Peter Macleod is Director of Research at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Canada. This interview is based on his new book, Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the Making of the American Revolution (Knopf, 2016).
JF: What led you to write Northern Armageddon?
PM: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is the most important single event in Canadian military history. So for an eighteenth-century Canadian military historian like myself, it’s almost impossible NOT to want to write about the battle at some point.
Moreover, I found previous histories of 1759 to be deeply frustrating. There were many fine works by fine historians, but they tended be about the campaign and devote very little space to the actual engagement. I wanted to examine the battle in detail in order to understand how and why it turned out the way it did. In the end, I concluded that decisions by individual soldiers, sailors, and warriors, rather than the efforts of James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, determined the outcome of the battle.
At the same time, I wanted to trace the link between troops exchanging fire and the course of North American history. (Too many military histories simply assert that a given battle is important, without going into detail as to why.) So Northern Armageddon ends with chapters that portray the battle as one event in the transformation of the continent from a Native American homeland to a region occupied by two settler nations, the United States and Canada.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Northern Armageddon?
PM: American soldiers, sailors, and merchant ships played important roles in the siege and capture of Quebec in 1759. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham was an American as well as a French-British battle, and influenced the course of American history.
JF: Why do we need to read Northern Armageddon?
PM: To understand how American sailors on the St. Lawrence River and American soldiers fighting a battle on top of a cliff in Canada helped to pave the way for American independence.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
PM: I became an American historian as I researched and wrote Northern Armageddon. To my considerable surprise, wherever I looked in I had thought was a French-British-Native American battle I kept running into Americans. The Rangers and Royal American Regiment, I already knew about. But I had no idea that fleets of American merchant ships were sailing up the St. Lawrence, New England sailors were serving in the Royal Navy, and American soldiers were taking their places all along Wolfe’s battle line. Before long, I had reached the conclusion that the attack on Quebec was an Anglo-American operation that would not have been possible without American participation.
JF: What is your next project?
PM: Backs to the Wall: the Battle of Sainte-Foy and the Conquest of Canada, which will be published this fall.
The battle of the Plains of Abraham has an intriguing but little-known sequel. Six months later in 1760, the same French and British armies met again on the same battlefield. This time, the French won a dramatic victory and besieged the British garrison of Quebec. Inside Quebec, British morale collapsed. For a while, it looked as if they might take back the city and overturn the results of 1759.
The Royal Navy arrived in time to break the siege and American merchant ships resupplied the garrison. But the French victory at Sainte-Foy reminds us that history is not graved in stone. The Plains of Abraham may be an important battle, but if things had turned out differently in the spring of 1760 it would be a historical footnote.
JF: Thanks, Peter!