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Fall of Quebec

Pitt's success during his first year of power was marvelous. He had played a winning band in the terrible war that convulsed Europe at the time, and had won the most signal victories in America. Louisburg, Frontenac, and Duquesne had fallen before his victorious armies, and the French hold on the Ohio country was entirely broken. Pitt now planned still greater things for the coming year -- no less than the complete conquest of New France, and the expulsion of French authority from all North America. General Stanwix was to guard the frontier between Pittsburg and the lakes; General Prideaux and Sir William Johnson were to advance on Montreal by way of Niagara; while Amherst, who had been made commander in chief, was to lead an army to the Champlain country where Abercrombie had been so drastically beaten the year before. But the most important expedition of the season was to be sent against Quebec under the command of Wolfe.

Prideaux proceeded to Niagara and invested the fort; but at the beginning of the bombardment he was killed by a bursting shell, and Sir William Johnson took command. After a siege of three weeks the fort surrendered, but Johnson made no further effort to reach Montreal. By this victory the entire upper Ohio Valley passed to the control of the English. Amherst gathered his army of ten thousand men at Lake George in June, and the next month he sailed down the lake to Ticonderoga; but the French abandoned the fort for Crown Point, and a little later retreated from his point, taking up a strong position on Isle-aux-Noix in the Richelieu River. Amherst then spent the summer building useless forts, and made no effort to support Wolfe, as he was expected to do.

Canada was in a deplorable condition in 1759. The harvest of the year before had been meager, and a barrel of flour cost two hundred francs.1 Many of the horses and cattle had been killed for food, and the people were on short rations ere the summer had begun. And besides, thieving officials robbed the people, and British men-of-war guarded the mouth of the St. Lawrence. A bitter quarrel between Montcalm and the boastful Canadian governor, Vaudreuil, added to the confusion. Their dispute was carried to court at Versailles, and Montcalm was sustained; but the one great desire of his heart an additional army of veterans, was denied him.

Quebec is situated on a promontory in the northwestern angle made by the junction of the St. Charles River with the St. Lawrence, and from the former extends a table-land eastward to the beautiful falls of the Montmorency, about seven miles from the city. This plateau was occupied by Montcalm with an army of nearly seventeen thousand men, regulars, Canadians, and Indians. Back of the city, on the north bank of the St. Lawrence and westward from the mouth of the St. Charles, lay the Plains of Abraham,2 which had been left unguarded, as the rocky steep was supposed to be inaccessible from the river.

General Wolfe was still in his youth; he had just passed his thirty-second year. In appearance he was uncomely, and his health was delicate; but the fire of genius sparkled from his eyes. The son of a British general, he had imbibed his martial spirit from childhood. From the age of fifteen he had served his king, and while still a boy he was noted for deeds of skill and daring. At the capture of Louisburg his reputation was greatly enhanced, and the keen eye of Pitt now singled him out to command the perilous expedition to Quebec. Wolfe had spent the winter in England and had won the heart of a beautiful maiden; and now he gave her and his beloved mother a fond and final good-by, and launched out upon the journey from which he was not to return.

His fleet, bearing eight thousand men and commanded by Admiral Saunders, entered the St. Lawrence in June, and on the 26th it was anchored off the island of Orleans, but few miles below the city of Quebec. In the English army we find Colonel Monckton of Acadian fame, and Guy Carleton, William Howe, and Isaac Barre -- all afterward famous in the Revolution. Wolfe made his camp on the eastern bank of the Montmorency, near its mouth, and opposite the encampment of Montcalm. The dreary weeks of the summer were spent by the two armies lying, each in view of the other, waiting and watching for some unexpected advantage. Wolfe was anxious for a general engagement; but Montcalm, distrustng his Canadian and Indian allies, steadily avoided one. On the last day of July the impatient Wolfe, with a large detachment of his army, forded the Montmorency at low tide and made a desperate assault on the French position; but the ever watchful Montcalm was on the alert, and the English were driven back with the loss of four hundred and fifty men. The French had attempted to destroy the British fleet with fire ships, but in vain. The old wooden vessels, laden with pitch, powder, and other combustibles, were sent burning down the river, and grandly they lighted the heavens and the surrounding country; but the English grappled with them and ran them ashore or sent them onward toward the sea.

As the summer wore away and the situation remained unchanged the disappointment of Wolfe threw him into a dangerous fever. He had lost nearly a thousand men, and the enemy did not seem to be weakened. He had expected reŽnforcements from Amherst, but he looked and longed in vain. For many weeks he had kept up an incessant bombardment, day and night; but, aside from burning the lower part of Quebec, this had brought him little advantage. At length it was determined to attempt to scale the heights of Abraham and bombard the city from there, or force Montcalm into an engagement in defending it. The resolve was a daring and heroic one, but the desperate courage of Wolfe was unlimited. He had just risen from a bed of illness; his fever had subsided, but he was further afflicted with an incurable disease, and he had reached the condition in which a soldier is at his best -- he had no hope of returning alive to his native land. To his physician he said, "I know perfectly well that you cannot cure me; but pray make me up so that I may be without pain for a few days, and able to do my duty."3

The English broke up their camp, and on that moonless night before the fateful day they moved as silently as possible up the river till they had passed the sleeping city. Wolfe had a strange presentiment of death. To a lifelong friend on his flagship he gave a miniature of his affianced bride and requested that it be returned to her. While on the deck of one of the boats he recited with deep pathos portions of Gray's "Elegy," especially the stanza ending with --

"The paths of glory lead but to the grave."

Some hours before dawn the English vessels landed the soldiers on the north shore, beneath the rocky steeps that led to the Plains of Abraham, and the men were soon clambering up the cliffs toward the summit. At the coming of dawn the ever vigilant Montcalm was amazed to find that his enemy had outwitted him -- that the heights above the city were crowned with long and threatening lines of British soldiers, almost five thousand in number. The French commander was stunned at the changed conditions before him. He saw that he must do one of two things: abandon the city to its fate and save his army by flight, or grapple with the enemy in a final, desperate struggle for Canada. His army, though superior in numbers, was composed largely of Indians and unskilled Canadians, and its fighting qualities were much inferior to those of the British veterans. Montcalm chose to fight, and before noon the two armies were engaged in a fierce, determined conflict. The battle was short and decisive. The French gave way, and ran for their lives; and a few days later the city of Quebec passed into the hands of its British conquerors.

But the English paid dearly for their victory. Their noble commander had fallen to rise no more. During the battle Wolfe had hurried here and there amid the hail of bullets, urging and encouraging his men. Twice wounded, he continued his efforts, until a ball lodged in his breast and he sank to the ground. He was carried to the rear and offered surgical aid. "There is no need," was his answer; "it is all over with me."

The next moment he was informed that the French were in full retreat. He received the news as one awakened from a dream, and immediately gave orders that a regiment be placed at the Charles River bridge to cut off the enemy's retreat. Then, turning upon his side, he murmured in a low, sweet voice, "Now God be praised, I shall die in peace," and a moment later his soul had passed into eternity.

A similar fate befell Montcalm, the noblest Frenchman of them all. He had been ill supported by the governor, the envious Vaudreuil, and it seemed fitting now that he should yield his life with the cause which he could no longer sustain. While guiding his flying troops toward the city gates, he received a wound that caused his death. On being informed that his wound was mortal, he answered, "I am glad of it." He then asked how long he had to live, and was answered by the physician that he would probably die within twelve hours. "So much the better," was his reply; "I am happy that I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec."

The body of the dead commander, followed by a groaning and sobbing multitude, was borne through the dusky streets of the city. Beneath the floor of the Ursuline Convent, in a grave partially made by a bursting shell, the remains of the greatest Frenchman that ever set foot on American soil were laid the rest.

Measured by its results, the battle of Quebec was one of the most important ever fought in Amerba. France made a desperate effort the following year to recover the city, but an English fleet came to the rescue, and the effort was vain. Montreal soon after surrendered to General Amherst, and French dominion in America was ended. The conflict had been raging at intervals for a hundred years. The sum of human life and treasure that had been sacrificed by the two rival powers for supremacy in North America was beyond all calculation. The fall of Quebec practically ended the war in America, but a treaty of peace was not signed until three years later, owing to the mighty conflict, known as the Seven Years' War, that was still raging in Europe. Meantime Spain came to the rescue of France, and in consequence lost possession, for a time, of Cuba and the Phillippine Islands, which were conquered by England in 1762.

The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1763, stands alone among treaties for the magnitude of its land cessions. England gave Cuba and the Philippines back to Spain and received Florida instead. France ceded to Spain, in compensation for Florida, the city of New Orleans and that vast tract west of the Mississippi known as "Louisiana." To Great Britain France surrendered all the rest of her American possessions, including the Ohio Valley, Canada, Cape Breton, and all her islands except two in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Thus France lost everything, and henceforth that country had no footing on the mainland in the Western Hemisphere.4

But these vast land cessions did not constitute the chief results of this conflict. As before stated, the trend of civilization in North America was to he determined by the outcome of the French and Indian War. Gallican civilization differed widely, as it does to this day, from Anglo-Saxon; and the result of this war was that the latter must prevail, not only in the future nation that was soon to come into existence, but also in the vast dominion on the north now wrested from France to become a part of the British Empire. The war did much also for the English colonists. It brought them into contact with one another, led them to see as never before that their interests and destiny were common, and prepared them for the political union that was soon to follow. It awakened in them a selfconsciousness, and, as will be noticed on a future page, brought out clearly the true relations between them and the mother country.


Footnotes

1Parkman, Vol.11, p.172. [return]

2So called from Abraham Martin, who had formerly been the owner of the plateau. [return]

3Parkman, Vol. II, p. 268. [return]

4Except the brief possession of Louisiana, 1800-1803, by Napoleon Bonaparte. [return]

Source: "History of the United States of America," by Henry William Elson, The MacMillan Company, New York, 1904. Transcribed by Kathy Leigh.




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