The Plains of Abraham now lie within a park in downtown Quebec City, adjacent to the Citadelle of Quebec and the walls of the Old City. While the open green spaces are easy on the eyes at any hour, to free your imagination and capture a sense of the drama that once played out here, you should be alone. Perhaps at dawn, in stillness untrammeled by the bustle of the surrounding city, you might picture long lines of Redcoats along the western edge of the plain. Then you might hear the serried ranks of white-frocked Frenchmen marching up over the rise to face the British. You need to take in the space, the battlements beyond, absent Frisbee-tossing college students and ambling lovers crisscrossing the once body-strewn battlefield before your eyes.
On this broad green space one morning 248 years ago, the fate of a continent was changed with a single fatal volley from a line of muskets. It was the climactic event of the French and Indian War, yet the fight lasted a mere 30 minutes.
As the two lines of soldiers closed across the open plain, the French auxiliaries fired sporadically from the flanks while the regulars marched on. (To the north of the park you’ll have to imagine woods where today there are buildings.) Then the French regulars fired as well, but from too far away to be truly effective. They were close enough to do some damage, as commanding General James Wolfe was mortally wounded. Still, the British line stood. On and on the French came. Finally, when the opposing lines stood no more than 40 yards apart, the British opened fire in one massive volley.
The British muskets were loaded with double-shot for that first round. Within perhaps 20 seconds, as the British barrage erupted in a crashing but disciplined order—battalion by battalion down their entire line—the French line was shredded. In that vanishingly small click of time, the vast majority of that day’s 644 French casualties went down. Nearly one man in six along the main line of battle killed in less time than it takes to read this paragraph. It was the epitome of shock.
Among those taking .77-caliber rounds from a British “Brown Bess” that day was French commander Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Like his opponent, Wolfe, Montcalm too would die from his wounds.
Minutes after that initial British blast, the French withdrew in confusion and defeat. Quebec itself surrendered a few days later, and with it any realistic chance for France to hold on to Canada.
At dawn you might see them again, in your mind’s eye— nervous French recruits facing fire for the first time under the colors of their king, scarred veterans of 30 years’ service by their sides. In the silence listen for the echoes of commands rolling down the ranks of Redcoats: “Steady boys, steady. Wait for it. Stand fast there. Parade ground like now….Make ready….Present….Fire!”
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.