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Battle of the Plains of Abraham

History -- Military history -- List of battles

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought September 13, 1759, was a battle during the Seven Years' War (known in the United States as the French and Indian War) fought outside Quebec City in New France. One of the decisive battles of the war, combat lasted only 30 minutes.

Prelude: Siege of Quebec

Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West
Battle of the Plains of Abraham
ConflictSeven Years' War
DateSeptember 13, 1759
PlaceQuebec City
ResultBritish victory
James WolfeL.J. de Montcalm
The battle was actually the culmination of a
siege that began on June 26 when the British landed on Île d'Orléans in the St. Lawrence River. The British fleet under Admiral Charles Saunders had sailed from Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which they had captured in 1758. The fleet consisted of 49 ships with 1944 guns and 13500 crew, as well as 140 smaller craft to land General James Wolfe's force of 8640 British troops (7030 British regulars, 1280 Americans, and 330 artillery). An attempt to land 4000 men on the north side of the river at the Montmorency falls east of Beauport on July 31 failed; General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis of Montcalm inflicted 400 casualties while his forces suffered only 60.

Throughout July and August Saunders' fleet sailed up and down the St. Lawrence, surveying the river for possible landing spots. The French, whose naval forces consisted of only 1460 men, sent fire ships against the British, but otherwise offered little resistance. James Cook, later a captain and explorer of the Pacific, was one of the cartographers surveying the river. The fleet also burned farms, forts, and supply depots, although the British did not take control of the entire river and left the French supply routes open. There were very little supplies to be had, however, as the British navy was successfully blockading the ports in France and controlled the entrance to the Saint Lawrence. On September 10 Wolfe chose Anse au Folon as a landing spot. Anse au Folon was at the bottom of the 53-metre high cliff on which Quebec sits, and was protected by cannons above. However, it was not the landing site Montcalm expected, and was much less well-defended than the other possible sites. Wolfe had French-speaking soldiers reply to the sentries on the shore, making the French believe the landing craft were actually a convoy of supply boats from upstream.

Plains of Abraham

Montcalm had 13390 troops and militia available in Quebec City and Beauport a few kilometres away, as well as 200 cavalry, 200 artillery, 300 natives (among which were upper Great Lakes Outaouais warriors following Charles de Langlade), and 140 Acadian volunteers. This was about one quarter of the entire population of New France, but a significant portion of these forces was made up of inexperienced militia, unlike the British, most of whose forces had fought in the American colonies earlier in the Seven Years' War. About 100 Canadian militia defended the top of the cliff above Anse au Folon, but 385 British troops were able to scale the cliff and capture the cannons and the militia's camp. By the 13th over 5000 British had made it up the cliff to the plains. Throughout the length of the siege the British had suffered 270 deaths and 1220 wounded; French casualties prior to the battle are unknown, but the British bombardment of the town, from ships and batteries set at Sainte-Petronille and Lévis, had been severe.

On the morning of the 13th Wolfe assembled 5140 of his men on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City. Montcalm could have refused to meet them on the field (as his advisors suggested), and his decision to leave the fortified town and engage the British on the battlefield is often viewed as a mistake; his fear was that of British entrenchment. He also did not bring out the entire force, but only about 6500 men, slightly more than the British strength, leaving the other half of his army on the Beauport shoreline, under the orders of his often time rival Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, Governor General of New France, in case the attack on the Plains of Abraham turned out to be a diversion.

In order to cover the entire width of the plateau east of the town, Wolfe had set his ranks two-men deep (the famous British "thin red line"). Unknown to Montcalm, the 1500 elite troops under his faithful subordinate Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who had been successfully guarding the northern shoreline up-river from Québec all summer long, had frantically rallied and were soon to arrive just east of the battlefield on the British rear. Uncaracteristically however, the usually careful and methodical Montcalm did not wait. In Montcalm's initial charge, Wolfe was fatally wounded, but he died happy, knowing that the British had won. The French were quickly turning back with horrible casualties as the disciplined British fired at close range, having waited until only about 40 meters separated the lines to fire and having loaded two balls in each musket. Compounding the British blow was the chaos that ensued in the French ranks as ducking militiamen left regular troops perceiving losses far greater than was actually the case. Subsequent charges were disorganized and easily picked off by the British; the contingent of Highlanders, leading a bayonet and sword charge, proved especially ruthless on the routed French. Montcalm ordered a retreat back into the city, during which he too was fatally wounded. He died the next day.


Both sides suffered almost the same number of casualties: 658 British and 644 French. After defeating Montcalm outside the city, the British turned to face Bougainville's forces, now vastly outnumered, and forced him to make an orderly retreat to Charlesbourg. There Bougainville met up with Vaudreuil who had hastely deserted the Beauport shoreline on news of Montcalm's defeat. The British, now under the orders of General Murray, began to besiege Quebec itself, in conjunction with Saunders' fleet below in the river. In an ultimate tragic outcome, the garrison in Quebec, under the orders of De Ramesay, surrendered on September 18 just as Bougaiville was about to attempt a charge through British lines to resupply the besieged city. On September 24 Bougainville withdrew to a position on the Jacques-Cartier River east of the city.

Having cleared the last remaining French obstacle to the British navy on the St. Lawrence River, the battle of Québec essentially opened up all of New France to British control. In 1760 the British completed the conquest by capturing Montreal, but not before the battle of Sainte-Foy had given the French one final taste of victory. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763 to end the war and the government of France chose to keep Guadaloupe, a rich Caribbean island, instead of Canada, a poorer, underpopulated colony.