A Blupete Biography Page

James Wolfe [Wolfe Gallery]
"The Hero Of Louisbourg."

At the vicarage in Westerham, Kent, on the 2nd of January, 1727, our hero was born. His father was an army officer, Edward Wolfe; his mother, Henrietta, daughter of Edward Thompson, was from Marsden, Yorkshire. At the time of the birth, his father was 42 years of age and his mother, 24.1 Soon after, the family moved to the building which was, in the early part of 19th century, to be called the "Quebec House." Within a year James was to have a younger brother, Edward. It was here, at Westerham, that the Wolfe boys, described as being both delicate and sensitive children and whose health was precarious, grew up in the loving care of their mother.

About 1738, presumably because of the requirements of the father's military career, the family moved to Greenwich. Because of the conspicuous military movements at Greenwich and of the hearing of his fathers's exploits as a soldier under Marlborough, James, at an early age, formed a desire to enter army life; and, he wanted to do so at the earliest opportunity. At the tender age of 13 years he was to join his father's regiment. The War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) shortly thereafter broke out and the regiment was apparently going to board vessels for Europe. Already a martyr to illness, just as the fleet was sailing with his regiment, the 14 year old James had to be put ashore, seriously ill, and returned to his mother. He apparently recovered and in November of 1741 (age 14), he was appointed Second Lieutenant in his father's regiment of marines, the 12th Regiment (Durourels), and in April, 1742, embarked with his regiment for Flanders.

At the tender age of 16 years, Wolfe was to see his first action. This was the Battle of Dettingen which occurred on June the 27th, 1743 (a battle, incidently, in which participated the 17 year old Robert Monckton who was to also play a significant role in the history of Nova Scotia). Dettingen was one of the more notorious battles that had taken place during the War of the Austrian Succession. It took place in an area that we now know as Germany. The Battle of Dettingen had the markings of a battle (like so many which we have all experienced) by which the winner gaged himself a winner, more from what was avoided than from what was gained. At Dettingen the English and their allies, the Austrians, avoided destruction due to "the impetuosity of the French horse and the dogged obstinacy with which the English held their ground. There was, however, what appeared at first only to be a bit of a gain: the French determined to recross a river over which they had came, and, felt obliged, for no good reason the English could think of, to keep on driving their men and horses until they had gained their own border. Though not a classy fight on the part of the English, the effect was that the French evacuated Germany."2

For advancement in the military, there is nothing like a war, especially for the young officer who is personable, industrious and has some connections. At the age of 16, in 1743, James was made Lieutenant and an adjutant. In 1744, he was made a captain in the Fourth (Barrel's) or King's Regiment of Foot. Also, I should mention, that in October, James was to receive news that his brother Edward, who had joined the army to be in company with James, and whom he idolized, died after a few days' illness from consumption.

In 1745, Wolfe's regiment, at least in part, was called home so to deal with a rising problem. In fact he was sent to Scotland. Scotland though joined to England by the Union Act of 1706, had long been a land of people, who, while intensely loyal to their clan chieftains, were resistant to central authority, especially where that authority was English. In 1745, a new threat came to the royal Hanoverian line, and, in particular, to the Protestant king then on the English throne, George the Second. The threat was in the form of Charles Edward Stuart (1720-88) who in that year came ashore in the Scottish Isles with the express intention to take what he calculated was rightfully his, the English throne.3 This story, I tell elsewhere (see Culloden); for our purposes here we merely state that James Wolfe was very much part of these stirring times when the Scottish clans devoted to the old order launched a rebellion; one which in its incipient stage showed surprising success; but one which ultimately the English were to brutally put down. James Wolfe was present at the Battle of Falkirk which occurred on 17 January 1746; it was to be the last victory for the Highlanders. The core of the English army had been brought over from Europe and were still on the road marching up to Scotland, when, in January, General Hawley suffered his defeat at Falkirk. Three months later, however, on the 16th of April, 1746, the Duke of Cumberland caught up with Charles' army. The men of the loyal Scottish clans amounted to 6000 and were to face Cumberland's army of 9000, who were well disciplined and well equipped, and who had been hardened in the continental theatre. The face off occurred on Drummossie Moor near Culloden, 5 miles from Inverness. During this battle, Wolfe was the aide-de-camp to General Hawley. Within an hour Cumberland was to bring the Scottish rebellion to an absolute end. Over 1,000 highlanders were slaughtered, and, on Cumberland's orders, many more were butchered as they lay wounded and helpless.

One of the stories that came out of Culloden was that Wolfe was requested by his commander-in-chief, the Duke of Cumberland, to shoot "that Highland scoundrel who dares to look upon us with so insolent a stare," alluding to the Colonel of the Fraser Regiment, to which Wolfe indignantly replied that his commission was at His Royal Highness's disposal, but that he never would consent to become an executioner." It is further reported that it was this incident which caused the Fraser Regiment to cling so affectionately to Wolfe when he came to America in the years 1758 and 1759.4

With the Scottish rebellion crushed, Wolfe returned back to the continent, there, to finish out the war (1740-1748). He was present at the battle of Val or Laffeldt, where Wolfe distinguished himself, the Official Gazette stating that he was wounded, and was publicly thanked by the commander-in-chief for his distinguished services. After the Peace, in 1748, Wolfe returned home bathed in glory, seven active campaigns under his belt, and, but yet only 21 years of age. He did not have much time in which he might bask in the admiration of his fellows and in the love of his family (especially, I dare say, his mother's love). He was sent off to Scotland with his regiment for garrison duty. In 1749, Wolfe was made a major of the 20th Regiment. It is interesting to note that when he assumed the command at Stirling, he was to relieve Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Cornwallis. Cornwallis, as we can see from our larger story had been appointed Captain-General and Governor of the new settlement of Halifax. On the 20th March, 1750, Wolfe was officially appointed Lieutenant-Colonel of the regiment. He served in Scotland and England until 1758. During these years, when on furlough, he would take himself off to France and was to polish up his use of the French language, in which he was to became quite proficient.5 Wolfe also wrote military pamphlets, for example, in 1755, he wrote, "Instructions for the guidance of the 20th Foot should the French effect a landing."

In 1756, a new war broke out between the English and the French, the Seven Years War (1756-1763), one which was to bring Wolfe to the pinnacle of his military career and to make him an English hero to be remembered for all times; one, which brought him glory; one, which brought him death. In 1757, the English leadership launched an attack directly on the French coast. It involved the cooperation of both the British navy and the British army. The attack on Rochfort was generally botched and the military leaders who returned were to attract much odium; James Wolfe, however, came away from the event unscathed, indeed he was one of the few who had distinguished himself at Rochfort. As a result, Wolfe was brought to the notice of the prime minister, William Pitt. Pitt had determined that the best gains in the war were to be made in America. On the 23rd of January, 1758, James Wolfe was commissioned as a Brigadier-General (for service in America only) and sent off with Amherst to attack Louisbourg, an event which is dealt with in another part of our history.

To a very large degree, it was Wolfe's enthusiasm and constant industry, or more particularly the inspiration that this behaviour gave to all of the British besiegers that brought the English success at Louisbourg. Though "impetuous and cool and calculating," Wolfe's aim, it seems, was always to inspire others -- and he did so in great measure at Louisbourg. (I would suggest even more so than he did in the following year at Quebec where at critical moments he was to take his lead from his subordinates.) After days of waiting in agony on board sea tossed transports in Gabarus Bay, the troops followed Wolfe in, to one of the most inhospitable shores in the world; and, under the killing fire of the French, got them all on shore; and, in turn, before the walls of Louisbourg -- and, for the most part, all in good order. During the long days of the siege he was in constant motion allowing for himself and his men no time for anything but that which would advance the cause: the taking of Louisbourg. That Wolfe was constantly so demanding on himself and on his troops (though always to the same degree considerate of them) is all the more surprising when one realizes that Wolfe had a very feeble constitution. Amherst was to report that Wolfe seem to be everywhere at once. There was a story that when the English Court branded the young Brigadier mad, King George II, "sleepy old drone from the Georgian hive," aroused to declare: "Mad, is he? Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals!"6

Robert Wright in his biography was to describe Wolfe's character, in the following terms:

"He was impulsive, but not rash; persistent but not obstinate; self-confident yet modest; aspiring but not vain-glorious; generous, hospitable and charitable, but not extravagant; stern yet gentle; ingenuous but not egotistic; free spoken yet courteous. If ever high honour, strict integrity and all the qualities which constitute a dutiful and affectionate son (his letters to his parents, written alternately almost weekly throughout his life, are models of affection), a true and constant lover, a sincere friend, a loyal subject, and a pure patriot, were combined with fearless valour, untiring industry and great mental capacity, they were combined in James Wolfe.
Although the most partial admirer could not have considered him by any means a handsome Youth, yet his countenance was so expressive of an ingenuous, hopeful spirit as to make it remarkably attractive. The most striking lineament, however,was the singular form of his profile, which might be nearly represented by two lines of an obtuse angle, meeting at the tip of the nose. [See, in particular
the profile portrait done by Schaak.] When in repose, his face had little colour, but when excited, it blushed all over; and the somewhat high and prominent cheek-bones betrayed the share of Celtic blood he inherited. The mouth denoted great decision and firmness, while the leading expression of the sparkling azure eyes might be most truly qualified as enquiring. His complexion was sanguine, hair red, over which he wore the powdered wig."7
Its a moment in history well known, and its not my intention to go into the details; but it was at Quebec, before its walls, just as it was becoming clear that the French were defeated, that Wolfe took a French sniper's bullet in his chest. And, so, James Wolfe died a hero's death. Given his travels and his experiences one might accept that he died a much matured man. Yet, he died only at the age of 32 years. He seemed to know that he was to die a young man. On 19th of January, 1755, he wrote his mother:
"The campaigns 1743, '4, '5, '6 and '7, stripped me of my bloom, and the winters in Scotland and at Dover have brought me almost to old age and infirmity, and this without any remarkable intemperance. A few years more or less, are of very little consequence to the common run of men, and therefore I need not lament that I am, perhaps, somewhat nearer my end than others of my time. I think and write upon these points without being at all moved."8
The thought of death to Wolfe, as he pointed out to his mother in this letter, though it might "frighten and terrify the half of Mankind," had no hold on Wolfe; it is, as if, he knew that he would live in the memories of fighting men -- for all time.9


[1] Wolfe's mother "was considered a beauty." [Hart, Fall of New France: 1755-1760 (Montreal: W. Drysdale, 1888), p. 167.]

[2] Green, History of the English People, vol. IX, p. 203.

[3] The grandfather of "Bonnie Prince Charlie," a.k.a., the Young Pretender, was James the II who had sat on the English throne, and from which he had been so rudely removed 56 years earlier. (See The Glorious Revolution.)

[4] Hart, Op. cit., p. 164.

[5] Ibid., p. 165.

[6] The Life of Major-General James Wolfe (London: Chapman & Hall, 1864), p. 487.

[7] Ibid..

[8] As set out in The Life and Letters of James Wolfe by Beckles Willson (London: Heinemann, 1909) pp. 246-7.

[9] Wolfe's father, who had become Colonel of the 8th Regiment and Lieutenant-general, was to die in the same year as his illustrious son, on the 26th March, aged 74. Wolfe fell at Quebec on the 13th of September, 1759, aged 32 years, 8 months. The body having been returned to England, the son was laid to rest with his father at Greenwich. His Mother died, aged 60, on the 26th September, 1764. (Hart, op. cit., p. 165.)


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Peter Landry
2012 (2020)