The Plains of Abraham and American Independence — Was the First Battle of the Revolution Fought in 1759?

Wolfe dies on the Plains of Abraham, 1759. While the Battle for Quebec is remembered as the quintessential British victory, it was just as much a triumph of American arms. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Struck down at the moment of his greatest triumph, James Wolfe lays dying on the Plains of Abraham in 1759. While the battle for the French colony of Quebec is remembered as the quintessential British victory, in many ways it was also a success of American arms. What’s more, France’s eventual defeat in the New World paved the way for rebellion in the 13 Colonies. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The French presence in Canada stood between the American colonies and any thought of independence. ”

By D. Peter MacLeod

BEST KNOWN AS a clash between French and British armies, the Plains of Abraham was also an American battle.

One in every three soldiers in the British army at Quebec had been recruited in the American colonies. Hundreds more Americans served aboard British warships and the American transports from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia that carried part of that army up the St. Lawrence River. During the campaign, the northern colonies played a role similar to that of Britain at the time of the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944 by providing a nearby land base for a great amphibious offensive.

The seeds of the American rebellion were sown a generation before 1776, during the French Indian War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The seeds of the American rebellion were sown a generation before 1776, during the French and Indian War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Americans at War

Rangers and Royal Americans aside, colonial soldiers and sailors are almost invisible in accounts of the beachheads and battlefields of the Quebec campaign. Yet they were there for every landing and every battle, and their actions shaped the course of American history.

Long before the emergence of anything resembling a serious independence movement, most of Britain’s North American colonies were nascent autonomous states. Governed by local elites, they were self-financing, economically and demographically robust, and capable when necessary of raising their own fleets and armies.

As early as 1690, colonial America demonstrated its ability to project power into the heart of New France when a New England fleet and army besieged Quebec, a feat Britain would not be able to duplicate for another sixty-nine years. In 1710 and 1745, American armies carried in American vessels and supported by Royal Navy and New England warships conquered Acadia, which became the British province of Nova Scotia, and captured the strategic French port of Louisbourg.

Déjà vu? British and colonial units laid siege to Quebec in 1690 -- nearly 70 years before the French Indian War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Déjà vu? British and colonial units lay siege to Quebec in 1690 — nearly 70 years before the French and Indian War. (Image source: WikiCommons)

New France and American Independence

The French presence in Canada, however, stood between the American colonies and any thought of independence. Back in 1732, James Logan, a merchant and administrator from Philadelphia, had confidently asserted that the American colonies would never lose their loyalty to the British Empire.

“While Canada is so near, they cannot rebel,” Pehr Kalm, a Swedish botanist who visited North America in 1749-50, agreed. “As the whole country which lies along the seashore is unguarded, and on the land side is harassed by the French, these dangerous neighbours in times of war are sufficient to prevent the connection of the colonies from their mother country from being broken off.”

British general James Murray recognized that the fall of New France would leave Americans safe to pursue independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British general James Murray recognized that the fall of New France would leave the American colonies free to pursue their own independence. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The British-American victory at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and subsequent conquest of Canada changed all that. Under British control, Canada was just as close but no longer a threat. Some British commanders in North America, including Brigadier James Murray, had thought all along that a British Canada would be less a conquered colony than an incitement to American rebellion. In 1760, Murray confided his fears to a French officer.

“Do you think,” he asked, “that we will give Canada back to you?”

“I am not sufficiently familiar with high policy to see so far ahead,” replied the French officer,

“If we are wise, we won’t keep it,” the Scottish-born general observed. “New England needs a bridle to keep it under control, and we will give it one by not holding on to this country.”

British troops desperately fight off a French counter-attack at Quebec in 1760. The Battle of St. Foy, as it's remembered, was far bloodier and deadlier than the earlier encounter on the Plains of Abraham. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British troops desperately fight off a French counter-attack at Quebec in 1760. The Battle of St. Foy, as it’s remembered, was far bloodier and deadlier than the earlier encounter on the Plains of Abraham. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Fall of Quebec and the Road to Revolution

Murray’s fears to the contrary, the British conquest of Canada did not in itself cause an American rebellion. Victory in the Seven Years’ War produced a transatlantic outburst of triumphal pride in Britain and British America. Americans never felt more British than just before they tore the empire apart.

Winning the Seven Years’ War, however, had left the British government with a huge debt and more colonial interest groups than it could handle. Imposing taxes on the colonies to pay off war debts and support a North American garrison alienated many American colonials. So did attempts to accommodate non-British groups inside the empire by granting religious freedom and civil rights to Canadian Catholics and limiting western expansion to preserve the peace with Native Americans.

It soon became apparent that the British had chosen the worst possible time to antagonize the 13 Colonies. With the French threat eliminated, the Americans no longer needed British protection. With France humiliated in war and alarmed by the rising power of the British Empire, American rebels found a partner looking for a chance to cut Britain down to size and willing to support a rebellion to do it.

Minutemen clash with British regulars on Concord Bridge, 1775. (Image source: TeachUSHistory.org)

Minutemen clash with British regulars on Concord Bridge, 1775. (Image source: TeachUSHistory.org)

Beginning in 1775, British colonials from New England to Georgia who had come to see themselves as Americans rather than Britons rose up in rebellion against the Crown. Financed by French subsidies, equipped with French weapons, and assisted by French troops and warships, the American colonies won their independence and formed the United States of America.

The rebellion had begun in New England and its roots lay deep in American history. But the American soldiers who fought at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the American ships and sailors that carried them to the battlefield had—all unknowingly—been taking part in a campaign that would produce not just a conquered French colony but the creation of a great new nation.

a020917a-afbb-4200-a857-ef43adb4d2e8D. Peter MacLeod is the author of Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution. As the Pre-Confederation Historian at the Canadian War Museum, he acted as host curator for Clash of Empires: The War that made Canada and curated The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, 1759-2009. He is currently working as English language editor for the Canadian History Hall at the Canadian War Museum’s partner institution, the Canadian Museum of History, and writing a book on the Battle of Sainte-Foy, the second Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

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