America Was 20 Minutes Away From Being French

How French hubris determined the fate of North America.”>

Go there at dawn.

The Plains of Abraham are located in what is now downtown Quebec City, Canada, immediately adjacent to the Citadel of Quebec and the walls of the Old City.

While the open spaces of this aesthetically pleasing park are easy on the eyes at any hour, to open your mind to the long lines of Redcoats on the western aim of the plain, and the serried ranks of the White-frocked Frenchmen opposing them with their backs to the city wall, you really need to be alone. You need to see the space, the battlements beyond, without the Frisbee tossing college students and the glazed-eyed fans crisscrossing the bloody battlefield before your eyes.

Go there at dawn. At dawn, one morning 257 years ago, the fate of a continent and perhaps the world changed when a force of British Regulars and American Rangers made it to the top of a cliff and with just two fatal blasts from a line of muskets built history.

This battle, in 1759, was the culminating moment of what we think of as the French and Indian War( the rest of the world knows it as the Seven Years War ). Yes, the war would continue on this continent for another year, but it was that day, those 20 minutes, that stimulated the difference.

For five years up to this point, existing conflicts see-sawed. The initial French victories on this continent resulted along Lake Champlain and Lake George( guess Last of the Mohicans) under the leadership of the French military commander, the Marquis de Montcalm. That string of successes, however, did not last.

With the bold and freshly promoted General James Wolfe at their head the British( and it should be noted Colonial) troops reversed the tide. The British had already captured the massive French fortress at Louisburg the year before, when Wolfe was a Colonel, thereby opening up the Saint Lawrence to the Royal Navy. As they controlled the entryway to the seaway, moving upriver towards the pearl in Frances colonial crown, the fortified city of Quebec was the logical next step. Wolfe, returned to England, was appointed a Brigadier and put in charge of that prong of the overall British assault. He was 32 years old. He would not construct 33.

Quebec City, in 1759, appeared impressive. It was built where the mighty Saint Lawrence ran from dozens of miles wide to 1,000 yards, and at the least when seen from the river the formidable heights upon which the place stood was a nightmare to attack. The British had been trying, ever since the 1690 s, to no avail. But like all fortified places, it had its weak points. In this case there were two, the geography, and French hubris.

Earlier tries by the British over the preceding decades came to grief, in no small component because of the very real difficulty of moving up the Saint Lawrence without the benefit of an internal combustion engine. Reefs, shoals, boulders, and hard shores all brought together to induce the river itself a major combatant. And that was where the French hubris took over. Though French ground commanders constantly begged for more resources from Versailles to construct defenses, the sea services pointed to the wrecked efforts of the British, literally, to induce the passageway up the seaway and river without expert local guidebooks. To the French it was local knowledge, and treacherous tides and rocks, that formed Quebecs greatest bastion. A cash-strapped Versailles was more than willing to listen to this thesis of defense.

But Quebec City was vulnerable. Not from the water, that would have been suicidal, but from the landward side. From upriver, as it were, the defenses of the western landward approaches pretty much sucked. For decades these were underfunded, incompetently built, and episodically stopped in their building by a Royal French Administration seeking economy where they thought they might get onto. The French would ultimately lose that bet since they are did not understand the intellectual and administrative developings being carried out in the United Kingdom.

See, although we now hate bureaucracy, this is because we are so used to it and see it as an institutional inhibition. A beset. Something must be prevented. But think about the past, before the invention of Bureaus.

In the 1700 s these were new, an innovation, and something that was a damned sight better than the quasi-medieval crud that had passed before, and the British were resulting the way there. They had created organizational institutions, and most importantly applied them to the very real difficulties of controlling complex issues such as naval ship design, the application of science to maritime efforts in issues like hydrographic charting, and a whole host of other seemingly esoteric topics that seem, well DUH, to us now. But these were groundbreaking at the time. For example, the Royal Navy began, some years before this, to chart the oceans of the entire planet. Not merely generic coastlines, but depths and types of ground underwater, all of it in detail, down to the fathom, as best they could.

The French? Not so much. Local experts were far cheaper than any sort of detailed hydrographic survey process. So they never ran that road, and because they did not, they came to believe in things like the fact that the hazards of the Saint Lawrence Seaway and river were viable barriers to anybody else being able to assault them as far up the route as Quebec. And it was quite a way. From Louisburg, at the mouth of the Saint Lawrence,( which the British captured, again, in 1758) it was still 650 nautical miles to Quebec, and the last 300 or so were particularly dangerous.

So the French were not necessarily incorrect in the 1600 s, or the early 1700 s. The tides in the Seaway can run 5 knots in one direction and 3 knots in the other, and both coasts are granite. The tides also may rise and fall as much as 10 -1 5 in mere hours, changing everything. As a man who sails upon oceans and bays in the modern age, I can tell you that is frightening even with modern GPS.

But by the middle of that century, the French were way off base. The British came, with their Royal Navy, but they came with charts all the way, because they were stimulating them as they went along. In 150 -some years the French had never accurately charted the seaway and the river. But the British were doing it, methodically, scientifically, as they moved upstream. Then they marked the channels, setting buoys out along the narrow sections, and making their sounds everywhere they ran. These, like other products of their new bureaucratic system, were to be spread about the entire Royal Navy, forever more. It was something the French had never done, out of cheapness and a belief that nobody else would or could do such a thing. In short, hubris.

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