Brave Wolfe [Laws A1]
DESCRIPTION: Disappointed in love, Wolfe gives his beloved a ring and leaves her. He lands at Quebec to battle the French. Wolfe is mortally wounded, but when he learns that a British victory is assured, he says, "I die with pleasure."
EARLIEST DATE: 1759 (broadside)
KEYWORDS: death war courting battle separation Canada
1727-1759 - Life of General James Wolfe, British commander at the Battle of Quebec
1754-1763 - French and Indian War (in Europe, the Seven Years' War, fought 1756-1763)
Sept 13, 1759 - Battle of Quebec. Wolfe and Montcalm killed.
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,NE,SE,So) Canada(Newf,Mar) Britain(England(South))
REFERENCES (25 citations):
Laws A1, "Brave Wolfe"
Randolph 664, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Flanders/Olney, pp. 120-122, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Flanders/Brown, pp. 55-57, "Brave Wolfe/General Wolfe" (2 texts, 1 tune; the first text is in half-stanzas and does not use the "Blacksmith" tune; the second is the Green Mountain Songster version)
Thompson-Pioneer 43, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
ThompsonNewYork, pp. 323-324, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
Leach, pp. 716-719, "Brave Wolfe" (2 texts)
Friedman, p. 288, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
Greenleaf/Mansfield 44, "Bold Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Peacock, pp. 986-987, "Bold Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke/Johnston, pp. 21-23, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke/MacMillan 2, "Bold Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 46-49, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mackenzie 75, "Quebec" (1 text)
Warner 21, "The Ballad of Montcalm and Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Warner-Eastern, pp. 63-64, "The Ballad of Montcalm and Wolfe" (1 text)
Scott-BoA, pp. 36-38, "The Death of General Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Combs/Wilgus 43, pp. 153-155, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
Lomax-FSUSA 36, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSNA 16, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
DallasCruel, pp. 123-124, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text, 1 tune)
Leach-Heritage, pp. 136-137, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 156-157, "Brave Wolfe" (1 text)
cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 478, "Brave Wolfe" (source notes only)
DT 358, BRAVWOLF* BRVEWLF2*
ST LA01 (Full)
Freeman Bennett, "Bold Wolfe" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
LOCSinging, as111310, "General Wolfe" ("Cheer up your hearts, young men, let nothing fright you"), Leonard Deming (Boston), 19C; also as102840, "The Death of General Wolf"
cf. "The Blacksmith" (tune & meter)
cf. "The Dark-Eyed Sailor (Fair Phoebe and her Dark-Eyed Sailor)" [Laws N35] (tune)
cf. "General Wolfe" (subject)
cf. "How Stands the Glass Around (General Wolfe's Song)" (attributed to Wolfe)
The Blacksmith (File: K146)
NOTES [3402 words]: When William Pitt the Elder came became Britain's Prime Minister in 1757 (the first man ever to hold that title, which was coined because there was no real cabinet role for him otherwise), he decided that the army -- newly involved in the Seven Years' War (known in the American colonies as the French and Indian War) -- needed a good dose of youthful energy. In 1755-1756, British results had been disastrous (see, e.g., the notes to "Braddock's Defeat"; also McNaught, pp. 40-41). The American colonies were in danger of being boxed in by the French, and the British were suffering losses -- mostly pinpricks, but losses -- all over Europe.
The Canadian expedition is an example of Pitt's determination to shake things up. Carroll, p. 61, notes that the French at this time were giving military commands to the nobility, competent or not, but "Pitt was constantly on the lookout for a sizzling young patriot willing to do the impossible -- to the devil with his ancestry." At the time of his appointment in 1758, North American army commander Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797) was only forty years old, and newly jumped up from Lieutenant Colonel (Borneman, p. 100) and naval commander Edward Boscawen (1711-1761) was still on the young side of fifty (Bryant, p. 64).
Even in this company, James Wolfe (1727-1759) was almost a baby; he was commanding the equivalent of a division at the age of 30. The most famous story about him has to do with his appointment to the command in Quebec. A courtier, shocked, asked George II how he could appoint such a man. The courtier allegedly said that Wolfe was mad. King George replied, "Mad, is he? Then I wish he'd bite some of my other generals." (The exact words of this legend vary. I'm not sure where I met the above phrasing. Borneman, p. 207, has George II say "Then I hope he will bite some of my other generals!")
According to Borneman, p. 105, Wolfe was "tall and slight -- one might say gangly [Carroll, p. 23, lists his height as 6'3"] -- with reddish hair and a constitution given to a host of chromic ailments. He had been born in Westerham, Kent, on January 2, 1727... In 1741, at the age of fourteen, young Wolfe was given a commission as a second lieutenant in his father's marine regiment, though he soon transferred to the army because of his seasickness (Carroll, p. 22). Two years later, at Dettingen in Bavaria, Wolfe... received his first real test in battle.... Two years after that, at Culloden against the last gasp of the Stuarts, his regiment against suffered the most, losing one-third of its men."
The assault on Canada began with an amphibious assault on the great fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton, a fortress and naval base which, if properly supplied, could prevent any expedition up the Saint Lawrence. Bryant, p. 64, says that 8000 sailors and 12,000 soldiers were involved in capturing the place; Wolfe, though not in charge, served bravely in the battle. (He also gained a reputation as a well-rounded man; Carroll, p. 27, notes that he was a flute player who kept up his practicing even in wartime. His cousin, the famous author Oliver Goldsmith, once sent him a dog -- Carroll, p. 39 -- though this was before Goldsmith achieved his real fame. And, as the ships headed for the landing above Quebec, he is reported to have said that he would rather have written Thomas Gray's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" than capture Quebec -- Stacey, p. 122, though he doubts the detailed truth of the legend.)
Although Wolfe's illnesses are not a major subject of this song, they do seem to have affected his behavior: Since he thought he was gravely ill anyway, he probably didn't worry much about his survival. But no one eems to have figured out his problem.Carroll, p. 20, notes that he has been called a hypochondriac, though she dismissed the charge. Page 215 of Borneman, describing Wolfe's final illness, sounds to me rather like a venereal disease (Borneman, p. 215), though Carroll, p. 6, offers the opinion that it was kidney stones (on p. 37, she lists his full catalog of complaints as "fevers, scurvy, rheumatism, kidney stones, and possibly tuberculosis"). Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 334, suspect consumption. Carroll, p.31, says that Wolfe's brother Ned died of consumption, so there is a likelihood that Wolfe himself would have been subject to the disease (not all people are), but in that case, it would be surprising if he took so long to contract it.
Although Amherst was in overall command of the attack on Louisbourg, it was Wolfe who led most of the tactical thrusts, including the initial landing west of the town (Borneman, pp. 108-114). Surrounded, and starving even before the siege started, the defenders surrendered on July 27, 1858 (Borneman, p. 116).
Louisbourg was the main French base in Canada. With it gone, the British could safely advance up the Saint Lawrence. They also could attack on other fronts -- and they did.
Much of the credit for the loss of Canada must go not to Wolfe himself but to the foolish enemy commanders. After the Battle of Fort Dequesne (for which see "Braddock's Defeat") and the victory at Ticonderoga, where the French had captured Fort William Henry and seem the Indians massacre defenders after they surrendered (Borneman, pp. 90-94), the French really had only to stand on the defensive and hold their ground (Brabant/Masters, p. 71, notes that the French success in the Champlain forced the British to give up on that area and turn to the St. Lawrence, which should have been much easier for the French to hold).
But the French had several problems. One was divided command. The governor of New France was Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil (who, according to Carroll, p. 47, cared only about Quebec, not about France, and who even in Quebec did little to control corruption; Carroll, pp. 48-49). The general-in-chief was an officer sent from France, the Marquis de Montcalm, who would fight Wolfe at Quebec. And the two didn't see eye to eye on anything (Borneman, pp. 82-83. According to Carroll, p. 43, Montcalm at one point commented on the inept administration in Quebec, "What a country! Here all the knaves grow rich and the honest men are ruined!"; she adds on p. 44 that he did not wish to go, but took the Canadian command out of duty.)
After the Battle of Fort Carrillon (or Ticonderoga -- the battle where Major Duncan Campbell was killed), Montcalm's prestige went sky-high (Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 214, credit him with "virtually invent[ing] a new method of warfare"); he had, after all, defeated a much larger British force under Abercromby (Borneman, pp. 129-139). The fact that Abercromby had ordered a frontal attack on a strongly-defended position he had never seen was irrelevant. Montcalm was promoted over Vaudreuil, without really clarifying their relationship.
And that didn't solve the other problem of New France: The French had never really built a self-supporting colony, and there were shortages of food and other things (Borneman, pp. 98-99). In late 1758, the one thing Montcalm and Vaudreuil agreed on was that thing were close to collapse (Borneman, p. 189). And Montcalm was not a local to know how to deal with this fact; he tried to run a colonial war as if it were a European war, and failed badly. By 1759, the English had taken other forts besides Louisbourg, and the Quebec economy was being strained to the breaking point. Though most of Canada was still in French hands, there was a feeling that this was a last stand. Particularly since the British were attacking on several fronts.
Even though Amherst had been in charge at Louisbourg, he was relegated to the background in 1759, being handed command of the overall American theater. Wolfe was given command of the Quebec expedition -- a surprising appointment for a man who had only been made a colonel in 1757, and who had only had command of a brigade for one brief campaign (Stacey, p. 2).
Wolfe almost blew it by returning to England in the absence of orders (Borneman, pp. 204-205). But there was a reason: He was courting a woman named Katherine Lowther, and they became engaged during his time at home (Borneman, pp. 205-206. Carroll, p. 8, says that he had fallen in love three times; presumably this was love #3. We know little about the romance, though, since not one letter between them survives, according to Stacey, p. 123. He does report that she later became Duchess of Bolton). Wolfe then set out for his date with destiny.
The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is not really as much of a contest as is generally made out. Wolfe had 9000 men, of very high quality (Stacey, p. 5), though not all made it to the plateau; his opponent, Montcalm, only 4500 actually present in the field. Wolfe himself noted the quality difference: "Montcalm is at the head of a great number of bad soldiers and I am at the head of a small number of good ones," (Brown, p. 186).
Brumwell, p. 49, argues that Wolfe was relying on another advantage: A different fighting technique. British soldiers in the past had used a fire discipline going back to Marlborough a century before. This resulted in inaccurate fire and battle chaos. The new order made soldiers more effective in combat. Thus Wolfe probably thought his soldiers not just more disciplined than Montcalm's (which they certainly were) but also capable of inflicting more damage.
Wolfe's ability showed best in his ability to get his troops to the battlefield. Quebec is a very hard nut to crack -- the name itself is Algonquin for "river narrows" (Borneman, p. 208), and the city is atop a large triangular bluff with cliffs carved by rivers on two sides. The city is effectively impregnable from land attack except from the southwest (upstream), and completely immune to naval gunfire. Wolfe did manage to get some batteries erected on neighbouring heights, and they tossed in a few cannonballs, but they did trivial damage (Borneman, p. 211). So Wolfe's task was somehow to get his troops ashore in a position where they could get to the Plains of Abraham southwest of the city.
His first attempt, on July 31, was a disaster (Bryant, p. 64); Montcalm had twice as many troops in the theater as Wolfe; they were numerous enough that the French could man the banks of the Saint Lawrence at every useful landing place, and even though they were inferior soldiers, they had the advantage of fighting from land. That July 31 landing cost the British 443 men and accomplished nothing (Borneman, pp. 212-213).
There was no choice for it. Wolfe had to go above the town, even though it meant that the French might be able to cut his supply line (Borneman, pp. 213-214). Six weeks after the July fiasco, he had most of his troops upriver, and he proceeded to sneak his troops across the river and up an "impassable" cliff by night (Borneman, pp. 217-218). The admiral in charge of getting the troops to the foot of the cliff called the plan "the most hazardous and difficult task I ever engaged in" -- but he pulled it off (Borneman, pp. 218-219). It helped that the French were expecting to shift supplies by water that night, so they failed to note all the naval coming and goings (Stacey, p. 120). Apparently they were challenged by a small sentry post, but one of Wolfe's French-speaking officers bamboozled them (Stacey, p. 127). Some 4000 troops -- half of Wolfe's army -- managed to climb up to the Plains of Abraham. Finally they were in position to actually attack the city.
Needless to say, the line in the song about Montcalm and Wolfe meeting before the battle is false -- Wolfe would have had to have been truly insane to allow Montcalm more time to bring up troops. Carroll, p. 6, says in fact that the two never met in their lives. I wonder if the notion might not have arisen because they spent so much time dressing their line before the battle (Carroll, p. 15, says that this took an hour -- which is quite a delay for a maneuver that troops would have much experience in performing. Maybe Wolfe really did want his troops arranged "in a line so pretty").
By this time, Wolfe was in dreadful health (see the description above), and it may have encouraged some of his earlier errors in the campaign. But it was Montcalm who made the big mistake. He still had that two to one edge in numbers in the theater, and he could have tried to stand on the defensive. But he didn't. With perhaps 4500 men -- a quarter of his total forces -- he attacked Wolfe head-on on September 13 (Borneman, p. 221). This even though reinforcements were on the way and would have arrived in short order (Stacey, p. 169). In Montcalm's defence, he probably hoped to take advantage of the British disorganization after they climbed the cliffs (Brown, pp. 187-188). It might have seemed like a good idea -- if it had worked. Instead, the British regulars calmly awaited the assault, and tore them apart.
Wolfe had been hit in the wrist by then (Borneman, p. 221). But he wouldn't let it slow him down; he ordered a bayonet charge, and in leading it suffered fatal injuries, dying on the field of battle (Borneman, p. 222). There is some dispute about how many wounds he suffered; although many accounts say he was hit three times (wrist, then groin, then breast), Stacey, p. 149, observes that the groin wound ("an inch below the navel," according to the Gentleman's Magazine) would almost certainly have been crippling if real, and notes that Brigadier Townshend witnessed only two wounds, wrist and breast. In any case, he stayed with the colors after the wrist injury (which he bound up with a handkerchief), and was killed by the breast wound.
Leckie, p. 364, tells a story of Wolfe's last words which almost parallels the song. One of his men declared, "The run! See how they run!" Wolfe asked which side ran. "The enemy, sir. Egad, they give way everywhere!" Wolfe made few final orders, concluded,"Now, God be praised, I will die in peace!" -- and breathed his last. Stacey, p. 150, reports that the words came from the careful research of Captain Knox, and may be accurate -- but notes that there are other versions.
In terms of deaths of commanders, the battle was a draw; Montcalm too suffered a mortal wound (perhaps during the retreat; Stacey, p. 151) and died the day after the battle. But the ratio of casualties heavily favored the British (Borneman, p. 223, lists 60 British soldiers killed and 600 wounded; the French had 200 killed, 1200 wounded).
Not everyone was impressed with Wolfe's leadership in the campaign. Brebner/Masters, p. 71, declares, "The men who won the British victory have received too much attention, for students of warfare have demonstrated that their talents were moderate." Stacey, p. 170, notes that Lord Wolseley, the best British general of the late nineteenth century, regarded him as "never anything more than 'a good regimental officer.'" Stacey himself says that "His performance as a strategist... was sadly ineffective," and notes that he seemed unable to make a plan and stick with it. Even the strategy which finally worked, of landing above Quebec, Stacey notes on p. 172, was largely the idea of Wolfe's subordinates; his only real contribution was to choose the landing point (closer to the town than the brigadiers would have chosen; Wolfe's plan was more likely to win big but also carried greater risks, and Stacey, p. 173, thinks the plan unsound. I'm frankly not convinced).
Keegan/Wheatcroft, p. 334, "Wolfe was a safely dead hero, and many of the less attractive features of his personality were forgotten. Had he lived, he might have been the brilliant general which the British so desperately needed in the War of American Independence; but perhaps (more likely) he would have been yet another of those insubordinate generalswhose wild schemes were to ruin the British cause."
The apotheosis of Wolfe began quickly. The most famous painting of his death is by Benjamin West, who painted several versions -- with certain officers allegedly paying West to include them in the picture! (Brumwell, p. 53). Indeed. the fame of Wolfe and of the painting was so great that a Wedgwood pottery series incorporated it! (Chandler/Beckett, p. 111, although if I were Wolfe, I'm not sure I'd have wanted people eating off a picture of me dying. Not sure I'd want to be the eater, either).
After Montcalm's defeat, Governor Vaudreuil told the new commander at Quebec City to surrender once his supplies were exhausted (Borneman, p. 223). That took place on September 18.
The French around Quebec could perhaps have fought on -- Borneman, pp. 223-224, gives arguments why the could and perhaps should have. Indeed, the coming April, a force from Montreal came down to attack Quebec, and the British officer in charge after Wolfe's death emulated Montcalm, attacked from a poor position, and was whipped back into the town (Borneman, pp. 235-237). But the French government was too busy at home to support those remote efforts, and after its defeat at Quiberon Bay (for which see "Bold Hawke") had no way to support the colony anyway.
The population stopped supporting the militia, and it became almost impossible to put a strong force in the field. The British forces under Amherst came at Montreal from several directions. Montreal surrendered in 1760 (Borneman, pp. 251-252), and Britain ruled Canada.
It took a few more years to settle the Seven Years War -- peace was not made until 1763, and there were some Indian problems even after that -- but little that happened after than mattered much. The Treaty of Paris did some small shuffling around of European and Caribbean territories, but the main result was to put Canada in British hand (Borneman, p. 279).
There was one other side effect. Pitt had beaten the rest of the world -- but he had spent a vast amount of money doing it, and the Treasury needed to make it up. Pitt himself certainly would not have placed that burden on the colonies (see Borneman, p. 298) -- but Pitt had been out of power for four years by then. George III's new ministry, headed by people like Bute and Grenville, passed laws such as the Stamp Act to get the money out of the Americans. The result would cost the British more than the taxes ever gained them. For further details, see "Taxation of America." - RBW
While the Bodleian collection has a number of broadsides for other ballads on the death of General Wolfe it has none for this one. It has:
* Bodleian, Firth c.14(14), "Death of General Wolfe" ("In a mouldering cave where the wretched retreat"), J. Pitts (London), 1802 and 1819 ; also Harding B 11(832), Firth c.14(13) View 1 of 2, "The Death of General Wolfe"; Harding B 25(718), "Death of Wolfe"
* Bodleian, Harding B 25(718), "Gen. Wolfe's Song" ("How stands the glass around"), W. Armstrong (Liverpool), 1820-1824; also Johnson Ballads 2584, "General Wolfe's Song"; Harding B 28(7), "How Stands the Glass Around"; Harding B 11(1588), Harding B 25(866), 2806 c.18(146), "How Stands the Glass Around?" [Digital Tradition "How Stands the Glass Around (Why, Soldiers, Why?)"]
* Bodleian, Firth c.14(12), "Wolfe and Saunders" ("We'll gang abroad in a king's ship, and lead a soldier's life"), J. Pitts (London), 1802-1819
* Bodleian, Harding B 25(716), "General Wolfe" ("Now general Wolfe to his men did say"), J. Grundy (Worcester), 18C; also Harding B 25(717), "General Wolfe"; Harding B 28(208), "General Wolf" [Digital Tradition "Bold General Wolfe (3)"]
* Bodleian, Firth c.14(16), "Britain in Tfars [sic] for the Loss of the Brave General Wolfe ("If ancient Romans did lament"), J. Jennings (London) , 1790-1840
* Bodleian, Firth c.14(11), "The Siege of Quebec"("Sound your silver trumpets, now, brave boys"), unknown, n.d.
My other usual online net broadside sources have none at all for other ballads on the death of General Wolfe. This all seems to support Mackenzie: "In both England and America the death of young General Wolfe in 1759 stimulated the ballad-makers to the production of songs of admiration and sorrow. [Mackenzie 75] is evidently of American composition."
Lines are similar to Opie-Oxford2 270, "Brave news is come to town" (earliest date in Opie-Oxford2 is 1842).
Firth c.18(130): "Strange news has come to me, strange news is carried, And now it's all the talk, my love he is married."
Opie-Oxford2 270: "Brave news is come to town, Brave news is carried; Brave news is come to town, Jemmy Dawson's married." - BS
Last updated in version 4.2
- Borneman: Walter R. Borneman, The French & Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America, Harper Collins, 2006
- Brebner/Masters: J. Bartlett Brebner, Canada, revised and enlarge by Donald C. Masters, University of Michigan Press, 1970
- Brown: Craig Brown, editor, The Illustrated History of Canada, Key Porter, 1987-2000
- Brumwell: Stephen Brumwell, Wolfe's Men, article in History Today magazine, September, 2009
- Bryant: Samuel W. Bryant, The Sea and the States: A Maritime History of the United States, Crowell, 1947
- Carroll: Joy Carroll, Montcalm & Wolfe; their Lives, Their Times, and the Fate of a Continent, Firefly, 2004
- Chandler/Beckett: David Chandler, general editor; Ian Beckett, associate editor, The Oxford History of the British Army, 1994 (I use the 1996 Oxford paperback edition)
- Keegan/Wheatcroft: John Keegan and Andrew Wheatcroft, Who's Who in Military History from 1453, 1976, 1987 (I use the 1991 LPR reprint)
- Leckie: Robert Leckie, A Few Acres of Snow: The Saga of the French and Indian Wars, 1999 (I use the 2006 Castle reprint). Note: I found several major errors in the very first pages of this book, and have tried to use it only for matters not found elsewhere.
- McNaught: Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada, Pelican, 1969, 1982
- Stacey: C. P. Stacey, Quebec, 1859: The Siege and the Battle, Macmillan Canada, 1959, 1966
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2020 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.