Posts Tagged ‘September 13th’

If Only Montcalm Had Lived Up to His Name

Posted in General on September 14th, 2010 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

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: )

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:

A Real Milestone in History

Posted in General, On This Day on September 13th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

September 13th: 533:  King Gelimer Picks a Bad Time to Lose His Mind


Battles do require a name.  History prefers a more specific nomenclature than “Was Grant Drunk Again?” or “Those English Archers Are Really Good, Part I.”  Geography usually obliges with some form of identification: the nearest town, the bordering river or, on this day in 533, a signpost.  Today is the anniversary of the battle of “Ten Miles From Carthage.”  It sounds more dignified in Latin, “Ad Decimum”, although neither of the armies spoke that language.  One army took orders in Greek, the other in a German dialect, but the signposts of North Africa were in Latin. 


North Africa had been part of the Roman Empire for almost six centuries, the consequence of losing all those Punic Wars.  In the early fifth century, however, the territory had been acquired by a group of entrepreneurs known as the Vandals.   They had first migrated from Spain where they had been among the first German tourists to loot Roman Iberia. Unfortunately for the Vandals, the Visigoths also heard about Hispania and migrated there, too. Preferring to be the sole barbarians on the peninsula, the Visigoths began wiping out the Vandals. Half of the tribe was gone when the Roman governor of North Africa saved the Vandals. He was rebelling against the Emperor and needed mercenaries, so he transported the tribe to North Africa.Ironically, the Roman governor called off his rebellion, but the Vandals didn’t. They soon occupied the territory extending from Libya to Morocco. (Yes, Rommel’s Afrika Korps was actually the second German invasion there, and the less successful of the two.) 


Their rule in North Africa was relatively benign. They restored the stability and prosperity that the disintegrating Roman Empire had failed to maintain. The Vandals’ most conspicuous failing was religious intolerance. Like many of the Germanic tribes, they were Christians but did not subscribe to the theological convolutions of the Nicene Creed. To the Germanic mind, God was Odin and Jesus was Thor. However, while the Goths were tolerate of the more sophisticated interpretations of Christianity, the Vandals were not. They persecuted the Church–and earned their ever-lasting infamy. (More savage tribes such as the Franks and the especially barbaric Angles and Saxons eventually converted to the Nicene Creed and received a baptism in history’s whitewash.)

The Vandal kingdom in North Africa lasted until 534. To the Vandals’ surprise, the Byzantine army had stopped cowering behind city walls and now was on the attack, intent on restoring the lost western half of the Roman Empire.  The Emperor Justinian had meticulously planned the campaign, using a superior army and insidious–dare I say “Byzantine”– diplomacy to overthrow the barbarian kingdoms.  He would use the Ostrogoths against the Vandals, the Franks against the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths against the Franks, and the Visigoths were always fighting among themselves.  (Justinian apparently did not consider Britain worth reconquering; otherwise he would have pitted the Angles against the Saxons.)  The Emperor’s Grand Scheme did not quite work because no one could rely on the Franks–and how little has changed–but it proved successful in North Africa.

To distract the Vandals and divide their forces, the Byzantines subsidized a rebellion on the northern-most possession of the kingdom, the island of Sardinia.  With the Vandals’ fleet and sizable portion of their army conveniently distant, the Byzantine fleet sailed from the friendly ports of Ostrogoth-ruled Sicily and disembarked a 15,000 man army in North Africa in 533.  Having forgotten Roman corruption, and not yet acquainted with Byzantine bureaucracy, the North Africans welcomed the imperial forces as liberators.  The troops’ usual inclination to pillage was checked by a commander of remarkable rectitude:  Belisarius.  The young general had demonstrated some ability in fighting the Persians, but he had especially impressed the Emperor by massacring rioters in Constantinople.   Now he was to defeat an army of 30,000 and overthrow the Vandals’ kingdom.    

Marching to Carthage, the capital of North Africa, the Byzantines were ten ten miles from the city when they found the Vandal army in the way.  The Vandals’ King Gelimer had an excellent plan for the battle; he would outflank and envelop the invaders.  Of course, such manuevers do require some coordination; otherwise you are simply fragmenting your forces in front of the enemy.  Guess what happened.  The Vandal troops that were so supposed to block the Byzantines arrived in installments, and that is how the Byzantines slaughtered them.  Among the casualties was Gelimer’s brother.  Then the Vandals’ flank attack began–but without any support from the no longer living vanguard or the yet- to-arrive main force under Gelimer.  Worse, they ran into Belisarius’  Hun mercenaries–who did not believe in taking prisoners. 

Gelimer finally showed up on the battlefield and his fresh, larger force seemed to be gaining the advantage over the Byzantines; but then the king  found the body of his brother and had an emotional collapse.  In the midst of a battle, he insisted on his brother’s burial.   This was definitely the wrong time for Vandal sensitivity.  Belisarius did not wait for all five stages of Gelimer’s grief to rally the Byzantines and counterattack.   The disoriented Gelimer even led his retreating troops in the wrong direction, not back to Carthage but into the desert.  The gates of Carthage were opened to the Byzantines, and Belisarius would enjoy a dinner that had been prepared for Gelimer. 

The refugee king did attempt to rally his forces but never quite succeeded in reviving his sanity.  For a man who had killed his cousin for the throne, Gelimer really was too sentimental for the job.  He was finally captured in 535 and presented as a trophy to the Emperor Justinian.  Gelimer sang dirges to himself and had an inexplicable,  disconcerting laugh.  He was allowed to live the rest of  his fragile life in a peaceful retreat.    Belisarius was on his way to Italy, and in a few years he would be presenting another but reasonably sane king to Justinian.

As for the Vandals, they evidently made some impression on the natives of North Africa. The blond hair and a possible tendency to goosestep would seem conspicuous. Almost two centuries later, when those North Africans conquered Spain, they remembered that the Vandals had come from there.  So the Moors referred to this realm as “Andalusia”.