James Wolfe

Nation: England

Military Leader

Birth Date: January 2, 1727
England James Wolfe Military Leader Cover
I. Ancestry and Birth
II. Childhood
III. First Commission
IV. Battle of Dettingen
V. The Conqueror of Quebec
I. Ancestry and Birth
James Wolfe came from venturesome stock. His genealogical record is unfortunately incomplete. His great-grandfather - who is variously described as George or Edward - was the descendant of the Woulfes who settled in the southwest of Ireland at the end of the sixteenth century. In 1650, the Woulfes roused, or assisted to rouse, the citizens of Limerick to oppose the Duke of Ormond when he wished to enter in order to defend the city against Cromwell's forces. One of the Woulfes was a Franciscan friar, and the other was an army captain. Both were proscribed, but while the friar was executed, the captain escaped to the North of England, dropped the "u" from his name, became a good Protestant, and married. Of his son we know nothing, but his grandson was Edward Wolfe, the father of the Hero of Quebec.

Edward Wolfe was gazetted second lieutenant of marines when he was fifteen, became a captain in Temple's Regiment of foot at eighteen, and was one of Marlborough's brigade majors in the Low Countries at twenty-three. He served with Wade in Scotland in the rebellion of '15, and two years later, when he was thirty-two - the age at which his son James died - received his commission as Lieutenant Colonel.

James Wolfe was born on January 2, 1727 in village of Westerham, Kent. He was not born, as some have stated, in the old Tudor house, but was instead born at the Vicarage. His earliest biographer, Robert Wright, who published the fullest account of Wolfe's antecedents and career that we have, said that his parents were living at Vicarage, which they had rented from the Rev. George Lewis. Mr. Beckles Willson tells a circumstantial story which shows that the birth at Vicarage was more or less inadvertant. Colonel Edward Wolfe was away on duty with his regiment and Mrs. Wolfe, living alone for the moment at Westerham, had made an afternoon call. She was taken ill, and the good Vicar and his wife insisted that she should remain, and the Vicarage in consequence earned the distinction of being her son's birthplace.

Salmon, E. (1909). Birth, school, and first commission. In General Wolfe (pp. 1-4). Toronto: Cassell & Company.
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II. Childhood
Not a great deal is recorded of James Wolfe's years at Westerham. He probably only saw his father at intervals, as the Lieutenant Colonel would naturally have to spend much of his time away on duty, but in those intervals, James would absorb every parental reminiscence of service beyond the seas or across the border. The martial influence of the father, indelible as it was, was qualified and toned by the sweet and tender influence of the mother.

Other influences which came to him at Westerham were his brother Edward, less than a year his junior, and his lifelong friend, George Warde, the youngest son of the owner of the neighboring estate of Squerryes Court. James Wolfe possibly had something to do with Warde's choice of the profession of arms. In their hours together in the woods and fields of Squerryes, the Wolfes and the Wardes played soldiers with all the earnestness of pretense.

For a while James and his brother went to a school kept by one Lawrence, of whom nothing is known beyond his name. James was eleven years of age when the home at Westerham was exchanged for one at Greenwich, and a more advanced tutor was found in the Rev. S.F. Swinden, whom James and Edward held in affectionate memory after their schooldays.

War was declared against Spain on October 13, 1739, and to James Wolfe, the war fever would be an exhilaration such as he had not known in his thirteen years of life. The martial spirit was part of his nature, and the call to arms set every nerve in his body tense. Fleets sailed, troops were under orders for service beyond the seas, and every roll of the drum stirred the national consciousness to energetic action. The things of which his father had told him were now to happen again, and they came nearer home than ever when a big camp was formed a few miles away on Blackheath, and his father was appointed Adjutant-General of the force, 10,000 strong, collecting on the Isle of Wight for the Cartagena Expedition.

Though barely in his teens, James convinced his father to agree to allow him to go along as a volunteer. He was prepared to draw the sword manfully against the hated Spaniard, but became ill before the Cartagena force could embark, and his father wisely at the eleventh hour decided that he should remain home.

Wolfe could hardly have survived the disease, the distress, and the incompetent or inadequate medical accomodation which attended this ill-starred enterprise. There is a fine chance here for those who love to speculate on the might-have-beens. Would the History of the British Empire not have been radically different if Wolfe had found at early grave in Caribbean waters? Among those who took part in the Cartagena expedition and succumbed to its disorders was a volunteer from Virgina - George Washington's elder brother. His death changed the whole outlook for Washington. "If," says Mr. Bradley, "George Washington had remained a younger son, it is most unlikely he would have been available in 1775 to have stepped into the Chief Command" of the revolting colonies. "And without George Washington, the very struggle itself in which he triumphed seems an inconceivable thing." If the death of a member of the Washington family in that expedition affected the history of America, the sparing of young Wolfe from a similar fate may equally be said to have contributed to the same end. It was the capture of Quebec by Wolfe which made the American revolt possible, and we may therefore take it that without Wolfe there would not have been the Washington we know.

Salmon, E. (1909). Birth, school, and first commission. In General Wolfe (pp. 5-10). Toronto: Cassell & Company.
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III. First Commission
As another year passed under Mr. Swinden's tutelage, James Wolfe went to spend his Christmas holidays with his friend George Warde at Squerryes. The boys were amusing themselves at a spot in the grounds which is now historic, when Mr. Warde brought his young guest an envelope bearing the magic symbol, "On His Majesty's Service." The lad tore it open with none the less excitement. It was his first commission, dated November 3, 1741, and appointed him second lietenant in his father's old regiment of marines. He was now fifteen, a tall, spare youth, with red hair and features that were little indicative of the iron will behind them.

The last thing in the world that Wolfe courted was the sea, and his enthusiasm on the receipt of his commission was qualified by the character of the arm to which he was appointed. He soon found a means of transfer and became an ensign of Colonel Duroure's Regiment of Foot, then known as the Twelfth. The regiment was under orders for Flanders, where England was again to take a hand in a continental conflict, fighting in the War of the Austrian Succession on behalf of Maria Theresa.

Duroure's Regiment formed part of the flower of the English army assembled towards the end of April 1742, on Blackheath to be reviewed by George II. The Prince of Wales, the Duke of Cumberland, and Field Marshal The Earl of Stair were in attendance. The spectacle was more brilliant that any England had witnessed for a long time. It was a proud day for Ensign Wolfe as he carried the colors of his regiment, and his mother and brother were present with other friends.

The regiment embarked at Deptford for Ostend. When in Belgium, Duroure's men marched straight away to Bruges and Ghent, where Wolfe quartered for nine months. In February 1743, a move was at last made. On the way to Germany - "at St. Tron in the Bishopric of Liege"- Wolfe wrote home that they had bad weather on the march, and that his strength was not so great as he imagined - "I never come into quarters without aching hips and knees" - that the road ahead was trying and that he intended to hire a horse. He would march on foot one day and ride the next - sharing the horse probably with his brother Edward. Nevertheless, he said, "I'm in the greatest spirits in the world."

Salmon, E. (1909). General Wolfe (pp. 10-17). Toronto: Cassell & Company.
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IV. Battle of Dettingen
On June 9, 1743, the British-Hanoverian forces arrived at an awkward bend of the Main, near Aschaffenburg, and were joined by an Austrian force under the Duke d'Arenberg. There were repeated alarms that the Duc de Noailles, who was on the other side of the river with 60,000 men, was about to attack. Edward was actually in a skirmish and received a baptism of fire on the night of the 20th. James was called upon to face another ordeal. He was given the position of adjutant. How it happened that this boy of sixteen was entrusted with so important a post is not clear. On June 21st, he wrote from Aschaffenburg that King George had joined the army, and they would soon know what they were going to do.

The situation was critical. The King found the forces under the Earl of Stair in something very like a trap, from which they could hope to escape only with heavy loss, if they escaped at all, and therefore ordered retreat. Silently on the morning of June 27th, the allies began to retrace their steps in the direction of Hanau. The movement was observed by de Noailles, who instantly sent a strong force across the river to cut them up or secure their surrender. The British commanders were not alone in their mistakes. The Duc de Grammont, who was entrusted with this vital maneuver, instead of waiting for the retreating army at a defile, advanced to meet it on equal terms, and actually exposed his men to the fire of his own batteries across the river.

The Battle of Dettingen has been variously described. Military authority tells us that the honor which the generals had compromised was saved once again by "the fine old quality of British doggedness," and endorses the contemptuous description of George II - for which Thackeray seems mainly responsible - standing in front of his troops "in this preposterous position of a fencing-master." This seems to be prejudice, as his courage was never in question, and at Dettingen he was only doing his best, and a fine best it was, to get the army out of the hole which others had made for it.

James Wolfe wrote his account in a letter to his father, dated July 4, 1743:

"The army was drawn out this day se'nnight between a wood and the river Main, near a little village, called Dettingen, in five lines - two of foot and three of horse. The cannon on both sides began to play about nine o'clock in the morning, and we were exposed to the fires of theirs (said to be above fifty pieces) for near three hours, a great part of which flanked us terribly from the other side the water. The French were all the while drawn up in the sight of us on this side. About twelve o'clock we marched towards them; they advanced likewise, and, as near as I can guess, the fight began about one. The Gens d'Armes, or Mousquetaires Gris, attacked the first line, composed of nine regiments of English foot, and four or five of Austrians, and some Hanoverians. They broke through the Scotch Fusilecrs, who they began the attack upon; but before they got to the second line, out of two hundred there were not forty living, so they wheeled, and came between the first and second line (except an officer with a standard, and four of five men, who broke through the second line and were taken by some of Hawley's regiment of Dragoons), and about twenty of them escape to their army, riding through an interval that was made for our Horse to advance. These unhappy men were of the first families in France. Nothing, I believe, could be more rash than their undertaking."

Wolfe then briefly describes the second attack on the left by the Horse, and enlarges on the third and last attack by the Foot:

"We advanced towards one another; our men in high spirits and very impatient for fighting, being elated with beating the French Horse, part of which advanced towards us; while the rest attacked our Horse, but weresoon driven back by the great fire we gave them. The Major and I (for we had neither Colonel nor Lieutenant Colonel), before they came near, were employed in begging and ordering the men not to fire at too great a distance, but to keep it till the enemy should come near us; but to little purpose. The whole fired when they thought they could reach them, which had like to have ruined us. We did very little execution with it. So soon as the French saw we presented they all fell down, and when we had fired they got up, and marched close to use in tolerable good order, and gave us a brisk fire, which put us into some disorder and made us give way a little, particularly ours and two or three more regiments, who were in the hottest of it. However, we soon rallied again, and attacked them with great fury, which gained us a complete victory, and forced the enemy to retire in great haste. 'Twas luck that we did give way a little, for our men were loading all the while, and it gave room for an Austrian regiment to move into an interval, rather too little before, who charged the enemy with great bravery and resolution. So soon as the French retreated, the line halted, and we got the sad news of the death of as good and brave a man as any amongst us, General Clayton, who was killed by a musquet ball in the last attack. His death gave us all sorrow, so great was the opinion we had of him, and was the hindrance of anything further being done that day. He had, 'tis said, orders for pursueing the enemy, and if we had followed them, as was expected, it is the opinion of most people, that of 27,000 men they brought over the Main, they would not have repassed with half that number. A great number of their officers and men were taken prisoners. Their loss is computed to be between six and seven thousand men, and ours three thousand.

His Majesty was in the midst of the fight; and the Duke behaved as bravely as a man could do. He had a musquet shot through the calf of his leg. I had several times the honour of speaking with him just as the battle began, and was often afraid of his being dash'd to pieces by the cannonballs. He gave his orders with a great deal of calmness, and seemed quite unconcerned. The soldiers were in high delight to have him so near them. I sometimes though I had lost poor Ned, when I saw arms, legs, and heads beat off close by him. He is called 'The Old Soldier,' and ver deservedly. A horse I rid of the Colonel's, at the first attack wasshot in one of his hinder legs, and threw me; so I was obliged to do the duty of an adjutant all that and the next day on foot, in a pair of heavy boots. I lost with the horse, furniture and pistols which cost me ten ducats; but three days after the battle, got the horse again, with the ball in him, - and he is now almost well again, - but without furniture and pistols."

Dettingen had its effect on the fortunes both of the war and of James Wolfe. The French, pressed elsewhere by Prince Charles, withdrew to their own frontier; the allies, after their retreat to Hanau, made Worms their headquarters, and were neither molested nor in a mood to attempt to follow up their advantage. As for Wolfe, his services were recognized not only by his official appointment as adjutant but within a week or two by promotion to lieutenancy. England rejoiced inordinately over the victory. Handel composed his finest Te Deum, and George II was a popular hero when he returned to London. The Campaign of 1743 was over, and Wolfe went into winter quarters with his regiment at Ostend.

In June 1744, Wolfe's was advanced a step further when he became Captain in Barrell's Regiment. The promotion and transfer, while an offical mark of his worth, kept him for the rest of his stay in Belgium from further participation in serious fighting. In October his brother Edward, who was much loved and affectionately known as the Old Soldier although not seventeen years of age, became ill and died.

Salmon, E. (1909). Wolfe in Flanders. In General Wolfe (pp. 18-22). Toronto: Cassell & Company.
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V. The Conqueror of Quebec
In 1757, statesman William Pitt the Elder undertook to raise England from the temporary degradation into which she had fallen and to smite the House of Bourbon in every quarter of the globe. He discerned the genius of Wolfe and, wisely disregarding the conventional claims of seniority, entrusted to the young officer with the highest duties in the conquest of French America. Wolfe, in conjunction with Lord Jeffrey Amherst, led the force which besieged and captured Louisburg in July 1758, an achievement which gave to England Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island. In 1759, Pitt conferred upon Wolfe the still more important command of the expedition which was ordered to advance up the St. Lawrence and attack Quebec from the west, while Amherst was to cooperate by assailing the French possessions from the south.

Wolfe reached the Isle of Orleans in the St. Lawrence on June 25th with a force of eight thousand regular troops in excellent condition and with a strong fleet of twenty-two sail of the line under Admiral Saunders. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, the French Governor of Canada, had concentrated all the military strength of the province in Quebec. Though he was inferior to Wolfe in the number of regular troops under his command, the zeal of the numerous Canadians who fought under him, and who were jealous of the fur-trade which the British carried on with the Indians, the strength of his position, and the great skill with which he fortified and watched each approach to Quebec, made Wolfe's enterprise appear almost hopeless.

Amherst, who should have attacked Quebec from the upper side, remained at Ticonderoga. For two months Wolfe and his force lay below the city powerless to strike any effective blow. The severe repulse which they sustained on July 31st taught them with how strong and vigilant an adversary they had to cope. Eventually, Wolfe himself discovered a cove above the city, which now bears his name, and the narrow winding path that leads from it up the cliff to the Heights of Abraham, a plateau to the west of Quebec, where the city's fortifications were weakest. On September 12th in the dead of night, he and five thousand men entered boats and with muffled oars dropped down to the cove. Silently landing, he succeeded in leading his men up the path, and in surprising the post of Canadians, by whom the summit was guarded.

On the next morning the gallant Montcalm, who had thus far defeated all the English generals opposed to him, led his troops out to meet the enemy. The battle was then fought which determined the ascendancy of the Anglo-Saxon race and language over the French in the New World. Both Wolfe and Montcalm fell. Wolfe was twice struck as he led on a bayonet charge which decided the day. He received one ball in the wrist, and a second, entering his body in the region of the heart, rendered it necessary to bear him off a short distance in the rear. There, roused by the cry of "They run!", he eagerly asked, "Who run?". Being told that it was the French, and that they were defeated, he exclaimed "Now I thank God and die contented." Thus fell General Wolfe in the thirty-fourth year of his age. A national monument is erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey.

Spofford, A. R., Weitenkampf, F., & Lamberton, J. P. (1899). General Wolfe. In The library of historic characters and famous events of all nations and all ages (Vol. 3, pp. 330-333). Boston: Art-Library Pub. Co.
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