Wolfe & the MacGregors

The Love/Hate Relationship Between General James Wolfe & the MacGregors

General James Wolfe, the most mythologized and debated figure in Canada's history, was killed on September 13th, 1759 at the very moment of his ultimate triumph: The defeat of French forces at Fortress Quebec, in a battle widely seen as the central moment in the making of Canada, and the rise of the British Empire, the greatest empire this world has ever known.  He remained Britain's greatest military hero and martyr until Admiral Horatio Nelson's victory at Trafalgar.

The above Christ-like portrait of Wolfe's death by renowned British artist, Benjamin West, (dated in the 1770s) is universally accepted as being laughably inaccurate.  The truth was that Wolfe was widely despised by his staff.  This  attitude was fostered by a cruel and widespread jealousy by the upper crust army establishment, due to Wolfe's humble beginnings and of his rise through the British army from the rank of "Boy" to a full General due solely to his own merit, a rarity in those times.

He actually died apart from his officers in the arms of the one officer who fought at Wolfe's side, his closest advisor and loyal friend, a MacGregor, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Fletcher, of the Fraser's Highlanders.   The proof of this extraordinary  relationship is evident in the saga of the only accurate portrait ever painted of Wolfe, and of its remarkable resurfacing after 250 years.

The 1760 portrait by English artist J.S.C. Schaak was described by experts from the National Portrait Gallery in London as the closest we will ever get to an authentic portrait of Wolfe.  It was actually started in November of 1759, since it was believed to have been based on an eye-witness sketch by Hervey Smyth, the general's aid-de-camp in Canada.

It was widely believed to have been lost forever, but it resurfaced in 1960. when it was sold to a private English collector.  It had been handed down, generation after generation, of Fletchers.  How General Wolfe had come to be so close to a MacGregor, given his post-Culloden role to ensure the MacGregors never again became a threat to the British regime, is one of the great ironies of history.

James Wolfe was born in  Westerham, Kent, in 1727.  He entered the British army as a boy  ensign at the age of 14.   His abilities were recognized, and he quickly began a remarkable rise in the ranks based uniquely on his own merit.

In January 1746, he was present at the British defeat at Falkirk, Scotland.  He was shortly afterwards made aide-de-camp to Lieutenant-General Henry Hawley.  In this capacity he took part in the battle of Culloden (16 April 1746), and is reported to have refused a direct order from the Duke of Cumberland, to shoot a wounded Highlander.

He returned to the continent, where the 4th Foot was serving, and on 2nd July 1747, was wounded in the battle of Laffeldt (Belgium).  Following a period on leave in England, he was sent back to the Low Countries as a Brigade Major.  When in 1748, the War of the Austrian Succession ended, he was appointed Major in the 20th Foot, then stationed in Scotland.

He became acting Lieutenant-Colonel, and in practice, Commander of the regiment as a result of Colonel Edward Cornwallis’s appointment to the governorship of Nova Scotia.  While stationed at Glasgow, Wolfe studied Latin and mathematics.  Most of the next few years he spent in Scotland.   His regiment being at that time, engaged in rebuilding  Inversnaid, the Fort that had been originally built to keep a lid on the MacGregors but had been destroyed by them during each successive Jacobite rebellion.

He had been selected due to his well-known methodical attention to detail, and he began a military road-building program to ensure the army could react quickly to any possible insurrection in the area.

He was confirmed as lieutenant colonel in 1750.  In 1752, he visited Ireland, and that Autumn, went to Paris, where he stayed six months.  Thereafter, he rejoined the 20th Foot in Scotland, and subsequently moved with it to the south of England.

In 1757, the British Secretary of state, William Pitt, made Wolfe second in command under Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, British Commander-in-chief in North America.  Wolfe's competence in the 1758 siege and ultimate capture of the great French fortress of Louisbourg, N.S., earned him a promotion to Major General, and of the full command of a military and naval expedition against Quebec, the strongest French military fortress in the Americas.

During his lengthy siege of Quebec, he was reported to have sent regular letters to his family, one describing the coming battle, and of its consequences.  He mentioned there would probably be considerable fatalities amongst the Highland Regiments which were his "strong right arm" although this was of "little mischief" to him, indicating a prevailing sentiment in the upper echelons of the British army that the highlanders were expendable.

Wolfe was born a sickly child, and he was encumbered his entire life by his frail health and anemic physique.  Nevertheless, he overcame his physical infirmities to become one of  his country's greatest heroes.  He will forever serve as a model of the triumph of a person's inner abilities over earthly weaknesses.

In most Canadian provinces, the story of General Wolfe has been retold to eager public school students (including the author) for generations, extolling his virtues .  He is the only person named in Canada's first National anthem,  The Maple Leaf Forever.  The stanza goes:  "In days of yore, from Britain's shore, Wolfe, the dauntless hero came, and implanted firm Britannia's flag on Canada's fair domain, May the Shamrock, Thistle and Rose entwine the Maple Leaf Forever."

In Greenwich Park, next to its world famous observatory, is a bronze statue of Wolfe looking out over London.  The statue was erected in 1930 and bears the inscription "This monument, a gift of the Canadian people, was unveiled by the Marquis Sieur de Montcalm" a direct descendent of Wolfe's opposite number at the siege of Quebec.  The statue was hit by a V1 bomb during the 2nd World War, but was later repaired; the base still bears the scars.

General James Wolfe
Official; army portrait

General James Wolfe, Britain's greatest army hero,  refused to shoot wounded Highlanders at Culloden, rebuilt Inversnaid and built roads to ensure the MacGregors would never again be a threat to the Hanoverians, held a disdain for Highland Scots, secured North America for the British and was despised by his own staff.  He died at the moment of his greatest triumph - alone, in the arms of his most loyal officer and friend, a MacGregor.


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