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  • Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe
  • Alexander V. Campbell
Stephen Brumwell . Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe. McGill-Queens University Press. 2006. 432. $60.00, $29.95

Major-General James Wolfe has been the subject of numerous biographies since he died outside the walls of Quebec City on 13 September 1759. Neither time nor capricious intellectual trends have dampened interest in this soldier whose successful operations against the capital of New France changed the course of North American history. Although critics have savaged Wolfe's reputation over the last two generations, Brumwell challenges these revisionists by asking a very simple question: why did contemporaries view Wolfe with such great esteem before he became a symbol of imperial martyrdom and virtue? The answer provides a fascinating glimpse into the military dimension of the first British Empire.

Brumwell divides James Wolfe's life into three major phases. The first, from his birth in 1727 through his baptism of fire as an adolescent subaltern at the 1743 Battle of Dettingen, reveals a young man entirely devoted to the profession of arms, despite the loss of his brother on active service. The next period, bracketed by suppression of the Jacobite Rebellion (1745-46) and the 1758 Siege of Louisbourg, in which Brigadier-General James Wolfe distinguished himself as a bold, indomitable, and enterprising leader, was a time of rapid promotion predicated upon strong patronage links to establishment figures and a noteworthy record of regimental [End Page 263] command. Brumwell fittingly devotes over half of his book to a careful study of the final act in Wolfe's life, as he prepared and led the 1759 expedition against Quebec. While this was the achievement for which the general earned immortality, readers learn that the campaign itself was fraught with difficulties and faced a doubtful end through the hazardous assault at Anse au Foulon.

The author applies insights from his 2002 book, Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755-1763, to produce the best modern assessment of Wolfe's amphibious operations along the St Lawrence River. Although the general was barely on speaking terms with his immediate subordinates, Robert Monckton, George Townsend, and James Murray, good relations with the admirals in charge of the fleet offset this liability. They were the ones who ultimately guaranteed the army's freedom of movement throughout the campaign - a vital strategic asset as British troops probed for weak points beyond Quebec City. Moreover, Wolfe also benefited from the high regard given him by the remainder of his seasoned strike force. Despite a significant reverse at the Battle of Montmorency on 31 July, the commander remained sure that his troops could capture Quebec if only the enemy could be drawn out from behind their well-designed defensive positions and onto an open field. This strategic puzzle, combined with failing personal health and the arrival of cold weather, finally prompted Wolfe to select the Plains of Abraham as the most likely place to engage the French in a conventional manner. Failure was not an option, since the general knew the fate of other high-ranking officers who had been derelict in their duty earlier in the war. Accordingly, Wolfe made a calculated gamble, conducted a surprise landing a few miles above the capital city, and learned of his tremendous victory while bleeding to death from wounds suffered on the battlefield.

Although Brumwell paints a sympathetic portrait of the major general, he does not whitewash any of the officer's personal failings. He points out that the Wolfe was subject to youthful indiscretion, estranged from his parents over prospective marital mismatches, ready to sacrifice men in forlorn hopes, and guarded in his military councils. Nevertheless, such flaws were outshone by the more transcendent qualities of courage, loyalty, and determination that were the hallmarks of his character from the time he began wearing madder livery. It was these traits, Brumwell argues, that ultimately laid the basis for the soldier's immense popularity - first among his own troops prior to 13 September - and then the general public after his untimely death.

This meticulously researched and intelligently written volume about James...


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