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).