Your RDA of Irony

If Only Montcalm Had Lived Up to His Name

September 13, 1759: France Loses an Unimportant Continent

The French never really appreciated North America.  They knew how to claim territory but not colonize it.  In the 18th century, their empire stretched across Canada, the length of the Mississippi Valley to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Ohio Valley in the east to the Rocky Mountains.  But in that vast realm, there were all of 100,000 French colonists.   If you were planning a trip from Montreal to New Orleans, don’t count on buying any baguettes along the way until you reached a little settlement called Sainte Louis.  Had the British colonies been so stinted and stunted, there would have been no towns between Boston and Savannah.

But the opposite was true.  Britain’s 13 colonies–in that narrow strip along the Atlantic–had a total population surpassing two million people.  Even allowing for the slaves–whose Anglophilia might be in doubt–the British colonists outnumbered the French by 15 to 1.  And considering that “Britannia Rules the Seas” was not merely a song but the strategy, the outcome of the French and Indian War should not have been particularly suspenseful.   Montcalm and his forces might attack a few isolated outposts in upstate New York, but they were never a threat to Boston.   When the British were on the march, however, all of New France was at stake.

(This is not a footnote; anatomically it is more of a waistnote:  http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2006/10/18/how-france-lost-canada/ )

Yet, for all its disadvantages, France held a strategic bastion that preserved its control of Canada:  Quebec City.  Built on a promontory that commanded the St. Lawrence River, sheltered behind the stone ramparts of its city walls, Ville de Quebec was nearly impregnable.  Previous British attacks had failed–so would a subsequent American one.  The French could lose Louisbourg (they already had) and Montreal (they would); but so long as they held Quebec City, they held on to Canada.

Of course, the British knew that and were determined to take Quebec.  James Wolfe hoped to accomplish that with a force of 12,000 men; unfortunately, the British only gave him half that many.  So, with a smaller force than the French, facing uphill a walled city flanked bya strong river, Wolfe really had to believe in the superiority of the British soldier.  But through the summer of 1759, however, the British soldier was not proving especially miraculous.  Bombardment had failed, attack had failed, siege had failed; Wolfe had noticed the consistency.  Desperate, the 32 year-old commander devised a plan that should have failed, too.

A British force of 3000 men would sailed by night down the St. Lawrence, then attempt to scale difficult cliffs southwest of the city, assembled their outnumbered force before Quebec and take the town by surprise.  No doubt some of the junior officers were making suggestions about a Trojan Quiche in front of the city’s gates.  As it turned out, the large pan would have been unnecessary.  Somehow, the plan worked exactly as Wolfe had imagined it.

Undetected, the British flotilla navigated down the St. Lawrence, the forces successfully scaled the cliffs, and were in battle formation in front of Quebec before the French realized it.  Now, the Marquis de Montcalm had several ways of coping with this surprise.  He could have patiently assembled his  men before the city’s stout walls, letting his cannons keep the British at a very respectful distance.  There was a 3,000 man French force just to the west of the English visitors; Montcalm could have easily pinioned Wolfe.  Despite the British surprise, the French still had the advantage; unfortunately, the French general was too panicked to realize it.  Montcalm hastily rushed his men out of the city, throwing the disorganized force upon British.  The fight–September 13, 1759— lasted 15 minutes, really not long enough to be a battle, although too bloody for a brawl.  Each side suffered 600 dead and wounded.  Wolfe was killed, and Montcalm mortally wounded.  However, the British were not hurled off the cliffs; it was the French who retreated.  Still, they had the stout walls of Quebec for protection; and the British remained outnumbered and without the siege artillery to take the town.

Wolfe evidently had run out of luck, but his plan hadn’t.  With Montcalm dead, the French command devolved to the Marquis de Vaudreuil, the governor of Quebec.  The politician had the presence of mind to blame the dead general in his letters to Paris, but he took the real initiative in losing Canada.  Vaudreuil ordered the French garrison to abandon Quebec; he and the troops would retreat west to Montreal.  The city itself, with its invaluable strategic position, would be left to the English.

Montreal was founded for its commercial advantages rather than any strategic reasons.  It had no practical defense and the following year Vaudreuil surrendered it and the remnants of French rule in Canada.  Upon returning to France, he did recent complimentary accommodations in the Bastille.  However, it was a short imprisonment.  After all, the man was a marquis and his pedigree was a suitable alternative to competence.

Besides, the French were losing the Seven Years War everywhere, and the King was much more upset about losing India to the British.  That French general would be beheaded.  Vaudreuil was lucky that North America was so unimportant.

p.s.  Let’s not forget the historic significance of this day:  http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2009/09/14/the-politics-of-science-2/

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