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Montcalm in France, 1712 - 1756

'War is the grave of the Montcalms.' No one can tell how old this famous saying is. Perhaps it is as old as France herself. Certainly there never was a time when the men of the great family of Montcalm-Gozon were not ready to fight for their king and country; and so Montcalm, like Wolfe, was a soldier born.

Even in the Crusades his ancestors were famous all over Europe. When the Christians of those brave days were trying to drive the unbelievers out of Palestine they gladly followed leaders whom they thought saintly and heroic enough to be their champions against the dragons of sultan, satan, and hell; for people then believed that dragons fought on the devil's side, and that only Christian knights, like St George, fighting on God's side, could kill them. The Christians banded themselves together in many ways, among others in the Order of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, taking an oath to be faithful unto death. They chose the best man among them to be their Grand Master; and so it could have been only after much devoted service that Deodat de Gozon became Grand Master, more than five hundred years ago, and was granted the right of bearing the conquered Dragon of Rhodes on the family coat of arms, where it is still to be seen. How often this glorious badge of victory reminded our own Montcalm of noble deeds and noble men! How often it nerved him to uphold the family tradition!

There are centuries of change between Crusaders and Canadians. Yet the Montcalms can bridge them with their honor. And, among all the Montcalms who made their name mean soldier's honor in Eastern or European war, none have given it so high a place in the world's history as the hero whose life and death in Canada made it immortal. He won the supreme glory for his name, a glory so bright that it shone even through the dust of death which shrouded the France of the Revolution. In 1790, when the National Assembly was suppressing pensions granted by the Crown, it made a special exception in favor of Montcalm's children. As kings, marquises, heirs, and pensions were among the things the Revolution hated most, it is a notable tribute to our Marquis of Montcalm that the revolutionary parliament should have paid to his heirs the pension granted by a king. Nor has another century of change in France blotted out his name and fame. The Montcalm was the French flagship at the naval review held in honor of the coronation of King Edward VII. The Montcalm took the President of France to greet his ally the Czar of Russia. And, but for a call of duty elsewhere at the time, the Montcalm would have flown the French admiral's flag in 1908, at the celebration of the Tercentenary of the founding of Quebec, when King George V led the French- and English-speaking peoples of the world in doing honor to the twin renown of Wolfe and Montcalm on the field where they won equal glory, though unequal fortune.

Montcalm was a leap-year baby, having been born on February 29, 1712, in the family castle of Candiac, near Nimes, a very old city of the south of France, a city with many forts built by the Romans two thousand years ago. He came by almost as much good soldier blood on his mother's side as on his father's, for she was one of the Castellanes, with numbers of heroic ancestors, extending back to the First Crusade.

The Montcalms had never been rich. They had many heroes but no millionaires. Yet they were well known and well loved for their kindness to all the people on their estates; and so generous to every one in trouble, and so ready to spend their money as well as their lives for the sake of king and country, that they never could have made great fortunes, even had their estate been ten times as large as it was. Accordingly, while they were famous and honored all over France, they had to be very careful about spending money on themselves. They all--and our own Montcalm in particular--spent much more in serving their country than their country ever spent in paying them to serve it.

Montcalm was a delicate little boy of six when he first went to school. He had many schoolboy faults. He found it hard to keep quiet or to pay attention to his teacher; he was backward in French grammar; and he wrote a very bad hand. Many a letter of complaint was sent to his father. 'It seems to me,' writes the teacher, 'that his handwriting is getting worse than ever. I show him, again and again, how to hold his pen; but he will not do it properly. I think he ought to try to make up for his want of cleverness by being more docile, taking more pains, and listening to my advice.' And then poor old Dumas would end with an exclamation of despair--'What will become of him!'

Dumas had another pupil who was much more to his taste. This was Montcalm's younger brother, Jean, who knew his letters before he was three, read Latin when he was five, and Greek and Hebrew when he was six. Dumas was so proud of this infant prodigy that he took him to Paris and showed him off to the learned men of the day, who were dumbfounded at so much knowledge in so young a boy. All this, however, was too much for a youthful brain; and poor Jean died at the age of seven.

Dumas then turned sadly to the elder boy, who was in no danger of being killed by too much study, and soon renewed his complaints. At last Montcalm, now sixteen and already an officer, could bear it no longer, and wrote to his father telling him that in spite of his supposed stupidity he had serious aims. 'I want to be, first, a man of honor, brave, and a good Christian. Secondly, I want to read moderately; to know as much Greek and Latin as other men; also arithmetic, history, geography, literature, and some art and science. Thirdly, I want to be obedient to you and my dear mother; and listen to Mr Dumas's advice. Lastly, I want to manage a horse and handle a sword as well as ever I can.' The result of it all was that Montcalm became a good Latin scholar, a very well read man, an excellent horseman and swordsman, and--to dominie Dumas's eternal confusion--such a master of French that he might have been as great an author as he was a soldier. His letters and dispatches from the seat of war remind one of Caesar's. He wrote like a man who sees into the heart of things and goes straight to the point with the fewest words which will express exactly what he wishes to say. In this he was like Wolfe, and like many another great soldier whose quick eye, cool head and warm heart, all working together in the service of his country, give him a command over words which often equals his command over men.

In 1727, the year Wolfe was born, Montcalm joined his father's regiment as an ensign. Presently, in 1733, the French and Germans fell out over the naming of a king for Poland. Montcalm went to the front and had what French soldiers call his 'baptism of fire.' This war gave him little chance of learning how great battles should be fought. But he saw two sieges; he kept his eyes open to everything that happened; and, even in camp, he did not forget his studies. 'I am learning German,' he wrote home, 'and I am reading more Greek than I have read for three or four years.'

The death of his father in 1735 made him the head of the family of Montcalm. The next year he married Angelique Talon du Boulay, a member of a military family, and grand-daughter of Denis Talon; a kinsman of Jean Talon, the best intendant who ever served New France. For the next twenty years, from 1736 to 1756, he spent in his ancestral castle of Candiac as much of his time as he could spare from the army. There he had been born, and there he always hoped he could live and die among his own people after his wars were over. How often he was to sigh for one look at his pleasant olive groves when he was far away, upholding the honor of France against great British odds and, far worse, against secret enemies on the French side in the dying colony across the sea! But for the present all this was far off. Meanwhile, Candiac was a very happy home; and Montcalm's wife and his mother made it the happier by living together under the same roof. In course of time ten children were born, all in the family chateau.

Montcalm's second war was the War of the Austrian Succession, a war in which his younger opponent Wolfe saw active service for the first time. The two future opponents in Canada never met, however, on the same battlefields in Europe. In 1741, the year in which Wolfe received his first commission, Montcalm fought so well in Bohemia that he was made a Knight of St Louis. Two years later, at the age of thirty-one, he was promoted to the command of a regiment which he led through three severe campaigns in Italy. During the third campaign, in 1746, there was a terrific fight against the Austrians under the walls of Placentia. So furious was the Austrian attack that the French army was almost destroyed. Twice was Montcalm's regiment broken by sheer weight of numbers. But twice he rallied it and turned to face the enemy again. The third attack was the worst of all. Montcalm still fought on, though already he had three bullet wounds, when the Austrian cavalry made a dashing charge and swept the French off the field altogether. He met them, sword in hand, as dauntless as ever; but he was caught in a whirlwind of sabre-cuts and was felled to the ground with two great gashes in his head. He was taken prisoner; but was soon allowed to go home, on giving his word of honor, or 'parole,' that he would take no further part in the war until some Austrian prisoner, of the same rank as his own, was given back by the French in exchange. While still on parole he was promoted to be a brigadier, so that he could command more than a single regiment. In due time, when proper exchange of prisoners was made, Montcalm went back to Italy, again fought splendidly, and again was badly wounded. The year 1748 closed with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle; and seven years of peace followed before the renewed tumult of the Seven Years' War.

Life went very well with Montcalm at Candiac. He was there as much as possible, and spent his time between his castle and his olive groves, his study and his family circle. His eldest son was a young man of much promise, growing immensely tall, devoted to the army, and engaged to be married. His wife and her mother-in-law were as happy as ever with him and with each other. Nothing seemed more peaceful than that quiet corner in the pleasant land of southern France.

But the age-long rivalry of French and British could not long be stilled. Even in 1754 there were rumors of war from the Far East in India and from the Far West in Canada. Next year, though peace was outwardly kept in Europe, both the great rivals sent fleets and armies to America, where the clash of arms had already been heard. There were losses on both sides. And, when the French general, Baron Dieskau, was made prisoner, the minister of War, knowing the worth of Montcalm, asked him to think over the proposal that he should take command in New France.

On January 26, 1756, the formal offer came in a letter approved by the king. 'The king has chosen you to command his troops in North America, and will honor you on your departure with the rank of major-general. But what will please you still more is that His Majesty will put your son in your place at the head of your present regiment. The applause of the public will add to your satisfaction.'

On the very day Montcalm received this letter he made up his mind, accepted the command, bade good-bye to Candiac, and set out for Paris. From Lyons he wrote to his mother: 'I am reading with much pleasure the History of New France by Father Charlevoix. He gives a pleasant description of Quebec.' From Paris he wrote to his wife: 'Do not expect any long letter before the 1st of March. All my pressing work will then be finished, and I shall be able to breathe once more. Last night I came from Versailles and I am going back to-morrow. My outfit will cost me a thousand crowns more than the amount I am paid to cover it. But I cannot stop for that.' On March 15 he wrote home: 'Yesterday I presented my son, with whom I am very well pleased, to all the royal family.' Three days later he wrote to his wife: 'I shall be at Brest on the twenty-first. My son has been here since yesterday, for me to coach him and also in order to get his uniform properly made. He will thank the king for his promotion at the same time that I make my adieux in my embroidered coat. Perhaps I shall leave some debts behind me. I wait impatiently for the accounts. You have my will. I wish you would have it copied, and would send me the duplicate before I sail.'

On April 3 Montcalm left Brest in the Licorne, a ship of the little fleet which the French were hurrying out to Canada before war should be declared in Europe. The passage proved long and stormy. But Montcalm was lucky in being a much better sailor than his great opponent Wolfe. Impatient to reach the capital at the earliest possible moment he rowed ashore from below the island of Orleans, where the Licorne met a contrary wind, and drove up to Quebec, a distance of twenty-five miles. It was May 13 when he first passed along the Beauport shore between Montmorency and Quebec. Three years and nine days later he was to come back to that very point, there to make his last heroic stand.

On the evening of his arrival Bigot the intendant gave a magnificent dinner-party for him. Forty guests sat down to the banquet. Montcalm had not expected that the poor struggling colony could boast such a scene as this. In a letter home he said: 'Even a Parisian would have been astonished at the profusion of good things on the table. Such splendor and good cheer show how much the intendant's place is worth.' We shall soon hear more of Bigot the intendant.

On the 26th Montcalm arrived at Montreal to see the Marquis of Vaudreuil the governor. The meeting went off very well. The governor was as full of airs and graces as the intendant, and said that nothing else in the world could have given him so much pleasure as to greet the general sent out to take command of the troops from France. We shall soon hear more of Vaudreuil the governor.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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

 

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