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Case 9: Québec~Wolfe, Monckton, Townshend~September 13 & 18

The third of Britain’s North American victories is by far the best known, in large part because of the dramatic circumstances of the battle fought outside the walls of Québec and the fate of the British commander depicted in “The Death of General Wolfe.”  Québec was the capital and chief port of the Canadian colony.  Its loss dealt a symbolic if not a fatal blow to the French position there, and its importance in the public consciousness is demonstrated by its prominent position at the top of the 1759 victory medal.

Samuel Freeman (1773-1857), engraver, after a print engraved by Richard Houston (1721?-1775), Major General James Wolfe. Hand-colored engraving. [London], 18??. Graphics Division, Prints H-17.

Québec’s inclusion on the medal is further distinguished by bearing the names of three commanders and two dates of victory.  Of the latter, the first commemorates the clash of British and French armies in an open-field engagement on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the city walls.  The second date is that of the surrender of the fortified town.

The effort against Québec was an important part of William Pitt’s plan for the 1759 campaign, and he authorized an expedition under the independent command of James Wolfe, who had drawn attention for his energetic subordinate role in the capture of Louisbourg in 1758.  Wolfe was given the troops and resources, including a sizable naval force, needed to ascend the St. Lawrence River from his base at Louisbourg and attack Québec.

Müller, engraver, Admiral Saunders. Copperplate engraving. [London], n.d. Tipped into Genuine Letters from a Volunteer, in the British Service, at Quebec. London, [1760], p. 16. Book Division, C 1760 Ge.

Wolfe’s army was transported and supported throughout the campaign by a substantial Royal Navy squadron under the command of Vice Admiral Charles Saunders (1715-1775).  The warships, transports, and their small boats provided the troops with decisive mobility.

Peter Paul Benazech (1744?-1783?), engraver, after Hervey Smyth (1734-1811), A View of the City of Quebec, the Capital of Canada. From Scenographia Americana. Copperplate engraving. London, [1768]. Graphics Division, Prints.

This print depicts the fortified town of Québec as it appeared in 1759 when Captain Hervey Smyth sketched it from the south side of the St. Lawrence River.  Although the town walls were outdated and in poor condition, Québec’s commanding position was fortified to advantage by the French, who, for three months, stymied Wolfe’s attempts to draw them into battle.  Hervey Smyth’s rendering of the city was published in 1768 as one of a collection of prints known as the Scenographia Americana.

Edward Oakley, A Plan of Quebec. Hand-colored copperplate engraving. London, 1759. Map Division, Maps 4-C-2.

Québec consisted of a lower and an upper town.  The latter perched on a massive hill that dominated the local topography.  It was fortified on the land side facing the Plains of Abraham.  The town’s fortifications, although old and weak, were formidable enough to require a formal siege.  Edward Oakley’s rendering of Québec was, like many British wartime plans, based on earlier French sources.  He included a history of the place, putting particular emphasis on previous British attempts to capture the town.