THE siege of Quebec, begun in June, 1759, by General Wolfe, with an inadequate force, was protracted till August without the slightest apparent prospect of success. At the end of July, Wolfe met a terrible rebuff in a desperate attempt to scale the heights of Montmorenci ; and the French, elated by their victory, flattered themselves with the hope that the enemy would soon sail homeward in despair.
Meanwhile, a deep cloud fell on the English. Since the siege began Wolfe had passed with ceaseless energy from camp to camp, animating the troops, observing everything and directing everything ; but now the pale face and tall, lean form were seen no more, and the rumor spread that the general was dangerously ill. He had in fact been seized by an access of the disease that had tortured him for some time past, and fever had followed. His quarters were at a French farmhouse in the camp at Montmorenci; and here, as he lay in an upper chamber, helpless in bed, his singular and most unmilitary features haggard with disease and drawn with pain, no man could less have looked the hero. But as the needle, though quivering, points always to the pole, so, through torment and languor and the heats of fever, the mind of Wolfe dwelt on the capture of Quebec. His illness, which began before the 20th of August, had so far subsided on the 25th that Knox wrote in his diary of that day, “ His excellency General Wolfe is on the recovery, to the inconceivable joy of the whole army.” On the 29th he was able to write or dictate a letter to the three brigadiers, Monckton, Townshend, and Murray : —
“ That the public service may not suffer by the general’s indisposition, he begs the brigadiers will meet and consult together for the public utility and advantage, and consider of the best method to attack the enemy.”
The letter then proposes three plans, all bold to audacity. The first was to send a part of the army to ford the Montmorenci eight or nine miles above its mouth, march through the forest, and fall on the rear of the French at Beauport, while the rest landed and attacked them in front. The second was to cross the ford at the mouth of the Montmorenci and march along the strand, under the French entrenchments, till a place could be found where the troops might climb the heights. The third was to make a general attack from boats at the Beauport flats. Wolfe had before entertained two other plans, one of which was to scale the rocks at St. Michel, about a league above Quebec; but this he had abandoned on learning that the French were there in force to receive him. The other was to storm the Lower Town ; but this also he had abandoned, because the Upper Town, which commanded it, would still remain inaccessible.
The brigadiers met in consultation, rejected the three plans proposed in the letter, and advised that an attempt should be made to gain a footing on the north shore above the town, place the army between Montcalm and his base of supply, and so force him to fight or surrender. The scheme was similar to that of scaling the heights of St. Michel. It seemed desperate, but so did all the rest; and if by chance it should succeed, the gain was far greater than could follow any success below the town. Wolfe embraced it at once. Not that he saw much hope in it. He knew that every chance was against him. Disappointment in the past and gloom in the future, the pain and exhaustion of disease, toils and anxieties “ too great,” in the words of Burke, “ to be supported by a delicate constitution, and a body unequal to the vigorous and enterprising soul that it lodged ” threw him at times into deep dejection. By those intimate with him he was heard to say that he would not go back defeated, “ to be exposed to the censure and reproach of an ignorant populace.” In other moods, he felt that he ought not to sacrifice what was left of his diminished army in vain conflict with hopeless obstacles. But his final resolve once taken, he would not swerve from it. His fear was that he might not be able to lead his troops in person. “ I know perfectly well you cannot cure me,” he said to his physician, “ but pray make me up so that I may be without pain for a few days, and able to do my duty : that is all I want.”
In a dispatch which Wolfe had written to Pitt, Admiral Saunders conceived that he had ascribed to the fleet more than its just share in the disaster at Montmorenci, and he sent him a letter on the subject. Major Barre kept it from the invalid till the fever had abated. Wolfe then wrote a long answer, which reveals his mixed despondency and resolve. He affirms the justice of what Saunders had said, but adds, “ I shall leave out that part of my letter to Mr. Pitt which you object to. I am sensible of my own errors in the course of the campaign, see clearly wherein I have been deficient, and think a little more or less blame to a man that must necessarily be ruined of little or no consequence. I take the blame of that unlucky day entirely upon my own shoulders, and I expect to suffer for it.” Then, speaking of the new project of an attack above Quebec, he says, despondingly, “ My ill state of health prevents me from executing my own plan ; it is of too desperate a nature to order others to execute.” He proceeds, however, to give directions for it : It will be necessary to run as many small craft as possible above the town, with provisions for six weeks for about five thousand, which is all I intend to take. My letters, I hope, will be ready to-morrow, and I hope I shall have strength to lead these men to wherever we can find the enemy.”
On the next day, the end of August, he was able for the first time to leave the house. It was on this same day that he wrote his last letter to his mother : “ My writing to you will convince you that no personal evils worse than defeats and disappointments have fallen upon me. The enemy puts nothing to risk, and I can’t in conscience put the whole army to risk. My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in inaccessible entrenchments, so that I can’t get at him without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose. 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 behavior of his army. People must be of the profession to understand the disadvantages and difficulties we labor under, arising from the uncommon natural strength of the country.”
On the 2d of September, a vessel was sent to England with his last dispatch to Pitt. It begins thus : “ The obstacles we have met with in the operations of the campaign are much greater than we had reason to expect or could foresee; not so much from the number of the enemy (though superior to us) as from the natural strength of the country, which the Marquis of Montcalm seems wisely to depend upon. When I learned that succors of all kinds had been thrown into Quebec; that five battalions of regular troops, completed from the best inhabitants of the country, some of the troops of the colony, and every Canadian that was able to bear arms, besides several nations of savages, had taken the field in a very advantageous situation, I could not flatter myself that I should be able to reduce the place. I sought, however, an occasion to attack their army, knowing well that with these troops I was able to fight, and hoping that a victory might disperse them.” Then, after recounting the events of the campaign with admirable clearness, he continues: “ I found myself so ill, and am still so weak, that I begged the general officers to consult together for the general utility. They are all of opinion that, as more ships and provisions are now got above the town, they should try, by conveying up a corps of four or five thousand men (which is nearly the whole strength of the army after the Points of Levi and Orleans are left in a proper state of defense), to draw the enemy from their present situation and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced in the proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution.” The letter ends thus : “ By the list of disabled officers, many of whom are of rank, you may perceive that the army is much weakened. By the nature of the river, the most formidable part of this armament is deprived of the power of acting, yet we have almost the whole force of Canada to oppose. In this situation there is such a choice of difficulties that I own myself at a loss how to determine. The affairs of Great Britain, I know, require the most vigorous measures; but the courage of a handful of brave troops should be exerted only when there is some hope of a favorable event. However, you may be assured that the small part of the campaign which remains shall be employed, as far as I am able, for the honor of his majesty and the interest of the nation, in which I am sure of being well seconded by the admiral and by the generals ; happy if our efforts here can contribute to the success of his majesty’s arms in any other parts of America.”
Some days later, he wrote to the Earl of Holderness: “The Marquis of Montcalm has a numerous body of armed men (I cannot call it an army) and the strongest country, perhaps, in the world. Our fleet blocks up the river above and below the town, but can give no manner of aid in an attack upon the Canadian army. We are now here [off Cap Rouge] with about thirty-six hundred men, waiting to attack them when and wherever they can best be got at. I am so far recovered as to do business, but my constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of doing any considerable service to the state, and without any prospect of it.” He had just learned, through the letter brought from Amherst by Ensign Hutchins, that he could expect no help from that quarter.
Perhaps he was as near despair as his undaunted nature was capable of being. In his present state of body and mind, he was a hero without the light and cheer of heroism. He flattered himself with no illusions, but saw the worst and faced it all. He seems to have been entirely without excitement. The languor of disease, the desperation of the chances, and the greatness of the stake may have wrought to tranquilize him. His energy was doubly tasked, to bear up his own sinking frame and to achieve an almost hopeless feat of arms.
Audacious as it was, his plan cannot be called rash, if we can accept the statement of two well-informed writers on the French side. They say that on the 10th of September the English naval commanders held a council on board the flagship, in which it was resolved that the lateness of the season required the fleet to leave Quebec without delay. They say farther that Wolfe then went to the admiral, told him that he had found a place where the heights could be scaled, that he would send up a hundred and fifty picked men to feel the way, and that if they gained a lodgment at the top the other troops should follow ; if, on the other hand, the French were there in force to oppose them, he would not sacrifice the army in a hopeless attempt, but embark them for home, consoled by the thought that all had been done that man could do. On this, concludes the story, the admiral and his officers consented to wait the result.1
As Wolfe had informed Pitt, his army was greatly weakened. Since the end of June, his loss in killed and wounded was more than eight hundred and fifty, including two colonels, two majors, nineteen captains, and thirty-four subalterns ; and to these were to be added a greater number disabled by disease.
The squadron of Admiral Holmes, above Quebec, had now increased to twenty-two vessels, great and small. One of the last that went up was a diminutive schooner, armed with a few swivels, and jocosely named the Terror of France. She sailed by the town in broad daylight, the French, incensed at her impudence, blazing at her from all their batteries; but she passed unharmed, anchored by the admiral’s ship, and saluted him triumphantly with her swivels.
Wolfe’s first move towards executing his plan was the critical one of evacuating the camp at Montmorenci. This was accomplished on the 3d of September. Montcalm sent a strong force to fall on the rear of the retiring English. Monckton saw the movement from Point Levi, embarked two battalions in the boats of the fleet, and made a feint of landing at Beauport. Montcalm recalled his troops to repulse the threatened attack, and the English withdrew from Montmorenci unmolested; some to the Point of Orleans, others to Point Levi. On the night of the 4th a fleet of flatboats passed above the town with the baggage and stores. On the 5th Murray, with four battalions, marched up to the river Etechemin, and forded it under a hot fire from the French batteries at Sillery. Monckton and Townshend followed with three more battalions, and the united force of about thirty-six hundred men was embarked on board the ships of Holmes, where Wolfe joined them on the same evening.
These movements of the English filled the French commanders with mingled perplexity, anxiety, and hope. A deserter told them that Admiral Saunders was impatient to be gone. Vaudreuil grew confident. “ The breaking up of the camp at Montmorenci,” he says, “ and the abandonment of the entrenchments there, the reëmbarkation on board the vessels above Quebec of the troops who had encamped on the south bank, the movements of these vessels, the removal of the heaviest pieces of artillery from the batteries of Point Levi, — these and the lateness of the season all combined to announce the speedy departure of the fleet, several vessels of which had even sailed down the river already. The prisoners and deserters who daily came in told us that this was the common report in their army.” He wrote to Bourlamaque on the 1st of September, “ Everything proves that the grand design of the English has failed.” Yet he was ceaselessly watchful. So was Montcalm; and he too, on the night of the 2d, snatched a moment to write to Bourlamaque from his headquarters in the stone house by the river of Beauport : “ The night is dark; it rains; our troops are dressed in their tents, and on the alert; I in my boots ; my horses saddled. In fact, this is my usual way. I wish you were here, for I cannot be everywhere, though I multiply myself, and have not taken off my clothes since the 23d of June.” On the 11th of September, he wrote his last letter to Bourlamaque, and probably the last that his pen ever traced : I am overwhelmed with work, and should often lose temper, like you, if I did not remember that I am paid by Europe for not losing it. Nothing new since my last. I give the enemy another month, or something less, to stay here.” The more sanguine Vaudreuil would hardly give them a week.
Meanwhile, no precaution was spared. The force under Bougainville, above Quebec, was raised to three thousand men. He was ordered to watch the shore as far as Jacques Cartier, and follow with his main body every movement of Holmes’s squadron. There was little fear for the heights near the town. They were thought inaccessible. Montcalm himself believed them safe, and had expressed himself to that effect some time before, " We need not suppose,” he wrote to Vaudreuil, “ that the enemy have wings ; ” and again, speaking of the very place where Wolfe afterwards landed, “ I swear to you that a hundred men posted there would stop their whole army.” He was right. A hundred watchful and determined men could have held the position long enough for reinforcements to come up.
The hundred men were there. Captain de Vergor, of the colony troops, commanded them; and reinforcements were within his call, for the battalion of Guienne had been ordered to encamp close at hand on the Plains of Abraham. Vergor’s post, called Ance du Foulon, was a mile and a half from Quebec. A little beyond it, by the brink of the cliffs, was another post, called Samos, held by seventy men with four cannon; and beyond this, again, the heights of Sillery were guarded by a hundred and thirty men, also with cannon. These were outposts of Bougainville, whose headquarters were at Cap Rouge, six miles above Sillery, and whose troops were in continual movement along the intervening shore. Thus all was vigilance; for while the French were strong in the hope of speedy delivery, they felt that there was no safety till the tents of the invader had vanished from their shores and his ships from their river. “ What we knew,” says one of them, " of the character of M. Wolfe, that impetuous, bold, and intrepid warrior, prepared us for a last attack before he left us.”
Wolfe had been very ill on the evening of the 4th. The troops knew it, and their spirits sank ; but after a night of torment he grew better, and was soon among them again, rekindling their ardor, and imparting a cheer that he could not share. For himself he had no pity, but when he heard of the illness of two officers in one of the ships he sent them a message of warm sympathy, advised them to return to Point Levi, and offered them his own barge and an escort. They thanked him, but replied that, come what might, they would see the enterprise to an end. Another officer remarked in his hearing that one of the invalids had a very delicate constitution. “ Don’t tell me of constitution,” said Wolfe; “he has good spirit, and good spirit will carry a man through everything.” An immense moral force bore up his own frail body and forced it to its work.
Major Robert Stobo, who five years before had been given as a hostage to the French at the capture of Fort Necessity, arrived about this time in a vessel from Halifax. He had long been a prisoner at Quebec, not always in close custody, and had used his opportunities to acquaint himself with the neighborhood. In the spring of this year, he and an officer of rangers named Stevens had made their escape with extraordinary skill and daring, and he now returned to give his countrymen the benefit of his local knowledge. His biographer says that it was he who directed Wolfe in the choice of a landing place. Be this as it may, Wolfe in person examined the river and the shores as far as Point aux Trembles ; till at length, landing on the south side a little above Quebec, and looking across the water with a telescope, he descried a path that ran with a long slope up the face of the woody precipice, and saw at the top a cluster of tents. They were those of Vergor’s guard at the Ance du Foulon, now called Wolfe’s Cove. As he could see but ten or twelve of them, he thought that the guard could not be numerous, and might be overpowered. His hope would have been stronger if he had known that Vergor had once been tried for misconduct and cowardice in the surrender of Beauséjour, and saved from merited disgrace by the friendship of Bigot and the protection of Vaudreuil.
The morning of the 7th was fair and warm, and the vessels of Holmes, their crowded decks gay with scarlet uniforms, sailed up the river to Cap Rouge. A lively scene awaited them, for here were the headquarters of Bougainville, and here lay his principal force, while the rest watched the banks above and below. The cove into which the little river runs was guarded by floating batteries ; the surrounding shore was defended by breastworks ; and a large body of regulars, militia, and mounted Canadians in blue uniforms moved to and fro, with restless activity, on the hills behind. When the vessels came to anchor, the horsemen dismounted and formed in line with the infantry; then, with loud shouts, the whole rushed down the heights to man their works at the shore. That true Briton, Captain Knox, looked on with a critical eye from the gangway of his ship, and wrote that night in his diary that they had made a ridiculous noise. “ How different,” he exclaims, “how nobly awful and expressive of true valor, is the customary silence of the British troops ! ”
In the afternoon the ships opened fire, while the troops entered the boats and rowed up and down, as if looking for a landing place. It was but a feint of Wolfe to deceive Bougainville as to his real design. A heavy easterly rain set in on the next morning, and lasted two days without respite. All operations were suspended, and the men suffered greatly in the crowded transports. Half of them were therefore landed on the south shore, where they made their quarters in the village of St. Nicolas, refreshed themselves, and dried their wet clothing, knapsacks, and blankets.
For several successive days the squadron of Holmes was allowed to drift up the river with the flood tide and down with the ebb, thus passing and repassing incessantly between the neighborhood of Quebec on one hand and a point high above Cap Rouge on the other ; while Bougainville, perplexed and always expecting an attack, followed the ships to and fro along the shore by day and by night, till his men were exhausted with ceaseless forced marches.
At last the time for action came. On Wednesday, the 12th, the troops at St. Nicolas were embarked again, and all were told to hold themselves in readiness. Wolfe, from the flagship Sutherland, issued his last general orders : “ The enemy’s force is now divided; great scarcity of provisions in their camp, and universal discontent among the Canadians. Our troops below are in readiness to join us, all the light artillery and tools are embarked at the Point of Levi, and the troops will land where the French seem least to expect it. The first body that gets on shore is to march directly to the enemy, and drive them from any little post they may occupy ; the officers must be careful that the succeeding bodies do not by any mistake fire on those who go before them. The battalions must form on the upper ground with expedition, and be ready to charge whatever presents itself. When the artillery and troops are landed, a corps will be left to secure the landing place, while the rest march on and endeavor to bring the Canadians and French to a battle. The officers and men will remember what their country expects from them, and what a determined body of soldiers inured to war is capable of doing against five weak French battalions mingled with a disorderly peasantry.”
The spirit of the army answered to that of its chief. The troops loved and admired their general, trusted their officers, and were ready for any attempt. “ Nay, how could it be otherwise,”quaintly asks honest Sergeant John Johnson, of the 58th regiment, “ being at the heels of gentlemen whose whole thirst, equal with their general, was for glory ? We had seen them tried, and always found them sterling. We knew that they would stand by us to the last extremity.”
Wolfe had thirty-six hundred men and officers with him on board the vessels of Holmes, and he now sent orders to Colonel Burton at Point Levi to lead to his aid all who could be spared from that place and the Point of Orleans. They were to march along the south bank after nightfall, and wait farther orders at a designated spot convenient for embarkation. Their number was about twelve hundred, so that the entire force destined for the enterprise was at the utmost forty-eight hundred. With these, Wolfe meant to climb the heights of Abraham in the teeth of an enemy who, though much reduced, were still twice as numerous as their assailants.2
Admiral Saunders lay with the main fleet in the Basin of Quebec. This excellent officer, whatever may have been his views as to the necessity of a speedy departure, aided Wolfe to the last with unfailing energy and zeal. It was agreed between them that while the general made the real attack the admiral should engage Montcalm’s attention by a pretended one. As night approached the fleet ranged itself along the Beauport shore ; the boats were lowered, and filled with sailors, marines, and the few troops that had been left behind ; while ship signaled to ship, cannon flashed and thundered, and shot ploughed the beach, as if to clear a way for assailants to land. In the gloom of the evening the effect was imposing. Montcalm, who thought that the movements of the English above the town were only a feint, that their main force was still below it, and that their real attack would be made there, was completely deceived, and massed his troops in front of Beauport to repel the expected landing. But while in the fleet of Saunders all was uproar and ostentatious menace, the danger was ten miles away, where the squadron of Holmes lay tranquil and silent at its anchorage off Cap Rouge.
It was less tranquil than it seemed. All on board knew that a blow would be struck that night, though only a few high officers knew where. Colonel Howe, of the light infantry, called for volunteers to lead the unknown and desperate venture, promising, in the words of one of them, “ that if any of us survived we might depend on being recommended to the general.” As many as were wanted, twenty-four in all, soon came forward. Thirty large bateaux and some boats belonging to the squadron lay moored alongside the vessels, and late in the evening the troops were ordered into them, the twenty-four volunteers taking their place in the foremost. They held in all about seventeen hundred men. The rest remained on board the ships.
Bougainville could discern the movement, and like Montcalm thought it was he who was to he attacked. The tide was still flowing, and, the better to deceive him, the vessels and boats were allowed to drift upward with it for a little distance, as if to land above Cap Rouge.
The day had been fortunate for Wolfe. Two deserters came from the camp of Bougainville, with information that, at ebb tide on the next night, he was to send down a convoy of provisions to Montcalm. The necessities of the camp at Beauport and the difficulties of transportation by land had before compelled the French to resort to this perilous means of conveying supplies : and their boats, drifting m darkness under the shadows of the northern shore, had commonly passed in safety. Wolfe saw at once that, if his own boats went down in advance of the convoy, he could turn the intelligence of the deserters to good account.
He was still on board the Sutherland. Every preparation was made and every order given ; it only remained to wait the turning of the tide. Seated with him in the cabin was the commander of the sloop of war Porcupine, his former schoolfellow, John Jervis, afterwards Earl St. Vincent. Wolfe told him that he expected to die in the battle of the next day ; and taking from his bosom a miniature of Miss Lowther, his betrothed, he gave it to him, with a request that he would return it to her if the presentiment should prove true.
Towards two o’clock the tide began to ebb, and a fresh wind blew down the river. Two lanterns were raised into the maintop shrouds of the Sutherland. It was the appointed signal. The boats cast off and fell down with the current, those of the light infantry leading the way. The vessels with the rest of the troops had orders to follow a little later.
To look for a moment at the chances on which this bold adventure hung: first, the deserters told Wolfe that provision boats were ordered to go down to Quebec that night; secondly, Bougainville countermanded them ; thirdly, the sentries posted along the heights were told of the order, but not of the countermand ; fourthly, Vergor, at the Ance du Foulon, had permitted most of his men, chiefly Canadians from Loretto, to go home for a time and work at their harvesting, on condition, it is said, that they should afterwards work in a neighboring field of his own ; fifthly, he kept careless watch and went quietly to bed ; sixthly, the battalion of Guienne, ordered to take post on the Plains of Abraham, had, for reasons unexplained, remained encamped by the St. Charles ; and lastly, when Bougainville saw Holmes’s vessels drift down the stream, he did not tax his weary troops to follow them, thinking that they would return as usual with the flood tide. But for these conspiring circumstances New France might have lived a little longer, and the fruitless heroism of Wolfe would have passed with countless other heroisms into oblivion.
For full two hours the procession of boats, borne on the current, steered silently down the St. Lawrence. The stars were visible, but the night was moonless and sufficiently dark. The general was in one of the foremost boats, and near him was a young midshipman, John Robison, afterwards professor of natural philosophy in the University of Edinburgh. He used to tell in his later life how Wolfe, probably to relieve the intense strain of his thoughts, repeated Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard to the officers about him, and among the rest, the verse which his own fate was soon to illustrate : —
“ The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” " Gentlemen,” he said, as his recital ended, “ I would rather have written those lines than take Quebec.” None were there to tell him that the hero is greater than the poet.
As they neared their destination the tide bore them in towards the shore, and the mighty wall of rock and forest towered in darkness on their left. Suddenly the challenge of a French sentry rang out of the gloom : —
“ Qui vive ? ”
“ France,” answered a Highland officer of Fraser’s regiment from one of the boats of the light infantry. He had served in Holland, and spoke French fluently.
“ À quel régiment ? ”
“ De la Reine,” replied the Highlander. He knew that a part of that corps was with Bougainville. The sentry, expecting the convoy of provisions, was satisfied, and did not ask for the password.
Soon after, the foremost boats were passing the heights of Samos, when another sentry challenged them, and they could see him through the darkness running down to the edge of the water, within range of a pistol shot. In answer to his questions the same officer replied in French, “ Provision boats. Don’t make a noise; the English will hear us.” In fact, the sloop of war Hunter was anchored in the stream, not far off. Again the sentry let them pass. In a few moments they rounded the lofty headland above the Ance du Foulon. There was no sentry there. The strong current swept the boats of the light infantry a little below the intended landing place. They disembarked on a narrow strand at the foot of heights as steep as a hill covered with trees can be. The twenty-four volunteers led the way, climbing with what silence they might, closely followed by a much larger body. When they reached the top they saw in the dim light a cluster of tents not far off, and immediately made a dash at them. Vergor leaped from bed and tried to escape, but was shot in the heel and captured. His men, taken by surprise, made little resistance. One or two were caught, and the rest fled.
The main body of troops waited in their boats by the edge of the strand. The heights near by were cleft by a great ravine, choked with forest trees; and in its depths ran a little brook called Ruisseau St. Denis, which, swollen by the late rains, fell plashing in the stillness over a rock. Other than this no sound could reach the strained ear of Wolfe but the gurgle of the tide and the cautious climbing of his advance parties, as they mounted the steeps at some little distance from where he sat listening. At length, from the top came a sound of musket shots, followed by loud huzzas, and he knew that his men were masters of the position. The word was given ; the troops leaped from the boats and scaled the heights, some here, some there, clutching at trees and bushes, their muskets slung at their backs. Tradition still points out the place near the mouth of the ravine where the foremost reached the top. Wolfe said to an officer near him, “ You can try it, but I don’t think you ’ll get up.” He himself, however, found strength to drag himself up with the rest. The narrow, slanting path on the face of the heights had been made impassable by trenches and abatis; but all obstructions were soon cleared away, and then the ascent was easy. In the gray of the morning the long file of red-coated soldiers moved quickly upward, and formed in order on the plateau above.
Before many of them had reached the top, cannon were heard close on the left. It was the battery at Samos firing on the boats in the rear and the vessels descending from Cap Rouge. A party was sent to silence it, which was soon effected; and the more distant battery at Sillery was next attacked and taken. As fast as the boats were emptied they returned for the troops left on board the vessels, and for those waiting on the southern shore, under Colonel Burton.
The day broke in clouds and threatening rain. The British battalions were drawn up along the crest of the heights. No enemy was in sight, though a body of Canadians had sallied from the town and moved along the strand towards the landing place, whence they were quickly driven back. Wolfe had achieved the most critical part of his enterprise; yet the success that he coveted placed him in imminent danger. On one side was the garrison of Quebec and the army of Beauport, and Bougainville was on the other. Wolfe’s alternative was victory or ruin ; for, if he should be overwhelmed by a combined attack, retreat would be hopeless. His feelings no man can know, but it would be safe to say that hesitation or doubt had no part in them.
He went to reconnoitre the ground, and soon came to the Plains of Abraham; so called from Abraham Martin, a pilot, known as Maître Abraham, who had owned a piece of land here in the early times of the colony. The Plains were a tract of grass, tolerably level in most parts patched here and there with cornfields, studded with clumps of bushes, and forming a part of the high plateau at the eastern end of which Quebec stood. On the south, it was bounded by the declivities along the St. Lawrence ; on the north, by those along the St. Charles, or rather along the meadows through which that lazy stream crawled like a writhing snake. At the place that Wolfe chose for his battle-field the plateau was less than a mile wide.
Thither the troops advanced, marched by files till they reached the ground, and then wheeled to form their line of battle, which stretched across the plateau and faced the city. It consisted of six battalions and the detached grenadiers from Louisbourg, all drawn up in ranks three deep. Its right wing was near the brink of the heights along the St. Lawrence ; but the left could not reach those along the St. Charles. Here a wide space was perforce left open, and there was danger of being outflanked. To prevent this, Brigadier Townshend was stationed here with two battalions, drawn up at right angles with the rest, and fronting the St. Charles. The battalion of Webb’s regiment under Colonel Burton formed the reserve; the third battalion of Royal Americans was left to guard the landing, and Howe’s light infantry occupied a wood far in the rear. Wolfe, with Monckton and Murray, commanded the front line, on which the heavy fighting was to fall, and which, when all the troops had arrived, counted less than thirty-five hundred men.
Quebec was not a mile distant, but they could not see it; for a ridge of broken ground intervened, called Buttes à Neveu, about six hundred paces off. The first division of troops had scarcely come up when, about six o’clock, this ridge was suddenly thronged with white uniforms. It was the battalion of Guienne, arrived at the eleventh hour from its camp by the St. Charles. Some time after, there was hot firing in the rear. It came from a detachment of Bougainville’s command, attacking a house where some of the light infantry were posted. The assailants were repulsed, and the firing ceased. Light showers fell at intervals, besprinkling the troops as they stood patiently waiting the event.
Montcalm had passed a troubled night. Through all the evening the cannon bellowed from the ships of Saunders, and the boats of the fleet hovered in the dusk off the Beauport shore, threatening every moment to land. Troops lined the entrenchments till day, while the general walked the field that adjoined his headquarters till one in the morning, accompanied by the Chevalier Johnstone and Colonel Poulariez. Johnstone says that he was in great agitation, and took no rest all night. At daybreak, he heard the sound of cannon above the town, where the battery at Samos was firing on the English ships. He had sent an officer to the quarters of Vaudreuil, which were much nearer Quebec, with orders to bring him word at once should anything unusual happen ; but no word came, and about six o’clock he mounted and rode thither with Johnstone. As they advanced, the country behind the town opened more and more upon their sight, till at length, when opposite Vaudreuil’s house, they saw across the St. Charles, more than a mile away, the red coats of British soldiers on the heights beyond.
“ This is a serious business,” Montcalm said, and sent off Johnstone at full gallop to bring up the troops from the centre and left of the camp. Those of the right were in motion already, doubtless by the governor’s order. Vaudreuil came out of the house. Montcalm stopped for a few words with him ; then set spurs to his horse, and galloped over the bridge of the St. Charles to the scene of danger. He rode with a fixed look, uttering not a word.
The army followed in such order as it might, crossed the bridge in hot haste, passed under the northern rampart of Quebec, entered at the Palace Gate, and pressed on in headlong march along the quaint, narrow streets of the warlike town : troops of Indians in scalp-locks and war paint, a savage glitter in their deep-set eyes ; bands of Canadians, whose all was at stake, — faith, country, and home; the colony regulars ; the battalions of Old France, a torrent of white uniforms and gleaming bayonets, La Sarre, Languedoc, Roussillon, Béarn, victors of Oswego, William Henry, and Ticonderoga. So they swept on, poured out upon the plain, some by the gate of St. Louis and some by that of St. John, and hurried, breathless, to where the banners of Guienne still fluttered on the ridge.
Montcalm was amazed at what he saw. He had expected a detachment, and he found an army. Full in sight before him stretched the lines of Wolfe: the close ranks of the English infantry, a silent wall of red, and the wild array of the Highlanders, with their waving tartans and bagpipes screaming defiance. Vaudreuil had not come; but not the less was felt the evil of a divided authority and the jealousy of the rival chiefs. Montcalm waited long for the forces he had ordered to join him from the left wing of the army. He waited in vain. It is said that the governor had detained them, lest the English should attack the Beauport shore. Even if they had done so, and succeeded, the French might defy them, could they but put Wolfe to rout on the Plains of Abraham. Neither did the garrison of Quebec come to the aid of Montcalm. He sent to Ramsay, its commander, for twenty-five field-pieces which were on the Palace battery. Ramsay would give him only three, saying that he wanted them for his own defense. There were orders and counter-orders, misunderstanding, haste, delay, perplexity.
Montcalm and his chief officers held a council of war. It is said that he and they alike were for immediate attack. His enemies declare that he was afraid lest Vaudreuil should arrive and take command ; but the governor was not a man to assume responsibility at such a crisis. Others say that his impetuosity overcame his better judgment; and of this charge it is hard to acquit him. Bougainville was but a few miles distant, and some of his troops were much, nearer; a messenger sent by way of Old Lorette could have reached him in an hour and a half at most, and a combined attack in front and rear might have been concerted with him. If, moreover, Montcalm could have come to an understanding with Vaudreuil, his own force might have been strengthened by two or three thousand additional men from the town and the camp of Beauport. But he felt that there was no time to lose, for he imagined that Wolfe would soon be reinforced, which was impossible; and he believed that the English were fortifying themselves, which was no less an error. He has been blamed not only for fighting too soon, but for fighting at all. In this he could not choose. Fight he must, for Wolfe was now in a position to cut off all his supplies. His men were ready for the fray, and he resolved to attack before their ardor cooled. He spoke a a few words to them in his keen, vehement way. “ I remember very well how he looked,” a Canadian, then a boy of eighteen, used to say in his old age. “ He rode a black or dark bay horse along the front of our lines, brandishing his sword, as if to excite us to do our duty. He wore a coat with wide sleeves, which fell back as he raised his arm, and showed the white linen of the wristband.”
The English waited the, result with a composure which, if not quite real, was at least well feigned. The three fieldpieces sent by Ramsay plied them with canister-shot, and fifteen hundred Canadians and Indians fusilladed them in front and flank. Over all the plain, from behind bushes and knolls and the edge of cornfields, puff’s of smoke sprang incessantly from the guns of these hidden marksmen. Skirmishers were thrown out before the lines to hold them in check, and the soldiers were ordered to lie on the grass to avoid the shot. The firing was liveliest on the English left, where bands of sharpshooters got under the edge of the declivity, among thickets and behind scattered houses, whence they killed and wounded a considerable number of Townshend’s men. The light infantry were called up from the rear. The houses were taken and retaken, and one or more of them was burned.
Wolfe was everywhere. How cool he was, and why his followers loved him, is shown by an incident that happened in the course of the morning. One of his captains was shot through the lungs, and, on recovering consciousness, he saw the general standing at his side. Wolfe pressed his hand, told him not to despair, praised his services, promised him early promotion, and sent an aide-de-camp to Monckton to beg that officer to keep the promise if he himself should fall.
It was towards ten o’clock, when, from a hillock on the right of the line, Wolfe saw that the crisis was near. The French on the ridge had gathered themselves into three bodies ; regulars in the centre, regulars and Canadians on right and left. Two field-pieces which had been dragged up the height fired on them with grape-shot, and the troops, rising from the ground, formed to receive them. In a few moments more they were in motion. They came on rapidly, uttering loud shouts, and firing as soon as they were within range. Their ranks, ill ordered at the best, were farther confused by a number of Canadians, who had been interspersed among the regulars, and who, after hastily firing, threw themselves on the ground to reload. The British advanced a few rods ; then halted and stood still. When the French were within forty paces, the word of command rang out, and a crash of musketry answered all along the line. The volley was delivered with remarkable precision. In the battalions of the centre, which had suffered least from the enemy’s bullets, the simultaneous explosion was afterwards said by French officers to have sounded like a cannon shot. Another volley followed, and then a furious clattering fire, that lasted but a minute or two. When the smoke rose, a miserable sight was revealed : the ground cumbered with dead and wounded, the advancing masses stopped short and turned into a frantic mob, shouting, cursing, gesticulating. The order was given to charge. Then over the field rose the British cheer, joined with the fierce yell of the Highland slogan. Some of the corps pushed forward with the bayonet ; some advanced firing. The clansmen drew their broadswords and dashed on, keen and swift as bloodhounds. At the English right, though the attacking column was broken to pieces, a fire was still kept up ; chiefly, it seems, by sharpshooters from the bushes and cornfields, where they had lain for an hour or more. Here Wolfe himself led the charge, at the head of the Louisbourg grenadiers. A shot shattered his wrist. He wrapped his handkerchief about it, and kept on.
Another shot struck him, and he still advanced, when a third lodged in his breast. He staggered, and sat on the ground. Lieutenant Brown, of the grenadiers, one Henderson, a volunteer in the same company, and a private soldier, aided by an officer of artillery who ran to join them, carried him in their arms to the rear. He begged them to lay him down. They did so, and asked if he would have a surgeon. “ There’s no need,” he answered; “ it’s all over with me.” A moment after, one of them cried out, “ They run ! See how they run ! ” “ Who run?” Wolfe demanded, like a man roused from sleep. “ The enemy, sir. Egad, they give way everywhere.” “ Go, one of you, to Colonel Burton,” returned the dying man : “tell him to march Webb’s regiment down to Charles River, to cut off their retreat from the bridge.” Then, turning on his side, he murmured, “ Now, God be praised, I will die in peace ; ” and in a few moments his gallant soul had fled.
Montcalm, still on horseback, was borne with the tide of fugitives towards the town. As he approached the walls, a shot passed through his body. He kept his seat; two soldiers supported him, one on each side, and led his horse through the St. Louis Gate. On the open space within, among the excited crowd, were several women, drawn, no doubt, by eagerness to know the result of the fight. One of them recognized him, saw the streaming blood, and shrieked, “ Oh, mon Dieu! mon Dieu ! le Marquis est tué ! ” “It is nothing, it’s nothing,” replied the death-stricken man. “ Don’t be troubled for me, my good friends.” (“ Ce n’est rien, ce n’est rien. Ne vous affligez pas pour moi, mes bonnes amies.”)
- This statement is made by the Chevalier Johnstone, and, with some variation, by the author of the valuable Journal Tenu à l’ Armée que commandoit feu M. le Marquis do Montcalm. Bigot says that, after the battle, he was told by British officers that Wolfe meant to risk only an advance party of two hundred men, and to reëmbark if they were repulsed.↩
- Including Bougainville’s command. An escaped prisoner told Wolfe, a few days before, that Montcalm still had fourteen thousand men. (Journal of an Expedition on the River St. Lawrence.) This meant only those in the town and the camps of Beauport. “ I don’t believe their whole army amounts to that number,” wrote Wolfe to Colonel Burton, on the 10th. He knew, however, that if Montcalm could bring all his troops together he must fight him more than two to one.↩