The Battle of the Plains of Abraham

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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham,1 fought on September 13, 1759, proved decisive for the American theatre of the Seven Years War, and, perhaps the most important turning point in North American history. Certainly the battle was the painful birthplace of the complicated polity that came to be called Canada.

Despite its importance to two nations that have remained in exquisite tension ever since, the scene of the battle was not named for the Old Testament Patriarch Abraham. Rather, the field a short distance outside the walls of Quebec was named for its original european user, Abraham Martin, who had been granted this patch of land upstream from Québec City as a pasture for his cattle in the 1630s.

The Forces

The French forces at Québec -- indeed in all of New France -- were commanded by Lt-Gen le Marquis de Montcalm a career officer (from the age of nine) who found the guerilla tactics common in the New World ridiculous. Unfortunately for Montcalm and his strategic prejudices, most of his command consisted of colonial militiamen trained only in the colonial guerilla tactics.

The British land force was under the command of Maj-Gen James Wolfe, an officer of experience,most particularly in the putting down of the Scottish Rebellion of 1745. According to legend, Wolfe had refused a direct order from the Duke of Cumberland to summarily execute a young Scottish survivor of Culloden. Whether or not Wolfe exhibited anachronistic respect for the Geneva Conventions, Culloden gave him experience of using regular troops against irregulars, experience that would be helpful on the Plains of Abraham. As well, Wolfe had the previous year led the amphibious assault on the French fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Wolfe's force of regulars at Québec consisted of about 4500 veterans. The British force was provided with mobility by a fleet under the command of Vice-Adm Charles Saunders.

The Battle

A Contemporary Map of the field of battle and surrounding river and land is available online. Reference to this map will make the British amphibious movements more clear.
For much of the siege of Québec,the British were confined to their ships, the south shore of the St. Lawrence, and the Isle of Orleans as the French watched from their virtually impregnable citadel atop the cliffs on the north bank of the river. Then, on September 5th and 6th the fleet sailed further east up the St. Lawrence. Early on the 13th the British landed their entire force at the base of the cliffs below the Plains of Abraham and, in a major feat of bravado scaled the cliffs, hauling their armaments behind.

When Montcalm learned of the sudden reappearance of the British upstream of the city, he must have realized that his goose was in the oven. The British fleet held the river. The British army was standing in tight formation smack in the middle of his supply line to Montréal. Québec was alone.

To some extent, Montcalm seems to have panicked. Rather than waiting to gather and prepare all his forces for a careful attack against the British, who still had their backs to the abyss, Montcalm ordered roughly 4500 ill-prepared and ill-equipped militiamen hastily onto the field against the weary but disciplined British regulars. The first volley from the British infantry began the French retreat. There was enough of a fight, however, that both Montcalm and Wolfe were killed.

The Aftermath

The French forces, leaderless, retreated upstream, away from Québec, leaving the citadel of New France virtually defenceless. Québec surrendered on September 18th.

The fall of Québec was the beginning of the end for New France. After a failed attempt to recapture the capital in 1760, France surrendered Montréal. The people of New France were no longer French, but neither were they British: they were Québecois.

1Sometimes referred to as "The Battle of the Heights of Abraham"

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