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Biography of Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm
(from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online at Libraries and Archives Canada)
MONTCALM, LOUIS-JOSEPH DE, Marquis de MONTCALM, seigneur of Saint-Veran, Candiac, Tournemine, Vestric, Saint-Julien, and Arpaon, Baron de Gabriac, lieutenant-general; b. at Candiac, France, 28 Feb. 1712, son of Louis-Daniel de Montcalm and Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte de Lauris de Castellane; d. at Quebec 14 Sept. 1759.
The Montcalms were an old and distinguished family of the nobility of the robe. In 1628 Louis de Montcalm had married Marthe de Gozon who brought her family’s lands to the marriage on condition that her husband and their male children bear the name and arms of Gozon. In the 17th century the family turned to military service and its members won distinction. At the age of nine, on 16 Aug. 1721, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm was commissioned an ensign in the Régiment d’Hainaut. Eight years later he obtained a captaincy, no doubt by purchase, in the same regiment. Not until 1732, however, did he begin his active military career. Prior to that he was educated, in the usual manner of the aristocracy, by a despairing private tutor who came to regard him as altogether too opinionated and stubborn. During the War of the Polish Succession Montcalm served in the Rhineland with armies commanded by the Maréchal de Saxe and the Maréchal Duke of Berwick. In 1736, on 3 October, he married Angélique-Louise Talon de Boulay. Of their progeny, two sons and three daughters survived childhood. Mme la Marquise de Montcalm was a daughter of Omer Talon, Marquis de Boulay, colonel of the Régiment d’Orléans, and of Marie-Louise Molé. Her parents were both members of old and powerful families of the robe, which may help to account for her husband’s subsequent rapid rise in the military hierarchy.
At the outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession Montcalm obtained the post of aide-de-camp to lieutenant-general the Marquis de La Fare and was wounded while besieged with the army of the Maréchal de Belle-Isle in Prague. During the famous retreat from Bohemia he served with the rearguard. On 6 March 1743 he acquired the colonelcy of the Régiment d’Auxerrois, valued at 40,000 livres, and for the remainder of the war campaigned in Italy. In April of the following year he was made a knight of Saint-Louis. According to his own accounts he had served with distinction and was always in the thick of the fighting. This last was certainly true at Piacenza (Italy) in June 1746 when the Austrians won a crushing victory over the Franco-Spanish armies. Montcalm’s regiment was destroyed; he was severely wounded and taken prisoner. When he had recovered sufficiently to travel he went to Paris on parole and on 20 March 1747 was appointed to the functional post of brigadier. As soon as an exchange of prisoners released him from his parole he returned to the army of Italy and was again wounded at yet another disastrous defeat, the battle of Assiette (near Fenestrelle in the Italian Alps). In 1748 peace was declared and on 10 Feb. 1749 the Régiment d’Auxerrois was incorporated into that of Flandres. Montcalm thereby lost his investment but a month later he was commissioned mestre-de-camp to raise a regiment of cavalry bearing his own name.
Peace-time soldiering, however, proved expensive. On 6 Oct. 1752 he petitioned the Comte d’Argenson, minister of war, for a pension on the grounds of long service (31 years, 11 campaigns, five wounds), the good opinion held of him by his superior officers, and his mediocre private fortune, which he declared he had never stinted while at the head of his regiment. His plea was heard. On 11 July 1753 he was accorded a pension of 2,000 livres. During the seven years of peace Montcalm enjoyed the tranquil life of the provincial nobleman, dividing his time between the provincial society of Montpellier and his château at Candiac, supervising his children’s education, disputing with a neighbour over property in the courts, and making periodic visits of inspection to his regiment.
Meanwhile hostilities between the French and the English had begun in North America. In one engagement, on 8 Sept. 1755, Baron de Dieskau, commander of the regulars drawn from the French army, had been captured. A replacement had to be found. With war looming in Europe experienced general officers were loath to serve in such a remote theatre. Recourse had to be had to the lower echelons and the choice fell on Montcalm. On 11 March 1756 he was appointed major-general (maréchal de camp), receiving the same rank and pay and allowances as Dieskau – 25,000 livres salary, 12,000 livres to cover his expenses in moving to Canada, 16,224 livres living allowance – plus a pension of 6,000 livres payable upon his return to France with the reversion of half of it to his wife should she survive him.
Montcalm’s commission and instructions explicitly stated that the governor general of New France, Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil, had command of all the armed forces in the colony and that Montcalm was subordinate to him in everything. Montcalm was responsible only for the discipline, administration, and internal ordering of the army battalions. He was merely the commander in the field, had to obey any orders he received, and was strictly enjoined to keep on good terms with the governor general. These instructions had been carefully drafted and revised several times to avoid conflicts between the two senior officers.
On 14 March 1756 Montcalm took leave of the king and set off for Brest, accompanied by Colonel Bougainville*, a member of his staff of whom he thought highly. At Brest he met the other members of his staff: his second in command, the Chevalier de Lévis*, and Colonel Bourlamaque. The latter he did not regard with much favour; Lévis he thought to be sound but unimaginative. Also in the convoy were two battalions of regulars from the La Sarre and Royal-Roussillon regiments. Five weeks after setting sail on 3 April the ships were safely in the St Lawrence. Weary of shipboard life, Montcalm disembarked at Cap Tourmente and proceeded to Quebec by road, arriving there on 13 May. He remained in the city for a week, garnering all the information he could on, as he put it, “a country and a war where everything is so different from European practice.” He then proceeded to Montreal to report to the governor general who was preparing to launch an assault against Fort Oswego (Fort Chouaguen).
Their meeting was amicable enough, but in his first reports to Argenson, minister of War, Montcalm voiced reservations, declaring that Vaudreuil had little use for anyone but colonials and, although well intentioned, was irresolute. In appearance, background, character, and temperament, these two men were very different. Vaudreuil, Canadian born, was a big man, courteous and affable, lacking self-confidence but not given to intrigue, obsessed by a need to issue a constant stream of directives to junior officers and officials, anxious to impress his superiors in the ministry of Marine, but always motivated by a genuine concern for the people he governed. To him the French regulars served but one function, the protection of New France from Anglo-American assaults. Montcalm, by contrast, was physically small and rather portly, vivacious, extremely vain, determined to have his own way in all things, critical of everything that did not conform to his preconceived ideas and of anyone who failed to agree with him completely, and possessed of a savage tongue that he could not curb.
Anticipating a renewed Anglo-American assault on Lake Ontario, in February 1756 Vaudreuil had sent, under the command of Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros* de Léry, 360 Canadians and Indians to harass communications between Fort Oswego and Schenectady (N.Y.). They succeeded admirably, taking Fort Bull (on Oneida Lake, N.Y.) by assault, destroying the fort and a vast amount of stores. The garrison received no quarter. Other Canadian war parties harassed Oswego all spring and early summer, preventing supplies getting through and putting the fear of God into the garrison. By July Vaudreuil believed the time had come for the destruction of the fort itself. He sent Montcalm to Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, N.Y.) to inspect the new fort there, and deceive the enemy as to his intentions, then he massed 3,000 men at Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ont.). Montcalm joined them on 29 July. Before leaving Montreal he had expressed grave misgivings about the expedition, but the main problem proved to be nothing more than the building of a road to bring up the siege guns. After a short bombardment, and with the Canadians and Indians commanded by Vaudreuil’s brother, François-Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil, swarming within musket range, the garrison surrendered. Seventeen hundred prisoners were taken, several armed ships, a large number of cannon, munitions and supplies of all sorts, and a war chest containing funds to the value of 18,000 livres. Montcalm stated that the cost of the expedition had been 11,862 livres. All told a profitable enterprise, but strategically it was worth far more than that. French control of Lake Ontario was now assured, the northwestern flank of New York was open to attack, and the danger of an assault on either Fort Frontenac or Niagara (near Youngstown, N.Y.) dissipated.
Vaudreuil was pleased with what he referred to as “my victory.” Montcalm still had reservations. In a dispatch to the minister of War he admitted that the audacity of the assault would have been regarded as foolhardy in Europe. He assured the minister that were he to be given a command in Europe he would conduct himself differently and that, even on this occasion, had things gone wrong he would have retreated, and saved the guns and the honour of the army by sacrificing perhaps two to three hundred men. The nature of the terrain, the timidity of the Anglo-Americans, their fear of the Indians had, he declared, given him victory. Vaudreuil, too, had misgivings, but not over the manner in which victory had been achieved. He was gravely concerned at the attitude of the French regulars towards campaigning in America, and towards the Canadians. Trouble that was to plague the colony for the ensuing four years was just beginning. Montcalm was critical of the strategy and tactics that Vaudreuil was employing. Whereas Vaudreuil believed in spoiling attacks to frustrate enemy offensives, in the form of raids on the English frontier settlements, to cut their communications, destroy their supply depots, and keep them continually off balance, Montcalm was convinced that against British regular troops the only hope lay in a static defence. He had nothing but contempt for guerilla warfare and insisted that the only sane way to fight the war was the way that war was fought in Europe. He quickly came to nurture considerable antipathy towards Vaudreuil and also towards all things Canadian. He considered that the Canadian regulars had an inflated opinion of themselves and that the militia were an undisciplined rabble of little or no military value. As for the Indians, he regarded them with contempt, declaring that their only merit was to be a good thing not to have against one. Yet at the same time he claimed that he had won the esteem and confidence of the Canadians and that the affection with which he had come to be held by the Indians had astonished Vaudreuil who was not a little jealous of it.
For a general to hold a low opinion of his superior, and give voice to it, was quite normal in the French army of the day. A senior officer had to devote much of his time to countering the intrigue and chicanery of other general officers and their supporters at court who sought his dismissal. In Montcalm’s case the minister of War encouraged intrigue by providing him with a special cipher and a private address to enable him to express himself more freely than his normal dispatches through regular channels would allow. Montcalm, however, carried this propensity to excess; before his officers and servants he would make what was, at times, slanderous criticism of Vaudreuil. Needless to say, the governor general was quickly informed.
Early in 1757, while the British were preparing to besiege Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), Vaudreuil made plans for an attack on the English bases south of Lake Champlain. Were they to be destroyed the feared invasion by that route would be disrupted. In July, after the supply ships had arrived from France, Montcalm mustered 6,200 men, regulars and militia, at Carillon. With them were 1800 Indians. Vaudreuil’s orders were to destroy Fort William Henry (also called Fort George) at the southern tip of Lac Saint-Sacrement (Lake George, N.Y.), then to destroy Fort Edward, a few miles south. These orders contained the escape clause that Montcalm was to use his own discretion if a push beyond Fort William Henry would endanger the army, but Vaudreuil made it clear that nothing less than this manifest danger should deter Montcalm from marching on Fort Edward.
By 3 Aug. 1757 Montcalm had his forces massed around Fort William Henry with its garrison of some 2,500 men. The commander, Lieutenant-Colonel George Monro, rejected a call to surrender. Montcalm therefore, in deliberate European siege style, had a road, entrenchments, and gun emplacements built. On 6 August eight cannon opened fire. Three days later the garrison offered to surrender on terms. These were quickly arranged. The garrison was allowed to retire with the honours of war and their baggage, but could not serve against the French for 18 months; within three months all prisoners held by the British, taken in North America, were to be returned to Canada; all cannon, munitions, and stores in the fort were to be left intact. For their part, the French agreed to escort the garrison to Fort Edward to protect them against the Indians.
The responsibility for what ensued has been much disputed. As the garrison was marching off it was attacked by the Indians; a number were killed and some five or six hundred were dragged off to the Indian encampment. Montcalm and his officers, after the trouble had started, did all they could to stop it and about 400 of the prisoners were recovered. Vaudreuil later ransomed most of the remainder but several were killed and some eaten. Montcalm made light of the incident. He wrote to generals Daniel Webb and John Campbell, Earl of Loudoun, warning them that the unfortunate event did not provide them with an excuse to fail to abide by the terms of the surrender. The British thought otherwise; the garrison of Fort William Henry was released from its parole, and the Canadian prisoners were not returned. But the 44 pieces of artillery, large stocks of ammunition, and enough food to sustain 6,000 men for six weeks were welcome additions to the French stores.
The enemy had been dealt a sharp blow but its effect was to a degree nullified by the breach in the surrender terms and by Montcalm’s failure to follow up the victory by destroying Fort Edward. The British were thoroughly demoralized, Fort Edward was only 16 miles away, a day’s march, and in New York there was near panic as word was expected any hour that the French had taken, not only Fort Edward, but Albany as well. Montcalm, however, refused to go farther. He claimed that the road to Fort Edward was in too bad a condition to move his heavy guns, that the garrison of the fort had been reinforced by four to five thousand militia, that the consumption of food supplies would be too great, and that he had to send back the Canadian militia to bring in the harvest. Vaudreuil was irate over Montcalm’s decision. He regarded the reasons advanced as inadequate, as mere excuses in fact, and François Bigot* reported to the minister that several senior French officers agreed with him.
Montcalm was, however, well pleased with what he had accomplished. In his dispatch to the minister of War he had great praise for his own conduct, declared that he was doing everything he could to please Vaudreuil, and submitted a plea for promotion to lieutenant-general on the grounds of his length of service, that he was the only major-general in command of an army 1,500 leagues removed from France, and that he had already gained two victories. He may have been encouraged to press his case upon receiving word, in a letter dated 11 March 1757, that he had been appointed a commander of the order of Saint-Louis. He also requested that in the event of Vaudreuil’s demise the post of acting governor general should go to him rather than, in the customary succession, to the governor of Montreal, who happened to be Vaudreuil’s brother, François-Pierre, and a man recognized to be of meagre talents under whom Montcalm could not be expected to serve. His point was well taken, but Machault, minister of Marine, had already seen to it. The previous year a sealed packet had been sent to Bigot to be opened in the event of Vaudreuil’s death, containing letters patent delegating the governor general’s authority to Montcalm, and, in the event of his death, to Lévis.
Another serious problem, inflation, was not so easily solved. The influx of French regulars, the Acadian refugees, the horde of allied Indians who had to be fed and supplied during campaigns, resulted in a shortage of goods of all kinds. In addition, money poured into the colony, over a million livres a year for the army battalions alone; thus too much money and too few goods caused prices to soar. Montcalm complained continually, and bitterly, that he and his officers could not live on their pay, even though they were paid twice as much as the Canadian regulars. His own situation, he claimed, was particularly bad since he had to keep an open table. He declared in 1757 that he had already overdrawn his pay by 12,000 livres and was consuming his children’s patrimony to maintain the dignity of his position.
During the winter of 1757–58 complaints over the food supply became more and more vociferous. Rations of the staples, bread and meat, were reduced severely. In Montreal there were protests from both soldiers and civilians. When horse meat was issued instead of beef the authorities had to take stern measures. Montcalm thought they had not been stern enough. The urban dwellers certainly had to tighten their belts but there is no evidence that anyone starved. A main cause of the trouble was crop failures in 1757 and again in 1758. The colony was therefore heavily dependent on supplies from France. But the needed supplies were sent and the bulk of them reached the colony.
This situation offered Montcalm an opportunity to attack Vaudreuil and the entire Canadian administration, which he labelled as totally corrupt and hopelessly inefficient. Montcalm also began declaring over and over again to his officers, and to the ministers of War and Marine, that defeat was inevitable, that the colony was doomed despite his own efforts and the valour of his troops. The two factors, corruption in the administration and defeat, were linked as cause and effect. Vaudreuil was the main target of Montcalm’s hostility, but Bigot, although Montcalm was openly on good terms with him, was also the subject of detailed accusations. These charges had a telling effect, for the minister of Marine was already alarmed by the soaring cost of military operations in America. He became convinced that the main cause was the huge profits that Bigot and his associates were making by devious means. The Canadian administration appeared in a bad light and the minister of Marine now tended to give greater credence to Montcalm than to Vaudreuil, who was not always his own best advocate.
Vaudreuil’s position was further weakened by Montcalm’s reports of the excessive gambling, the lavish banquets, that were indulged in by Vaudreuil’s and Bigot’s entourage. Montcalm, although critical of these activities, felt obliged to take part in them. He also entertained some of the Canadian notables and found their society agreeable. He was particularly appreciative of the charm and wit of the Canadian ladies but he appears not to have enjoyed the same success in the boudoir as did Lévis, and he was rather disgruntled about it.
In 1758 Vaudreuil hoped to block a British drive on Lake Champlain with the French regulars at Carillon under Montcalm while Lévis, with 1,600 men, mainly Canadians, led a diversionary attack on Schenectady by way of the Mohawk Valley. When Montcalm received his orders he refused to comply with them and demanded that they be revised. To avoid a public scandal and the disruption of the campaign Vaudreuil complied, but he was outraged when Montcalm made the incident public. After Montcalm had departed for Carillon, in June, word was received that the British army at Lac Saint-Sacrement was much larger than anticipated. Lévis’s diversionary force was immediately recalled and ordered to Carillon post-haste.
At the southern end of Lac Saint-Sacrement Major-General James Abercromby* had massed the largest army ever assembled in North America, over 6,000 British regulars and 9,000 provincial troops. On 5 July they started north down the lake. Montcalm meanwhile was trying to decide where, or even if, to make a stand. The fort at Carillon he regarded as unable to withstand an assault, let alone a siege. At one point he contemplated blowing it up and retreating to Fort Saint-Frédéric (Crown Point, N.Y.) but he was persuaded to hold fast. The killing of Brigadier George Augustus Howe, Abercromby’s popular and competent second in command, in a skirmish at the portage between the two lakes on 6 July disheartened the British and delayed their advance 24 hours. This delay alone allowed Montcalm to complete his defence works. On the evening of the 7th Lévis arrived with 400 Canadian regulars and militia, bringing Montcalm’s total force to over 3,600.
Next day, 8 July, Abercromby made a hasty inspection of the site and, believing that Montcalm was shortly to receive 3,000 reinforcements, decided to attack at once without waiting to bring up his guns. Had he brought his cannon into play Montcalm’s log wall would quickly have been smashed to kindling, and his troops with it. In fact, there was no need even to do this. Had Abercromby surveyed the terrain more closely he could not have failed to see that to the right of and below Montcalm’s defence work, which stretched across the crest of the rising ground, half a mile of level, open land extended to the lake and back to the fort. All he had to do was use part of his force to hold Montcalm, then march the remainder round on the north flank and take the French in the rear. The British would then have been between Montcalm’s force and the fort. Abercromby would have had the French pinned against their own barricade. All that Montcalm placed on that plain was the 400 Canadians behind another short and hastily constructed log wall at the foot of the slope. They could easily have been outflanked or overwhelmed, and indubitably would have been blamed for the ensuing disaster. Fortunately for the French, Abercromby ignored that glaring flaw in the French position. (After the battle Montcalm extended this defence line to the lake.)
Shortly after noon on 8 July the British regulars formed up in four columns, provincial skirmishers between them, and the attack went in against the French abatis. Their formations were quickly broken up as they scrambled through the tangle of felled trees. Before they reached the French line they were shot to pieces by steady musket fire. They re-formed and attacked but were beaten back with heavy loss every time. By seven o’clock they could take no more. The French then vaulted their barricade and drove off the remaining skirmishers. At that the whole British army turned and fled in wild disorder, abandoning their arms, their equipment, and their wounded. For them it was a stunning defeat. For Montcalm and the French a glorious victory. The British had suffered 1,944 casualties, 1,610 of them regulars, the French only 377.
Three days after the battle Montcalm sent a brief account of it to the minister of War, which on certain points was not in accord with the facts. In it he declared that Vaudreuil had deliberately held back the 1,200 Canadians and a large force of Indians that he had promised to send to Carillon. He stated that his small army had been attacked by 20,000 British – he subsequently raised this estimate to 25,000, then 27,000, and eventually to 30,000 – from eight in the morning until eight that night. The British casualties he placed at 5,000. But what he found most gratifying was that he had saved the colony without the French regulars’ having to share the glory; there had been only some 400 Canadians and a handful of Indians present at the battle. On 20 July, however, he stated that without necessity, without a specific objective, he had been sent a large body of Canadians and Indians that he had neither wanted nor requested, and who, arriving too late to take part in the action, had merely consumed precious supplies. He declared that he had no doubt they had been sent to reap profit from his victory. He also stated that had he had 200 Indians at the battle the British could have been destroyed in their retreat. Only the lack of these Indians had prevented him from following up his victory. He then went on to accuse the officials of the ministry of Marine of holding back his dispatches, and concluded by requesting his recall, declaring that his health and his finances were ruined; by the end of the year he would have overdrawn his pay by 30,000 livres. But most of all, the unpleasantness and contradictions that he had to endure, the impossibility of doing things properly or of preventing abuses, determined him to ask for his release.
In a subsequent account of the battle written for publication he praised all who had taken part, including the Canadians, but this was accompanied by a private dispatch to the minister of War, sent in cipher on 28 July by André Doreil, the war commissary. In this last Montcalm told a different story. He declared he was in no doubt the ministry of Marine would seek to enhance the glory of the Canadians at the battle and diminish that of the French troops, but in truth the Canadians had performed badly. They had refused to attack the enemy when ordered and had had to be fired on when they tried to abandon their post. Montcalm claimed that he had had to silence the officers and men of the French battalions who swore that Vaudreuil had sought to have them slaughtered by sending such a small force against a large army. Doreil added there could be no doubt that Vaudreuil, jealous of the glory previously gained by Montcalm, had sought to deny him the means to establish a sound defence.
It did not take long for word of Montcalm’s accusations to reach Vaudreuil and he was, of course, furious. On 4 Aug. 1758 he responded by criticizing, in a dispatch to the minister of Marine, Montcalm’s entire conduct of the campaign and exalting the part played by the Canadians, who had been placed in such a dangerous position on the day of the battle. He was sure that Montcalm would fail to give them their due. He stated that the Indian allies had returned to Montreal and stated publicly that they would never serve with Montcalm again. He also informed the minister that to prevent an open conflict he had chosen to ignore all the personal insults and slurs emanating from, or sanctioned by, Montcalm, but things had now gone too far; he therefore requested the minister to accept Montcalm’s request for his recall. He stated that Montcalm possessed many estimable qualities and deserved to be promoted lieutenant-general, for service in Europe, but he most certainly did not have the capacity to command the forces in Canada. The Chevalier de Lévis, he declared, did. Vaudreuil therefore requested that Lévis be appointed to succeed Montcalm.
Between Montcalm and Vaudreuil an angry exchange of letters took place in August and September 1758. Montcalm retorted to Vaudreuil’s querying his failure to pursue the defeated foe by stating that it would have served no useful purpose, that Vaudreuil had had no military experience, and that had he visited the region he would have realized pursuit had been impossible. As for the complaints of the Indians, they had behaved badly and he had scolded them. He denied vehemently that he had ever spoken ill of Vaudreuil, or allowed others to do so in his presence. He declared that he had always been at pains to write nothing unfavourable concerning Vaudreuil or his brother, this despite the fact that he knew he was constantly criticized in Vaudreuil’s entourage. (His letters, dispatches, and journal are, however, replete with savage comments on both Vaudreuil and his brother.) He concluded by requesting Vaudreuil to solicit his recall on the grounds of health and his debts. If the minister concluded that the real reason was Montcalm’s discontent with Vaudreuil, no matter.
Although Montcalm’s victory at Carillon and the long drawn out siege of Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), had saved Canada from a full scale assault in 1758, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it would be renewed the next year. The question was, how best to meet it? Here again Montcalm and Vaudreuil were in violent disagreement. Montcalm was convinced that the colony could not be successfully defended, but the attempt had to be made and the inevitable end delayed as long as possible, for the honour of the army. The British, he stated to the minister of Marine, could put 50,000 men in the field, not counting those employed at Louisbourg, against the 7,400 regulars and militia available in Canada. In fact, the British had 23,000 regulars in America, plus some provincial troops and the militia who were of dubious value. Moreover, Montcalm grossly underestimated both the number and the effectiveness, when properly employed, of the Canadian militia. Thus the odds were nowhere near as disadvantageous as Montcalm claimed. He maintained that only if peace were to be declared before the British launched a triple assault, or he were to receive several thousand additional regular troops with supplies, could defeat be averted, and given the weakness of the French navy he regarded it as impracticable for France to risk sending such a force across the Atlantic.
Although he hoped to be removed from the scene a year thence, Montcalm in early autumn 1758 submitted proposals to Vaudreuil for the colony’s defence against the expected onslaught. He called for the abandonment of the Ohio valley and the outer defences on Lakes Ontario and Champlain; the guerilla warfare on the English colony’s frontiers had to cease and 3,000 of the Canadian militia be incorporated into the regular troops; the colony’s entire forces then had to be concentrated on the inner defences on the St Lawrence and Richelieu rivers. He maintained that the nature of the war had changed, that it had now to be fought on European, not Canadian lines. Vaudreuil rejected Montcalm’s recommendations. He refused to abandon the outer defence lines, declaring that the enemy had to be made to fight every foot of the way and worn down before he reached the central colony.
To impress on the French government the urgent need for troop reinforcements and supplies Vaudreuil in August sent a Canadian officer, Major Michel-Jean-Hugues Péan*, to the court. Doreil promptly arranged with the captain of the ship he was to cross on to open the mail pouch and have copies made of Vaudreuil’s dispatches. He also wrote to warn the officials in the ministry of War that Péan was a base character who was being sent to France for sinister reasons. To counter whatever it was that Vaudreuil had instructed Péan to do, Montcalm obtained Vaudreuil’s consent, at the beginning of November, to send Bougainville and Doreil to the court to make clear his view of the situation.
In his dispatches Vaudreuil, in an attempt to impress on the minister of Marine the urgency of the situation, made it appear bleak. Bougainville went much farther; he described it as utterly hopeless. In two memoirs, and doubtless several interviews, he reiterated Montcalm’s expressed opinion that Canada could not be defended against the forces the British were prepared to throw against it. None of the fortified places was defensible, least of all Quebec, therefore it would be futile to send reinforcements to Canada. In any event the Royal Navy would surely intercept them. He failed to mention that supply convoys had eluded the British and reached Quebec every year of the war. Following Montcalm’s dictates he recommended that the outer defences of the colony be abandoned, the available forces concentrated in the inner colony, and the inevitable defeat delayed as long as possible. He also asked that instructions be sent on the capitulation terms the French should request, and orders given empowering Montcalm, 24 hours before the capitulation took effect, to muster what remained of the regular troops and embark in a fleet of canoes for Louisiana. This move, it was claimed, would prevent the loss of a sizeable body of men and preserve the honour of French arms by a feat rivalling the retreat of the Ten Thousand that had immortalized the Greeks. A second proposal, even more bizarre, was that Canada could be saved were France to send an expeditionary force to invade North Carolina. The British would be taken by surprise, their forces being concentrated in the north; the southern colonies abounded in supplies; the large slave population could be made use of in one way or another; and if the invading army were unable to maintain itself in the Carolinas it could retire to Louisiana.
Given these wild proposals and the fact that they were postulated on one premise, defeat, the wonder is that the council of ministers took seriously anything recommended by Montcalm and Bougainville. Yet their views carried more weight than did those of Vaudreuil. The government, pinning its hopes on the plan for an invasion of England, decided that neither ships nor men could be spared for Canada, or for a diversionary assault on the Carolinas. Montcalm’s request for his recall was given serious consideration, then denied. Instead, on 20 Oct. 1758, he was promoted lieutenant-general, the second highest rank in the French army, and his salary was increased to 48,000 livres. Since a lieutenant-general ranked much higher than a colonial governor general, Montcalm was given command of all the military forces in Canada and Vaudreuil was instructed to defer to him in all things, even routine administrative matters. They were both instructed that little in the way of reinforcements could be spared, therefore they were to remain strictly on the defensive and strive to retain a foothold in Canada; then the territory given up to the enemy could be recovered at the peace table. In short, the strategy recommended by Montcalm had to be adopted. The ministers of Marine and of War both expressed confidence that the general, who with only 4,000 men had won such a resounding victory over greatly superior forces at Carillon, would find a way to frustrate the enemy’s coming offensive, and that Montcalm and Vaudreuil would establish a close union to achieve this end.
Early in May 1759 over 20 supply ships reached Quebec. On one of them was Bougainville, accompanied by 331 recruits and a handful of officers. Close behind them was the Royal Navy escorting Major-General James Wolfe at the head of 8,500 troops, the bulk of them well trained British regulars. This fleet was able to sail up to Quebec and put the troops ashore on the Île d’Orléans without hindrance. Montcalm, accompanied by an engineer and a naval officer, Nicolas Sarrebource* de Pontleroy and Gabriel Pellegrin*, had, the year before, surveyed the river from Quebec to Cap Tourmente and had subsequently suggested to Vaudreuil where batteries might be sited. As early as 1753 an engineer officer, Dubois, had made the same survey and declared that a battery on Cap Corbeau, opposite Île aux Coudres, would wreak havoc on any fleet coming up the narrow channel, where it could not manœuvre or bring its guns to bear; but nothing had been done. For this Vaudreuil has to be held responsible. As late as March 1759, however, Montcalm had declared that there was little cause to fear for Quebec, because the difficulties of river navigation would render it virtually impossible for the British to bring a fleet up the river. The real threat, he believed, would be on the Lake Champlain front. Vaudreuil agreed with him, being sure that the British could not bring ships of the line to Quebec without Canadian pilots. It did not cross his mind that the British would make use of captured pilots. In any event, when word was received that the British fleet was approaching, frantic efforts began, under Montcalm’s directions, to fortify the shoreline from the Rivière Saint-Charles to the Montmorency. All told, Montcalm had some 15,000 to 16,000 men under his command, and the advantage of a fortified position that the enemy would have to assail. Moreover, time was on his side. The British had to defeat his army and take Quebec before the end of the summer. Montcalm had only to hold them off for not more than three months, then they would be forced to sail away or be destroyed by the onset of the winter. He did not have to defeat them in a set battle, merely make sure that they did not defeat him. The British, however, did have one advantage – command of the river. This advantage was greatly enhanced by Montcalm’s decision to establish his main supply base at Batiscan, some 50 miles above Quebec, while he massed his army at Beauport, on the other side of the city.
Another grave mistake was the failure to fortify Pointe-Lévy across from Quebec. At the behest of Admiral Charles Saunders* the British landed 3,000 men and quickly dug in. The Canadians, fearing that the British would establish batteries to bombard the city, were greatly perturbed but Montcalm and his officers were of the opinion that the range was too great for much damage to be done. Not until 11 July did Montcalm consent to an attack on the British position. By then they were well entrenched [see Robert Monckton*]. Instead of using his regulars Montcalm authorized a night attack by 1,400 volunteers led by Jean-Daniel Dumas* – including a detachment of schoolboys who had never been in action before – and only 100 regulars. Against more than double their number of British regulars in a fortified position the attempt had no hope of success. It was a fiasco and Montcalm voiced his disdain for military operations conducted by amateurs. The next day the bombardment of Quebec began. It was to continue for two months and reduce the city to rubble.
Fortunately for the French, Wolfe was a poor tactician. Instead of making use of the fleet’s mobility to attack above Quebec where the French were most vulnerable, he was determined to smash through Montcalm’s lines below the city, then attack across the Rivière Saint-Charles which could be forded at low tide. On 9 July he landed a brigade at Montmorency which Montcalm declined to oppose, fearing to commit his forces lest it prove to be a feint; then Wolfe quickly brought in reinforcements and made the position impregnable. Wolfe also sent diversionary forces up river to make surprise landings and threaten Montcalm’s supply line. This move forced Montcalm to establish mobile detachments to follow the ships’ movements and counter the raids.
On 31 July Wolfe launched an assault on the Montmorency-Beauport lines. It was beaten back with heavy losses. This result convinced Vaudreuil that Wolfe would not attack there again. He was gravely concerned lest Wolfe should attack above the city and wanted that flank strengthened but Montcalm refused to believe that the danger there was real. He was convinced that Wolfe would continue to hammer at the Beauport lines.
Montcalm did not know it, but Wolfe too had begun to despair and his health had deteriorated seriously. Frustrated at every turn, he gave orders to lay the Canadian settlements waste. He was determined that if he could not take Quebec, he would destroy as much of the colony as possible. All through August into September this destruction persisted until some of the British officers were sickened by it [see George Scott]. As the days slipped by and the nights became cooler the navy became anxious. Admiral Saunders declared that the fleet would have to sail by 20 September at the latest.
Before admitting defeat and departing, Wolfe had to launch a final assault, although he had little confidence of success. He wanted to attack the Beauport lines again but when he proposed this plan to his brigadiers they rejected it. They submitted proposals for an attack above Quebec, to cut Montcalm’s supply route and his communications with Montreal. This action, they claimed, would force him to come out of his lines and give battle. Wolfe gave way and made preparations to shift his army up river. Vaudreuil, seeing the British abandon their base at Montmorency and the army transported upstream, became more concerned than ever about that flank and wanted the forces above Quebec strengthened. His urging alone was enough to cause Montcalm to regard such a move as ill advised and to persist in holding his main force below Quebec. He insisted that Bougainville, based at Cap Rouge, with 3,000 élite troops and Canadian volunteers, had an adequate force to repel any attempt to land astride the Montreal road, or at least to hold the enemy until the main force could come up from Beauport.
At the last minute Wolfe made a vital change in the brigadiers’ plan. Instead of landing well above Quebec to cut the Montreal road he chose to land within two miles of the city walls, thus placing his army between Quebec and Bougainville’s force. By this time the French were congratulating themselves that the campaign was virtually over; that the British would shortly be forced to sail ignominiously away.
Then, in the early hours of 13 September, a series of errors on the part of the French, and incredible luck for the British, allowed Wolfe’s men to effect a landing at Anse au Foulon. Within hours, to the great surprise of even Wolfe, the British had some 4,500 men on the Plains of Abraham, less than a mile from the city. At daybreak Montcalm was informed but he refused to believe it. Only a small force was sent to bolster the outposts on the cliff. A few hours later he decided to see for himself. When he reached the heights beyond the city walls and saw the British army drawn up he was staggered and immediately ordered the army to come up at the double. There was, however, no need for Montcalm to oblige Wolfe by giving battle immediately; in fact, no need for him to give battle at all. As the Maréchal de Saxe had observed, more was to be gained by manœuvre than by giving battle. All that Montcalm had to do was avoid a major engagement for a few days, then Wolfe would have been forced to attempt to withdraw his army down the steep cliff to the narrow beach to be taken off by ships’ boats. Given the forces at Montcalm’s disposal, withdrawal could have been made a costly operation. In fact, Wolfe had placed his army in terrible jeopardy.
With the enemy virtually at his mercy, Montcalm chose the one course of action that ensured his defeat. He decided to attack at once with the troops he had at hand, not wait for Bougainville to come up with his force. He failed even to notify Bougainville that the enemy had landed, relying on the outposts to do that. It was, in fact, Vaudreuil who sent word to Bougainville. While the Canadian militia and Indians were galling the British lines from cover, Montcalm mustered his troops in three units, some 4,500 in all, approximately the same number as the British and less than half the force he could have put in the field. Wolfe’s regulars were well disciplined and trained. Montcalm’s were not. He had recently incorporated a large number of untrained militia into their ranks. Some of the regulars, come from the Beauport lines at the double, hardly had time to catch their breath before Montcalm gave the order to abandon the high ground and advance down the thicket-strewn slope towards the foe. The result was predictable. The French formations quickly became disorganized. At extreme musket range they halted to fire ragged volleys, then many of the men dropped to the ground to reload. The British held their fire until the range closed, replied with rapid platoon fire, advanced through the smoke, then gave crashing volleys by battalion all down the line. Great gaps were torn in the French ranks, the survivors turned and ran, the British in hot pursuit. The French were saved from complete destruction only by the deadly fire of the Canadian militia from the flanks. It was they who forced the British to halt and regroup. The French regulars, in a disordered mass, poured through the city streets, Montcalm, on horseback, bringing up the rear. Just as he was about to enter the Saint-Louis gate he received a mortal wound. Wolfe, wounded earlier, was already dead. For both generals in an 18th-century battle to be killed is indication enough that the tactics employed left something to be desired. After the battle was over Bougainville arrived with his force, then quickly withdrew to Cap Rouge.
At Beauport Vaudreuil sought to reorganize the demoralized army. He sent a courier to Montcalm, who was being given medical aid in the city, requesting his advice on what should be done. The reply was that Vaudreuil had a choice of three courses of action: give battle again, retreat to Jacques Cartier, or capitulate for the entire colony. He left it to Vaudreuil to decide. But, without informing the governor general, he wrote to Brigadier-General George Townshend*, who had succeeded Wolfe, surrendering the city to him. This missive, if received, was without immediate effect. Vaudreuil meanwhile held a council of war attended by Bigot and the principal officers of the French regulars. Both he and Bigot urged that another attack be made, since they could still put twice as many men in the field as the British and still held the city, but the French officers had no stomach for it. They demanded that the army retire to Jacques Cartier, join forces with Bougainville, and regroup. In the face of this opposition Vaudreuil gave way and ordered the retreat to begin that night. At 6:00 p.m. he wrote to Montcalm informing him of the decision and also that he had provided the officer commanding in Quebec, Jean-Baptiste-Nicolas-Roch de Ramezay *, with a copy of the terms of the capitulation that were to be asked of the British. These terms had been drawn up by Montcalm weeks earlier and concurred in by Vaudreuil. The tone of Vaudreuil’s letter was calm and gentle. He expressed his deep concern at Montcalm’s condition, his hope that he would quickly recover, and urged him to care for himself, to think only of his restoration to health. Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, Marcel, sent word back that Montcalm approved of Vaudreuil’s decisions, that he had read the terms of capitulation, and that they had been handed over to Ramezay. In a postscript Marcel added that Montcalm’s condition had not improved as of ten o’clock but that his pulse was a little better. Later that night he received the last sacraments, then he instructed his aide-de-camp to write to his family conveying his last farewell. His papers he ordered turned over to Lévis. At five in the morning, as dawn was breaking over the shattered city, his defeated army in full retreat, Montcalm expired. He was buried in a shell crater under the floor of the Ursulines’ chapel.
The Chevalier de Lévis came post-haste from Montreal when he received word of the defeat, assumed command, and set about restoring order. He was livid with fury. In his dispatch to the minister of War he declared: “One must admit that we have been very unfortunate; just when we could hope to see the campaign end with glory, everything turned against us. A battle lost, a retreat as precipitous as it was shameful, has reduced us to our present condition, all caused by attacking the enemy too soon without mustering all the forces at his [Montcalm’s] disposal. I owe it to his memory to vouch for the honesty of his intentions, . . . he believed he was acting for the best, but unfortunately, the general who is defeated is always wrong.” And Bourlamaque, at Lake Champlain, cynically remarked that the only satisfaction to be derived from the disaster was to have had no part in it.
Despite the valiant efforts of Lévis and the reorganized forces he now commanded, Vaudreuil, over the protests of Lévis, was obliged to capitulate the following September to General Jeffery Amherst* at Montreal. The French officers, including Lévis, sought desperately to ensure that Montcalm’s defeat and its consequences would not rub off on them. This attempt placed them in a dilemma; to blame Montcalm meant that the army had to accept responsibility for the loss of Canada, and they feared that they would have to share in that blame. Nevertheless, several of them admitted that Montcalm’s precipitate action on the day of the battle had been fatal.
When Louis XV and his ministers received word of the capitulation they were far more disturbed over the fact that the army had surrendered without being accorded the honours of war than they were over the loss of the colony. They showed no concern whatsoever for the plight of the Canadians. Someone had to be held responsible for the disaster, and it could not be Montcalm. He was not there to defend himself and he had to be exonerated to spare the reputation of the army. It clearly could not be Lévis, who had protested the terms of the capitulation. The obvious choice was Vaudreuil. For the preceding four years Montcalm and his entourage had predicted the outcome, defeat, and held that the corrupt colonial administration would be to blame – it was now even held accountable for the outcome of the battle of 13 September. Montcalm’s predictions, and the body of evidence amassed against Bigot, made Vaudreuil an easy mark. The loss of Canada was therefore blamed, not on Montcalm’s poor generalship, not on the superiority of a small army of British regulars over the French battalions in one brief battle that should not have been fought, but on Vaudreuil and the colonial officials. In the letter of condemnation written to Vaudreuil by Berryer, minister of Marine, on orders of the king, Montcalm’s name was not mentioned.
Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that when the Marquise de Montcalm requested compensation for her grievous loss, the government was sympathetic. One thing the Marquise specifically requested was that, in consideration of her husband’s services and the short time he had enjoyed the perquisites of his lieutenant-general’s appointment, the crown would assume the debts he had been obliged to incur while serving in Canada. He had declared that by the end of 1758 they would amount to over 30,000 livres, and they must have increased during the ensuing eight months. The minister thereupon wrote to Vaudreuil and Bigot to discover the exact amount that Montcalm had overdrawn his pay and allowances. The reply may well have caused eyebrows to lift. Far from having incurred debts in Canada, as he had so vociferously claimed, Montcalm had amassed a small fortune. In January of each year he had drawn his pay for the ensuing 12 months. The sale of his personal effects, household furnishings, wine cellar, and provisions, had realized enough to reimburse the treasury the amount he had drawn as major-general on 1 Jan. 1759. His estate was thus owed, by the ministry of Marine, his pay as lieutenant-general from 1 Jan. until his death. It amounted to 38,269 livres 8 sols 10 2/3 deniers. Also, among his papers had been found 34,717 livres in treasury notes (billets de caisse) and seven to eight thousand livres in letters of exchange dated 1757 and 1758. In addition Bigot had provided him every year with several other letters of exchange to enable him to transfer funds to France. He had thus put aside, over a three year period, after paying all his living expenses, an amount in excess of 80,000 livres. How he had contrived to do it is a mystery.
Historians have long been at odds in their assessment of Montcalm. Some have depicted him as does the plaque on the Plains of Abraham:
Quatre fois victorieux
Une fois vaincu
Toujours au grand honneur de la France
Blessé à mort ici le 13 septembre 1759
The gallant, good, and great Montcalm
Four times deservingly victorious
at last defeated through no fault of his own
Others can find little good to say of him and hold him mainly responsible for the conquest of Canada. The former assessment requires that virtually everything he wrote be accepted at face value. A critical assessment of the evidence makes plain that to do so would be a mistake – the matter of his debts is sufficient indication of that. He was a brave officer, of this there can be no doubt, but serious defects in his character made him unfit to command an army. His intrigues to undermine the authority of his superior, the governor general, his open and at times slanderous criticism of Vaudreuil and the Canadians, his refusal to admit that tactics other than those employed in Europe had any merit, his chronic defeatism, all caused trouble and undermined the morale of the forces. Yet he had won some notable victories. But in his final campaign, when he was presented with an opportunity to destroy Wolfe’s army, or at least avoid his own defeat, he threw it away and suffered one of the most disastrous defeats in history.
It was not, however, Montcalm alone who was responsible for that defeat and the ensuing loss of the French colonial empire in North America. He was merely a product of a military system that was long overdue for the reforms soon to come. As a contemporary military expert, Jacques-Antoine-Hippolyte de Guibert, remarked of the French army in the Seven Years’ War: “The machine is so worn out that even a man of genius could only touch it with trepidation. His genius would not suffice to guarantee success.” Montcalm was a product of that system. Indeed, he personified it.
W. J. Eccles
[The manuscript source material touching on the career of Montcalm is quite extensive, but the great bulk of it dates from his appointment as commander of the French battalions in Canada. Prior to that he was only one of some 900 colonels in the French army, and the ministry of War, a rather slipshod organization at this time, obliged to work in temporary quarters in rented houses, dealt only with officers of general rank who, by the end of 1757, numbered 753. Some of Montcalm’s early correspondence with his family is cited in Emmanuel Grellet de La Deyte, Une sœur de Montcalm, la présidente de Lunas (Nevers, France, 1900), but his importance as a historical figure dates from his Canadian appointment. Details on his family origins are to be found in Pinard, Chronologie historique-militaire . . . (8v., Paris, 1760–78), V, and in La Chesnaye-Desbois et Badier, Dictionnaire de la noblesse (2e éd.), X. Most of the pertinent documents dealing with his later career are to be found in SHA, A1, and AN, Col., B, C11A, D2C, F3. There is also some important manuscript material in the ASQ, and the valuable collection of Lévis papers, which include Montcalm’s journal and his letters to the Chevalier de Lévis, is in the PAC, MG 18, K7 and K8.
A goodly proportion of this primary source material has been published, including the Collection des manuscrits du maréchal de Lévis (Casgrain). The Abbé Casgrain* also edited a selection of documents from the AN, Col., C11A, 100: Extraits des archives de la Marine et de la Guerre. Many pertinent documents have been published over the years in the APQ (AQ; ANQ) annual Rapport; the Table des matières des rapports des archives du Québec, tomes 1 à 42 (1920-1964) (Québec, 1965) should be consulted under the headings Guerre, Journaux, Mémoires, Capitulations, Siège de Québec. A select list of English manuscript and published sources will be found under the biography of James Wolfe.
Most of the secondary sources dealing with the Seven Years’ War in general, and Montcalm in particular, leave much to be desired. Exceptions are the sound, concise, and valuable study by Lee Kennett, The French armies in the Seven Years’ War: a study in military organization and administration (Durham, N.C., 1967), and the serious study by André Corvisier, L’armée française de la fin du XVIIe siècle au ministère de Choiseul: le soldat (Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences humaines de Paris, Série Recherches, XIV-XV, 2v., Paris, 1964). On the European background R. P. Waddington, La guerre de Sept Ans; histoire diplomatique et militaire (5v., Paris, [1899–1907]), and Histoire de France, depuis les origines jusqu’à la révolution, Ernest Lavisse, édit. (9v., Paris, 1903–11), VIII, pt.2: Henri Carré, Le règne de Louis XV (1715–1774), are dated but still useful. W. L. Dorn Competition for empire, 1740–1763 (New York, 1940), is excellent on the European aspects, poor on events in North America – reflecting the paucity of good monographs at the time of writing.
Of works dealing more specifically with the war in North America, Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (Boston, 1884), is vitiated by the author’s partisan view of events and his cavalier treatment of evidence. Unfortunately, too many subsequent Anglo-Canadian, British, and American historians have slavishly accepted his interpretations and value judgements. A case in point is Gipson, The British empire before the American revolution, IV–VIII. G. M. Wrong, The fall of Canada: a chapter in the history of the Seven Years’ War (Oxford, 1914) has little value. H. H. Peckham, The colonial wars, 1689–1762 (Chicago, 1964), is riddled with errors. Frégault, La guerre de la conquête, trans. by M. M. Cameron as Canada: the war of the conquest (Toronto, 1969), views the conflict with exemplary detachment but is highly critical of Montcalm. Stanley, New France, is also detached but the work is based on secondary sources and tends to be superficial. Of the spate of books commissioned by publishers prior to 1959 for the bicentenary of the crucial battle of Quebec, Stacey, Quebec, 1759 is the best.
The biography of Montcalm by Thomas Chapais, Le marquis de Montcalm (1712–1759) (Québec, 1911), is dated, overwritten, and biased, striving to extol, or justify, Montcalm in all things. Conversely H.-R. Casgrain, Guerre du Canada, 1756–1760; Montcalm et Lévis (2v., Québec, 1891; Tours, France, 1899) is hostile to Montcalm and seeks to extol Vaudreuil and Lévis. Neither work has much merit. w.j.e.]
© 2000 University of Toronto/Université Laval