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Summary Article: Battle of the Plains of Abraham from Battles That Changed American History: 100 of the Greatest Victories and Defeats

Date

September 13, 1759

Location

Quebec, Canada

Opponents (*winner)

*Great Britain

France

Commander

Major General James Wolfe

Lieutenant General Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm

Approx. # Troops

4,800 British regulars

4,400 French regulars, colonial militia, and allied Native Americans

Importance

Perhaps the most important battle in the history of North America, it virtually ensures British control of Canada.

The French stronghold of Quebec was the capital of New France and a long-standing primary British military objective throughout the colonial wars. Situated on a peninsula towering above the northern bank of the St. Lawrence River at a point where the river narrows, Quebec was known as the “Gibraltar of the Americas” for its natural as much as man-made defenses. High cliffs made bombardment from below almost impossible and made a direct amphibious assault suicidal. Subsidiary rivers blocked attacks on either flank, and a landward approach faced strong walls and in any case would be possible only if supporting ships moved upriver and ran a gauntlet of gun batteries. If Montreal to the southwest, farther up the St. Lawrence, remained secure, Quebec could be supplied indefinitely by water. Siege operations were also complicated by the tides and treacherous currents of the St. Lawrence, and winter made the river impassable with ice.

In spite of these obstacles, British prime minister William Pitt recognized that taking Quebec was the key to the defeat of New France. In 1758 during the French and Indian War (1754–1763), British forces seized the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island that guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence, and Pitt approved plans for a strike led by Brigadier James Wolfe, who held a local commission as a major general. Wolfe, the youngest officer to hold that rank in the army, had distinguished himself in the attack on Louisbourg, and in February 1759 he sailed from England for Quebec with naval commander Vice Admiral Sir Charles Saunders. In all, the force earmarked for operations against Quebec included 49 warships, 119 transports, and 9,000 troops.

The British moved up the St. Lawrence toward Quebec to face some 12,000 French forces assisted by local militia and some Native Americans, all under the command of Lieutenant General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Wolfe established a base near Quebec on Île d'Orléans on June 26, 1759. The following night, the French dispatched fireships in a failed attempt to burn the British ships. Meanwhile, the British sent gunners ashore at Point Lévis, directly across the St. Lawrence from Quebec. They established a battery of six 32-pounder cannon and five 13-inch mortars that opened fire on July 12 and battered the city for the next seven weeks.

Painting showing British troops about to engage the French on the Plains of Abraham at Quebec on September 13, 1759, in what was perhaps the most important battle in the history of North America. (North Wind Picture Archives)

Wolfe landed troops north of Quebec at Beaupre on July 9 and assaulted Beauport on July 31. Both attacks failed to provide a clear avenue of advance and left Wolfe deeply frustrated. All efforts to draw the defenders out of the fortress proved futile. Throughout August, Wolfe struggled to approach Quebec without success, while his naval officers endeavored to chart the difficult estuary around the city. The stress of command left Wolfe bedridden with kidney stones and rheumatism. Many of his men thought that he was dying.

Wolfe's spirits improved only slightly when Vice Admiral Saunders slipped some ships past Quebec in July and August and began landing light infantry upriver to destroy French farms and supplies. Montcalm reacted by detaching his aide-de-camp, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and 3,000 men to patrol the cliffs south of the city. Then Wolfe saw an opening. On September 3 he quickly moved his headquarters and most of his men to the south shore beyond Quebec. He personally scouted a landing place at L'Anse du Foulon, only two miles from the city; sent British naval units upriver; and then ordered them to drift back with the tide to test Bougainville's reaction.

The French shadowed the fleet each time but slowed as they grew tired and suspected that the movement was a ruse. Wolfe also mounted feint assaults to keep the French off balance. On September 10 he learned from deserters that Quebec was short on food, that Montcalm feared that the British would interdict supplies coming from Montreal, and that no landing was expected near the city. Time was running out for Wolfe, however. With winter only a few weeks away, Saunders feared that his ships would be trapped in winter ice and threatened to depart with them.

Wolfe sent his ships up and down the river again and again to pull Bougainville away from Quebec and tire his men. Taking advantage of intelligence provided by Captain Robert Stobo, a British captain who had earlier been held prisoner in Quebec and knew the city well, Wolfe then ordered an assault just north of the city at 4:00 a.m. on September 13 at Anse du Foulon, where a narrow footpath angled up the steep cliffs.

In a lucky stroke, Wolfe learned from more deserters that this was the same night that the French expected to be resupplied by boats from Montreal, giving the British a perfect cover for their landing. Wolfe sent Saunders to bombard and launch a feint attack on Beauport, then took 4,800 men upriver and drifted back in the darkness. Bougainville did not follow closely. At 2:00 a.m. on September 13, Wolfe led his men in boats across the St. Lawrence. They landed two hours later, scrambled 180 feet up the narrow path to the top of the cliffs, overwhelmed the French sentries there, and captured a nearby French camp.

By 6:00 a.m., the British had approximately 4,800 men deployed in line of battle on the Plains of Abraham above the city. The next move belonged to Montcalm. The French commander discounted reports that the British had successfully landed. Nevertheless, he dutifully rode out with Governor-General Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil to see for himself and was astonished to find Wolfe's men. Montcalm immediately decided to attack.

Montcalm's decision provided endless fodder for historians. Indeed, he advanced without waiting for Bougainville, without most of his provincial troops or militia, without Quebec's garrison, and with only three artillery pieces. Moreover, with winter approaching, Montcalm had excellent reason to play for time. His defenders have argued that Quebec was short of supplies, that artillery above the city could command the lower town, and that the French had to strike before Wolfe was reinforced. But the decision to offer battle outside the city while outnumbered seems so impulsive that it may have had more to do with emotion than anything else. Montcalm sortied with some 4,400 men: 2,600 regulars and 1,800 militia and allied Native Americans.

Whatever Montcalm's motive, the battle of less than half an hour that followed featured no cavalry and very little artillery. It was purely an infantry duel in which British discipline carried the day. Both sides deployed across the Grande Allée, the main road leading toward Quebec's St. Louis bastion. Six British battalions faced five regiments of French regulars in the center on a tabletop battlefield whose sloping sides prevented maneuver. Wolfe had one battalion in a second line, a battalion on each flank, and one battalion in reserve. In contrast, the outnumbered Montcalm placed marines, militiamen, and Native Americans on his flanks and had no second line or reserves of any kind.

The battle began with sniping and skirmishing on the flanks. At 8:00 a.m. Montcalm's artillery opened up with grapeshot. Wolfe ordered his men to lie down to protect themselves until 10:00 a.m., when the French infantry came on at a run. Their hasty advance opened gaps in their lines, and when some units fired early and began to reload, much of their cohesion was lost.

Wolfe had ordered his men to load an extra ball in their muskets and wait until the French were at close range. As the French neared his position, he ordered his men to stand and fire. Legend has it the British unleashed only one volley, which is almost certainly not true. Some British battalions probably fired as the French closed, but at some point there was one great final volley that sent Montcalm and his men into headlong retreat.

French losses were reported as 644 killed or wounded, compared to 658 killed or wounded for the British. Yet the psychological shock for the French was total. Wolfe, already wounded at least once, was mortally struck as the French broke and ran. He died quickly. Death also claimed Montcalm, who was hit by British grapeshot during the retreat and lingered a day before dying.

Surviving French forces under Vaudreuil ran all the way to Beauport, then turned and fled toward Montreal, picking up Bougainville and his men along the way. Quebec surrendered on September 18 and remained in British hands thereafter. French efforts to resupply their forces in Canada were stymied by a British victory in the Battle of Quiberon Bay on November 20. The French did mount an offensive to retake Quebec in April 1760 and defeated British forces under Brigadier General James Murray on the Plains of Abraham after the British commander impulsively gave battle, much as Montcalm had done. But the British fell back into the city and withstood the ensuing siege. Montreal succumbed to the British in 1760, and when the French and Indian War ended in 1763, France relinquished Canada for good.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the most important military engagement in the century-and-a-half struggle between Britain and France for control of North America east of the Mississippi River and was probably the most important battle in the history of colonial North America.

Further Reading
  • Anderson, Fred. Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of the Empire in British North America, 1754-1763. Knopf New York, 2000.
  • Donaldson, Gordon. Battle for a Continent: Quebec, 1759. Doubleday Garden City NY, 1973.
  • Eccles, W. J.The Battle of Quebec: A Reappraisal.” French Colonial Historical Society Proceedings 3 (1978): 70-81.
  • Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years’ War in America. Norton New York, 1990.
  • La Pierre, Laurer L. 1759: The Battle for Canada. McClelland and Stewart Toronto, 1990.
  • Lloyd, Christopher. The Capture of Quebec. Macmillan New York, 1959.
  • Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe. Atheneum New York, 1984.
  • Reid, Stuart; Gerry Embleton. Quebec 1759: The Battle That Won Canada. Osprey London, 2003.
  • Stacey, C. P.; Donald E. Graves, eds. Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle. Revised ed. Robin Brass Studio London, 2002.
  • Lance Janda
    Copyright 2014 by Spencer C. Tucker

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