James Wolfe

James Wolfe

(1727-1759)

British military hero James Wolfe was born in the county of Kent, in southern England and educated at the military school at Greenwich. At age 14, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in his father’s regiment of marines. Over the years, as Wolfe rose in rank, and he gained a reputation as a highly competent officer. He stood out as a leader who was willing to take aggressive action, and wasn’t afraid to criticize the failings of his fellow officers.

It was the former quality that brought him to the attention of Britain’s prime minister, William Pitt. In 1758, Pitt named Wolfe to command a brigade in the planned assault on the French fort of Louisbourg, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. This was the major expedition led by Jeffrey Amherst. Wolfe played an important role in the successful landing and then siege of Louisbourg that ended in the surrender of the French fortress in July, 1758.

Wolfe was promoted to major general, and assigned to command the British forces that were to sail up the St. Lawrence River and capture the city of Quebec. This was part of a three-pronged attack in which Amherst was to march overland from upstate New York, and another British force was to sail down the St. Lawrence. Neither of these forces ever made it to Quebec.

By June, 1759, Wolfe had brought some 9,000 men to the Isle of Orleans, four miles below Quebec. In the weeks that followed, his forces made several attempts to approach the well defended city.

Finally during the night of September 12-13, Wolfe launched his most audacious attack. Although he was weak from illness, he personally led 4,500 of his men to climb the steep cliffs that brought them to the heights above Quebec City. From there he advanced onto the Plains of Abraham, a flat area only about a mile away.

The next morning, the French, led by General Louis-Joseph Montcalm, were stunned to see the British drawn up and ready for battle. Montcalm attacked with around 4,500 men. The British fought aggressively, and in the battle Wolfe was severely wounded.

He was taken to the rear by his troops, where he continued to give orders to pursue the French. Near the end, it was said that he asked, “Who runs?” When his men assured him that it was the French, Wolfe is said to have replied, “Now God be praised, since I have conquered, I will die in peace.”

Wolfe was given the honor that Britain grants her greatest heroes— a monument in Westminster Abbey. His death on the field of battle was depicted by several famous painters, including the American artist Benjamin West.