A Dialogue in Hades / A Parallel of Military Errors, of Which the French and English Armies Were Guilty, During the Campaign of 1759, in Canada

A Dialogue in Hades / A Parallel of Military Errors, of Which the French and English Armies Were Guilty, During the Campaign of 1759, in Canada

chevalier de James Johnstone Johnstone
chevalier de James Johnstone Johnstone

Author: Johnstone, James Johnstone, chevalier de, 1719-1800?
United States — History — French and Indian War
Québec Campaign
A Dialogue in Hades
A Parallel of Military Errors, of Which the French and English Armies Were Guilty, During the Campaign of 1759, in Canada


The Marquis de Montcalm:​—​Having ardently desired a conversation with you, sir, upon the operations of a campaign which proved to both of us so fatal, I have sought you continually amongst the shades ever since I descended here, where I soon followed you.

General Wolfe:​—​I can assure you, sir, I was equally impatient to meet with you. Some of my countrymen, arrived here since the battle of the 13th September, informed me that there was only an interval of a few hours in our sharing the same hard fate. They gave me some accounts of that event which joined Canada to the British dominions; but as they had a very imperfect knowledge of the circumstances, and entirely ignorant of your plan of operations, I have little information from them, and I am heartily glad that chance at last has procured me the pleasure of seeing you.

Montcalm:​—​Will you permit me, sir, before our conversation becomes serious, to offer some reflections upon the difference in our destiny. Your nation rendered you the greatest honours; your body was conveyed to London, and buried there magnificently in Westminster Abbey, amongst your kings. Generous Britons erected to your memory a superb monument over your grave, at public expense; and your name, most dear to your countrymen, is ever in their mouths, accompanied with praise and regret. But in my country what a strange indifference? What sensation did my death make upon my compatriots? My conduct denounced and censured without measure, is the continual subject of conversation for gossiping fools and knaves, who form the majority in all communities, and prevail against the infinitely small number to be found of honest, judicious, impartial men, capable of reflection. The Canadians and savages who knew the uprightness of my soul, ever devoted to the interests of my beloved king and country, they alone rendered me justice, with a few sincere friends, who, not daring to oppose themselves openly to the torrent of my enemies, bewailed in secret my unhappy fate, and shed on my tomb their friendly tears.

Wolfe:​—​In this blessed abode, inaccessible to prejudice, I vow to you, sir, I envy your condition, notwithstanding the horrible injustice and ingratitude of your countrymen. What can give more pleasure and self-satisfaction than the esteem and approbation of honest men? You were severely regretted and lamented by all those who were capable of discerning and appreciating your superior merit, talents, and eminent qualities. Disinterested persons of probity must respect your virtue. All officers versed in the art of war will justify your military tactics, and your operations can be blamed only by the ignorant. Were my army consulted, they would be as many witnesses in your favour. Your humanity towards prisoners won you the heart of all my soldiers. They saw with gratitude and veneration your continual care and vigilance to snatch them from out of the hands of the Indians, when those barbarians were ready to cut their throats, and prepared to make of human flesh their horrible banquets; refusing me even tears at my death, they weeped and bewailed your hard fate; I see in my mausoleum the proof only of human weakness! What does that block of marble avail to me in my present state? The monument remains, but the conqueror has perished. The affection, approbation and regret of the worthiest part of mankind is greatly preferable and much above the vain honours conferred by a blind people, who judge according to the event, and are incapable to analyse the operations. I was unknown to them before the expedition which I commanded in Canada; and if fortune, to whom I entirely owe my success, had less favoured me, perhaps, like Byng, I would have been the victim of a furious and unruly populace. The multitude has and can have success only for the rule of their judgment.

Montcalm:​—​I am much obliged to you, sir, for your favourable opinion of me. Let us leave weak mortals to crawl from error to error, and deify to-day what they will condemn to-morrow. It is at present, when the darkness is dispelled from before our eyes, that we can contemplate at leisure the passions of men, who move as the waves of the sea, push on each other and often break upon the rocks; and in our present state, when all prejudices are at an end, let us examine impartially the operations of 1759, which was the epocha of the loss to France of her northern colonies in America.

Wolfe:​—​Most willingly, sir, and to show my frankness, I own to you I was greatly surprised on arriving with the English fleet at Quebec without meeting with any opposition by the French in the river St. Lawrence.

Montcalm:​—​You had reason to be so. It was not my fault that you did not meet with many obstacles in your way. I proposed to have a redoubt and battery erected upon Cape Tourmente, which is a rock above fifty feet high, facing the Traverse at the eastB end of the Island of Orleans, where all the vessels cross from the north to the south side of the St. Lawrence river. They are obliged to approach very near the Cape before they enter into the Traverse, and its height above the men-of-war would have secured it against the effect of the artillery. Besides, this rock, almost perpendicular, commanding all round it, the fort would have been impregnable, and not susceptible of being besieged. Thus the first of your ships which approached to pass the Traverse would have been raked by the plunging fire of the battery from stern to bowsprit, and must have been sunk. I had likewise the project of placing a battery and a redoubt upon the upper point of the bay which is opposite to the west end of Isle aux Coudres. The current between this island and the main land being incredibly rapid at low water, all the vessels coming up the river must have cast anchor there to wait until the next tide; and my artillery upon the point of that bay would have battered your ships at anchor from fore to aft; have put in a most terrible confusion your ships, who could not have taken up their anchors without being instantly dashed to pieces against the rocks by the violence of the current, forced, as they would have been by it, to have their bowsprits always pointed to the battery, without being able to fire at it. Your fleet would have had no knowledge of the battery until they were at anchor, so you may easily judge how it would have distressed them. I proposed this, but I did not command in chief; it was the Marquis de Vaudreuil, Governor General of Canada, who should have ordered it to be put into execution.

Wolfe:​—​If they had executed your project, it would have puzzled us, and retarded for some time our operations.

Montcalm:​—​That was all I could wish for, as I was always sensible of the great advantage, in certain situations, of gaining time from the enemy, especially in such a climate as Canada, where the summer is so short that it is impossible to keep the field longer than from the month of May till the beginning of October, and your fleet arrived at Isle aux Coudres at the end of June.

Wolfe:​—​There is no doubt that you are in the right. Our fleet arrived in the river St. Lawrence six weeks too late, which is commonly the fate of all great naval expeditions. Fleets are seldom ready to sail at the time appointed; and this often renders fruitless the best concocted enterprise by sea, from the uncertainty of the arrival of the army at its destination. The smallest delay is often dangerous, as it gives the enemy the time to prepare themselves for defence, without hurry or confusion.

Montcalm:​—​I will not conceal from you, sir, that I always looked upon the distribution you made of your army upon your landing near Quebec, as diametrically opposed to the established principles in castrametation. It is a known axiom in the art of war, that an army ought to be encamped in such a manner as to have a free and easy communication with all its parts; that they may unite quickly without any obstruction, and be able to defend and sustain each other reciprocally over the whole extent of the camp, in case any part of it is attacked. You divided your army in three different camps; one of them upon the Pointe Levis, another upon the Island of Orleans, and the third at the Sault de Montmorency. The two branches of the St. Lawrence river, which forms the Island of Orleans, each of them about half a mile broad, separated your three camps, without a possibility of establishing a communication between them; and your camp upon the Pointe Levis was at a distance of six miles from your camp at the Sault de Montmorency. Your position was such that had we fallen with our army on any of your three camps, we would have cut them to pieces, before those of your other two camps could have come to their assistance. The knowledge for choosing an advantageous ground for encamping an army, always appears to me to be one of the most essential talents requisite in a general. How could you remain quietly in such a dangerous position during two months, without trembling.

Wolfe:​—​What hindered you then, sir, from executing that which appeared to you so easy?

Montcalm:​—​We attempted it, but with very bad success. Seven days after your landing at the Pointe Levis, Mr. Dumas, Major of the Colony troops, was sent to attack your camp at the Pointe Levis, with a body of fifteen hundred men, who, in the night, crossed the river St. Lawrence at Quebec, without being discovered by your advanced guards. But they were no sooner landed and marching, than, struck with a panic, the utmost disorder suddenly ensued; their heads turned, and, losing their senses entirely, they fired at each other, believing themselves attacked by your army. In short, they immediately fled back to their boats with the greatest precipitation and confusion. Discouraged by this bad beginning, M. de Vaudreuil would never listen to any proposals of further attempts upon your camps; and it was decided to keep ourselves for the future upon the defensive.

Wolfe:​—​It appears to me, however, that you were not encamped in a proper manner to be upon the defensive. Your army did not amount to ten thousand men, and your camp extended seven or eight miles.

Montcalm:​—​I agree with you, and am sensible that the longer the line, the weaker it is in its several parts. I am convinced that it is impossible to prevent a line from being forced; and I believed likewise that, landing on a coast where there are several leagues of it to be defended, equally susceptible of descent, is the same case as lines. He who attacks has all his force concentrated at a single point, which he may choose as he pleases; anywhere in the extent of his lines; on the contrary, he who is attacked in his entrenchments has his force divided over the whole extent of his lines, and does not know on what part of them the enemy has the intention to make his real attack, so that he must be everywhere equally strong and guarded over all the ground occupied by his army. Thus the head of a column of a great depth of ranks must infallibly pierce through lines who have only at most two or three men deep; and by feint attacks all over the front of a line, you cannot weaken one part of it by drawing troops from it to fortify another part of it, unless the point of the enemy’s principal attack is manifestly known. It is certainly the same with regard to landings, where all the extent of the sea coast may be threatened at the same time, although it is a common opinion that a coast may be defended, and that an enemy may be repulsed in his attempt to make a descent by open force.

I know not a better method to oppose a descent than to have bodies of troops in battle, ready to rush upon the enemy, with their bayonets upon their muskets, attacking the moment the enemy land, whilst they are yet few and in confusion from the disorder which must necessarily happen at their coming out of their boats, and before they can present a considerable front in battle.

My project of defence was to encamp on rising ground at Quebec, called by the French, Les Hauteurs d’Abraham, and make Quebec serve as the centre and pivot to all my operations, since it was evident that the fate of Canada depended entirely on its being preserved to us or taken by you, which decided whether that colony should remain to its ancient possessors or become your prize.

With this in view, I intrenched the borders of the St. Charles river, and remained encamped at Quebec until, receiving tidings of your fleet having arrived in the St. Lawrence river, M. de Levis, an officer of great merit and distinction, proposed to change the position of our camp, by carrying our left wing to the Sault de Montmorency, and our right to the St. Charles river: this, as you say, made it six miles long on the north side of Quebec, and gave us greater appearance of being on the offensive than on the defensive.

He pretended that the presenting a great front to the enemy would give us a bold look, and inspire respect. As there can be no positive certainty in any military operation, from unforeseen accidents which often overturn the best combined project, I readily sacrificed to him my opinion, without insisting upon it. In this new position M. de Vaudreuil commanded the right of our camp, near Quebec; M. de Levis the left, at the Sault de Montmorency; and I commanded the centre, at Beauport.

Wolfe:​—​Had you continued on the heights of Abraham you would have saved Quebec, but you would have abandoned to me all the country where I might have destroyed, burnt and ruined all the settlements at some leagues round it.

Montcalm:​—​That may be, but Canada would not have been taken, and certainly you durst not penetrate far into the country, leaving Quebec behind you. Had you attacked me, I would have had the advantage of the rising ground, which I would have fortified with intrenchments, and with a chain of redoubts from Quebec to Cap Rouge, where these heights terminate in a deep ravine, with a small river at the bottom of it, overhung with rocks, at three leagues from Quebec. This advantageous position, not to be successfully attacked by any number of men, would have been my advanced post.

My right would have been applied to Quebec, and sustained by it. I never could guess, sir, your idea in reducing that town to ashes as you did, by throwing upon it continually, from your batteries on the opposite side of the river, that immense number of carcases and shells.

It seems to me that when an army besieges a town, it is with the intention, on its surrendering, to keep possession of it, and have houses in it to lodge the troops, instead of heaps of ruins. This conduct was still more essentially necessary from the season being advanced, and from the impossibility of carrying-on any kind of house building during the winter. Moreover, the utter destruction of that town reduced to ashes could not hasten its being taken a moment sooner. You could do no harm to our batteries, which were much higher than yours; it is not by destroying houses that towns are taken. You always battered houses, without reflecting that it is only by ruining the fortifications​—​the defences​—​and by a breach in the walls, that success may be hoped for in sieges; and it is certain that you lavished a prodigious quantity of warlike stores very uselessly.

What advantages could you expect by ruining and distressing the inhabitants of Quebec, whose houses you burnt?

It was destroying alone for the pleasure of doing injury, without any advantage accruing to you from it.

Wolfe:​—​My inaction during the whole summer should have made you perceive what little hopes I had of succeeding in my expedition; should it turn out fruitless after the sum it had cost England, the news of Quebec being reduced to ashes might blind the extravagant English populace, and blunt their fanatical fury.

Montcalm:​—​The day that you landed at the Sault de Montmorency, where you encamped immediately with a body of four thousand men, in all appearance you did not know that the river Montmorency was fordable in the wood about a mile to the north of your camp, where fifty men in front might pass the ford with water only up to their knees. Had you passed it immediately, you might have fallen upon the left of our army, cut them to pieces, and pursued them two miles, as far as the ravine of Beauport, before they could assemble a sufficient number of men to be able to resist you. You might have even encamped upon the north side of that ravine, which, having it before you, would have been a very advantageous post, and brought you several miles nearer to Quebec. In this case it is highly probable that we would have been obliged to abandon to you all the ground between the St. Charles river and the ravine.

To return to my first project of encamping upon the heights of Abraham, our left was in the greatest security, not knowing that there was a ford in that river until some hours after your landing at the Sault.

Wolfe:​—​Is it then surprising that I should be ignorant of that ford, since you did not know it yourself? besides, it is only the inhabitants in the neighbourhood of rivers, swamps and lakes, who can give positive and sure information about them. And supposing I had found some of your Canadians at their houses there, they are so inviolably attached to their religion, king and country, that they would sooner have led me into a snare than instruct me in anything that could be prejudicial to their army.

Those whom a general sends to examine the locale of a country must do it very superficially upon their own observations, without consulting or interrogating the peasants in the neighbourhood.

Montcalm:​—​Whilst your soldiers were employed in making their camp, and pitching their tents, M. de Levis and his aide-de-camp Johnstone, were looking at you from the opposite side of the Sault. His aide-de-camp having asked him if he was positively certain that there was no ford in the Montmorency river, M. de Levis answering that there was not, and that he had been himself to examine it to its source, at a lake in the woods, about ten or twelve miles from the Sault. An inhabitant who overheard this conversation, told the aide-de-camp: “The General is mistaken; there is a ford which the inhabitants thereabouts pass every day in carrying their corn to a mill;” and he added that he had crossed it lately, with water not above his knees.

The aide-de-camp related to M. de Levis immediately his conversation with the Canadian, who would not believe there was a ford, and, examining him roughly, the Canadian was seized with awe, and respect for the General; his tongue faltered in his mouth, and he durst not boldly assert the truth. The aide-de-camp, in a whisper to the Canadian, ordered him to find out a person who had crossed the ford lately, and bring him immediately to M. de Levis’ lodgings. The Canadian came to him in a moment, with a man who had crossed it the night before, with a sack of wheat upon his back, where he had found only eight inches deep of water.

The aide-de-camp being thus assured of the fact, ordered, in M. de Levis’ name, a detachment to be sent instantly, with the necessary tools to intrench itself.

Wolfe:​—​Had I been so lucky as you, sir, to discover that ford, ther

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A Dialogue in Hades / A Parallel of Military Errors, of Which the French and English Armies Were Guilty, During the Campaign of 1759, in Canada
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