Stephen Brumwell. Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007. xi + 406 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7735-3261-8; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7735-3370-7.
Reviewed by Ian McCulloch (Canadian Forces College)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2008)
A Soldier's Soldier
On June 9, 1751 in Banff, Scotland, a lanky man with long, spindly legs jammed under a writing desk was replying to a letter from a distressed friend in North America. His bright red hair, a legacy of his Anglo-Welsh ancestry, was pulled back from his angular face and tightly clubbed into a black-ribboned cue at the back. Lieutenant Colonel James Wolfe, dressed in the laced regimentals of His Majesty's 20th Foot, had been promoted the following year at the age of twenty-three, a coveted rank that his father, Lieutenant General Edward Wolfe, had not been able to achieve until twice his son's age. James Wolfe's correspondent in America, Captain William Rickson, was a former regimental officer and confidante who had accompanied the previous commanding officer of the 20th Foot to Nova Scotia--the urbane Colonel Edward Cornwallis--to establish Halifax. Rickson had been passed over for promotion and, in a fit of pique, had asked to be dropped from Cornwallis's staff. He was now posted on "frontier duty" at Lunenburg.
Wolfe commiserated with his friend over his misfortunes and characterized American outpost duty as "the dirtiest as well as the most insignificant and unpleasant branch of military operations; no room for courage and skill to exert itself, no hope of ending it by a decisive blow, and a perpetual danger of assassination." Wolfe spoke from experience. Just five years earlier, the upcoming and well-connected major serving at Culloden had witnessed the ferocity of the last Highland charge on British soil and had been on outpost duties ever since! Wolfe was convinced that the Highlanders, with whom he now played hide and seek in the Highlands, would make excellent irregulars to combat the Indians in the wilds of New Scotland. "I should imagine that two or three independent Highland companies might be of use," he wrote. "They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country, and no great mischief if they fall."
It was certainly not a new idea to use Highland troops for overseas service in America, though Wolfe and William Pitt are sometimes touted as having been the progenitors of such a plan. In 1740, ten years earlier, General James Oglethorpe, colonel of the 42nd Foot stationed in the fledgling colony of Georgia, raised, on his own initiative, the first fully plaided Scottish unit of the British regular army in North America. But the idea, spoken aloud and taken in tandem with his oft-expressed views on improving the common soldier's welfare, the officer corps, marksmanship, drill, interior economy, logistics, and obsolete doctrine and tactics, shows the professional side of Wolfe the soldier and highlights his constant search within the eighteenth-century British army to enhance its war fighting capabilities.
What has been singularly lacking in the Canadian-centric biographies of Wolfe to date (and there are many) has been any discussion of his role and influence in the British army as a professional soldier, innovator, and trainer. Indeed, previous studies have not offered any comprehensive analysis or understanding by his actual biographers of the larger military context in which he operated--the mid-eighteenth-century Georgian army transposed to the North American wilderness where it had to, in Darwinian fashion, quickly adapt and evolve to meet the challenges of riverine and amphibious operations; the ruthless savagery of la petite guerre; and the overwhelming dependence on good logistics to just move, sustain, and fight large conventional armies. Two exceptions to the norm are both Brits: Stuart Reid WOLFE: The Career of General James Wolfe from Culloden to Quebec (2000) and now Stephen Brumwell.
On both sides of the Atlantic, Wolfe has been mythologized (1874-1928) or demythologized (1934-2008) to the point that the pendulum swing between one extreme to the other has perpetuated a series of extreme cartoonish and anecdotal vignettes: a young ethical Wolfe refusing to execute a wounded Highlander at Culloden; courageous Wolfe landing at Louisburg with his silver-topped cane; a reflective, sensitive Wolfe reciting Thomas Gray's Elegy (1783) as his flotilla of troop-laden boats drift down the Saint Lawrence on the ebb tide; the sickly but dauntless Wolfe climbing a treacherous goat path to surprise an astonished Montcalm; and tragic Wolfe gasping his last words: "Now I can die in peace, God be praised!" Wolfe certainly died, but it is debatable whether his reputation will ever rest in peace.
Brumwell is no stranger to taking on some of the sacred cows of North American history. His groundbreaking work, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (2002), challenged our preconceived notions of the British army's performance during their first serious land war in North America and dispelled the notion that British soldiers were all "automatons--faceless components in a rigid military machine" commanded by "fops and fools." He successfully argued "that the British Army contributed far more to winning the Seven Years' War in the Americas than many historians have been prepared to concede."
He followed it up with a revisionist history of the infamous Robert Rogers and his Rangers' controversial raid on the Abeneki village of Saint-Francois (Odanak) on October 4, 1759. In White Devil: A True Story of War, Savagery, and Vengeance in Colonial America (2004), Brumwell succinctly charted a narrative course between current polarized academic opinions of Rogers as a frontier hero or perpetrator of genocide. In this previous biography, Brumwell made no attempt to gloss over some of his protagonist's more savage qualities and Rogers's controversial actions taken during the raid, such as the slaughter of innocents or resorting to cannibalism on the long march home. Likewise, Brumwell has now peeled away the many myths and reputations of Wolfe and navigates the reader between the two extreme camps to reveal the real man and soldier.
In doing so, Brumwell is the first to admit to the reader that Wolfe, warts and all, though not a Great Captain of Antiquity, "was undoubtedly a great soldier," albeit blessed with a large store of luck and audacity (p. 3). Wolfe's recurring health problems, both physical and mental, are never used as excuses, but are compellingly presented. Brumwell's portrait of Wolfe is a multifaceted one and based on a diligent and thorough return to primary source material. We see Wolfe, the devoted brother and son; the young regimental officer faced with ill-disciplined men and a corrupt system of patronage and preferment; the young aide-de-camp supervising the looting of a Jacobite estate; the spurned lover; and the self-improving professional staff officer witness to operational negligence and widespread administrative bungling, resolved to do better whenever it becomes his turn in a future war.
Most historians, however, have a single-sided view of Wolfe, primarily the persona of a young priggish British commander at Quebec, killed at the very moment of his singular spectacular victory, then deified shortly afterward as a martyr of the Great War for Empire, an icon of British imperialism and Victorian poster boy for the stiff upper lip school of war fighting. We have all seen the famous Benjamin West painting. Despite Wolfe's character flaws and lapses of judgment, Brumwell argues that Wolfe was a man of action and an excellent trainer of men; he was well respected and known throughout the army long before his public image took wings after his dynamic performance at Louisburg. That Wolfe on his final campaign, a commoner and protégé of "The Great Commoner" himself, was argumentative and quarrelsome with his three brigadiers, all sprigs of nobility, is a matter of public record. In all biographies to date, what is often lost in the stereotypical and, predictably, mandatory focus on his command staff's in-house bickering and backstabbing is that the thirty-two-year-old major general, in tandem with his competent naval counterpart Charles Saunders (who truly merits and requires his own biography!), mounted and maintained the largest joint operation ever seen in North America to that date, despite his brigadiers' rancor. The operational lessons learned during this one campaign were significant in that they were successfully applied three years later at the landings and successful siege of Havana in 1762 and incorporated forevermore into British amphibious doctrine. It was no fluke that the key players of the operations in and around the fortified city and harbor of Havana, three times the size of Quebec, were all former subordinates of Wolfe: colonels William Howe, Guy Carleton, and Ralph Burton, and engineer Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Mackellar.
Part of the scholarly knee-jerk disenchantment with "Wolfe at Quebec" certainly stems from much of the inaccurate and sometimes isolated "strategic" or contextual analysis surrounding his victory on the Plains of Abraham. The general consensus today is that ubiquitous British sea power dealt the final fatal blow to New France at Quiberon Bay, (G. S. Graham, I. K. Steele, C. P. Stacey, et al). While the battle was certainly not the decisive battle or strategic masterstroke that has been traditionally claimed by historians, such as J. F. C. Fuller (Decisive Battles of the Western World, 1954-56 ) or Basil Liddell Hart (Great Captains Unveiled ), it was a massive moral and symbolic victory for the American colonies who greeted the news with paeans of praise and sermons while an ecstatic British public wore their bells of victory threadbare with joy.
Whatever crimes might have been laid at Wolfe's door for his generalship during the Quebec campaign were literally washed away in the postmortem euphoria and forgotten during his subsequent apotheosis to imperialistic icon. Examination of process was certainly usurped by propaganda, and, while distasteful in hindsight, certainly Wolfe cannot be held accountable for the feeding frenzy that attended his death in subsequent years, nor his elevation to Britain's pantheon of heroes for all the wrong reasons. He became a victim of the "usable history" school, his true character buried beneath the various agendas of his supporters and detractors down through the centuries.
Wolfe's first biographer, John Pringle (1760) was certainly not conflicted in how Wolfe should be remembered. He entitled his work The Life of General James Wolfe, the Conqueror of Canada: or the Elogium of that Renowned Hero, Attempted According to the Rules of Eloquence, with a Monumental Inscription, to Perpetuate his Memory (1760). He was followed by Robert Wright in 1864 with his Life of Major General James Wolfe and Francis Parkman in 1884 with Montcalm and Wolfe, both biographers inspiring a spate of jingoistic novels and ensuring that Wolfe's name would automatically appear in any anthology of great British commanders for one century to come. In 1895, A. G. Bradley added another biography, while Beckles Wilson published his useful Life and Letters of James Wolfe in 1909. They, in turn, were followed by biographers Edward Salmon (1909), A. T. Waugh (1928), J. T. Finlay (1928), and F. E. Whitton (1929). But, as Brumwell points out early on, Wolfe's earliest biographers were a crowd of "well-meaning enthusiasts" who went to such extremes as sanitizing any letters that might contradict the young general's supposed "superhuman virtues" that he never possessed (p. xix). Brumwell accuses them of manufacturing "a paragon all too vulnerable to counter-attack from commentators keen to knock him down to size" (p. xix).
First to step up to the plate was E. R. Adair in 1936, who, in his presidential address to the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association, argued that Wolfe's reputation rested on his posthumous fame rather than his actual exploits. The floodgates were open for reinterpretation of the Conqueror of Canada. More biographers of the old and new schools lined up during the bicentennial of the siege and battle in 1959, including Robin Reilly (1960), Duncan Grinnell-Milne (1963), Colin Clair (1963), Oliver Warner (1972), and Stuart Reid (2000).
On reflection, Wolfe would probably modestly agree with Adair's assessment that he achieved a celebrity in death that he never achieved in life, though his earthly exploits are, in and of themselves, sufficient to warrant a modest label of 'innovative and far-seeing soldier of the British Army.' Brumwell's book insists it is time to get over the navel-gazing approach of assessing Wolfe "upon the circumstances surrounding a single dramatic and significant victory" or categorizing Wolfe as an example of "cultural 'life after death'" (p. xxix). He goes a long way in helping the reader to find a deeper, more holistic explanation for Wolfe's great "contemporary" reputation as a professional soldier.
I cannot fault Brumwell on his admiration of Wolfe as an individual who faced insurmountable odds and managed to persevere to the end. Wolfe's mission, while not impossible, was a thorny complex tactical problem compounded by prevailing winds, forbidding geography, and peevish subordinates. Criticisms that he was a bad strategist are true, but Quebec was but one line of operation within the North American campaign strategy dictated by Pitt. Wolfe was an executor of the operational plan, not its mastermind. Wolfe was, indeed, faced with a choice of difficulties, and some choices simply did not work, but his expertise, drive, and superior leadership qualities saw him through, and he paid the ultimate sacrifice for his final choice. Most reviewers who will be tempted to scorn Brumwell's call that Wolfe should be accorded 'immortal memory' on either side of the Atlantic should remember one thing. Wolfe was a product of his army culture, where 'love of honour and dread of shame' went hand in hand. Wolfe has nothing to be ashamed of, nor does Brumwell who achieves the stated aim of his book admirably. His Paths of Glory, in my mind, is the best and most comprehensive biography of Wolfe (and I own them all, including Pringle's account) written to date.
. Wolfe to Rickson, June 9, 1751, Banff, quoted in Beckles Wilson, The Life and Letters of James Wolfe (London: William Heineman, 1909), 139.
. Stephen Brumwell, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 3.
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Ian McCulloch. Review of Brumwell, Stephen, Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe.
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