General Wolfe, of a delicate constitution and sensitive nature, had been deeply mortified by the severe check sustained at the Falls of Montmorency, fancying himself disgraced; and these successes of his fellow-commanders in other parts increased his self-upbraiding. The difficulties multiplying around him, and the delay of General Amherst in hastening to his aid, preyed incessantly on his spirits; he was dejected even to despondency, and declared he would never return without success, to be exposed, like other unfortunate commanders, to the sneers and reproaches of the populace. The agitation of his mind, and his acute sensibility, brought on a fever, which for some time in-capacitated him from taking the field.
In the midst of his illness he called a council of war, in which the whole plan of operations was altered. It was determined to convey troops above the town, and endeavor to make a diversion in that direction, or draw Montcalm into the open field. Before carrying this plan into effect, Wolfe again reconnoitred the town in company with Admiral Saunders, but nothing better suggested itself.
The brief Canadian summer was over; they were in the month of September. The camp at Montmorency was broken up. The troops were transported to Point Levi, leaving a sufficient number to man the batteries on the Isle of Orleans. On the 5th and 6th of September the embarkation took place above Point Levi, in transports which had been sent up for the purpose. Montcalm detached De Bougainville with fifteen hundred men to keep along the north shore above the town, watch the movements of the squadron, and prevent a landing. To deceive him, Admiral Holmes moved with the ships of war three leagues beyond the place where the landing was to be attempted. He was to drop down, however, in the night, and protect the landing. Cook, the future discoverer, also, was employed with others to sound the river and place buoys opposite the camp of Montcalm, as if an attack were meditated in that quarter.
Wolfe was still suffering under the effects of his late fever. "My constitution," writes he to a friend, "is entirely ruined, without the consolation of having done any considerable service to the state, and without any prospect of it." Still he was unremitting in his exertions, seeking to wipe out the fancied disgrace incurred at the Falls of Montmorency. It was in this mood he is said to have composed and sung at his evening mess that little campaigning song still linked with his name:
"Why, soldiers, why Should we be melancholy, boys? Why, soldiers, why,- Whose business 'tis to die?"
Even when embarked in his midnight enterprise, the presentiment of death seems to have cast its shadow over him. A midshipman who was present used to relate that, as Wolfe sat among his officers, and the boats floated down silently with the current, he recited, in low and touching tones, Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, then just published. One stanza may especially have accorded with his melancholy mood:
"The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power, And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave, Await alike the inevitable hour: The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
"Now, gentlemen," said he, when he had finished, "I would rather be the author of that poem than take Quebec."
The descent was made in flat-bottomed boats, past mid-night, on the 13th of September. They dropped down silently with the swift current. "Qui va la?" (Who goes there?) cried a sentinel from the shore. "La France," replied a captain in the first boat, who understood the French language. "A quel regiment?" was the demand. "De la Reine" (The queen's), replied the captain, knowing that regiment was in De Bougainville's detachment. Fortunately, a convoy of provisions was expected down from De Bougainville, which the sentinel supposed this to be. "Passe," cried he, and the boats glided on without further challenge. The landing took place in a cove near Cape Diamond, which still bears Wolfe's name. He had marked it in reconnoitring, and saw that a cragged path straggled up from it to the Heights of Abraham, which might be climbed, though with difficulty, and that it appeared to be slightly guarded at top. Wolfe was among the first that landed and ascended up the steep and narrow path, where not more than two could go abreast, and which had been broken up by cross-ditches. Colonel Howe, at the same time, with the light infantry and Highlanders, scrambled up the woody precipices, helping themselves by the roots and branches, and putting to flight a sergeant's guard posted at the summit. Wolfe drew up the men in order as they mounted, and by the break of day found himself in possession of the fateful Plains of Abraham.
Montcalm was thunderstruck when word was brought to him in his camp that the English were on the heights, threatening the weakest part of the town. Abandoning his intrenchments, he hastened across the river St. Charles and ascended the heights which slope up gradually from its banks. His force was equal in number to that of the English, but a great part was made up of colony troops and savages. When he saw the formidable host of regulars he had to contend with, he sent off swift messengers to summon De Bougainville with his detachment to his aid, and De Vaudreuil to reinforce him with fifteen hundred men from the camp. In the mean time he prepared to flank the left of the English line and force them to the opposite precipices. Wolfe saw his aim, and sent Brigadier Townshend to counteract him with a regiment which was formed on potence, and supported by two battalions, presenting on the left a double front.
The French, in their haste, thinking they were to repel a mere scouting-party, had brought but three light field-pieces with them; the English had but a single gun, which the sailors had dragged up the heights. With these they cannonaded each other for a time, Montcalm still waiting for the aid he had summoned. At length, about nine o'clock, losing all patience, he led on his disciplined troops to a close conflict with small-arms, the Indians to support them with a galling fire from thickets and corn-fields. The French advanced gallantly, but irregularly, firing rapidly, but with little effect. The English reserved their fire until their assailants were within forty yards, and then delivered it in deadly volleys. They suffered, however, from the lurking savages, who singled out the officers. Wolfe, who was in front of the line, a conspicuous mark, was wounded by a ball in the wrist. He bound his handkerchief round the wound and led on the grenadiers, with fixed bayonets, to charge the foe, who began to waver. Another ball struck him in the breast. He felt the wound to be mortal, and feared his fall might dishearten his troops. Leaning on a lieutenant for support, "Let not my brave fellows see me drop," said he, faintly. He was borne off to the rear; water was brought to quench his thirst, and he was asked if he would have a surgeon. "It is needless," he replied; "it is all over with me." He desired those about him to lay him down. The lieutenant seated himself upon the ground, and supported him in his arms. "They run! they run! see how they run!" cried one of the attendants. "Who run?" demanded Wolfe, earnestly, like one aroused from sleep. "The enemy, sir; they give way everywhere." The spirit of the expiring hero flashed up. "Go, one of you, my lads, to Colonel Burton; tell him to march Webb's regiment with all speed down to Charles River, to cut off the retreat by the bridge." Then, turning on his side, "Now, God be praised, I will die in peace!" said he, and expired,--soothed in his last moments by the idea that victory would obliterate the imagined disgrace at Montmorency.
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