Major-General James Wolfe
An Army training reformer who attained high rank at a very youthful age, he was both victor and victim of the battle of Quebec where he died on the battlefield.
James Wolfe (1727–59) was Britain’s most celebrated military hero of the eighteenth century. His important victory over the French at Quebec on 13 September 1759 resulted in the unification of Canada and the American colonies under the British crown. But his death at the moment of victory earned him a reputation as a patriotic martyr that was unmatched by any British hero until Nelson.
Wolfe was born at Westerham, Kent, the eldest son of Lieutenant-General Edward Wolfe. He was a career soldier and entered the Army in 1741 aged 14. At the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 he caught the attention of the Duke of Cumberland, who then helped to promote Wolfe’s early career. Wolfe fought at Culloden in 1746 and saw further service in Scotland and Ireland during the 1750s. His tactical theories and significant improvements to firing and bayonet techniques were an important part of his legacy and were posthumously published as ‘General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers’ (1768).
During the Seven Years War (1756-63), Wolfe distinguished himself during the aborted assault on Rochefort in 1757, going ashore to scout the terrain prior to the raid. He also tried to persuade the commander of the operation, General Sir John Mordaunt, to act more decisively. Wolfe informed Mordaunt that he could capture Rochefort if he was given just 500 men but the general refused him permission. He again came to prominence at the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, commanding a brigade there with great skill. This led to his appointment, at the age of 32, as major-general in command of the Quebec expedition in 1759.
Wolfe experienced months of frustration and ill health, and many thought the operation would fail. Then, at dawn on 13 September, Wolfe led his men in carrying out a plan for which he took full credit: using flat-bottomed landing craft to take his 4,500 troops up the St Lawrence River, landing them south-west of the city, and scaling the Heights of Abraham to surprise the French and draw them out of the city and into battle exactly where he wanted to fight. It was a bold plan which relied on a mix of good-judgement and luck, but it worked.
Wolfe was fatally wounded early in the battle but lived long enough to hear of his victory. He was an inspirational leader, who, like other great generals, was loved by his men. After the battle, Lieutenant Henry Browne, who held Wolfe as he lay dying, wrote to his father of the Army’s reaction to Wolfe’s death: ‘I cant compare it to any thing better, than to a family in tears & sorrow which had just lost their father, their friend & their whole Dependance’.
When news of Wolfe’s death reached Britain, it seized the public imagination. He was seen as a young, heroic martyr and a paragon of martial virtue. As the greatest military hero of the mid-eighteenth century, Wolfe was universally celebrated in paintings, prints and other forms of popular culture.
Major (later Major-General) James Wolfe, c1750. Miniature, Indian ink and pencil on paper, by James Ferguson (1710-76).
"Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals."
King George II on James Wolfe.
Copyright 2017 National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London, SW3 4HT
Registered Charity Number: 237902