Tales from the Trenches

America Was 20 Minutes Away From Being French

How French hubris determined the fate of North America.

Walker Art Library/Alamy Stock Photo

Go there at dawn.

The Plains of Abraham are located in what is now downtown Quebec City, Canada, immediately adjacent to the Citadel of Quebec and the walls of the Old City.

While the open spaces of this aesthetically pleasing park are easy on the eyes at any hour, to open your mind to the long lines of Redcoats on the western end of the plain, and the serried ranks of the White-frocked Frenchmen opposing them with their backs to the city wall, you really need to be alone. You need to see the space, the battlements beyond, without the Frisbee tossing college students and the glazed-eyed lovers crisscrossing the bloody battlefield before your eyes.

Go there at dawn. At dawn, one morning 257 years ago, the fate of a continent and perhaps the world changed when a force of British Regulars and American Rangers made it to the top of a cliff and with just two fatal blasts from a line of muskets made history.

This battle, in 1759, was the culminating moment of what we think of as the French and Indian War (the rest of the world knows it as the Seven Years War). Yes, the war would continue on this continent for another year, but it was that day, those 20 minutes, that made the difference.

For five years up to this point, the conflict see-sawed. The initial French victories on this continent occurred along Lake Champlain and Lake George (think “Last of the Mohicans”) under the leadership of the French military commander, the Marquis de Montcalm. That string of successes, however, did not last.

With the bold and newly promoted General James Wolfe at their head the British (and it should be noted “Colonial”) troops reversed the tide. The British had already captured the massive French fortress at Louisburg the year before, when Wolfe was a Colonel, thereby opening up the Saint Lawrence to the Royal Navy. As they controlled the entrance to the seaway, moving upriver towards the jewel in France’s colonial crown, the fortified city of Quebec was the logical next step.• Wolfe, returned to England, was appointed a Brigadier and put in charge of that prong of the overall British assault. He was 32 years old. He would not make 33.

Quebec City, in 1759, looked impressive. It was built where the mighty Saint Lawrence went from dozens of miles wide to 1,000 yards, and at least when seen from the river the formidable heights upon which the place stood was a nightmare to attack. The British had been trying, ever since the 1690s, to no avail. But like all fortified places, it had its weak points. In this case there were two, the geography, and French hubris.

Earlier attempts by the British over the preceding decades came to grief, in no small part because of the very real difficulty of moving up the Saint Lawrence without the benefit of an internal combustion engine. Reefs, shoals, rocks, and hard shores all combined to make the river itself a major combatant. And that was where the French hubris took over. Though French ground commanders continually begged for more resources from Versailles to construct defenses, the sea services pointed to the wrecked efforts of the British, literally, to make the passage up the seaway and river without expert local guides. To the French it was local knowledge, and treacherous tides and rocks, that formed Quebec’s greatest bastion. A cash-strapped Versailles was more than willing to listen to this thesis of defense.

But Quebec City was vulnerable. Not from the water, that would have been suicidal, but from the landward side. From “upriver,” as it were, the defenses of the western landward approaches pretty much sucked. For decades these were underfunded, incompetently built, and episodically stopped in their construction by a Royal French Administration seeking economy where they thought they might get it. The French would ultimately lose that bet because they did not understand the intellectual and administrative developments occurring in the United Kingdom.

See, although we now despise bureaucracy, this is because we are so used to it and see it as an institutional inhibition. A plague. Something to be avoided. But think about the past, before the invention of “Bureaus.”

In the 1700s these were new, an innovation, and something that was a damned sight better than the quasi-medieval crud that had occurred before, and the British were leading the way there. They had created organizational institutions, and most importantly applied them to the very real difficulties of controlling complex issues such as naval ship design, the application of science to maritime efforts in issues like hydrographic charting, and a whole host of other seemingly esoteric topics that seem, “well DUH,” to us now. But these were groundbreaking at the time. For example, the Royal Navy began, some years before this, to chart the oceans of the entire planet. Not just generic coastlines, but depths and types of ground underwater, all of it in detail, down to the fathom, as best they could.

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The French? Not so much. Local “experts” were far cheaper than any sort of detailed hydrographic survey process. So they never went that route, and because they did not, they came to believe in things like the “fact” that the hazards of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and river were viable barriers to anybody else being able to attack them as far up the route as Quebec. And it was quite a way. From Louisburg, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence, (which the British captured, again, in 1758) it was still 650 nautical miles to Quebec, and the last 300 or so were particularly dangerous.

So the French were not necessarily wrong in the 1600s, or the early 1700s. The tides in the Seaway can run 5 knots in one direction and 3 knots in the other, and both shores are granite. The tides also may rise and fall as much as 10’-15’ in mere hours, changing everything. As a man who sails upon oceans and bays in the modern age, I can tell you that is terrifying even with modern GPS.

But by the middle of that century, the French were way off base. The British came, with their Royal Navy, but they came with charts all the way, because they were making them as they went along. In 150-some years the French had never accurately charted the seaway and the river. But the British were doing it, methodically, scientifically, as they moved upstream. Then they marked the channels, setting buoys out along the narrow sections, and making their “soundings” everywhere they went. These, like other products of their new “bureaucratic” system, were to be spread about the entire Royal Navy, forever more. It was something the French had never done, out of cheapness and a belief that nobody else would or could do such a thing. In short, hubris.

So, when in the late Spring of 1759 the British did work their way up the seaway and then up the river, the French were caught off balance. It is perhaps indicative of the Royal Navy’s competence that one of those “Masters” of a British ship conducting the surveys as they went along was then-Lieutenant James Cook. Yes, “that” James Cook, who later lapped the planet a few times before dying in Hawaii. Charting each and every hazard, the depths, the tidal flows and the prevailing winds, the Royal Navy brought General James Wolfe’s command to striking distance. The Royal Navy landed Wolfe on the Isle de Orleans in June, 1759.

Stymied by the scale of the defenses when he first arrived with his army and accompanying fleet that summer, Wolfe initially had to settle for a semi-conventional siege. “Semi” because the combination of water and land was so complex.

We need a map, but a simple version would look like this: Draw one slightly arced line across the bottom half of a page. Label that “St. Lawrence.” Now vertically coming in from the top draw another line. This is the very minor river known as the Charles. Finally, from about 80 degrees to the right (East) draw in one more line that intersects at the same point. This is the “Northern Branch” of the same St. Lawrence, at the end of the 13 mile-long island Isle de Orleans, as it rejoins the main line of the river.

Draw a small circle where all points connect. That is the basin just outside Quebec.

On the Upper Left of that intersection, on the ground, where the St Charles and St. Lawrence Rivers combine, that is the low and high-ground of Quebec City. On the top edge of the line that is the “Northern Branch”, that stretch of coast, that is called “Beauport.” The wedge where the St Lawrence (north and south) converge is the end of the previously mentioned Isle de Orleans, where Wolfe originally landed. And with all this water Wolfe, a landsman, had a significant quandary: How to assault from the land side, since just beside Quebec the river was so narrow?

His initial intention was to attack due north, assaulting the Beauport coast. That did not work. Though he landed troops up there, the French general confounded him. His “siege” was not complete, as the French could still get supplies from the interior of Canada, down the river.

Such a siege could not last. Wolfe, outside the walls, needed to fight the French before the freezing Canadian weather forced his fleet to leave and left him and his men outside the walls in the dead of winter. Atop that, his health was failing and some speculate that though recently engaged, the 32 year-old Wolfe had become fatalistic. The Royal Navy saved him.

Familiar now, by both presence and bold surveys, they believed they could shoot through the narrows beside Quebec City and get “above” (that is to say “upstream”, to the west) on the river. This they did. Now Wolfe had options. He withdrew his forces from Beauport and moved them along the south side of the St. Lawrence. There they met the ships.

Day after day elements of the fleet ran up and down the river, looking for unguarded areas where Wolfe might land forces on the northern shore. Nothing seemed to promise success without massive risk. But their movements probably also contributed to the fatigue of the French seeking to shadow them along the northern shore. Finally, Wolfe took that risk.

At 3am on 13 September 1759 Wolfe’s subordinate, Brigadier James Murray, landed at the foot of the cliffs just upriver from Quebec. Wolfe himself was not far behind. The landing was a master-stroke of Army-Navy cooperation, and though it pains me to credit any navy, to the Royal Navy should go most of the credit.

The evidence seems to support the legend to some degree that a French speaking officer under Murray convinced the French forces above the landing site that they (the British) were French themselves. The Brits managed, at least, to land their initial forces unmolested on the low ground. But the heights were before them, and unless they got atop they would be sitting ducks.

To capture the small outpost at the top of the trail leading from the beach a small force scaled some cliffs just to the east and then outflanked the single narrow footpath leading up from the landing site. At the top was a conventional force of the French Army blocking the way up the trail. The British were led by a young-ish Lieutenant Colonel named Howe. A decade and a half later he would command British forces, slowly and without enthusiasm, as a general against the American rebels. But in 1759 he was a vigorous young Lieutenant Colonel, climbing the shale heights with his 200 men of the elite “Light” battalion. Within an hour Wolfe had his bridgehead, courtesy of Howe and his Light Infantrymen.

By 6:45 AM that morning Montcalm had the alarming news, a British force was on the south side of the river, just outside the vulnerable western (land side) walls of the upper part of the city. By placing themselves there the British now also sat astride Montcalm’s only supply route, since the Royal Navy owned the river. Pressed by time and circumstances the French general made a fatal decision. He would take many of his French regulars, as well as a significant number of the Canadian militia (and some Indian allies), and confront the British on the open field of battle, outside of the defensive walls of Quebec.

Montcalm sallied forth from the city not too long after 8:00 AM, though most times in all of this are imprecise. To punish the British and keep his own lines protected he pushed forward his Canadian backwoodsmen militia and Native American allies arranged in skirmishing and harassing formations on the flanks. It was their steady work that actually caused most of the British casualties taken during the entire engagement. Their sniping took place over the course of roughly an hour as the French main line moved into position and actually caused the British to divert troops from their own main line to protect the flanks. Finally Montcalm had his main body assembled and in-line. They then moved to confront the now steady line of around 4,500 British regulars. But Montcalm had a problem with his own “regulars.” It was a problem of his own creation.

Although he nominally had five battalions of professional French regular soldiers, those units were depleted. This was due to both his strategic need to spread the professionals as best he could to threatened locations all across Canada, as well as by the normal wastage of men and material under frontier conditions. To mitigate these nominal and real losses Montcalm made a fateful decision to augment the Regulars with colonial militia, supplementing the Regulars with a significant percentage of Canadians. But though this boosted raw numbers, those militia were never truly integrated. They could not, in the short time allotted, learn the discipline and drill to change from men accustomed to “open” and largely individual behavior in combat along the frontier to solid infantry in the age of Linear Warfare. Even if they wanted to, and it appears that many did not. This mattered.

Because the irregulars were not, well, regular, the overall quality of the “Regulars” went down. Ironically, those same sort of men provided great support on the sides of Montcalm’s formation, and actually caused the majority of the casualties that the British sustained. But their effect in the center was fatal. As the French main line, the linear formations of the now-degraded professionals approached the British line, it began to delaminate.

Rather than a single disciplined mass, the regiments came up somewhat piecemeal. Adding to the problems for the French was the fact that some of their regiments had a fairly high proportion of ill-disciplined new arrivals from France itself in addition to the colonial supplement. Rather than coming forward in one straight line the French had a bulging center, and significant internal distractions.

For example, as one French regiment initiated fire…from much too far away, the colonial elements of the regiment lay down (as was their normal, frontier, practice) to reload. It takes a lot longer to reload a muzzle-loading musket from the prone. This started the break-up, and they were more than 100 yards away, meaning that their fire was ineffective anyway. So when the regiment then moved forward the supplemental troops were still prone, reloading. (This may be a generous description, it should be noted.)

Firing and reloading, the French main line continued to move forward, albeit disjointedly. The British, for their part, stood stock still.

The main British line had been prone due to the earlier skirmishing fire, but stood up when the French advance commenced. The Redcoats took the French fire without moving, unsurprising since at 100+ yards a smoothbore musket is not even remotely accurate. Closer and closer the French came forward, however unevenly. At one hundred yards the muskets of both sides were within killing range and just beyond that at least some French units fired a second volley. Still the British held their fire.

At fifty yards even the “Brown Bess” of the British infantry was moderately accurate, and even then the British held their fire. General Wolfe had ordered that they all load their muskets with double-shot, meaning two balls of ammunition per barrel, and he wanted them to hold their fire until the last moment, when such a volley would count the most. Finally, when the French lines stood no more than forty yards away, the British opened fire in one massive rippling volley. Battalion by battalion, platoon by platoon, their fire ripped forward.

Somewhere in here Wolfe, the commanding General, took not one, or two, but three rounds. His wrist, his belly (or groin, depending upon the source), and a fatal one to the chest. But he would live long enough to learn the outcome. Of course, that was not very long at all.

Because their muskets were all double-shotted, which reduces the range but obviously doubles the potential killing power of that first volley, the damage they displayed was impressive. In less than twenty seconds, as the British barrage discharged in a disciplined mass, unit by unit down their entire line, the French line was shredded. Then the British line took a few steps forward (perhaps to get clear of their own smoke), reloaded, and did it again. From the start of the French attack it had been, perhaps, 20 minutes. From the first British volley to the second, perhaps 240 seconds. And now this was the end. In that vanishingly small space of time, the vast majority of the French casualties went down, as did New France.

Because they were the losers, and because their record keeping was less precise, the exact numbers for the French are hard to establish. Estimates range from 600-1,500 men took a round in his body that morning. But fairly clearly the utter shattering force that the French felt was because it all came at one instant. Even the lower-end estimates put a figure that makes it clear that almost one man in four was killed or wounded in a just a few seconds. It was the epitome of “Shock.” The French recoiled, then retreated. Among those taking rounds during the retrograde was Montcalm himself. Though he lived long enough to get back inside the walls of Quebec, he would be buried in a shell-hole there not long after.

Within twelve months “New France” was no longer, Canada was British, and a border threat that might have kept American colonists from rebelling and creating a new nation, no longer existed. Yes, just 20 minutes to change the world.

Go to the Plain of Abraham at dawn. At dawn you may see them again, in your mind’s eye — nervous new French recruits facing fire for the first time under the colors of their King, and scarred old veterans of thirty years service. In the silence you can find only at dawn you might hear the echoes of commands rolling down the lines of the Redcoats, “Steady boys, steady. Wait for it. Stand fast there. OK, parade-ground like now…READY…LEVEL…FIRE!”

* The British and French saw seapower in distinctly different ways. The British, around this time, were starting to develop based around control of the seas. Sink the enemy, control the seas. Therefore the Army was just the ammunition which the Navy “launched” when power was needed ashore. The French saw seapower primarily as a way to move land armies and supplies from A to B, and so much of their nascent doctrine was based upon avoiding contact, and costly battles, to get to land where their armies would then dominate the land.