General Wolfe—noble hero, or incompetent fatalist?
When General James Wolfe scampered up the steep path that carried him onto the Plains of Abraham and into the pages of the history books, what was he thinking? Given that 250 years have passed since his assault on the gates of Quebec City, one would expect that the answer to that question would be known. Quite to the contrary, Wolfe’s motives and abilities remain as contentious today as they have ever been.
Was he a noble hero who fell in battle achieving a great victory for his country? Or was he an incompetent fatalist who was trying in his clumsy fashion to commit suicide? Both claims have been made in recent books about the events that transpired at Quebec on September 13, 1759 and seem particularly apt in this year of celebration of the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great fortress city and the 100th anniversary of the creation of the battlefield historic park.
On any list of Canada’s most important historical events, the battle for Quebec has to come near the top. It took only a few minutes to fight but its outcome has echoed down through the years. French and English have more or less agreed to disagree about its meaning. Was it a liberation for the Québécois, as Anglophones used to learn in school? Or was it a conquest from which French-speaking Canada never recovered? And what about the so-called victor, General James Wolfe? Was he a wily tactician who spotted the only path to victory? Or an unstable romantic who knew he was about to die and was determined to go out with guns blazing?
Despite Wolfe’s status in the pantheon of Canadian war heroes, historians have never agreed about him. In C.P. Stacey’s biography of Wolfe in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, he dismisses him as “ineffective” and “vacillating,” more lucky than capable. Several years ago the American historian Fred Anderson, writing in Crucible of War (Knopf, 2000), his history of the Seven Years’ War, concluded that Wolfe had no expectation of victory when he went ashore to scale the cliff. He expected, says Anderson, to encounter enemy resistance that would either kill him, in which case he would earn the glorious death he so desired, or drive him back, in which case he could give up and go home at least having given it a try. In the event, French resistance was minimal, and Wolfe, much to his own surprise, found himself in command of the heights. Even so, he should have been defeated. He had led his men into an untenable position, Anderson argues, for no other reason than to gratify his own death wish. It was only the incompetence of the French that brought victory to the British.
More recently, Stephen Brumwell has defended Wolfe against his detractors. In Paths of Glory (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006), Brumwell, a British writer living in Amsterdam, takes a more conventional view, concluding that Wolfe was a brave, talented soldier who deserved every bit of the lavish praise that his contemporaries heaped upon his memory.
This notion of the tragic hero was taken up by Benjamin West in his painting The Death of General Wolfe. Much of what was believed about Wolfe after his death was mediated through this huge—and hugely popular—canvas and the many copies that were made of it. Unveiled in London in 1771, it shows Wolfe dying on the field of battle in the arms of his men while in the background contending armies clash. Claiming to be a depiction of reality, it is largely a work of fiction. Wolfe died away from the field of battle and only one of the men seen in the painting was actually present at his death. Never mind. West had produced “the grandiloquent lie the public craved,” as Simon Schama puts it in his study of Wolfe and his legend. The artist became court painter to the king, and The Death of General Wolfe was reproduced on teacups, wall hangings and beer mugs across the Empire.
In the end, Wolfe’s reputation is less important than the British victory he spearheaded. New France fell to the British invaders and took its place as a colony in the British Empire, and Canada has been trying to work out the implications ever since. “The Conquest is the burden of Canadian history,” Ramsay Cook once wrote, meaning, I suppose, that navigating the French-English relationship has been our big historical project. As Brumwell points out, “for Quebec’s French-speaking majority, Wolfe is less a hero than a symbol of oppression.” (Of course, that is assuming he is thought about at all. Former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, describing the history education he received at a collège classique during the 1950s, said that he and his classmates spent many weeks studying the Conquest from the French perspective. “It was so sad when Montcalm died,” Bouchard recalled, but “we didn’t care much about Wolfe.”) While most Anglo-Canadians believe the French should just get over it, for many Quebecers the Conquest is a wound that only independence will heal. For 250 years it has divided us, right down to the sovereignty referenda of 1980 and 1995, which came close to undoing with the ballot box what Wolfe had accomplished by force of arms.
The Conquest is one of those important Canadian milestones that we are not allowed to celebrate for fear of giving offence. Re-enactments of the battle, when they take place, are now politely declared a draw and the two sides shake hands in the spirit of national unity. Victory and defeat are not acceptable concepts in contemporary Canada; better to emphasize the role of the Plains as a civic park—the “Central Park of Quebec,” as one government website calls it. As Robert Fulford once remarked, the Conquest remains “perhaps the only eighteenth-century battle, anywhere, that cannot be discussed without anxiety.”
In this sense it might be said of Wolfe, as it has been of Pierre Trudeau: He haunts us still.