The September 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham was not a minor engagement and cannot be viewed simply as one of the multitude of clashes between the British and the French for control of North America. It was ‘eight minutes of gunfire that shaped a continent’. The aftermath of the battle hastened the two combatants to seek peace, and the resulting treaty radically altered the geopolitics of both North America and the wider world.
Major-General James Wolfe creatively integrated navy, army, local terrain, and intelligence to divide and surprise the much larger French forces under the Marquis de Montcalm.
The battle is interpreted by many modern historians as a bold but remarkably lucky victory. The deaths of both generals, Wolfe and Montcalm, made the battle memorable but subject to different interpretations. Nevertheless, measured by results, it was a historical turning-point. France was expelled from New France. Later, in retaliation, the French helped George Washington’s Patriots expel the British from the Thirteen Colonies.
Historians from the 18th century onwards have created what the Quebec Literary and Historical Society have labelled ‘theatrical myths’. Wolfe did not read poetry in a rowing boat; two Fraser’s Highlanders did indeed speak French to deceive French sentries who were not in fact asleep, drunk, or harvesting wheat; the 78th Fraser’s muskets were not thrown down during the battle; French irregulars, the coureurs de bois, did not decimate the 78th Regiment; and British casualties were not remotely equivalent to French losses.
The British army’s victory was the consequence of an amphibious cooperation which supplied and carried the army 700 miles from the sea into the heart of New France and continued up to the very day of the battle.
Wolfe profited from a huge naval force of 13,500 sailors in 49 warships entering a unique era of modernisation: hydrography, mapping, and navigation improvements were features of the professional seamanship of men like Captain James Cook; the cleaning and airing out of ships became standard; scurvy at sea was eradicated.
Navigating Wolfe’s 30 landing-craft in the dead of night down the tidal St Lawrence River was only the final act of an army–navy relationship that had lasted many months.
Wolfe’s tactics directly influenced the world’s largest amphibious operation: D-Day. What happened in Normandy helps us understand what happened at Quebec. Deceptive manoeuvres shocked and surprised the defenders. Both landings occurred in places least expected and were jumping-off points to later successes. Victory was achieved through accurate reading of the weather, overcoming natural geographical features, deceptive intelligence deliberately fed to the enemy, and a thorough reconnaissance of the beachheads.
As a result, landing-craft crossed formidable water barriers to project sufficient military forces on to heavily defended enemy ground. Wolfe’s mastery of the waters, like the Allied mastery of the air and sea in 1944, help to explain his success.
In order to understand the French inability to counter Wolfe’s tactics, we have to analyse the area in general, and realise that the momentum, pace, and geographic advantages on the actual battlefield were orchestrated entirely by Wolfe. Montcalm and his generals were divided and deceived, and their irregulars were decimated because they were forced to dance to Wolfe’s tune.
The capital of New France was a formidable fortress built on 180ft cliffs at the junction of the St Charles and St Lawrence Rivers. Although 700 miles from the sea, the St Lawrence has high tides and, as it narrows at this point, is fast-flowing. The city of Quebec is located at the end of a thin undulating plateau, 1,000 yards wide and edged by vertical cliffs. Misleadingly called the ‘Plains’ of Abraham, the plateau is not in fact flat.
The undulating ridges were sparsely settled, with few paths down the cliffs to the rivers. During the battle, the Redcoats were lined up on a steep ridge, while the French were lined up on a higher but gradually sloping ridge outside the city walls.
The cliffs on the St Lawrence side of the battlefield kept the British out for many weeks before the battle, while cliffs on the St Charles side kept the French irregulars in for several hours after the battle.
Most of Quebec’s inhabitants lived within the Lower Town, while the Upper Town’s walls (facing the Plains of Abraham), according to the report of British surveyors immediately after the conquest, ‘were not much above half finished, there being neither Ditch covered nor Outworks’.
Rather like Singapore in WWII, Quebec’s defences were planned on the false assumption that the attack would come from the water. The British at Singapore and the French at Quebec prepared for the wrong attack. The defenders at Singapore and Quebec vastly outnumbered their attackers. Thus similar defensive mistakes explain one of Britain’s greatest defeats, and one of Britain’s greatest victories.
Historians often ignore the significance of Wolfe’s 30 purpose-built landing-craft, each carrying 50 troops and rowed by 20 sailors. Troops could embark and disembark in two minutes using the waterproof ramp at the bow. There was no keel, so the boats could travel very close to shore.
After soldiers disembarked, the boats would rise up in the water and be rapidly rowed away to pick up more troops. Each craft was marked and numbered, enabling a beach master to place them in field order. Rapid deployment from landing-craft to beach and battlefield helps explain the British victory.
Wolfe used these landing-craft in Europe during the 1757 raid on Rochefort, at the 1758 capture of Louisbourg, then again on the St Lawrence. These craft were stacked one on top of the other for transport across the Atlantic in warships.
Specialist vessels enabled the British to conduct rapid raids on French supplies and villages far upstream and downstream from the British camps opposite Quebec. Robert Stobo, an escaped hostage, told Wolfe about food shortages, which led him to destroy nearby French farms. This, in turn, forced Montcalm to send thousands of defenders to Montreal long before the battle on the Plains.
Wolfe’s amphibious record was not unblemished. The first amphibious attack in daylight was downstream from the city at Beauport. The troops travelled in sloops whose keels were eventually grounded by protruding rocks created by the receding tide.
The British grenadiers attacked in an uncoordinated manner against trenchworks and incurred several hundred casualties. French morale soared while British morale sank for many weeks afterwards. However, Wolfe’s ability to learn from his failures is the mark of a good general.
The St Lawrence became a highway for British military activity in a colony where settlements were located not far from the river. British control of the river reversed the previous pattern of warfare, where the French were mobile and aggressive in their canoes along North America’s waterways.
The final battle on the Plains of Abraham pitted a trained, mobile British force that used ‘wooden walls’ (ships) to stage the battleground. They were attacked by novice French units who had never trained together or operated as a cohesive force. The battle on the Plains required French forces to maintain a cohesive charge for approximately a mile from outside the safety of the static stonewalls behind which they had previously been holed up.
Wolfe took advice from a great many sources and revealed very little of his plans, even to his closest subordinates. He personally interviewed French deserters, former French hostages, and prisoners.
In contrast, the French chain of command was unclear and was headed by four separate generals. Montcalm commanded the French regulars, but 2,000 of these were posted upstream at Cap Rouge under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. Pierre-Charles de Villeneuve led local forces of approximately 3,000 men, while Jean-Baptiste de Ramezay oversaw about 2,000 men of the fortress garrison.
Wolfe’s deceptions divided the French command. There were no lines of communication along the clifftops between the various posts upriver from Quebec city, so news of Wolfe’s movements did not travel fast to the French generals. While many French soldiers were nearby, Wolfe’s deceptions rendered most enemy soldiers unavailable.
Knowing where, when, and how
Wolfe’s thinking was based on the mobility and speed of his landing-craft. Naval personnel told Wolfe that over the night of 12 September the receding tide would carry boats swiftly downstream. French deserters confirmed that the French navy were using that date to send supply boats down to Quebec city. The only ‘luck’ Wolfe had was that the French upstream cancelled the supply boats without telling the sentries downstream.
Two days before the battle, Wolfe, Admiral Holmes, and a few others went from Cap Rouge downstream at low tide and climbed the cliffs opposite Anse au Foulon. By telescope, Wolfe confirmed that:
• Few sentries guarded the clifftop.
• Sentries could not see nor hear what was happening on the river because of their positions distant from the cliff edge and the roar of the receding tide.
• There were no sentries at the foot of the cliff.
• There was a substantial beach created by the low tide in a cove sheltered from the fast river current. Troops could disembark safely and be reorganised into their regiments there.
• Once soldiers had disembarked, the landing-craft would rise in the water and could ferry more troops to the beach.
Further personal reconnaissance followed at 0600 on 13 September, the morning of the battle. After climbing the cliffs, Wolfe immediately scouted the area to choose a position for his line of battle – a small but steep ridge known as ‘the Heights of Abraham’, hidden from Quebec city by a higher ridge.
Wolfe staged the battle based on knowledge of the river, the cove, the path up the cliffs, the location of enemy sentries, and the undulating geography of the Plains themselves.
On the evening of 12 September, east and downstream of Quebec, where the British had previously been repelled, Captain Cook in HMS Mercury laid down markers as though to guide landing-craft. Warships bombarded the shore and hundreds of marines and sailors crowded rowing boats as if poised to attack.
More gunpowder and perhaps more manpower was involved in the false attack than in the real one. The immense British naval firepower deployed in the feint explains the French being off-guard about the imminent threat from upriver.
The British west of Quebec at Cap Rouge, miles upstream, and presumably de Bougainville on the shore, could hear the sounds and see the flashes of the British naval cannon, creating the impression that there was a major battle under way. French troops stayed in position until 0600 on 13 September, guarding against an attack that never came. Later, of the forces under the command of the four French generals, only those of Montcalm assembled to fight on the Plains.
On the evening before the battle, west and upstream of Quebec city, 1,500 British troops were surreptitiously loaded on to 30 landing-craft hidden behind the warship HMS Neptune, out of sight of de Bougainville’s sentries. An additional 1,500 troops were placed on small sloops that followed the landing-craft. This force left at 0200 on 13 September, but the Neptune stayed in place to create the false assumption among de Bougainville’s men that the British army was still at Cap Rouge.
Wolfe learned from deserters that the French sentries were expecting supply ships. Of this he informed the bilingual Captain Fraser of the 78th Fraser’s Highlanders in the lead boat. Fraser used this information to fool the sentries on the riverbank at Sillery and Samos. When challenged, Fraser told them in French to be quiet as that these were the supply boats. This bought time for the landing-craft, which sped downstream unhindered.
The second wave of soldiers in the sloops eventually came under cannon-fire when these sentries realised the force was British. However, the French generals assumed that British ships were firing on the French supply boats.
At about 0400, the landing-craft reached the cove, unloaded, and went back to ferry the troops in the sloops. Wolfe had had the foresight also to include in the lead boat Captain Donald MacDonald, a former officer with the French Royal Scots.
MacDonald led eight Highlanders up the cliffs on the Quebec city side of the cove to fool the sentries located by the path-top. Not expecting enemy soldiers to appear from that direction, the guards believed MacDonald when he told them in flawless French that he was there from Quebec city to relieve them.
The Highlanders overwhelmed the sentries, signalling their victory with a loud cheer that could be heard by Wolfe on the beach. No one really knows the full story, as MacDonald was killed the following year, but his success helped speed the attack.
By 0600, Wolfe had led 3,000 men up the cliff and was scouting the unguarded Plains to establish a battle-line. A further 1,500 men from the British camp opposite Quebec were being rowed across the river to the Anse au Foulon. After this, the navy began to ferry cannon across the river and haul them up the cliff.
The Heights of Abraham
As noted, an even higher ridge, the Buttes-à-Neveu, obstructed Montcalm’s view from Quebec city. Wolfe had his 2,000 men in the forward firing-line lie down to avoid sniping by the irregulars in the woods along the cliff tops. They then slept for approximately two hours!
Another 1,500 Redcoats were placed in the woods to the left and right of Wolfe’s firing-line to ward off attacks by coureurs de bois and Native American irregulars. To guard against de Bougainville’s force coming from upriver, 1,000 Redcoats were placed behind the ridge. The ‘Thin Red Line’ did not quite bridge the two cliff edges, and debate exists as to whether it was two- or three-men deep.
Astonishing the enemy had an impact on the morale of both sides. Wolfe’s manoeuvres made the defence look ridiculous. The French had stood-to all night at Beaufort, only to find that the British were actually on the Plains of Abraham. Tired troops had then to march for several hours to the Plains. The British were elated and the French alarmed that the battle was to be fought along ‘European lines’ rather than by skirmishes in the woods.
Montcalm viewed the British forces at about 0630 from the Buttes-à-Neveu, but only a few could be seen at that time. He may have regarded them as a scouting party, which would explain why he attacked as soon as he had assembled his command at around 1000.
Both de Ramezay and de Villeneuve assumed this was a fake attack, while Montcalm wrongly assumed that de Bougainville knew about the attack and that he arrived too late to join the fight.
Exact timing is impossible to gauge at this distance, but the French attackers would have been surprised by the numbers on the Heights if Wolfe had had the British stand up to engage only after the French charged. This would explain why so many irregulars, who had no bayonets with which to engage the Redcoats, fired then fled to their right, where there were paths down from the Plains.
Montcalm’s army charged the 2,000 Redcoats, who fired several volleys after the French reached the foot of the British ridge, the killing range of a musket. They continued firing for 6 to 8 minutes, and so poured 10,000-20,000 musket balls plus several rounds of grapeshot into them. The British then charged with bayonets. Fraser’s Highlanders, after slinging their muskets into their back pouches, charged downhill with swords into tired soldiers.
Observers on both sides noted the ensuing carnage. Eighty French officers alone were killed in this, the last sword charge of British soldiers. The charge took the Scotsmen to the two paths down to the St Charles River, thereby trapping hundreds of French irregulars in the woods, where they were ‘massacred’ – according to two contemporary French sources – by the Highlanders and the Royal American Regiment.
Major-General Wolfe had engineered a gem of a victory, so rightly celebrated in his time, yet curiously underappreciated in ours. His striking power was hugely disproportionate to his numbers. Army–navy coordination and the use of specialist craft and personnel rendered the much-larger French forces unable to cope.
Wolfe’s position on the Heights of Abraham meant that attackers had to look up to the British, an extreme psychological disadvantage. Geographic positioning explains why so many French irregulars fled the scene before the British had even fired a shot in this short battle.
British and French records of the time estimate the French dead between 500 and 1,500, while the British lost 58, including 18 Fraser’s Highlanders. The French were scattered and did not know how many men had actually fought on their side, let alone how many were killed, wounded, or captured. Yet some modern Canadian historians claim that both sides lost equal numbers of men and that the Fraser’s Highlanders were decimated. Some historians also criticise Wolfe for failing to capture the French army, which was in fact several sizes larger than his army.
Wolfe’s success shaped British strategy for a century and a half. A large navy would enable a small army to create a global empire. That Britannia ruled the waves until World War I can be attributed in large part to the generalship of James Wolfe in 1759. •
Sam Allison is a retired history teacher and former lecturer with the Faculty of Education, McGill University. His latest book is Driv’n by Fortune: the Scots’ march to modernity, 1745-1812, published by Dundurn Press in 2015.
Jon G Bradley is recently retired as a professor after a career of more than 40 years with the Faculty of Education, McGill University. Specialising in teacher education, curriculum development, and Aboriginal studies, he is a co-author of the 2nd edition of Making Sense: a student’s guide to research and writing, published by Oxford University Press in 2017.
All images: WIPL.