The Heights of Abraham

Portait of Wolfe at Quebec, a reproduction of one by Shaak at Quebec House, Westerham, Kent.

In 1759, Britain was locked in a struggle with the French for control of Eastern Canada. The French had established a colony called Acadia in New France in north-eastern North America, centred on what is now the Canadian province of Quebec, plus Maine and areas of the North American coastline stretching to the Ohio River. The fighting lasted from 1754 to 1763 and became known as The Seven Years War, or by some as the French/Indian Wars.

In 1758, the British besieged and captured the port of Louisburg, gaining control of vast areas of Atlantic Canada and opening up the seaway to Quebec. In the same month, they also captured the French Fort Fronternac, situated where the St Lawrence River leaves Lake Ontario, an important French supply base for French outposts along the Ohio Valley. These victories persuaded some Indian allies of the French to defect to the British, forcing the French to draw back and consolidate their strength in major bases such as Quebec.

The British General James Wolfe was ordered to capture Quebec and was promised a force of 12,000 troops to achieve the task, but when he arrived from England having spent some time recovering from illness, he discovered that his force consisted of just 7,000 infantry and 300 gunners. He was supported however, by a fleet of 49 ships, plus various smaller craft, led by Admiral Charles Saunders.

One of Saunders’ officers was James Cook, captain of HMS Pembroke, later to find fame in his exploration of the Pacific. He was sent ahead into the St Lawrence to survey suitable landing sites close to Quebec. His ship guided the fleet through a treacherous channel known as “The Traverse” and the troops were landed on the Isle d’Orleans on the 28th of June.  The French tried to disrupt the landing by sending seven fire ships down the river, but British sailors in longboats managed to drag the flaming craft clear of the fleet.

The following day, a further landing was made on the south bank of the river at Point Levis and directly opposite Quebec. An artillery battery was set up and began to bombard the city, reducing the shore area to rubble.

Realising that the British would attempt a landing on their side of the river, the French commander, General Montcalm despatched some 12,000 French and colonial troops along the river to build a system of fortified redoubts and artillery positions between the Saint Charles River and Montmorency Falls facing the shallow beaches where he expected landings to be made.

On the 31st of July, Wolfe attempted a landing at the town of Beauport on the northern shore. The town had been much fortified by the French; the houses barricaded and organised to allow musket fire from within.  Following an artillery bombardment, 3,500 troops attempted to land, but were caught by crossfire in the shallows. Some members of the Louisburg Grenadiers did manage to reach the beach but could not gain further ground.  A sudden thunderstorm gave the British the opportunity to pull back which they did having suffered some 450 casualties.

Some French officers thought that this defeat would be the last British attack. One wrote, “I have no more anxiety about Quebec. Wolfe, I assure you, will make no progress. He has contented himself with losing five hundred of his best soldiers”.

Wolfe, however, had changed his focus, sending troops, together with American Rangers, to attack French settlements along the St Lawrence, destroying over 1,000 stone houses and manors and killing many colonists. These tactics did not persuade Montcalm to come out from his fortifications, but did reduce the amount of supplies available to him and this, together with the blockade of French ports by the Royal Navy, would eventually weaken his ability to fight.

In the heat of summer, illness broke out in the British camp and Wolfe realised that he must strike as soon as possible. He wrote to his mother, “The Marquis of Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers and I am at the head of a small number of good ones that wish for nothing so much as to fight him, but the wary old fellow avoids an action, doubtful of the behaviour of his army”.

Montcalm too expressed frustration over the long siege, relating that he and his troops “slept clothed and booted, and his horse always saddled in preparation for an attack”.

Wolfe and his staff examined and rejected a number of plans for a landing on the north shore until finally deciding to make an attempt upriver of the city. This, it was thought, would force Montcalm to come out and fight as his supply lines to Montreal would then be cut by the new British position.

On the 12th of September, Wolfe made his decision and selected a landing site at L’Anse au Foulon; a cove situated three miles upstream. It lies at the bottom of a 174 foot cliff leading to a plateau and was protected by a French gun battery. Quite why Wolfe chose the site is unclear. It was closer to Quebec than his original plan envisaged and even his own officers questioned the choice. Brigadier General Townshend later wrote that, “by some intelligence the General had, he has changed his mind as to the place he intended to land”.

At 8.30 pm that evening, aboard HMS Sutherland, Wolfe wrote,” I had the honour to inform you today that it is my duty to attack the French army. To the best of my knowledge and ability, I have fixed on a spot where we can act with most force and are most likely to succeed”.

Wolfe’s plan depended on secrecy and surprise, it required that a small party of troops should land at night on the north shore, climb the cliff, seize a small road and overpower the garrison that protected it.

The bulk of his army (5,000 men) could then ascend the cliff by the small road and deploy on a plateau known as the Plain of Abraham, named after a farmer who owned the land. He also ordered an artillery bombardment across the river and organised noisy arrangements of men boarding boats opposite the city to distract Montcalm and convince him that an attack was coming from that direction. It was a plan full of risk and even if the landing party succeeded in their mission and the army able to follow, such a deployment would still leave his force inside the French defences with no retreat but the river. Some historians attribute Wolfe’s choice of landing site to be due to his general disdain of his senior officer’s planning ability. Others believe that he was still suffering the effects of his earlier illness and the opiates he used as pain killers.

A Company of 100 French militia, led by Captain Louis du Pont Duchambon, had been assigned to guard the shore and the narrow road, but the camp contained less than 40 soldiers, the others having been detailed off to assist in harvesting. Duchambon, and others had expressed their concern at the possibility of a British landing at L’Anse au Foulon, but Montcalm dismissed them saying that 100 men could hold off an army until daylight, remarking, “It is not supposed that the enemies have wings so that, in the same night, cross the river, disembark, climb the obstructed acclivity and scale the walls, for which last operation they would have to carry ladders”.

As the British landing party approached the shore, French sentries did detect them and called a challenge, but luckily a French speaking officer of the 78thy Fraser Highlanders was able to answer the challenge and the sentry, expecting a supply convoy to pass that night, let them pass.

The boats had however drifted a little off course and instead of landing close to the small road, found themselves at the foot of the slope. A group of 24 volunteers, led by Colonel William Howe with fixed bayonets were sent forward to clear the picket on the road and climb the slope to come up behind Duchambon’s camp and capture it.

Wolfe followed an hour later with the main force and by sunrise, had a solid foothold on the top of the cliffs. It was here that fate intervened in his favour as the French had only a day earlier, redeployed the regiment tasked with guarding the plateau to a base east of the city. Had they still been in position Wolfe might have been forced to retreat. Fate again assisted him when a French officer whose duty was to regularly patrol the cliffs at night was unable on the night of the 12th, due to one of his horses having been stolen and two others were lame.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

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.

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