Two-hundred and fifty-seven years ago today, on September 13, 1759, a British army under the command of General James Wolfe defeated a French army under the command of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm just outside the walls of Quebec City. Wolfe’s victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, as it came to be known, would give the British command of the city after a more than two-month-long siege, and greatly contribute to the final conquest of New France one year later.
The outcome of the battle was largely a result of the surprise effect achieved by the British in attacking the city from the westward side, rather than from the eastern Beauport shore, as Montcalm was convinced they must do. Wolfe absurdly risky plan involved ferrying his men across the St. Lawrence river in the dead of night, sending a detachment of light infantry to climb up the steep cliffs west of the city and take out the sentries guarding the only path leading up these cliffs, and then leading the rest of his troops up this path to a point which was actually in between (!) the two main bodies of the French army. When the sun rose over Quebec, its inhabitants awoke to find Wolfe’s entire army lined up in front of the city on the side where they had least expected them. This prompted Montcalm into making a disastrous sortie in which the French army was roundly defeated. Montcalm was fatally wounded at this point, and Wolfe was killed on the spot. In spite of the loss of their commander, the English were then able to wheel about and fight off the smaller contingent of the French army that was marching towards them from the other direction. Five days later, Quebec capitulated, and the Union Jack was hoisted over the capital of New-France.
In this brief extract from my graphic-novel-in-progress recounting the events of 1759, Montcalm argues with the Governor of New France, the Canadian-born Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, on the best strategy for fending off the British. Montcalm generally proved himself an able commander during his four years of campaigning in North America, but his military instincts failed him in the end. This quote from his journal, which appears in condensed English translation in the dialogue here, is particularly damning in light of the events of September 13: “Il ne faut pas croire que les ennemis aient des ailes pour, la même nuit, traverser, débarquer, monter des rampes rompues, et escalader, d’autant que pour la dernière opération, il faut porter des échelles.”