The French and Indian War was the nine year conflict between Great Britain and her allies and France and her allies in North America. It was only one theatre in a world war known as the Seven Years War which raged in such places as India, the Caribbean, and Europe, among other places. The North American portion of the conflict was caused by competing claims by Britain and France to the vast territories of North America and its resources. The conflict started in North America and spread subsequently world wide.
The first action of the French and Indian War started with an expedition led a Major of the Virginia Militia, one George Washington, to negotiate colonial boundaries with the French in 1754. Washington and his small force of Virginia Militia wound up confronting the French at Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh.) A French officer named Joseph Coulon de Jurnonville was killed in a small skirmish. Washington retreated a few miles and erected Fort Necessity. The French drove Washington and his men out of this fort.
The following year, 1755, saw the disastrous expedition led by General Edward Braddock against Fort Duquesne. Leading a force of British regulars and American militia in the European style, with fixed lines of advance, Braddock was ambushed just a few miles away from Fort Duquesne by a mixed force of French regulars, Canadian militia, and Indians. Braddock and many of his men were killed in the ensuing battle. George Washington, who was with the expedition, took command and managed to lead the survivors to safety.
1756 saw the election of a new British government, under Prime Minister William Pitt. The tide began to turn in North America as French colonial outposts began to fall to the British. In 1758, the huge French fortress of Louisbourg, which guarded the entrance to the St, Lawrence River on Cape Breton Island, fell after a forty eight day siege. The rest of France’s North American territories, including Quebec, was open to British conquest.
The Quebec Campaign
A British fleet consisting of 49 ships and 140 smaller craft, carrying the expedition, set sail from Louisbourg. On June 26th, 1759, the expedition landed on the Ile d’Orleans, which lay in the St. Lawrence River to the east of Quebec. The land forces, under Major General James Wolfe, consisted of 7000 or so British regulars and more than a 1000 American colonial militia.
An attempt to land 4000 troops on the north bank of the St. Lawrence near the Montmorency Falls was turned back by the French on July 31st. Throughout the month of August, the British fleet sailed up and down the St. Lawrence largely unmolested, except for an ineffective attack by French fire ships. The British were seeking a suitable landing spot for the assault on Quebec. They also busied themselves burning farms, supply depots, and fortifications.
The British eventually choose Anse-aux-Foulons, which lay at the foot of a cliff on the north bank of the St. Lawrence upon which Quebec sat. Using French speaking soldiers, Wolfe managed to deceive the French sentries into believing that the expedition was just a supply convoy.
The Plains of Abraham
The British brought Quebec under bombardment from their fleet as well as with shore batteries deployed opposite the city on the south bank of the river. Canadian militia guarded the top of the cliff, but a force of British regulars overwhelmed them, capturing their camp and cannon. By September 13th, Wolfe had five thousand men on top of the cliffs.
The defenders of Quebec numbered about 13000 French regulars and colonial militia, some at the city itself, some further to the east at the town of Beauport on the north bank of the St. Lawrence. The French were commanded by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, Marquis of Montcolm, a veteran soldier and commander of French forces in North America.
On the morning of the 13th of September, Wolfe deployed his men for battle on the Plains of Abraham, which lay before the western walls of Quebec. Montcalm confronted him with about 4000 men, leaving the rest to guard the north bank of the river east of the city.
Instead of waiting for Wolfe inside the fortified walls of Quebec, Montcalm advanced, regulars in the center, Indian allies and colonial militia on the flanks. The French opened fire at about three hundred and fifty yards, which proved ineffective. The British coolly waited until the French were but thirty five yards away and delivered two devastating volleys, which destroyed the French line. The British closed with the bayonet and put the French to flight. The Scottish Highlanders were especially effective in this phase of the battle, using not only bayonets but long claymores-giant broad swords, to decimate the fleeing French. The combat that decided the fate of France in North America lasted just thirty minutes.
Both General Wolfe and Montcalm were mortally wounded in the battle. Wolfe died of his wounds just as the battle was won. Montcalm expired the next morning. Both the British and the French suffered about 650 or so casualties.
The British placed Quebec under siege. The siege did not last very long, for on the 18th of September, the governor of the city surrendered to the British. In the meantime, French forces east of the city retreated in the face of overwhelming British power, eventually taking up a position on the Jacques-Cartier River.
The French attempted to retake Quebec in the spring of 1760. Despite the fact that they beat the British in a curious reversal of the previous year’s battle, with the French attacking and the British defending, the French failed to take the city. British reinforcements forced a withdraw of French forces to Montreal.
The British pursued the French to Montreal and by the autumn of 1760 had forced the city’s surrender. All of French Canada was now in the hands of the British. The Treaty of Paris, which marked the end of the war, ceded all of Canada to Britain, allowing the French to retain some islands off the coast of Newfoundland.
The British victory came at a great fiscal cost, as shipping armies from Europe to America was an expensive proposition. The British attempted to extract money from the American colonialists with mercantilist policies and taxation. This in turn caused great discontent among the colonists which eventually led to the outbreak of the American Revolution and the lost of British colonies in North America. Ironically, many Americans such as George Washington put the training and experience they had gained in the French and Indian War to good use in fighting their erstwhile allies. So, in a strange way, it can be said that the British victory proved to be a phyrric one.