James Wolfe (1727-1759), English general, led the British troops to their famous victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham near Quebec.
James Wolfe was born into a military household on Jan. 2, 1727, at Westerhan, Kent. He attached himself as a volunteer to his father's regiment at the age of 13 and 2 years later received a commission in that regiment. Shortly afterward, he joined the 12th Foot as an ensign. In 1743 he fought at Dettingen as battalion adjutant. In the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, he was brigade major and aide to Gen. "Hangman" Hawley. Wolfe was cited by the Duke of Cumberland for his part in the battle at Lanfoldt, a factor in his being given command of the 20th Regiment at the age of 23. After his promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1750, he served as quartermaster general in the ill-fated attempt on Rochefort.
In the continuing conflict between the French and British in Canada, Wolfe distinguished himself as a brigadier under Gen. Jeffery Amherst in early 1758 during the successful siege of Ft. Louisbourg. After ravaging the settlements of the "Canadian vermin" along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he returned to England although he had received no specific orders to do so. Then, becoming bored with garrison life, he offered his services to Prime Minister William Pitt, expressing a preference for duty in the St. Lawrence area.
In Pitt's plan to take Canada, Amherst was to drive north to take Ticonderoga and Montreal. Wolfe, now a major-general, was given an independent command to take Quebec. On June 4, 1759, the expedition sailed from Louisbourg with a total of 8,500 troops, and by June 27 the army had disembarked and camped on Île d'Orléans opposite Quebec. A bombardment of Quebec from batteries on Pointe de Le'vis and raiding parties through the countryside failed to lure the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, out of the city. On July 31 a British attack at Beauport failed because of strong French resistance and a sudden storm.
Wolfe sent out punitive expeditions, burning homes and killing inhabitants, hoping that the Canadians would desert Montcalm. Illness swept through the British army. Wolfe's personal relations with the officers of the army worsened. The famous statement, "I can only say, Gentlemen, that if the choice were mine, I would rather be the author of these verses [Gray's "Elegy"] than win the battle which we are to fight tomorrow morning," is said to have been uttered by Wolfe in a fit of pique when his officers did not properly appreciate his recitation.
On Sept. 3, 1759, the Pointe de Le'vis camp was evacuated, and preparations were made for an all-out attack on the city before cold weather. On the night of September 13, the British scrambled up a zig-zag path at Anse au Foulon and overpowered the French guard at the top of the cliff. On the following morning the British were drawn up on the Plains of Abraham. Montcalm sallied out of the city, and the battle began about 2 P.M.
Early in the battle Wolfe received a wound in the wrist from a sniper and later a belly wound from an artillery splinter. He had his ranks hold their fire until the enemy were within 50 yards. The badly mauled French were routed; their general was among the fatalities. Wolfe received another wound, through the lungs, supposedly from the gun of an English deserter. He died shortly afterward with the words: "Now, God be praised. Since I have conquered, I will die in peace." Quebec surrendered on September 18. Wolfe's body was returned to England and was buried in the family vault at Greenwich.
Wolfe has been a popular subject for biographers. Christopher Hibbert, Wolfe at Quebec (1959), provides insight into Wolfe's personality. Duncan Grinnell-Milne, Mad, Is He?: The Character and Achievement of James Wolfe (1963), is chiefly a defense of Wolfe's military career. Older works include Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (2 vols., 1884; new intro., 1962); Beckles Willson, The Life and Letters of James Wolfe (1909); J. T. Findlay, Wolfe in Scotland (1928); W. T. Waugh, James Wolfe: Man and Soldier (1928); and Frederick E. Whitton, Wolfe and North America (1929). For the struggle between England and France for control of North America see Lawrence H. Gipson's multivolume work, The British Empire before the American Revolution, particularly vol. 7: The Great War for Empire: The Victorious Years, 1758-1760 (1949), and vol. 8: The Great War for Empire: The Culmination, 1760-1763 (1954).
Garrett, Richard, General Wolfe, London: Barker, 1975.
Liddell Hart, Basil Henry, Sir, Great captains unveiled, London: Greenhill Books; Novato, Ca., U.S.A.: Presidio Press, 1990.
Pringle, John, Sir, Life of General James Wolfe, the conqueror of Canada, or, the elogium of that renowned hero, attempted according to the rules of eloquence with a monumental inscription, Latin and English, to perpetuate his memory, Montreal: Grant Woolmer Books, 1974. □