada)

The Death of General Wolfe. Benjamin West, oil on canvas, 1771 (Chris Taylor | National Gallery of Canada)

Whatever separatists and revisionists may say, the inarguable truth is that, had the war gone differently, the Canada (and Québec) we know today would not exist in their present form.  One visionary of the age was William Pitt the Elder, who realised that European territorial conquests would inevitably be negotiated and bartered back, whereas lucrative colonies might change hands in a more permanent fashion.  And Pitt’s game-changing schemes would not have laid the foundations of an Empire on which the sun never sets without men like Major General James Wolfe.

It was towards ten o’clock when, from the high ground on the right of the line, Wolfe saw that the crisis was near. The French on the ridge had formed themselves into three bodies, regulars in the centre, regulars and Canadians on right and left. Two field-pieces, which had been dragged up the heights at Anse du Foulon, fired on them with grape-shot, and the troops, rising from the ground, prepared to receive them. In a few moments more they were in motion. They came on rapidly, uttering loud shouts, and firing as soon as they were within range. Their ranks, ill ordered at the best, were further confused by a number of Canadians who had been mixed among the regulars, and who, after hastily firing, threw themselves on the ground to reload.

The British advanced a few rods; then halted and stood still. When the French were within forty paces the word of command rang out, and a crash of musketry answered all along the line. The volley was delivered with remarkable precision. In the battalions of the centre, which had suffered least from the enemy’s bullets, the simultaneous explosion was afterwards said by French officers to have sounded like a cannon-shot. Another volley followed, and then a furious clattering fire that lasted but a minute or two. When the smoke rose, a miserable sight was revealed: the ground cumbered with dead and wounded, the advancing masses stopped short and turned into a frantic mob, shouting, cursing, gesticulating. The order was given to charge. Then over the field rose the British cheer, mixed with the fierce yell of the Highland slogan.

Some of the corps pushed forward with the bayonet; some advanced firing. The clansmen drew their broadswords and dashed on, keen and swift as bloodhounds. At the English right, though the attacking column was broken to pieces, a fire was still kept up, chiefly, it seems, by sharpshooters from the bushes and cornfields, where they had lain for an hour or more. 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 Wehb’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.

— Parkman, Francis.  Montcalm and Wolfe, Vol. II.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1884.

It has become fashionable since the early 20th century to degrade Wolfe’s victory as ineptitude saved by mere chance and luck; as opposed to shrewd planning and canny improvisation.  Macleans editor-at-large Peter Shawn Taylor (no relation) provides a much-needed corrective in the form of two well-researched and well-reasoned articles (here and here) for the National Post.

This nation has done well in the two hundred and fifty years since the world’s superpowers fought for supremacy on what would become her soil, two hundred and fifty years ago today.  She deserves our respect and loyalty still.

Perhaps the best audio-visual representation of the battle is from Series 1 of Canada: A People’s History.

Category: Amor Patriae, Historica
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