The Short Life of James Wolfe, Conqueror of Quebec


It’s quite possible that without the daring tactics of British General James Wolfe, the capture of Quebec and full British control over Canada may have never occurred.

Who is James Wolfe?

James Wolfe
Yes, I know that it sounds like the title of Edward Albee’s novel, but that’s Virginia Woolf. We’re concerned with a James Wolfe who in 1759 led a daring assault that resulted in the capture of the French colony of Quebec. This event pretty much ended France’s colonial ambitions in Canada and helped to solidify British dominion over North America. And, this was all despite the fact that at the time, James Wolfe had a relatively severe case of tuberculosis! Not bad for a guy who only lived to up to age 32.

Early Life and Military Career

James Wolfe was born on January 2, 1728 in the town of Westerham, Kent, in England. His father, Edward Wolfe, was a distinguished Lieutenant General serving in the British Army. Unlike many other high-ranking officers in the Armed Forces, most of whom came from English aristocratic backgrounds, Edward was of Irish and more humble origins.

James Wolfe
The young James’ military career really started at the age of 13 when he volunteered in his father’s First Marine Regiment. A year later, James was enrolled in the Royal Marines Corps but then transferred the 12th Regiment of Foot. When he turned 16, Wolfe got his first taste of combat against the French at the Battle of Dettingen in Germany during the War of the Austrian Succession. In that particularly bloody battle, Wolfe had his horse shot out from under him. Due to his valor in battle, Wolfe was promoted to the rank of Captain.

Jacobite Rebellion

In 1746, the United Kingdom was on the verge of civil war due to what became known as the Jacobite Uprising or Jacobite Rebellion. Wolfe and his regiment had been called back to Great Britain to deal with Bonnie Prince Charlie, a.k.a. “the Young Pretender” who claimed that he, not King George II, was the rightful heir to the throne. His supporters were known as Jacobites and in September of 1746, they had captured the Scottish city of Edinburgh and were preparing to move south into England. Wolfe participated in the Battle of Falkirk and the decisive Battle of Culloden. Not having much support in England, the Jacobite uprising lost steam and its leaders fled to France. With the rebellion crushed, Wolfe was then stationed in the Scottish highlands with a mission to purge the area of any remaining rebels.

War of the Austrian Sucession

At the beginning of 1747, Wolfe returned to continental Europe to take part in the War of the Austrian Succession. Great Britain, who was allied with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, wanted to also curb France’s expansionist ambitions. Wolfe, under the command of General Cumberland, went to protect the city of Maastricht from advancing French forces. However on July 2nd, Wolfe was very badly wounded at the Battle of Lauffeld, the largest and probably fiercest armed clash he’d ever taken part in (it’s estimated that approximately 140,000 men took part in the battle). Though the British fought bravely, in the end they narrowly lost Maastricht to the French, after which an armistice was declared.

In the end, at least in terms of territories gained or lost, the War of the Austrian succession was pretty useless.
Under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Britain and France were to give back the territory that they had captured throughout the conflict. The Austrians were also given back their prewar territories in the Netherlands. Essentially, troops on both sides died for nothing.

Scotland Years

Despite the outcome, the end of the war was a sort of life marker for the still young James. At just 21, Wolfe had served in seven campaigns and had probably seen enough fighting for a career soldier twice his age. Whether he needed a change or needed time to recover, Wolfe returned to Great Britain afterward and was posted for a second time in Scotland, this time on garrison duty. By 1750, he had now achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

The Seven Years’ War

Just so we’re all on the same page, the conflict known as the Seven Years’ War occurred between 1756 – 1763 and involved all of the Europe’s major powers. It essentially pitted Great Britain, Portugal, Prussia and other German states against France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Spain and Sweden. It was fought not only in Europe but also in West Africa, India, the Philippines and the Americas. For our purpose, we’re going to focus on the latter and specifically the North American arena where the conflict was commonly called the French and Indian War.

Wolfe’s first mission of the war was to capture the French seaport of Rochefort where he personally led a scouting party along the coast in preparation for an attack. The mission however failed, not due to Wolfe, but because his senior commander, Sir John Mordaunt, aborted the intended attack. There was however a silver lining in that Wolfe became more familiar with the tactics of amphibious warfare, something that he would use to his advantage in future campaigns in Quebec. His conduct in the war also brought him to the attention of the British Prime Minister, William Pitt.

William Pitt
Pitt felt that in Europe, the British could do little of real substance to stifle the French. However North America was a different story. British colonists outnumbered their French counterparts in population by over 30 to 1. Canada was where he felt that the French were most vulnerable and could be defeated with relative ease. Thus, he promoted Wolfe to the rank of Brigadier General and gave him command of British forces in Canada to cause trouble for France.

Wolfe’s Venture into Quebec

On January 23, 1758, Wolfe led an amphibious assault on Cape Breton Island, Canada, and captured the French fort of Loiusbourg at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. This victory opened up the rest of French Canada to British Forces. However before he could proceed further, Wolfe returned back to England to take care of his failing health. Pitt though didn’t want to delay in taking taking Quebec and felt that Wolfe, despite his illness, was still the best man for the job. This, he sent him back to Canada, this time as a Major General with orders to take France’s greatest North American prize, Quebec.

French forces in Quebec were under the command of Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (a.k.a. Marquis de Montcalm) who was determined to prevent the British from capturing Quebec. This though would be difficult due to the fewer number of French soldiers and colonists Canada. Montclam however did believe that the French government would sign a peace treaty with Great Britain and her allies the following year. All he had to do was to simply keep France’s foothold in Canada until this took place.

The Capture of Quebec

Wolfe though would have to move quickly. Along with rumors of the peace treaty, winter was coming (no Game of Thrones pun intended). This would no doubt freeze up the St. Lawrence River and make it nearly impossible to transport troops and call on naval support for an attack. With a force of around 5,000, Wolfe sailed up the St. Lawrence River and set up camp on the the island of Orleans, almost directly opposite the Quebec City. There, a French army under the Marquis de Montcalm was entrenched in well fortified positions along the high cliffs of the city’s river frontage. Holding the high ground and the advantage, the French soldiers chose to remain on the defensive and not risk an open assault on the British.

Heights of Abraham (artist conception from 1784)
Whether it was not wanting to wait out in enemy territory or the sense of urgency caused by the fact that he was ill, Wolfe wasted no time in mounting his attack. After an abortive attack east of the city, Wolfe took approximately 4,400 of his men a mile up the St. Lawrence River and landed at a cove near Cape Diamond. From there was a steep path, roughly 200 meters tall that led up to a mesa called the Heights of Abraham. The climb through the pass was difficult and tiring with the men moving in a in single file. Despite the difficulty, the plan to scale the heights was a good one. When the British troops arrived to the top, they discovered that it was lightly guarded. Montclam had made a grave miscalculation. He thought that it was not possible for a large force to climb the Heights. Thus, he left it relatively unguarded. The few guards who were there fled and within 15 minutes, British troops were in control of the area.
James Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham
Despite the surprise attack, French troops were able to inflict significant causalities on the British force, including Wolfe, who had been shot thrice: in the arm, the shoulder, the chest. As he lay dying, his men were able to break up the French force until they fled in full retreat. When Wolfe was told the news and of the impending British victory, he reported to have said “Now, God be praised, I die contented.”
Death of James Wolfe
During the battle, Montclam was also fatally wounded and died the next day.

British Control over Canada

The fall of Quebec City was really the turning point in the French and Indian War. After this, French morale on the continent was at an all time low. The French defeat in Quebec opened up the rest of French Canada to the British. Montreal was captured the next year, leaving the only French possessions in North America being Louisiana and the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. From then onward until the American Revolution, the British would reign supreme in North America.

Wolfe and His Legacy

Upon his death in battle, James Wolfe became an instant hero. His remains were shipped back to Great Britain on HMS Royal William and put alongside those of his father in the family vault at St. Alfege Church in Greenwich alongside his father.

Wolfe is remembered today as a brilliant tactician, though some historians also considered him to be a bit mad for such a daring attack. Perhaps Wolfe knew that with his tuberculosis, he didn’t have long to live. This may have been why he led such a reckless assault. Whatever the reason, Wolfe today is honored and remembered by the British (and reviled by the French) as one of their greatest and youngest soldiers ever to serve King and country.

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