History – Battle of the Plains of Abraham

Featured Image: A View of the Taking of Quebec, 13 September 1759, published by Laurie and Whittle, 1759. The engraving shows the three stages of the battle: the British disembarking, scaling the cliff and the battle (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-1078).


The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the most critical battle on the North American continent during the Seven Year’s War (French and Indian War). Taking place on the 13th of September, 1759 the battle was the result of a three-month buildup and siege by British forces, for what resulted in a battle that would ultimately last about 15 minutes.

The prelude to the battle would set the stage for the engagement, as the Seven Year’s War was ending the later stages of the conflict. On every front and on the seas, the British Army and Royal Navy were engaging and harassing French and Aboriginal allies, moving more and more forces into position to attack and occupy New France, what is now modern day Quebec (along the St. Lawrence River). With the fall of Louisbourg, the largest and most important fortress on the Atlantic coast, the French were open to attack from the British in Eastern Canada. The British would also force the surrender of French forces at Fort Frontenac (in what is today modern-day Kingston). The results were the loss of the strategically important Atlantic Coast and Acadia, as well as the strategic supply and communications routes protected by Fort Frontenac.

Theatre of Operations

French and British settlements, 1755, Canadian War Museum, 1.D.1.1-CGR3 (Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum).

The following year, 1759 would see a flurry of activity outside the main French garrison at Quebec. General Wolfe, the commander of the British forces had a force of roughly eight thousand regular soldiers, supported by 49 ships and 140 smaller craft. Opposite to him was the French General, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, leading just under 2,000 regular French soldiers and two-thirds that number in Native allies and militia.

General Wolfe would start the opening phases of the engagement by surveying the surrounding areas for suitable siege batteries, however the fleet itself was threatened when Montcalm attempted to use fire ships to damage and destroy the British fleet at anchor in the St. Lawrence. This attack was defeated by sailors in longboats moving the fire ships out of position and shifting the warships at anchor. The result was the successful construction of British batteries across from Quebec on Point Levis. The resulting bombardment on the city would wreak havoc and devastation upon the garrison and inhabitants.

The siege drew on, likely as a result of a small supply convoy that had brought a several companies of regulars and needed supplies prior to Wolfe’s landings. Montcalm would use the siege however to reinforce his Eastern flank along the St. Lawrence river, which had been the presumed area of British landings. The small engagement that followed, the Battle of Beauport would confirm Montcalm’s assumption, as Wolfe withdrew from the fierce fighting after making landfall, suffering 450 casualties.

Wolfe’s plan changed, as the landings at Beauport proved that a conventional fight against a dug-in enemy would prove futile. Seeing that Montcalm continued to reinforce the downstream positions, against advice from his subordinates, Wolfe reconnoitered the upriver as a possible site for landings. A small bluff and cliff face upriver, and the plan was set in motion. During the night, a small unit of men from the 78th Fraser Highlanders managed to land despite French sentries being alerted, but thanks to a French-speaking officer were able to subvert them and seize the strategic path.


Landing of British troops on the 12th of September (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

Wolfe landed with the bulk of the British forces shortly thereafter, and with the dawn came the British holding a significant foothold facing Quebec. Montcalm gambled, and rather than wait for reinforcements from his surrounding defensive positions, or avoided battle whilst he positioned his forces to drive the British back into the river, the General was determined to meet the British in the field.


Positions of British and French units on the morning of the 13th of September (Courtesy of Wikipedia).

The French closed with the British, 3,300 red-coated regulars against a mixed bag of professional and militia Frenchmen numbering 3,500. The engagement was short and brutal. The redcoats had been ordered by Wolfe to load two balls in their muskets, and they waited. The French closed even further, and still under orders from General Wolfe, they still held their fire. The French would fire first, the rattle of musketry ringing out from a distance of 30 yards. The British responded, firing their quick, disciplined volleys, and after the first massive discharge advanced several paces against the stunned and reeling French forces, firing again. Wolfe, already struck in the wrist, was struck again twice by musket fire. Once in the stomach, and another, the mortal wound, to his chest. Shortly after, the fire-and-advance of the British infantry routed the French, who shattered after the continuous volley of musketry.

During the rout, Montcalm would be wounded by British fire, a wound that would ultimately lead to his own death as well. He passed away the following morning and was buried in a shell crater within one of the city’s churches.

Quebec would bend the knee on September 18th, however following a brutal winter the British would barely hold onto the city from a massive French counter-attack. The Royal Navy would prove to be the ultimate victor, as by smashing the French reinforcement fleet, they were able to resupply and reinforce their own soldiers, leaving the remaining French unable to reclaim strategic areas of New France. The Treaty of Paris would be signed in 1763, but not before the remaining 2,000 French soldiers at Montreal were swept aside by 17,000 British soldiers. Britain would gain large swaths of land in New France, what would eventually become Canada, as well as parts of French Louisiana.






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