Chronicles of America 

Obstacles at Quebec and Versailles

The rejoicing in Canada was brief. Before the end of the year the British were victorious at both the eastern and western ends of the long battle-line. Louisbourg had fallen in July; Fort Duquesne, in November. Fort Frontenac--giving command of Lake Ontario and, with it, the West--had surrendered to Bradstreet in August just after Montcalm's victory at Ticonderoga. The Ohio was gone. The great fortress guarding the gateway to the Gulf was gone. The next English attack would fall on Quebec. Montcalm had told Vaudreuil in the autumn, with vigorous precision, that the period of petty warfare, for taking scalps and burning houses, was past. It was time now to defend the main trunk of the tree and not the outer branches. The best Canadians should be incorporated into and trained in the battalions of regulars. The militia regiments themselves should be clothed and drilled like regular soldiers. Interior posts, such as Detroit, should be held by the smallest possible number of men. This counsel enraged Vaudreuil. Montcalm, he wrote, was trying to upset everything. Vaudreuil was certain that the English would not attack Quebec.

There is a melancholy greatness in the last days of Montcalm. He was fighting against fearful odds. With only about three thousand trained regulars and perhaps four times as many untrained Canadians and Indians, he was confronting Britain's might on sea and land which was now thrown against New France. From France itself Montcalm knew that he had nothing to hope. In the autumn of 1758 he sent Bougainville to Versailles. That brilliant and loyal helper managed to elude the vigilance of the British fleet, reached Versailles, and there spent some months in varied and resourceful attempts to secure aid for Canada. He saw ministers. He procured the aid of powerful connections of his own and of his fellow-officers in Canada. He went to what was at this time the fountainhead of authority at the French court, and it was not the King. "The King is nothing," wrote Bougainville, "the Marchioness is all-powerful--prime minister." Bougainville saw the Marchioness, Madame de Pompadour, and read to her some of Montcalm's letters. She showed no surprise and said nothing--her habit, as Bougainville said. By this time the name of Montcalm was one to charm with in France. Bougainville wrote to him "I should have to include all France if I should attempt to give a list of those who love you and wish to see you Marshal of France. Even the little children know your name." There had been a time when the court thought the recall of Montcalm would be wise in the interests of New France. Now it was Montcalm's day and the desire to help him was real. France, however, could do little. Ministers were courteous and sympathetic; but as Berryer, Minister of Marine, said to Bougainville, with the house on fire in France, they could not take much thought of the stable in Canada.

This Berryer was an inept person. He was blindly ignorant of naval affairs, coarse, obstinate, a placeman who owed his position to intrigue and favoritism. His only merit was that he tried to cut down expenditure, but in regard to the navy this policy was likely to be fatal. It is useless, said this guardian of France's marine, to try to rival Britain on the sea, and the wise thing to do is to save money by not spending it on ships. Berryer even sold to private persons stores which he had on hand for the use of the fleet. If the house was on fire he did not intend, it would seem, that much should be left to burn. The old Due de Belle-Isle, Minister of War, was of another type, a fine and efficient soldier. He explained the situation frankly in a letter to Montcalm. Austria was an exigent ally, and Frederick of Prussia a dangerous foe. France had to concentrate her strength in Europe. The British fleet, he admitted, paralyzed efforts overseas. There was no certainty, or even probability, that troops and supplies sent from France would ever reach Canada. France, the Duke said guardedly, was not without resources. She had a plan to strike a deadly blow against England and, in doing so, would save Canada without sending overseas a great army. The plan was nothing less than the invasion of England and Scotland with a great force, the enterprise which, nearly half a century later, Napoleon conceived as his master stroke against the proud maritime state. During that winter and spring France was building a great number of small boats with which to make a sudden descent and to land an army in England.

If this plan succeeded, all else would succeed. Montcalm must just hold on, conduct a defensive campaign and, above all, retain some part of Canada since, as the Duke said with prophetic foresight, if the British once held the whole of the country they would never give it up. Montcalm himself had laid before the court a plan of his own. He estimated that the British would have six men to his one. Rather than surrender to them, he would withdraw to the far interior and take his army by way of the Ohio to Louisiana. The design was a wild counsel of despair for he would be cut off from any base of supplies, but it shows the risks he was ready to tale. In him now the court had complete confidence. Vaudreuil was instructed to take no military action without seeking the counsel of Montcalm. "The King," wrote Belle-Isle to Montcalm, "relies upon your zeal, your courage and your resolution." Some little help was sent. The British control of the sea was not complete; since more than twenty French ships eluded British vigilance, bringing military stores, food (for Canada was confronted by famine), four hundred soldiers, and Bougainville himself, with a list of honors for the leaders in Canada. Montcalm was given the rank of Lieutenant-General and, but for a technical difficulty, would have been made a Marshal of France.

All this reliance upon Montcalm was galling to Vaudreuil. This weak man was entirely in the hands of a corrupt circle who recognized in the strength and uprightness of Montcalm their deadly enemy. An incredible plundering was going on. Its strength was in the blindness of Vaudreuil. The secretary of Vaudreuil, Grasset de Saint-Sauveur, an ignorant and greedy man, was a member of the ring and yet had the entire confidence of the Governor. The scale of the robberies was enormous. Bigot, the Intendant, was stealing millions of francs; Cadet, the head of the supplies department, was stealing even more. They were able men who knew how to show diligence in their official work. More than once Montcalm praises the resourcefulness with which Bigot met his requirements. But it was all done at a fearful cost to the State. Under assumed names the ring sold to the King, of whose interests they were the guardians, supplies at a profit of a hundred or a hundred and fifty per cent. They made vast sums out of transport. They drew pay for feeding hundreds of men who were not in the King's service. They received money for great bills of merchandise never delivered and repeated the process over and over again. To keep the Indians friendly the King sent presents of guns, ammunition, and blankets. These were stolen and sold. Even the bodies of Acadians were sold. They were hired out for their keep to a contractor who allowed them to die of cold and hunger. Hundreds of the poor exiles perished. The nemesis of a despotic system is that, however well-intentioned it may be, its officials are not controlled by an alert public opinion and yet must be trusted by their master. France meant well by her colony but the colony, unlike the English colonies, was not taught to look after itself. While nearly every one in Canada understood what was going on, it was another thing to inform those in control in France. La Porte, the secretary of the colonial minister, was in the service of the ring. He intercepted letters which should have made exposures. Until found out, he had the ear of the minister and echoed the tone of lofty patriotism which Bigot assumed in his letters to his superiors.

History has made Montcalm one of its heroes--and with justice. He was a remarkable man, who would have won fame as a scholar had he not followed the long family tradition of a soldier's career. Bougainville once said that the highest literary distinction of a Frenchman, a chair in the Academy, might be within reach of Montcalm as well as the baton of a Marshal of France. He had a prodigious memory and had read widely. His letters, written amid the trying conditions of war, are nervous, direct, pregnant with meaning, the notes of a penetrating intelligence. He had deep family affection. "Adieu, my heart, I believe that I love you more than ever I did before"; these were the last words of what he did not know was to be his last letter to his wife. In the midst of a gay scene at Montreal, in the spring of 1759, he writes to Bourlamaque, then at Lake Champlain, with acute longing for the south of France in the spring. For six or seven months in the year he could receive no letters and always the British command of the sea made their expected arrival uncertain. "When shall I be again at the Chateau of Candiac, with my plantations, my oaks, my oil mill, my mulberry trees? O good God." He lays bare his spirit especially to Bourlamaque, a quiet, efficient, thoughtful man, like himself, and enjoins him to burn the letters--which he does not, happily for posterity. Scandal does not touch him but, like most Frenchmen, he is dependent on the society of women. He lived in a house on the ramparts of Quebec and visited constantly the salons of his neighbor in the Rue du Parloir, the beautiful and witty Madame de la Naudiere. In two or three other households he was also intimate and the Bishop was a sympathetic friend. His own tastes were those of the scholar, and more and more, during the long Canadian winters, he enjoyed evenings of quiet reading. The elder Mirabeau, father of the revolutionary leader of 1789, had just published his "Ami des Hommes " and this we find Montcalm studying. But above all he reads the great encyclopaedia of Diderot. By 1759 seven of the huge volumes had been issued. They startled the intellectual world of the time and Montcalm set out to read them, omitting the articles which had no interest for him or which he could not understand. C is a copious letter in an encyclopaedia, and Montcalm found excellent the articles on Christianity, College, Comedy, Comet, Commerce, Council, and so on. Wolfe--soon to be his opponent--had the same taste for letters. The two men, unlike in body, for Wolfe was tall and Montcalm the opposite, were alike in spirit, painstaking students as well as men of action.

Montcalm and Wolfe

There have been numerous books published on this pair of leaders:

  1. Montcalm and Wolfe, by Francis Parkman
  2. Wolfe and Montcalm, by Henri Raymond Casgrain
  3. Battle for the Rock: the story of Wolfe and Montcalm, by Joseph Schull
  4. Wolfe & Montcalm: Their Lives, Their Times, and the Fate of a Continent, by Joy Carroll

At first Montcalm had not realized what was the deepest shadow in the life of Canada. Perhaps chiefly because Vaudreuil was always at Montreal, Montcalm preferred Quebec and was surprised and charmed by the life of that city. It had, he said, the air of a real capital. There were fair women and brave men, sumptuous dinners with forty or fifty covers, brilliantly lighted salons, a vivid social life in which he was much courted. The Intendant Bigot was agreeable and efficient. Soon, however, Montcalm had misgivings. It was a gambling age, but he was staggered by the extent of the gambling at the house of the Intendant. He did not wish to break with Bigot, and there was perhaps some weakness in his failure to denounce the orgies from which his conscience revolted. He warned his own officers but he could not control the colonial officers, and Vaudreuil was too weak to check a man like Bigot. Whence came the money? In time, Montcalm understood well enough. He himself was poor. To discharge the duties of his position he was going into debt, and he had even to consider the possible selling of his establishment in France. He had to beg the court for some financial relief. At the same time he saw about him a wild extravagance. There was famine in Canada. During the winter of 1758-59 the troops were put on short rations and, in spite of their bitter protests, had to eat horse flesh. Suffering and starvation bore heavily on the poor. Through lack of food people fell fainting in the streets. But the circle of Bigot paid little heed and feasted, danced, and gambled. Montcalm pours out his soul to Bourlamaque. He spends, he says, sleepless nights, and his mind is almost disordered by what he sees. In his journal he notes his own fight with poverty and its contrast with the careless luxury of a crowd of worthless hangers-on making four or five hundred thousand francs a year and insulting decency by their lavish expenditure. One of the ring, a clerk with a petty salary, a base creature, spends more on carriages, horses, and harness than a foppish and reckless young member of the nouveaux-riches would spend in France. Corruption in Canada is protected by corruption in France. Montcalm cries out with a devotion which his sovereign hardly deserved, though it was due to France herself, "O King, worthy of better service, dear France, crushed by taxes to enrich greedy knaves!"

The weary winter of 1758-59 at length came to an end. In May the ships already mentioned arrived from France, bringing Bougainville and, among other things, the news that Pitt was sending great forces for a decisive attack on Canada. At that very moment, indeed, the British ships were entering the mouth of the St. Lawrence. Canada had already been cut off from France. Montcalm held many councils with his officers. The strategy decided upon was to stand at bay at Quebec, to strike the enemy if he should try to land, and to hold out until the approach of winter should force the retirement of the British fleet.

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