Battle of Quebec (1759) - Who Won, Significance and Casualties

Battle of Quebec (1759) - Who Won, Significance and Casualties

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On September 13, 1759, during the Seven Years’ War (1756-63), a worldwide conflict known in the United States as the French and Indian War, the British under General James Wolfe (1727-59) achieved a dramatic victory when they scaled the cliffs over the city of Quebec, defeating the French forces under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (1712-59) on the Plains of Abraham. Wolfe was fatally wounded during the battle, but his victory ensured British supremacy in Canada.

Seven Years’ War: Background

In the early 1750s, French expansion into the Ohio River valley repeatedly brought France into armed conflict with the British colonies. In 1756, the first official year of fighting in the Seven Years’ War, the British suffered a series of defeats against the French and their broad network of Native American alliances. However, in 1757, British Prime Minister William Pitt (1708–1778), often called William Pitt the Elder, recognized the potential of imperial expansion that would come out of victory against the French and borrowed heavily to fund an expanded war effort. Pitt financed Prussia’s struggle against France and its allies in Europe and reimbursed the colonies for the raising of armies in North America.

Battle of Quebec: September 13, 1759

On September 13, 1759, the British under General James Wolfe (1727-59) achieved a dramatic victory when they scaled the cliffs over the city of Quebec to defeat French forces under Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham (an area named for the farmer who owned the land). During the battle, which lasted less than an hour, Wolfe was fatally wounded. Montcalm also was wounded and died the next day.

By 1760, the French had been expelled from Canada, and by 1763 all of France’s allies in Europe had either made a separate peace with Prussia or had been defeated. In addition, Spanish attempts to aid France in the Americas had failed, and France also suffered defeats against British forces in India.

Treaty of Paris: 1763

The Seven Years’ War ended with the signing of the treaties of Hubertusburg and Paris in February 1763. In the Treaty of Paris, France lost all claims to Canada and gave Louisiana to Spain, while Britain received Spanish Florida, Upper Canada and various French holdings overseas. The treaty ensured the colonial and maritime supremacy of Britain and strengthened the 13 American colonies by removing their European rivals to the north and the south. Fifteen years later, French bitterness over the loss of most of their colonial empire contributed to their intervention in the American Revolutionary War (1775-83) on the side of the Patriots.

The Battle of Quebec 1759

The battle of Quiberon Bay was fought on November 20th, two months after the still more celebrated but not more decisive triumph of the British arms in Canada. Not more decisive, because if Wolfe had been beaten on the Heights of Abraham Hawke's destruction of the French fleet would still have enabled the British to pour reinforcements into Canada un­checked, and the French would still have been almost certainly over­whelmed.

Again Pitt's plan of campaign meant an advance in three columns - one directed in the farthest west upon Niagara, the second with the main body under Amherst upon Ticonderoga, while the third, of which Wolfe now held the command, was to proceed up the St. Lawrence against Quebec supported by the squadron under Admiral Sanders.

Quebec had received its last small reinforcement from France in May, before the blockade of the French coast was completed. It was intended that the two western forces should converge upon Quebec to join hands with Wolfe but though they were able to capture Niagara and Ticonderoga, each found difficulties in the way which prevented its further advance.

At the end of June Wolfe, with the Admirals Sanders and Holmes, arrived before Quebec. Quebec stands on the St. Lawrence, on a height - which was accounted impregnable on the western side. On the east the river St. Charles, flowing into the St. Lawrence, was secured at its entrance by a boom and the greater part of the French army, which outnumbered the British forces, lay entrenched between the St. Charles and the Montmorenci river to the east.

Wolfe occupied the southern bank and the north bank east of the Montmorenci. Admiral Holmes, carrying twelve hundred British troops, moved up the river above Quebec, and so gave employment to a French corps of observation. Sanders made any relief of the French from the eastward impossible.

A complete investment of Quebec was out of the question until Amherst should arrive but there was no sign of Amherst arriving, and if it held out till the winter the St. Lawrence would no longer be navigable, and the ships would have to retire. It was Mont­calm's business to stand on the defensive Wolfe could not force his lines, and the Frenchman was not to be tempted out of his entrenchments.

An attack on the French camp failed, Wolfe himself became seriously ill, and at the beginning of September his despatches to England were full of the gloomiest forebodings. Two days after the arrival of the most depressing of these letters came an over­whelming revulsion.

Quebec had fallen, and Wolfe too had fallen in the hour of victory. He had conceived the desperate design of scaling the Heights of Abraham on the western side of Quebec. Success was possible, if at all, only by effecting a complete surprise defeat would mean disaster but Wolfe resolved to take the risk.

On December 12th Holmes moved up the river, threatening an attack from a higher point and drawing off the French detachment of Bougainville, whose task it was to prevent a landing on that side. A heavy bombardment of the French camp on the east was opened by Admiral Sanders as the prelude to a grand attack in that quarter. Both movements were feints, intended to withdraw the attention of the French from the real point of attack.

Wolfe, in the night, with four thousand men in boats, dropped down the river to the point chosen he had shifted camp to facilitate embarkation above Quebec. No sentries were on guard at the foot of the precipitous height which the force scaled undetected the leaders surprised and caught the small guard at the top. By daybreak something over three thousand men were beginning to be formed in order of battle.

Montcalm's forces were rapidly brought up how much they outnumbered the British is not known. At about nine o'clock the French swept forward to drive the English over the cliff the British reserved their fire till the enemy were thirty yards off.

At the first deadly volley the French checked and reeled at the second they broke and fled, while the British charged with the bayonet, and were stopped only by the fire of the artillery from the town walls. Montcalm had received his death wound but Wolfe himself "died happy" on the field. The victorious British entrenched themselves in the position they had won, and four days later Quebec capitulated.

The Conquest of Canada
During 1760 the main feature of the war was the completion of the conquest of Canada, together with the final blow dealt to the collapsing French power in India at the battle of Wandewash. Frederick through­out the year was in great straits. Prussia was almost drained of fighting material all Prince Ferdinand's skill and all his men were required to hold back the still very much larger force which the French were able to put in the field.

Already at the close of 1759 the coalition had made good their footing in Saxony, and were in possession of Dresden. But for the British subsidies it would have been impossible to maintain in the field armies which could now only be scraped together with the utmost difficulty. Frederick could indeed hardly have been saved but for the incomparable sluggishness of the Austrian Daun and the stolid immobility of the Russians.

Thus aided he was enabled in the autumn to defeat Laudon at Liegnitz, and then Daun himself at Torgau, while the Russians did nothing. But Frederick's victories were no longer shattering blows they were reverses for his enemies, not disasters and before the year was over his prospects were seriously affected by the death of George II, and the accession to the British throne of a young king who was determined to rid himself of Pitt's ascendency.

To Pitt's loyalty Frederick owed it that he was not left to his fate. For during the first month of the year Choiseul was doing his best to induce Pitt to enter on a separate negotiation. But in the first place nothing would induce Pitt to desert his ally and in the second he was fully satisfied that in spite of his own enormous war expenditure, the strain on France was much more severe, that she was becoming thoroughly exhausted, and that the longer the war went on the more completely she would be prostrated.

He was undeterred by the suspicion already awakening in his mind that Spain under a new king might join the coalition. For the pacific Ferdinand was dead and had been succeeded by his half-brother, Charles IV, who had resigned the throne of Naples to occupy that of Spain. Choiseul's negotiations with Britain were therefore fruitless.

Those negotiations, though they led to a temporary suspension of hostilities in the western theatre of the war in Europe, did not check the progress of events in Canada. The British now held Quebec, under command of General Murray, as well as Louisbourg. Amherst was again setting forward his converging movement on the west.

The Taking of Montreal
The French sought to strike the first blow by attacking Quebec, where the garrison could not obtain the support of a British squadron until the St. Lawrence became navigable again. For this purpose they were able to despatch a force which was double that under Murray's command and at the end of April the British, after a sharp encounter at Sainte Foy, were driven within the walls of Quebec

But ten days later came the news that a British squadron was now making its way up the St. Lawrence, and the French retreated. All that was left for them was the attempt to maintain themselves at Montreal but Murray was free to take his own share in the converging movement, advancing from Quebec.

The three British columns united before Montreal on September 7th, and the next day the town capitulated. The whole Canadian dominion was surrendered to the British Crown under a guarantee that property was not to be disturbed and that religious liberty was to be secured, while the French troops with their officers laid down their arms and were sent back to France under promise of not again serving during the war.

The crisis of the struggle was over. In America and India the French had been beaten out of the field as rivals of the British, and the supremacy of the British, race was assured. More than two years were to pass before peace was signed, a peace which in effect confirmed, as far as the British Empire was concerned, the position which had already been won when the old king died in October 1760.

The reign of Pitt practically ended with the reign of George II. The control was taken from his hands, and the last phase of the war forms the first phase of new political and international conditions. It remains in this chapter to complete the story of the establishment of the British power in the East.

A History of Britain

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

American Revolution Podcast

Gen. Jeffery Amherst took command of North American operations following his victory at Louisbourg, at the end of 1758. Around the same time, William Pitt granted Col. James Wolfe, now brevetted to the rank of Major General, an independent command to capture Quebec. Wolfe returned to Louisbourg in February 1759 to prepare for a spring attack on the last great French stronghold in Canada.

All three of Wolfe’s subordinates for the operation: Robert Monckton, Lord George Townshend, and James Murray were older than Wolfe and, more importantly, came from socially superior families. They all resented Wolfe’s command and did not work well with him. Still, they were soldiers and would obey orders. With 8500 regulars to take the city, Wolfe set out to conquer Quebec.

British Forces Arrive at Quebec

Frustrated with the slow pace of things, Wolfe tried a bold frontal assault, landing his infantry six miles down river and marching on the city. This proved impossible, as entrenched French and Canadian forces killed or wounded nearly 500 soldiers while talking very little damage themselves.

Wolfe turned to a scorched earth policy. He burned and destroyed all the farms and outbuildings for miles around Quebec, allowing his men to rape and kill civilians at will. He hoped to anger the French to the point where they would leave their protective walls and come out for an open fight. Montcalm, however, refused to take the bait. His men were well supplied, behind seemingly impregnable defenses.

Montcalm had concentrated virtually all of Canada’s remaining military forces in Quebec, meaning his Regulars and militia totaled nearly 15,000. This however, included many questionable militia as Montcalm was scraping the bottom of the barrel for men. Montcalm did, have a few regiments of top notch French regulars and some experienced militia, against the smaller 8500 British attacking force. Even so, Wolfe believed his well trained regulars could prevail in a traditional face to face land battle if he could provoke one:

Siege of Quebec (from: Wikipedia)
To make matters worse, Wolfe’s troops began to drop from disease after spending several hot summer months on a swampy island. More than one-third of them had become incapacitated by sickness. Wolfe himself became so sick that he was bedridden for several days in August. His greatest fear seemed to be that he would die ignominiously from disease before he had a chance to fight a major battle as a commander.

In desperation, Wolfe convened a council of war with his three generals to get their views on another all out infantry assault on the French lines. Wolfe remained on bad terms with his commanders, who mostly seemed to be waiting for him to fail or die. He did not really want their opinion, but the military etiquette required such councils prior to any major operation, particularly one that might go terribly wrong and for which the commander did not want to be singled out for blame. His three Generals unanimously rejected his plan. He could have overruled them, but was so sick that he felt doing so might be seen as acting out of delirium.

Wolfe knew that if he did not do anything by the end of September, he would have to retreat in failure. The naval fleet would have to leave before the winter ice locked their ships. The army could not remain without naval support. By all appearances, Wolfe saw his two likely outcomes as dying from disease or overseeing a retreat back to Louisbourg, having accomplished nothing. Either way, he knew his subordinates would blame him for the failure. One of them, Townshend, was also a member of Parliament and a friend of William Pitt. Wolfe’s reputation as a capable officer would be ruined. Just as all seemed lost, Wolfe received some helpful advice.

Capt. Robert Stobo is an unsung hero of this adventure so far. Stobo had served with Col. Washington way back at the battle of Fort Necessity in 1754, or as I like to call it, Episode 5. He was one of the hostages that the French took in order to guarantee the return of French prisoners per Washington’s agreement. While held at Fort Duquesne, Stobo had drawn a sketch of the fort’s defenses that he gave to a friendly Indian to aid a British attack. This was the sketch that the tribal chief provided to Gen. Braddock as he began his ill-fated attempted assault on Fort Duquesne in 1755. When the French captured Braddock’s baggage after his death in battle, they found Stobo’s sketches. They tried and convicted Stobo as a spy. He only lived because the order to cut off his head and stick it on a pike outside the city had to go back to France for ratification. Officials back in France never gave approval. Stobo, who had been moved back to Quebec already, figured his best bet was to attempt an escape. On his third attempt in May 1759, Stobo finally escaped the French and promptly offered his services to Gen. Wolfe.

Stobo told Wolfe about a relatively unguarded footpath that led from the river up to the Plains of Abraham, just a few miles west of Quebec. If Wolfe could get sufficient men and cannon onto the Plains, he would either force Montcalm into the infantry battle he wanted, or could bring up siege cannon to take out the city walls. Wolfe told no one about this secret path, not even his top generals. He even sent Stobo away, asking him to carry some important documents to Gen. Amherst.

The Plains of Abraham by Hervey Smyth (1797)
(from Wikimedia Commons)
On Sept. 5, Wolfe commanded his troops to move up river. His officers assumed he had taken their advice to look for an entry point many miles upriver to cut off the enemy supplies. His force of 3600 moved past Quebec to the point his subordinates had recommended. A few days later, he sent another 1000 men, leaving his base with mostly the sick, who were not combat ready. Wolfe continued to keep all his officers in the dark and without further orders until 8:30pm on Sept. 12. At that time he ordered his army were to board ships at 9:00 PM and sail back down river about two miles to the secret footpath that Stobo had identified.

By all appearances, Wolfe did not seem terribly optimistic that his plan was going to work. He handed over his will and instructions for dissemination of his papers and other personal effects in the event of his death. He planned to go ashore in one of the first landing craft, and to be at the head of the invasion force. Still terribly sick, it looked like he simply wanted to go out in a blaze of glory.

The boats ferried the first troops downriver around 2:00 AM. French sentries heard the boats. French speaking British officers called out that they were bringing supplies down to the city and they were permitted to pass without further challenge. Wolfe climbed the footpath with the advance force and reached the plains of Abraham without incident. With him was the highly capable Lt. Col. William Howe, youngest brother of Col. George Howe who was killed at the first raid near Fort Carillon in 1758, if you don’t remember, see Episode 10. The advance force took out a small French sentry camp, but not before they sent a runner to warn Montcalm of the attack.

By 4:00 AM, only Wolfe and the 200 man advance force were on the Plains of Abraham. The first full wave was still disembarking at the river. French artillery fired on the second wave as it moved downstream.

Gen. Robert Monkton
(from Wikimedia)
Wolfe probably expected to face a more effective French defense. If he were killed with the advance guard, his second in command, Gen. Monckton would likely call off the attack and pull back. Monckton had already expressed disapproval of the plan. At least Wolfe would die nobly trying to engage the enemy, rather than suffer a death from disease without glory. But the failure of the French to mount much of any defense left Wolfe surprisingly alive. Not sure what to do next, he ordered his commanders, still disembarking below, to halt the landing. Fortunately, they ignored his order and the main force continued to make its way to the Plains.

By dawn seven battalions stood on the Plains of Abraham in line of battle. Five more battalions were still making their way up the footpath from the river. So far, they had only met with a few French skirmishers, presumably sent out to see what was going on. They even managed to bring up two 6 pound brass cannon (the 𔄞 pounds” refers to the weight of the cannonballs they threw, not the weight of the much heavier cannons themselves).

The Plains of Abraham

I always thought “the Plains of Abraham” was some lofty name with a Biblical reference. It turns out, the name comes from a guy named Abraham Martin who had settled in the area in the 1630’s and had begun farming there. It was a wide flat plain covering several hundred acres, perfect for a traditional line battle favored by professional European officers like Wolfe and Montcalm.

French Gen. Montcalm had spent all night setting up defenses northwest of the city at Beauport. British sailors had put out markers in the river near Beauport, presumably as guides for landing craft to avoid hidden sand bars. It was a ruse to distract Montcalm. It worked. Montcalm assumed the British transports traveling upriver were a ruse to distract him from a landing at Beauport, not the other way around. Instead, the British army stood several thousand strong on the Plains of Abraham facing the southeastern walls of the city, one of its weakest points.

By 7:00 AM, Montcalm came back to the Plains of Abraham, apparently stunned by the British infantry lines facing him. He saw the cannons and saw the British beginning their entrenchments for a siege. He sent for reinforcements, but knew they would take hours to arrive. At present, he could only field about 4500 soldiers to face the similarly sized British force.

In fact, though, the British were not entrenching. They did not have any more than the two small cannons they already had on the field. Wolfe expected to be dead by now and to have his Generals retreating. He had not planned properly for a full scale siege. His army’s entrenching tools were stilling sitting in the ships at the river below. His men were only lying down on the field to make themselves smaller targets to the snipers and cannon firing at them. If French reinforcements did arrive, the British would be surrounded on three sides, with the only avenue of retreat being the small footpath that had taken all night to climb. Despite their incredible luck so far, they were still facing the very real possibility of a slaughter.

Montcalm, however did not wait. He did not know that more British were not coming nor that they could not mount a proper siege. Montcalm therefore sent his infantry forward to meet the British on the field of battle. When the French lines advanced to within about 150 yards, they fired. This was still too far to hit much of anyone. A few British fell, but the lines of professionals quickly closed the gaps. One of those hit was Wolfe himself. He received a shot through his wrist, but casually wrapped it in a handkerchief and continued with his duties.

The Death of Gen. Wolfe by Benjamin West (1770)
(from National Gallery of Canada)
As the French reloaded, the British line stood impassively, still not firing back. There were too many militia in the French lines. As the regulars reloaded, the militia began to take cover or fall to the ground to avoid fire. As a result, the French line began to fall apart. Individual units advanced, but did not maintain a solid line of battle. When the French got within 60 yards of the British line, the British regulars fired a destructive volley followed by a bayonet charge into the enemy. The already broken French line now fled back to the city walls. The only return fire came from the fields off to the side where enemy snipers could pick off only a few of the advancing British. One of the few hit was once again Gen. Wolfe. This time, he sustained two fatal shots to his torso. His second in command, Monckton also sustained a serious wound around the same time. Gen. Murray had led his men on a wild charge that had taken him away from the main force. Wolfe’s aid Isaac Barré, a name you might want to remember, also took a shot to his face. He would live, but was out of commission for now.

George Townshend
(from Wikimedia)
Finally, Gen. Townshend came forward to take command. He quickly reestablished the British lines and returned order. By noon, both sides had suffered around 700 casualties each. Less than 10% of those were deaths, but given the medical care of the day, many of the wounded would not survive long. On the French side, Montcalm was among the wounded, out of commission, and would die the following morning. The next two highest ranking French officers had also been killed. Eventually the civilian Governor of Canada Vaudreuil conferred with the highest ranking officers available and decided to evacuate the city. The main army would leave and try to link up with relief forces for a counter attack. Meanwhile 2200 local militia were left in charge of defending Quebec against the British Army. No one had much hope in them, as they left them with papers on how to ask for surrender terms. As the French regulars departed the City, they left behind these militia, along with large amounts of supplies and ammunition.

The cautious Townshend still did not dare send his infantry against the walls of the city, where artillery could cut them down. Rather, he waited for British artillery to arrive so that he could begin a proper siege. The British siege began the next day, as British cannon finally arrived for use. The British did not even bother to fire their artillery as their entrenchment lines moved closer to the city over several days. The cannon only had to sit in the entrenchments to deter a French charge as the British dug ever closer entrenchments. Defensive fire from the French was largely ineffective. By September 17, the British were in position to open fire point blank on the walls of the City. As they prepared to open fire, the commander of Quebec’s remaining forces offered terms of surrender.

James Murray
(from National Galleries Scotland)
Townsend surprised the defenders by agreeing to all of their terms. Defenders were granted the honors of war. The British would protect the civilians and their property. They were free to continue to practice their Roman Catholic religion. French militiamen were free to remain in the city as long as they gave up their arms and swore an oath of loyalty to King George. Any possible French attempt to string out the negotiations until a relief force could arrive had failed because the British simply agreed to everything.

There was good reason for this. Townshend’s position was tenuous. If a relief column did arrive, his forces would be in a dangerous position. Further, his small force required the cooperation of the civilians. He simply did not have enough soldiers to fight off a relief force and control a hostile population.

In fact, a relief force was only about one day away when the British occupied Quebec. When the French arrived, they did not have the equipment to lay siege now that the British were behind the walls of Quebec. The French constructed a fort nearby and waited for an opportunity to retake Quebec.

By mid-October, the British fleet needed to leave. No one really wanted to stay in Quebec for the winter, but all able bodied soldiers were needed for its defense. Mockton still recovering from wounds, opted to leave for New York. Townshend decided to return to London. The most junior General Murray remained in command. His men would have to endure a difficult winter on short rations. However, Quebec had fallen and the British stood victorious.

Next Week: Canada becomes British, and Britain gets a new King.

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The Fantastic Adventures Of Captain Stobo, by Robert Alberts American Heritage Vol. 14, Iss. 5, Aug. 1963:

Isaac Barré: Advocate for the Americans in the House of Commons, by Bob Ruppert, Journal of Am. Rev., Aug. 11, 2015:

The Battle That Won An Empire, Sir Basil Hart, American Heritage Vol. 11, Iss. 1, Dec. 1959:

Free eBooks:
(links to unless otherwise noted)

Montreal, 1535-1914, Vol. 1, by William H. Atherton (1914).

An Historical Journal of the Campaigns in North America for the Years 1757, 1758, 1759, and 1760, Vol 1, Vol. 2, & Vol. 3, by John Knox (1914).

Journal of the siege of Quebec, 1760, by James Murray (1871) (a short contemporary account by one of Wolfe’s field generals).

Memoir Upon the Late War in North America, Between the French and English, 1755-60, Vol. 1, & Vol. 2, by Pierre Pouchot (1866).

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brumwell, Stephen Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Manning, Stephen Quebec: The Story of Three Sieges, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009.


In 1758 the British re-captured Oswego and took Louisburg. This opened the sea route to attack Quebec, the main French settlement in North America. At the same time some of France’s Native American allies made peace with the British.

The Royal Navy’s blockade of the coast of France was also restricting supplies to the French colonies. These circumstances now presented the British with the opportunity to assault Quebec.

View this object

A view of Louisburg during the 1758 siege

Québec City was the capital of New France, the French colonial empire in North America and the seat of the only Catholic diocese north of Mexico. Whoever held that strategic location could effectively control access to the entire colony. The British planned an invasion of the St. Lawrence River Valley—the heart of New France—with three different points of attack, including Québec City. Determined to capture the capital, they sent 30,000 soldiers and seamen. The French monarchy had every intention of defending their seat of power in North America, but their troops were tied up fighting in continental Europe and the supremacy of the British navy limited their ability to send reinforcements.

Wolfe and his men were in Québec City waters by June. They spent an unsuccessful summer trying to gain a foothold on the north shore, but were consistently repelled by Montcalm and his troops. Given the impossibility of taking the city, the British General resolved to destroy it, and set about bombarding it from the south shore.

But as the cold weather approached, the need for a decisive victory grew and on September 12, 1759, the British landed at Anse au Foulon, slightly upriver of Québec City. Only the next morning did the French learn to their dismay that over 4,000 British soldiers had succeeded in scaling the cliffs of Cap Diamant up to the promontory known then as “Abraham Heights,” since the fields had belonged to Abraham Martin in the 17th century.

Battle of Quebec Facts: The Fighting

The Battle of Quebec was the culmination of an epic journey through the wilderness. The Americans had marched through a blinding snowstorm to arrive at Quebec. The commanding officers, Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery were forced to make quick preparations for an attack due to enlistments running up.

On December 31, Richard Montgomery mustered his men to make a surprise attack on Quebec. Due to the snowstorm their movements had went unnoticed by the British until a deserter from the American forces arrived in Quebec and alerted Carleton of the attack. The two commanders planned a pincer attack where the forces would attack Quebec simultaneously on both sides.

The American plan was ambitious but it was met with disaster. General Montgomery led his troops near Wolfe&rsquos cove at the southern end of Quebec and was met with an ambush. Carleton was waiting for him and unleashed a deadly barrage of infantry and artillery fire. It was during this attack that Richard Montgomery died. Lieutenant Colonel Donald Campbell took over command and ordered retreat. The remaining men fell back, including future vice-president Aaron Burr. They would be unable to assist Arnold in his attack.

On the other side of the lower city of Quebec, Benedict Arnold successfully maneuvered his men through Quebec. He did not know of Montgomery&rsquos fate and continued to push forward. During his advance he took on many British prisoners and his line became scattered. On the recommendation of his fellow officers he halted his advance to re-organize his men. This gave British commander Guy Garleton time to strategically place his men around Quebec. Arnold&rsquos advance was quickly ended and some of the officers in command were thrown into precarious situations. Arnold ordered a retreat, but ended up losing many of his men including losing Daniel Morgan to capture.

Battle of Quebec (1759) - Who Won, Significance and Casualties - HISTORY

Key Events & Battles, French & Indian War

The Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West,1770
(National Gallery of Canada at Ottawa)

Event Date Location Notes/Significance
British defeated at Ft. Duquesne 1755 Western Pennsylvania (present-day Pittsburgh) Gen. Braddock's force of 1450 men surrounded and defeated by Indian and French-Canadian forces
American colonists refuse to serve under British commander 1757 American colonies New British commander (Lord Loudoun) closely managed the war effort, demanding exact numbers of recruits and money from colonies. Colonial assemblies began to refuse to cooperate.
French take Ft. Oswego 1756 Upstate New York French commander Montcalm takes fort, but is horrified to discover that his Indian allies kill wounded soldiers, take scalps, and make slaves of captives.
Massacre at Ft. William Henry 1757 Upstate New York Following surrender of British and colonial garrison to Montcalm (who promised safe passage back to England), Indians killed 185 and took 310 British captive.
William Pitt guides British war effort 1757-1761 London As Secretary of State, Pitt sought to reduce tension with colonists by promising payment in proportion to support of war effort, giving colonial assemblies control of recruitment, sending thousands more British soldiers, and replacing Lord Loudoun with a more reasonable commander
Louisbourg and Ft. Duquesne captured by British 1758 Quebec & Western Pennsylvania British-American-Indian forces overwhelm French who abandon Louisbourg and burn Ft. Duquesne before retreating north.
Battle of Quebec 1759 Quebec Through British commander Gen. Wolfe is killed (along with French commander Montcalm), British forces sieze Quebec in dramatic uphill attack.
Battle of Quiberon Bay 1759 Off France British victory restricted French navy's ability to resupply forces in Canada.
Iriquois join British-American alliance 1760 American colonies Balance of power tips towards British with this addition
French surrender Montreal 1760 Quebec Greatly outnumbered French forces are defeated in war's final battle in the Americas.
British capture Havana, Manila from Spain 1762 Cuba, Philippine Islands As Spain enters the war as a French ally, it suffers defeats from British naval forces.
Treaty of Paris 1763 Paris, France France gives up claims to all of its North American possessions. All land west of the Mississippi and New Orleans goes to Spain. All land east of the Mississippi River and Canda goes to England.

Major Results of the French & Indian War

1. British territorial claims greatly expanded in America.

2. British debt grew in an attempt to finance an ever-expanding war.

3. Resentment towards American colonists grew in Parliament among those who saw Americans as unwilling to financially support a war on their behalf.

4. American colonists unified for the first time against a common enemy.

5. Colonial militias saw themselves as volunteers or a "people's army" in contrast to the authoritarian and coercive British army.

6. France's influence in development of North American dwindled mightily.

James Wolfe

James Wolfe, British army officer (born 2 January 1727 in Westerham, Kent, England died 13 September 1759 near Quebec City). Wolfe fought in the War of the Austrian Succession, the suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion and the Seven Years’ War. He is best known for his role in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Both Wolfe and his opponent, Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, died from wounds sustained during the battle. The British victory was a turning point in the Seven Years’ War, leading to the capture of Montreal in 1760 and the acquisition of Canada by Britain in 1763.

Portrait of Major-General James Wolfeby Joseph Highmore (ca. 1760-80).
(Wikimedia CC)

Early Life

James Wolfe was born on 2 January 1727 in Westerham, Kent, England, to Henrietta Thompson and Edward Wolfe, a lieutenant-colonel in the British army. His younger brother, also named Edward, was born the following year. Wolfe’s family had a long history of military service like his father and paternal great-grandfather, he and his brother became officers in the British army.

In 1738, the family moved to Greenwich in northwest Kent (now part of London). There, Wolfe and his brother attended a school for the sons of army and naval officers. When Britain declared war on Spain in 1739 (the War of Jenkins’ Ear), his father was promoted to colonel of a new regiment of marines. The following year, 13-year-old Wolfe joined the regiment as a “volunteer.” He was supposed to take part in an expedition against Cartagena (Colombia) but became ill and was left behind in Britain.

War of the Austrian Succession

Although he never actually served with the marines, James Wolfe received a commission in his father’s regiment in November 1741. He transferred to the 12th Regiment of Foot in March 1742. By that time, Britain was involved in the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–48). In May 1742, the 15-year-old ensign arrived in Flanders with his regiment. In 1743, he was joined by his younger brother, Edward, who also became an ensign in the 12th Foot. In June, the brothers fought their first battle at Dettingen, during which the 12th Foot suffered heavy casualties. After the battle, Wolfe was promoted to lieutenant. In June 1744, he was promoted to captain and transferred to the 4th Foot. His brother, Edward, died in October.

Jacobite Rebellion

In 1745, James Wolfe’s regiment was recalled to Britain in response to the Jacobite Rebellion. The rebellion was an attempt by Charles Edward Stuart to regain the British throne for his exiled father, James Stuart. In July, Stuart landed in Scotland, where there was significant support for the Jacobite cause. In September 1745, the Jacobite army captured the city of Edinburgh and defeated British forces at the Battle of Prestonpans. To deal with this threat, the British army in Flanders was recalled to Britain. Wolfe fought at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, which ended in British victory and the death of the Stuart cause. The Jacobites were slaughtered, the survivors hunted through the countryside. According to some accounts, Wolfe refused an order to shoot a wounded Highland officer, but historians haven’t been able to confirm this story.

Pipe band performing at Highland Games, Victoria, BC. Photo taken on: May 23, 2010 48722388 © Dbukach | | 48722388 © Dbukach |

Return to Europe

In January 1747, James Wolfe returned to Europe, where the War of the Austrian Succession was still raging. In July, he was wounded in the Battle of Lauffeldt. The battle was the largest of the war, involving more than 200,000 troops. Wolfe was in the thick of the fighting, his horse shot from beneath him. The War of the Austrian Succession ended in 1748 with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, and Wolfe returned to Britain. He was still only 21 years old.

Regimental Command

In 1748, James Wolfe became major and commanding officer of the 20th Regiment of Foot, which was stationed in Scotland. In 1750, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel of the regiment. While the regiment was in Scotland, Wolfe studied Latin and mathematics. He also spent periods of leave in Ireland, where he visited family, and in France. From 1753 to 1757, Wolfe and the 20th Foot were stationed in the south of England.

Seven Years’ War

In 1756, war broke out yet again among the European powers. The Seven Years’ War is widely considered the first global war, with fighting in Europe, the Americas, India and at sea. At first, James Wolfe and his regiment, the 20th Foot, were stationed in southern England to prepare against the threat of French invasion.

In 1757, they were part of an expedition against Rochefort, a seaport on the French Atlantic coast. In addition to his regimental duties, Wolfe was quartermaster general of the expedition. After capturing one of the outlying islands, the expedition’s military commander, Sir John Mordaunt, called off the raid. Wolfe went ashore to scout the terrain and urged an attack, but he couldn’t convince his commanding officer. Although the expedition was a failure, Wolfe impressed his superiors, including British Prime Minister William Pitt. He was promoted to colonel of the 67th Foot.

Louisbourg 1758

In 1758, James Wolfe was part of the British expedition against Louisbourg. The French fortress was located on Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Control of the fortress was essential for British forces attacking Canada from the east. Wolfe was one of three brigade commanders under Major General Jeffery Amherst, who commanded the expedition. The army travelled to North America with a British fleet under British Admiral Edward Boscawen.

On June 2, the British fleet arrived in Gabarus Bay, near Louisbourg. On 8 June, Wolfe and a force of elite troops (mostly light infantry and grenadiers) landed ashore in the face of heavy fire from the French defenders. The British laid siege to the fortress, which surrendered on 26 July 1758. Wolfe distinguished himself during the campaign. He demonstrated bravery during the first landing and aggressively advanced his siege batteries toward the fortress, causing damage and contributing to its surrender.

In September, Wolfe led a British force that destroyed French fishing settlements in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. (See also History of Acadia.) Although the British plan had been to advance up the St. Lawrence River and attack Quebec, the campaign was postponed due to the coming winter. Wolfe returned to England.

Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759)

In January 1759, James Wolfe was appointed major general and commanding officer of British land forces in the expedition against Quebec. The British forces left Louisbourg in early June and landed on the Île d’Orléans on 27 June. By the middle of July 1759, Wolfe and his men occupied positions on Île d’Orléans, Point Lévis (directly across from Quebec) and the northern shore of the St. Lawrence River, close to a French army encampment at Beauport. But the French were difficult to dislodge, owing to Quebec’s battery of guns and the strong currents of the St. Lawrence River. On 31 July, the British attacked the French position at Beauport but had to retreat.

Wolfe tried to lure Montcalm, the French commander, into open battle. He first targeted French stores and shipping and then destroyed buildings and countryside around Quebec. But Montcalm refused to attack. In late August, several British ships managed to sail past the city and establish a naval presence upriver. If the British could land an invasion force upriver, it would cut the city off from Montreal and force the French to fight.

Wolfe decided to land at L’Anse-au-Foulon, about 3 km upstream from Quebec City, at the base of a cliff. The advance force landed at just after 4 a.m. on 13 September 1759. By dawn, Wolfe and the first division were on the plateau. By 8 a.m., the entire British force had assembled on the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm decided to attack quickly, but the French were soon pushed back.

Wolfe was shot three times in the first few minutes of battle and died soon after. After hearing that the French force was retreating, he reportedly stated, “Now, God be praised, I will die in peace.” Montcalm himself was wounded during the French retreat and died the next morning in Quebec. Much of the French force withdrew to Montreal. The British laid siege to Quebec, which surrendered on 18 September. Montreal fell in 1760. In 1763, France ceded Canada to the British under the Treaty of Paris.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West, 1770.
(courtesy National Gallery of Canada/Wikimedia CC)


News of James Wolfe’s death quickly reached Britain, where he was seen as a military hero and martyr, the very embodiment of courage, leadership and patriotism. In his biography of Wolfe, Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe (2006), Stephen Brumwell refers to Wolfe as the “first truly transatlantic celebrity.” Writers on both sides of the Atlantic extolled his virtues in poetry and prose, as well as from the pulpit. Ballads like “The Death of General Wolfe” were sung across Britain and its North American colonies.

Benjamin West’s painting The Death of General Wolfe (1770) was a sensation. At its London debut, a line of people stretched out the doors of the Royal Academy. Engravings of the painting were distributed throughout Britain and its North American colonies. The image was even reproduced on ceramics and fabrics. British Prime Minister William Pitt called for a national memorial to Wolfe, which was erected in Westminster Abbey in 1772. Wolfe’s celebrity was based on his role as an empire builder — the man who was credited with adding Canada to the British empire.

For more than 150 years, Wolfe was celebrated as a hero of empire in Canada and Britain. This changed, however, in the 20th century. Since the 1930s, historians have challenged Wolfe’s reputation and character. As the British empire crumbled, so, too, did the reputation of Wolfe, who some depicted as incompetent, ruthless and vain. The bicentennial of Wolfe’s death (1959) contributed to this reassessment of his character and abilities as a military leader.

The British “conquest” has long been a divisive topic in Quebec. As Brumwell points out, Wolfe represents oppression rather than heroism to many francophones. The Wolfe monument on the Plains of Abraham, with the inscription “Here Died Wolfe Victorious,” was seen as an affront to French Canadians. In 1963, Quebec nationalists toppled the monument. Two years later, the base of the monument was defaced by rioters. When the monument was re-erected in 1965, the inscription simply read “Here Died Wolfe.”

The perilous approach to Quebec

From the very onset, the plan to take Quebec was filled with danger. Just getting to Quebec was a challenge. Surrounded by cliffs and forests, these natural barriers made access by land nigh impossible.

So the British, led by Major-General James Wolfe, decided to sail down the St Lawrence River.

This river was, and remains, extremely treacherous, with shifting tides, sudden shallows, and low-sitting rocks. Even the French, who had retained control of the river until the British captured Louisbourg in 1758, suffered losses traversing it.

It was still uncharted, and so the British decision to sail a fleet down it seemed suicidal.

To the shock of General Montcalm, the French commander, Wolfe’s force emerged before Quebec without having lost a single ship. This was due to a methodological, scientific approach that involved proper scouting and charting of the waters as they advanced. One of the officers involved in charting the river was a young James Cook, the later famed explorer.

Another danger that British armies normally faced was poor health, particularly scurvy. However, Wolfe was part of a new generation of young officer who prioritised troop well-being and preparedness.

This part of North America was full of spruce pines, which contained vitamin C, and so to combat scurvy Wolfe ordered his men to produce beer out of it. This was yet another example of the new scientific approach to war being conducted by the British.

History: Sept 13, 1759 the battle that changed North America and the world

In terms of size, it was not an epic battle, but in terms of its effect on the course of world history, enormous.

On the morning of September 13, 1759, a brief battle changed the entire course of North American and world history. Some accounts say the battle lasted an hour, with skirmishes for several more, other accounts say the main conflict lasted only about 15 minutes.

Prior to the Seven Years War, the French influence and control extended across most of North America. This included most of what was to become Canada and the central US, giving them access to the lucrative fur and timber trades, and other resources of the continent.

The French had long been challenging the lesser British presence on the continent.

The Seven Years War began in Europe in 1756 primarily between England and France, although almost all major European powers later were caught up in the conflict even extending to India and other colonial areas, thus becoming the first global conflict.

In fact fighting- in essence the war- between British and French had already begun in 1754 in North America as both sought to eliminate the other as a commercial rival.

By 1756, the British had suffered a number of losses in North America as French control expanded.

However, British leader, William Pitt (the Elder) saw the enormous potential wealth and strategic importance of winning the new continent. With the war in Europe draining resources he nevertheless spent vast sums to finance military action against the French on the North American continent.

Sending a large naval force, the British captured the huge fortress of Louisbourg on what is now Cape Breton on the east coast. This vast fortress had guarded the entrance to the St Lawrence and the interior of “New France” and was a serious strategic loss for the French.

Far upstream however stood the political and military centre of New France, the Fortress of Quebec. This walled city on a high cliff strategically overlooking the St Lawrence and controlling access to the interior of North America stood in the way of British overall victory. Taking this fortress would mean the end of French control in the continent.

During the spring of 1759 the massive force of British ships and men had made their way upriver through the tricky St Lawrence, thanks in part to the navigational skills of Captain James Cook. Throughout the late spring and summer, the walled and fortified city was shelled from high points across the river and the surrounding areas burned. The British also attempted some foolish and failed attacks against the fortress with great loss of British life. The city held and the British soldiers could not get access to the heights, nor get across the heavily-defended St Charles river at Beauport which presented a barrier on the east side of the city.

French Regulars march to meet the British on the field outside Quebec City in this CBC television re-enactment. Overconfident, they would make an extremely foolish tactical error and would be decimated. The remaining French troops then ran from the field leaving the small number of French Canadians behind. thus enabling the British to take Quebec City. © CBC

By September, French General Montcalm knew that if he could hold out until the cold weather in just a couple of months, the exposed British would be forced to withdraw.

A desperate, and now disconsolate British General Wolfe knew that too. As summer waned, it began to seem like the siege of Quebec would fail.

Some of the British ships had managed to get upstream as they searched for possible landing areas.

Then some scouts advised Wolfe of a poorly guarded path up the steep cliffs and onto the plateau behind the fortress.

This was known as the Plains of Abraham, a property that had owned in the 1600’s by a man possibly of Scottish decent, Abraham Martin, a fisherman and sometime river pilot.

In the late darkness of September 12, thanks in no small part to incredible luck that the French were expecting a floating convoy of relief supplies from Montreal further upstream, led by an officer who spoke French British boatloads of troops glided past the sentries answering in French to their challenge.

They were landed at the pathway discovered and the soldiers scaled their way up the cliff. A brief skirmish with the lightly defended cliff top eliminated French resistance, and hundreds of troops made it onto the heights.

On the 13 th , the French awakened to the sight of a British army massed in typical European fashion, on the field outside the gates.

Scale model of the battle on the plain beside Quebec City fortress. Red lines are British (with Wolfe toward the far right side) White are the French Regulars (Montcalm towards the centre) Blue spots are French Canadian militia (© Canadian War Museum- photo Steven Darby)

The French General Montcalm assembled his forces, a mix of regulars and Canadian militia and marched them from nearby Beauport to a high ground between the fortress and the British. The British in a tactical error had not occupied this ground but had lined up at the end of the field. The French-Canadian militia in their fashion took cover behind the hill and trees and began sniping.

Instead of waiting for the British to attack up the hill, the French regulars, emboldened by victories over the British in several previous battles, began running down the hill in a poorly organized attack firing wildly across the plateau.

The British were suffering casualties from the sniping but remained in formation. As the French came within close range, the British began firing and cut the French to ribbons.

This contemporary composition compresses time to illustrate all the main events of the Quebec campaign. The British troops are shown being taken ashore by the boats of the Fleet, scaling the cliffs, and formed in line of battle to face the oncoming French on the Heights of Abraham © Archives Canada PA e00094311

The French regulars broke and ran from the field trying to escape back to Beauport

However, General Wolfe was mortally wounded and died on the field, General Montcalm was also mortally wounded and died within the walls of Quebec after being carried from the field.

The British were then able to occupy the city, almost in ruins from previous British bombardments.

An attempt by a French force from Montreal the next spring almost succeeded, but British reinforcements arrived, and the French would later cede Montreal as well.

The battle of Quebec signaled a major turning point in world history. From that point on, French influence and control in the continent was all but extinguished, and indeed diminished in other areas around the world,

England and English would become a dominant world force. The US and most of what would become Canada would became an English speaking area.

Meanwhile the British victors, realizing that English colonisers were slow in coming, needed the cooperation of the French citizenry and to reduce threats of possible revolts, decided to allow the citizenry to retain their language, Catholic religion, and French legal system in civil cases.

Eventually Scottish and English colonists, businessmen, and engineers would migrate to Montreal and transform it into the economic centre of Canada, and also spread out to establish dozens of smaller towns and cities to the south and north.

However, what is now the province of Quebec remains a mostly French-speaking region.

Watch the video: Battle of Quebec 1759