Gen. James Wolfe: French and Indian War, Biography & Facts

Instructor: Matthew Hill
James Wolfe was a British officer who fought in the French-Indian War. He is best known for his assault on Quebec and his dramatic death on the Plains of Abraham.

Roots of a Warrior

James Wolfe devoted his entire life to military service. He was known as much for his dramatic death as he was for his life. James Wolfe was born on January 2, 1727, in Westerham, England. His father, Edward, was an officer in the British army. At the age of fifteen, Wolfe joined the 1st Regiment of Marines. During the War of Jenkins Ear, Wolfe was supposed to accompany his father on an expedition to Cartagena, Columbia, but he missed out due to illness. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, given that most of the British forces in the Siege of Cartagena were decimated by yellow fever. Had he gone, we might never have heard of him!

Major General James Wolfe
Major General James Wolfe

Battle of Dettingen

Wolfe saw his first taste of combat during the War of the Austrian Succession in Germany in the Battle of Dettingen, in June 1743. The British forces were led by King George II and it is distinguished for being the last battle in British history led by a sitting monarch. Wolfe showed remarkable courage, and steady nerves under fire, especially given his horse was shot out from under him. The Duke of Cumberland, a son of George II, took notice, and promoted him to the captain of the 45th Regiment of Foot.

King George II at the Battle of Dettingen
George II at the Battle of Dettingen

Jacobite Rebellion

In October 1745, Wolfe was recalled to England to put down the Jacobite Rebellion, which was a Scottish Highlander revolt. Wolfe stood out again in battle, but this time for his humanity. At the Battle of Culloden in April 1746, Wolfe refused to shoot a wounded Jacobite soldier even though the Duke of Cumberland ordered him to. Wolfe refused, citing reasons of honor. After the rebellion was put down, Wolfe returned to continental Europe where he fought under General John Mourdant at the Battle of Lauffeld in July 1747. This was the largest battle of Wolfe's entire career and the first in which he was wounded. His gallantry did not go unnoticed though, as he was officially commended for his courage under fire. In time, he recovered to full strength and remained in the war until the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed in 1748. At the end of the war, Wolfe was a Major General. This was incredible given that he was only twenty-one years of age and this was a senior position. It just demonstrates how much his superiors thought of his talents.

Scene from the Battle of Lauffeld
Battle of Lauffeld

Background of the French-Indian War

The next phase, and the part of his life that Wolfe is best known for, was during the French-Indian War in North America. War broke out in 1756 when the English discovered that the French had built forts in the Ohio Valley - the region between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi - in violation of previous treaties. The contest stretched from Canada to the thirteen American colonies. The war was fought between France with their Native American allies and England with the assistance of the American colonies.

Siege of Louisbourg

Wolfe was sent to Canada and fought under the command of General Jeffrey Amherst at the Siege of Louisbourg in June-July 1758. Amherst was the supreme commander of British North American forces and highly regarded in military circles. The ultimate goal was to attack French headquarters at Quebec City, but the 'Fortress of Louisbourg' posed a problem as it guarded the entrance to the St. Lawrence River. Louisbourg was an imposing fortress on the Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia. Wolfe commanded troops in the landing party and quickly captured Light House Point. In a bitter clash of naval and land forces, French forces were overwhelmed and surrendered in July 1758.

The Siege of Louisbourg
Siege of Louisbourg

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