The Heights of Abraham

The first news of the landing came to when a runner who had escaped from Colonel Howe’s raid tried to raise the alarm, but one of Montcalm’s aides thought him mad and sent him away and then went back to bed.

Strangely, when Montcalm finally learned of the landing, he decided to attack Wolfe’s force directly. He could have waited for reinforcements which would have allowed him to attack both the front and rear of Wolfe’s position, or simply left the British on the plateau until lack of supplies forced them back down the cliff in the face of French fire. He explained his decision to his officers thus, “We cannot avoid action, the enemy is entrenching, and he already has two pieces of cannon. If we give him time to establish himself, we shall never be able to attack him”.

The forces available to Montcalm were considerable. In addition to some 13,000 regular troops he had Troupes de la Marine and militia, as well as cavalry, artillery and Ottowa Indians stationed in the city and at points along the river.

Wolfe had managed to assemble his troops with just one cannon, in a rough line with their backs to the river and spread out along the plateau with their right anchored on the bluff and his left on a wood. His main firing line was some 1,000 yards long to cover the width of the plain and was therefore forced to form them into two ranks rather than the conventional three.

On the left wing his troops exchanged fire with some French Canadian militia and the tussle managed to capture some huts to anchor the line. The militia set fire to one hut to keep it from enemy hands and the smoke from the burning building became so thick that it obscured the end of the British position and confusing Montcalm as to the actual width of the line.

As Wolfe waited for the main French attack, his troops came under harassing fire from the militia and irregulars. He ordered his troops to lie down in the scrub and tall grass until the enemy drew closer.

Montcalm ordered troops from their bases around the city, but instead of waiting and assembling an overwhelming force, he decided on an attack with the 3,500 troops that had so far reached the plain. His best were troops formed in lines three deep, others six deep and his poorest regiment in column. He also took three cannon up to the heights. At 10 am, he mounted his horse and with a wave of his sword, ordered a general advance on the British line.

Through his experience in European military warfare, Montcalm’s instinct was for large set piece battles in which regiments moved in precise order. Such actions required a disciplined soldiery, trained to march in time, change formation on command and retain cohesion in the face of bayonet charges or musket volleys. His regular regiments were well practised in these methods, but in the course of the long American campaigns, their ranks had been replenished by less disciplined militia whose talents in forest warfare made them prone to fire early and drop to the ground to reload, thus reducing the effect of concentrated fire.

Wolfe’s forces however, were all regulars and well trained in discipline under fire. They were ordered to charge their muskets with two balls each in preparation of their first volley. The two sides closed until they were about 30 yards apart.

 Captain John Knox, serving with the 43rd Foot, later wrote, “As the French came into range, the regiments, with great calmness, gave them as remarkable a close and heavy discharge as I ever saw”.

Both sides held their fire for a few minutes before the French released two ragged volleys. The British closed ranks and fired their own double charged volley before stepping forward a few paces and fired again which shattered the French and sent them into retreat.

Death of Wolfe by George Roth Jr, 1784. This is a copy of the famous painting by the American artist Benjamin West, 1770, which depicts Wolfe dying, surrounded by 13 people. Wolfe, who had moved to a position on a slight rise to observe the battle was struck on the wrist by a stray bullet, but clumsily wrapped the wound and continued directing his men. James Henderson, soldier of the Louisburg Grenadiers, later wrote that, “within moments of giving the command to fire, Wolfe was struck with two shots, one low in the stomach and a second in the chest and he fell to the ground. A nearby soldier shouted, “They run! See how they run!”. Wolfe opened his eyes and asked, “Who is running?” Upon being told that the French had broken, he gave several orders, then turned on his side and said, “Now, God be praised, I will die in peace”, and died.

With Wolfe dead and many senior officers wounded, Brigadier General Murray ordered the 78th Fraser Highlanders to pursue the retreating French, but they were met near the city by heavy fire from a floating battery on the river and also by sniping militia firing from the tree line. The 78th took the highest number of casualties in the entire battle.

Brigadier General Townshend, realising that more French reinforcements were approaching the British rear, quickly formed up two battalions to oppose them, but instead of attacking, the French commander retreated while the remains of Montcalm’s force fled towards Quebec.

It was during this retreat that Montcalm, still mounted, was struck several times by musket balls in the lower abdomen and thigh. He managed to make it to the city but died of his wounds the next morning. He was buried in a shell crater in the floor of the Ursuline chapel.

The battle had cost him 200 dead and 400 wounded. British losses were 60 killed and 600 wounded.

The commander in chief of French forces, General Vaudreuil, blamed Montcalm for the defeat and decided to abandon Quebec and move his forces west to join up with other units. He left a garrison in the city under the command of John Baptiste Ramazey. Meanwhile, the British settled in to besiege the city, backed up with a large fleet under Admiral Saunders. On the 18th of September, Ramazey surrendered and signed the Articles of Capitulation of Quebec. The city was turned over to British control. Shortly afterwards, the British fleet was forced to leave the St Lawrence due to the winter pack ice and the garrison was left to fend for itself. They suffered terribly throughout the winter with below zero temperatures and outbreaks of scurvy, reducing the garrison to some 4,000. On the 27th of April 1760, the French met and defeated the weakened British just outside the city in the Battle of Sainte Foy. Although defeated, the British were able to retreat into Quebec and now found themselves under siege.

The French made several attacks on the city, but their lack of artillery, plus British improvements to the fortifications meant that they could not dislodge the defenders before the return of the British fleet in mid May.

A naval battle fought at Quiberon Bay, just off the French coast proved decisive when the Royal Navy destroyed the French fleet, preventing them from sending badly needed reserve forces to New France. Without fresh troops, the whole French offensive against Quebec in 1760 would fail. In September, a depleted French force of just 2,000 men was confronted by 17,000 British and American troops. On the 8th of September, the French capitulated and the British took control of Montreal.

The Seven Years War had begun with Britain attempting to control French influence in North America, but quickly spread worldwide.  During the war, Britain had conquered the French and Spanish colonies of Canada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, St Lucia, Dominica and the Grenadines. She had also captured trading bases in India, Africa and the Philippines and the Spanish held island of Cuba. The French and Spanish had taken Minorca and Sumatra from the British, plus some territory in South America.

In 1763, the Treaty of Paris was signed to end the war and give possession of most of New France to Britain, including Canada and the eastern half of French Louisiana, stretching from the Mississippi to the Appalachian Mountains. As part of the treaty, France and Spain restored all their conquests to Britain while Britain returned Manila and Cuba to Spain. The French were given back Guadeloupe, Martinique, and St Lucia, plus their trading bases in India. France was also forced to cede Canada, Dominica, Grenada, Saint Vincent and Tobago to Britain and Spain ceded the whole of Florida.

France had now given up all its territory in North America and retained only some fishing rights off Newfoundland, plus the two small islands of St Pierre and Miquelon to be used for fish drying and curing. Their vast territory of French Louisiana, stretching from Alberta and Saskatchewan in the north, through Montana, The Dakotas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, to Missouri, Kansas, Colorado and the Gulf of Mexico, had been secretly given to its ally Spain a year earlier in what became known as the Treaty of Fontainebleau and would remain a Spanish possession until 1800, when Napoleon took it back in an attempt to build a French Empire in North America. In 1803, the 828,000 square mile territory was bought by the United States for a little over three cents an acre.

About The Author

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan. Read more about Jim »