Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


In Montcalm and Wolfe, Francis Parkman presents a majestic and panoramic history of the French and Indian Wars in North America. Against a backdrop of the world's first truly global conflict, the Seven Years War, Parkman explores the personal duel for supremacy between Britain's James Wolfe and France's Louis de Montcalm. The outcome of this conflict did indeed decisively shape the future of a continent.

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Montcalm and Wolfe: The French and Indian War (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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In Montcalm and Wolfe, Francis Parkman presents a majestic and panoramic history of the French and Indian Wars in North America. Against a backdrop of the world's first truly global conflict, the Seven Years War, Parkman explores the personal duel for supremacy between Britain's James Wolfe and France's Louis de Montcalm. The outcome of this conflict did indeed decisively shape the future of a continent.

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Meet the Author

Long regarded as the most famous of America's nineteenth-century historians, Francis Parkman was born in Massachusetts in 1823, into the affluent and comfortable world of the Boston Brahmins. His work is very much a history of "Great Men," a sweeping and glorious narrative of the motives and actions of kings, queens, and princes; politicians, courtesans and generals; heroes and villains, all used as symbols to represent the values and qualities of their respective nations and societies. He died in November 1893 and was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1915.

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In Montcalm and Wolfe, the greatest American historian of his era, Francis Parkman, presents a majestic and panoramic history of the French and Indian Wars in North America, against the backdrop of an insightful and compelling narrative of the world's first truly global conflict, the Seven Years War between France and Britain. The strategy and tactics of North America's first major war, both military and political, are illuminated through a detailed exploration of the personal duel for supremacy between two skilled and ambitious soldiers, Britain's James Wolfe and Louis de Montcalm of France, a struggle that was to result in the death in battle of both generals on the Heights of Abraham. With the destruction of France's colonial empire in Canada, and the consolidation of British power in North America, the stage was set for the next conflict, this time between the British crown and its colonial subjects in the thirteen American colonies. As in so many other ways, in this regard, the outcome of the French and Indian Wars did indeed decisively shape the future of a continent.

Long regarded as the most famous of America's nineteenth-century historians, Francis Parkman was born in Massachusetts in 1823, into the affluent and comfortable world of the Boston Brahmins. He died in November 1893 and was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in 1915. Though Parkman has been criticized by more recent generations of historians who are more sensitive to the involvement of a wide range of ethnic and social groups in shaping North America's history and culture, Parkman's writings remain works of considerable insight and scholarship, as well as riveting reads. Though awareof the important role of both economics and power politics in shaping the policies of nations, his is very much a history of "Great Men," a sweeping and glorious narrative of the motives and actions of kings, queens, and princes; politicians, courtesans and generals; heroes and villains, all used as symbols to represent the values and qualities of their respective nations and societies.

Ordinary people, civilian or military, French or British, colonist or Native American, only rate a mention if they add "color" to Parkman's narrative of the going-ons of their betters. It was an outlook all too common among his social and academic contemporaries, who saw no value or interest in exploring the impact of the actions of rulers on the lives of the ruled. When first published in 1884, Montcalm and Wolfe was thought by many, including the author, to be Parkman's greatest work. The culmination of over forty years of passionate research, Montcalm and Wolfe is a key part of an epic seven-volume history of Britain and France's struggle for dominance in North America, a struggle that Parkman charted in a whole series of works that also includes Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), The Jesuits in North America in the 17th Century (1867), Discovery of the Great West (1869), Old Regime in Canada (1874), Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV (1877), and A Half-Century of Conflict (1892).

It was while studying as an undergraduate at Harvard University that Parkman decided that his vocation in life lay in writing the definitive history of the struggle between Native Americans, the British, and the French for control of North America. After graduating from Harvard in 1843, and in order to complete his education as a gentleman, Parkman set out on a grand tour of Europe, visiting all of the great sights and cities of the continent, including a lengthy stay in Italy. In 1845, a year after his return to the United States, bored with studying law and fearing that he was losing his eyesight, Parkman traveled west with a friend to begin his now famous exploration of part of the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri, traveling up the Platte River to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and then back home through Pueblo and Bent's Fort in Colorado. It is hard today to grasp the sense of adventure or willingness to endure hardship that it took to embark upon such an odyssey. A well brought up, rather sickly young man, one whose only previous travel had been a leisurely progression between the capital cities of Europe, was undertaking a lengthy and arduous expedition into the unknown, an undertaking whose modern equivalent would be climbing Mount Everest or trekking to the South Pole.

During his 1,700-mile journey, Parkman spent time observing frontiersmen, trappers, and new immigrants bent on taming the wilderness and living alongside the Pawnee and Dakota Sioux, gathering stories and impressions firsthand for the histories he was already planning to write. He returned to Boston with his physical health ruined by the hardships of the journey and with has eyesight badly deteriorating. Intellectually and emotionally, however, Parkman had been inspired and he was more determined than ever to write the history of the opening of the American wilderness that he had long been contemplating. As a result, in 1849 he published The Oregon Trail, an account of his trip based on the journals he had kept while in the West. The book illustrates his strengths as a writer, in the detailed, objective, and unromantic descriptions of the sights, sounds, and inhabitants of the American frontier and in particular, the lives and manners of the Native Americans he met. Parkman also provides vivid and detailed, almost luminescent descriptions of the forests and prairies of the still pristine wilderness he found himself traveling through. But the book also showcases Parkman's weaknesses, ones that were to be with him all of his life: His snobbishness and unalloyed racism, the result of the inbred arrogance of his class, resulted in a lack of any deep connection or real empathy when it came to examining the lives, outlooks, and aspirations of the Other. It was this reserve and his sense of detachment from the people he encountered on his journey that seems to have kept him from fully expressing the sense of wonder and the pleasure he obviously felt in his contacts with the people of the frontier or in his living among Native Americans.

Parkman's style and his critics
Parkman followed this first book with a two-volume work titled History of the Conspiracy of Pontiac (1851). He continued to write prodigiously, despite a life marked by numerous physical and psychological illnesses, including lameness and bad eyesight. Indeed, as he got older, his already weak eyesight worsened and he gradually lost his sight, the strain of focusing only allowing him to write for a few minutes at a time. However, despite these crippling disabilities he was still able to write his seven-volume history of North America, along with a book on cultivating roses and a novel. Simultaneously, he was professor of horticulture at Harvard University and a founder of the Archaeological Institute of America. His writings, informed by his travels in both Europe and the West, allowed him to develop his seminal histories of the conflicts between and among Europeans and Native Americans in North America. These wars, alarms, and excursions had as their backdrop what, in Parkman's time, were the seemingly limitless primeval forests of the North American continent. As Parkman saw things, these titanic struggles had their roots in the long and bloody conflict that had been fought between the two competing models of European civilization-the enlightenment and liberalism of Protestant Britain against the cruelty, repression, and absolutism of Catholic France, a struggle Parkman viewed as being fundamentally a battle between good and evil, right and wrong.

Parkman leaves his readers in no doubt where, as a Protestant New Englander and a well-born and bred gentleman of Boston, one moreover living in a city crowded with poor, Catholic Irish immigrants and their descendents, he places his sympathies in that struggle. For all Parkman's skills as a historian, and they were considerable, he remained a man of his times and class, and his conservatism and reactionary attitudes reflect the attitudes and outlook of his wealthy and insular peers. While he was working on Montcalm and Wolfe, he came out publicly in various writings not only against universal male suffrage, which would have seen the working class gain the vote, but also against granting voting rights to any women, even those of his own class and breeding. To Parkman, such steps flew in the face of natural law, which preordained the relationships between the classes and sexes and to the lessons of history, a fact he alluded to in his conclusion to Montcalm and Wolfe.

Like many of his contemporaries, Parkman frequently uses what to modern eyes are ugly racial epithets in his writings about both Native Americans and French settlers ("red and white savages"). Parkman uses such language without abashment or irony, secure in his own superiority over the Other. With such attitudes and this type of language, it is hardly surprising that Parkman's books have been characterized as racist, sexist, and classist by the current generation of North-American historians, who are much more sensitive than Parkman could ever have been to the roles and importance of a wide variety of ethnic and social groups in shaping the course of North America's history and development. But while such criticism is amply justified, it is equally important to remember that at its core, Montcalm and Wolfe remains the stirring story of two great generals fighting for advantage in a war that shaped the destiny and future of North America.

The French and Indian Wars
The struggle that forms the backdrop to Parkman's narrative of the duel for supremacy between Generals Wolfe and Montcalm, the French and Indian Wars, bore little resemblance to the highly stylized warfare of eighteenth-century Europe. War in North America was a conflict of raids and sieges, of long marches and brief skirmishes, of ambushes and clashes in trackless forests with barely seen opponents. Yet this war--whose popular image is captured in books such as James Fennimore Cooper's Last of the Mohicans and which saw the establishment of Roger's Rangers, the unit that the US Army considers to be the forbearer of all of America's Special Forces--has long been overshadowed in the American public's consciousness by the creation myths that surround the more emblematic battles of the American Revolution twenty years later, not to mention the carnage of the Civil War and the genocide of Native Americans during the Plains Wars, along with the massive bloodlettings of the wars of the twentieth century.

This is a great pity, as the war's campaigns and battles, which Parkman so carefully describes, were the culmination of more than fifty years of raiding and skirmishing between the French and British colonists in North America, who had been left by their rulers back in Europe to carry much of the burden of the fighting. Many of America's generals during the Revolutionary War, from George Washington to Benedict Arnold, got their first military experience serving in the colonial militia. It was this militia that shouldered their muskets and fought much of the war, their only help coming from small detachments of regular troops dispatched from Europe to assist the thinly stretched and hard-pressed colonists in defending their isolated settlements and their long and porous frontiers from raids by both French troops and their Native American allies. In their turn, the colonists, little concerned with the dynastic squabbles of their titular masters, were all too often reluctant, recalcitrant and militarily ineffective combatants. But it was also a war where the American colonists saw the power of professional European armies up close for the first time and had a chance to train in the irregular warfare and guerrilla tactics, best epitomized by the exploits of Roger's Rangers, that would form such an important facet of their own struggle with the British in the Revolutionary War a few years later.

Squabbling over the geographical boundaries and political future of the French and British possessions in North America had been going on for fifty years and came to a head as a result of the race to occupy and control the Ohio Valley. The British objected to French forts being built on land they considered their own and they decided to send a formal protest about French behavior. The messenger chosen to deliver the message was a young colonist who would get his first taste of international diplomacy: George Washington. When the French ignored the British protest and continued to seize and fortify key strategic points, it was this same Washington, while in command of a small body of colonial militia, who skirmished with a group of French soldiers killing ten of them, including their commanding officer, in what came to be called the Battle of Great Meadows. It was to be the spark that ignited the French and Indian War (1754-1763).

As Parkman details in his book, the war in North America became a series of expeditions whereby the British attempted to capture the French forts scattered across the West-Fort Duquesne, Fort Frontenac, Fort Niagara, Fort Ticonderoga, and Fort St. Frédéric at Crown Point. The spirited and initially successful defense of Fort Ticonderoga by Montcalm elicits particular admiration from Parkman. But in the end, even this bastion fell and as French outposts were picked off one by one, and as British troops, colonial militia, and their Iroquois allies sacked and plundered isolated French holdings in the West, further reducing French power and influence, the struggle came to be centered on gaining control of the St. Lawrence River. Two great generals, Montcalm and Wolfe fought and maneuvered against each other in a struggle that required both men, at the end of long and unreliable lines of supply and communications, to improvise and adapt to the conditions imposed by the vastness of the American continent.

Parkman describes how both generals were forced to use the small cadres of British and French regular troops they had available as the reliable stiffeners for often poorly trained locals, and how both armies had to alter their tactics to suit American conditions and habits. The British in particular overhauled and simplified their formations to accommodate the densely wooded and broken terrain of North America, significantly reducing the role of cavalry, reconfiguring their infantry formations to give them greater mobility and tactical flexibility, as well as developing the role of light infantry to act as scouts, skirmishers, and flankers for infantry of the line. But despite all the skirmishing and maneuvering that the war saw, when in 1759, the struggle reached its climax on the Plains of Abraham, it was to be in a battle that conformed more closely to the European tradition of a contest between two lines of battle across an open field. It was a bloody fight that was to see both Wolfe and Montcalm killed. But it was a British victory, even if they had lost their popular commander and Quebec was taken. The next year, Montreal fell, and the war in North America was over. While it was not until 1763 that the Treaty of Paris awarded control of Canada to Great Britain, this was a mere formality. Victory on the Plains of Abraham had changed the history of North America forever.

All peoples have seminal events in their history that define their identity. For Americans and Canadians, one of those pivotal moments was the triumph of British arms over a beleaguered but still valiant French enemy at the Siege of Quebec. It was this victory that ensured that a united Canada would become and remain a British possession, not a French colony. Even as the Treaty of Paris was being negotiated, Canada began to welcome a steady influx of new English-speaking immigrants, many of them Scots. This surge in the numbers of British colonists reduced the status of Canada's long-established French population to that of a political and linguistic minority, one that would have to struggle constantly to maintain their identity and way of life. It is a struggle that continues to this day. The French defeat in Canada was also an accomplishment that removed much of the threat to the security and wellbeing of the American colonies. It had been the ambitions and encroachments of France, the era's greatest military power, that had necessitated the stationing of British soldiers in the colonies to protect both imperial and colonist interests. The fear of a French invasion, along with the constant and murderous raidings that were the main military instruments of the struggle for supremacy on the frontier, had made bearable for colonials the heavy taxes needed to support a significant and pervasive military establishment. But with their defensive role gone, the presence of these same Redcoats, once welcomed, began to chafe more and more on Americans, a disenchantment that would find its full expression a few years later at Lexington and Concord.

Despite their limitations, Parkman's books in general and Montcalm and Wolfe in particular provide a fascinating and riveting tale of conflict and human endeavor. His vivid descriptions of the wildness and majesty of North America's forests not only served to captivate and stir the imaginations of his contemporaries and fellow citizens, but they also evoke an era of unlimited possibilities, when the frontier was still a thing of wonder and America looked to the world with a spirit of optimism and adventure that embraced the boundless possibilities that the grandeur and bounty of its land inspired.

Ian M. Cuthbertson, M. Litt., is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute of the New School University and Director of the WPI's Counter-Terrorism Project. He holds an M. Litt. in Strategic Studies from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and is the author of a number of books and articles on European military affairs, transatlantic security issues, and counter-terrorism policy.
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  • Posted December 28, 2011

    Highly Recommend for any American History fan

    Mr. Parkman has provided a very comprehensive and easily read book on the French and Indian War with this work. Although this was really a World War, the book concentrates on the battles and campaigns in North America. I had troubles reading one of Parkman¿s other books, but this one was hard for me to put down. It is an excellent resource for any one interested in the Colonial period of the American colonies.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 21, 2011

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