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High Noon at the Plains of Abraham

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This is the third of five exclusive excerpts from Conrad Black's new historical work, Flight of the Eagle: A Strategic History of the United States. Read the first excerpt here, and part two here.

[British Prime Minister William] Pitt sent out his military orders for 1759 on December 9, 1758. These were to include [Lord] Amherst overwhelming French opposition along Lake Champlain and seizing Montreal, while James Wolfe, who had returned to London and settled in his club to recover his health and reported to Pitt that he was ready to go up the St. Lawrence, was so charged, and he left England for Canada on February 24.

On July 25, 1759, Amherst's forces captured Fort Niagara, about 60 miles from what is now Toronto, and at the opposite end of Lake Ontario from Fort Frontenac, which [British Colonel John] Bradstreet had taken 11 months before. By this time, Wolfe's assault on Quebec was well underway. He landed 8,500 troops on Ile d'Orleans, a few miles down-river from Quebec, on June 28. Despite the immense importance of the battle for Quebec to the whole Western world, and the huge mythology that has been built about it, from both sides, it was an almost accidental and very close-run engagement.

Heavily outnumbered and isolated, [Louis-Joseph de] Montcalm defended Quebec with great skill and agility, inflicting heavy losses on Wolfe, whose problems were compounded by acute fevers, indigestion, and depressive attacks. He was reduced to asking the opinion of his brigade commanders (Robert Monckton, George Townshend and James Murray), whom he despised, a sentiment that was fully requited.

They recommended that he desist from further attacks on Quebec from down-river and that Wolfe move the British forces up, to the west of Quebec, and attack there, to separate Montcalm from landward reinforcements, and try to enfilade Quebec from what was presumed to be its more vulnerable aspect.

Precise advice on how to take Quebec came from Captain Robert Stobo, one of the prisoners handed over by Washington as an earnest when he evacuated Fort Necessity in 1755. Stobo had lived as a prisoner since, in Fort Duquesne and then Quebec, though he circulated easily in Quebec society, until apprehended as a spy for having smuggled out of Fort Duquesne, via an Indian, plans he had drawn of Duquesne that were found in the belongings of the deceased Braddock after the disaster on the Monongahela.

Stobo escaped Quebec, spoke only to Wolfe, and advised him of a footpath up the cliffs at what has become known as Wolfe's Cove. Thus arose the plan for one of history's decisive military battles.

Wolfe moved about 4,500 men on the tides up-river from Quebec, then down on the current in the early hours of September 12, mounted Stobo's path to a site above known as the Plains of Abraham, and overwhelmed a small French tent encampment. Wolfe was apparently beset by morose thoughts, as well as indecision, finding himself alone on the Plains. He ordered that disembarkations stop, but the landing officer assumed the order was mistaken and ignored it.

Montcalm had been distracted by a carefully played ruse to the east of Quebec, and only arrived on the Plains after Wolfe's men had been drawn up across the Plains. By 9:30 in the morning, Montcalm was concerned that the British were bringing up artillery from the ships and entrenching themselves in a manner that would become irreversible if didn't act, and ordered his men forward. In fact, Wolfe had had one of his attacks of inertia and the British were bringing up artillery but not entrenching; Montcalm had summoned a detachment of 2,000 of his best troops from the west, who he hoped would land in Wolfe's rear once battle was engaged.

There were about 4,500 men on each side, though the British had the advantage of better trained and disciplined forces. There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that neither commander expected to survive the engagement about to begin. In this at least, their provisions were exact.

The French attacked in rather ragged order, supported by Indians and irregular skirmishers who sniped from the sides. The British coolly held their fire, and the professionalism of the Redcoats paid handsome rewards -- they drenched the French with artillery and pushed them into what became a rather uncoordinated but not panicky retreat to Quebec. Wolfe had been wounded early on the wrist, but was mortally hit by snipers in the chest and stomach as he joined the advance.

Just before he died, he received the information that the French were vacating the field and that it was certainly a victory. Only a few minutes later, the column Montcalm had been hoping for arrived in the British rear, but the British, now commanded by Brigadier George Townshend, were able to deflect them. Montcalm had been severely wounded on his retreat from the Plains, in his stomach and leg. He fell into a delirium and died at 4 a.m. the following morning.

The governor general of New France, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, took over. He ordered the forces Montcalm had been whipping into shape to the east of Quebec when Wolfe attacked from the west to retreat inland and westward; the remains of the army at the Plains to join them; both groups to join with the column that had arrived from the west just after they could have been decisive; Quebec to hang on as best it could; and the forces that managed to execute the maneuver to retreat toward Montreal, the final significant outpost of French rule in North America. (New Orleans was an unfortified, international crossroads of adventurers.)

The French irregulars had no enthusiasm for prolonging the suspense at Quebec and accepted Townshend's generous surrender terms on September 18. Montcalm's deputy commander, François de Lévis, had taken over the fragmented units from Vaudreuil, had shaped them up, and was leading them crisply back to Quebec and was only a day's march away when Quebec surrendered.

Excerpted from Flight of the Eagle. Copyright © 2013 Conrad Black Capital Corporation. Published by Signal, an imprint of the McClelland & Stewart Doubleday Canada Publishing Group, which is a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.