Authors: Jennifer Crump
Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000
The defence of Louisbourg must have seemed hopeless even to the most optimistic of the French troops. But de Drucour refused to surrender, knowing that the longer he held out the less likely it was that the British fleet would move on to Quebec. By the end of June the walls of Louisbourg were crumbling and the city had no defences beyond what was left of them. Then, a British bomb exploded in the magazine on board one of the French ships. As the magazine exploded, sparking a horrific fire, the British continued to pound the ship with cannons and the fire spread to two nearby ships. French soldiers and sailors leapt into the sea, exchanging a fiery death for a watery grave.
The Expedition Against Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, 1745.
Five days later the British launched a sneak attack at midnight on two of the last remaining French ships, the
They slipped aboard, released the English prisoners held on the ships and then set fire to the ship's magazines. Once the French realized what was happening they immediately fired back at the English ships. Within hours, the
was in flames and the
had been sunk.
To those inside the fortress it must have seemed like the British and Americans were everywhere. Their canons dominated the hills around the city, their ships clogged the bay, British soldiers had taken up key positions in trenches along the perimeter of the city, and a steady barrage of canon fire had wreaked havoc on the city. The British lines had moved up so close that their front lines could pick off the French soldiers one by one on the ramparts above the city. One habitant wrote,
Not a house in the whole place but has felt the force of their cannonade. Between yesterday morning and seven o'clock to-night from a thousand to twelve hundred shells have fallen inside the town, while at least forty cannon have been firing incessantly as well. The surgeons have to run at many a cry of â
!' for fear lest they should share the patients' fate.
Finally de Drucour agreed to sue for peace. The terms were exceedingly humiliating for the French troops, but without them the safety of the civilians could not be ensured. Drucour had to content himself with the knowledge that he had prevented an attack on Quebec City; it was far too late for the British to continue their attack, at least that year. So the French surrendered and de Drucour was shipped as a prisoner to Britain. Louisbourg was once more in British and American hands. The British continued in their attempts to rid the Atlantic coast of French settlements and in 1759 would use Louisbourg as a launching point for an attack on Quebec. That invasion would be Louisbourg's last. In the 1760s the fort was razed by British soldiers who did not want to see it returned to the French in any future peace treaty.
With Louisbourg in English hands, the seemingly endless war for control of North America appeared to have shifted in favour of Britain. The next battle would decide the war and pit two of the greatest generals that North America would ever know against one another. Their chosen battleground would be another fortress city: the city of Quebec.
Quebec was the cornerstone of New France and the lynchpin in the machine that ensured French hegemony in the region. It was there that European ships went to trade and where the furs were sent to be shipped to Europe and elsewhere. From Quebec, adventurers, traders, and soldiers had access to ports extending into the Great Lakes and the fur-rich interior of Canada, and outward to the Atlantic and the ports of Europe. Militarily, the city appeared impenetrable. It was situated on a very narrow portion of the St. Lawrence where the shores stood barely one kilometre apart. The Saint-Charles River curled into the St. Lawrence there, providing a natural haven for ships in the Beauport Bay. The city had been built atop an unassailable series of cliffs, which formed a natural fortress-like barrier between the city and any potential bombardment from the river below. The city itself was divided into two parts: Upper Town and Lower Town. Lower Town contained the piers, shops, and homes of many of the common people and was situated on a plain along the banks of the river. Upper Town was home to the clergy and upper classes, and was located on a high cliff that ran parallel to the river. A thick battery with two heavily fortified gates separated the two parts of the city.
To land their fatal blow, the British chose James Wolfe, a temperamental career soldier who had honed his craft at the brutal Battle of Culloden. At the age of 13 he received his first post as an officer in his majesty's navy and soon developed a reputation as a brilliant tactician, somewhat unorthodox soldier, and a man destined for great things. After Louisbourg fell, largely because of Wolfe's fearless efforts, he lobbied hard for the invasion to be carried on into Quebec. He wrote to his superior, General Amherst:
[W]e might make an offensive and a destructive war in the Bay of Fundy and in the Gulf of St.Â Lawrence. I beg pardon for this freedom, but I cannot look coolly upon the bloody inroads of those hell-hounds the Canadians; and if nothing further is to be done, I must desire leave to quit the army.
When Amherst and others refused to move on Quebec as quickly as he would have liked, Wolfe returned to England. Despite being a man plagued by various illnesses, he chafed at inaction. In London he lobbied for another promotion and an assignment to lead an invasion of the fortress of Quebec. Wolfe's exploits at Louisbourg had captured the imagination of the British public, who had heard nothing of the brutality with which he crushed any resistance from the inhabitants of the Bay of Fundy and the GaspÃ©. But not everyone was enthused with the idea of Wolfe's potential as a leader. When it was suggested that he be given command of the Quebec campaign, a story circulated that Wolfe's superiors considered him mad. “Mad is he?” King George is said to have replied. “Then I hope he bites my other generals.”
Wolfe frequently wrote about the imperfections of his character and considered himself quick-tempered and even cruel. “My temper is much too warm,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “and sudden resentment forces out expressions and even actions that are neither justifiable nor excusable.”
Yet he had an unflappable loyalty to his country and an immoveable sense of justice and honour. When a superior officer ordered him to shoot a wounded highlander at Culloden he refused, risking his own ambitions, a court martial, and possible hanging rather than violate his own sense of honour. But this same sense of justice would later lead him to condone acts of horrendous violence against citizens who supported the French.
In February 1759, Wolfe sailed with the British fleet across the Atlantic; with him were some of the nearly 9,000 troops who would form his invasion force.
Others awaited him in Louisbourg. Nearly one third of his force came from the American colonies, many of them German and Swiss settlers with a considerable number of American backwoodsmen and sharpshooters thrown into the mix. Among the remaining two-thirds were an entertaining mix of British regulars, highlanders, and Irish. Many of the Irish were cast-offs from the regular army, pardoned convicts, and pressed men. The traditionally dressed highlanders included a regiment known to the French as
les sauvages sans culottes
, a group known particularly for their ferociousness in battle. Regulars were drawn from regiments previously assigned to battlefronts on the European continent and included three regiments from the soldiers assigned to guard Louisbourg during the winter of 1746. Of the latter group, one of Wolfe's officers wrote, “They made a very shabby appearance and did not trouble themselves much about discipline; nor were they regularly clothed; their officers seemed to be a good deal ashamed.”
Wolfe was blunter, believing “that no good could be made of them”
But whatever their faults, Wolfe's army consisted of the toughest, most experienced and battle hardened troops ever to launch an invasion in Canada.
The trip across the Atlantic proved slow and rough, particularly for Wolfe, who was prone to seasickness. He arrived in Louisbourg, ill and ill-tempered, and furious to discover that none of the ordered preparations for his invasion had been accomplished. Ice had apparently delayed the small fleet of ships that was to have sailed up the St. Lawrence in advance of the main fleet to capture incoming French ships and prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching Quebec. Though the ice had prevented the British ships from sailing it had not, Wolfe quickly learned, prevented the French ships from reaching Quebec. When Wolfe arrived in Louisbourg, prepared to launch an immediate invasion, he learned that not only were the French aware of the coming attack, but they had already received both the provisions and the men they would need to withstand a lengthy siege. The hungry, desperate rabble he hoped to face were wellfed and well armed.
Within Quebec City itself, the mood was generally buoyant. Despite the news that the British were on their way, provisions and reinforcements had arrived. Surely the mighty fortress of Quebec could withstand the assault. But one man feared that the battle might be the last to be fought on French North American soil. Like Wolfe, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis de Montcalm, was a career soldier. He became an officer at 12 and was wounded no less than five times during a career that led him to French battlefields all over the world. By 1759 he was nearly 50 years old, anxious to resume his retirement, and a reluctant commander of the French forces in the New World. In a letter written in April 1759, Montcalm informed the war minister in France that he fully expected Quebec to fall, if not that year then surely the next.
The response from the French government was clear. A letter from the minister of war informed Montcalm that it was,
[N]ecessary that you limit your plans of defense to the most essential points and those most closely connected, so that â¦ each part may be within reach of support and succor from the rest. How small soever may be the space you are able to hold, it is indispensable to keep a footing in North America; for if we lose the country entirely, its recovery will be almost impossible.
Despite the reluctance with which he accepted his assignment, Montcalm was an honourable and loyal soldier, determined to protect the colony. He pleaded in vain for both substantial reinforcements from France and a shoring up of existing defences within Canada. Both pleas had fallen on deaf ears. France was too consumed by the war on the continent to spare much for its far-off colony. In Canada Montcalm had to negotiate with the colony's corrupt business manager, FranÃ§oise Bigot, and the inept French Governor FranÃ§ois-Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil. Bigot's job was to preserve stores for the colony but his business was in commandeering all the local crops and sending them to France on government ships. Governor de Rigaud would then inform the government that the colony was starving and Bigot's friends would sell the crops back to the government at a rich profit, to ship back to the very colony they had been stolen from.
For his part, Governor de Rigaud was less concerned with the defence of the colony than he was with his own amusement. He was convinced that the rumoured British invasion force would be unable to navigate the treacherous St. Lawrence and would be wrecked on one of its numerous shoals. When Montcalm suggested defending Pointe-LÃ©vy, across the river from Quebec, de Rigaud's engineers scoffed that no known gun could land shells on Quebec from that great a distance. Both of those assumptions would prove to be fatal mistakes.
Montcalm was in Montreal when the French ships slipped through the English net and made their way up the St. Lawrence. Montcalm hated Montreal at least as much as he detested Quebec. He was appalled by the drinking and gambling that the nobility, especially de Rigaud and Bigot, indulged in. The excesses seemed even more decrepit to him when, during the long winter of 1758â1759, the soldiers were put on half-rations and forced, on some occasions, to eat their horses while the local peasantry, dependent upon stores from France for sustenance, simply starved. The endless parties, dinner parties, and balls wore on Montcalm and he longed to be in the thick of battle or at least preparing for battle again. Then the ships from France arrived. While he welcomed the reinforcements and supplies, what really buoyed his spirits were the letters from France conferring upon him sole responsibility for the defence of Quebec and stripping both de Rigaud and Bigot of much of their power. Montcalm hurried to Quebec, making the journey in little over a day. He quickly launched a massive project to build batteries and earthworks, but years of neglect made the job challenging. Montcalm considered the effort critical and, unlike de Rigaud, he was not content to allow the volatile St. Lawrence to take care of the English fleet for him.
The English fleet was not about to trust the St. Lawrence either. For much of the winter of 1758â1759, two British officers â Samuel Johannes Holland and James Cook
â had been busy charting the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence River. They painstakingly measured the river's depth by carefully tossing in a weighted rope, allowing it to slip through their hands until the weight rested on the bottom, and carefully noted every sandbar, pool, and inlet. Guided by Holland and Cook's charts, Wolfe's army was ferried uneventfully up the St. Lawrence by a naval fleet commanded by Admiral Charles Saunders in early June 1759. What the charts could not help them with was the treacherous traverse just downriver from Quebec. Saunders's second in command, Rear-Admiral Philip Durell, travelled ahead of the others and made his way through by subterfuge. Drawing near the traverse, he raised the French colours and several pilots canoed out to help him steer through. Once the pilots were captured, he lowered the French colours, raised the British, and forced the pilots to lead his ships through the dangerous rapids. On board, Saunders had an unfortunate French captain who was forced to choose between loyalty to his country and his life. He chose the latter and the entire fleet slipped easily through the traverse. The fleet was an imposing sight. It stretched for kilometres along the St. Lawrence and included 50 warships, a score of frigates, brigs, and sloops, and 119 transport and supply ships.
The sight of this massive English fleet must have terrorized the French Canadian peasants who watched its arrival. But if this sight shocked them, the English were equally shocked by what they found on the French shores.