National Geographic : 1949 Apr
James Wolfe (1727-59) O N SEPTEMBER 13, 1759, General James Wolfe took Quebec from the French General Montcalm and by his victory insured the supremacy of the English-speaking race in North America. Both Wolfe and Montcalm lost their lives in that battle, which some historians call the most important ever fought on American soil. Born in 1727 in the village of Westerham, Kent, Wolfe became a soldier before he was fourteen; his commission as second lieutenant in his father's old regiment, the Marines, was signed by George II in 1741. Soldiering was in his blood. At the age of 16 he fought at Dettingen, where his horse was shot under him and, as he tells us, he had "to do the duty of an adjutant all that and the next day, on foot in a pair of heavy boots." Wolfe, who was tall and slight and had red dish hair, admitted that he was "a whimsical sort of person.' As a commanding officer he was just, although a believer in discipline. His nature was a mixture of method and dash. All through his short career he was an om nivorous reader of military history. He suc cessfully developed a form of guerrilla warfare in the capture of Louisburg, and smilingly ex plained his tactics by saying he had learned the tactics from the reading of Xenophon. Once when the Duke of Newcastle ran to tell George II that Wolfe was mad, the king, endowed with shrewdness in addition to a sense of humor, remarked, "Mad is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my generals." On Wolfe's return to England after the cap ture of Louisburg, Pitt offered him the com mand, with the rank of major general, of the expedition to be sent up the St. Lawrence, and he selected Guy Carleton and Isaac Barre as his chief staff officers. Barr6 at the time of the American Revolution, 20 years later, championed the cause of the Colonies in Par liament. Wolfe sailed from Spithead on February 14, 1759, to achieve a feat that would change the destinies of a hemisphere. Three armies were to converge on eastern Canada, and Wolfe's part was to capture Quebec, a prac tically impregnable fortress, thanks to its towering position on the St. Lawrence. Not only natural difficulties of great magnitude confronted him; but, like Napoleon in Russia, he was fighting with "General Winter," for the St. Lawrence becomes icebound early. Time was the dominating factor. The weeks passed; Wolfe made two attempts, but they ended in failure. He fell ill and was despond ent. As late as August 19 the omens were unfavorable, and news of his illness spread dismay among his men. There were even rumors that he was dying. "I know perfectly well you cannot cure my complaint," he said to his surgeon, "but patch meupsothatImaybeabletodomyduty for the next few days." On August 31 he wrote to his mother: "My antagonist has wisely shut himself up in in accessible entrenchments so that I can't get at him without spilling a torrent of blood, and that perhaps to little purpose." On September 9 he wrote in a dispatch to the Government in England: "My constitution is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the State, or without any prospect of it." No wonder that the dispatch cast gloom over Whitehall. The Duke of Newcastle wrote, "Mr. Pitt, with reason, gives it all over, and declares so publicly." Without confiding in anyone, however, Wolfe had conceived a plan. He had been examining with a telescope the plateau behind the city of Quebec, upstream, and espied a narrow path by which men could climb up the cliffs from the river bank. Never suspecting that an attack from this quarter was feasible, Montcalm had stationed only a hundred men at the post there; yet the enterprise could hardly have been more risky. Wolfe had written to a colleague two weeks before: "My ill health hinders me from executing my own plan; it is of too desperate a nature to order others to execute." On September 12 he wrote to his troops, "The officers and men will remember what their country expects from them"-a fore runner of Nelson's Trafalgar message. In the dead of night, Wolfe led his men stealthily up the path from L'Anse au Fou lon, and by zero hour on September 13 they were drawn up on the Heights of Abraham, a force of 4,500, ready to give battle. The victory was complete, but both Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded. Wounded three times-the final bullet pierced his breast-Wolfe was helped to the rear by some grenadiers. An officer, standing by his dying leader, exclaimed, "They run! I protest, they run!" Wolfe murmured, "Who run?" "The enemy, Sir," was the reply. "Egad, they give way everywhere!" Turning on his side, Wolfe exclaimed, "Now, God be praised, I die happy! " Andrew Wyeth, son of the famous illus trator N. C. Wyeth, painted especially for our use his striking portrait conception of Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham above Quebec.