Holmes, Rear-Admiral Charles, report
Holmes, Charles, 1711-1761.
Report by Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, Sept. 18, 1759. - 1759.
Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes (1711-1761) was the sea commander who led a landing party of marines into Quebec at the time of its capture by Wolfe in 1759. He was third in command under Wolfe.
This manuscript was formerly in the collection of the Fermor-Hesketh family of Northamptonshire, England. It was sold at auction at Sotheby's and purchased by Val O'Donovan, then Chancellor of the University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ont.
Contents: 7 p. ms. report dictated by Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes for his superiors, recounting in detail the events of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Major-General James Wolfe captured Quebec on Sept. 13, 1759, but died on the battlefield. His opponent, the Marquis de Montcalm died the next day. Holmes dictated a detailed accoount of the battle and sent two copies on separate ships to the British Admiralty. This document is the second copy of that report.
This document has no salutation or signature.
Donated by Val O'Donovan in 2000.
The first copy of this report with salutation and signature, is in the British Library.
See below for a transcription of the manuscript and more information from the Daily Bulletin.
Call number: GA 141
"Letter from the Plains of Abraham" (excerpt from the Daily Bulletin, University of Waterloo, September 14, 2000)
It was just a minor engagement in the Seven Years' War between England and France, a battle lasting a mere 15 minutes, but the outcome would bring a country into being -- a country called Canada.
And UW now possesses an original letter -- brown ink on creamy paper, almost translucent with age--that tells the story of how Major-General James Wolfe captured the fortress of Quebec on September 13, 1759, at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
Wolfe died of his wounds on the battlefield, and the defender of the citadel, the Marquis de Montcalm, died the next day. On September 18, Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, third in command under Wolfe, attended to paperwork, dictating a report for his superiors at the Admiralty.
This letter and a copy of it would make their perilous journeys to London aboard separate ships -- the extra copy providing assurance that at least one would survive the stormy seas of early winter. In fact, both ships arrived. One copy of Holmes's report was eventually archived at the British Library; the other vanished.
That second copy now reposes in the Dana Porter Library at UW, 241 years after the Quebec battle. It surfaced as part of the vast private collection of the Fermor-Hesketh family of Northamptonshire. Valentine O'Donovan, a Cambridge businessman and UW's chancellor, learned that the collection was to be auctioned by Sotheby's in London. Among the items in the catalogue was "a contemporary first-hand account of one of the most decisive battles in North American history", says O'Donovan, who is an avid collector of first editions. "I recognized it as an important part of our heritage."
Even before he sent the bid, for an amount he prefers not to disclose, "UW, and the fine collection here, came to mind," he says. "I planned to make it an anonymous gift to the university, but president David Johnston persuaded me that it would be a good thing to reveal that an engineer can have a love of the arts." Educated in Ireland as an engineer, O'Donovan is the founding president of Com Dev Ltd.
The gift is now the earliest piece of Canadiana in the UW library collection. "This gift shows chancellor O'Donovan's dedication and commitment to the university, and is a fine example to others" who are potential benefactors, says Johnston.
The university is home to a collection of papers and memoirs of historical significance valued in the millions of dollars, but, says Johnston, "of inestimably greater value to students and other researchers for whom these items, such as the Holmes letter, give a real sense of past events you won't find in a textbook."
In 1,669 words over seven pages, Holmes's letter relates how troops boarded the ships at midnight, travelling seven miles downriver in "the most profound Silence" to land, in strong currents, at the foot of the bluff. From there, 1,800 men, with their artillery and ammunition, including "17 Pieces of Battering Cannon, beside others of a smaller Callibre, Mortars, Shells, Shot, Powder, Plank & climbed the 175-foot (50-metre) cliffs to surprise a lax guard and the unprepared Montcalm. It was, Holmes wrote, (with the spelling and capitalization characteristic of his era) "The most hazardous & difficult Task I was ever engaged in."
UW history professor Geoff Hayes says he was "pleasantly surprised" to hear of the donation of this "extraordinary document -- an almost eye-witness account of the most pivotal event in Canadian history." Says Hayes: "Historians love to work in primary documents. They are as close to an event as we will ever get."
(Article courtesy of the Daily Bulletin, University of Waterloo, September 14, 2000)
Letter from Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, with transcription
Letter by Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes, Sept. 18, 1759
We have at last brought to a happy conclusion the great Service we were sent upon; and the Capital of all Canada acknowledges the superior Bravery & Success of his Majesty's Arms.
Before the 5 instant, We had met with nothing but disappointments at Montmorency & all our attempts below the Town-A new plan at last took place- That post was abandoned, & our main Force was directed up the River above Quebec, where I had commanded a considerable time before, & now continued to have the Direction afloat.
We had passed 5 Sail of Men of War & about eleven Transports above the Town, in spite of all the Fire of the Batteries. -A Thing which they had thought impossible, and on the 5th & 6 instant, about 3400 of our Troops, marched from Point Levi six or seven miles up the River, and were safely embarked, with all the Generals.
A plan was immediately set on Foot, to attempt a landing about four Leagues above the Town; & it was ready to be put in Execution, when Genr'l Wolfe reconnoitered down the River, & fixed upon Foulon; a spot adjacent to the Citadel, which, tho' a very strong ground, being a steep Hill with abbatis laid across the accessable parts of it, & a Guard on the Summit, He nevertheless thought that a sudden brisk attack, a little before Day-break, would bring his army on the Plain, within two Miles of the Town.
This Alteration of the Plan of Operations was not, I believe, approved of by many besides himself- It had been proposed to him a month before, when the first Ships passed the Town, & when it was entirely defenceless & unguarded: But Montmorency was then his favourite Scheme, & he rejected it. He now laid hold of it when it was highly improbable he should succeed, from every circumstance that had happened since: But the Season was far spent, & it was necessary to Strike some Blow, to ballance the Campaign upon one side or Another.
The Care of landing the Troops & sustaining them by the Ships, fell to my share- The most hazardous & difficult Task I was ever engaged in- For the distance of the landing place; the impetuosity of the Tide; the darkness of the Night; & the great Chance of exactly hitting the very spot intended, without discovery or alarm, made the whole extremely difficult: And the failing in any part of my Disposition, as it might have overset the Generals Plan, would have brought upon me an imputation of being the Cause of the miscarriage of the attack, & all the Misfortune that might happen to the Troops in attempting it, which, you agree with me, had a most hazardous aspect.
In the night between the 12th & 13th the whole was put to the Trial, & conducted in this manner.
About Midnight, 1800 Troops embarked from the Ships, in Boats: About half past two the Boats got underway, & proceeded for
the landing Place: The armed sloops & those with Ordnance Stores & ammunition, followed next: After them, I got underway in the Lowestoff, and had with me the Sea Horse, Squirrel, & Hunter Sloop, and two Transports, all full of Troops: The Sutherland was left behind to keep an Eye on the Enemy's Motions, their floating Batteries, & Small Craft. The Boats were to go close in shore & land the Troops, The Sloops were to lie next them; The Men of War without the Sloops & as near the shore as possible; & the two Transports without the Men of War, ready to disembark the Troops when ordered.
Every thing was conducted very happily, & the greatest good Fortune seconded our Wishes. Captain Chads conducted the Boats; they observed the most profound Silence; the night was moderate; & he landed the Troops undiscovered by the Enemy a little before Day; but not without hazard of being drove by the Currant, below the Town- The Sloops drew close in; and the Men of War & Transports got to their Station at Day break.
The General & the first Embarkation of Troops, climbed the Precipice & gained the Top of the Hill, without any remarkable Opposition; And the Guard being extremely remiss, were surprised & the Captain made Prisoner.
The Boats were now employed in landing the Troops from the Ships with the utmost Diligence, & in carrying over 1200 Men, which Mr. Wolfe had ordered to march from Point Levi over Night & cover themselves in the Wood on the South Shore opposite Foulon, & in dragging the Artillery up the Hill.
In this manner, the General had his Army on the Enemies Shore, within two Miles of the Town, before his arrival was well known at their Head Quarters: For Mr. Montcalm had taken all our latter Motions for so many Feints, & thought our grand Aim was still below Quebec & pointed towards Beauport; And he was confirmed in this, by the several well laid Feints & Motions of Mr. Saunders, who laid Buoys in the Night, close in shore, towards Beauport, as if he intended them for Moorings to the Ships, to come as near their Shore as possible, and land the Troops under Cover of their Fire.
Montcalm was surprised; but lost not a moment to repair his Misfortune- He marched his Troops with the greatest Expedition from Montmorency & Beauport, to the Heights nearest the Citadel & adjacent to those already possessed by our Troops: But he was deceived to the last; For he could not believe it possible that we had so suddenly thrown over so large a Body of Forces; & the inequalities of the Ground, covered numbers of our Men, & kept him from forming a just opinion of their Strength: He resolved therefore to attack them before they were reinforced, or had got up any Cannon.
From eight to near Ten, he was busy assembling & drawing up his Army. It consisted of about 9000 Men, among whom were five Battalions of Regulars. Our Army consisted of 4600 Regulars.
About Ten, he marched in order of Battle & attacked us on the Plains of Abraham. His Disposition was excellent, & his Army advanced in very good order. Wolfe was entirely prepared; & overjoyed at the unexpected Resolution of the Enemy.
They fired twice before he made any return; Then commenced the Battle which hardly lasted a quarter of an Hour. Lascelles's Regiment was the first that broke in upon them, with fixed Bayonets, and the Highlanders flanked them at the same time: The Body opposed to them was instantly turned & routed; & their whole Army gave way and fled to the Town; The rest was Pursuite & Carnage; in which the Highlanders broad Swords did great Execution.
Gen'r Wolfe fell early in the action, & only lived long enough to know that his Troops were victorious; On learning of which, he said- "Since I have conquered I dye satisfied."
Brigadeer Monckton, Colol: Carleton, Major Barry, Major Spittal, & many other brave Officers were severely wounded; & five Hundred of our Rank & File, were the Number of our kille & wounded.
On the Enemies Side, they lost their four principal officers, viz: Their General in Cheif Montcalm, two Brigadeers, & the Colonel next them in Command, beside many other Officers of distinction, & had eleven Hundred killed & wounded.
Our Army pursued them to the Suburbs of the Town. Most of our Losses arose from the hidden, rascally Fire of individuals, covered in the Woods.
Brigadeer Monckton was shot through the right Breast, with a Musket Ball, and rendered incapable of further Service, by which, the Command devolved on Brigadeer Townshend, & under him Brigadeer Murray.
The Enemy's Army soon after they had recovered the Town retreated from it in great Confusion, passed the River Charles, broke down the Bridge behind & never have appeared since.
From the 13th to the 17th, the Army and Fleet were incessantly employ'd in getting every thing ready for opening Batteries against the Town- It was now very late in the Season and the utmost Diligence was used, & the greatest Fatigue undergone with much Spirit, & Chearfulness by every Body, to bring the Campaign soon to an End: We had got up 17 Pieces of Battering Cannon from below, beside others of a smaller Callibre, Mortars, Shells, Shot, Powder, Plank &c: All in readiness, when the Batteries should be formed, to continue our Progress against the Town.
On the 17th, Mr. Saunders made a Motion with a Squadron below, which, added to the Operations of the Generals Ashore, threw the Enemy into the Utmost Consternation.
He moved Seven of the best Line of Battle Ships within Random Gun Shot of the Town; which struck them with the Apprehension of their coming up along side of the lower Town with the Night tide, & that they would be storm'd by Sea & Land. Under these Terrors, they made Offers of Capitulation about 3, Afternoon, & it was perfected & signed this morning.
The Garrison move out, with the Honours of War & their Effects; and we send them Home to France. - Our having no Batteries actually raised, the Defence of the town being still entirely perfect & the late Season of the Year will account sufficiently for these Terms.
Lowestoff of Foulon above Quebec, the 18 of Sept: 1759.