Interview — About 1759

Interview with Dr. André Charbonneau

About the Battle of the Plains of Abraham
and the Fortified Wall, on September 13, 1759

Dr. André Charbonneau — Seen here with the book he coauthored in 2008, entitled: "Québec, ville militaire, 1608-2008". This book in French was translated into English and entitled: "Military History of Québec City, 1608-2008".
© 2008 Photo Canoë / By Mélanie Tremblay / Reproduced with the permission of Dr. André Charbonneau.
Image Source: canoe.com/?divertissement/?livres/?nouvelles/?2008/?02/?19/pf-4860405.html
Please note that the following text is a translation into English of a telephone interview in French conducted by Dr. Guy Hévey, a representative of U-Haul International, with Dr. André Charbonneau, a historian of Parks Canada.

To listen to this telephone interview in French while you read the text of its translation into English, or to listen to it at any other time, just click on the button with an arrow pointing to the right within the "Listen to the interview in French" box.

Thank you.

Today, we have the honor, the privilege and the pleasure to converse with Dr. André Charbonneau.

Our conversation will focus on a crucial year in the evolution of the Fortified Wall that, in this day and age, still surrounds the Upper Town of Old Québec, [in Québec City].

That crucial year was 1759. That year was most particularly marked by the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, on September 13, 1759.

But first of all, let's take some time to better know Dr. Charbonneau…

Mr. André Charbonneau holds a Ph.D. in history.

He is presently in charge of Historical Services at Parks Canada for the entire Province of Québec.

He has studied at length the history of the fortifications related to the "Parks Canada — Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site.

For many years, he has also been interested in military art, regarding the colonies in Canada.

Dr. Charbonneau is the coauthor of two masterful books that examine in depth the history of Old Québec's Fortified Wall. These two books are entitled:

  • "Québec, the Fortified City, from the 17th to the 19th Century", a book of almost 500 pages which was published in 1982.
  • "Military History of Québec City, 1608-2008", a book of 352 pages that was published in 2008. The authorities of Parks Canada consider this book to be "the most important and the most up-to-date work" on the fortifications and the military history of Québec City.

We should note here that these two books (originally written in French) were translated into English.

Moreover, Dr. Charbonneau has authored or coauthored several publications on the work of military engineers in Canada's history and also the history of the fortifications in Canada.

First and foremost, Dr. Charbonneau, we want to thank you very much for your participation in this interview.

Well, it is my turn now to thank you very much, because it is also my pleasure to converse with you.

You offer me a wonderful opportunity to share my passion for Québec City, and mostly for its rich 400-year history, as we recently emphasized, in 2008.

This interview also gives me the opportunity to talk about an important element of the military heritage that is still visible today in the cultural landscape of Québec City. Among other honors, [this military heritage] has allowed Québec City to be officially declared a "World Heritage Site" by UNESCO, in 1985. One of UNESCO's reasons to do so was that Québec City was the only city in North America to have preserved the main components of its colonial defensive system.

Consequently, I am very proud today to better acquaint you with this extraordinary piece of heritage.

The central question that we would like to ask you, Dr. Charbonneau, is the following:

How do you see what took place on the morning of September 13, 1759, during the famous Battle of the Plains of Abraham, and how do you see the role played by Old Québec's Fortified Wall during that crucial battle?

Your question is at the same time very huge and very precise.

To be brief [in answering your question]: The walls were not used "as such" [Old Québec's Fortified Wall was not used "as such"] and that fact raises many questions for us … the observers.

In fact, on the morning of September 13, 1759, it was the entire fate of a continent, the North American Continent, that was sealed in almost half an hour. And in fact, too, it was the outcome of centuries-old conflicts between two great empires that was at stake and settled, there, in 30 minutes or so.

The operations related to the siege of Québec City, which had begun in mid-June 1759 and had lasted up to the beginning of September 1759, had not prepared us for an outcome that would be so quick and so brief.

On the one hand, the British, who occupied Québec City's harbor, who [also] occupied the Île d'Orléans beyond the Montmorency River and the south shore of the St. Lawrence River in front of Québec City, and who also controlled traffic in the port, were very cautious.

On the other hand, the French, who were entrenched in Québec City, but mostly along the Beauport shore, were also very, very cautious, not exposed. So that the question was: How long would the siege last? And, finally, it was during a brief encounter, almost a skirmish, that everything was decided, on that morning of September 13, 1759.

On both sides, questions can be asked about the movements and the decisions of the generals, on that morning of September 13, 1759.

A long series of questions can be asked about Wolfe [the British general], but also about Montcalm [the French general]: Why did he enter into action so quickly? Why didn't he use the fortification [the Fortified Wall] that was there behind him? Why didn't he wait for a while, to allow other French troops to join him in confronting the British during this definitive battle?

In the book "Military History of Québec City, from 1608 to 2008" that you coauthored, Dr. Charbonneau, you provide a very detailed list of the forces which were present on the Plains of Abraham, on the morning of September 13, 1759.

In regard to their numbers, it seems that these forces were almost equal on both sides of the battlefield, with 4,426 men for the British and 4,400 men for the French.

Which represents a difference of only 26 men between these two forces.

Could you give us a better idea of the major differences between the forces that were there, face-to-face?

In order to better understand these numbers or the opposing forces on the morning of September 13, 1759, we must take a comprehensive look overall at the British combatants as well as the French combatants who were there during the whole summer of 1759, in [or near] Québec City.

In the spring [of 1759], in mid-June 1759, the British arrived with more than 30,000 men to finalize the siege of Québec City. Among these 30,000 men, we must calculate a strong contingent of the Royal Navy, which formed a little more than half, nearly two thirds of these men, and also a very large number of these men (about 8,000 soldiers) who were originally from the regular troops (infantrymen) of the regular British Army. And these infantrymen [foot soldiers] were already very well equipped for pitched battles, battles on "open field". All these men were professional soldiers.

On the French side, overall, we calculate, during the whole [summer] season, during the whole summer of 1759, a grand total of 18,000 combatants. Among these men, more than two thirds were militiamen coming from Québec City, Trois-Rivières and Montréal. So, they were all citizens who came to stand in defense of the territory during the final combat in Québec City. And it must also be mentioned that, among these 18,000 men, a certain number of them were making sure that seeds were planted for growth. Especially in the fall of 1759, they were ensuring the harvests, to allow the provision of food supplies for all the combatants on the battlefield.

Therefore, if we look, we can see that the militiamen who formed two thirds of the French combatants, they were not professional soldiers. They were men who were more used to what was called in Canada "the little war" ["la petite guerre" in French], a type of warfare that was carried out for more than a century at that time. It was a warfare of ambushes, sporadic shots under cover, guerrilla. And so, it was not at all the same usefulness, or the same advantages, or the same strengths, or the same weaknesses that each one of these corps of troops could provide.

If we look at the situation on the morning of September 13, 1759, you are right to say that, in global terms, in terms of the total number of combatants, it was almost the same number, except that, on the British side, it was almost entirely professional soldiers who were very used to battles on "open field", on large battlefields; whereas on the French side, more than half, and even nearly 60% of the men were militiamen who were more fit for another type of warfare.

Consequently, there was a vast difference [between these two sides], in terms of professional qualifications, or at least in terms of the advantages and disadvantages that these forces provided, as established.

Dr. Charbonneau, you have just clearly established the major differences between the British forces and the French forces, with regard to a roughly equal number of men on both sides of the battlefield on the Plains of Abraham.

Were there other French forces that were available or that could have been available in the Québec City area, at that time or shortly after that time?

In theory, yes. Because if we count 4,000 combatants with Montcalm at the time of the confrontation out of a total force of 18,000 [French] soldiers or 18,000 French combatants, then, in theory, yes, there were other forces available.

But if we look more directly or more concretely at what happened on September 13, 1759, we can see that, in the chronology of events, Montcalm ordered his troops to rally quickly, which they did between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m., so that they could rapidly confront the British soldiers on the Plains of Abraham.

At 10:00 a.m., Montcalm ordered his troops to advance. And at 10:30 a.m., everything was all over.

Except that, at 10:30 a.m., Vaudreuil, who was the Governor General of the colony, arrived on the battlefield. By then, everything was over, and he arrived with 1,000 additional men. And this is without counting also the 3,000 men, said to be "elite soldiers", accompanying Bougainville for the defense of all the coasts upriver from Québec City. They arrived on the battlefield at 11:00 a.m., when everything was finished. So, yes, indeed, if we look within the half hour and within the hour following the French defeat, the French had at their disposal another 4,000 combatants who could have participated in this decisive battle.

But waiting was also a true factor for the British, because, if the 4,000 British soldiers had succeeded in forming battalions in firing order, the process would have then continued of going down to the Anse-aux-Foulons [on the St. Lawrence River] and going up onto the Plains of Abraham. And the longer they would have been waiting, the greater also the possible number of British soldiers on the Plains of Abraham would have been, on that morning of September 13, 1759.

Therefore, Dr. Charbonneau, one might think that, if they had been more patient and used Old Québec's Fortified Wall to their advantage, the French forces could have benefited from a number much greater than 4,400 men to combat the British forces.

But what could possibly have led General Montcalm and his senior officers to have so little confidence in Old Québec's Fortified Wall and in the improvements made to its west side by French engineer Chaussegros de Léry after 1745?

Your question is very relevant and I have given it a great deal of thought for a very long time. And it still preoccupies me, as I try, through the various research that I have done, to understand a little the reasons why the defensive system that was standing in Québec City was not used, considering that the first steps of its construction had begun as far back as 1745.

I see perhaps that one of the most important reasons was the famous conflict between metropolitan officers [from France] and colonial officers [from New France]. And everything there was a little like the conflict between Montcalm and Vaudreuil.

Vaudreuil was of Canadian birth, commander of the troops, commander and Governor General of the colony. Montcalm was of European origin, and he was in charge of all the tactical movements. But they conflicted, in the same manner that the officers did, with regard to their different conception of the nature of warfare in New France, and with regard to the quality of the colonial forces [from New France] as opposed to the metropolitan forces [from France]. So, they both had their strengths and they both had their weaknesses. But it is probably in these discussions, these conflicts between metropolitan officers [from France] and colonial officers [from New France], that we can see one of the reasons why Montcalm did not use the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall].

And let me explain this further…

Chaussegros de Léry, the designer of the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], who was deceased in 1759, as he had passed away in Québec City in 1756, was considered by many metropolitan officers from Europe to be "a colonial", or "a Canadian", because he had lived in the colony for more than 40 years. So, due to this simple fact, he was regarded as belonging to the "clique" of the colonial officers. And his work had been widely criticized by Montcalm's engineers who were part of the Ministry of War, as opposed to Chaussegros de Léry, who had been an engineer who was with the Ministry of the Navy.

Therefore, there was also a competition between these two "corps" of French engineers. And the engineers routinely criticized the works of their predecessors. Among others, Pontleroy, who was one of Montcalm's engineers, had nothing good to say about Chaussegros de Léry's fortification [about Old Québec's Fortified Wall]. However, if we proceed to an analysis of his fortification from a viewpoint of the major theories regarding fortifications at that time, we realize that Chaussegros de Léry's work carried his fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] through to a successful conclusion, corresponding with the main principles of fortifications at that time. And I will come back to that subject soon.

So, all the engineers criticized their predecessors. And it was in that sense that Montcalm immediately had faith in what Pontleroy told him: that the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] was not capable of withstanding the siege.

It must also be said, in Montcalm's defense, but it is perhaps a pretext, that the upper part of Québec City's fortification [of Old Québec's Fortified Wall] was not completely finished. This upper part, which was called "the parapet", was a little piece of wall behind which the soldier positioned himself to fire on the enemy. But we will see (as history will show us) that, in times of war, it was possible to quickly finish this little piece of wall, to be able to make the fortification completely operational.

Consequently, it is a little for all these reasons that I am trying to understand why the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], which had been designed by the French, was not used at all at the end of the French Régime in Québec City.

Is there something, Dr. Charbonneau, that could have predisposed General Montcalm and his senior officers to favor a battle on an "open field", such as the Plains of Abraham, rather than a temporary entrenchment behind Old Québec's Fortified Wall, to wait for reinforcements while protecting their men?

Actually, I may not know enough yet about the military careers of Montcalm and other [French] officers to draw definitive conclusions in this regard.

Moreover, I am not only surprised that they did not think of using the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], but I am also very surprised by the acts of precipitation. Because, through the whole summer of 1759, when we look at the acts of Wolfe and his brigadiers, they had tried, and tried, and tried ... to lure Montcalm into this type of "open field" confrontation, on large battlefields. But they had not succeeded in this endeavor, as Montcalm and Vaudreuil had been very cautious and had remained entrenched behind the fortifications of Beauport, and not behind the fortifications of Québec City [Old Québec's Fortified Wall].

So, for me, we will have to wait for further studies on the decisions of the different ... of the main officers, with regard to the principles of warfare at that time or the military art at that time. And then, really, we will be able to see and better understand their acts, their caution, their excessive caution, or … their willingness to confront each other in European style, or rather to confront each other in a warfare context of "little war", as had been going on for more than a century, here, in the colony.

Consequently, we will have to wait for these studies, regarding the art of warfare at that time.

Dr. Charbonneau, at the time this battle took place, it was Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil who was Governor General of New France.

After the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, did he not formulate several very harsh comments against the strategy of General Montcalm and his senior officers during that fateful day of September 13, 1759, for the French?

And if that's the case, what do you think about his comments?

In fact, here, we must be very cautious before making a few observations. And I would also tell you, with the same train of thought, that the opposite is also true. What can be seen in the correspondence of Montcalm, before his death, is a little the opposite of what Vaudreuil was saying. It expresses Montcalm's preference in this regard.

Therefore, each one of them criticized the work of the other a great deal, and vice versa.

And the historian, facing these very critical elements, must be very careful. Here, he must apply the basic rule that any young historian learns at the university, which is to question the sources, to truly understand the context in which a document was written before interpreting it and drawing information from this document.

Obviously, it was easy for Vaudreuil to express very harsh comments. Montcalm, his opponent, was deceased. He could not respond ... and promote himself professionally. There may be all kinds of reasons to explain these comments that were very, very harsh, indeed, in some cases.

So, overall, we must truly be very cautious, question the sources and try to discern, within these comments, which is the information that really reveals what was at stake, not only in terms of military issues, but also, secondarily, in terms of social issues, career issues or economic issues. We must indeed be very careful not to take literally the first level of information, which is, in these letters, of a very critical nature.

Still after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Dr. Charbonneau, were there other battles during which Old Québec's Fortified Wall was used at full capacity, that could demonstrate at what point it was ready to completely fulfill its role, even before the battle of September 13, 1759?

I am very glad you are asking me that question, because it gives me an opportunity to specify once again "what is the objective of a fortification".

A fortification is built to allow the defender "to support his defensive effort long enough, while waiting for a reinforcement movement".

And so, we can look at the military history of Québec City following the siege of 1759. We can look, for example, at 1760, when [French General] Lévis tried to recapture Québec City by laying siege on the British. After the fall of 1759, from that point, the British had occupied Old Québec [and its Fortified Wall]. We can realize that, during that same fall of 1759, [British General] Murray, who had succeeded Wolfe as commander of the British forces within the city, had decided to complete the unfinished part of the fortification [of Old Québec's Fortified Wall] by constructing small entrenchments in the upper part of the walls, to be able to use this fortification in case of a return of the French, in the spring of 1760.

Because the conquest [of Québec City], the loss of Québec City [for the French], was over, but the final Conquest of New France was not yet a "reality". And so, in the fall of 1759, the French troops commanded by Lévis had entrenched in Montréal, but also all the way up to Cap Santé, here, in the suburbs of Québec City, at Fort Jacques-Cartier.

And in the spring of 1760, Lévis tried to recapture Québec City before the first reinforcements would arrive [for the British]. He won the Battle of Ste. Foy against Murray in April 1760. In early May, he began the siege of Québec City, at the exact place in front of the fortifications [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] that the designer [of these fortifications], Chaussegros de Léry, had planned for this purpose, in view of its geographical location. And Lévis had some success (with the siege), but he had to stop this siege from the moment that the first British reinforcements arrived. And Lévis knew, at that moment, that, with the arrival of these British reinforcements, it was all over for the French cause, that he had to end the [French] siege and withdraw his troops immediately to Montréal.

So, we see, through the actions that took place in Québec City in 1760, that the French fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], occupied by the British, met the objective of a fortification, which is "to support the defender's efforts long enough, while waiting for a reinforcement movement". As for the reinforcements that arrived in the spring of 1760, it was the British fleet that arrived. The [British] Royal Navy arrived before the few French reinforcements, which had also been sent, but were caught in the Bay of Restigouche.

Therefore, we see that the French fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], as conceived by de Chaussegros de Léry, met its objective [in this case].

And we can continue our thinking [by also considering] the last siege which took place in Québec City, in 1775-1776. In the fall of 1775, the Americans (the future Americans), within the framework of their War of Independence, arrived in front of Québec City to try to completely capture the British colony and include it (all of its territory) within the United States of America.

So, they knew that Québec City was the only point of resistance.

However, the meeting of Montgomery's and Arnold's troops in front of Québec City, which had been planned for the fall of 1775, had to be delayed until early December 1775. [At that time,] they began to lay siege on Québec City, but they could not do it by following the [proper military] rules, as the soil had begun to freeze. They could not dig the trenches properly, but they formed a blockade (a siege of the city). Their blockade surrounded the city, to cut all communications.

Then Carleton, who was the commander (the Governor General, the British commander), entrenched his troops inside the French walls [Old Québec's Fortified Wall]. With a garrison force of a few hundred combatants, who were for the vast majority French-Canadian militiamen, Carleton used the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], which allowed [him and his men] to resist up to the spring of 1776, when the first reinforcements arrived. They were British reinforcements commanded by General Burgoyne.

So, we see that, for a second time in the history of the fortifications of Québec City [of Old Québec's Fortified Wall], the ramparts that had been designed and constructed by engineer Chaussegros de Léry met their objective, which was "to support the defender [long enough], while waiting for a reinforcement movement".

Therefore, on two occasions, really, the fortifications of Québec City [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] "came into play", as we can say, and met the expectations that had been set for them.

In short, Dr. Charbonneau, don't we have here "lessons of history" teaching us, even better than any fictitious scenario, to what point Old Québec's Fortified Wall was "already ready", even before the battle of September 13, 1759, to completely fulfill its role?

Indeed, if we look at the events of 1760 and 1775[-76], when the fortification of Québec City [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] clearly met its objective, [that is the case]. But my comments will also go beyond this use.

When we analyze a "fortified whole" such as the walls of Québec City [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], we must look at it in view of the theories confronting the military engineer who had the responsibility to build these defensive fortifications. Now, if we reconsider the approach that was going through this military engineer's mind to understand what Chaussegros de Léry wanted to achieve in Québec City, starting from 1745, we realize that he responded very well to the main principles of [building a] fortification at that time.

The first main principle was "adaptation to the geography". I think that we can not criticize Chaussegros de Léry for anything at all regarding his adaptation to the physical qualities and geographical advantages of Québec City's site. And we must also analyze it, make the geometrical analysis of the profiles' layout, examine the firing angles, try to discover if the engineer left blind spots, and so on.

And we realize that, in its condition of 1759, the fortification of Québec City [Old Québec's Fortified Wall] corresponded very well with all the main precepts of constructing fortifications in the middle of the 18th Century. Moreover, Chaussegros de Léry even had already foreseen the place where an eventual siege would be laid, in front of the fortifications. It was indeed at that very place that Lévis attacked the fortification [Old Québec's Fortified Wall], which was occupied by the British, in 1760. And just as the design engineer had foreseen, he also had, in its construction, doubled the inner parts of the wall at this precise place, which was situated very close to St. Louis Gate.

So, the "unfinished" character of the fortification [of Old Québec's Fortified Wall], which became the pretext for Montcalm not to use it, was somehow a "false pretext", because Murray quickly bypassed that situation, quickly finished its upper parts, to be able to use it in the spring of 1760.

The other lesson, which was also taught to us [by history], is that a fortification, which may have been adequately "well constructed", could not be operated efficiently without the support of a garrison force. And then, of course, there surely had to be a sufficient number of men to operate it.

However, if we look at the last years of New France, it may be a little fatalistic, then … to realize that, from 1758, it was [simply] a question [of time] ... very simply just a question of time. Even [if the French forces] had remained entrenched behind the wall [the Fortified Wall], which had been adequately "well constructed" by Chaussegros de Léry, then, if they had not received the requested reinforcements, they could not have resisted much longer … that much longer, to prevent the definitive conquest of New France.

Therefore, we must understand this fact well that, even if a fortification was well constructed, it could be operational only as long as it had a sufficient number of men to operate it.

Finally, the great lesson which was also taught to us [by history] in 1759 was that Québec City was at the heart ... really was at the heart of what was at stake in North America during the War of the Conquest [known as "the French and Indian War" in its U.S. context]. But I would say that Québec City was also [really at the heart] of what was vastly at stake worldwide during the Seven Years' War [in Europe], because it was after its victory over the French in Québec City that the British Empire started to exert its influence [worldwide], which would then expand throughout the entire 19th Century.

Once again, Dr. Charbonneau, thank you very much for your participation in this interview and for having "enlightened us" so well, with regard to the history of Old Québec's Fortified Wall, and more especially with regard to its role during the famous Battle of the Plains of Abraham, on September 13, 1759.


Well ... thank you very much!