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The Heights Of Abraham
The early part of the Seven Years' War was disastrous to England. The
tide turned with the accession to power of the great war minister,
William Pitt. In 1759, he sent General James Wolfe with a combined
military and naval force to capture Quebec. The British troops numbered
somewhat less than nine thousand, while Montcalm and Vaudreuil were
posted to receive them, on positions almost impregnable, with an army of
regulars, Canadians, and Indians, amounting in all to about sixteen
thousand. The great height of the shores made the British ships of
little or no use for purposes of attack.
Wolfe took possession of Point Levi, from which he bombarded Quebec. He
also seized the high grounds just below the Montmorenci, and vainly
tried to cross that stream above the cataract and gain the rear of
Montcalm's army, which lay encamped along the shore from the Montmorenci
to the city. Failing in this and every other attempt to force the enemy
to a battle, he rashly resolved to attack them in front, up the steep
declivities at the top of which they were intrenched. The grenadiers
dashed forward prematurely and without orders, struggling desperately to
scale the heights under a deadly fire. The result was a complete
repulse, with heavy loss.
The capture of Quebec now seemed hopeless. Wolfe was almost in despair.
His body was as frail as his spirit was ardent and daring. Since the
siege began he had passed with ceaseless energy from camp to camp,
animating the troops, observing everything, and directing everything;
but now the pale face and tall lean form were seen no more, and the
rumor spread that the General was dangerously ill. He had in fact been
seized by an access of the disease that had tortured him for some time
past; and fever had followed. His quarters were at a French farmhouse in
the camp at Montmorenci; and here, as he lay in an upper chamber,
helpless in bed, his singular and most unmilitary features haggard with
disease and drawn with pain, no man could less have looked the hero. But
as the needle, though quivering, points always to the pole, so, through
torment and languor and the heats of fever, the mind of Wolfe dwelt on
the capture of Quebec. His illness, which began before the twentieth of
August, had so far subsided on the twenty-fifth that Captain Knox wrote
in his Diary of that day: "His Excellency General Wolfe is on the
recovery, to the inconceivable joy of the whole army." On the
twenty-ninth he was able to write or dictate a letter to the three
brigadiers, Monckton, Townshend, and Murray: "That the public service
may not suffer by the General's indisposition, he begs the brigadiers
will meet and consult together for the public utility and advantage, and
consider of the best method to attack the enemy." The letter then
proposes three plans, all bold to audacity. The first was to send a part
of the army to ford the Montmorenci eight or nine miles above its mouth,
march through the forest, and fall on the rear of the French at
Beauport, while the rest landed and attacked them in front. The second
was to cross the ford at the mouth of the Montmorenci and march along
the strand, under the French intrenchments, till a place could be found
where the troops might climb the heights. The third was to make a
general attack from boats at the Beauport flats. Wolfe had before
entertained two other plans, one of which was to scale the heights at
St. Michel, about a league above Quebec; but this he had abandoned on
learning that the French were there in force to receive him. The other
was to storm the Lower Town; but this also he had abandoned, because the
Upper Town, which commanded it, would still remain inaccessible.
The brigadiers met in consultation, rejected the three plans proposed in
the letter, and advised that an attempt should be made to gain a footing
on the north shore above the town, place the army between Montcalm and
his base of supply, and so force him to fight or surrender. The scheme
was similar to that of the heights of St. Michel. It seemed desperate,
but so did all the rest; and if by chance it should succeed, the gain
was far greater than could follow any success below the town. Wolfe
embraced it at once.
Not that he saw much hope in it. He knew that every chance was against
him. Disappointment in the past and gloom in the future, the pain and
exhaustion of disease, toils, and anxieties "too great," in the words of
Burke, "to be supported by a delicate constitution, and a body unequal
to the vigorous and enterprising soul that it lodged," threw him at
times into deep dejection. By those intimate with him he was heard to
say that he would not go back defeated, "to be exposed to the censure
and reproach of an ignorant populace." In other moods he felt that he
ought not to sacrifice what was left of his diminished army in vain
conflict with hopeless obstacles. But his final resolve once taken, he
would not swerve from it. His fear was that he might not be able to lead
his troops in person. "I know perfectly well you cannot cure me," he
said to his physician; "but pray make me up so that I may be without
pain for a few days, and able to do my duty: that is all I want."
In the last of August, he was able for the first time to leave the
house. It was on this same day that he wrote his last letter to his
mother: "My writing to you will convince you that no personal evils
worse than defeats and disappointments have fallen upon me. The enemy
puts nothing to risk, and I can't in conscience put the whole army to
risk. My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible
intrenchments, so that I can't get at him without spilling a torrent of
blood, and that perhaps to little purpose. The Marquis de 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, that wish for nothing so much as to fight
him; but the wary old fellow avoids an action, doubtful of the behavior
of his army. People must be of the profession to understand the
disadvantages and difficulties we labor under, arising from the uncommon
natural strength of the country."
On the second of September a vessel was sent to England with his last
despatch to Pitt. It begins thus: "The obstacles we have met with in the
operations of the campaign are much greater than we had reason to expect
or could foresee; not so much from the number of the enemy (though
superior to us) as from the natural strength of the country, which the
Marquis of Montcalm seems wisely to depend upon. When I learned that
succors of all kinds had been thrown into Quebec; that five battalions
of regular troops, completed from the best inhabitants of the country,
some of the troops of the colony, and every Canadian that was able to
bear arms, besides several nations of savages, had taken the field in a
very advantageous situation,--I could not flatter myself that I should
be able to reduce the place. I sought, however, an occasion to attack
their army, knowing well that with these troops I was able to fight, and
hoping that a victory might disperse them." Then, after recounting the
events of the campaign with admirable clearness, he continues: "I found
myself so ill, and am still so weak, that I begged the general officers
to consult together for the general utility. They are all of opinion
that, as more ships and provisions are now got above the town, they
should try, by conveying up a corps of four or five thousand men (which
is nearly the whole strength of the army after the Points of Levi and
Orleans are left in a proper state of defence), to draw the enemy from
their present situation and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced
in the proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution." The
letter ends thus: "By the list of disabled officers, many of whom are of
rank, you may perceive that the army is much weakened. By the nature of
the river, the most formidable part of this armament is deprived of the
power of acting; yet we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose.
In this situation there is such a choice of difficulties that I own
myself at a loss how to determine. The affairs of Great Britain, I know,
require the most vigorous measures; but the courage of a handful of
brave troops should be exerted only when there is some hope of a
favorable event; however, you may be assured that the small part of the
campaign which remains shall be employed, as far as I am able, for the
honor of His Majesty and the interest of the nation, in which I am sure
of being well seconded by the Admiral and by the generals; happy if our
efforts here can contribute to the success of His Majesty's arms in any
other parts of America."
Perhaps he was as near despair as his undaunted nature was capable of
being. In his present state of body and mind he was a hero without the
light and cheer of heroism. He flattered himself with no illusions, but
saw the worst and faced it all. He seems to have been entirely without
excitement. The languor of disease, the desperation of the chances, and
the greatness of the stake may have wrought to tranquillize him. His
energy was doubly tasked: to bear up his own sinking frame, and to
achieve an almost hopeless feat of arms.
Audacious as it was, his plan cannot be called rash if we may accept the
statement of two well-informed writers on the French side. They say that
on the tenth of September the English naval commanders held a council on
board the flagship, in which it was resolved that the lateness of the
season required the fleet to leave Quebec without delay. They say
further that Wolfe then went to the Admiral, told him that he had found
a place where the heights could be scaled, that he would send up a
hundred and fifty picked men to feel the way, and that if they gained a
lodgment at the top, the other troops should follow; if, on the other
hand, the French were there in force to oppose them, he would not
sacrifice the army in a hopeless attempt, but embark them for home,
consoled by the thought that all had been done that man could do. On
this, concludes the story, the Admiral and his officers consented to
wait the result.
As Wolfe had informed Pitt, his army was greatly weakened. Since the end
of June his loss in killed and wounded was more than eight hundred and
fifty, including two colonels, two majors, nineteen captains, and
thirty-four subalterns; and to these were to be added a greater number
disabled by disease.
The squadron of Admiral Holmes above Quebec had now increased to
twenty-two vessels, great and small. One of the last that went up was a
diminutive schooner, armed with a few swivels, and jocosely named the
"Terror of France." She sailed by the town in broad daylight, the
French, incensed at her impudence, blazing at her from all their
batteries; but she passed unharmed, anchored by the Admiral's ship, and
saluted him triumphantly with her swivels.
Wolfe's first move towards executing his plan was the critical one of
evacuating the camp at Montmorenci. This was accomplished on the third
of September. Montcalm sent a strong force to fall on the rear of the
retiring English. Monckton saw the movement from Point Levi, embarked
two battalions in the boats of the fleet, and made a feint of landing at
Beauport. Montcalm recalled his troops to repulse the threatened attack;
and the English withdrew from Montmorenci unmolested, some to the Point
of Orleans, others to Point Levi. On the night of the fourth a fleet of
flat boats passed above the town with the baggage and stores. On the
fifth, Murray, with four battalions, marched up to the River Etechemin,
and forded it under a hot fire from the French batteries at Sillery.
Monckton and Townshend followed with three more battalions, and the
united force, of about thirty-six hundred men, was embarked on board the
ships of Holmes, where Wolfe joined them on the same evening.
These movements of the English filled the French commanders with mingled
perplexity, anxiety, and hope. A deserter told them that Admiral
Saunders was impatient to be gone. Vaudreuil grew confident. "The
breaking up of the camp at Montmorenci," he says, "and the abandonment
of the intrenchments there, the re-embarkation on board the vessels
above Quebec of the troops who had encamped on the south bank, the
movements of these vessels, the removal of the heaviest pieces of
artillery from the batteries of Point Levi,--these and the lateness of
the season all combined to announce the speedy departure of the fleet,
several vessels of which had even sailed down the river already. The
prisoners and the deserters who daily came in told us that this was the
common report in their army." He wrote to Bourlamaque on the first of
September: "Everything proves that the grand design of the English has
Yet he was ceaselessly watchful. So was Montcalm; and he, too, on the
night of the second, snatched a moment to write to Bourlamaque from his
headquarters in the stone house, by the river of Beauport: "The night is
dark; it rains; our troops are in their tents, with clothes on, ready
for an alarm; I in my boots; my horses saddled. In fact, this is my
usual way. I wish you were here; for I cannot be everywhere, though I
multiply myself, and have not taken off my clothes since the
twenty-third of June." On the eleventh of September he wrote his last
letter to Bourlamaque, and probably the last that his pen ever traced.
"I am overwhelmed with work, and should often lose temper, like you, if
I did not remember that I am paid by Europe for not losing it. Nothing
new since my last. I give the enemy another month, or something less, to
stay here." The more sanguine Vaudreuil would hardly give them a week.
Meanwhile, no precaution was spared. The force under Bougainville above
Quebec was raised to three thousand men. He was ordered to watch the
shore as far as Jacques-Cartier, and follow with his main body every
movement of Holmes's squadron. There was little fear for the heights
near the town; they were thought inaccessible. Even Montcalm believed
them safe, and had expressed himself to that effect some time before.
"We need not suppose," he wrote to Vaudreuil, "that the enemy have
wings;" and again, speaking of the very place where Wolfe afterwards
landed, "I swear to you that a hundred men posted there would stop their
whole army." He was right. A hundred watchful and determined men could
have held the position long enough for reinforcements to come up.
The hundred men were there. Captain de Vergor, of the colony troops,
commanded them, and reinforcements were within his call; for the
battalion of Guienne had been ordered to encamp close at hand on the
Plains of Abraham. Vergor's post, called Anse du Foulon, was a mile and
a half from Quebec. A little beyond it, by the brink of the cliffs, was
another post, called Samos, held by seventy men with four cannon; and,
beyond this again, the heights of Sillery were guarded by a hundred and
thirty men, also with cannon. These were outposts of Bougainville, whose
headquarters were at Cap-Rouge, six miles above Sillery, and whose
troops were in continual movement along the intervening shore. Thus all
was vigilance; for while the French were strong in the hope of speedy
delivery, they felt that there was no safety till the tents of the
invader had vanished from their shores and his ships from their river.
"What we knew," says one of them, "of the character of M. Wolfe, that
impetuous, bold, and intrepid warrior, prepared us for a last attack
before he left us."
Wolfe had been very ill on the evening of the fourth. The troops knew
it, and their spirits sank; but, after a night of torment, he grew
better, and was soon among them again, rekindling their ardor, and
imparting a cheer that he could not share. For himself he had no pity;
but when he heard of the illness of two officers in one of the ships, he
sent them a message of warm sympathy, advised them to return to Point
Levi, and offered them his own barge and an escort. They thanked him,
but replied that, come what might, they would see the enterprise to an
end. Another officer remarked in his hearing that one of the invalids
had a very delicate constitution. "Don't tell me of constitution," said
Wolfe; "he has good spirit, and good spirit will carry a man through
everything." An immense moral force bore up his own frail body and
forced it to its work.
Major Robert Stobo, who, five years before, had been given as a hostage
to the French at the capture of Fort Necessity, arrived about this time
in a vessel from Halifax. He had long been a prisoner at Quebec, not
always in close custody, and had used his opportunities to acquaint
himself with the neighborhood. In the spring of this year he and an
officer of rangers named Stevens had made their escape with
extraordinary skill and daring; and he now returned to give his
countrymen the benefit of his local knowledge. His biographer says that
it was he who directed Wolfe in the choice of a landing-place. Be this
as it may, Wolfe in person examined the river and the shores as far as
Pointe-aux-Trembles; till at length, landing on the south side a little
above Quebec, and looking across the water with a telescope, he descried
a path that ran with a long slope up the face of the woody precipice,
and saw at the top a cluster of tents. They were those of Vergor's
guard at the Anse du Foulon, now called Wolfe's Cove. As he could see
but ten or twelve of them, he thought that the guard could not be
numerous, and might be overpowered. His hope would have been stronger if
he had known that Vergor had once been tried for misconduct and
cowardice in the surrender of Beausejour, and saved from merited
disgrace by the friendship of the intendant Bigot and the protection of
The morning of the seventh was fair and warm, and the vessels of Holmes,
their crowded decks gay with scarlet uniforms, sailed up the river to
Cap-Rouge. A lively scene awaited them; for here were the headquarters
of Bougainville, and here lay his principal force, while the rest
watched the banks above and below. The cove into which the little river
runs was guarded by floating batteries; the surrounding shore was
defended by breastworks; and a large body of regulars, militia, and
mounted Canadians in blue uniforms moved to and fro, with restless
activity, on the hills behind. When the vessels came to anchor, the
horsemen dismounted and formed in line with the infantry; then, with
loud shouts, the whole rushed down the heights to man their works at the
shore. That true Briton, Captain Knox, looked on with a critical eye
from the gangway of his ship, and wrote that night in his Diary that
they had made a ridiculous noise. "How different!" he exclaims, "how
nobly awful and expressive of true valor is the customary silence of the
In the afternoon the ships opened fire, while the troops entered the
boats and rowed up and down as if looking for a landing-place. It was
but a feint of Wolfe to deceive Bougainville as to his real design. A
heavy easterly rain set in on the next morning, and lasted two days
without respite. All operations were suspended, and the men suffered
greatly in the crowded transports. Half of them were therefore landed on
the south shore, where they made their quarters in the village of St.
Nicolas, refreshed themselves, and dried their wet clothing, knapsacks,
For several successive days the squadron of Holmes was allowed to drift
up the river with the flood tide and down with the ebb, thus passing and
repassing incessantly between the neighborhood of Quebec on one hand,
and a point high above Cap-Rouge on the other; while Bougainville,
perplexed, and always expecting an attack, followed the ships to and fro
along the shore, by day and by night, till his men were exhausted with
ceaseless forced marches.
At last the time for action came. On Wednesday, the twelfth, the troops
at St. Nicolas were embarked again, and all were told to hold themselves
in readiness. Wolfe, from the flagship "Sutherland," issued his last
general orders. "The enemy's force is now divided, great scarcity of
provisions in their camp, and universal discontent among the Canadians.
Our troops below are in readiness to join us; all the light artillery
and tools are embarked at the Point of Levi; and the troops will land
where the French seem least to expect it. The first body that gets on
shore is to march directly to the enemy and drive them from any little
post they may occupy; the officers must be careful that the succeeding
bodies do not by any mistake fire on those who go before them. The
battalions must form on the upper ground with expedition, and be ready
to charge whatever presents itself. When the artillery and troops are
landed, a corps will be left to secure the landing-place, while the
rest march on and endeavor to bring the Canadians and French to a
battle. The officers and men will remember what their country expects
from them, and what a determined body of soldiers inured to war is
capable of doing against five weak French battalions mingled with a
The spirit of the army answered to that of its chief. The troops loved
and admired their general, trusted their officers, and were ready for
any attempt. "Nay, how could it be otherwise," quaintly asks honest
Sergeant John Johnson, of the fifty-eighth regiment, "being at the heels
of gentlemen whose whole thirst, equal with their general, was for
glory? We had seen them tried, and always found them sterling. We knew
that they would stand by us to the last extremity."
Wolfe had thirty-six hundred men and officers with him on board the
vessels of Holmes; and he now sent orders to Colonel Burton at Point
Levi to bring to his aid all who could be spared from that place and the
Point of Orleans. They were to march along the south bank, after
nightfall, and wait further orders at a designated spot convenient for
embarkation. Their number was about twelve hundred, so that the entire
force destined for the enterprise was at the utmost forty-eight hundred.
With these, Wolfe meant to climb the heights of Abraham in the teeth of
an enemy who, though much reduced, were still twice as numerous as their
Admiral Saunders lay with the main fleet in the Basin of Quebec. This
excellent officer, whatever may have been his views as to the necessity
of a speedy departure, aided Wolfe to the last with unfailing energy and
zeal. It was agreed between them that while the General made the real
attack, the Admiral should engage Montcalm's attention by a pretended
one. As night approached, the fleet ranged itself along the Beauport
shore; the boats were lowered and filled with sailors, marines, and the
few troops that had been left behind; while ship signalled to ship,
cannon flashed and thundered, and shot ploughed the beach, as if to
clear a way for assailants to land. In the gloom of the evening the
effect was imposing. Montcalm, who thought that the movements of the
English above the town were only a feint, that their main force was
still below it, and that their real attack would be made there, was
completely deceived, and massed his troops in front of Beauport to repel
the expected landing. But while in the fleet of Saunders all was uproar
and ostentatious menace, the danger was ten miles away, where the
squadron of Holmes lay tranquil and silent at its anchorage off
It was less tranquil than it seemed. All on board knew that a blow would
be struck that night, though only a few high officers knew where.
Colonel Howe, of the light infantry, called for volunteers to lead the
unknown and desperate venture, promising, in the words of one of them,
"that if any of us survived we might depend on being recommended to the
General." As many as were wanted--twenty-four in all--soon came forward.
Thirty large bateaux and some boats belonging to the squadron lay moored
alongside the vessels; and late in the evening the troops were ordered
into them, the twenty-four volunteers taking their place in the
foremost. They held in all about seventeen hundred men. The rest
remained on board.
Bougainville could discern the movement, and misjudged it, thinking that
he himself was to be attacked. The tide was still flowing; and, the
better to deceive him, the vessels and boats were allowed to drift
upward with it for a little distance, as if to land above Cap-Rouge.
The day had been fortunate for Wolfe. Two deserters came from the camp
of Bougainville with intelligence that, at ebb tide on the next night,
he was to send down a convoy of provisions to Montcalm. The necessities
of the camp at Beauport, and the difficulties of transportation by land,
had before compelled the French to resort to this perilous means of
conveying supplies; and their boats, drifting in darkness under the
shadows of the northern shore, had commonly passed in safety. Wolfe saw
at once that, if his own boats went down in advance of the convoy, he
could turn the intelligence of the deserters to good account.
He was still on board the "Sutherland." Every preparation was made, and
every order given; it only remained to wait the turning of the tide.
Seated with him in the cabin was the commander of the sloop-of-war
"Porcupine," his former school-fellow John Jervis, afterwards Earl St.
Vincent. Wolfe told him that he expected to die in the battle of the
next day; and taking from his bosom a miniature of Miss Lowther, his
betrothed, he gave it to him with a request that he would return it to
her if the presentiment should prove true.
Towards two o'clock the tide began to ebb, and a fresh wind blew down
the river. Two lanterns were raised into the maintop shrouds of the
"Sutherland." It was the appointed signal; the boats cast off and fell
down with the current, those of the light infantry leading the way. The
vessels with the rest of the troops had orders to follow a little later.
To look for a moment at the chances on which this bold adventure hung.
First, the deserters told Wolfe that provision-boats were ordered to go
down to Quebec that night; secondly, Bougainville countermanded them;
thirdly, the sentries posted along the heights were told of the order,
but not of the countermand; fourthly, Vergor at the Anse du Foulon had
permitted most of his men, chiefly Canadians from Lorette, to go home
for a time and work at their harvesting, on condition, it is said, that
they should afterwards work in a neighboring field of his own; fifthly,
he kept careless watch, and went quietly to bed; sixthly, the battalion
of Guienne, ordered to take post on the Plains of Abraham, had, for
reasons unexplained, remained encamped by the St. Charles; and lastly,
when Bougainville saw Holmes's vessels drift down the stream, he did not
tax his weary troops to follow them, thinking that they would return as
usual with the flood tide. But for these conspiring circumstances New
France might have lived a little longer, and the fruitless heroism of
Wolfe would have passed, with countless other heroisms, into oblivion.
For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current,
steered silently down the St. Lawrence. The stars were visible, but the
night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The General was in one of the
foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison,
afterwards professor of natural philosophy in the University of
Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, with a low
voice, repeated Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard to the officers
about him. Probably it was to relieve the intense strain of his
thoughts. Among the rest was the verse which his own fate was soon to
"The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
"Gentlemen," he said, as his recital ended, "I would rather have written
those lines than take Quebec." None were there to tell him that the hero
is greater than the poet.
As they neared their destination, the tide bore them in towards the
shore, and the mighty wall of rock and forest towered in darkness on
their left. The dead stillness was suddenly broken by the sharp Qui
vive! of a French sentry, invisible in the thick gloom. France!
answered a Highland officer of Fraser's regiment from one of the boats
of the light infantry. He had served in Holland, and spoke French
A quel regiment?
De la Reine, replied the Highlander. He knew that a part of that corps
was with Bougainville. The sentry, expecting the convoy of provisions,
was satisfied, and did not ask for the password.
Soon after, the foremost boats were passing the heights of Samos, when
another sentry challenged them, and they could see him through the
darkness running down to the edge of the water, within range of a
pistol-shot. In answer to his questions, the same officer replied, in
French: "Provision-boats. Don't make a noise; the English will hear us."
In fact, the sloop-of-war "Hunter" was anchored in the stream not far
off. This time, again, the sentry let them pass. In a few moments they
rounded the headland above the Anse du Foulon. There was no sentry
there. The strong current swept the boats of the light infantry a little
below the intended landing-place. They disembarked on a narrow strand at
the foot of heights as steep as a hill covered with trees can be. The
twenty-four volunteers led the way, climbing with what silence they
might, closely followed by a much larger body. When they reached the top
they saw in the dim light a cluster of tents at a short distance, and
immediately made a dash at them. Vergor leaped from bed and tried to run
off, but was shot in the heel and captured. His men, taken by surprise,
made little resistance. One or two were caught, and the rest fled.
The main body of troops waited in their boats by the edge of the strand.
The heights near by were cleft by a great ravine choked with forest
trees; and in its depths ran a little brook called Ruisseau St.-Denis,
which, swollen by the late rains, fell plashing in the stillness over a
rock. Other than this no sound could reach the strained ear of Wolfe but
the gurgle of the tide and the cautious climbing of his advance-parties
as they mounted the steeps at some little distance from where he sat
listening. At length from the top came a sound of musket-shots, followed
by loud huzzas, and he knew that his men were masters of the position.
The word was given; the troops leaped from the boats and scaled the
heights, some here, some there, clutching at trees and bushes, their
muskets slung at their backs. Tradition still points out the place, near
the mouth of the ravine, where the foremost reached the top. Wolfe said
to an officer near him: "You can try it, but I don't think you'll get
up." He himself, however, found strength to drag himself up with the
rest. The narrow slanting path on the face of the heights had been made
impassable by trenches and abatis; but all obstructions were soon
cleared away, and then the ascent was easy. In the gray of the morning
the long file of red-coated soldiers moved quickly upward, and formed in
order on the plateau above.
Before many of them had reached the top, cannon were heard close on the
left. It was the battery at Samos firing on the boats in the rear and
the vessels descending from Cap-Rouge. A party was sent to silence it;
this was soon effected, and the more distant battery at Sillery was next
attacked and taken. As fast as the boats were emptied they returned for
the troops left on board the vessels and for those waiting on the
southern shore under Colonel Burton.
The day broke in clouds and threatening rain. Wolfe's battalions were
drawn up along the crest of the heights. No enemy was in sight, though a
body of Canadians had sallied from the town and moved along the strand
towards the landing-place, whence they were quickly driven back. He had
achieved the most critical part of his enterprise; yet the success that
he coveted placed him in imminent danger. On one side was the garrison
of Quebec and the army of Beauport, and Bougainville was on the other.
Wolfe's alternative was victory or ruin; for if he should be overwhelmed
by a combined attack, retreat would be hopeless. His feelings no man can
know; but it would be safe to say that hesitation or doubt had no part
He went to reconnoitre the ground, and soon came to the Plains of
Abraham, so called from Abraham Martin, a pilot known as Maitre Abraham,
who had owned a piece of land here in the early times of the colony. The
Plains were a tract of grass, tolerably level in most parts, patched
here and there with cornfields, studded with clumps of bushes, and
forming a part of the high plateau at the eastern end of which Quebec
stood. On the south it was bounded by the declivities along the St.
Lawrence; on the north, by those along the St. Charles, or rather along
the meadows through which that lazy stream crawled like a writhing
snake. At the place that Wolfe chose for his battle-field the plateau
was less than a mile wide.
Thither the troops advanced, marched by files till they reached the
ground, and then wheeled to form their line of battle, which stretched
across the plateau and faced the city. It consisted of six battalions
and the detached grenadiers from Louisbourg, all drawn up in ranks three
deep. Its right wing was near the brink of the heights along the St.
Lawrence; but the left could not reach those along the St. Charles. On
this side a wide space was perforce left open, and there was danger of
being outflanked. To prevent this, Brigadier Townshend was stationed
here with two battalions, drawn up at right angles with the rest, and
fronting the St. Charles. The battalion of Webb's regiment, under
Colonel Burton, formed the reserve; the third battalion of Royal
Americans was left to guard the landing; and Howe's light infantry
occupied a wood far in the rear. Wolfe, with Monckton and Murray,
commanded the front line, on which the heavy fighting was to fall, and
which, when all the troops had arrived, numbered less than thirty-five
Quebec was not a mile distant, but they could not see it; for a ridge of
broken ground intervened, called Buttes-a-Neveu, about six hundred paces
off. The first division of troops had scarcely come up when, about six
o'clock, this ridge was suddenly thronged with white uniforms. It was
the battalion of Guienne, arrived at the eleventh hour from its camp by
the St. Charles. Some time after there was hot firing in the rear. It
came from a detachment of Bougainville's command attacking a house where
some of the light infantry were posted. The assailants were repulsed,
and the firing ceased. Light showers fell at intervals, besprinkling
the troops as they stood patiently waiting the event.
Montcalm had passed a troubled night. Through all the evening the cannon
bellowed from the ships of Saunders, and the boats of the fleet hovered
in the dusk off the Beauport shore, threatening every moment to land.
Troops lined the intrenchments till day, while the General walked the
field that adjoined his headquarters till one in the morning,
accompanied by the Chevalier Johnstone and Colonel Poulariez. Johnstone
says that he was in great agitation, and took no rest all night. At
daybreak he heard the sound of cannon above the town. It was the battery
at Samos firing on the English ships. He had sent an officer to the
quarters of Vaudreuil, which were much nearer Quebec, with orders to
bring him word at once should anything unusual happen. But no word came,
and about six o'clock he mounted and rode thither with Johnstone. As
they advanced, the country behind the town opened more and more upon
their sight; till at length, when opposite Vaudreuil's house, they saw
across the St. Charles, some two miles away, the red ranks of British
soldiers on the heights beyond.
"This is a serious business," Montcalm said; and sent off Johnstone at
full gallop to bring up the troops from the centre and left of the camp.
Those of the right were in motion already, doubtless by the Governor's
order. Vaudreuil came out of the house. Montcalm stopped for a few words
with him; then set spurs to his horse, and rode over the bridge of the
St. Charles to the scene of danger. He rode with a fixed look, uttering
not a word.
The army followed in such order as it might, crossed the bridge in hot
haste, passed under the northern rampart of Quebec, entered at the
Palace Gate, and pressed on in headlong march along the quaint narrow
streets of the warlike town: troops of Indians in scalplocks and
war-paint, a savage glitter in their deep-set eyes; bands of Canadians
whose all was at stake,--faith, country, and home; the colony regulars;
the battalions of Old France, a torrent of white uniforms and gleaming
bayonets, La Sarre, Languedoc, Roussillon, Bearn,--victors of Oswego,
William Henry, and Ticonderoga. So they swept on poured out upon the
plain, some by the gate of St. Louis, and some by that of St. John, and
hurried, breathless, to where the banners of Guienne still fluttered on
Montcalm was amazed at what he saw. He had expected a detachment, and he
found an army. Full in sight before him stretched the lines of Wolfe:
the close ranks of the English infantry, a silent wall of red, and the
wild array of the Highlanders, with their waving tartans, and bagpipes
screaming defiance. Vaudreuil had not come; but not the less was felt
the evil of a divided authority and the jealousy of the rival chiefs.
Montcalm waited long for the forces he had ordered to join him from the
left wing of the army. He waited in vain. It is said that the Governor
had detained them, lest the English should attack the Beauport shore.
Even if they did so, and succeeded, the French might defy them, could
they but put Wolfe to rout on the Plains of Abraham. Neither did the
garrison of Quebec come to the aid of Montcalm. He sent to Ramesay, its
commander, for twenty-five field-pieces which were on the Palace
battery. Ramesay would give him only three, saying that he wanted them
for his own defence. There were orders and counter-orders;
misunderstanding, haste, delay, perplexity.
Montcalm and his chief officers held a council of war. It is said that
he and they alike were for immediate attack. His enemies declare that he
was afraid lest Vaudreuil should arrive and take command; but the
Governor was not a man to assume responsibility at such a crisis. Others
say that his impetuosity overcame his better judgment; and of this
charge it is hard to acquit him. Bougainville was but a few miles
distant, and some of his troops were much nearer; a messenger sent by
way of Old Lorette could have reached him in an hour and a half at most,
and a combined attack in front and rear might have been concerted with
him. If, moreover, Montcalm could have come to an understanding with
Vaudreuil, his own force might have been strengthened by two or three
thousand additional men from the town and the camp of Beauport; but he
felt that there was no time to lose, for he imagined that Wolfe would
soon be reinforced, which was impossible, and he believed that the
English were fortifying themselves, which was no less an error. He has
been blamed not only for fighting too soon, but for fighting at all. In
this he could not choose. Fight he must, for Wolfe was now in a position
to cut off all his supplies. His men were full of ardor, and he resolved
to attack before their ardor cooled. He spoke a few words to them in his
keen, vehement way. "I remember very well how he looked," one of the
Canadians, then a boy of eighteen, used to say in his old age; "he rode
a black or dark bay horse along the front of our lines, brandishing his
sword, as if to excite us to do our duty. He wore a coat with wide
sleeves, which fell back as he raised his arm, and showed the white
linen of the wristband."
The English waited the result with a composure which, if not quite real,
was at least well feigned. The three field-pieces sent by Ramesay plied
them with canister-shot, and fifteen hundred Canadians and Indians
fusilladed them in front and flank. Over all the plain, from behind
bushes and knolls and the edge of cornfields, puffs of smoke sprang
incessantly from the guns of these hidden marksmen. Skirmishers were
thrown out before the lines to hold them in check, and the soldiers were
ordered to lie on the grass to avoid the shot. The firing was liveliest
on the English left, where bands of sharpshooters got under the edge of
the declivity, among thickets, and behind scattered houses, whence they
killed and wounded a considerable number of Townshend's men. The light
infantry were called up from the rear. The houses were taken and
retaken, and one or more of them was burned.
Wolfe was everywhere. How cool he was, and why his followers loved him,
is shown by an incident that happened in the course of the morning. One
of his captains was shot through the lungs; and on recovering
consciousness he saw the General standing at his side. Wolfe pressed his
hand, told him not to despair, praised his services, promised him early
promotion, and sent an aide-de-camp to Monckton to beg that officer to
keep the promise if he himself should fall.
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 baited 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 Webb'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
Montcalm, still on horseback, was borne with the tide of fugitives
towards the town. As he approached the walls a shot passed through his
body. He kept his seat; two soldiers supported him, one on each side,
and led his horse through the St. Louis Gate. On the open space within,
among the excited crowd, were several women, drawn, no doubt, by
eagerness to know the result of the fight. One of them recognized him,
saw the streaming blood, and shrieked, "O mon Dieu! mon Dieu! le
Marquis est tue!" "It's nothing, it's nothing," replied the
death-stricken man; "don't be troubled for me, my good friends." ("Ce
n'est rien, ce n'est rien; ne vous affligez pas pour moi, mes bonnes
* * * * *
Some of the fugitives took refuge in the city and others escaped across
the St. Charles. In the next night the French army abandoned Quebec to
its fate and fled up the St. Lawrence. The city soon surrendered to
Wolfe's successor, Brigadier Townshend, and the English held it during
the winter. In April, the French under the Chevalier de Levis made a
bold but unsuccessful attempt to retake it. In the following summer,
General Amherst advanced on Montreal, till in September all Canada was
forced to surrender, and the power of France was extinguished on the
North American continent.
University Press: John Wilson & Son, Cambridge
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