A Loaded Anniversary

Books and pundits tackle the Plains of Abraham, but do they go far enough?

What vexes me most, however, is the reflection that Arthur Wellington will be as immortal as Napoleon Bonaparte. Has not the name of Pontius Pilate in a similar way become as unforgettable as that of Christ? Wellington and Napoleon! It is a wonderful phenomenon that the human mind can think of both at the same time.

Thus Heinrich Heine, poet and Bonapartist, writing in 1828, on the caprice of History. Events had lent an epic lustre to Waterloo, elevating Wellington to Homeric status, where sober analysis should (he felt) have canonized the emperor only. Still, as Canadians could tell him, both the heroes of 1815 missed a trick, for both survived the battle. One can only wonder what history would have done with a Wellington slain in his hour of triumph, or with a Napoleon overthrown only because Fate, in the form of a cannonball, had intervened.

By contrast, the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham is a case study of the benefits of a timely death. Neither of the fallen generals, the Marquis of Montcalm and James Wolfe, had done more than plod through the three-month Siege of Quebec: Montcalm had quite failed to fortify the vital Point Lévis, from which the invaders proceeded to blow the city to smithereens, while Wolfe’s first assault at Montmorency was ill conceived, ill planned and ill led. Moreover, in spite of the bloody character of the battle itself, it was by no means the decisive moment in the conquest of New France. Thanks to the stubbornness of Canadian sharpshooters, the bulk of the French and Canadian armies escaped to fight and win the Battle of Sainte-Foy in the spring, nearly retaking Quebec, while eventually New France passed to Britain in the 1763 Treaty of Paris when, in a final act of insouciance, France chose to cede New France (with its 70,000 inhabitants) and retain instead the riches of Martinique.

Backroom deals are dull, however; even Sainte-Foy, a battle far more interesting from the tactical point of view, is almost unknown to the educated public. But everyone knows the Plains of Abraham, whose very name (derived, disappointingly, from a farmer called Abraham) evokes the clash not of empires but of deities. Simply put, a battle in which both commanders die automatically highlights the human element. This was immediately remarked, at least in Britain: as Horace Walpole wrote,

The incidents of dramatic fiction could not be conducted with more address to lead an audience from despondency to sudden exaltation than accident prepared to excite the passions of a whole people. They despaired, they triumphed, and they wept: for Wolfe had fallen in the hour of victory.

Inevitably, therefore, Wolfe and Montcalm were immortalized and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham passed from the realm of history into the realm of myth, both for French-speaking Canadians and (soon enough) for English-speaking Canadians, as a tangible symbol of the Conquest (seen, naturally, from opposite points of view). In Quebec the myth is alive and well; sober analysis (Sainte-Foy, naval power, Treaty of Paris, etc.) has little traction. In English-speaking Canada, as interest in Canadian history itself has declined, myth-based triumphalism has happily abated, but, as the books under review show, the battle itself has lost none of its inherent epic appeal. As we commemorate the Battle of the Plains of Abraham this month (September 13th is the 250th anniversary), it is revealing to observe how analysis and epic combine in five volumes all aimed at the general reading public.

Although one might not expect it from the sensational title, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is a work of stunning erudition that dramatises the siege of 1759 with unique vividness. The author, D. Peter MacLeod, is a historian at the Canadian War Museum, and has employed dozens of eyewitness accounts I did not know existed: side by side with the letters of Montcalm’s and Wolfe’s dispatches to England, we find the exploits of William Hunter, Midshipman, a Hornblower figure in quest of a Lieutenant’s commission, who participated in every action up to midsummer, including the destruction of the Canadian villages; the dutiful, anonymous supply clerk of Quebec who endured the bombardment and foretold Wolfe’s successful landing; and even the experiences of young Ouiharalihte, a Huron warrior whom his grandfather judged too green for battle:

My grand father was too old to keep up with his Warriors—he desired me to accompany him, but just as soon as he got in sight of the Hurons, and was about to join them, he commanded me to go back—I obeyed him; but went back only a small distance, and concealed myself to see what was going on.

Anecdotes such as this—and there are hundreds in the book—effectively democratize the narrative while lending it great immediacy: merely by his use of quotation, MacLeod creates an atmosphere of suspense that culminates in the battle itself.

Québec ville assiégée, by Jacques Lacoursière and Hélène Quimper, takes the primary source approach one step further and shows that a complete account of the 1759 siege can be constructed from diaries and letters alone. Arranged chronologically, more than a thousand extracts testify to the uncertainty and anxiety of siege warfare, with a particular focus on what it was like to endure the British bombardment of the city (the title might be Québec ville écrasée). Both sides are represented (although the French extracts outnumber the English about three to one) and the English text left untranslated; the book is evidently aimed at a bilingual reader who is already familiar with the basic course of events. The editors have performed a great service to enthusiasts and scholars alike by interweaving so many sources that would necessarily be incomplete on their own, and the volume itself is very accessible and remarkably affordable. Combined with Northern Armageddon, Lacoursière’s and Quimper’s work demands adaptation into a TV series in the style of Ken Burns’s Civil War documentaries: if the fruits of these three historians’ research do not interest Canadians in 18th-century history, nothing will. Disappointingly, the focus in both volumes is very much on the siege and battle of 1759, for the campaign of 1760 and the Battle of Sainte-Foy receive only 25 pages in each. Perhaps this is owing to a want of sources, but the effect is to reinforce the myth of a single conquering knock-out punch by Wolfe.

The human element is also well to the fore in Joy Carroll’s Wolfe and Montcalm: Their Lives, Their Times and the Fate of a Continent. Remarkably for a volume of 289 pages, Carroll’s work provides a complete account of the Seven Years’ War in North America, including biographies of Wolfe and Montcalm (and capsule biographies of the other major players), descriptions of the society of New France, and summaries of British and French policy (not least the disastrous influence of Madame de Pompadour, Louis XV’s mistress). The style is natural and engaging, the story told as the clash of personalities within each army and the dilemmas of the two commanders; one grows rather fond of both Montcalm and Wolfe in her pages. Likewise synoptic, but otherwise altogether opposite, is Gérard Saint-Martin’s rigorous Les plaines d’Abraham: L’adieu à la Nouvelle-France?, which approaches the 18th century from the point of view of a military professional (the author is a retired French cavalry colonel and professor at military colleges). As such, it resembles C.P. Stacey’s Quebec, 1759 in seeking to weigh the commanders’ goals, plans and execution in practical terms, with an emphasis on the grand strategic framework of colonial geopolitics. If one were planning to fight the Seven Years’ War over again, Saint-Martin would be a good man to have on staff; much as the diaries of 1759 do, his work reminds us that history turns not on destiny but on a series of choices made without prescience.

Readers looking for a more traditional account of the Siege of 1759 will enjoy Stephen Manning’s Quebec: The Story of Three Sieges, the more so as they will get three sieges for the price of one: Manning deals successively with Wolfe’s siege in 1759, Lévis’s offensive in 1760 and Benedict Arnold’s failed invasion of 1775, during the American Revolution. The book’s chief asset is the author’s lucid, measured prose, which is a delight to the ear. Where MacLeod consults the man in the street, or Carroll looks to a general’s personality, Manning observes events from Olympus, assuming a certain familiarity with contemporary warfare on the part of the reader; an Englishman, he does not quite give “equal time” to the French. This is very readable history in the classical style.

One cannot read so many books about the Plains of Abraham without a feeling of futility, for this month’s anniversary is overshadowed by the controversy that raged in January and February of this year, nominally about a planned re-enactment of the battle but actually about the role of the battle in Quebec and Canadian historical consciousness.

The controversy began when the National Battlefields Commission produced a brochure describing its plans to commemorate the battles of the Plains of Abraham and Sainte-Foy, which included a masked ball and a Gettysburg-style full-dress re-enactment by musket enthusiasts; as the event was designed to attract tourists to Quebec City, the brochure’s tone was unfortunately festive. From there, the well-worn dominoes began to fall. Separatist zealots led by Patrick Bourgeois denounced a sinister federal agency (the commission) for cultural appropriation. The commission stuck to its guns, as it were. The Quebec press, scenting copy, took up the story, and the verbs fêter and humilier snuck up. The Bloc Québécois and Parti Québécois weighed in. Threats were made, by extremists unknown, against the humble musket enthusiasts, while public opinion began to sour. Historians of all stripes, from Desmond Morton to Denis Vaugeois, pleaded for sober analysis (Sainte-Foy, naval power, Treaty of Paris, etc.). Premier Jean Charest, prince of weather vanes, denounced violence but announced he would not participate in the commission’s programme. Le Devoir denounced the commission. The commission abandoned its guns, citing threats of violence but fearing further embarrassment. The National Post denounced Quebec’s influence. André Pratte denounced the domino effect. Loco Locass denounced insensitivity. The Bloc denounced Alfonso Gagliano. Rex Murphy denounced everybody. Quietly, the radiant Muse of History packed her bags.

The upshot is that the anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the most epic battle in our hemisphere before the American Civil War, is passing with the least possible fanfare: no public official will touch it with a ten-foot pole. On the one hand, one might simply chalk this up to historical amnesia, and perhaps the ease with which the anniversary has slipped away—the practically audible sigh of relief on all sides at its disappearance—does owe something to our materialism: aren’t there more important issues to worry about, like real estate or raw milk cheese?

Nevertheless, the cause of the controversy was the opposite of amnesia, namely collective memory and the power of myth. Undoubtedly, the commission was insensitive to the symbolism of the Plains of Abraham for the Québécois, and from that point of view the re-enactment was simply a public relations disaster. On the other hand, Bourgeois and company were right that the Commission, by virtue of including Sainte-Foy in its commemoration alongside the Plains of Abraham, was attempting to recast the anniversary of 1759–60 as a combined tribute to both sides, and to both sides’ victories, the better to dispense with the antagonistic Myth of Conquest with the Plains of Abraham as its central symbol. In other words, they were attempting the sober analysis (Sainte-Foy, naval power, Treaty of Paris, etc.) universally endorsed by historians: as Gilles Herman writes in his introduction to Québec ville assiégée, “After the victory of Sainte-Foy, one might say that it was a tie game.” Unfortunately, even historians must bow to public taste, so that the three Canadian books reviewed here (MacLeod, Lacoursière and Quimper, Carroll) pass quickly over Sainte-Foy and its victor (the Chevalier Lévis, easily the best general ever to take the field on Canadian soil). The public wants its myth, its dying heroes, its biblical battlefield, and objectivity cannot be imposed.

There is of course a certain segment of Quebec opinion, headed by Bourgeois, that loves the Conquest and will not willingly part with it, since it serves to validate any separatist program; and they are not keen to share any history with the Rest of Canada. Likewise, in the Rest of Canada, Wolfe the Conqu’ring Hero still gasps for life, especially in National Post editorials. Nevertheless, although Quebec nationalism is as permanent as the Laurentians, one may reasonably hope that separatist historiography will pass with the generation of the Quiet Revolution and that younger Québécois will be open to seeing New France’s great war not as a humiliating defeat but as the proud defiance of all odds it really was. That is a story with greater scope than mere Montcalm versus Wolfe and with greater mythic potential, appealing both to the Québécois and to English-speaking Canadians, for all the right reasons. Ironically, among these authors, it is only a foreign historian, Gérard Saint-Martin, the Gaullist who quotes Trudeau, who openly endorses this interpretation and singles out Sainte-Foy as the war’s defining moment:

It is the survival (he writes) of the ancient tale of a desperate struggle against an uncompromising enemy, far from a capital preoccupied with putting out more urgent fires, which allows New France to remain alive and well in the memory of the Québécois.

Such a sentiment may not suit the present moment perfectly, but as prophecy it will do nicely.