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The Battle of the Plains of Abraham (1759): A Decisive Historical War

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For Quebec nationalists, the Plains of Abraham fought in 1759 is a fight they can never forget, yet the war had consequences that went far beyond the territory of what was then New France. This is the one battle that conclusively changed North America — and the world — forever.

In the 18th century, highly centralized France was the most powerful society in Europe – and this included its military. France’s North American exploits and adventures up to that point were a romantic adventure of brave Frenchmen exploring and mapping out the continent’s most remote parts. The coureur de bois are forever intricately immersed in the image of les Canadiens, even leaving the birth of an indigenous people in the Métis in its wake.

New France faced massive obstacles she could not overcome. Despite managing to create a hinterland empire that stretched from Quebec through Detroit and St. Louis into New Orleans, the French could not pin the British to the East coast for long. In the 70 years or so that led up to the war for Canada’s soul, New France’s population was approximately 140,000 scattered settlers. As my physiotherapist — who was from France — once told me a few years back, “New France never had a chance.”

By this he explicitly pointed to the strong, independent and resourceful 1.5 million settlers of the Thirteen Colonies. Despite France’s military advantage in Europe, she could not eclipse England’s navy and its more able military captains. The two tragic heroes on the Plains of Abraham were General Wolfe for England and General Montcalm for France. The Plains of Abraham was the conclusion to a protracted war that included The Spanish and Austrian Wars of Succession as well as the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War to Americans).

By the time the peace treaty was signed in 1763, Canada was ceded to Britain and Spain — who fought against Britain — lost its possessions in Florida. Only New Orleans did not fall into British hands, instead passing from French to Spanish authority. It eventually returned to France, however, needing to improve his treasury and seeking American friendship, Napoleon sold it to the United States. Interestingly, Canada was not the only place France was expelled from. Far away in the distant land of India — presently the world’s largest democracy — the French lost to Britain once again.

Like with most of history, speculation is bound to capture our attention. The problem with “what ifs” is that while it can be intoxicating, it ultimately fizzles in its endless ruminations. Still, it’s worth noting what historians have pondered regarding the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Some of the more salient ones that stood out for me revolve around what could have been for France.

What if Montcalm had waited for all his troops to rejoin before launching what proved to be a premature attack on the British line? What if his successor, General Levis, had received early reinforcements from France to strengthen her chances of victory? Would New France have met a different fate? Intriguing as this may be, it did not — in the final curtain call of history — happen. Britain won and the rest was, well, history. French Canada has since survived, but one can’t help to wonder about how things could have been had France won. What if, indeed.

While the Plains of Abraham was a significant war, there have been other major wars in world history with far reaching implications. Here are the 15 most decisive battles according to 19th century historian Edward Shepherd Creasy. This is not exhaustive list and we could easily debate this. It is still an interesting list for military history buffs.

The Battle of Marathon (B.C. 490)
Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse (B.C. 413)
The Battle of Arbela (B.C. 331)
The Battle of Metaurus (B.C. 207)

Victory of Arminius over the Roman Legions under Varus (A,D. 9)
The Battle of Chalons (451)
The Battle of Tours (732)
The Battle of Hastings (1066)
Joan of Arc’s Victory over the English at Orleans (1429)
The Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1588)
The Battle of Blenheim (1704)
The Battle of Pultowa (1709)
Victory of the Americans over Burgoyne at Saratoga (1777)
The Battle of Valmy (1792)
The Battle of Waterloo (1815)

For those seeking additional readings on the Plains of Abraham, consider C.P. Stacey’s Quebec, 1759 and Rene Chartrand’s Quebec, Battle of the Plains of Abraham (Osprey Publishing).

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About Alessandro Nicolo

  • anounymous

    this is good info i had to do a report and it helped me lots.

  • baby jesus

    i like this story

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy in Jerusalem

    Not enough people have recognized the way the results of the Seven Years War changed history decisively. Similarly, not enough people have recognized how the Seven Weeks War [between Austria and Prussia in 1966] changed history decisively.

    Put simply, it was this war that laid the groundwork for the rise of the Nazis in Europe in the 1930’s.

  • KATIE

    WOW YOU HAVE NO IDEA HOW MUCH THIS HELPED ME ON MY ASSIGNEMENT ABOUT THE “BATTLE AND THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • lil jonny boy

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  • delish

    havent read the book, but i relly need to know how to translate “the battle of the plains of abraham” into french.

  • lil J-dawg

    yo dawg I was just chillin in ma cribble when i strolled to the tibble and relized i got sum histri n’ phiziks so i typd n blogcritics.org
    Man yo got some reel great stuff dis is good dis is good

  • STM

    The one battle missing from that list that absolutely signalled the decline of Napoleon’s grand plan to colonise all of Europe (or turn friendly allied states like Spain into puppets) was the Battle of Trafalgar (1805).

    I see this as the crucial battle of the Napoleonic wars, at least for the world outside Europe, since it flagged once and for all Britain’s domination of the seas, the end of Spain as a viable colonial power and cemented its place as the major superpower of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    One could also argue therefore in the Candian context that it also set up the conditions that led in part to the War of 1812 and led to ultimate defeat of the United States on the battlefield, particularly in its invasion of Canada, and at sea where it became overwhelmed by the numbers of the Royal Navy – but which in peace resulted in Canada (or British North America) remaining as a soveriegn nation and the fledgling US not being ground into the dust at the treaty of Ghent and remaining as an infant nation and a beacon of democracy that was to go on to be our (collectively, you know who we are) greatest friend and ally and the major democratic superpower of the late 20th century. If it wasn’t for the US, the British might still be fighting the Germans (or more likely, looking across the channel at Soviet-occupied communist France) 60 years on, and down this neck of the woods, we might be speaking Japanese instead of the Queen’s English (kind of).

    The beginning of the end of Spain also changed the map of the Americas, and resulted in US colonisation of Spanish terrtiroty which also changed the world map and saw the rise of the US as an imperial power.

    Interesting how all these little bits of history form a chain that is unbroken and results in history happening again before our eyes.

    Fascinating stuff Alessandro, I love modern history, and I’m glad you wrote the piece as it’s something I’d never given much thought to. I wish I’d read it earlier.

    Cheers mate.

  • http://intersportswire.com alessandro

    Thanks STM, and I appreciate this well thought out description. Battle of Trafalgar is one of those overlooked wars?

    Most of those wars, if not all as you point out, changed things. It’s easy to look at a war and think it only impacted one of countries in one particular location. But when you realize these countries were empires (and the U.S. was a rising one) then it becomes obvious these had implications across the globe.

    Sadly, Quebec nationalists are against reenacting the war of the POA because they see it as a “humiliation” (they see everything as a humiliation) which of course it wasn’t. They can’t look beyond their own little parochial finger tips sometimes. In the States, reenactments are a way to keep history alive. Civil War reenactments are engaged by everyone. Yet, here in Canada we act as if it must be suppressed. Unfortunate.

    If it wasn’t for the U.S. in the 20th century…but don’t tell that to some.

  • sgsdg

    wtf????

  • STM

    Are us history buffs confusing you somehow sgsdg??

    Alessandro, in regard to Trafalgar …. absolutely the Battle of Trafalgar is pivotal to cementing Britain’s place as the naval superpower of the 19th century. It’s a key issue because it defined how the Napoleonic conflict in Europe would pan out. After Trafalgar, France couldn’t challenge the British at sea on equal terms, and therefore were unable to expand their empire the way they had hoped. Napoleon was forced to confine his conquests to continental Europe, which in the end left the British free to challenge him on land as well.

    It’s worth noting in this that Napoleon was almost the 19th century version of Hitler … bringing death and destruction to every corner of Europe in in his grand vision of a French empire. True, they weren’t engaged in systemic mass murder but they weren’t p.ssing around either.

    Ultimately, it was Trafalgar that led to the French defeat in the Peninsula War in Portugal and Spain and finally at Waterloo.

    Trade blockades eventually led to the War of 1812 with the US – although we know now that war hawks in Congress felt the main aim of the US was to expel Britain from North America.

    Although the US was the aggressor, it at least was able to hold its own and therefore cemented its place among nations to become a rising power.

    However, the main winner was Canada. Americans sometimes call it the second war of independence, which is a nonsense.

    Since it was British North America that was fighting an invader, Canada was the real winner.

    Lucky for you Alessandro, a proud Canadian … or your family might have joined all those other Italians and headed Down Under instead.

    Also, if the US hadn’t won the war of independence, Australian might not have been a British colony as Britain sought to settle Australia and New Zealand partly to replace the lost American colonies.

    Would I have been speaking French, maybe?? Or would my family have stayed on that big rock in the north sea?

  • http://intersportswire.com alessandro

    Clearly, Trafalgar was a pivotal war. I don’t know why it’s overlooked.

    And that’s a very good point about Napoleon: it led to the Continental System. He tried to beat England economically. Alas, he didn’t succeed there either.

    Yes, the War of 1812 is a source of pride here. Although, Lol, I don’t know if I would be considered a nationalist. The Americans do seem hold it in high regard as well.

    It did have two memorable moments: the destruction of the Presidential Mansion and the birth of Star Spangled Banner.

    I had family members who headed to Australia. I would not have had a problem with that. Argentina was an option (where Italian influence on soccer is massive. ;<))

    And of course, the United States.

  • STM

    Alessandro: “I had family members who headed to Australia. I would not have had a problem with that.”

    Mate, there are so many Italians here, and when they arrived the population was relatively small, so they had a huge impact culturally and one of the advantages is that you can find real Italian food all over the place, and decent coffee.

    Aussies only drink coffee Italian style (espresso machines everywhere, in every little place) … we haven’t fallen into the American habit of drip filters, percolators and coffee pots.

    There is a country town in New South Wales that was settled by Italian farmers, some of whom had been here as PoWs during WWII. It seemed to start a mass influx. In that town, you’d swear sometimes you were in Italy not Australia.

    Until you hear farmers with swarthy tanned skin and Italian names speaking in broad Aussie accents and saying “fair dinkum”. The girls look pretty good too. Lol. I love this place – it’s for everyone. Because about half of all Aussies are of Irish background, the Catholic Church is huge here so there’s no problem for the migrants there either.

    One of my best friends – now sadly departed but not forgotten – was a first generation Aussie of Italian background, and at his place the main way of speaking was a combination of Aussie-accented English, interspersed mid-conversation with Italian, and much gesticulating. Big family too so lots of noise.

    We used to have cafe-latte for breakfast at his joint and his mum made the best olives I’ve ever tasted.

  • http://intersportswire.com alessandro

    That’s interesting about the coffee. I didn’t know that about the Aussie’s. Who said they had no taste?

    It’s not the case here in North America. While Montreal (often called the “most European” of North American cities)is pretty decent with the espresso, regular coffee “aqua sporca” is still king.

  • STM

    You’d think we’d be a nation of big tea drinkers given our Irish/British background (and we still like the stuff), but in the past few decades, thanks to the Italian and mediterranean cultural influences, we’ve become a nation of coffee drinkers – big time. There are two big espresso machines in my office building for the staff, such is the quantity drunk.

    I was in Portugal a bit over a year ago and it was a lot like home (but older :) as they’ve got a cafe on every second corner.

    Sometimes, because of the heat, the colour of the sky and the smells of summer, I’d forget where I was briefly while sitting in a cafe having a coffee.

  • http://intersportswire.com alessandro

    As usual, your comments are most engaging and enlightening. Thanks again.

    Now go watch the Aussie Open!

  • bob

    hi

  • bob

    if u read this, u will have relized that u wasted 7 seconds of ure life =-D

  • :) happy

    read my name ^^

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  • Cindy

    you people are so silly…
    makes me smile :-)

  • whatzitoya

    so??? whats it to ya?

  • sgsdg

    yes STM, u guys R confusing me.. GAWD!

  • Sara Jo

    I think it was a good source for my project, yet it needed more about what happened after the battle. I feel it did not have enough about that. THank you, and I will most likely use this website again in the future.

  • Sara Jo blah!!!!!!!!!!

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  • cadillaccollectors

    The point not made in the article is that however decisive a battle the Plains were, it was France walking away from Quebec that gave it to Canada. Not battle. No doubt this battle was a major turning point, but not the final blow to New France. They were abandoned by France, in favour of their other endeavours. Therefore a decisive defeat was not necessary. I expect that many lives were spared on both side by this happening.

  • ECNCEJEJDJE RAWR

    Yo thanks man this helpe me alot on my project

  • 555

    it helped me

  • 555

    what else should I say

  • blah blah blah

    this sucks no information at all