General Montcalm stayed for just three years in Canada, from 1756 to 1759. He led a series of victories before being defeated before Quebec, the capital of New France. His death on the “field of honour” assured that he has a special place in the memory of the Seven Years War.
Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was born in 1712 into a family of soldiers in the Languedoc. From 1733 to 1748, he took part in the confrontations around the succession of Poland and Austria during which he acquired a varied experience of major and minor conflicts. In particular, the young officer fought on the Rhine, in Bohemia and in the north of Italy where he received five sabre blows.
Montcalm was just one of many cavalry colonels in the French army in 1756 when he was chosen to command the troops of New France. Promoted to the rank of field marshal at the age of 44, he crossed the Atlantic aboard a frigate which took him to Quebec. Like many of his comrades, he noted down his observations about geography, the climate, the native people and colonial society in a small notebook. The marquis thus noticed that the Canadians spoke very good French, sprinkled with expressions from the navy.
In America, Montcalm was responsible for carrying out the orders of the governor of New France, Marquis Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil. This man, who had been born in Canada was mainly based in Montreal, from where he supervised operations. He did not travel to the frontiers of the colony, which gave a some room for manoeuvre to the French general, who had to carry out the governor’s directives while facing the enemy.
The unofficial campaign conducted by France and New France in America had just been made official when Montcalm reached Quebec in May 1756. At the beginning of his first campaign, the general took over Fort Oswego and the British navy on Lake Ontario. The next year, he demolished Fort William-Henry to the south of Lake Champlain. It was in this theatre of operations, linking Canada to the British province of New York that the marquis pulled off his most brilliant victory in 1758, by defending the approaches to Fort Carillon.
After falling out with Vaudreuil, Montcalm asked to be called back to France in the summer of 1758. However, he changed his mind on hearing of the fall of the fortified town of Louisburg, beside the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and Fort Frontenac, in the estuary of Lake Ontario. The Saint Lawrence Valley was being threatened by an invasion from three sides. The next campaign was to be decisive because it brought in the majority of the almost 80,000 inhabitants of New France.
As winter came on, Montcalm and Vaudreuil agreed to send a mutual emissary to Versailles. Their choice was the young Louis-Antoine de Bougainville who had come to Canada as an aide de camp for Montcalm. Having arrived later that winter, the future navigator submitted to the court a set of reports asking for reinforcements. But the war ships that were requested to defend the Saint Lawrence estuary were refused. They were instead destined to a projected invasion of England.
In 1759, Vaudreuil gathered his troops around Quebec, leaving the southern frontiers of Canada open. The British expeditionary corps of General James Wolfe disembarked on the Island of Orleans at the end of June. Under the protection of his squadron, Wolfe took up positions to the south of Quebec, which he started bombarding in the middle of July. Montcalm withdrew to the north of the Saint Lawrence which acted as a frontline between the two armies. The campaign was on the point ending in his favour when he was taken by surprise on the morning of 13th September by the British disembarkation at the Anse-au-Foulon, upstream from Quebec.
Montcalm led his troops onto the Plains of Abraham where the two armies took up positions in successive waves, just over a kilometre to the west of the ramparts. Fearing the arrival of more British cannons, the Marquis ordered the charge. Wounded in the arm and thigh in full action, he was hit for a final time during the rout of the French army. A bullet went through the small of his back, causing a stomach inflammation of which he died the following morning, in the house of the surgeon of Quebec. The city capitulated on 18th September. The surrender of Canada was signed the following year in Montreal.
The deceased general was immediately associated with the figure of a martyr fallen in combat, after delivering a final symbolic gesture before the walls of the colonial capital. It was in such terms that he was described by his former companions in arms, who devised a project for an epitaph two years after his death. The tragic aura of the “great defeated” remained on both sides of the Atlantic until the mid-20th century, marked by the decline of the former figures of romantic history.
Published in september 2020
Picture caption : Montcalm de St. Veran. A. L. F. Sergent