French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe

painting Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West
Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. (Wikimedia Commons)

Early Life

James Peter Wolfe was born January 2, 1727, at Westerham, Kent. The eldest son of Colonel Edward Wolfe and Henriette Thompson, he was raised locally until the family moved to Greenwich in 1738. From a moderately distinguished family, Wolfe's uncle Edward held a seat in Parliament while his other uncle, Walter, served as an officer in the British Army. In 1740, at the age of thirteen, Wolfe entered the military and joined his father's 1st Regiment of Marines as a volunteer.

The following year, with Britain fighting Spain in the War of Jenkins' Ear, he was prevented from joining his father on Admiral Edward Vernon's expedition against Cartagena due to illness. This proved to be a blessing as the attack was a failure with many of the British troops succumbing to disease during the three-month campaign.

War of the Austrian Succession

The conflict with Spain soon became absorbed into the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1741, Wolfe received a commission as a second lieutenant in his father's regiment. Early the following year, he transferred to the British Army for service in Flanders. Becoming a lieutenant in the 12th Regiment of Foot, he also served as the unit's adjutant as it assumed a position near Ghent. Seeing little action, he was joined in 1743 by his brother Edward. Marching east as part of George II's Pragmatic Army, Wolfe traveled to southern Germany later that year.

During the course of the campaign, the army was trapped by the French along the Main River. Engaging the French at the Battle of Dettingen, the British and their allies were able to throw back several enemy assaults and escape the trap.

Highly active during the battle, the teenage Wolfe had a horse shot from under him and his actions came to the attention of the Duke of Cumberland.

Promoted to captain in 1744, he was shifted to the 45th Regiment of Foot. Seeing little action that year, Wolfe's unit served in Field Marshal George Wade's failed campaign against Lille.  A year later, he missed the Battle of Fontenoy as his regiment was posted to garrison duty at Ghent. Departing the city shortly before its capture by the French, Wolfe received a promotion to brigade major. A short time later, his regiment was recalled to Britain to aid in defeating the Jacobite Rebellion led by Charles Edward Stuart.

The Forty-Five

Dubbed "The Forty-Five," Jacobite forces defeated Sir John Cope at Prestonpans in September after mounting an effective Highland charge against the government lines. Victorious, the Jacobites marched south and advanced as far as Derby. Dispatched to Newcastle as part of Wade's army, Wolfe served under Lieutenant General Henry Hawley during the campaign to crush the rebellion. Moving north, he saw took part in the defeat at Falkirk on January 17, 1746. Retreating to Edinburgh, Wolfe and the army came under the command of Cumberland later that month. Shifting north in pursuit of Stuart's army, Cumberland wintered in Aberdeen before resuming the campaign in April.

Marching with the army, Wolfe took part in the decisive Battle of Culloden on April 16 which saw the Jacobite army crushed. In the wake of the victory at Culloden, he famously refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite soldier despite orders from either the Duke of Cumberland or Hawley. This act of mercy later endeared him to the Scottish troops under his command in North America.

The Continent & Peace

Returning to the Continent in 1747, he served under Major General Sir John Mordaunt during the campaign to defend Maastricht. Taking part in the bloody defeat at the Battle of Lauffeld, he again distinguished himself and earned an official commendation. Wounded in the fighting, he remained in the field until the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the conflict in early 1748. Already a veteran at age twenty-one, Wolfe was promoted to major and assigned to command the 20th Regiment of Foot at Stirling.

Often battling ill-health, he worked tirelessly to improve his education and in 1750 received a promotion to lieutenant colonel.

The Seven Years' War

In 1752, Wolfe received permission to travel and made trips to Ireland and France. During these excursions, he furthered his studies, made several important political contacts, and visited important battlefields such as the Boyne. While in France, he received an audience with Louis XV and worked to enhance his language and fencing skills. Though wishing to remain in Paris in 1754, the declining relationship between Britain and France forced his return to Scotland. With the formal beginning of the Seven Years' War in 1756 (fighting began in North America two years earlier), he was promoted to colonel and ordered to Canterbury, Kent to defend against an anticipated French invasion.

Shifted to Wiltshire, Wolfe continued to battle health issues leading some to believe that he was suffering from consumption. In 1757, he rejoined Mordaunt for a planned amphibious attack on Rochefort. Serving as quartermaster general for the expedition, Wolfe and the fleet sailed on September 7. Though Mordaunt captured Île d'Aix offshore, he proved reluctant to press on to Rochefort despite having caught the French by surprise. Advocating aggressive action, Wolfe scouted the approaches to the city and repeatedly asked for troops to execute an attack. The requests were refused and the expedition ended in failure.

North America

Despite the poor results at Rochefort, Wolfe's actions brought him to the attention of Prime Minister William Pitt.

Seeking to expand the war in the colonies, Pitt promoted several aggressive officers to high ranks with the goal of achieving decisive results. Elevating Wolfe to brigadier general, Pitt sent him to Canada to serve under Major General Jeffery Amherst. Tasked with capturing the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, the two men formed an effective team. In June 1758, the army moved north from Halifax, Nova Scotia with naval support provided by Admiral Edward Boscawen. On June 8, Wolfe was tasked with leading the opening landings in Gabarus Bay. Though supported by the guns of Boscawen's fleet, Wolfe and his men were initially prevented from landing by French forces. Pushed east, they located a small landing area protected by large rocks. Going ashore, Wolfe's men secured a small beachhead which allowed the remainder of Wolfe's men to land.

Having gained a foothold ashore, he played a key role in Amherst's capture of the city the following month. With Louisbourg taken, Wolfe was ordered to raid French settlements around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Though the British had wished to attack Quebec in 1758, defeat at the Battle of Carillon on Lake Champlain and the lateness of the season prevented such a move. Returning to Britain, Wolfe was tasked by Pitt with the capture of Quebec. Given the local rank of major general, Wolfe sailed with a fleet led by Admiral Sir Charles Saunders.

The Battle of Quebec

Arriving off Quebec in early June 1759, Wolfe surprised the French commander, the Marquis de Montcalm, who had expected an attack from the south or west.

Establishing his army on the Ile d'Orléans and the south shore of the St. Lawrence at Point Levis, Wolfe began a bombardment of the city and ran ships past its batteries to reconnoiter for landing places upstream. On July 31, Wolfe attacked Montcalm at Beauport but was repulsed with heavy losses. Stymied, Wolfe began to focus on landing to west of the city. While British ships raided upstream and threatened Montcalm's supply lines to Montreal, the French leader was forced to disperse his army along the north shore to prevent Wolfe from crossing.

Not believing that another assault at Beauport would be successful, Wolfe began planning a landing just beyond Pointe-aux-Trembles. This was canceled due to poor weather and on September 10 he informed his commanders that he intended to cross at Anse-au-Foulon. A small cove southwest of the city, the landing beach at Anse-au-Foulon required British troops to come ashore and ascend a slope and small road to reach the Plains of Abraham above. Moving forward on the night of September 12/13, British forces succeeded in landing and reaching the plains above by morning.

Forming for battle, Wolfe's army was confronted by French troops under Montcalm. Advancing to attack in columns, Montcalm's lines were quickly shattered by British musket fire and soon began retreating. Early in the battle, Wolfe was struck in the wrist. Bandaging the injury he continued, but was soon hit in the stomach and chest. Issuing his final orders, he died on the field. As the French retreated, Montcalm was mortally wounded and died the next day. Having won a key victory in North America, Wolfe's body was returned to Britain where he was interred in the family vault at St. Alfege Church, Greenwich alongside his father.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe." ThoughtCo, May. 10, 2017, Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, May 10). French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "French & Indian War: Major General James Wolfe." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2018).