Historical Background

The events described in The Plains of Abraham constitute a vital part of Canadian, of North American, and indeed of world history.

The Beginning of the War

The Seven Years' War (1756-63), also called (in the USA) the French and Indian War, was the first world war, fought in Europe, India, the Carribbean, and North America. Its origins lay in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48), when Frederick the Great of Prussia conquered (1740) the Austrian province of Silesia. Wanting it back, and generally terrified of Frederick's ambitious military genius, Austria enlisted France, Saxony, Sweden and Russia against Prussia; Frederick allied himself with England. As a result of a territorial dispute in central Europe, therefore, English and French fleets and armies soon found themselves in conflict around the globe.

Meanwhile in North America, rivalry between New France and New England for rights to the Ohio Valley was already simmering. A young George Washington had already attempted, and failed, to displace the French presence there in 1754, while in the next year an expedition by General Braddock against Fort Duquesne and the surrounding nations was all but annihilated. Throughout this period, most of the native nations from the Algonquins to the Cherokees were in alliance with the French, while the Iroquois Confederacy kept neutral.

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The outbreak of the Seven Years' War in Europe brought renewed vigour to English attacks on New France, helped by the renewal of William Pitt's ministry in 1757. Pitt planned a double invasion, both along the traditional route up the Hudson river towards Montreal and by sea towards Quebec across the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The new French commander in New France, Montcalm, foresaw the coming invasion and appealed, along with the Governor, Vaudreuil, to the French court at Versailles for assistance. Sadly, the King's mistress, Mme. de Pompadour, then virtually in charge of French policy, was consumed with hatred for Frederick the Great and refused to spare soldiers and material from her campaigns in central Europe. Montcalm, Vaudreuil, and Montcalm's talented 2nd-in-command, Lévis, were forced to deal with the coming invasions essentially on their own.

The French forces in this period were composed of a dozen regular regiments from France, the famous Troupes de la Marine (regular forces enlisted from the Canadian population), Canadian volunteer militia (essentially defensive forces), and the irregular Coureurs de Bois. In addition, they had continuous and indispensable assistance from allied native nations. The English forces consisted of regular line regiments, along with Scottish Highland regiments, American militia units, and the irregular force of Roger's Rangers. Towards the end of the war, they also benefited (after continuous but in the end successful diplomacy) from an alliance with the powerful Iroquois Confederacy.

Not content to wait for the English to arrive, Montcalm took the offensive in 1756 and destroyed Ft. William Henry on the shores of Lake George (in modern upstate New York). Soon afterwards, Pitt's plan was unveiled and Fort Louisbourg, the French stronghold on modern Cape Breton Island, was besieged and taken (1758). In the same year, the British struck at Montreal, marching up the Hudson River, only to be handed a devastating defeat at Carillon (Ticonderoga) by Montcalm and Lévis.

The Siege of Quebec

Nevertheless, though it had foiled the first invasion, beleaguered New France now faced the inevitable consequence of the Fall of Louisbourg: the Gulf of St. Lawrence was now subject to British naval control, opening the door to Pitt's planned seaborne invasion of New France. The young general James Wolfe was picked to lead this descent upon Quebec, having already distinguished himself at Louisbourg and earned some infamy for his "ethnic cleansing" of the Acadian settlements in what is now New Brunswick. Faced with a double invasion, from the south against Montreal and by sea against Quebec, Montcalm could only wait for Wolfe to attack. Vaudreuil issued an appeal to his allies, who arrived from as far away as modern Thunder Bay (in the case of the Ottawa) to honour their alliance; and he armed every inhabitant of the colony. Quebec itself was heavily fortified.

The first English ships arrived at Quebec on the 21st of June, 1759. By the end of June, the full force had arrived and taken possession of the Isle of Orléans in the middle of the river St. Lawrence opposite the citadel. Here they made their camp. The prospect of the siege must have seemed daunting: the whole of the basin below Cape Diamond, on which the city stood, is ringed with hundred- or two-hundred-foot tall cliffs; a natural defense which Montcalm was keen to exploit. His own camp lay at Beauport, between the rivers St. Charles and Montmorency. He held the northern shore, where the great prize lay: impregnable Quebec.

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Wolfe perceived that the only weak spot in Montcalm's fortifications lay on the south bank of the river. True, Point Lévi was on the wrong side of the river, but as soon as his troops assaulted and took it he demonstrated its strategic value, if not for taking Quebec, then for reducing it to rubble. Mounted on the slopes of Point Lévi, English guns could just reach the city, and for the next two months, through the long summer stalemate, the cannonballs hurtled from one bank to the other, destroying all the Lower Town and many important buildings in the citadel.

Realising this bombardment would not accomplish his objective, however, Wolfe next settled on an assault on the other side of the extensive French position. Secretly, his troops gathered in the morning on the 31st of July and prepared to cross the river - below the falls of Montmorency. Supported by two ships, the English forces landed on the beach on the French side of the river and attempted to scale the cliffs there. But Montcalm's gifted 2nd-in-command, Lévis, had foreseen the English attack and assembled half the army on the heights to repel it. Under heavy fire from French and native sharpshooters, the Grenadiers of Louisbourg, the elite English regiment, charged the cliff-face and began to ascend. But the break in discipline was catastrophic. The English were heavily defeated and retreated in disorder; the victorious French, having repulsed the only sustained attack thusfar, were confident that Wolfe would abandon the siege.

Wolfe's mood now grew worse. Always a hardhearted man, as he had shown in Scotland in repressing the '45 and in Acadia the previous year, he now resolved to burn as much of the territory of New France as his forces controlled. All along the northern and southern shores of the St. Lawrence downriver of the ongoing siege, his soldiers burned settlements and (on one occasion) even a church. His hope was to frighten the Canadian volunteers, who made up a sizeable portion of Montcalm's force, into deserting Quebec. In this he was mistaken: the only thing which could sap the will of the defenders was hunger - a potent factor.

As the settlements burned, the siege dragged on through the end of August. Wolfe, meanwhile, fell gravely ill. By the 10th of September, the English brigadiers and captains were suggesting a return to England. But Wolfe dreaded the ignominy of failure, and formed a rash plan.

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

A sizeable number of large and small vessels from the English fleet had been slipping upstream, past the guns of the citadel, for some weeks. This allowed the English another flank - though one no less heavily fortified - to threaten. Montcalm countered by detaching three thousand men under Bougainville to guard his lines of communication in that direction. Wolfe's rash plan was to assemble a force of about 4 500 men of his army in his transports upstream of Quebec and use the rest to divert Montcalm's attention with a feint attack towards Beauport. The main force would land at a small cove below the Plains of Abraham called L'Anse-au-Foulon, scale the cliffs, and confront the enemy on the battlefield. Helped by word that a supply convoy was expected on the night of the 12th, Wolfe scheduled the desperate attack for that night.

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Montcalm, meanwhile, was not as certain as some of his officers that the English would abandon the siege, though he could not be sure where or when a last attack might come. He had slept in uniform since the beginning of the siege, but now he could not sleep at all. With Bougainville patrolling the shore upstream, and scouts continually watching the Beauport shore, there was little more he could do. He walked the defences at all hours.

On the moonless night of the 12th, the English forces crossed the St. Lawrence. Impersonating the supply convoy, officers of the 78th Fraser Highlanders, fluent in French, managed to trick the sentries, and the unwatchful guards at the top (led by the infamous Vergor) were overpowered. The English and Highland regiments followed up the steep path and had taken a strong position on the Plains of Abraham by early morning.

Montcalm now got word of the English army's surprise ascent of the cliffs upstream. Immediately calling out his regiments and allies, he marched through Quebec and assembled his army facing the English lines. The decision, perhaps a hasty one, was made to attack before Governor Vaudreuil could arrive with reinforcements from Beauport or Bougainville could take position behind Wolfe's lines. But then Montcalm had little choice, as the English army now stood directly across his supply route. Also, his army was enthusiastic, despite the hunger of the long siege, whereas delay would dampen their spirits.

The charge of the French and Canadians on the Plains of Abraham is famous. With eager cries, they raced across the open space between the two armies, their ranks becoming confused in the process. When they were within forty paces of the English line, Wolfe gave the order to fire, and the volley of the redcoats was precise and devastating. A second volley followed. The charge was ruined, and the English and Highlanders advanced in turn; in the woods on the British left flank, the Fraser Highlanders charged with the claymore, wreaking fearful havok. It was at this point that Wolfe was struck three times, expiring just as news of his success was announced.

At about the same moment, as he attempted to rally the French regiments, Montcalm too was struck. As word spread that their general was wounded, even the Rousillon regiment was filled with panic. The French and Canadians were routed back to the citadel, where the population wept for the stricken Montcalm, who died some hours afterwards and was buried in the Ursuline convent.

With both generals dead or dying, and both armies exhausted from the short but murderous battle, the day ended with the English in possession of the Plains of Abraham and the French holding Quebec. This would not last, however: the city surrendered on the 18th, even as Vaudreuil and the new commander of the French forces, Lévis, having gathered their remaining strength, were ready to march to its relief.

Winter of 1759-70

As ever, winter came, and both sides dispersed to the fireside. The English garrison in Quebec, quartered as well as possible among the icy ruins, was unprepared for the severe temperature. With Wolfe dead and the two senior brigadiers returning to England, the young brigadier Murray was left in charge. He did his best to befriend the citizens, conscious nonetheless that Levis planned to return to the Plains of Abraham and retake Quebec in the Spring - constant reports from Montreal confirmed the fact.

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Indeed, neither Vaudreuil, Lévis, the French regiments, the Canadian volunteers, nor the native allies had given up hope of eventual victory. Though the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759) is popularly remembered as the last act in the drama of New France, this is by no means the case. All winter long, the smithies and carpentry sheds of Montreal and the surrounding area rang with preparations for the spring campaign. Scaling ladders were built, assaults upon the wall were rehearsed, discipline was maintained, and enthusiasm was rekindled. As often in a Canadian winter, the only problem was transportation. The only open route was the river, clogged with ice until the spring thaw. Under the command of Vauquelin, the tough naval officer and hero of Louisbourg, were two frigates, two sloops, and sundry smaller vessels. Nearly seven thousand men awaited the command to embark, which came on the 20th of April. Volunteers rejoined the regular units as they floated down the St. Lawrence.

On the 26th, the army landed near Quebec, driving in the English outposts. The snow was not off the fields yet, and a thunderstorm turned the roads to mud. That night the army is said to have continued their march by the light of lightning flashes. In the morning they encountered the first serious resistance at Ste. Foy, from which the subsequent battle takes its name (though the actual site is contiguous with the more celebrated Plains of Abraham, further towards the citadel). The day was spent in preparing for battle the next day. That night, Murray got his first word of the coming attack from a man found floating on an iceberg in the middle of the St. Lawrence. The man was a shipwrecked, half-frozen sergeant of artillery in the French army, who informed the surprised general, once he could speak again, that Lévis was about to attack.

The Battle of Ste. Foy, 27 April 1760

The next morning, the 27th of April, Murray rashly advanced his army from Quebec to meet Lévis's force in battle. His troops, dragging heavy cannon, found the snowy fields had been reduced to slush by the storm. They established themselves in nearly the same position they had initially held during the battle the previous fall. From here they opened fire with their guns on Lévis' army, stationed in the cover of nearby woods. The cannonade had some effect, and the nearest French troops fell back. Crucially, the eager Murray mistook this for a full retreat, and ordered his line to advance, abandoning the cannon in the slush and mud behind them. At this point the regiment Béarn, led by Dalquier, counterattacked on the left, while on the right the Canadian sharpshooters were devastatingly effective on the now exposed English left flank. Nor were the three pieces of cannon, hauled from Montreal, ineffective. After two hours in the bloody snow, Murray's army retreated in disorder, having lost a third of its force, and Levis laid siege to the town.

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Now the fate of New France hung on a strange chance. Before the winter set in, Lévis had written to France asking for ships to be sent bearing siege artillery and supplies, to rendezvous with him at Quebec in the spring. If these could arrive before the English navy, Quebec could be retaken. But if an English fleet appeared, the siege was doomed. The weeks passed. The generals exchanged gifts of courtesy, the weather improved, a sail appeared on the horizon, and the long doubt was at last resolved. It was an English ship, heralding the arrival of an English squadron.

The siege would have to be raised. The English squadron attacked the French vessels of Vauquelin; and after a last battle on the 15th of May in which Vauquelin fought to the last cannonball and refused to surrender, Lévis was out of supplies and ammunition. He was forced to return with his army to Montreal. The final surrender there came in September 1760, despite Lévis's request that he and his officers be allowed to retire to Isle Ste-Hélène and fight there to the death.

Results of the War

It remains to remark on the significance of these events for Canadian, North American, and indeed world history, alluded to at the opening of this brief account. Obviously the fall of New France had the most profound effect on the nation then known as the Canadians, now known as the Québecois, for whom the Battle of the Plains of Abraham remains a moment of national tragedy. But the result was not the destruction of this nation, as many feared at the time. Owing in part to sheer collective determination and willpower, in part to the relatively enlightened policy adopted by the British in the Quebec Act of 1774 (which confirmed the traditional legal system in Canada as well as the privilege of the Catholic Church), the inhabitants of New France overcame the Conquest and today they flourish.

In terms of North American history, however, this Quebec Act, together with (more largely) the removal of the threat of New France to the colonies of New England, had a great impact on the rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies in 1776 and the subsequent births of the United States and of English-speaking Canada: no longer concerned with protection against the French and their allies by the British crown, American separatists could seek independence without the fear of invasion. The consequences, therefore, of the Plains of Abraham for world history are obvious: without it, the peaceful coexistence of two of the world's greatest rivals, the English and the French languages, for two centuries side by side without violence, would never have been possible, and the world would be deprived today of its greatest model of diversity and mutual respect.

Further Reading

There are several good narrative histories of these events, recommended if you would like more detail:
  • C. P. Stacey, Quebec, 1759: The Siege and the Battle. Rev. ed. Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2007.
  • D. Peter Macleod, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2008.
  • G. Saint-Martin, Québec 1759-1760: les plaines d'Abraham: L'adieu à la Nouvelle France? Paris: Economica, 2007.
  • Henri-Raymond Casgrain, Guerre du Canada, 1756-1760: Montcalm et Lévis. Tours: A. Mame, 1899.
In 2009 I reviewed five new books about the Siege of Quebec in the Literary Review of Canada.