The highs and lows of the Plains of Abraham

September 26, 2009

The 13th of September 2009 marks the 250th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham – a formative event in the making of Canada as we know it. Until January 3, 2010, the Canadian War Museum will highlight this important clash with an exhibition that takes the back roads: 1759-2009: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Art and geography as narrators

It was Peter MacLeod – pre-Confederation historian at the Canadian War Museum – who hatched the idea of this exhibition. While conducting research for his 2008 book Northern Armageddon: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, MacLeod combed all sorts of archives in search of letters, personal journals, images – anything that might shed new light on this important chapter in Canada’s history.

Upon surveying the key locations of the Battle, MacLeod began to appreciate just how few elements remain of the topography that those soldiers faced. A road, a water reservoir, and houses have forever altered the landscape. MacLeod cross-referenced present-day photos with artist renderings from the past to reconstruct the setting and better understand its impact on the unfolding conflict.

Over hill and dale

Other than the famous painting by Benjamin West – The Death of General Wolfe – few military pictures depicting the Battle of the Plains of Abraham remain. So MacLeod turned to artists of the 18th and 19th centuries for clues about topographical features that may have motivated certain military decisions. Art became a revealing source of links between geography and history, allowing MacLeod to approach the event from entirely new angles.

The jutting cliffs along the northern banks of the St-Lawrence and the road that now traces them would seem like insurmountable obstacles to docking British ships. But the paintings of Henry Richard S. Bunnet and James Pattison Cockburn revealed a beach at l’Anse-au-Foulon where General James Wolfe (commander of the British forces) was able to access the coastline with ease.


History books often mention a goat trail that was used to haul heavy artillery up to Quebec where a paved road now exists. In fact, it was the Côte Gilmour depicted by Philip John Bainbrigge in a piece called The spot where Wolfe ascended the Heights of Abraham. In it, a horse-cart ascending the steep slope indicates this was a route suitable for transport.

The last move for the British was to journey across to Buttes-à-Neveu. But there are no longer hills there today – the construction of a potable water reservoir in 1932 turned the area into flat lands. Dennis Gale’s Tobogganing on the Plains of Abraham Near No. 1 Tower lets visitors see for themselves how General Montcalm (commander of the French forces) had strategically positioned his troupes. This picture also illuminates how charging down such an uneven slope could lead to the utter disorganization of the French army.


A fresh take on a story that’s been told a thousand times, 1759-2009: The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is an exhibition that takes you further. It is an illuminating supplement to the self-guided tour of the permanent collection of the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s Face to Face and Canada Hall, as well as The Death of General Wolfe at the National Gallery of Canada. This exciting thematic museum experience will give you new perspective on Quebec and its infamous Battlefield Park.


Our expert, Dr. Peter MacLeod, will discuss his essay – The Truth about the Battle of the Plains of Abraham – on Thursday, September 10 at the Canadian War Museum. Can’t make it? The lecture will be made available on our YouTube channel at a later date. Stay tuned by subscribing.