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French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe


French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe

Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West

Photograph Source: Public Domain

James Wolfe - Early Life:

James Peter Wolfe was born January 2, 1727 at Westerham, Kent. The eldest son of Colonel Edward Wolfe, he was raised locally until the family moved to Greenwich in 1738. In 1740, Wolfe entered the military and joined his father's the 1st Regiment of Marines. The following year, with Britain fighting Spain in the War of Jenkins' Ear, he was prevented from joining his father on an expedition against Cartagena due to illness. This proved to be a blessing as the attack was a failure with many of the British troops succumbing to disease.

James Wolfe - War of the Austrian Succession:

The conflict with Spain soon became absorbed into the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1742, Wolfe transferred to the British Army for service in Flanders. Becoming a lieutenant in the 12th Regiment of Foot, he also served as the unit's adjutant. Seeing little action, he was joined the following year by his brother Edward. Marching as part of George II's Pragmatic Army, Wolfe traveled to southern Germany later that year. During the course of the campaign, the army was trapped by the French along the Main River. Engaging the French at the Battle of Dettingen, the British were able to escape.

Highly active during the battle, Wolfe had a horse shot from under him and his actions came to the attention of the Duke of Cumberland. Promoted to captain in 1744, he was shifted to the 45th Regiment of Foot. Seeing little action that year or the next, he missed the Battle of Fontenoy as his regiment was posted to garrison duty at Ghent. Departing the city shortly before its capture by the French, Wolfe received a promotion to brigade major. That October, he regiment was recalled to Britain to aid in defeating the Jacobite Rebellion led by Charles Edward Stuart.

James Wolfe - The Forty-Five:

Dubbed "The Forty-Five," the Jacobite forces defeated government troops at Prestonpans before advancing south into England. Dispatched to Newcastle as part of Field Marshal George Wade's army, Wolfe served under Lieutenant General Henry Hawley during the campaign to crush the rebellion. Moving north, he saw action at Falkirk and the Battle of Culloden. In the wake of the victory at Culloden, he famously refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite soldier despite orders from either the Duke of Cumberland or Hawley. This act of mercy later endeared him to the Scottish troops under his command in North America.

James Wolfe - The Continent & Peace:

Returning to the Continent in 1747, he served under Major General Sir John Mordaunt during the campaign to defend Maastricht. Taking part in the bloody defeat at the Battle of Lauffeld, he again distinguished himself and earned an official commendation. Wounded in the fighting, he remained in the field until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the conflict in early 1748. Already a veteran at age twenty-one, Wolfe was promoted to major and assigned to command the 20th Regiment of Foot at Stirling. Often battling ill-health, he worked tirelessly to improve his education and fighting skills.

James Wolfe - The Seven Years' War:

In 1752, Wolfe received permission to travel and made trips to Ireland and France. During these excursions he furthered his studies and made several important political contacts. Though wishing to remain in Paris in 1754, the declining relationship between Britain and France forced his return to Scotland. With the formal beginning of the Seven Years' War in 1756 (fighting began in North America two years earlier), he was promoted to colonel and ordered to Canterbury, Kent to defend against an anticipated French invasion.

Shifted to Wiltshire, Wolfe continued to battle health issues leading some to believe that he was suffering from consumption. In 1757, he rejoined Mordaunt for a planned amphibious attack on Rochefort. Serving as quartermaster general for the expedition, Wolfe and the fleet sailed on September 7. Though Mordaunt captured Île d'Aix offshore, he proved reluctant to press on to Rochefort. Advocating aggressive action, Wolfe scouted the approaches to the city and repeatedly asked for troops to execute an attack. The requests were refused and the expedition ended in failure.

James Wolfe - North America:

Despite the poor results at Rochefort, Wolfe's actions brought him to the attention of Prime Minister William Pitt. Seeking to expand the war in the colonies, Pitt promoted several aggressive officers to high ranks with the goal of achieving decisive results. Elevating Wolfe to brigadier general, Pitt sent him to Canada to serve under Major General Jeffery Amherst. Tasked with capturing the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, the two men formed an effective team. In June 1758, Wolfe led British forces ashore in a daring landing operation.

Having secured a foothold ashore, he played a key role in Amherst's capture of the city the following month. With Louisbourg taken, Wolfe was ordered to raid French settlements around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Though the British had wished to attack Quebec in 1758, defeat at the Battle of Carillon on Lake Champlain and the lateness of the season prevented such a move. Returning to Britain, Wolfe was tasked by Pitt with the capture of Quebec. Given the local rank of major general, Wolfe sailed with a fleet led by Admiral Sir Charles Saunders.

James Wolfe - The Battle of Quebec:

Arriving off Quebec in early June 1759, Wolfe surprised the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, who had expected an attack from the south or west. Establishing his army on the Ile d'Orléans and the south shore of the St. Lawrence at Point Levis, Wolfe began a bombardment of the city and ran ships past its batteries to reconnoiter for landing places upstream. On July 31, Wolfe attacked Montcalm at Beauport but was repulsed with heavy losses. Stymied, Wolfe began to focus on landing to west of the city. While British ships raided upstream and threatened Montcalm's supply lines to Montreal, the French leader was forced to disperse his army along the north shore to prevent Wolfe from crossing.

Not believing that another assault at Beauport would be successful, Wolfe began planning a landing just beyond Pointe-aux-Trembles. This was cancelled due to poor weather and on September 10 he informed his commanders that he intended to cross at Anse-au-Foulon. A small cove southwest of the city, the landing beach at Anse-au-Foulon required British troops to come ashore and ascend a slope and small road to reach the Plains of Abraham above. Moving forward on the night of September 12/13, British forces succeeded in landing and reaching the plains above by morning.

Forming for battle, Wolfe's army was confronted by French troops under Montcalm. Advancing to attack in columns, Montcalm's lines were quickly shattered by British musket fire and soon began retreating. Early in the battle, Wolfe was struck in the wrist. Bandaging the injury he continued, but was soon hit in the stomach and chest. Issuing his final orders, he died on the field. As the French retreated, Montcalm was mortally wounded and died the next day. Having won a key victory in North America, Wolfe's body was returned to Britain where he was interred in the family vault at St. Alfege Church, Greenwich alongside his father.

Selected Sources

  • NNDB: James Wolfe
  • Military Heritage: James Wolfe
  • James Wolfe
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