Je me souviens. Directly from French, more specifically Canadian French, it means “I remember.” The statement is the official motto of the Province of Quebec. For French Canadians, or Quebecois, the statement carries a weight, an emotion and history we Anglophones can’t grasp. For Quebec is a country within a country, occupied and governed by the British Crown since September 13, 1759. On that date, two armies clashed outside the walls of Quebec City.
The British army, commanded by General James Wolfe, broke the French line commanded by General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. This 20-minute engagement decided the fate of New France, the fate of an empire in North America and the fate of British colonials increasingly calling themselves Americans.
The conflict began five years earlier when a 22-year-old surveyor from the Royal Colony of Virginia named George Washington bumbled and bungled a diplomatic assignment in the Ohio Valley near modern day Pittsburgh. Washington’s task was to instruct the French garrisoning the area to leave; that they were on land claimed by His Britannic Majesty King George II. By the end of the talks the French commander lay murdered at Washington’s feet by an Iroquois chieftain.
This dispute spilled over into war between the British and French kingdoms and their allies where the belligerents fought on every settled continent. We Americans call it the French and Indian War, and Europeans named it the Seven Years’ War. Churchill referred to it as the first world war. The Quebecois have choice words for what they call it: Guerre de la Conquête. It doesn’t take fluency en Français to know what that means.
The war began inauspiciously for the British. Montcalm won victories at Fort William Henry in 1757 and Fort Carillon in 1758 in Upstate New York. Had it not been for poor harvests in Quebec, Montcalm and his Canadians could very well have marched further to New York and Boston and split the British colonies in half and sued for peace.
Under the direction of William Pitt, the British organized a greater war effort. Parliament spent exorbitant amounts from the Royal Treasury to recruit more soldiers and build more ships. Under Pitt’s guidance, Britain would devote most resources to conquering New France in North America. This strategy relied heavily on using the Thirteen Colonies as a base for both manpower and support.
In 1758 General Wolfe won a resounding victory at Louisbourg in present day Nova Scotia which opened up the Saint Lawrence River and the interior of Canada to British attack. The following summer, le grand prix awaited conquest by Wolfe: Quebec City, the capital of New France.
Then as it is now, Quebec City is considered one of the most beautiful cities in North America. It is the quintessential city upon a hill as it sits on a promontory overlooking the Saint Lawrence. Seven church spires rose into the air along with the bell towers of the cathedral. Most of the city’s homes and buildings were built in stone. None of this mattered to James Wolfe. Just as he did at Louisbourg, he intended to “set the Town on fire with Shells.” Noting Quebec’s strong geographical defenses, Wolfe decided if he couldn’t take the city, he would reduce it to rubble.
The bombardment began on July 12, 1759 from artillery batteries placed across the river from the city. By September, Wolfe’s artillery commander logged over 15,000 shells fired at the city. The citizens within withstood what could be equated to what Londoners endured during the German aerial Blitz in 1940. Daily bombardment and fires pulverized the city and left its stone buildings mere husks.
This did not dampen the Canadian spirit, however. They had enough supplies until the harvest in September, when they believed the British would quit and leave before the river iced over.
Wolfe first attempted to carry Quebec on July 31, 1759 when he landed soldiers at Beauport, which is adjacent to the city. Anticipating this, Montcalm previously fortified this area and fought off the attack with his artillery. Seeing the British retreat, French soldiers and civilians alike raised the plain white flag of the Bourbons and chanted “Vive le Roi!”
Enough time remained in the summer for one more fight. An opportunity presented itself by way of Patrick MacKeller, an engineer in Wolfe’s army who spent time in Quebec City as a prisoner of war. He knew of a “backdoor” into the city: a road that led up from the river and up onto the heights. If it were lightly guarded, they could surprise the French.
Wolfe decided to take that chance. In the morning hours of Sept. 13, Wolfe landed soldiers at the Anse au Foulon and quickly brushed off the light detachment guarding the road. By time Montcalm was made aware of the landing, his subordinates had already placed his army for him. An army of 3,500 stood between the city and 4,000 British soldiers on the Plains of Abraham.
Instead of waiting the British out, Montcalm decided to charge. During the charge the army broke up into sections. They fired just outside the effective range of their muskets with their shots bouncing harmlessly off of British soldier’s chests. The British then returned fire.
For about 10 minutes the two armies traded volleys, but due to the better concentration of fire from the British soldiers, the French suffered more casualties. Montcalm’s men eventually broke and made for the security of the city walls.
The British charged but were beat back by the reformed Canadian militia covering the French regulars retreat. The British suffered 600 casualties, including Wolfe himself. Leading from the front, Wolfe was shot in the chest and stomach. He died watching the French run. The French suffered 1,000 casualties including General Montcalm, who was hit in the back by canister fire from British artillery. He died the next morning.
On Sept. 18 the French surrendered the city realizing they couldn’t withstand a formal siege. What they didn’t realize is that a relief army from Montreal was only minutes away when they handed the city over.
The following spring that same relief army attempted to dislodge the British from the city. The French won the ensuing battle, but could not retake the city. That September Montreal surrendered to the British, and with that the war and the French presence in North America was over.
In the Treaty of Paris of 1763 France surrendered all of New France to the British and Spanish but kept its profitable sugar islands in the Caribbean. Both sides celebrated the peace.
Britain now controlled both the seas with its powerful navy and North America. France rid herself of her costly possessions in New France. Voltaire quipped France lost only “a few acres of snow,” but to the Canadians, they lost everything. Abandoned by their compatriots in France, the Quebecois now had to bow to a foreign king and felt uncertain about whether or not they could practice their Catholicism, language and culture.
And what of Britain and her empire?
The war debuted Britain as the eminent world power and celebrated accordingly, but James Murray, one of Wolfe’s subordinates, saw it differently. A year after the battle, Murray and a French officer discussed the possibility of Britain returning Quebec to the French.
“If we are wise, we won’t keep it,” Murray said. “New England needs a bridle to keep it under control, and we will give it one by not holding on to this country.”
The Thirteen Colonies, who comprised nearly a third of Wolfe’s conquering army, never felt more proud and British as they did after the battle. That elation morphed into contempt, disdain and feelings of betrayal as Parliament taxed the colonies to pay off war debt. Each colony protested the taxation individually.
In 1774 Parliament closed down Boston Harbor in response to the insurrection and also passed the Quebec Act, which guaranteed religious freedom to the Quebecois and restored French law within the province. The colonies saw this as intolerable and inequitable.
No longer needing British protection from the nonexistent French threat to the north, the colonials began to take up arms against their mother country. In the following year, a 43-year-old Virginian named George Washington took command of a few Massachusetts regiments under the authority of a Continental Congress who began calling themselves Americans.
The rest, as they say, is history.
On Sept. 13, 1759 the seeds of both the United States and Canada germinated.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the most consequential battle ever fought in North America, more so than Yorktown and Gettysburg, and 260 years later we still feel the reverberation of muddled muskets and chanting cannon on a bucolic, idyllic landscape outside a picture book city.
It’s a shame that our history books devote a paltry and minuscule number of sentences to this seminal event in the foundation of our country and our great sister to the north.
Most Americans aren’t even aware of or have forgotten this battle occurred.
But I stand with the Quebecois: Je me souviens. I remember.