The Death of Wolfe
The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West is a painting which has always fascinated me. Wolfe’s victory at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 sealed the doom of New France and also the doom ultimately of British rule in the 13 colonies. Freed from the menace of their ancestral enemy, the colonists were also free to rethink the ties that bound them to the British crown. West’s painting captures a pivotal moment in American history. Not only is Wolfe dying, but an old order in America, not only for France but also for Great Britain, is mortally stricken. American independence would have appalled James Wolfe, who had little love for Americans, but it is given to none of us to know the impact of our lives after our deaths. Wolfe of course had a death of legend during the battle, as the great historian of the struggle between New France and the British, Francis Parkman details:
They asked him [Wolfe] if he would have a surgeon; but he shook his head, and answered that all was over with him. His eyes closed with the torpor of approaching death, and those around sustained his fainting form. Yet they could not withhold their gaze from the wild turmoil before them, and the charging ranks of their companions rushing through the line of fire and smoke.
“See how they run.” one of the officers exclaimed, as the French fled in confusion before the leveled bayonets.
“Who run?” demanded Wolfe, opening his eyes like a man aroused from sleep.
“The enemy, sir,” was the reply; “they give way everywhere.”“Then,” said the dying general, “tell Colonel River, to cut off their retreat from the bridge. Now, God be praised, I die contented,” he murmured; and, turning on his side, he calmly breathed his last breath.
His great and chivalrous opponent, General Louis-Joseph Montcalm, Marquis de Saint Veran, also received his death wound at the battle. He would linger on until midnight, and historian Parkman relates his stoic death:
He (Montcalm) then asked how long he might survive, and was told that he had not many hours remaining. “So much the better,” he said; “I am happy that I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec.”
Officers from the garrison came to his bedside to ask his orders and instructions “I will give no more orders,” replied the defeated soldier; “I have much business that must be attended to, of greater moment than your ruined garrison and this wretched country. My time is very short; therefore, pray leave me.”
The officer withdrew, and none remained in the chamber but his confessor and the Bishop of Quebec. To the latter, he expressed his contempt for his own mutinous and half famished troops, and his admiration for the disciplined valour of his opponents. He died at midnight, and was buried at his own desire in a cavity of the earth formed by the bursting of a bombshell.
Before the battle Wolfe read Gray’s Elegy to some of his officers and said that he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. The poem has this passage:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.