Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

My favorite painting of the Plains of Abraham, showing a young drummer watching as the Royal-Roussillon regiment breaks. (www.oldgloryprints.com/A%20Drummers%20Fear.htm)

I wrote this for the 250th Anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (September 13, 1759-September 13,2009) but rewrote it here. Find the original article at http://www.faithful-legacy.blogspot.com/. The changes here have (mostly) shifted the blame traditionally put on Montcalm to Vaudreil and Ramezay, because I believe that Montcalm did all he could at the Plains and afterward.

Today is the 250th Anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham! The battle was relatively short, lasting only one hour (in fact, the combat was decided by one volley) but it sealed the fate of New France (Canada). God's Providential hand was clearly watching over the British, especially in the perilous climb up the cliffs to the Plains. Historian William Potter chose this battle as one of his topics in "Providential Battles: Twenty Battles that Changed the World" (available at http://www.visionforum.com/).

The French cause in the New World was waning. Forts Duquesne, Carillon (renamed Ticonderoga), Louisbourg, and other French possessions had fallen into British hands. Only Quebec and Montreal were left in French hands. Montreal was not a defensible city, but Quebec was a veritable fortress. It sat on top of high cliffs. The British had to take Quebec to break French power completely, and they appointed Major General James Wolfe as commander of the expedition.

The British army sailed down the Saint Lawrence River and set up camp at Pointe Levis. Wolfe bombarded the city with cannons, but he could not stop the barges with food coming from Montreal. On July 31, Wolfe attempted to attack the French lines near Montmorency Falls, but the French, under Major-General Marquis de Montcalm beat them off. 500 British were killed, and 60 French. Montcalm's troops were jubilant. They expected that this was the end of the campaign. But Montcalm himself believed that the British would not be baffled so easily.

Finally, the British set aside the idea of another attack at Montmorency Falls for a landing at St. Anse de Foulon, an opening in the cliffs. A road led from the Foulon up to the Plains of Abraham, and the landward side of Quebec. The Foulon was defended by about 100 Canadian militiamen under the worthless veteran, Captain de Vergor. Montcalm said that one hundred men would hold off any attack until help came, and he was probably right. But the hundred were off to their farms, with permission from their commander--if they would help him harvest too.

Montcalm had reconnoitered the cliffs, and, just to be safe, posted the Guyenne Regiment on the Plains of Abraham. But his rival, Governor Vaudreil, ordered them off the plains. "I'll see about the Foulon myself, to-morrow," the Governor promised. Thus, when the British landed, they had no enemies on the plains except the militia under Vergor.

That night, a suspicious French sentry challenged the boats, but Captain Donald MacDonald (for Captain MacDonald see Reid, Quebec 1759, pg. 64) of the 78th Highlanders answered him in French, dismissing any suspicion. The French were expecting a convoy of provisions from Montreal, but it was cancelled. Vergor, however, was not told of the change in plans.

Twenty-four of William Howe's light infantry climbed up the cliffs and onto the road, where they scattered and captured Vergor's militia. With the road in their hands, the British moved their regiments onto the Plains of Abraham, ready for battle.

It was only on the morning of the 13th that Montcalm learned the truth: the British were on the Plains of Abraham. He had to attack, for "If we give him (the enemy) time to establish himself, we shall never be able to attack him with the troops we have." Montcalm feared that the British would besiege the town from the landward side. He marched from Beauport and interposed his army between the city and the British. Montcalm sent requests to the Governor of Quebec, M. Ramezay, begging for the garrison of Quebec (about 2,200 regulars, militia, and sailors) to join him, together with 25 cannons. Ramezay sent 5 cannons and no troops.

The Canadians were skirmishing with the British light infantry, but the regulars waited. Montcalm ordered his men forward. They fired, then advanced to close quarters with the British. The British waited until the French were within thirty yards, and fired a volley. The French columns crumbled and fled for the Saint Charles bridge. But for the Canadians covering the retreat, the French army might have been destroyed completely.
The Royal-Roussillon Regiment prepares for one last shot as the La Sarre Regiment runs (photograph from the author's collection)

General Wolfe, who was with the front lines of the British, was shot three times, the last wound being mortal. As he lay on the ground, a soldier called "See them run!"

"Who?" asked General Wolfe.

"The French."

"Now, God be praised, I will die in peace," said Wolfe, and died shortly thereafter. When he died, George Townshend took command of the army.

Just as Montcalm's army was fleeing for dear life across the Saint Charles, Colonel Bougainville and his 2,000 men arrived on the battlefield. The Corps de Cavallrie skirmished with the British until Bougainville withdrew, to fight again another day.

Like his adversary, Montcalm was wounded, but he lingered until the 14th. After he died, Vaudreil and most of the troops fled, where they joined Montcalm's second-in-command, the Chevalier de Levis. The French moved back toward Quebec, only to find that Ramezay had surrendered. The French army sheltered in Montreal until Levis fought the British at Sainte-Foy, April 28, 1760.

God's Providential hand is clearly evident. Why should the provision convoy have been cancelled and Vergor not warned? Why should the French have had such a worthless man in command at such a critical post? God was aiding the British to take Quebec, and ultimately Canada.

No comments:

Post a Comment