The Fox and the Hedgehog: A Novel of Wolfe and Montcalm at Quebec
[SYNOPSIS] “Measured by the numbers engaged, the Battle of Quebec was but a heavy skirmish; measured by the results, it was one of the great battles of the world.” — Francis Parkman.
When the British defeated the French at Quebec in 1759, they not only guaranteed Britain’s acquisition of Canada but also, unwittingly, paved the way for the American Revolution. But this is a larger story than just the single day of battle on September 13, 1759. The final action was the culmination of a summer-long campaign involving a series of engagements between the British Army, American Rangers and the Royal Navy on one side, and the French regulars, the Canadian militia and Indian allies on the other. As the weeks passed and the British became increasingly frustrated, the campaign degenerated into total war in which civilians and combatants suffered alike. The two commanders – Wolfe and Montcalm – could hardly have been more different in background and personality. Yet they shared an intense professionalism, dedication to duty and, ironically, a similar fate. In this carefully researched novel Terry Mort reconstructs the action of the campaign that climaxed in the dramatic events on the Plains of Abraham.
Chapter 1: Montcalm, Spring 1759. Montcalm woke from a dream of olive groves. And of his estate at Candiac in the south of France. Letters from his wife, brought by Bougainville on the ship from France, told him that the groves were doing well and that the olive press he had built at Candiac was producing fine and delicate oil.
“What I would not give for a taste of it,’ he thought. ‘But not here. No, not here, but rather under my own trees, on a table spread with white linen, some bread from our ovens, still warm, with olive oil set in a dish of Limoges, a little wine, perhaps a Gaillac from Languedoc. And my wife and all the children around the table. All of them. And there would be sunlight.” He looked out his bedroom window, through the leaded casements. The glass was covered with clear ice on both sides, for though it was spring by the calendar, the Canadian winter was lingering, no longer ferocious but still reluctant to give way. The wind was moaning through the window seams, and the sky was gray and somber, like his mood. For Bougainville had brought sad news along with the letters. Just before he had left France Bougainville had heard that one of Montcalm’s daughters had died, although he could not learn which one before having to leave.
‘I fear it is my poor Mirete, thought Montcalm. ‘We were very much alike, we two. But perhaps it was another. Which one? I will not know until another ship arrives, with more letters from my wife, poor woman. Perhaps no ship will ever come. Perhaps the British will come first. What then? Can it be the will of God that I should have been here in this wilderness of savages and endless turmoil, endless winter, while so far away my child lay dying? It must be so, or otherwise there is no sense to any of it. But still it tears my heart to think that they have put a child of mine into the ground and I cannot know which one it was, cannot know which one to pray for, which one to weep for.
‘And could I pray, now, after this? Is it possible? Yes, thank God, especially now. God has His reasons. It must be so. I do believe it. But they are difficult for man to see. No, not difficult. Impossible. We must accept that it is so. What choice is there? Despair is a denial of God.
‘But what of my ambition? Was it vanity that brought me here, some contemptible striving after glory? I hope it was not so. I hope it was the knowledge of my duty as a man. But to be away at such a time…. It is a bitter price to pay for a few trifling honors and a mention now and then in the gazettes. A cordon rouge! What is that in exchange for poor Mirete, if that is who it was. Was …. Mon Dieu. It cannot be that we are wrong about You. No, that cannot be. We would not have the idea of You, if You had not created it. What man could invent such a thought? And all this wilderness is Yours as well, as well as my bright Candiac. There must be a reason that the two exist, the dark and light. All pictures must have shadows, or else we cannot know the light. Is that from Augustine? It may well be; I don’t recall. But surely my poor girl is in the arms of Jesus now, that I am convinced of. Sweet Jesus. Ah, the sound of Your name can soothe us in our misery. Is that the genius of God? The sweetness of that name? To say it brings some sense of peace, or at least some sense of possibility. It is the sound of it, the word, itself. A poem made of just one word.’
He lay there for several more minutes, thinking these same thoughts, over and over, all the while hoping that the sun would break through the clouds and add a little warmth to his room. But it did not. Finally, he rang for his servant. Despite his sadness Montcalm knew he must begin the day, for there was work to be done.
“I would appreciate it, Andre, if you would light the fire and then bring me some chocolate.” Now that the supply ships had arrived there would be chocolate, for a while, anyway. That was something, at least. Little enough, though.
In the afternoon Montcalm and Bougainville met with the governor, Vaudreuil, in the governor’s mansion. The walls of his office were covered with large maps of Canada, from Michilimackinac in the western lakes to Acadia, unhappy island to the east. Montcalm never entered this room without thinking of the study of Doctor Faustus with its globe that symbolized Faustian ambition. But Vaudreuil was not a Faustus. He did not have the strength of character, although he had the same desire for glory.
“I have heard of your sorrow, Monsieur,” said the governor. “I am sorry for it.”
“Thank you, monsieur. It was a heavy blow. Very heavy. But we have our duty to attend to.”
“Yes, yes,” said the governor, relieved to be able to move on. “Well then, no doubt you have received the intelligence about the British.”
“I know that they are coming, and in strength.”
“Yes. I expect to be sharply attacked, and that our enemies will make their most powerful efforts to conquer this colony. But, gentlemen, understand this — there is no ruse, no resource, no means which my zeal does not suggest to lay snares for them, and finally when the circumstances demand it, to fight them with an ardor, and even a fury, which exceeds the range of their ambitious designs. The troops, the Canadians and the Indians are not ignorant of the resolution I have taken, and from which I shall not recoil under any circumstances whatever.” Vaudreuil had prepared this speech prior to the meeting and had adapted it from a letter he had already sent to Versailles. “In short,” he said, drawing himself to his full height, “I intend to fight them.”
Montcalm smiled slightly and glanced at Bougainville who raised his eyebrows.
“I expect that is why they are coming, governor,” said Montcalm.
“Eh? Ah, well, of course. But the question is, how best to do that.”
“I have a plan, and I wanted to go over the basic ideas with you, so that you may be in a position to support me. I mean, so that we can coordinate effectively.”
“Coordination is essential, I agree.”
“Good. I’m glad we see things the same way. Now, my information is that the British are planning to attack in three prongs, as it were.” He went to his map in order to illustrate his points. He was taller than either Montcalm or Bougainville, a well made man, not bad looking, and he enjoyed standing at the map. It gave him a sense of his domain and also let him look down at the other men who were seated. “First, from the sea and up the St Lawrence, here; second, from New York, by way of Lake Champlain and the River Richelieu toward Montreal, and third by way of Lake Ontario against Fort Niagara, here. In all, they are sending 50,000 men against me.”
“You will be outnumbered, it seems,” said Montcalm.
Vaudreuil did not detect the mild sarcasm, or if he did, he chose to ignore it.
“Yes, but we must remember that these forces are not combined but represent three separate armies.”
“Of course. And fortunately it is difficult in this country to coordinate three such efforts. In fact, I doubt that they are capable of it. Still, it is a formidable challenge.”
“Yes. Now recently I have had a census made of the area of Montreal, Three Rivers and Quebec, and the total of men available is somewhere around 13,000 from which we can draw militia. Some of them of course are unfit, so that the total will be somewhat less. Then there are 1500 or so of my Canadian regulars and as many as 2000 Indians. Add to that regular army – under your command – of about 3500 men. That is the total force available throughout Canada. So, we are at a disadvantage.”
“So it would seem.”
“Still, we must ensure that all of the garrisons are fully manned and ready to repulse an attack from whatever source.”
“You advise keeping the forces dispersed.”
“Of course. I will not give an inch. Nowhere. From Acadia to the northern outposts.”
Montcalm paused, as though considering the proposition and thereby giving it a semblance of rationality, which he knew it lacked, utterly.
“Ah,” he said after a few moments. “I wonder, governor, if you have ever seen a pack of wolves attack their prey.”
“Well, consider. A single stag, however brave its defense, will ultimately be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. And when they have finished that single, albeit noble stag, the pack goes on to the next noble, but isolated stag, and kills him. And from there, on to the next. And so on. In military parlance it is called destroying the enemy in detail. It seems to me that your plan is admirably suited to bring about that sort of result. If that was your intention, you have designed a masterpiece.”
Vaudreuil bristled and opened his mouth to say something, but thought better of it. Montcalm felt the old impatience with this man boiling up. He had had too many such conferences with the governor over the last few years, and though he had tried to maintain cordial relations and to protect the governor from a clear understanding of his inadequacies in the art of war, the time now seemed too short to worry about the niceties of diplomacy.
“If, on the other hand,” Montcalm continued, “your intention is to preserve the colony, which it obviously is, I suggest we assemble the stags so that they can — to use your word — coordinate. We can defend the approaches from Lake Champlain from our post at Fort Carrillon, and the St Lawrence from here in Quebec, and since they are the most practicable avenues into the colony, we can keep the wolves at bay. And with luck, starve them out, or let them freeze.”
“You advise concentration?”
“I think it is the only way. But it is not just my opinion. I have had some correspondence from the Minister of War who strongly advises this course. Perhaps M. Bougainville would read the letter.
“I have it here, governor,” said Bougainville.
‘As we must expect the English to attack you on several sides at once, it is necessary that you limit your plans of defense to the most essential points and those most closely connected, so that being concentrated in a smaller space, each part may be within reach of support and succor from the rest. How small soever may be the space you are able to hold, it is indispensable to keep a footing in North America; for if we once lose the country entirely, its recovery will be almost impossible.’
“Merde!” said the governor.
“Perhaps,” said Montcalm. “But it is in my view the best strategy.”
Montcalm could see the governor vacillating. On the one hand, Vaudreuil was a man who admired his own ideas, but on the other he was a man who dreaded failure, and in his heart of hearts he knew that Montcalm was a masterful soldier, a man who had beaten the English at each opportunity in the past. And, after all, if the Minister of War concurred, then there would be at least an easy explanation if things should go badly. He imagined himself at the court, saying ‘I advised against this concentration strategy, but M. Montcalm insisted, and after all, the court had instructed me to acquiesce to his judgement on military matters. What else could I have done?’ And he would have documents to support him, for the ships had brought him correspondence ordering him to defer to Montcalm on matters of war and further ordering him not to take command personally even of his own militia unless first consulting Montcalm. It was an order that he detested and intended to evade, if possible, but it was an order that would give him a bolt hole in the event of disaster.
“I must consider this,” he said finally.
“I would advise thinking quickly, monsieur. There have been reports of British ships already approaching the mouth of the river. It is, indeed, a miracle of sorts, that M. de Bougainville and the supply ships were able to avoid the British fleet.”
“Yes, yes. I have heard these reports as well.” He paused for a moment as though thinking things over in the light of new information. Then, as though coming to some resolution, he said: “Let us assume we follow your strategy of concentration, monsieur. For the sake of argument. And let us concentrate for the moment on Quebec. When the British arrive, how shall we attack them? How do you suggest we bring them to battle?”
Montcalm drew a breath and then let it out slowly, to calm himself.
“A battle is precisely what they desire, governor. To accommodate them would be the simplest of things. We could find a pleasant flat field somewhere, line up and wait for them to form and then attack with the bayonet after a volley or two, hurrah and may the best man win. That is indeed what they are praying for even as we speak. But in war the idea is to give the enemy what he does not want, make him accommodate himself to you. That is what I intend to do. Or, rather, what I advise that we do.”
“You do not intend to fight!?” Vaudreuil drew himself up in an imitation of offended honor.
“I did not say that. I intend to fight very vigorously, but not on their terms. They come looking for a Cannae. I suggest we do not give them one. In this case I would rather be Fabius than Hannibal.”
“You fear we could not beat them?”
“I think we do not have to. Winter will do that for us. Fortunately the ships have brought enough supplies. Barely. We will stand behind our cliffs and let them blow holes in the rock, but like Fabius we will harass them and make their lives miserable. The days will pass and begin to shorten, their navy will grow nervous as the season changes and the ice begins to form along the shoreline, and after a while they will go away, with noses running from the cold and from the bloodying we will have given them. C’est ca.”
“I see. Yes, I suppose it could work. But they will also harass the colony. If we stay bottled up here, they will range across the countryside and lay it in ruins.”
“Possibly. But farms may be rebuilt. Colonies, once lost, are difficult to recover. Besides, there are your Indians. Perhaps they can be persuaded to divert the British from these forays. What do you think, eh? They might enjoy that sort of business.” Montcalm smiled conspiratorially, for he knew that Vaudreuil placed great faith in Indian warfare and in his ability to motivate the tribes to fight.
“Yes, that’s true. That is the way to use them, surely. Turn my expert hairdressers loose to do their work.” Vaudreuil grinned, as if to indicate that he and Montcalm were of the same mind and had been, more or less, from the start.
“A few tonsures for the heretics,” said Bougainville.
“Bravo, Colonel,” said Vaudreuil. “Well, messieurs, there is a great deal to be done, and I will think over these things and let you know my decisions as soon as possible. As you say, there is no time to waste. But I think we are all of the same mind in general, and I thank you for your unflagging support, as always.”
“The man’s a fool,” said Bougainville when they had left Vaudreuil.
“Yes, but in fairness, I do believe that he loves the colony. His intentions are generally pure enough. It is in the selection of methods that he lacks a certain something.”
“Forgive me, general, but I think you are too kind. He is like some mad Pygmalion. When he produces an idea, he falls in love with it. At least Pygmalion created a masterpiece. But the governor’s ideas are ….”
“Decidedly ugly, I agree. But to give him his due, he is more prolific than Pygmalion. He produces new and different statues by the hour. One can hardly turn around in his studio. What do you think the penalty would be for strangling a governor, Louis?”
“In this case, a dukedom, I should say, if all the facts were known.”
“Ah, there’s the rub. All the facts are never known. Well, no one is perfect, I suppose. As Voltaire has said, the best is the enemy of the good. By the way, Louis, I have heard that the officer commanding the expedition against Quebec is General Wolfe. A pretty irony, don’t you think, given my trope about stags at bay.”
“I see nothing pretty about it, sir.”
“Perhaps not. Well, speaking of Voltaire, we must now do our best to cultivate our remote little garden and preserve it ….”
“From the weeds inside and the wolves outside?”
“You are mixing your metaphors, Louis, but I take your point.”