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In 1759 the fate of New France hung in the balance as French and British troops clashed on the Plains of Abraham. The French defeat would long remain a painful memory for Quebecers of French stock, while the victorious British would make a point of commemorating a vital win on their way to building an empire. But today the plains have become a place where people relax and have fun.
After two failed attempts the British were determined to conquer New France during the Seven Years’ War. When Major General Wolfe appeared on the Québec shoreline with a fleet of 150 vessels in June 1759, the French led by the marquis of Montcalm had been weakened by food shortages and two years of losing ground.
The British bombarded Québec for weeks. An initial attempt to reach shore along the Beauport coastline was repelled. Hundreds of homes in the area were burned to discourage the French forces—to no effect. After three months of siege, Wolfe feared he would have to give up, but not before one final attempt. On the night of September 12 to 13, 4,000 soldiers landed and made their way up a less steep part of the cliff that overlooks the St. Lawrence River a little to the west of the city. In the early morning the French discovered thousands of soldiers in battle order on the Plains of Abraham (then larger than today’s park).
Montcalm hurried back from where he had been posted in Beauport with most of his troops. Other French forces were stationed a few kilometres further west, but Montcalm refused to wait. He also dismissed advice from soldiers born in the colony who were counting on winter to rid them of Wolfe. Montcalm took the initiative and made a sortie. He ranged his troops before the British, who outnumbered the French and were more disciplined. The battle lasted only twenty minutes. The British crushed their adversary, who retreated into the walled city. Montcalm was mortally wounded. Wolfe, too. Québec was weakened and fell five days later.
Despite victory at Sainte-Foy in the spring of 1760, the French lost all hope of turning the situation around when British supply ships appeared off Québec, ensuring the enemy’s supremacy. Montréal was isolated and capitulated in September 1760. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham delivered the death blow to New France.
For Quebecers of French origin, defeat on the Plains of Abraham gave form to the difficulties they would endure for the next 200 years as a minority in the country they had founded, right up until their emancipation in the 1960s. For the British on the other hand, the victory marked the start of a long period of hegemony, with victories in the Seven Years’ War in North America, Europe, and Asia granting them lasting worldwide supremacy.
This was the backdrop to which artist Benjamin West painted a now-famous work in 1770 depicting Wolfe’s lieutenants holding up the dying hero, like the figure of Christ come down from the cross. In 1832 the governor of Lower Canada, Matthew Aylmer, had a monument erected on the very spot where Wolfe supposedly died, in front of where Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec now stands. The monument became a place of pilgrimage for many British visitors and Canadians of British origin.
Despite painful memories of the lost battle, French Canadians made the Plains of Abraham their own again in the late 19th century. In 1880, for example, Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste held a big national convention there to celebrate the past and future of French Canadians. Ô Canada, the patriotic French-Canadian song, was sung for the first time, long before it became Canada’s national anthem. In 1908 huge celebrations also took place on the Plains of Abraham to mark the 300th anniversary of the city’s founding by the French. And finally, since the 1960s Québec’s national holiday celebrations have been held on the plains, now firmly established as a place of hope and jubilation.
Military artifacts found at Martello Tower No. 2 and the blockhouse dig near the Citadel
Lead bullets, early 19th century
Wrought iron harness buckle, probably for a horse. England, 18th–19th century
Royal Regiment of Artillery brass button. Great Britain, 1831–1872
Wrought iron crampon. England, 18th–19th century
National Battlefields Commission archeological collection
Terracotta statuette, 19th century. Artifact found at digs at Cove Fields on the Plains of Abraham
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