Plains of Abraham: The Forgotten Hero

Horace Wallpole once said of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, “No man said less and deserves more.”

plains-imageMost of us Canadians know the story of the Plains of Abraham. How British forces under General James Wolfe defeated French forces under the Marquis de Montcalm after a dangerous climb up the cliffs near the city of Quebec. The main engagement only took moments and it quickly turned into a rout with French Forces in full retreat. Yet it can be said that the sailors and the commanders of the Royal Navy forces present were just as much responsible for the victory. The Plains of Abraham could be rightly called one of the earliest amphibious operations to be successfully launched on North American soil.

In command of all British Naval forces during the Quebec operations was Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders. At 46, this bulky man with fierce baggy eyes had seen 32 years of service in the British navy. Despite his deceptively quiet personality, Saunders carried out his orders with dogged determination. His career up to this point was marked by no outstanding sea victories yet he had a reputation for being one of the best and luckiest officers in the Royal Navy. Now he was placed in overall command of a quarter of the Royal Navy. This immense fleet included twenty-two ships of the line each carrying up to eight hundred people; 27 frigates, eighty transport ships; and fifty-five schooners – more than 200 ships in all. In total the fleet carried 9,000 soldiers, 18,000 sailors, 2,000 cannons and 40,000 cannonballs as well as surgeons, ministers, prostitutes, wives and their children and livestock. The fleet contained a population larger than that of Quebec. The challenge that faced Saunders was a daunting one: sail this enormous fleet down the St. Lawrence River to Quebec then position his ships so that no supplies or reinforcements could reach the French garrison there. All this would have to be accomplished on a river that had never properly been charted and it was said that no ship larger than a frigate could traverse the distance safely.

Between the open Atlantic and where the city of Quebec looks out over the St. Lawrence there is almost 1,120 kilometers of powerful currents, rapids and winds which blew mainly in the wrong direction. There were no proper charts of the river before the British arrived in 1759. To safely traverse the distance, a proper marine survey would have to be carried out. Saunders accomplished this by sending his ship’s masters in boats upriver to survey it in early spring while there was still ice in the river. The task of surveying the river was made all the more difficult since the French had removed the buoys and beacons and were busy fortifying the banks. Marine surveys take a good deal of patience and skill.

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Those involved had to cross the river back and forth numerous times taking soundings at proper intervals, observing the boat’s position, allowing for stream and tide, and methodically writing down the depths. Because of constant observation from the enemy most of the work took place at night.

Among those taking part in this survey was a young James Cook, sailing master of the HMS Pembroke. Here in the St. Lawrence, Cook would establish his reputation for remarkable seamanship navigation skills. Utilizing his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to produce chart work, he took marine surveys at a wholly new level of accuracy. At one point when the fleet approached a narrow part of the river near Isle d’Orleans, Cook devised a method which eventually brought the whole fleet through that tight passage into the Basin just off Isle d’Orleans facing the fortress of Quebec.

With a sufficiently detailed marine survey at his disposal, Admiral Charles Saunders entered the river in early June. At one point the fleet stretched over 150 kilometers up the St. Lawrence. As they passed villages and farms, those onboard the fleet noticed that the inhabitants were making preparations to leave. By June 27th, the entire fleet including Saunders’ own flagship the Neptune was anchored off Isle d’Orleans. This was farther than Wolf had hoped the fleet would carry him and his troops and much farther than the French had expected. The Marquis de Montcalm remarked on the quality of British seamanship, “It is quite probable that in similar conditions a French fleet would have perished.”

Now Wolf and Saunders had their first opportunity to see the fortress of Quebec sitting high up on the steep cliffs across the river from where they anchored. The walls were imposing and appeared impregnable. Much to their dismay it was discovered that the north shore was now defended for at least 10 kilometers downriver by several thousand troops. The Marquis de Montcalm, in command of the combined French and Canadian forces, had received advance intelligence that outlined the British plans to take Quebec. General Wolf and his staff would now have to come up with a new plan. The next day Montcalm struck first. Boats and rafts carrying gunpowder were chained together and sent with the current toward the British fleet.

Aboard each craft someone waited for the signal to ignite the cargo then plunge into the river. One of the boats exploded too soon causing those manning the other boats to light their fires. It was a miscue that caused the downfall of the entire operation and saved the British fleet from damage. Another attempt was made with the same results.

On the night of Thursday, July 12, 1759, the British began ship to shore bombardment. Four large cannons and five mortars kept up a steady barrage until morning, sending cannonballs into the streets and smashing walls. Over three hundred British bombs fell on Quebec that first day. The shelling would last for nine weeks. British canons hurled more than 20,000 canon balls at the city. Still Quebec would remain in French hands. While all this was going on, Saunders pulled off another miracle by slipping six ships upstream past the guns of Quebec. This meant that Wolf could cut off supplies coming into the city and attack from the Plains of Abraham which Montcalm could not defend. The walls on the west side of the city were too weak and the fortifications inadequate to do the job. Eventually the attack would come from that direction but not until mid-September. In the intervening three months, Montcalm and Wolf would settle into a bloody chess match and time was on Montcalm’s side. With autumn approaching the fleet would soon have to depart the river to avoid being trapped in the ice that would form as winter approached.

After the failed frontal assault on Montcalm’s forces at the Beauport shore on July 31st and further set backs with the siege of Quebec, a humiliated Wolf was not only losing time he was fighting failing health and dissention amongst his brigadiers. By early September, Wolfe was in a desperate situation. In two weeks the Royal Navy would be forced to send all its ships back to their winter base in England. Wolfe’s health was fading. “I found myself so ill, and am still so weak,” he wrote, “that I begged the general officers to consult together for the public utility. They are all of the opinion… to draw the enemy from their present situation, and bring them to an action. I have acquiesced in their proposal, and we are preparing to put it into execution.” But before that plan can be carried out, Wolf changes his mind once again. The new plan he has come with up shows some of the same sort of recklessness that he exhibited during the attack on the Fortress of Louisburg.

Wolfe’s new plan of attack would depend heavily on secrecy and surprise. Once again Charles Saunders and the British navy would play a huge part in its timing and co-ordination. September 12 saw a good deal of activity on the part of the Royal Navy, causing Montcalm to wonder where Wolfe was with the main part of his army. Saunders had stationed his fleet opposite the Beauport Lines, he didn’t give the French a moments peace all day or night. He had James Cook and others busy laying buoys perhaps in preparation for another assault. The bombardment came after dark as Saunders moved his fleet in at high tide and fired furiously at the entrenchments. All night long boatloads of Saunders Marines rowed up and down the river and kept the French on the alert looking for troops landing on the beach.

Several miles to the west upriver the city was receiving heavy bombardment from British gun batteries stationed at Point Levis. The bombardment went on most of the night becoming more intense just before dawn. Meanwhile, Commander James Chade had begun the dangerous journey of ferrying troops to the Anse-au-Foulon. The boats were aided by a six-knot tide and current behind them setting the men ashore at exactly the right spot. The fifty five meter cliffs were a towering black mass above those on the beach blotting out whatever light was coming from the stars that night. The small French detachments at Anse-au-Foulon and at Salmos Battery were overwhelmed and the road to the top was secured. Wolfe would be standing on the Plains of Abraham only a few hours later ready to face the enemy with his own ‘thin red line’. The coordinated efforts of the British land and sea forces had been a complete success. Saunders would later write “Considering the darkness of the night and the rapidity of the current, this was a very critical operation and very properly and successfully conducted.”

While the British won the battle on the Plains of Abraham that morning, both commanding generals were mortally wounded. Wolfe’s body was laid out in the stateroom of His Majesty’s Ship Royal William. Immediately after the battle, Admiral Saunders devoted all his energy to consolidating the victory won by his dead colleague. On September 18, he and Brigadier General George Townshend accepted the surrender of Quebec.

The news of the surrender would not reach London until a month later in the dispatches of Saunders and Townshend. Saunders was, as usual, succinct and modest about the nature of his accomplishments. Yet his accomplishments did not end with the conquest of Quebec, he also provided the garrison with cannons, ammunition and provisions before he left, even to the extent of reducing his ships’ stores. It may be that Quebec might well have been recaptured by the French under Francis de Gaston, Chevalier de Levis the following spring if not for the troops and supplies Saunders had left behind.

Saunders returned to London on December 26. In April of the following year, he provided a permanent contribution to the safe navigation of the St Lawrence. Saunders informed the Admiralty that he had readied the materials for a new, detailed chart of the St. Lawrence and they gave him permission to publish. Horace Wallpole once said of Saunders, “No man said less and deserves more.” He died in 1775 and is buried in Westminster Abbey near the Wolfe memorial.

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