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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

General James Wolfe......

    General James Wolfe is one of the most well-known and misunderstood British military commanders of the 18th century. His memory has been done a disservice by two opposing camps: one which would have him canonized, and the other which would have him demonized. The stiff-upper-lip Victorians saw him as a martyr for the Empire and made him into a secular saint for a state affiliated movement with all the trappings of religious fervor. Young lads were taught to grow up to be like Wolfe and to spread their race to the farthest corners of the globe. “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set…” This underlying concept turned into something of an obsession that became seriously unhealthy for Britain. For a time, it seemed as if many of her people were willing make her a “great” nation at the expense of keeping her a “good” one.

    But as the Empire gradually fell apart, things that people once viewed as heroic came to be looked down upon as inordinately jingoistic. The conquests of Wolfe fell into this line of thinking. But instead of handling the long overdue epiphany with balance, many historical “myth-busters” went on a campaign to tarnish Wolfe’s reputation totally and completely, transforming him into an always priggish, inately brutal, self-consumed, untalented military madman who could trace back all his successes to random strokes of luck. Disgruntled French Quebecers joined in the fray, defacing Wolfe-related monuments and trying to ridiculously rewrite history and call the Battle of Quebec a draw!

    Sadly, the real Wolfe, good and bad points present and accounted for, has all too often been overlooked. I personally find him to be a very intriguing character because he is hard to know, but when you finally get to know him, he comes off as a strikingly real individual full of depth and complexity. Reading the letters of James Wolfe from primary sources is a real eye-opener that starts the process of explaining what made the man a legend and what continues to make him worthy of respect and even admiration. It also shows the places where he went wrong and the thought process behind the misdeeds he did. Uncomfortable as it may be, different time periods held radically different beliefs, and that must be taken into account in all historical studies.

    The Wolfe presented in his letters is certainly not an eternal prig, and the claim that he had no sense of humor is clearly unfounded. While he may not have been particularly outgoing and could be reserved and chilly at times, he clearly let loose with those he was comfortable with, like his parents, his friends, and his sweethearts. He had a sharp and sarcastic wit, poking fun at this “slight carcass” and frail constitution in overblown lamentations. He joked about his efforts to better his education by taking mathematics lessons which he saw utterly no purpose in (I can sympathize!), learning to dance even though he was not particularly good at it (again, he has my sympathies!), and keeping up with his flute lessons (well…I’ve got a penny whistle, but it’s close!).

    When talking with his brother and friends, the conversation often turned to the ladies…sometimes in a rather naughty way! The claims that Wolfe was homosexual are clearly silly, as he wrote various letters to various people that all indicate a perfectly normal attraction to the opposite sex. For example, he teasd his brother going on home on leave to confine himself to going out with the girl who “stares in church” and then made a list of those young females who he designated as “his”! Also, he got into several flirtatious correspondences with young women of “good breeding”, replete with sugary language and chitty-chatty nonsense about embroidered waistcoats and the like.

    Then there was the intense side of Wolfe, revealing a moody and brooding young man given to long contemplations of the nature of life and death and the future of his career. Although he was not known for being particularly religious, he clearly believed in Providence. “You know the One I am referring to,” he would say when explaining his belief that there was someone who controlled the destiny of men and of battles. When death struck near to him, as it often did, he would sometimes ponder what had become of his deceased comrade. At one point, he mused that if there was a life beyond, then his dead friend must be at peace, for, in Wolfe’s estimation, he was as a good a man as ever lived. Sometimes his thoughts about God took a cheerier turn, like when he wrote an unusually elated letter to his mother about the beautiful springtime weather and how grateful he was to the Creator for letting mankind enjoy it.

    But it seems that beyond any religious feeling, Wolfe was grounded in his military career. Like the Victorians, Nationalism proved to be an easier place for him to channel his devotion and fervor than religion. While some of his love of country is quite admirable, some of it took a twist that grouped together all outside of his race and creed as barbarians and almost subhumans. “Canaille” was the word he used to describe the Highland Scots, the Colonial Americans, and the French Quebecers among others. He could be nasty and degrading in his language and bloody-minded in his actions. He seemed to have no problem taking part in the brutal suppression of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, justifying the subsequent slaughter by accusing the Jacobites of planning to massacre Government troops. No proof has ever been uncovered to support that claim.

    Later when stationed in Scotland, Wolfe came up with a shockingly ruthless plan to annihilate a rebel Highland clan by putting some of his troops in an indefensible position so they would be wiped out by the rebels, giving Wolfe the excuse to wipe out the rebels in response! “Can you believe I can be so bloody?” Wolfe challenged one of his horrified friends. Clearly he could be, and he meant to prove he was no milk-sop. He was a hardened military veteran, and to him, the ends of “getting the job” done justified any means. Later, in the French and Indian War, he willingly waged civilian warfare, destroying French Canadian villages and ravaging the countryside. He also took and threatened to execute civillian hostages if the French high command wouldn’t “play ball” with him during negotiations.

    However, it must be said that Wolfe was not alone in using the scorched earth policy. It was an accepted mode of warfare in the 18th century, and it was meant to deprive the enemy of resources and draw them into battle. In spite of the burning and plundering, Wolfe did not encourage his men to physically harm the civilians of French Canada. In fact, he was furious when one of his officers killed the inhabitants of a village, an act which proved to be one of the worst war crimes commited during the campaign. Also, Wolfe offered the French Canadians of the burned-out villages the option to surrender themselves to the British as opposed to starving to death in the woods. It may not sound like much of a break, but it did offer the desperate refugees some access to resources.
    It must also be said that Wolfe’s low view of other races and the inhabitants of other places usually improved with time. For example, Wolfe started by saying that the Highland soldiers were “no great mischief if they fall” to saying that the officers’ corps was “the most manly and gallant” he had ever seen. Likewise, he started off by calling the Americans “dirty, contemptible dogs” and moved to naming one of their regiments “Swift and Bold”! This held true for the civilian population of Scotland and the local recruits of small towns in England, as well. At least in some cases, Wolfe's bark was considerably worse than his bite.

    A final point that needs to be made about Wolfe’s legacy was his ability as a leader of men. As a folk singer myself, I cannot help but be moved by the emotionally stirring ballads about the relationship between Wolfe and his soldiers. That relationship, even more so than his audaciousness and courage on the battlefield, made Wolfe live on in legend. His letters clearly demonstrate that the bond between commander and men was very deep, and that he viewed his army as “a band of brothers” where every man, no matter how high or low his rank, was bound to do his duty out of honor. He urged the officers to observe the characters of their soldiers so that they would better know which ones to encourage and which ones to discipline. He also urged them to be concerned about the physical well-being of their men, inquiring after their health and assuring they were given what was needed to improve their condition.

    Wolfe practiced what he preached. He visited his soldiers often, inquiring after their health, taking a personal interest in them, and winning their undying respect and admiration. Ironically, it was the Highlanders who became particularly enamored with him, affectionately nicknaming him “The Red-Headed Corporal”, because of his flaming hair and the worsted badge he wore. They loved his hands-on leadership style, so much like the Celtic chiefs of old, and it was said they would have “gone through fire and water to have served him.” According to legend, one Highlander named Duncan McPhee became Wolfe’s self-appointed body-guard, much to the general’s bemusement!

    Just before Wolfe was killed at the Battle of Quebec, a British sergeant was shot through the lunges as the general passed along the lines decked out in his scarlet cape and silver walking cane. Wolfe paused, knelt beside the gasping man, and squeezed his hand. He then promised that if he survived the wound, he would be promoted, and passed on the message to another officer to assure that the promise would be carried out. Not long after, Wolfe himself was shot multiple times. “Don’t let my brave fellows see me fall,” he said to the soldiers who came to support him and bare him off the field. As “The Red-Headed Corporal” lay bleeding to death, the Highlanders charged the French and the battle was won by the British. Thus, Canada would come to bear British monarchs on her coins and the Loyalists of the American Revolution would have a place of safe haven to go to when they were exiled from their native land.  And thus it was also that at the height of victory, Wolfe’s soldiers wept for his passing.

    As I delve further into the life of Gen. Wolfe, I feel burdened to pray for the man’s soul. He was admirable and less-than-admirable in many ways, but there is no doubt that his actions have affected  innumerable aspects of our modern world. Perhaps I would be typing in French instead of English right now if not for his conquest. But besides that, he was a human being, not very different from the rest of us, who joked and pondered and flirted and dared to dream. When I sing about him now, I have a better sense of the depth of the songs and the man who inspired them. I will always keep his soul in my prayers…Won’t you join me? 

"The Red-Headed Corporal"


  1. Thank you! An excellent introduction to the man!

    - Mack in Texas

  2. Your most welcome, Mack.

    Wolfe has always sparked my interest since the day I learned to sing "Brave Wolfe." It was so deeply haunting and heroic at the same time, and I determined to learn more about the "man behind the myth".

  3. Thank you for publishing "General Wolfe for Dummies". Now I may have a sliver of an idea of who he is when his name inevitably comes up in conversations during our visits. ;)

  4. Your most welcome, Emerald. And thank you for trying to teach me how to properly say "Quebec"....I can't promise it will always come out that way, but it's the thought that counts! ;-)