Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution

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9781681680507: Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution
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A vivid re-telling of Canada's most important battle, based on decades of research and many dramatic eyewitness accounts. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is one of the pivotal events in North American and global history. This clash between British general James Wolfe and French general Louis-Joseph de Montcalm on September 13, 1759, led to the British victory in the Seven Years' War in North America, which in turn led to the creation of Canada and the United States as we know them today. Rooted in original research, featuring quotations and images that have never appeared before, Northern Armageddon immerses the reader in the campaign, battle and siege through the eyes of dozens of participants, such as British sailor William Hunter, four Quebec residents enduring the bombing of their city and a teenage Huron warrior. Shifting from perspective to perspective, we move from the bombardment of Quebec to the field of combat, where Montcalm and Wolfe gave their orders but thousands of individual soldiers determined the outcome of the battle. In the final chapters, MacLeod traces the battle's impact on Canada, the United States, both countries' Aboriginals and the world, from 1759 into the twenty-first century. 

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About the Author:

An award-winning audio engineer for over forty years, Tom Perkins has expanded his skills to narrating and has more than sixty titles to his credit. He learned by working with the world's best voice talent during his career, and he continues to engineer a variety of projects.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

500,000 Years of History

Humans Make War; Geography Shapes the Battlefield

The history of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham began with a gentle rain of sediment floating down to the floor of the proto–­Atlantic Ocean during the late Precambrian era. Time passed; minute grains of sand and clay settled, accumulated, and hardened into gigantic blocks of sedimentary rock. When tectonic shifts slammed them together, closing the proto-­Atlantic and creating the Appalachian Mountains, some of these blocks shifted westward. One massive chunk of folded and faulted limestone, sandstone, and shale, six miles long, half a mile wide, and known to geologists as the Quebec Promontory, came to rest against the future Canadian Shield.

Half a billion years later, the fate of Canada, the future United States, and the French and British Empires in North America turned on possession of this block of sedimentary rock.

By September 1759, the Seven Years’ War, the titanic struggle for empire between France and Britain that Winston Churchill called “the first world war,” had been under way for just over five years. During those five years, British goals in North America had changed from the occupation of the Ohio valley to the conquest of Canada.

Yet although the British enjoyed comfortable margins of naval and military superiority in the region, they had spent most of those years reeling from defeat after defeat at the hands of Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, governor-­general of New France and commander in chief of the French armed forces in North America. Year after year, the British in North America contemplated or attempted the conquest of part or all of New France. Vaudreuil responded by sending Louis-­Joseph de Montcalm, his senior field commander, to capture British outposts and smash British offensives before they could threaten Canada.

Sheer force of numbers, however, allowed the British to bounce back from defeat, rebuild their forts and armies, and take to the field once more. As British strength increased, French objectives shifted from blocking British expansion in the Ohio valley to fighting for survival amid the farms and cities of New France.

The crucial campaign of the war began when a British fleet and army commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Saunders and Major General James Wolfe reached Quebec in 1759. Whoever controlled Quebec controlled Canada. If Quebec fell, Canada would fall with it.

As Canada’s Atlantic port, Quebec was the sole point of contact between Canada and France. A minor colony with a population of just seventy thousand, Canada lacked the human and material resources to fight a major war on its own. In the words of an anonymous British strategist, “Receiving supplies of men, stores, and provisions by sea . . . [is] absolutely necessary for supporting & maintaining that body of troops which they [the French] employ, Canadian or European, & that number of posts which they possess in America.”

Breaking this link would suffocate the French Empire in North America. In theory, the supply lines between France and New France could also be severed by blockade. But despite manifest French naval weakness, the British never managed to isolate Canada. “The doing of this by cruising [patrolling] merely,” confessed the anonymous strategist, “has already been tried in a certain degree ineffectually, & is perhaps to an absolute degree impossible . . . as the . . . St. Lawrence River must still in a certain degree be open against the most vigilant cruise.” Even in 1759, when a British squadron sailed from Halifax to blockade Quebec, more than twenty French supply ships arrived safely by slipping through the same ice fields that prevented the Royal Navy from entering the Gulf of St. Lawrence before it was too late.

The only sure way to isolate Canada from France was to take Quebec. “By going to Quebec,” wrote the British commander in chief in North America in January 1757, “success makes us master of every thing.”

Success, however, proved elusive.

Perched atop the eastern tip of the Quebec Promontory, Canada’s capital towered from sixty-­five to one hundred yards above the St. Lawrence River. Attacking Quebec from the river would leave an assault force stranded in Lower Town, clinging to the base of the cliff, trapped and vulnerable. Attacking from the landward side meant finding a way up the promontory. In 1759, the French reinforced these natural defenses by constructing a line of fortifications on the high ground along the Beauport shore between Quebec and the Montmorency River and a chain of outposts extending from Quebec to Cap-­Rouge guarding ravines and roadways leading up the cliffs.

When Saunders and Wolfe came to Quebec, they slammed into the Quebec Promontory and the Beauport entrenchments. For three months, Saunders’s navy and Wolfe’s army tried and failed to take Quebec. Throughout that time, Vaudreuil and Montcalm remained safely inside a strong defensive perimeter, high above the St. Lawrence, protected by 264 cannon and mortars on the city walls and 39 at Beauport.

While Saunders’s ships whisked troops up and down the St. Lawrence River, Wolfe’s soldiers accomplished nothing beyond losing the Battle of Montmorency on July 31 and adding a new level of brutality to the Seven Years’ War as they shelled Quebec into ruins and burned more than a thousand farms in hope of forcing the French to come out and fight. By September, Saunders and Wolfe were teetering on the verge of a humiliating defeat.

Bad news for Saunders and Wolfe. Bad news for the British Empire. But very good news for Ashley Bowen of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Chapter 2

Sailing to Armageddon

Ashley Bowen

For the people of Canada, the British attack on Quebec was an unfolding tragedy. For Ashley Bowen, it represented an opportunity to advance his nautical career by acquiring experience as a ship’s officer. One among thousands of British and American mariners on the scene, Bowen is remembered for his autobiography, the first ever written by an American sailor.

Even before he arrived in Canada, Ashley Bowen had led an active life. Born in Marblehead, Massachusetts, fifteen miles northeast of Boston, in January 1728, Bowen began his seafaring career at age eleven. Signing aboard as a ship’s boy in 1739, he sailed in the snow (a small, two-­masted sailing vessel) Diligence, carrying a cargo of tar from Cape Fear, North Carolina, to Bristol, England.

Four months after his return home, disaster struck. His mother died, an event he described as “the greatest part of my ruining as may be seen the following year,” and his father promptly remarried “a fine rich widow.” Unwanted at home (“To obtain his wish [of marriage to the widow, his father] would separate his own family”), Bowen returned to sea apprenticed for seven years to a merchant captain. A training program like this was meant to qualify a teenager to become a ship’s officer and perhaps one day a captain. Instead, the apprenticeship turned into an ugly round of beatings and abuse. In 1744, on a voyage to Gibraltar, wrote Bowen,

the master would take his cat . . . and give me a dozen strokes on my back . . . then take his quadrant and look for the sun; then took a tiff of toddy, and so regularly he would do that office, one after another, till the Mate interfered for me and said if I should die on the passage out he would be a witness against him.

Denied instruction in commerce and navigation, Bowen became a competent seaman but not a potential officer. In 1745, he deserted in the West Indies and signed aboard a British privateer. This marked the beginning of a new phase of a career that would take him all around the North Atlantic world and give him enough knowledge and experience to serve occasionally as a ship’s officer but mostly as a sailor.

Finally, on March 29, 1759, opportunity knocked. While Bowen was ashore at Marblehead, Robert Hooper, a leading citizen, approached him with an invitation to join the British attack on Quebec, not as a sailor, but as a midshipman—­an apprentice officer in the Royal Navy. Bowen accepted the next day. He thereby became one “of the five thousand men [from Massachusetts] which were to be raised to go by sea on board His Majesty’s ships at Halifax under Rear Admiral Durell.”

The Quebec Expedition

The expedition that Bowen had agreed to join was a massive land and sea offensive, aimed at nothing less than the total elimination of French power in northeastern North America. In the western interior, British and American soldiers lunged at Fort Duquesne in the Ohio valley and Fort Niagara on Lake Ontario. In the east, two more armies headed for Quebec. One would advance down Lake Champlain, capture Montreal, then travel down the St. Lawrence to Quebec. The other would sail straight up the St. Lawrence.

A British-­American as well as a Royal Navy–­British Army venture, the Quebec expedition involved people and ships from all across Britain’s transatlantic empire. On land, about one-­third of Wolfe’s nine thousand soldiers had been recruited in the American colonies. This surprisingly high percentage reflects both the years that many British units had spent in the colonies during the war and the rising population of British ­America.

The naval component of the British amphibious force included a quarter of the Royal Navy—­forty-­nine warships, crewed by 13,500 sailors and 2,100 marines. One hundred and nineteen transports crewed by a further 4,500 sailors carried troops and supplies. Vice Admiral Saunders described seventy-­four of these transports as “American,” forty-­five as “English.”

With the fleet “in great want of seamen,” Saunders asked for colonial sailors. In response to this request, an unknown but significant number of Americans volunteered to serve with the Royal Navy during the siege of Quebec. Like American provincial troops, they took part in the campaign, then demobilized and returned to their homes in the fall. Two hundred and forty sailors from Boston caught up with the fleet in Halifax before the expedition began. More arrived from New England over the summer. Senior naval officers treated the Americans as a distinct group known as “New England volunteers,” a group that included Ashley Bowen.

Prior to the opening of the campaign, Saunders had written to the governors of New York and Massachusetts. After informing them that “the fleet and part of the army in North America will proceed early up the River St. Lawrence to Quebec, and consequently stand in need of frequent supplies of all kinds of refreshments,” he asked that they encourage American merchants to send shipments of provisions to the British forces at Quebec. The merchant community seized this opportunity. Throughout the siege, American shipping sailed up the St. Lawrence carrying supplies to the British forces at Quebec.

At least three African American teamsters, “Jack,” “Leto,” and “Jeremy,” accompanied the expedition. They formed part of a body of civilian contractors who cared for eighty oxen and forty-­two draft horses that were embarked with Wolfe’s army to haul supplies and artillery. A floating herd of 591 cattle from Boston came along to provide fresh meat for the army and the fleet.

Bowen Joins HMS Pembroke

Now a midshipman, Bowen recruited thirty-­two sailors and departed with them aboard the schooner Apollo on April 12. Bowen and his followers were not the only American passengers aboard Apollo who were heading for Quebec. “We have,” he wrote, “Captain [Joseph] Goreham with a company of Rangers on board.”

On April 16, the Apollo entered Halifax harbor. On the seventeenth, Bowen joined HMS Pembroke, along with fifteen other New Englanders and fifty-­eight soldiers of the Royal American Regiment.

When Bowen came aboard, John Simcoe, captain of HMS Pembroke, took some time to get to know his new American midshipman. Bowen recorded their conversation:

He said to me, “What country are you of?”

I said I was born in Marblehead.

“Did you serve your time to the sea?”

I said, “Yes, Sir.”

“What trade did you use?”

I said, up the Mediterranean.

“What part?”

I said, “From Gibraltar to Port Mahon and to Cagliari on the Island Sardinia for salt and back to Mahon and home to Boston again.”

A day later, Bowen described his accommodations:

The last night I lodged on board His Majesty’s Ship Pembroke. This morning at eight I turned out and got breakfast. Note: I mess with Mr. Buckels and Mr. Crisp [two other midshipmen]. I mess on the starboard side just abaft the pump well in the orlop [the lowest deck of the ship], and lodge in the best bower tier [where anchor cables were stored] on the same side.

Aboard HMS Pembroke, Bowen came under the command of Rear Admiral Philip Durell.

Educated by his aunt, Durell went to sea for the first time aboard his uncle’s ship at the age of fourteen in 1721, then spent the next five years learning his trade while serving off the Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and New England coasts. Promoted to lieutenant in 1731 and captain in 1743, he took part in the first siege of Louisbourg in 1745. In the course of that siege, he assisted in the capture of a French warship and two merchant ships and charted Louisbourg harbor. Ten years later, Durell briefly returned to North America to reinforce a British squadron operating off Louisbourg and Newfoundland. In 1758, he played a key role in the British landing at Louisbourg.

As the British admiral with the most experience in North American waters, Durell could expect to be in the forefront of future campaigns in the region. When most of the army and the fleet that captured Louisbourg sailed for Britain, New York, or New England, Durell and his squadron remained at Halifax, ready to take the lead in the next operation.

From Halifax to the St. Lawrence

As troops and ships assembled in Britain and British America, Durell received orders to blockade the St. Lawrence River as soon as the spring breakup of ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence allowed him to sail from ­Halifax.

Following the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, the British had confirmed Canada’s vulnerability to a spring blockade when one of Wolfe’s officers questioned the crew of a captured fishing boat off Gaspé. “These prisoners,” wrote Wolfe, “assured us that there was great scarcity of provisions and great distress at Quebec” and “that the colony must be ruined, unless very early & very powerful assistance” arrived from France in 1759. In an undated note, Wolfe suggested that “a fleet at the Isle of Bic [in the lower St. Lawrence River] early in the year will probably complete the destruction of Canada.”

Durell’s mission was to do just that. Toward the end of March 1759, he began sending out small vessels to survey ice conditions on the first leg of the sea route from Halifax to Quebec. On April 8, his ships were ready for sea. Owing, however, to unfavorable winds and reports of “such quantities of ice that . . . it is not as yet practicable for ships to pass to the eastward, without running great danger,” the squadron did not leave Halifax harbor until May 5.

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9780307269898: Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution

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