The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also known as the Battle of Quebec, was a pivotal battle in the French and Indian War, the North American theatre of the Seven Years' War. The confrontation, which began on 12 September 1759, was fought between the British Army and Navy, and the French Army, on a plateau just outside the walls of Quebec City. The battle involved fewer than 10,000 troops between both sides, but proved to be a deciding moment in the conflict between France and Britain over the fate of New France, influencing the later creation of Canada.
The culmination of a three-month siege by the British, the battle lasted less than an hour. British troops commanded by General James Wolfe successfully resisted the column advance of French troops and New French militia under Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Both generals were mortally wounded during the battle; Wolfe died on the field and Montcalm passed away the next morning. In the wake of the battle, France's remaining military force in Canada and the rest of North America came under increasing pressure from British forces. Within four years, nearly all of France's possessions in eastern North America would be ceded to Great Britain.
Through the summer siege, illness spread through the British camps, and in August, Wolfe himself was bedridden, causing already low morale to slump even further among the British troops. With many men in camp hospitals, British fighting numbers were thinned, and Wolfe personally felt that action was needed by the end of September, or Britain's opportunity would be lost. In addition, his frustration with Montcalm's defensive stance continued to grow. In a letter to his mother, Wolfe wrote, "The Marquis of Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers, and I am at the head of a small number of good ones that wish for nothing so much as to fight him; but the wary old fellow avoids an action, doubtful of the behaviour of his army." Montcalm also expressed frustration over the long siege, relating that he and his troops slept clothed and booted, and his horse was always saddled in preparation for an attack.
After considering and rejecting a number of plans for landings on the north shore, a decision was made in late August by Wolfe and his brigadiers to land upriver of the city. If successful, such a landing would force Montcalm to fight, as a British force on the north shore of the St. Lawrence would cut his supply lines to Montreal. Initial suggestions for landing sites ranged as far as 32 kilometres up the St. Lawrence, which would have given the French troops one or two days to prepare for the attack. Following the failed British assault on Montmorency, Montcalm altered his deployment, sending Bougainville and a column of approximately 1,500 regular troops, 200 cavalry, and a group of New French militia — some 3,000 men in all — upriver to Cap-Rouge to monitor the British ships upstream. He further strengthened his defences of the Beauport shore following the abandonment of the British camp at Montmorency, which he regarded as preparations for a descent on Beauport. In spite of warnings from local commanders, he did not view an upstream landing as a serious possibility.
The British, meanwhile, prepared for their risky descent upstream. Troops had already been aboard landing ships and drifting up and down the river for several days when Wolfe on 12 September, made a final decision on the British landing site, selecting L'Anse-au-Foulon. L'Anse-au-Foulon is a cove situated southwest of the city, three kilometres upstream from Cap Diamant. It lies at the bottom of a 53-metre high cliff leading to the plateau above, and was protected by a battery of guns. It is not known why Wolfe selected Foulon, as the original landing site was to be further up the river, in a position where the British would be able to develop a foothold and strike at Bougainville's force to draw Montcalm out of Quebec and onto the plains. Brigadier-General George Townshend wrote that "by some intelligence the General had, he has changed his mind as to the place he intended to land. In his final letter, dated HMS Sutherland, 8:30 p.m. September 12, Wolfe wrote:
I had the honour to inform you today that it is my duty to attack the French army. To the best of my knowledge and ability, I have fixed upon that spot where we can act with most force and are most likely to succeed. If I am mistaken I am sorry for it and must be answerable to His Majesty and the public for the consequences.
Wolfe's plan of attack depended on secrecy and surprise. His plan required that a small party of men should land by night on the north shore, climb the tall cliff, seize a small road, and overpower the garrison that protected it, allowing the bulk of his army (5,000 men) to ascend the cliff and then deploy for battle on the plateau. Even if the first landing party succeeded in their mission and the army was able to follow, such a deployment would still leave his forces inside the French line of defense with no immediate retreat but the river. It is possible that Wolfe's decision to change the landing site was owing less to a desire for secrecy and more to his general disdain for his brigadiers (a feeling that was reciprocated); it is also possible that he was still suffering the effects of his illness and the opiates he used as painkillers.
Sentries did detect boats moving along the river that morning, but they were expecting a French supply convoy to pass that night — a plan that had been changed without Vergor being notified. When the boats, loaded with the first wave of British troops, were challenged, a French-speaking officer, either a Captain Fraser or Captain Donald McDonald of the 78th Fraser Highlanders battalion, was able to answer the challenge in excellent French, allaying suspicion.
The boats, however, had drifted slightly off course: instead of landing at the base of the road, many soldiers found themselves at the base of a steep, rocky cliff. A group of volunteers with fixed bayonets were sent to clear the picket along the road, while three companies climbed the face of the cliff, a manoeuvre that allowed them to come up behind Vergor's camp and capture it quickly. Thus, by the time the sun rose over the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe's army had a solid foothold at the top of the cliffs.
The plateau was undefended save for Vergor's camp, as Vaudreuil had ordered one of the French regiments to relocate to the east of the city not long before the landing. Had the immediate defenders been more numerous, the British might have been unable to deploy or even been pushed back. An officer who would normally have patrolled the cliffs regularly through the night was unable to on the night of the 12th because one of his horses had been stolen and his two others were lame. The first notice of the landing came from a runner who had fled from Vergor's camp, but one of Montcalm's aides felt the man was mad and sent him away, then went back to bed. Saunders had staged a diversionary action off Montmorency, firing on the shore emplacements through the night and loading boats with troops, many of them taken from field hospitals; this preoccupied Montcalm.
Montcalm was taken aback to learn of the British descent, and his response has been regarded as precipitous. Though he might have awaited reinforcement by Bougainville's column (allowing simultaneous frontal and rear attacks on the British position) or avoided battle while he concentrated his forces, or even yielded the city to Wolfe, he instead elected to confront Wolfe's force directly. Had he waited, the British would have been entirely cut off - they had nowhere to go but back down the Foulon, and would have been under fire the entire way. To an artillery officer named Montbelliard, Montcalm explained his decision thus: "We cannot avoid action; the enemy is entrenching, he already has two pieces of cannon. If we give him time to establish himself, we shall never be able to attack him with the troops we have.
On the morning of September 13, Wolfe's army formed a line first with their backs to the river, then spread out across the Plains with its right anchored by the bluff along the St. Lawrence and its left by a bluff and thick wood above the St. Charles River. While the regular French forces were approaching from Beauport and Quebec, the Canadian militia and native sharpshooters engaged the British left flank, sheltering in the trees and scrub; the militia held these positions throughout the battle and fell back on this line during the general retreat, eventually holding the bridge over the St. Charles River.
The British troops, numbering approximately 3,300, formed into a shallow horseshoe formation that stretched across the width of the Plains, the main firing line being roughly one kilometre long. In order to cover the entire plain, Wolfe was forced to array his soldiers two ranks deep, rather than the more conventional three ranks. On the left wing, regiments under Townshend exchanged fire with the militia in the scrub and captured a small collection of houses and gristmill to anchor the line. The defenders pushed the British from one house, but were repelled and, in retreat, lit several houses on fire to keep them out of enemy hands. Smoke from these fires wound up masking the British left, and may have confused Montcalm as to the width of the lines. As Wolfe's men waited for the defenders, the steady fire became intense enough that Wolfe ordered his men to lie down amid the high grass and brush.
As French troops arrived from Beauport, Montcalm, one of few mounted men on the field, appears to have decided that a swift assault was the only way to dislodge the British from their position. Accordingly, he deployed the forces immediately available in and near Quebec City and prepared an immediate attack, without waiting for further reinforcements from the Beauport shore. Arraying his approximately 3,500 soldiers into place with the intention of attacking in column formation, at approximately 10 a.m., Montcalm, riding his dark horse and waving his sword to encourage his men, ordered a general advance on the British line.
As a European-trained military leader, Montcalm's instinct was for large, set-piece battles in which regiments and soldiers moved in precision order. Such actions required a disciplined soldiery, painstakingly drilled for as long as 18 months on the parade ground, trained to march in time, change formation at a word, and retain cohesion in the face of bayonet charges and musket volleys. Though his regular regiments (the "troupes de terre" or "metropolitans") were adept at such formal warfare, in the course of the campaign their ranks had been replenished with less professional militiamen, whose talents at forest warfare emphasised the individual: they tended to fire early and then drop to the ground to reload, thus reducing the effect of concentrated fire at close range.
Militia were formed from settlers who carried their own rifles into battle. These civilian rifles had a longer range than smooth bore muskets, but the commanders of the day were trained to only allow both rifles and muskets to fire at musket range. Muskets were effective at about . This meant that if two lines of infantry were approaching each other, at best, each line of musketry could fire twice before engaging in hand-to-hand combat. Civilian rifles could not accept bayonets. The militia either carried tomahawks and knives for hand-to-hand combat or were forced to use their good rifle as a club, ruining it for shooting. At the point of hand-to-hand combat, militias would often scatter to find cover behind stones, hillocks, or trees and deliver effective fire from a distance.
The ground also favoured Wolfe. Montcalm attacked from higher ground, and, as his lines moved forward, a rise near Montcalm's centre slightly impeded his troops' movement. Montcalm's centre weakened as ranks drifted, mainly to Montcalm's left. It would be the thin, sporadically-firing centre, which would take the brunt of Wolfe's opening volley.
Wolfe, positioned with the 28th Foot and the Louisbourg Grenadiers, had moved to a rise to observe the battle; he had been struck in the wrist early in the fight, but had wrapped the injury and continued on. Volunteer James Henderson, with the Louisbourg Grenadiers, had been tasked with holding the hill, and reported afterwards that within moments of the command to fire, Wolfe was struck with two shots, one low in the stomach and the second, mortal wound in the chest. Knox wrote that one of the soldiers near Wolfe shouted "They run, see how they run." Wolfe, upon being told that the French had broken, gave several orders, then turned on his side, said "Now, God be praised, I will die in peace," and died.
With Wolfe dead and several other key officers injured, British troops fell into a disorganised pursuit of the fleeing French troops. The 78th Fraser Highlanders were ordered by Brigadier-General James Murray to pursue the French with their swords, but were met near the city by a heavy fire from a floating battery covering the bridge over the St. Charles River as well as militia that remained in the trees. The 78th took the highest number of casualties of all British units in the battle. Townshend took charge of the British forces and realised that Bougainville's column was approaching from the British rear, having taken some time to arrive from Cap Rouge. He quickly formed up two battalions from the confused troops on the field and turned them to meet the oncoming French, a day-saving manoeuvre; instead of attacking with a well-rested and ready force, Bougainville retreated while the rest of Montcalm's army slipped back across the St. Charles.
During the retreat, Montcalm, still mounted, was struck by either canister shot from the British artillery or repeated musket fire, suffering injuries to the lower abdomen and thigh. He was able to make it back into the city, but his wounds were mortal and he died early the next morning. He was buried in a shell crater left in the floor of the Ursuline chapel by a British shell. The battle resulted in similar numbers of casualties on both sides of the field; the French had 644 men killed or injured, while the British were left with 658 killed or wounded.
In the wake of the battle, a state of confusion spread through the French troops. Vaudreuil, who later wrote to his government and put the full blame for the French rout on the deceased Montcalm, decided to abandon Quebec and the Beauport shore, ordering all of his forces to march west and eventually join up with Bougainville, leaving the garrison in Quebec under the command of Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay.
Meanwhile, the British, first under the command of Townshend and later with Murray in charge, settled in to besiege the city in conjunction with Saunders' fleet. Within days, on 18 September, de Ramezay, Townshend and Saunders signed the Articles of Capitulation of Quebec and the city was turned over to British control. The remaining French forces positioned themselves on the Jacques-Cartier River west of the city.
The British Navy was forced to leave the St. Lawrence shortly after the capture of Quebec due to pack ice closing the mouth of the river. Before the ice left the rivers in April, the Chevalier de Lévis, Montcalm's successor as French commander, marched his 7,000 troops to Quebec. James Murray, the British commander, had experienced a terrible winter, in which scurvy had reduced his garrison to only 4,000. On 28 April 1760, Lévis' forces met and defeated the British at the Battle of Sainte-Foy, immediately west of the city (near the site of Université Laval today). This battle proved bloodier than that of the Plains of Abraham, with about 850 casualties on the French side and 1,100 on the British side. The British were defeated in the battle, but were able to withdraw within the walls of Quebec, which was taken under siege. A lack of artillery and ammunition, combined with British improvements to the fortifications, meant that the French were unable to take the city before the arrival of the British fleet in mid-May. A naval battle fought at Quiberon Bay, just off the coast of France, proved the decisive battle for New France. The Royal Navy destroyed the French Fleet, meaning France could not send a reserve force to save Canada. The success of the French army's offensive against Quebec in the spring of 1760 depended on the dispatch of a French armada, with fresh troops and supplies.
At Montréal that September, Lévis and 2,000 troops confronted 17,000 British and American troops. The French capitulated on 8 September 1760, and the British took possession of Montreal. Canada passed into British hands. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end the war and gave possession of New France to Great Britain.
Today, while much of the foreshore along the base of the cliffs that were scaled by William Howe's men the morning of the battle has been taken over by industry, the Plains of Abraham themselves are preserved within one of Canada's National Urban Parks. The Battlefields Park was established in 1908 and combines the Plains of Abraham with Des Braves Park, within Quebec City. An interpretive centre and walking trails have been built on the site, and outdoor concerts are held within the park. There is a monument on the site of the Battle of Sainte-Foy, and a monument has been raised to Wolfe as well. In 1790, the Surveyor-General of Canada, Major Holland, raised an astronomic meridian marker on the site where Wolfe was said to have died. In 1913, the National Battlefields Commission placed a column identical to one that had been built on the site in 1849. As well, there is a Cross of Sacrifice that was constructed on the Plains to commemorate soldiers who were lost in World War I; it continues to be the location of Remembrance Day ceremonies every year.
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