Book review: “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution” by D. Peter MacLeod

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Book review: “Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution” by D. Peter MacLeod

 

Most accounts of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, also called the Battle of Quebec — a turning point in the history of North America, when Canada became British — focus on the two commanders, both of whom died in the fighting.

However, in his 2016 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution, D. Peter MacLeod takes a different tack.

In the early morning hours of September 13, 1759, General James Wolfe sent his British soldiers climbing the face of the nearly 200-foot-tall cliff of the Quebec Promontory, a cliff that, to the French, had seemed unclimbable, especially with regular patrols along the cliff-edge.

Nonetheless, through luck and energy, the British force got to the top and set up a battle line on the west side of the plateau, with some 2,100 troops.

The French, once they realized that the British had snuck behind them, established their own battle line on the eastern edge of the plains, on and in front of the Buttes-a-Neveu. This was a raised mound that, MacLeod points out, would have provided the 2,000 French and Canadian militia troops with an advantageous higher-ground position to face any British advance.

Instead, General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, ordered the French soldiers to attack across the half mile of rough ground.

In doing so, MacLeod writes, he lost control of the troops and lost the battle.

 

“A prudent professional”

MacLeod writes that Wolfe was “brave, not reckless.”  As for his own safety:

Wolfe dressed inconspicuously in the plain red coat, vest, and breeches that were an unofficial battle dress for British officers.  He carried a musket and bayonet instead of wearing a sword.  While perfectly willing to risk his own life, Wolfe did so as a prudent professional rather than a gallant adventurer.

So, unlike in the American Civil War when sharpshooters would try to spot the well-dressed generals, there was nothing about Wolfe to make him appear out of the ordinary.

The hour-long battle was already going the British way when — in contrast to American Civil War’s top commanders who occupied themselves at a central headquarters far from the front lines — Wolfe led a bayonet charge against the retreating French.

In doing so, he put himself in the line of fire as did anyone in the charge, and, according to a naval officer’s letter, quickly paid the price.

“He first received a musket ball through his right wrist, which tore the fingers cruelly but he wrapped his handkerchief round it, and marched on.  The next [wound] he received was in his belly, about an inch below the navel, and the third shot just above the right breast.”

Eleven years later, Wolfe’s death would be immortalized in a five-foot-by-seven-foot painting by Benjamin West, now in the National Gallery of Canada, in which, with more than a dozen soldiers crowding around him, Wolfe — showing no sign of any bloody wound and looking up to heaven — appears to be swooning.

“The Death of Wolfe”

His death in battle certified him as a British martyr, a designation heightened by West’s canvas.

 

“Slammed into the small of his back”

Montcalm, riding horseback, led his troops against the British lines.  When the French attack faltered, the soldiers began a headlong run to the rear. MacLeod writes:

Montcalm had been riding toward the city when a shot slammed into the small of his back, shattering bones and tearing through muscles and internal organs.  The three soldiers had reached him just in time to save their general from falling to the ground.

Treated by a doctor, Montcalm asked how long he could expect to live.  Until 3 a.m. the next morning, he was told.

In fact, he lasted an hour or two longer than that before dying.

Although it took nearly 150 years, the death of Montcalm was also eventually memorialized in a painting by Marc Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, now in Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

“The Death of Montcalm”

It is much smaller than the 35-square-foot Wolfe painting — just 1.8 feet by 2.8 feet, or five square feet.

 

“Their anonymous soldiers”

MacLeod provides accounts of the deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm but doesn’t let them overshadow the story he is telling.

Indeed, of his 35 chapters, he devotes just one, laconically titled “Dying Generals” to their deaths, and not all of that chapter.  All he devotes to those much romanticized moments are two pages out of the 323 pages of his text.

He explains this, writing:

However prominent Montcalm and Wolfe might have been before and after the firefight, surviving participants did not record any positive action whatsoever on the part of the two generals during the battle itself.  Between the moment that Montcalm ordered the French army to charge down the Buttes-a-Neveu and the moment that Wolfe led a charge down the side of Wolfe’s Hill, the generals remained effectively invisible. They issued no dramatic orders to fire, stand, or retreat and exercised no discernable influence over the course of events.

Eyewitness accounts speak instead of masses of soldiers and officers, locked in formation or scattered in handfuls, caught up in the coldly brutal dynamics of a black-powder battle.  Montcalm and Wolfe led from the front, running the same risk as any other combatants on the field.

But it was their anonymous soldiers who fought the battle and changed the course of history.

 

“The People of 1759”

This is a book about those soldiers as well as all the other people — the sailors, militiamen, civil authorities, priests, nuns, shop owners, bakers, entrepreneurs, Native Americans, warehousemen and on and on — who played a role in the events that led up to this battle and in the battle itself and in the ways things played out afterward.

The deaths of Wolfe and Montcalm get relative short shrift because MacLeod’s aim in this thorough, well-paced, well-told account of the battle is to show that it wasn’t the result of strategy and tactics, although strategy and tactics played a role.

It was the result of tens of thousands of people making individual decisions, over many months, that came to bear on the outcome.

Indeed, the book opens with an 11-page section titled “The People of 1759,” listing some 170 individuals who are appear, usually more than in passing, in MacLeod’s text.

 

“They both died”

MacLeod brings the reality of the battle, as well as the months before and after, onto the page with a sharp eye for the accounts of participants as well as a willingness to take a step back to give the reader a context and an understanding of what is going on.

Consider this description, by a warehouse clerk, of what it was like one day during the relentless bombing of Quebec in the three months before the battle:

“At 10:00 a.m., the Sieur Colet, merchant, and Colas Gauvreau were struck by a cannonball at the Royal Battery; they both died a few hours later…The Sieurs Dufour and Brassard were lightly wounded by another [shell] that landed between them as they stood on a doorstep…

“At 11:00 a.m., a firebomb fell upon Chevalier’s home…it immediately burst into flames, which spread to [the homes] of Teyvoux, the widow Chenevert, the elder Girard, Madam Boishebert, Sieur Cordeneau, and finally that of Sieur Dacier.”

 

“An intensely personal act”

Or consider MacLeod’s explanation of what it was like when, as the French troops attached the British line, both sides began firing their muskets:

Killing at this range was an intensely personal act.  Soldiers could see their enemies fall and hear them scream as their shots struck home, feel the blood of wounded comrades splatter across their faces, and choke on acrid clouds of black-powder smoke.

 

“Like a wounded animal”

Finally, MacLeod writes about the defeated French army which, on paper, should have been able to take a stand within the walls of Quebec and launch a counter-attack.

Yet — this, I think, is the central lesson of MacLeod’s book — the soldiers were human beings and were not acting as they should or could have acted.  They were acting, as we all do, often, on the basis of their emotions.

Defeat had left the French regular battalions battered but intact, with reinforcements close at hand, a water barrier obstructing a further British advance, an open line of communication to the west, and a vital position to defend.

But defeat can tear the heart out of an army just as surely as gunfire tears apart the bodies of its soldiers.

On the afternoon of September 13, the professional component of the French army was like a wounded animal, thinking only of safety and flight.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

9.6.18

 

 

 

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