Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe

by Stephen Brumwell, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006, $39.95.

What an enviable death. At 32, British Maj. Gen. James Wolfe died outside Quebec of wounds received in combat on the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, as his small force crushed the defenders of that city. Wolfe’s victory capped a months-long campaign and an 18-year military career. Alas, reputations ebb and flow over time. Wolfe’s reputation has of late suffered, which is not surprising, given the anti-imperialist tenor of the last half or three quarters of a century.

With Paths of Glory, Stephen Brumwell seeks to rehabilitate Wolfe’s reputation, tracing his earliest days and even assessing the general’s reputation in the years shortly after his death at Quebec. Brumwell follows Wolfe through several famous battles of the 18th century, including the defeat of the Jacobite invasion at Culloden in 1745. Some sections of the book provide more battleground detail than biography— likely due to a dearth of sources, particularly on Wolfe’s early career. The general emerges as a thoroughly professional soldier in a sometimes amateurish army. While Brumwell offers a partial portrait of the military system that fostered Wolfe’s rapid rise, it would be interesting to read a more thorough mapping of the British patronage networks.

While Brumwell vies with Fred Anderson as today’s preeminent historian of the French and Indian War, historians might wish the author had sharpened his historiographical axes a bit. He disputes other historians in a manner so delicate that general readers might miss it. For instance, Brumwell challenges an account in Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War that suggests Wolfe expected to die in that final fateful assault on Quebec. Yet he does so in the passive voice (“it is claimed”) and only mentions Anderson in a citation. Brumwell’s take on the matter: “Wolfe’s final orders…breathe confidence in the daring, but meticulously planned strike….And whilst Wolfe was certainly in very poor health, there is no evidence that he was dying— from consumption or anything else.”

Brumwell takes a close look at Wolfe’s final hours, including the general’s reported recitation of Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The author concludes that Wolfe would not have recited the poem in the boats on the way to Anse au Foulon, as he had just given orders to observe strict silence and wouldn’t compromise operational surprise for a literary flourish.

Brumwell presents Wolfe’s celebrated 1759 siege in a straightforward manner, making the case that the general triumphed through careful planning, thorough training, compassionate leadership and effective cooperation with the Royal navy. The account of the siege itself is stirring.

Brumwell’s final chapter, “Wolfe’s Dust,” tracks the general’s reputation up to about 1800, although this seems a premature end to the story, as Wolfe, both the soldier and the symbol of empire, has remained controversial among historians up to the present.

 

Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.