The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)

BOOK TWO. Mr. Pitt’s Global War (1757–1760)

15. DECIDING THE FATE

While London and all of the British Empire gloried in the capture of Quebec, the garrison condemned to spend the winter of 1759–1760 there found little to celebrate. “We are masters of the capital, it is true,” wrote one British junior officer, “but it does not follow from thence that we have conquered the whole country, that entirely depends on our fleet.” And now the fleet was gone. Brigadier James Murray’s 7,000 troops were alone in the middle of a foreign country, outnumbered by still competent enemy forces, and surrounded by hostile elements. “A severe winter now commenced while we were totally unprepared for such a climate,” Ensign James Miller recorded, leaving “neither fuel, forage, or indeed anything else to make life tolerable.”1

Indeed, the only constants became a lack of food and daily burials from a host of diseases. Dysentery and scurvy, in particular, were rampant. Troops were sent out in small parties to forage the surrounding countryside for food and firewood, but in the face of heavy snows, bitter cold, and frequent attacks by French troops it was grim work. By spring Murray counted 1,000 of his garrison dead and 2,000 “totally unfit for any service.” Bougainville could write without exaggeration that “the English hold only the outer walls and the King still holds the colony.”2

But the winter was hard on the French and Canadians as well. Some inhabitants of Quebec stayed there and endured the same deprivations as their British landlords. Most fled to surrounding towns or upriver to Montreal. This flow of refugees taxed Montreal’s resources, but it also provided the chevalier de Lévis with a source of manpower to bolster his forces. What he really sought, however, was the same thing that Canada had always needed—help from France.

In late November, several French ships that had taken refuge above Quebec the previous summer slipped down the river just before it froze and ran past the British guns. They carried plaintive missives to the French court from both Lévis and Governor Vaudreuil requesting reinforcements and supplies as early in the spring as possible. Such aid sailing from France by the end of February and arriving “in advance of the English,” Lévis asserted, could still “make us masters of the river.”3

All winter there were rumors in the British garrison that Lévis was about to sweep down the Saint Lawrence from Montreal and attack Quebec in force. By spring, not knowing what the result of his pleas to France would be, Lévis resolved to do just that. On April 8, 1760, the ice went out in the Saint Lawrence below Quebec. By the middle of the month the water was clear upstream to Montreal. On April 20, Lévis started downriver from Montreal with two frigates and assorted ships and bateaux carrying a force of some 6,900 troops, including eight regular battalions; twenty marine companies; 3,000 militia; and 400 Indians. Four days later, by the time he had reached Pointe aux Trembles and landed there—as Wolfe might have done—local militiamen swelled his ranks to 8,000.

Murray was hardly caught unawares, but in the face of such numbers his initial line of outposts at Cap Rouge and straddling the Sainte-Foy road had little option but to fall back. By the evening of April 27, Lévis had advanced to a line just west of the battlefield of September 13, stretching from Sainte-Foy on the northwestern edge of the Plains of Abraham south to the Sillery Woods.4

With one eye on the Saint Lawrence searching for any sign of British relief ships and the other on Lévis’s movements, Murray now faced a quandary. If he allowed Lévis to move forward and seize the crest of the plains where Montcalm had formed his battle line the autumn before, there was no doubt that Quebec would be besieged at close range. Could the garrison hold out until help arrived? Alternatively, Murray could move out from behind Quebec’s walls and establish a defensive line studded with artillery on that same high ground of the Plains of Abraham.

Having apparently learned nothing from Montcalm, Murray chose the latter course and on the morning of April 28, 1760, marched out from behind the walls of Quebec to meet the French threat. “The enemy was greatly superior in number, it is true,” Murray later confessed in a report to Pitt, “but when I considered that our little army was in the habit of beating that enemy … I resolved to give them battle…[and] we marched with all the force I could muster, namely, three thousand men, and formed the army on the heights.”5

On the plains now it was a scene far different from the sweep of emerald-green of the previous fall. In most places mushy spring snow a foot deep still covered the ground. The size of the French force was not immediately apparent, as some of the men were sheltered in the Sillery Woods on the left of the British and others were still in camp at Sainte-Foy. Having established his line on the crest and spread about twenty artillery pieces along it, Murray should simply have waited, but he showed no more patience than Montcalm had shown the year before. Noting French units on his right moving forward and still in the process of deploying from a column into a line formation, Murray chose to open the battle by an attack against these troops.

The initial British attack met with some success, as did a similar thrust against the French right; but the deep snow and seemingly bottomless mud slowed the British advance and gave the French time to react. Once the bulk of the French troops emerged from the Sillery Woods and got into action, their line stiffened and began to advance on the British left flank, threatening to turn it and come between the bulk of Murray’s force and the walls of the city. Because Murray had moved forward rather than waiting along his line of artillery, his field guns were now of little use—the entire battle line had shifted. Attempts to move the guns forward through the snowy mush in the heat of battle proved a disaster. “Our cannon were of no service to us,” a British officer lamented, “as we could not draw them through the soft ground and gulleys of snow three feet deep.”6

Murray quickly realized that his command was in danger of being surrounded, and under cover of disciplined volleys from a rear guard was barely able to retreat into the city. As had been true the previous autumn, a spirited advance by the attackers might have carried Quebec then and there. But faced with this rearguard fire, the French line halted, content to take possession of Murray’s artillery, which had been hastily spiked and left mired on the field.

This second battle of Quebec, also called the battle of Sainte-Foy, was a far costlier encounter than the storied affair of September 13, 1759. Murray lost almost one-third of his command: 259 men killed and 829 wounded. The French losses amounted to 193 killed and 640 wounded. Murray had not only “sustained heavier casualties, abandoned his artillery, and retreated,” but also lost a much higher proportion of his effective men—28 percent as opposed to less than 12 percent. Thus, Fred Anderson has noted, “it is no exaggeration to say that he had taken a spectacular gamble and sustained a spectacular loss.”7

On the following day, Lévis began to dig siege trenches and erect artillery batteries within 600 yards of the city. If he could recapture Quebec quickly, all of Wolfe’s triumphs of the year before—real or imagined—would have been for naught. Elsewhere, Amherst was still stalled on Lake Champlain and Gage had not dared to descend the Saint Lawrence. With Quebec back in French hands, the British would have to start all over again on the Saint Lawrence. French Canada might have bought itself another year. Knowing these things only too well, Brigadier James Murray—who suddenly looked rather shabby in comparison with James Wolfe—took the only option still open to him. He frantically scanned the river for any sign of a ship and hoped desperately that its flag would be British.

Even before news of Wolfe’s capture of Quebec had reached Paris, the French war minister, Choiseul, had been hard-pressed to come up with a way to reverse France’s fortunes. What was needed was a plan to save the French colonies worldwide; support France’s ally Austria, against Prussia; and otherwise relieve the pressure on French armies on the continent. Choiseul thought about it and realized that he had but one choice—a grand invasion of England. This was not as ridiculous an idea as it might at first seem. Great Britain’s regular army was spread throughout the world. If France could mount a cross-Channel invasion, its regulars might march into London unopposed save for a few home guard militiamen. To be sure, France still had the army for such a venture, but did it have the navy?

By the summer of 1759, thanks to Great Britain’s furious shipbuilding, the Royal Navy could float 113 ships of the line in fighting condition. France’s navy could muster barely half that number, but what if these ships could be concentrated off France in such a way as to secure, however temporarily, control of the English Channel? Britain’s fleet, after all, was sailing in almost every part of the globe.

Choiseul first proposed to ship an army of 20,000 troops out of ports in Brittany onboard ninety transports convoyed by six ships of the line. This armada would make for the Atlantic as if sailing for North America, but then circle northward around Ireland and suddenly appear in the Firth of Clyde to attack Glasgow and Edinburgh. (Some people in Catholic France still held out the hope that Scotland would rally to the memory of the Stuarts and rise up in rebellion.) With Pitt’s government suddenly focused on Scotland, another French army would cross the Channel directly to England in a convoy of flatboats guarded by a concentration of at least thirty-five to forty ships of the line. These troops would march on London and seize the economic hub of Pitt’s war effort before he knew what was happening.8

It was actually the daring sort of plan that Pitt himself might have championed, but Choiseul’s first problem was to join the French Mediterranean fleet from Toulon with the Atlantic fleet at Brest. The command of Great Britain’s Mediterranean fleet rested with Admiral Edward Boscawen, as his reward for his role in the capture of Louisbourg the year before. For much of the summer Boscawen was successful in blockading Admiral de la Clue’s French squadron in the harbor at Toulon. Finally, when Boscawen was forced to retire to Gibraltar for provisions and repairs, de la Clue sailed from Toulon on August 5, 1759, with twelve ships of the line and three frigates and made for the Strait of Gibraltar.

On the evening of August 16, 1759, de la Clue’s ships were making their way past Ceuta at the eastern entrance to the strait when the British frigate Gibraltar discovered them. The frigate raced for Gibraltar harbor, where Boscawen’s ships and crews were in various states of readiness and the admiral himself was dining leisurely with the governor of nearby San Roque.

Meanwhile, knowing that he had been spotted, de la Clue ordered all lights extinguished and with a strong east wind raced westward through the strait and then turned north toward Cape Saint Vincent. But sunrise brought a shock. Instead of a fleet of fifteen, there were but six ships of the line following his flagship. It is easy to say in hindsight that de la Clue should have put on all sail and hurried toward Brest then and there; but when lookouts reported masts to windward, he instead lowered his sails and paused to wait for what he assumed was the rest of his squadron. By the time the number of sails bearing down on him exceeded eight, de la Clue knew that he had been caught.

With a Herculean effort, Boscawen had put to sea in barely two hours with eight ships of the line and was soon followed by six more. Despite a valiant rearguard action by the French seventy-four-gun Centaur, the larger British fleet closed with the seven French ships and engaged in a running fight that lasted for the better part of two days. When it was over, five of de la Clue’s ships were captured or sunk. Only two escaped and eventually reached Rochefort in France. And what of the five other ships of the line that de la Clue had waited for at his peril? Along with the three frigates, they had sought refuge in the neutral port of Cádiz, Spain. Recriminations would fly for years over whether their captains had done so under orders or out of cowardice, but whichever, the result for Choiseul’s invasion plans was the same. There would be no help from the Mediterranean fleet.9

Western Europe, circa 1760

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Meanwhile, the French Atlantic fleet had hardly been having its way along the coast of France. Pitt’s naval resources had swelled so much that he could send fleets to Canada and the West Indies and still maintain adequate forces in the English Channel. Admiral Herbert de Brienne, comte de Conflans, and the bulk of the French Atlantic fleet were blockaded at Brest. Their nemesis was Admiral Sir Edward Hawke.

Given his proximity to England, Hawke had maintained a continuous blockade by simply rotating a few ships at a time back to English ports for fresh supplies. When six French ships of the line were ordered to break loose from Brest and sail south 100 miles to Quiberon Bay to join up with the transports intended for the diversion against Scotland, they were beaten back into port. Now it became quite clear to Conflans—and was in fact so ordered by Louis XV—that if the planned invasions were to go forward, Conflans would have to sortie his entire fleet, break Hawke’s blockade, and rendezvous in Quiberon Bay.

Nature momentarily intervened on the side of the French. Strong autumn gales blew Hawke’s fleet off station and forced it to take shelter at Torbay on the southern coast of England. These same gales, however, blew Admiral Bompar’s French squadron, which was returning from its participation in the Martinique-Guadeloupe campaigns, safely into Brest. Augmented by Bompar’s ships and momentarily without his blockading shadow, Admiral Conflans sailed from Brest on November 14, 1759, with twenty-one ships of the line and five frigates. It was arguably the most powerful French fleet yet assembled in the war. Conflans intended to destroy the weaker British squadron under Commodore Robert Duff that was blockading Quiberon and then join the French invasion transports. Two days later, Hawke’s main fleet started south from Torbay under full sail.

The whims of nature changed against the French, and light winds forced Conflans to make a wide circle westward and then spend a day becalmed. Not until the morning of November 20 did he sight the sails of Duff’s squadron off Quiberon and give chase. But as the French fleet closed with Duff’s ships, its lookouts sighted a far greater cluster of sails bearing down on them from another quarter. Conflans couldn’t believe it. It was Hawke with twenty-three ships of the line.

In truth, the forces were fairly evenly matched in firepower, but the boldness of the British navy was about to show itself. Had Conflans been Drake or even Hawke, he might have formed his lines and engaged in one of history’s greatest naval battles. Instead, he hoisted as much canvas as his masts could hold and ran for the safety of the French shore batteries in Quiberon Bay.10

“I had no ground for thinking,” Admiral Conflans wrote later, “that if I got in first with twenty-one of the line the enemy would dare to follow me.” But that is exactly what Hawke and his lieutenants did. Fighting fierce squalls, surging seas, and hidden reefs that were as much the enemy as were the French men-of-war, the British first pounced on the rear of the French fleet and cut it to shreds, battering the FormidableHérosJusteThésée, and Superbe.

Conflans tried to form a battle line and return to their aid, but the narrow confines of the bay disrupted his efforts. For his part, Hawke eschewed a battle line and boldly hoisted the signal “general chase,” in effect turning his captains loose to engage in individual actions. Few ships did so more aggressively than the ninety-gun Magnanime under the command of Richard Howe, whose older brother had fallen at Ticonderoga and whose younger brother had just led Wolfe’s way at Quebec. “Had we but two hours more daylight,” Admiral Hawke reported to the admiralty, “the whole [French fleet] would have been destroyed or taken.”11

By the following morning, Admiral Conflans was embarrassed to find that in addition to the losses suffered by his fleet, in the darkness and storms he had anchored his flagship amid Hawke’s ships. Trying to slip away, the Soleil Royal ran aground and Conflans ordered it burned. In all, the French lost six ships of the line and suffered about 2,500 casualties. British losses were two ships and less than 400 men. More importantly, a dozen of the remaining French ships sought refuge up the shallow Vilaine River and would never emerge as a fighting force. It no doubt seemed an understatement when one French observer wrote: “Imbecility, ineptitude, blundering, ignorance of maneuvering and of all sea tactics are the exclusive causes of our loss.”12

“The battle of November 20, 1759,” wrote Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan more than a century later, “was the Trafalgar of this war.” The French navy, heretofore frequently outgunned but never completely overwhelmed, finally ceased to be a major strategic force. “The English fleets,” Mahan continued, “were now free to act against the colonies of France … on a grander scale than ever before.” Pitt had said that the war would be decided in North America, but in retrospect it was decided in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Europe by Boscawen’s pursuit off Gibraltar and Hawke’s daring in Quiberon Bay.13

The French court received Lévis and Vaudreuil’s pleas to aid Canada and professed a full measure of support. But by the time this intent was acted upon, a convoy of five merchantmen loaded with only 400 troops and guarded by one lone twenty-eight-gun frigate was all that managed to sail from Bordeaux on April 10,1760. Arriving in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in mid-May, the commander of this tiny flotilla captured a British ship and from letters onboard learned that he was following a British squadron into the river. Indeed, a few days before, on May 9, 1760, the masts of a lone ship had appeared in the Saint Lawrence River below Quebec. A close inspection by telescope told the story. It was the frigate Lowestoft, and it was the vanguard of a long-awaited relief force. The flag flying from its mast was the Union Jack.14

British Colonial Frontier, circa 1760

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