The Life and Military Career of Major General James Wolfe

Tylar Orion Davidson for History 364 with Dr. Strauch

Warfare in the eighteenth century was defined by its order and discipline. Men would form columns of varying thickness, before marching straight into battle. Men would halt at varying distances from the enemy before firing their muskets and charging, with the hopes to route them from the field. Discipline was essential to the success of this form of warfare, and the lack of discipline within one regiment could spell disaster for the entire army. A good commander was often defined by his skill at maintaining discipline for his troops, and Major General James Wolfe was exemplary in this regard. James Wolfe was born in 1727 and began his military service at the ripe old age of thirteen, when he served in his father’s regiment during the war of Austrian Succession. James Wolfe then went on to serve in the Jacobite Rebellion (1745-1746) before being garrisoned in Scotland. Wolfe was one of the main British commanders in the North American theater during the French and Indian War, and he led the British army as it marched deeper into French Canada. Wolfe met his end at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759, when he led a small force of English soldiers up the undefended cliffs of Quebec. James Wolfe’s brief nineteen years of military service were nothing short of exemplary, and he was able to take the experiences he had as a low ranking officer and apply them to his command as a Major General at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. James Wolfe was such an effective military commander due to his ability to adhere to the battle strategy of the age, allowing him to use his well-disciplined men in the most effective manner, which allowed them to secure a victory at Quebec, fundamentally shifting the balance of power in North America.

Wolfe’s first major engagement in his brief military career was at the Battle of Dettingen (1743), during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748), which was incidentally the last battle in which a British monarch, George II, led troops into battle. The Battle of Dettingen began when British and Hanoverian troops attempted to escape from probable annihilation from the French army. Reed Browning states that:

“the battle began early in the morning on July 27th, when a French force under the command of the Duke of Grammont moved his army to cut off the escape of the English Army. However, Grammont made a mistake of moving his men across the Main River, which placed his army of 26,000 men against the British army of 35,000, with a swampy ravine to the backs of the French force, and this allowed the English to capitalize and use their numerical superiority to push the French from Dettingen, into the ravine”[1]

Warfare in the eighteenth century was excessively bloody, and the attacks that occurred at this battle involved columns of men marching across a narrow bridge under artillery and musket fire, where they would inevitably stand and fire before initiating a bayonet charge, and a retreat, in the case of the French. Browning supports this claim when he states that “the battle was not an easy one for the English army. Three times the French charged the advancing allies, displaying ‘more courage than conduct,’ and only after the third charge did the French lines begin to break. The allies then surged forward, pushing the French through the bog and taking Dettingen.”[2] James Wolfe seemed to excel in his position as adjunct to a regimental commander, on which Stephen Brumwell states that “he had started his battle on horseback, only to be thrown when his mount was wounded. Wolfe subsequently did all he could to persuade his men to hold their fire until the French were within effective range”[3] The fact that Wolfe’s horse was shot from under him is a testament to the carnage that he faced in his first battle, and Brumwell goes on to state that “The stress of combat seemingly left James both mentally and physically exhausted: soon after the battle he grew ‘very much out of order’ and was obliged to keep to his tent for two days.”[4] These two statements by Brumwell hint at Wolfe’s prowess as a battlefield commander, even from an early age. Wolfe was able to effectively lead a regiment at the age of sixteen, a feat that would not have been possible for most men his age. Wolfe spent the remainder of his time on the continent under the command of the Duke of Cumberland, and he was soon recalled to England to suppress the Jacobite Uprising.

            A new dynasty came to the English throne in the early eighteenth century, the House of Hanover, which led to a deterioration of political stability, most notably caused by the Jacobite Uprisings of 1745. Scottish forces were led by Charles Stuart, a descendant of king James II, in an attempt to restore the English throne to the House of Stuart. The first major engagement of this war that James Wolfe, now a major, participated in was the Battle of Falkirk, which was a resounding Jacobite victory. Browning states that:

“The Jacobites drew an overconfident Hawley forward from Edinburgh. The killing began when the loyalist calvary rode out against the advancing Jacobite infantry near Falkirk and fell before a volley of fire. The Jacobites then charged the loyalist infantry. Only the loyalist right held against the charge, protecting the unruly retreat as best as it could.”[5]

The combat that the English troops experienced in the Scottish Highlands was drastically different from the combat they faced in Germany. Scottish Highlanders fought largely with broadswords and small bucklers rather than musket and bayonet, and much of their success in battle hinged upon the success of the highland charge which often routed enemy armies in the same way that English bayonet charges routed the French at Dettingen. One can only begin to imagine what James Wolfe experienced at the Battle of Falkirk, for it was a different type of carnage than he experienced at Dettingen. Majors did not serve in the front lines, but they were close enough to experience fighting, so it is fair to assume that Wolfe experienced at least some of the force of the highland charge.

            The English defeat at Falkirk was not a death throw for the English army, however, it did strengthen English resolve to end the uprising. This is supported by the following claim by Browning, when he states that “by choosing Cumberland to replace Hawley, the government signaled its commitment to implacable rigor in the war against the Jacobite.”[6] The English resolve to end this revolt culminated in the Battle of Culloden, where the British army routed the Highlanders and ended the battle. Browning states that:

“the battle began on the morning of April 27th, 1746, when both armies faced each other over a marshy field contained by a stonewall on the English left, with the English army outnumbering the Highlanders. The Highland army attempted to hold ranks to force the British to charge, but the Duke of Cumberland ordered his artillery to bombard the Highlanders, which forced their right and center to charge in an attempt to rout the English. The loyalists clubbed and bayonetted the wounded to death, leaving the battlefield ‘bespattered with blood and brains.’”[7]

The fighting at Culloden soon devolved into a bloody melee, which was shown in the David Morier painting, An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, which “depicts English soldiers with bayonets raised, repulsing a Highlander attack, with the stone wall shown at the left of the painting.”[8] This painting shows how unprepared the Highlanders were to face the British army. The Highlanders are shown in their traditional tartans with melee weapons, while the British are shown in their crimson coats, wielding muskets in a manner only well-trained soldiers would know how to. G. M. Trevelyan stated that “the last charge of the tribal swordsmen in Scottish history was broken at Culloden Moor by cannon loaded with grapeshot and by volleys of the long red line, three deep.”[9] James Wolfe was present at this battle as well, where he likely observed the importance of the use of artillery in battle and the effectiveness of British line infantry, which would ultimately be the ones who thrust the final blow into the hearts of any enemy they faced. The carnage at this battle was unprecedented in Europe, and this left a lasting impression on many officers that served there, and many of these officers went to serve on the fields of Europe and North America during the Seven Years War.

            James Wolfe’s greatest victory came during the French and Indian War, when he led a British army to conquer Quebec. This battle pitted two skilled commanders, Major General James Wolfe, and Lieutenant General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, against each other in what would be their last battle. Quebec was a vital city needed for the conquering of French Canada, and both armies were commanded by skilled commanders. James Wolfe’s portrait that was attributed to Joseph Highmore offers insight into Wolfe’s state of being during the time of the battle. “James Wolfe is shown dressed in a fine uniform of red, with elaborate trims along the lapel and cuffs, with a matching waistcoat. A sword hangs from his left hip, while his right hand holds a hat. One feature that must be observed is the youth that is shown in the face of Wolfe.”[10] It is important to acknowledge that Wolfe was only thirty-two years old when he led his men on the Plains of Abraham, and the fact that he was able to attain the rank of Major General and was tasked with the capture of a major target at such a young age, is nothing more than a testament to his skill as a military commander. One must compare this portrait with that of General Montcalm, which shows him “with his hand resting upon his lower torso, which is covered by a breastplate, while he wears a blue coat over it with a powdered wig upon his head. His face is shown as being more aged and rounded, perhaps hinting at his age at the time of the battle.”[11] Montcalm was forty-seven at the time of the battle, and was a skilled commander himself, although he often “doubted the guerilla warfare used by the Canadians and their native allies.”[12]

Wolfe was a textbook example of a British General from the eighteenth century, on which William Fowler states that he was:

“A strict disciplinarian, [and] the general entertained no romantic illusions about the character of his men. ‘the infantry are easily put to disorder… their discipline is bad, and their valour precarious…they frequently kill their officers through fear, and murder one another in their confusion.’”[13]

Wolfe held discipline to a high standard, perhaps drawing on his experience at the Battle of Dettingen when he witnessed his men break rank and advance. Perhaps he is drawing on his experience at the Battle of Falkirk, when he witnessed the British left collapse and flee the field, or perhaps he drew upon his experience at the Battle of Culloden when he saw the Highlanders break rank and charge the British lines, leading to the collapse of the Highland Army. One may never say what exact moment led to his style of command at Quebec, but this experienced General was the man that led British troops up the cliffs surrounding Quebec to offer battle to Montcalm.

            The Battle of the Plains of Abraham occurred on the bluffs surrounding the city, and Fowler states that:

The English crossed the St. Lawrence river in the early morning of September 13, 1759 with men under the command of William Howe. Three companies crested the hill, which secured enough of a foothold for the rest of the British force to mount the hill. The entire English force crested the bluffs by 8am, when they began forming their battle line, which stretched for half a mile. Montcalm heard of the British crossing at 9am, four hours after the initial attack, and he moved his troops to face Wolfe. Montcalm rode in-front of his men as they advanced into battle, and Wolfe joined his men at the front of their ranks as well. Thousands of lead balls poured into the French center and men fell in windrows. The French fell back, and the redcoats reloaded and advanced.”[14]

Wolfe advanced with his men, a trait that was not shared by many officers, but was a trait shared by many great generals in their greatest engagements. The British were under constant fire from Canadian and Native troops that littered the tree lines around the plains. Fred Anderson states that “Wolfe had ordered his men to lie down nearly two hours before. This was not to allow them to rest. Instead, Wolfe intended to make them less inviting targets for the enemy snipers who harassed them from the edges of the field.”[15] European armies were extremely vulnerable to sharpshooters due to the closeness of their ranks, and officers made especially lucrative targets. Wolfe led his men through the advance, until he was mortally wounded by these snipers.

            Wolfe was wounded at the beginning of the fight, on which Anderson states that “Wolfe, wounded in the wrist and the chest at the beginning of the battle, bled to death on the edge of the field while his men ran wildly after the defeated enemy.”[16] Wolfe’s death was highly romanticized in the immediacy of his death, and this romanticization is shown in Benjamin West’s painting, The Death of General Wolfe. The painting depicts “a wounded General Wolfe being cradled by his officers, with his regimental flag behind him. British troops are shown advancing in the background, with a small sliver of the painting devoted to the retreating French forces on the left side of the painting.”[17] Wolfe’s death cemented his place as a British hero, for “the British public would embrace Wolfe as the war’s greatest hero, enshrining him in a place of honor unrivaled until the next century produced yet another military martyr in Lord Nelson.”[18] This place of honor in British public memory was well earned on the part of Wolfe, for it was due to his planning, discipline, and overall command that the British were able to route the French from the plains, leading to the British capture of the city.

            The brief military career of James Wolfe was nothing short of extraordinary. He entered the military service at the age of thirteen and was soon thrust into combat during the War of Austrian Succession, where he bravely led his men across a narrow bridgehead at the Battle of Dettingen, which allowed the British army to route the French, securing victory for the English. He then went on to serve during the Jacobite Uprisings of 1745, where he witnessed the power of the British army firsthand. He was promoted to Major General at the age of thirty-two, five years younger than when General Charles Cornwallis was promoted to the same rank at the dawn of the American revolution. Wolfe led the British to victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and the magnitude of this victory could not be understated, and this victory was the result of James Wolfe’s ability to lead and discipline his men in an effective manner. The British capture of Quebec laid the groundwork for its transfer to their possession, along with all other French territories in North America. This transition of territories led to the American Revolution fifteen years later. James Wolfe’s victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham led to a distinct change in the power dynamics of North America and Europe, and a victory of that magnitude is what solidified Wolfe’s legacy as that of an extremely effective field commander in the British Army.


[1] Reed Browning. The War of the Austrian Succession., (St. Martin’s Press: New York)., 138-139.

[2] Browning. The War of Austrian Succession. 139.

[3] Stephen Brumwell. Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe. (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal)., 31.

[4] Brumwell. Paths of Glory., 31.

[5] Browning. The War of Austrian Succession., 264.

[6] Browning. The War of Austrian Succession., 264.

[7] Browning. The War of Austrian Succession., 265.

[8] David Morier. An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745

[9] G. M. Trevelyan. History of England, Volume III: From Utrecht to Modern Times: The Industrial Revolution and the Transition to Democracy., (Doubleday Anchor Books: Garden City)., 53.

[10] Joseph Highmore. Major General Wolfe.

[11] Artist Unknown. Louis Joseph de Montcalm, Marquis de Montcalm de Saint-Veran.

[12] Fred Anderson. The War that Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. (Viking Press: New York).

[13] William M. Fowler, Jr. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763., (Walker and Company: New York). 183.

[14] Fowler. Empires at War. 209.

[15] Anderson. The War that Made America., 203.

[16] Anderson. The War that Made America., 204.

[17] Benjamin West., The Death of General Wolfe., 1770.

[18] Anderson. The War that Made America. 205.

Bibliography

Anderson, Fred. The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War. New York, New York: Viking Books, 2005.

Browning, Reed. The War of Austrian Succession. New York, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Brumwell, Stephen. Paths of Glory: the Life and Death of General James Wolfe. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Univ. Press, 2007.

Fowler, William M. Empires at War: The French and Indian War and the Struggle for North America, 1754-1763. New York, New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

Highmore, Joseph. “Major General Wolfe,” n.d.

Morier, David. “An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745,” 1746. Palace of Hollyroodhouse.

Trevelyan, George M. History of England: From Utrecht to Modern Times: The Industrial Revolution and the Transition to Democracy. 3. Vol. 3. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1953.

Unknown. “Louis Joseph De Montcalm, Marquis De Montcalm De Saint-Veran,” 

West, Benjamin. “The Death of General Wolfe,” 1770. The National Gallery of Canada.

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