Chronicles of America 

Montcalm in Canada

In France's last, most determined, and most tragic struggle for North America, the noblest aspect is typified in the figure of Montcalm.

The circle of the King and his mistress at Versailles does not tell the whole story of France at this time. No doubt Madame de Pompadour made and unmade ministers, but behind the ministers was the great administrative system of France, with servants alert and efficient, and now chiefly occupied with military plans to defeat the great Frederick of Prussia. At the same time the intellect of France was busy with problems of science and was soon to express itself in the massive volumes of Diderot's Encyclopaedia. The soldiers of France were preparing to fight on many battlefields. The best of them took little part in the debilitating pleasures of Versailles.

Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, was a member of the ancient nobility of Languedoc, in the south of France. He was a scholar, a soldier, and a landowner. He could write a Latin inscription, fight a battle, and manage a farm--all with excellence. His was a fruitful race. His wife had borne him ten children, of whom six had survived. He was sincerely religious, a family man, enjoying quiet evenings at home. In his career, as no doubt in that of many other French leaders of the time, we find no lurid lights, no gay scenes at court--nothing but simple and laborious devotion to duty. Though a grand seigneur, Montcalm was poor. His letters show that his mind was always much occupied with family affairs, the need of economy, the careers of his sons, his mill, his plantations. He showed the minute care in management which the French practice better than the English. In 1756 he was forty-four years of age, a soldier who had campaigned in Germany, Bohemia, and Italy, had known victory and defeat, had been a prisoner in the hands of the Austrians, and had made a reputation as a man fit to lead. He lived far from court and went to Paris only rarely. It was this quiet man who, on January 31, 1756, was summoned to Paris to head the military force about to be sent to Canada. Dieskau was a captive in English hands, and Montcalm was to replace Dieskau.

Thus began that connection of Montcalm with Canada which was destined three or four years later to bring to him first victory and then defeat, death, and undying fame. On receiving his appointment he went to Paris, thanked the King in person for the honor done him, and was delighted that his son, a mere boy, was given the rank and pay of a colonel, one of the few abuses of court favor which we find in his career. On March 26, 1756, Montcalm embarked at Brest with his staff. War had not yet been declared, but already Britain had captured some three hundred French merchant ships, had taken prisoner nearly ten thousand French sailors, and was sweeping from the sea the fleets of France.

Owing to the fear of British cruisers, the voyage of Montcalm had its excitements. As usual, however, France was earlier in the field than Britain, who had in April no force ready for America which could intercept Montcalm. The storms were heavy, and on Easter Day, when Mass was celebrated, a sailor firm on his feet had to hold the chalice for the officiating priest. On board there were daily prayers, and always the service ended with cries of "God save the King!" Some of the officers on board were destined to survive to a new era in France when there should be no more a king.

Montcalm had with him a capable staff and a goodly number of young officers, gay, debonair, thinking not of great political designs about America but chiefly of their own future careers in France, and facing death lightheartedly enough. Next to Montcalm in command was the Chevalier de Uvis, a member of a great French family and himself destined to attain the high rank of Marshal of France, and a capable though not a brilliant soldier, whose chief gift was tact and the art of managing men. Third in command was the Chevalier de Bourlamaque, a quiet, reserved man, with no striking social gifts and in consequence not likely at first to make a good impression, though Montcalm, who was at the beginning a little doubtful of his quality, came in the end to rely upon him fully. The most brilliant man in that company was the young Colonel de Bougainville, Montcalm's chief aide-de-camp. Though only twenty-seven years old he was already famous in the world of science and was destined to be still more famous as a great navigator, to live through the whole period of the French Revolution, and to die only on the eve of the fall of Napoleon. In 1756 he was too young and clever to be always prudent in speech. It is from his quick eye and eager pen that we learn much of the inner story of these last days of New France. Montcalm discusses frankly in his letters these and other officers, with whom he was on the whole well pleased. In his heart he could echo the words of Bougainville as he watched the brilliant spectacle of the embarkation at Brest: "What a nation is ours! Happy is he who leads and is worthy of it."

It was in this spirit of confidence that Montcalm faced the struggle in America. For him sad days were to come and his sunny, vivacious, southern temperament caused him to suffer keenly. At first, however, all was full of brilliant promise. So eager was he that, when his ships lay becalmed in the St. Lawrence some thirty miles below Quebec, he landed and drove to the city. It is the most beautiful country in the world, he writes, highly cultivated, with many houses, the peasants living more like the lesser gentry of France than like peasants, and speaking excellent French. He found the hospitality in Quebec such that a Parisian would be surprised at the profusion of good things of every kind. The city was, he thought, like the best type of the cities of France. The Canadian climate was health-giving, the sky clear, the summer not unlike that of Languedoc, but the winter trying, since the severe weather caused the inhabitants to remain too much indoors. He described the Canadian ladies as witty, lively, devout, those of Quebec amusing themselves at play, sometimes for high stakes; those of Montreal, with conversation and dancing. He confessed that one of them proved a little too fascinating for his own peace of mind. The intolerable thing was the need to meet and pay court to the Indians whom the Governor, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, regarded as valuable allies. These natives, brutal, changeable, exacting, Montcalm from the first despised. It filled him with disgust to see them swarming in the streets of Montreal, sometimes carrying bows and arrows, their coarse features worse disfigured by war-paint and a gaudy headdress of feathers, their heads shaven, with the exception of one long scalp-lock, their gleaming bodies nearly naked or draped with dirty buffalo or beaver skins. What allies for a refined grand seigneur of France! It was a costly burden to feed them. Sometimes they made howling demands for brandy and for bouillon, by which they meant human blood. Many of them were cannibals. Once Montcalm had to give some of them, at his own cost, a feast of three oxen roasted whole. To his disgust, they gorged themselves and danced round the room shouting their war-cries.

Back to: New France