Today's History Lesson: The Battle of Quebec

September 19, 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec.
It has all the makings of great drama - a battle and siege that not only determined the capture of Quebec, but determined the future of French rule in CANADA - and to some extent, determined the borders and settlement of Vermont and other neighbouring states as well.  In short,  it changed the destiny of a continent.
It is the battle that some Vermont historians call the "French and Indian Wars" or the Seven Years' War (1756 - 1763) described in Canadian and the British history books to describe the same war. Three major sieges and subsequent captures by the British were at Louisbourg (1758), Quebec City (1759), and Montreal (1760).
Quebec City, the only walled city in North America, is situated on a high promontory overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River.  The only access to the top of the cliff is from steep, narrow trails. To the east, on the Plains of Abraham (named after Abraham Martin dit l'Ecossais) sits the fortified city; including the citadel (fort).  The harbour sits below the city and supplies could only reach the city from the west - from Montreal.

vue de la citadelle et des plaines d'abraham partie ouest de cite de quebec

Vermont Public Radio commentator Peter Gilbert had this to say about this important day in history:

The story begins with tension, suspense, clever initiative, and perhaps luck: after weeks of frustration and with winter on the way, the British attackers are running out of time.  But they find a narrow track that enables them, in the dark of night, to scale the cliffs above the St. Lawrence River, taking them from their ships to the very gates of the enemy, where the French find them at dawn.  One morning’s battle would then determine whether not just Quebec City, but all of Canada would be French or British, a set battle between two great armies on a flat plain, outside a walled city. Even the name of the battlefield conveys Old Testament grandeur and significance: the Plains of Abraham.

Two great generals, Wolfe and Montcalm, are pitted against each other, red versus blue.  The battle itself takes less than fifteen minutes.  And not one but both generals are slain in battle, victor and vanquished alike.  In the years that follow, their death scenes would be memorialized in the most romantic (and unrealistic) terms on massive canvases by master painters, both French and British.  The city falls, French efforts to recapture it fail, and within a year the British conquest of Canada is over.

Whether one’s sympathies today are with English or French, whether one views the battle as a story of triumph or tragedy, it’s a compelling tale.  And, of course, the consequences of that battle are still all around us today. 


Reuben Gold Thwaites,  France in America 1497-1763, pub 1905, 338 pp, BiblioBazaar, (April 9, 2009)
David Hackett Fischer, Champlain's Dream - The European Founding of North America. pub 2008, 848pp, Knopf Canada (Oct 14 2008)
Jacques Mathieu et Eugen Kedl, "Les Plaines d'Abraham, le culte de l'idéal" (French Edition), pub 1993, 320 pp, Septentrion Press


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