Born January 2, 1727 Westerhan, Kent, England
Died September 13, 1759 Quebec, Canada
British general who led the capture of Quebec
James Wolfe was a hero for the British during the French and Indian War. After playing an important role in the successful siege of Louisbourg in 1758, he was promoted to the rank of major general and given command of the British attack on Quebec in 1759. Wolfe tried a number of different strategies to capture the fortress city on a cliff. He finally discovered an overgrown footpath that allowed his troops to move onto the plains behind the city. His British forces defeated the French there in one of the most pivotal battles of the war.
A rising young officer
James Wolfe was born on January 2, 1727, in Westerhan, Kent, England. Both his father and grandfather had served in the British Army, and James grew up wanting a military career. He joined his father's unit at the age of thirteen, and two years later he received a commission as an officer. In 1742, he transferred to the Twelfth Regiment of Foot. Wolfe fought in Europe during the War of the Austrian Succession (1744-48; also known as King George's War). He saw action in several important battles. In fact, one of Great Britain's top military leaders, William Augustus, the duke of Cumberland (1721-1765), praised his performance in the Battle of Lanfoldt. In 1750, at the age of twenty-three, Wolfe was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel and given command of a regiment.
Wolfe was a rising young officer when the French and Indian War (1754-63; known in Europe as the Seven Years' War) broke out. This conflict began in North America, where both Great Britain and France had established colonies (permanent settlements of citizens who maintain ties to the mother country). The British colonies, known as America, stretched along the Atlantic Ocean from present-day Maine to Georgia. The French colonies, known as New France, included eastern Canada, parts of the Great Lakes region, and the Mississippi River basin.
Both the British and the French hoped to expand their land holdings into the Ohio Country, a vast wilderness that lay between their colonies and offered access to valuable natural resources and important river travel routes. But the Ohio Country was controlled by the Iroquois Confederacy, a powerful alliance of six Indian (Native American) nations whose members had lived on the land for generations. As Iroquois influence started to decline in the mid-1700s, however, the British and French began fighting to claim the Ohio Country and take control of North America. Once Great Britain and France officially declared war in 1756, the conflict spread to Europe and around the world.
In the early years of the French and Indian War, the French formed alliances with many Indian nations. The French and their Indian allies worked together to hand the British and their American colonists a series of defeats. In 1757, however, William Pitt (1708-1788; see entry) became secretary of state in the British government and took charge of the British war effort. Pitt felt that the key to defeating France was to attack French colonies around the world. He decided to send thousands of British troops to North America and launch an invasion of Canada. Like other British leaders, Pitt was frustrated by the British Army's lack of success in North America. He believed that part of the problem was a lack of strong leadership. When Pitt asked his top military leaders for the names of talented young officers to direct the war in North America, one of them recommended Wolfe.
Plays an important role in the capture of Louisbourg
Wolfe traveled to North America in 1758. He served as a brigade commander under General Jeffery Amherst (1717-1797; see entry) during the siege of Louisbourg. Louis-bourg was a fortress city on Cape Breton Island, off the Atlantic Coast of Canada, that guarded the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. Amherst brought twelve thousand British troops up the coast by ship in early June. Wolfe led the first group of soldiers to shore. After a rough landing, they came under fire from French forces, but eventually managed to secure the beach. Then the British troops hauled artillery on shore to set up a siege (a military strategy that involves surrounding a target, cutting it off from outside help and supplies, and using artillery to break down its defenses).
Amherst's forces surrounded the city by early July and began pounding it with artillery fire. The British finally broke through Louisbourg's defenses and forced the city to surrender on July 26. The capture of Louisbourg gave the British a clear path up the St. Lawrence River to attack the important French cities of Quebec and Montreal. Controlling Louis-bourg also helped them to prevent French ships from bringing fresh troops and supplies to Canada.
Wolfe returned to England following the successful capture of Louisbourg, at which time Pitt promoted him to the rank of major general and gave him command of a military campaign against Quebec that was planned for 1759. Since Wolfe was only thirty-two years old at this time, many older officers were insulted that he received such an important command. In fact, some of these officers spread rumors that Wolfe was insane. But King George II (1683-1760) remembered the defeats that his forces had suffered early in the war. He was ready to make a change in leadership in the North American war effort. "Mad is he?" the king replied upon hearing the rumors about Wolfe. "Then I hope he'll bite some of my other generals."
In fact, Wolfe was an unusual character. He was tall and thin with bright red hair. He suffered from poor health throughout his life and once described himself as a "skeleton in motion." Wolfe was highly emotional and had a quick temper, which sometimes earned him enemies. He also had a passion for learning that led him to hire tutors in Latin and mathematics and to read countless books about warfare. As a general, Wolfe believed in developing his own methods of doing things and often ignored the strict rules of the British Army. For example, he allowed his troops to wear more comfortable uniforms and outlawed whipping as a punishment. He also liked to recite poetry to his troops before going into battle. Although his men did not always like him, they did respect him.
Leads the British attack on Quebec
A fleet of British warships set sail up the St. Lawrence River from Louisbourg and arrived in Quebec in late June 1759. These ships carried Wolfe and more than eight thousand British troops under his command. When Wolfe got his first glimpse of Quebec, he worried that they were about to attack "the strongest country in the world." The capital of New France sat atop high cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River, and was surrounded by a large stone wall. The French commander, Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Véran (1712-1759; see entry), had placed two thousand French soldiers within the walls of the city and arranged his remaining twelve thousand troops along the bank of the St. Lawrence. The French defensive line stretched along the cliffs east of the city for seven miles, between the St. Charles and Montmorency Rivers.
Wolfe set up a base camp on the Île d'Orléans, a large island in the middle of the St. Lawrence, just a few miles from the city. Over the next two months, the British forces made several attempts to break through the French defensive line. On July 9, Wolfe ordered an attack on the east side of the French line, near the Montmorency River, but the British troops were turned back by heavy French gunfire. On July 12, the British forces began firing artillery shells into the city from Point Levis, a tall cliff directly across the river from Quebec. On July 31, Wolfe ordered another attack on the French lines below the city. But time after time, Montcalm's forces held off the attacks and refused to be drawn out of their strategic positions.
As the summer passed, Wolfe grew more and more frustrated at his inability to land troops on shore and set up a siege of Quebec. He knew that time was on the side of the French. At the first hint of winter, the British fleet would be forced to withdraw from the St. Lawrence, ending the expedition. Another factor in Wolfe's frustration was his declining health. He suffered from painful kidney stones, as well as a terrible fever and cough. As he grew weaker, Wolfe became convinced that he was going to die. He decided that he would rather die a glorious death on the field of battle than die slowly from disease.
Dies a hero
Desperate to earn a reputation as a brilliant general before he died, Wolfe began planning a final attack on the French lines. This time, the British troops would attempt to land west of Quebec at a spot called L'Anse au Foulon, which later became known as Wolfe's Cove. An overgrown footpath led from the cove to the top of the cliffs a short distance up-river from the city. This path could give the British access to the Plains of Abraham, broad fields that stretched behind Quebec and provided an ideal place to set up a siege.
On the night of September 12, a few British soldiers scrambled up the path to the top of the cliff and overpowered a small group of French guards. Wolfe followed with five thousand British troops, which he arranged in battle formation on the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm decided to engage the British forces in battle before they had a chance to dig trenches and set up a siege. The French general led an army of forty-five hundred troops across the Plains to begin the battle. Wolfe's forces stood their ground and waited until the enemy came within firing range. Then the British opened fire and devastated the French troops. Montcalm and most of his officers were killed, and around fourteen hundred French soldiers were killed or wounded. The inexperienced French troops then turned around and fled back toward the walls of the city.
Wolfe received wounds to the wrist and the abdomen early in the battle, but he stayed on his horse and continued to give orders to his troops. As the French forces began to retreat, however, the British general was shot through the lungs. He died a short time later, although he lived long enough to know that he had won the battle. "Now, God be praised," he said as he died. "Since I have conquered, I will die in peace." Wolfe's body was returned to England, where he received a hero's funeral. He was buried in a family vault at Greenwich. Meanwhile, Quebec surrendered to the British on September 18. Wolfe's victory reduced French territory in North America to Montreal and a few forts along the Great Lakes. Montreal surrendered to British forces in 1760 in America to end the French and Indian War and give the British control over all French territory in North America.
For More Information
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Garrett, Richard. General Wolfe. London: Barker, 1975.
Hibbert, Christopher. Wolfe at Quebec. Cleveland: World Pub. Co., 1959.Reprint, New York: Cooper Square Press, 1999.
Parkman, Francis. Montcalm and Wolfe. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1884. Reprint, New York: Modern Library, 1999.
Reilly, Robin. Wolfe of Quebec. London: Cassell, 2001.
Whitton, Frederick. Wolfe and North America. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1971.
James Wolfe (1727-1759), English general, led the British troops to their famous victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham near Quebec.
James Wolfe was born into a military household on Jan. 2, 1727, at Westerhan, Kent. He attached himself as a volunteer to his father's regiment at the age of 13 and 2 years later received a commission in that regiment. Shortly afterward, he joined the 12th Foot as an ensign. In 1743 he fought at Dettingen as battalion adjutant. In the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, he was brigade major and aide to Gen. "Hangman" Hawley. Wolfe was cited by the Duke of Cumberland for his part in the battle at Lanfoldt, a factor in his being given command of the 20th Regiment at the age of 23. After his promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1750, he served as quartermaster general in the ill-fated attempt on Rochefort.
In the continuing conflict between the French and British in Canada, Wolfe distinguished himself as a brigadier under Gen. Jeffery Amherst in early 1758 during the successful siege of Ft. Louisbourg. After ravaging the settlements of the "Canadian vermin" along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he returned to England although he had received no specific orders to do so. Then, becoming bored with garrison life, he offered his services to Prime Minister William Pitt, expressing a preference for duty in the St. Lawrence area.
In Pitt's plan to take Canada, Amherst was to drive north to take Ticonderoga and Montreal. Wolfe, now a major-general, was given an independent command to take Quebec. On June 4, 1759, the expedition sailed from Louisbourg with a total of 8,500 troops, and by June 27 the army had disembarked and camped on Île d'Orléans opposite Quebec. A bombardment of Quebec from batteries on Pointe de Le'vis and raiding parties through the countryside failed to lure the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, out of the city. On July 31 a British attack at Beauport failed because of strong French resistance and a sudden storm.
Wolfe sent out punitive expeditions, burning homes and killing inhabitants, hoping that the Canadians would desert Montcalm. Illness swept through the British army. Wolfe's personal relations with the officers of the army worsened. The famous statement, "I can only say, Gentlemen, that if the choice were mine, I would rather be the author of these verses [Gray's "Elegy"] than win the battle which we are to fight tomorrow morning," is said to have been uttered by Wolfe in a fit of pique when his officers did not properly appreciate his recitation.
On Sept. 3, 1759, the Pointe de Le'vis camp was evacuated, and preparations were made for an all-out attack on the city before cold weather. On the night of September 13, the British scrambled up a zig-zag path at Anse au Foulon and overpowered the French guard at the top of the cliff. On the following morning the British were drawn up on the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm sallied out of the city, and the battle began about 2 P.M.
Early in the battle Wolfe received a wound in the wrist from a sniper and later a belly wound from an artillery splinter. He had his ranks hold their fire until the enemy were within 50 yards. The badly mauled French were routed; their general was among the fatalities. Wolfe received another wound, through the lungs, supposedly from the gun of an English deserter. He died shortly afterward with the words: "Now, God be praised. Since I have conquered, I will die in peace." Quebec surrendered on September 18. Wolfe's body was returned to England and was buried in the family vault at Greenwich.
Wolfe has been a popular subject for biographers. Christopher Hibbert, Wolfe at Quebec (1959), provides insight into Wolfe's personality. Duncan Grinnell-Milne, Mad, Is He?: The Character and Achievement of James Wolfe (1963), is chiefly a defense of Wolfe's military career. Older works include Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (2 vols., 1884; new intro., 1962); Beckles Willson, The Life and Letters of James Wolfe (1909); J. T. Findlay, Wolfe in Scotland (1928); W. T. Waugh, James Wolfe: Man and Soldier (1928); and Frederick E. Whitton, Wolfe and North America (1929). For the struggle between England and France for control of North America see Lawrence H. Gipson's multivolume work, The British Empire before the American Revolution, particularly vol. 7: The Great War for Empire: The Victorious Years, 1758-1760 (1949), and vol. 8: The Great War for Empire: The Culmination, 1760-1763 (1954).
Garrett, Richard, General Wolfe, London: Barker, 1975.
Liddell Hart, Basil Henry, Sir, Great captains unveiled, London: Greenhill Books; Novato, Ca., U.S.A.: Presidio Press, 1990.
Pringle, John, Sir, Life of General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Canada, or, the elogium of that renowned hero, attempted according to the rules of eloquence with a monumental inscription, Latin and English, to perpetuate his memory, Montreal: Grant Woolmer Books, 1974. □
Richard C. Simmons
James Wolfe, 1727–59, British soldier. After a distinguished record in European campaigns, he was made (1758) second in command to Jeffery Amherst in the last of the French and Indian Wars. Through his skillful siege operations, he became a hero of the capture of Louisburg (1758) from the French, and he was rewarded with the command of an expedition against the French at Quebec, which he himself had urged. After frontal attacks on the positions of General Montcalm at Quebec had failed, Wolfe took 5,000 men in boats down the St. Lawrence by night and forced an open battle with the French on the Plains of Abraham (Sept. 13, 1759). The British were victorious, but both Wolfe and Montcalm were killed. The battle was decisive in the fall of New France to the British. Wolfe is vividly portrayed in Thackeray's Virginians.
See biographies by C. Hibbert (1959) and D. R. Robin (1960); F. Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (1884); R. Howard, Wolfe at Quebec (1965).