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Montcalm in Canada, 1756

The French colonies in North America consisted of nothing more than two very long and very thin lines of scattered posts and settlements, running up the St Lawrence and the Mississippi to meet, in the far interior, at the Great Lakes. Along the whole of these four thousand miles there were not one hundred thousand people. Only two parts of the country were really settled at all: one Acadia, the other the shores of the St Lawrence between Bic and Montreal; and both regions together covered not more than four hundred of the whole four thousand miles. There were but three considerable towns--Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal--and Quebec, which was much the largest, had only twelve thousand inhabitants.

The territory bordering on the Mississippi was called Louisiana. That in the St Lawrence region was called New France along the river and Acadia down by the Gulf; though Canada is much the best word to cover both. Now, Canada had ten times as many people as Louisiana; and Louisiana by itself seemed helplessly weak. This very weakness made the French particularly anxious about the country south of the Lakes, where Canada and Louisiana met. For, so long as they held it, they held the gateways of the West, kept the valleys of the Ohio and Mississippi quite securely, shut up the British colonies between the Alleghany Mountains and the Atlantic and prevented them from expanding westward. One other thing was even more vital than this to the French in America: it was that they should continue to hold the mouth of the St Lawrence. Canada could live only by getting help from France; and as this help could not come up the Mississippi it had to come up the St Lawrence.

The general position of the French may be summed up briefly. First, and most important of all, they had to hold the line of the St Lawrence for a thousand miles in from the sea. Here were their three chief positions: Louisbourg, Quebec, and Lake Champlain.

Secondly, they had to hold another thousand miles westward, to and across the Lakes; but especially the country south of Lakes Ontario and Erie, into the valley of the Ohio. Here there were a few forts, but no settlements worth speaking of.

Thirdly, they had to hold the valley of the Mississippi, two thousand miles from north to south. Here there were very few forts, very few men, and no settlements of any kind. In fact, they held the Mississippi only by the merest thread, and chiefly because the British colonies had not yet grown out in that direction. The Mississippi did not come into the war, though it might have done so. If Montcalm had survived the battle of the Plains, and if in 1760 the defense of Canada on the St Lawrence had seemed to him utterly hopeless, his plan would probably then have been to take his best soldiers from Canada into the interior, and in the end to New Orleans, there to make a last desperate stand for France among the swamps. But this plan died with him; and we may leave the valley of the Mississippi out of our reckoning altogether.

Not so the valley of the Ohio, which, as we have seen, was the meeting-place of Canada and Louisiana, and the chief gateway to the West; and which the French and British rivals were both most fiercely set on possessing. It was here that the world-wide Seven Years' War first broke out; here that George Washington first appeared as an American commander; here that Braddock led the first westbound British army; and here that Montcalm struck his first blow for French America.

But, as we have also seen, even the valley of the Ohio was less important than the line of the St Lawrence. The Ohio region was certainly the right arm of French America. But the St Lawrence was the body, of which the lungs were Louisbourg, and the head and heart Quebec. Montcalm saw this at once; and he made no single mistake in choosing the proper kind of attack and defense during the whole of his four campaigns.

The British colonies were different in every way from the French. The French held a long, thin line of four thousand miles, forming an inland loop from the Gulf of St Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, with only one hundred thousand people sparsely settled in certain spots; the British filled up the solid inside of this loop with over twelve hundred thousand people, who had an open seaboard on the Atlantic for two thousand miles, from Nova Scotia down to Florida.

Now, what could have made such a great difference in growth between the French and the British colonies, when France had begun with all the odds of European force and numbers in her favor? The answer is two-fold: France had no adequate fleets and her colonies had no adequate freedom.

First, as to fleets. The mere fact that the Old and New Worlds had a sea between them meant that the power with the best navy would have a great advantage. The Portuguese, Spaniards, Dutch, and French all tried to build empires across the sea. But they all failed whenever they came to blows with Britain, simply because no empire can live cut up into separate parts. The sea divided the other empires, while, strange as it may appear, this same sea united the British. The French were a nation of landsmen; for one very good reason that they had two land frontiers to defend. Their kings and statesmen understood armies better than navies, and the French people themselves liked soldiers better than sailors. The British, on the other hand, since they lived on an island, had no land frontiers to defend. The people liked sailors better than soldiers. And their rulers understood navies better than armies, for the sea had always been the people's second home.

At this period, whenever war broke out, the British navy was soon able to win 'the command of the sea'; that is, its squadrons soon made the sea a safe road for British ships and a very unsafe road for the ships of an enemy. In America, at that time, everything used in war, from the regular fleets and armies themselves down to the powder and shot, cannon and muskets, swords and bayonets, tools, tents, and so on--all had to be brought across the Atlantic. While this was well enough for the British, for the French it was always very hard and risky work. In time of war their ships were watched, chased and taken whenever they appeared on the sea. Even during peace they had much the worse of it, for they had to spend great sums and much effort in building vessels to make up for the men of-war and the merchant ships which they had lost and the British had won. Thus they never quite succeeded in beginning again on even terms with their triumphant rival.

We must remember, too, that every sort of trade and money-making depended on the command of the sea, which itself depended on the stronger navy. Even the trade with Indians in America, two thousand miles inland, depended on defeat or victory at sea. The French might send out ships full of things to exchange for valuable furs. But if they lost their ships they lost their goods, and in consequence the trade and even the friendship of the Indians. In the same way the navy helped or hindered the return trade from America to Europe. The furs and food from the British colonies crossed over in safety, and the money or other goods in exchange came safely back. But the French ships were not safe, and French merchants were often ruined by the capture of their ships or by having the sea closed to them.

To follow out all the causes and effects of the command of the sea would be far too long a story even to begin here. But the gist of it is quite short and quite plain: no Navy, no Empire. That is what it meant then, and that is what it means now.

Secondly, as to freedom in the French colonies. Of course, freedom itself, no matter how good it is and how much we love it, would have been nothing without the protection of fleets. All the freedom in the world cannot hold two countries on opposite sides of the sea together without the link of strong fleets. But even the strongest fleet would not have helped New France to grow as fast and as well as New England grew. The French people were not free in the motherland. They were not free as colonists in Canada. All kinds of laws and rules were made for the Canadians by persons thousands of miles away. This interference came from men who knew scarcely anything about Canada. They had crude notions as to what should be done, and sometimes they ordered the men on the spot to do impossible things. The result was that the men on the spot, if they were bad enough and clever enough, just hoodwinked the government in France, and did in Canada what they liked and what made for their own profit.

Now, Bigot the intendant, the man of affairs in the colony, was on the spot; and he was one of the cleverest knaves ever known, with a feeble colony in his power. He had nothing to fear from the people, the poor, helpless French Canadians. He had nothing to fear from their governor, the vain, incompetent Vaudreuil. He was, moreover, three thousand miles away from the French court, which was itself full of parasites. He had been given great power in Canada. As intendant he was the head of everything except the army, the navy, and the church. He had charge of all the public money and all the public works and whatever else might be called public business. Of course, he was supposed to look after the interests of France and of Canada, not after his own; and earlier intendants like Talon had done this with perfect honesty. But Bigot soon organized a gang of men like himself, and gathered into his grasping hands the control of the private as well as of the public business.

One example will show how he worked. Whenever food became dangerously scarce in Canada the intendant's duty was to buy it up, to put it into the king's stores, and to sell out only enough for the people to live on till the danger was over. There was a reason for this, as Canada, cut off from France, was like a besieged fortress, and it was proper to treat the people as a garrison would be treated, and to make provision for the good of the whole. But when Bigot had formed his gang, and had, in some way, silenced Vaudreuil, he declared Canada in danger when it was not, seized all the food he could lay hands on, and sent it over to France; sent it, too, in the king's ships, that it might be carried free. Then he made Vaudreuil send word to the king that Canada was starving. In the meantime, his friends in France had stored the food, and had then assured the king that there was plenty of grain in hand which they could ship to Canada at once. The next step was to get an order from the king to buy this food to be shipped to Canada. This order was secured through influential friends in Paris, and, of course, the price paid by the king was high. The food was then sent back to Canada, again in the king's ships. Then Bigot and his friends in Canada put it not into the king's but into their own stores in Quebec, sold it to the king's stores once more, as they had sold it in France, and then effected a third sale, this time to the wretched French Canadians from whom they had bought it for next to nothing at first. Thus both the king and the French Canadians were each robbed twice over, thanks to Vaudreuil's complaisance and Bigot's official position as also representing the king.

Bigot had been some time in Canada before Vaudreuil arrived as governor in 1755. He had already cheated a good deal. But it was only when he found out what sort of man Vaudreuil was that he set to work to do his worst. Bigot was a knave, Vaudreuil a fool. Vaudreuil was a French Canadian born and very jealous of any one from France, unless the Frenchman flattered him as Bigot did. He loved all sorts of pomp and show, and thought himself the greatest man in America. Bigot played on this weakness with ease and could persuade him to sign any orders, no matter how bad they were.

Now, when an owl like Vaudreuil and a fox like Bigot were ruining Canada between them, they were anything but pleased to see a lion like Montcalm come out with an army from France. Vaudreuil, indeed, had done all he could to prevent the sending out of Montcalm. He wrote to France several times, saying that no French general was needed, that separate regiments under their own colonels would suffice, and that he himself could command the regulars from France, just as he did the Canadians.

But how did he command the Canadians? By law every Canadian had to serve as a soldier, without pay, whenever the country was in danger. By law every man needed for carrying supplies to the far-off outposts could also be taken; but, in this case, he had to be paid. Now, all the supplies and the carriage of them were under Bigot's care. So when the Canadians were called out as soldiers, without pay, Bigot's gang would ask them if they would rather go and be shot for nothing or carry supplies in safety for pay. Of course, they chose the carrier's work and the pay, though half the pay was stolen from them. At the same time their names were still kept on the muster rolls as soldiers. This was the reason why Montcalm often had only half the militia called out for him: the other half were absent as carriers, and the half which remained for Montcalm was made up of those men whom Bigot's friends did not think good enough for carriers.

But there were more troubles still for Montcalm and his army. As governor, Vaudreuil was, of course, the head of everything in the country, including the army. This was right enough, if he had been fit for his post, because a country must have a supreme head, and the army is only a part, though the most important part, in war. A soldier may be also a statesman and at the head of everything, as were Cromwell, Napoleon, and Frederick the Great. But a statesman who is not a soldier only ruins an army if he tries to command it himself. And this was precisely what Vaudreuil did. Indeed, he did worse, for, while he did not go into the field himself, he continued to give orders to Montcalm at every turn. Besides, instead of making all the various forces on the French side into one army he kept them as separate as he could--five parts and no whole.

It should be made clear what these five parts were. First, there were the French regulars, the best of all, commanded by Montcalm, who was himself under Vaudreuil. Next, there were the Canadian regulars and the Canadian militia, both directly under Vaudreuil. Then there were the French sailors, under their own officers, but subject to Vaudreuil. Montcalm had to report to the minister of War in Paris about the French regulars, and to the minister of Marine about the Canadians of both kinds. Vaudreuil reported to both ministers, usually against Montcalm; and the French naval commander reported to his own minister on his own account. So there was abundant opportunity to make trouble among the four French forces. But there was more trouble still with the fifth force, the Indians, who were under their own chiefs. These men admired Montcalm; but they had to make treaties with Vaudreuil. They were cheated by Bigot and were offered presents by the British. As they very naturally desired to keep their own country for themselves in their own way they always wished to side with the stronger of the two white rivals, if they could not get rid of both.

Such was the Canada of 1756, a country in quite as much danger from French parasites as from British patriots. It might have lasted for some years longer if there had been no general war. The American colonists, though more than twelve to one, could not have conquered it alone, because they had no fleet and no regular army. But the war came, and it was a great one. In a great war a country of parasites has no chance against a country of patriots. All the sins of sloth and willful weakness, of demagogues and courtiers, and whatever else is rotten in the state, are soon found out and punished by war. Canada under Vaudreuil and Bigot was no match for an empire under Pitt. For one's own parasites are always the worst of one's enemies. So the last great fight for Canada was not a fight of three against three; but of one against five. Montcalm the lion stood utterly alone, with two secret foes behind him and three open foes in front--Vaudreuil the owl, and Bigot the fox, behind; Pitt, Saunders and Wolfe, three lions like himself, in front.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Passing of New France, A Chronicle of Montcalm, 1915

 

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