Chronicles of America 

The English Campaign of 1759

To be too late had been the usual fate of the many British expeditions against Canada. No one, however, dared to be late under Pitt. On February 17, 1759, the greatest fleet that had ever put out for America left Portsmouth. More than two hundred and fifty ships set their sails for the long voyage. There were forty-nine warships, carrying fourteen thousand sailors and marines, and two hundred other ships manned by perhaps seven thousand men in the merchant service, but ready to fight if occasion offered. Altogether nearly thirty thousand men now left the shores of England to attack Canada.

There is a touch of doom for France in the fact that its own lost fortress of Louisbourg was to be the rendezvous of the fleet. Saunders, however, arrived so early that the entrance to Louisbourg was still blocked with ice, and he went on to Halifax. In time he returned to Louisbourg, and from there the great fleet sailed for Quebec. The voyage was uneventful. We can picture the startled gaze of the Canadian peasants as they saw the stately array, many miles long, pass up the St. Lawrence. On the 26th of June, Wolfe and Saunders were in the basin before Quebec and the great siege had begun which was to mark one of the turning-points in history.

Nature had furnished a noble setting for the drama now to be enacted. Quebec stands on a bold semicircular rock on the north shore of the St. Lawrence. At the foot of the rock sweeps the mighty river, here at the least breadth in its whole course, but still a flood nearly a mile wide, deep and strong. Its currents change ceaselessly with the ebb and flow of the tide which rises a dozen feet, though the open sea is eight hundred miles away. Behind the rock of Quebec the small stream of the St. Charles furnishes a protection on the landward side. Below the fortress, the great river expands into a broad basin with the outflow divided by the Island of Orleans. In every direction there are cliffs and precipices and rising ground. From the north shore of the great basin the land slopes gradually into a remote blue of wooded mountains. The assailant of Quebec must land on low ground commanded everywhere from heights for seven or eight miles on the east and as many on the west. At both ends of this long front are further natural defenses--at the east the gorge of the Montmorency River, at the west that of the Cap Rouge River.

Wolfe's desire was to land his army on the Beauport shore at some point between Quebec and Montmorency. But Montcalm's fortified posts, behind which lay his army, stretched along the shore for six miles, all the way from the Montmorency to the St. Charles. Wolfe had a great contempt for Montcalm's army--"five feeble French battalions mixed with undisciplined peasants." If only he could get to close quarters with the "wily and cautious old fox," as he called Montcalm! Already the British had done what the French had thought impossible. Without pilots they had steered their ships through treacherous channels in the river and through the dangerous "Traverse" near Cap Tourmente. Captain Cook, destined to be a famous navigator, was there to survey and mark the difficult places, and British skippers laughed at the forecasts of disaster made by the pilots whom they had captured on the river. The French were confident that the British would not dare to take their ships farther up the river past the cannonade of the guns in Quebec, though this the British accomplished almost without loss.

Wolfe landed a force upon the lower side of the gorge at Montmorency and another at the head of the Island of Orleans. He planted batteries at Point Levis across the river from Quebec, and from there he battered the city. The pleasant houses in the Rue du Parloir which Montcalm knew so well were knocked into rubbish, and its fascinating ladies were driven desolate from the capital. But this bombardment brought Wolfe no nearer his goal. On the 31st of July he made a frontal attack on the flats at Beauport and failed disastrously with a loss of four hundred men. Time was fighting for Montcalm.

By the 1st of September Wolfe's one hope was in a surprise by which he could land an army above Quebec, the nearer to the fortress the better. Its feeble walls on the landward side could not hold out against artillery. But Bougainville guarded the high shore and marched his men incessantly up and down to meet threatened attacks. On the heights, the battalion of Guienne was encamped on the Plains of Abraham to guard the Foulon. This was a cove on the river bank from which there was a path, much used by the French for dragging up provisions, leading to the top of the cliff at a point little more than a mile from the walls of the city. On the 6th of September the battalion of Guienne was sent back to the Beauport lines by order of Vaudreuil. Montcalm countermanded the order, but was not obeyed, and Wolfe saw his chance. For days he threatened a landing, above and below Quebec, now at one point, now at another, until the French were both mystified and worn out with incessant alarms. Then, early on the morning of the 13th of September, came Wolfe's master-stroke. His men embarked in boats from the warships lying some miles above Quebec, dropped silently down the river, close to the north shore, made sentries believe that they were French boats carrying provisions to the Foulon, landed at the appointed spot, climbed up the cliff, and overpowered the sleeping guard. A little after daylight Wolfe had nearly five thousand soldiers, a "thin red line," busy preparing a strong position on the Plains of Abraham, while the fleet was landing cannon, to be dragged up the steep hill to bombard the fortress on its weakest side.

Montcalm had spent many anxious days. He had been incessantly on the move, examining for himself over and over again every point, Cap Rouge, Beauport, Montmorency, reviewing the militia of which he felt uncertain, inspecting the artillery, the commissariat, everything that mattered. At three o'clock in the morning of one of these days he wrote to Bourlamaque, at Lake Champlain, noting the dark night, the rain, his men awake and dressed in their tents, everyone alert. "I am booted and my horses are saddled, which is in truth my usual way of spending the night. I have not undressed since the twenty-third of June." On the evening of the 12th of September the batteries at Point Levis kept up a furious fire on Quebec. There was much activity on board the British war-ships lying below the town. Boats filled with men rowed towards Beauport as if to attempt a landing during the night. Here the danger seemed to lie. At midnight the British boats were still hovering off the shore. The French troops manned the entrenched lines and Montcalm was continually anxious. A heavy convoy of provisions was to come down to the Foulon that night, and orders had been given to the French posts on the north shore above Quebec to make no noise. The arrival of the convoy was vital, for the army was pressed for food. Montcalm was therefore anxious for its fate when at break of day he heard firing from the French cannon at Samos, above Quebec. Had the provisions then been taken by the English? Near his camp all now seemed quiet. He gave orders for the troops to rest, drank some cups of tea with his aide-de-camp Johnstone, a Scotch Jacobite, and at about half-past six rode towards Quebec to the camp of Vaudreuil to learn why the artillery was firing at Samos. Immediately in front of the Governor's house he learned the momentous news. The English were on the Plains of Abraham. Soon he had the evidence of his own eyes. On the distant heights across the valley he could see the redcoats.

No doubt Montcalm had often pondered this possibility and had decided in such a case to attack at once before the enemy could entrench and bring up cannon. A rapid decision was now followed by rapid action. He had a moment's conversation with Vaudreuil. The French regiments on the right at Vaudreuil's camp, lying nearest to the city, were to march at once. To Johnstone he said, "The affair is serious," and then gave orders that all the French left, except a few men to guard the ravine at Montmorency, should follow quickly to the position between Quebec and the enemy, a mile away. Off to this point he himself galloped. Already, by orders of officers on the spot, regiments were gathering between the walls of the city and the British. The regiments on the French right at Beauport were soon on the move towards the battlefield, but two thousand of the best troops still lay inactive beyond Beauport. Johnstone declares that Vaudreuil countermanded the order of Montcalm for these troops to come to his support and ordered that not one of them should budge. There was haste everywhere. By half-past nine Montcalm had some four thousand men drawn up between the British and the walls of Quebec. He hoped that Bougainville, advancing from Cap Rouge, would be able to assail the British rear: "Surely Bougainville understands that I must attack."

The crisis was, over in fifteen minutes. Montcalm attacked at once. His line was disorderly. His center was composed of regular troops, his wings of Canadians and Indians. These fired irregularly and lay down to reload, thus causing confusion. The French moved forward rapidly; the British were coming on more slowly. The French were only some forty yards away when there was an answering fire from the thin red line; for Wolfe had ordered his men to put two balls in their muskets and to hold their fire for one dread volley. Then the roar from Wolfe's center was like that of a burst of artillery; and, when the smoke cleared, the French battalions were seen breaking in disorder from the shock, the front line cut down by the terrible fire. A bayonet charge from the redcoats followed. Some five thousand trained British regulars bore down, working great slaughter on four thousand French, many of them colonials who had never before fought in the open. The rout of the French was complete. Some fled to safety behind the walls of Quebec, others down the Cote Ste. Genevieve and across the St. Charles River, where they stopped pursuit by cutting the bridge. Both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded after the issue of the day was really decided, and both survived to be certain, the one of victory, the other of defeat. Wolfe died on the field of battle. Montcalm was taken into a house in Quebec and died early the next morning. It is perhaps the only incident in history of a decisive battle of world import followed by the death of both leaders, each made immortal by the tragedy of their common fate.

At two o'clock in the afternoon of the day of defeat, Vaudreuil held a tumultuous council of war. It was decided to abandon Quebec, where Montcalm lay dying and to retreat up the St. Lawrence to Montreal, to the defense of which Levis had been sent before the fight. That night the whole French army fled in panic, leaving their tents standing and abandoning quantities of stores. Vaudreuil who had talked so bravely about death in the ruins of Canada, rather than surrender, gave orders to Ramezay, commanding in Quebec, to make terms and haul down his flag. On the third day after the battle, the surrender was arranged. On the fourth day the British marched into Quebec, where ever since their flag has floated.

Meanwhile, Amherst, the Commander-in-Chief of the British armies in America, was making a toilsome advance towards Montreal by way of Lake Champlain. He had occupied both Ticonderoga and Crown Point, which had been abandoned by the French. Across his path lay Bourlamaque at Isle aux Noix. Another British army, having captured Niagara, was advancing on Montreal down the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario. Amherst, however, made little progress this year in his menace to Montreal and soon went into winter quarters, as did the other forces elsewhere. The British victory therefore was as yet incomplete.

The year 1759 proved dire for France. She was held fast by her treaty with Austria and at ruinous cost was ever sending more and more troops to help Austria against Prussia. The great plan of which Belle-Isle had written to Montcalm was the chief hope of her policy. England was to be invaded and London occupied. If this were done, all else would be right. It was not done. France could not parry Pitt's blows. In Africa, in the West Indies, in India, the British won successes which meant the ruin of French power in three continents. French admirals like Conflans and La Clue were no match for Boscawen, Hawke, and Rodney, all seamen of the first rank, and made the stronger because dominated by the fiery Pitt.

They kept the French squadrons shut up in their own ports. When, at last, on November 20, 1759, Conflans came out of Brest and fought Hawke at Quiberon Bay, the French fleet was nearly destroyed, and the dream of taking London ended in complete disaster.

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