1902 Encyclopedia > James Wolfe

James Wolfe
British soldier

JAMES WOLFE (1727-1759), the hero of Quebec, was the sou of Lieutenant-General Edward Wolfe, and was born in the vicarage of Westerham, Kent, on January 2, 1727. At an early age he evinced a keen interest in the adventures and achievements of war, and at thirteen accompanied his father to Cartagena. Obtaining a commission as ensign in the 12th regiment of foot in 1741, he embarked for Flanders on the 10th May of the following year, and during the campaign of 1743, in which he acted as adjutant, he was present at the battle of Dettingen. Hav-ing exhibited, in addition to high courage, a rare talent for command, he received while yet a youth a commission, on 3d June 1744, as captain in the 4th or king's regiment of foot, and shortly afterwards was made brigade-major. In this capacity he took part in the suppression of the rebellion of 1745, being present both at Falkirk and at Culloden. In January 1747 he sailed for the Continent, and for his valour at the battle of Lawfeldt on the 2d July he received the public thanks of the commander-in-chief, the duke of Cumberland. On 5th January 1749 he was gazetted major of the 20th regiment, and in the following year he became lieutenant-colonel. In this position he began to manifest those great qualities as a commander which were the secret of his success, and, while introducing into the regiment that perfect discipline necessary to the highest proficiency, secured the personal affection of almost every soldier. In the luckless Ilochefort expedition he was quartermaster-general, and by his dashing gallantry attracted the special notice of Pitt. When therefore it was decided in 1758 to send an expedition to Cape Breton under Amherst, Wolfe was appointed by Pitt brigadier-general. Under the eye of Amherst and Admiral Boscawen he conducted the landing at Louisburg through a heavy surf and in face of the well-directed fire of the enemy. He himself was the first to land, and forming his division into compact order attacked and carried with the bayonet the nearest French battery, after which he formed the camp. Chiefly through his ardent energy the siege operations were brought to a successful issue after an investment of six months. Wolfe then eagerly urged an attack on Quebec, expressing his determination to leave the service if nothing further was to be done. Pitt not only acted on his advice, but selected him as the leader of the difficult and almost chimerical enterprise. Quebec, besides being strongly fortified, was occupied by forces which greatly outnumbered those placed at Wolfe's disposal. Moreover, Montcalm the French commander had an open country behind him for supplies, and was only called upon to protract the defence behind his ramparts till the resources of the besiegers were exhausted. It was incumbent on Wolfe to force Montcalm to give battle, and this could only be effected by manoeuvres of the most daring kind. After bombarding the city from the heights of Point Levi, Wolfe made an attempt, 29th June 1759, to attack Montcalm's camp in front, but his instructions were not carried out with suffi-cient accuracy, and foreseeing that irretrievable disaster was imminent he found it necessary after the attack had begun to recall his troops and retire. As the enemy were now on their guard against a second attack of a similar kind, Wolfe saw that the problem must be solved by some other method, and after some time spent in careful con-sideration he hit upon a still more daring plan. In the evening of the 12th September with 5000 men he silently descended the St Lawrence in boats, and, scaling the heights of Abraham in the darkness, drew up his forces on the plains so as to cut off Montcalm's supplies. The audacity of the movement was too much for Montcalm's patience. On his attention being called to it he exclaimed " Oui, je les vois où ils ne doivent pas être ; je vais les écraser." But the genius of Wolfe was equal to the occasion. With calm self-possession he forbade a single shot to be fired till the enemy were within thirty yards. The crushing volleys with which they were then met, followed by an impetuous attack with the bayonet, was decisive of the action. While leading a charge at the head of the Louisburg grenadiers, Wolfe had one of his wrists shattered by a shot, but wrapping a handkerchief round it he kept on. Another shot struck him, and he still advanced, when a third lodged in his breast. While he was lying in a swoon some one near him exclaimed, " They run; see how they run ! " "Who run 1 " demanded Wolfe, like one roused from sleep. " The enemy," was the answer; " they give way everywhere." Wolfe then signified that a regiment should be sent down to Charles river to cut off their retreat, and on learning that his orders had been obeyed he turned on his side, and murmured as his last words, " Now God be praised, I will die in peace." Montcalm, the French commander, was mortally wounded in the same action, and died soon after-wards. By the surrender of Quebec Canada was lost to the French.

See Wright, Life of Major-General James Wolfe (1864), and Farkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (2 vols., 1884).

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