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Quebec City- view showing walls protecting the old city. Photo by Michael H. Bernstein*
In the early morning of September 13, 1759, a little-known battle was fought between England and France which decided the future of North America. This battle, fought on the "Plains of Abraham" just outside the old walled city of Quebec, assured English control of all of the North American Continent east of the Mississippi River. The battle on the Plains of Abraham was the deciding battle of the French and Indian War.
The English grand strategist, Prime Minister Pitt, knew that Quebec City was the key to victory in this culminating war between the two European powers. France, if retaining control of Quebec and her other major city along the St. Lawrence, Montreal, could still carry on her fur trading activities with the Western Indian Tribes, her quest for the souls of the Indians, and, in general, could continue to make life difficult for English settlers on Canadian soil, along the northeastern seaboard and west of the Appalachians.
Pitt realized that the English victory would not be complete unless total control of the vital St. Lawrence River Waterway could be achieved by taking Quebec and, after that was achieved, Montreal, he knew, would fall like a ripe cherry into English hands.
Built on a high rocky escarpment on the Northern side of the mighty St. Lawrence River, the peninsular shape of Quebec afforded natural protection on its northern and western edges by this river and on its eastern side by the St. Charles River discharging its waters into the St. Lawrence. The relatively small Quebec peninsula between the two rivers, its bluffs protruding as they did into the St. Lawrence, accommodated the building of a wall, from one river to the other, on the city's back or northern side. It was to here that the remnants of the once mighty French armies had fled leaving their Indian allies behind to fend for themselves. Surrounded by water on three sides and the wall on the fourth, the city was, indeed, a formidable military obstacle.
In the two years prior to this battle, the English with their superior numbers and Pitt's bold strategy, had taken control of the major waterways into the Continent away from the French. They had secured partial control of the St. Lawrence River by capturing the Fortress City Of Louisbourg. They had regained control of the vital north/south waterway along the Hudson River/Lake George/Lake Champlain/Richelieu River corridor when the French deserted Fort William Henry, lost the second battle for Fort Ticonderoga, and blew up Fort St. Frederic at Crown Point on their way to the safe confines of the walled city.
Control of the Great Lakes was assured by the capture of Fort Niagara at the mouth of the Niagara River which divided Lakes Ontario and Erie. And, finally, control of the waterway into the heart of the continent was achieved with the capture of Fort Duquesne where the Monongahela and Susquehanna Rivers converge to form the mighty Ohio.
So Quebec remained the final obstacle for complete control of those lands east of the Mississippi. Pitt and General Amherst, recognizing James Wolfe's military genius at the battle of Louisbourg in 1758, gave this 32-year-old career soldier this all-important command along with a promotion to Brigadier General.
Our Entrance Into Quebec City And Initial Impressions
Nancy and I and our two Wheaten Terriers, Buddy and Daisy, after spending the weekend at Nancy's sister's in Connecticut, departed early Monday morning taking Interstate 91 north out of Hartford.
It was an easy one-day drive. My apprehensions about the Canadian highways were greatly relieved when we found that our routes 55 north and then 20 east were national highways and we made good time. We were crossing the Pierre La Port Bridge, over the St. Lawrence and into Quebec City, before dark.
We were momentarily stymied when finding it a short ways down a cobblestone street barred to cars! Further surprises ensued when Nancy returned from her reconnoitering with the news that the hotel had no elevators and our room was on the third floor. I'm thinking of my weak shoulder (not yet fully healed) and schlepping dog crates and baggage up those three flights. It all worked out when Nancy found a struggling artist who directed me to pull the Suburban up onto the sidewalk and then he hauled most of our heavy stuff up those three winding flights of stairs. The best $10 I ever spent.
Because the daylight was disappearing, we didn't really appreciate the charm of our narrow street and its location until the next morning. Our hotel was in "Upper City" on top of the bluffs and in the tip of the peninsula whose crest extended the farthest south over the river. It was a very small area dominated by the huge Chateau Frontenac with its eclectic Romanesque, Greek Revival, Georgian and even, in some parts, tending towards Victorian architecture.
A huge statue of Champlain, the discoverer of New France, resided in the middle of a small circular park fronting the hotel which had been built in the 1890s replacing the former Governor's Mansion which burned down years before. Farther back, a statue of Joan of Arc in a small garden embarrassed a huge old Anglican Church. Narrow streets lined with narrow, old buildings -- all clean with a historic 18th century look about them -- extended out in all directions, the ones on the upstream side leading downhill to "Lower Town" near the water. All in all a very European looking city. Everyone, of course, spoke French.
After a delicious breakfast, we set out with Buddy and Daisy to explore the Old City. Our first goal was to take the short walk to its very edge and walk along the promenade overlooking the St. Lawrence. I wanted to see what the French General Montcalm saw when he looked out on the river that warm day in June 1759 and saw 49 warships containing Wolfe's 9,000 man army (smaller than his own). He would have looked to his left, towards the east, where Wolfe made his encampment on June 26 on the beautiful Île d'Orleans just downstream and out of the range of Quebec's batteries of guns.
The weather was sunny and the view was magnificent, probably not totally unlike what Montcalm saw. Sunbeams sparkled off the water's surface and, if one focused one's gaze above the waterfront buildings, little or no civilization marred the view in the direction of Wolfe's encampment.
Now I looked to my right in the direction of L'Anse du Foulon, two miles up stream and the location where Wolfe, almost three months after his arrival, had led his army, climbing 180 feet up a steep bluff to the Plains of Abraham and his own immortality. As the river curved around to the north, I could not visualize, from this vantage point, what forever after would be called "Wolfe's Cove." That will have to come later.
We continued our pleasant walk along the promenade eventually coming to a stairway with 350 steps (as indicated on the sign) leading up the Plains Of Abraham. As Buddy is getting older and somewhat arthritic, we decided to split company with me continuing up the stairs and Nancy returning the dogs to the hotel planning thereafter to enjoy a walk through the streets of Upper City and perhaps do a little shopping. "I'll meet you at Noon at the statue of Champlain," I told her. OK.
The Plains Of Abraham
My plan was to walk the Plains of Abraham and visualize how the battle unfolded after Wolfe's army had somehow climbed the 180 feet up that steep bluff. They had even dragged artillery up as well and then been deployed by the General in the grand European style, spread out horizontally to await Montcalm's army who would initiate the battle from the higher, eastern end of the Plains.
If you can ignore the well manicured grounds, parking lots, roads and buildings in the distance, you can get an idea of what the Plains Of Abraham must have been like. Today it is called Battlefield Park and is a favorite outdoor spot of the Quebecois. Much of the open land remains and from lower end, the terrain prevents you from seeing the city walls just as it did then. From the ridge on the high ground, it is a little difficult to see what Montcalm saw when he said "this is serious business."
What was intriguing to me as I walked these grounds was not only how Wolfe had found a spot where the bluffs could be climbed, but also how he moved his army into place without arousing the French. It took him almost three months, and not a few aborted attempts, before he formulated the grand strategy. A little luck was helpful in its execution.
The strategy which evolved required Wolfe and his army to move upstream, to the southwest, and place themselves between Montcalm and his supply line from Montreal. This he did on September 3 relocating all except a small detachment -- left behind to give the appearance of a full camp -- to the South Shore of the St. Lawrence. The Quebec escarpment, however, extends nine miles upstream so Wolfe was still confronted with the problem of how to get his army up to the Abraham Heights without disturbing the French patrols who were, of course, on sharp lookout.
Wolfe, after closely studying the terrain, found the ideal spot for the invasion -- L'Anse du Foulon (Wolfe's Cove) -- only two miles from the city and with a small guard. Then a piece of extremely valuable information came into his hands from French deserters -- his maneuvers up river were interpreted as moves to intercept vital supplies coming into the city -- a shipment was due any day because the city was close to starvation. Wolfe later learned from more deserters that a shipment was, in fact, due on September 12 or 13.
The rest, as they say, is history. On September 13, the night chosen for the invasion, one of Wolfe's French speaking officers misled the French sentries, who were expecting the shipment of supplies, by responding to the guard's challenge in perfect French. Then the climb began with Wolfe, himself, leading the way. The battle was almost anti-climactic except for the fact that both Generals Wolfe and Montcalm were killed. Wolfe realized, before he died from his wound, that the English had won the battle and now controlled all of the continent west to the Mississippi.
Walking The Wall
I had two other goals to accomplish before leaving Quebec: to walk the wall around the old city and to examine the exact spot where Wolfe's army had climbed the bluffs, 180 feet up the steep escarpment, to the Plains Of Abraham.
I began my walk around the old city wall at the St. Louis bastion, our point of entry and just a few blocks from the hotel. The bastion was an imposing and horseshoe-shaped gateway through the wall and into the city composed of what appeared to be grayish stone. I walked up a flight of stairs onto the grassy area on top of the wall and was pleased with my viewpoint of the old city. I headed east because I wanted to get a better look at the St. Charles River as well as the narrow streets and old, European looking neighborhoods.
The walk took almost an hour and I was not disappointed. Most of the wall's sections gave me a higher vantage point from which I could see the buildings of Lower Town and the Port at the water's edge far below. Other sections were a high stone fence at street level -- probably restored. I lost my bearings in a few places, but most of the time the high towers and cupolas of the Chateau Frontenac got me back on track.
Finding where Wolfe and his Army had climbed the bluffs up to the Abraham Heights was somewhat difficult because the location is not well-marked. The Tourist Bureau told me that Gilmour Street roughly paralleled his ascent. They said it was not marked at the bottom; a waiter told me that there was a marker, but was unsure of the location.
We were greeted with heavy rain on our third day so, because of the weather and Buddy's difficulty in climbing the three flights of stairs in our hotel, we decided to leave a day early and, hopefully, find Gilmour Street on the way out of town.
On my way to the garage to retrieve the Suburban, I noticed a delivery truck blocking my loading area on the narrow cobble stoned street in front of our hotel. Thankfully, when I returned, the truck was gone, but others were coming through, so we had to hurry with our wrestling of the dog crates, suitcases, etc. from our third floor perch so as not to be in their way or in the way of the artists setting up shop in the same location. As the interloper here I had to move the truck a couple of times, but the drivers were able to squeeze by and the artists were patient and enjoyed meeting the dogs.
On the way out of the Old City, I easily found the "Grand Allee" and made the left turn onto Gilmour Street shortly after crossing under the now familiar St. Louis bastion. Gilmour Street led downhill and it didn't take long to get to the bottom. I did, however, notice a marker on the way down residing unobtrusively on the grass along the other side of the road -- but with no place to pull off for a look.
Turning around at the bottom, we drove slowly back up and pulled over, along the side of the road, for a look at the marker. Our quest was complete -- it marked the spot where Wolfe's Army had come over the top onto the Plains Of Abraham.
The only problem was that I couldn't get a good look at the terrain from the roadside because of the trees with their lush Spring growth of leaves blocking the way. Nancy suggested pulling up a ways and into the entrance of an apartment complex. This we did, and I walked back and into the trees just a short distance to get the viewpoint and appreciate the slope of the terrain. It was steep! Could I have climbed it? I doubt it.
I was left an appreciation for the thousands of men who climbed up this steep bluff in the middle of the night carrying their heavy muskets, balls and powder. And of how some of them had actually dragged heavy artillery pieces up as well!
The after effects of this battle were far reaching. All threats of the French and her Indian allies to the eastern colonists were removed. The way west was open for the great numbers of English colonists who wanted land. The 13 English colonies were no longer totally isolated entities going in their own directions -- they had learned how to cooperate in a common cause and had developed much confidence in their own military abilities. This integration and cooperation would continue over the next decade in resisting the English as King George and Parliament attempted to extract taxes to help pay for this expensive war. It would lead to a revolution beginning in 1775 and, eight years later, the formation of a new country -- the United States Of America.
In winning this final battle and thus, the French and Indian War, England had effectively removed all threats which France imposed on her colonists. No other European power possessed any influence on those lands east of the Mississippi except for Spain which still owned Florida.
It is interesting to speculate on what our country would look like today if Wolfe and England had not won this battle. A settlement probably would have been reached with France retaining most of what is now the Canadian Province of Quebec to go with her Western holding of the huge Louisiana Territory including New Orleans. Would Napoleon have offered this territory, the Louisiana Purchase, to Jefferson 44 years later? In my opinion, not from the position of strength which Quebec would have provided. There may have been a country called New France in the middle of what is now America containing the Louisiana Territory and some of what is now Canada.
Jerry Patterson is a student of North American history. He is especially interested in the French and Indian War fought in the French and English colonies and how it related to the Seven Years War fought in Europe. He has traveled extensively to FIW sites including the Historic Lakes, Quebec, Louisbourg, Johnson Hall and Fort Johnson, and Fort Niagara.
Mr. Patterson is also interested in the history of the Iroquois including their current culture, history, and economic condition. He has visited the new Mohawk Village of Kenatsiohareke and studied Mohawk lifeways with the noted Mohawk Elder and Spokesperson Tom Porter.
He has a continuing interest in the history of Old West including Old West Trails. He has walked in the ruts of the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail, followed in the footsteps of Kit Carson, tracked down the ghost of Billy The Kid in historic Lincoln County, NM and has explored many other Old West historic sites such as the Little Bighorn Battlefield.
Mr. Patterson has accumulated an extensive library serving these interests and has plans for writing both a historic novel and a work of history.
He is the author of five books on casino gambling from the players perspective – how to survive and win in the casinos.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes emails from persons with similar interests.
*Photos by Michael Bernstein.
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