By Rona Altrows
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
~Thomas Gray, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”
Banks of the St. Lawrence, 31 August, 1759
Mr. Pitt chose the right man for this mission. Although he dislikes me and has said he suspects me to be a madman, he knows that once set upon a purpose, I do not relent. We will have Quebec.
Regrettably, for me personally, it is almost over. If the French and Canadian vermin do not kill me, I shall soon succumb to one of my ailments. Sad attack of dysentery in July, and you know about my fight with scurvy, which left me victorious but weakened. Rheumatism continues to torment me. But what will most likely take me down is the gravel, which has worsened. When it attacks, I pass a stone and the pain makes me cry out for instant death. If not the gravel, then the consumption or intermittent fever may end my life. In a way I shall be glad of the release. No strike by an enemy can create greater suffering than the body’s assault upon itself.
I have asked the surgeons to patch me up well enough to see this campaign to its conclusion. So long as they do their duty, I shall do mine.
Our plans have been laid, in a general sense. I have acquiesced to the new strategy proposed by my three brigadiers, although two of them are villains and the third, an idiot. We shall devise a way to force the Marquis and his men away from their position and into the open, where we shall destroy them. They are greater in number but possess neither the training nor the experience of our battalions. The only fair weather month in this wasteland is October. It was heavy rain that thwarted our last attack in July. This time we shall not fail.
The proximate reason for this letter, however, is to guard against malicious conversation about me after I die and to request that you carry out certain of my wishes. As you well know, I have long predicted an early death for myself and have speculated that I would be required to give my life for my country. At thirty-two, I have already been granted double the time poor Ned had. To think that my brother died in Flanders—and had enlisted only to be close to me—causes me more anguish than any physical ailment can inflict.
Since you are my staunchest defender, I rely on you to ensure that society does not, in the coming days and years, labour under certain misapprehensions about me.
As regards the battle of Culloden thirteen years ago, a rumour has taken hold. It is said that the Duke of Cumberland asked me to finish off a wounded Scot who was ridiculing us, and that I refused, telling his lordship that he could remove my commission if he wished, but that I would not act as an executioner. The entire incident is a fabrication. Cumberland would never conduct himself in so dishonourable a manner or put me in such a position.
Moreover, it has been said that I remarked, on a recent occasion, that I would rather have written Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Courtyard” than win Quebec. That is a lie. I am a soldier by profession, not a poet, much as I admire well-crafted verse. People hear that I have visited the court of Louis XV, and have studied Latin and mathematics, and perhaps they speculate that I would rather have had a more sedentary career. Never. We Wolfes are soldiers—my father, grandfather, uncle, brother, and I. It is true that were I to survive and return home, I would, of necessity, seek occupation more suited to an ailing person. Regrettably, however, I shall never again set foot in England. When I have gone to meet God, let no idle speculation interfere with the accurate public perception that I was, throughout my life, a military man by choice.
In recent days, some have unjustly represented me as ruthless. A military campaign is not a pretty thing; if a few farm buildings burn and animals lose their lives, it is not because we desire to quash the civilian population. It must simply be clear at all points that ours is the superior force. I have made it known here, by my own hand and in the French language, that Britain shows benevolence to the vanquished, so long as they do not rise up against us. It is in their interests to surrender; only French arrogance stops them from doing so.
The intendant of their rough colony, Bigot, lives like an annointed monarch while the plain people struggle, and he encourages gambling in Quebec until it has become another disease. The dissatisfaction of the citizenry should be directed not toward me, but toward their own leadership.
This next part is for your eyes alone, lying, as it does, strictly in the private domain. Although you have not masked your displeasure at my engagement to Katherine Lowther, kindly see to it that she has her miniature portrait back, along with the copy of Mr. Gray’s great poem that she gifted me when we were betrothed last Christmas. That you fulfill the moral duty to return these small items to Miss Lowther, I have specified in my will. However, I think it prudent to inform you now of my wishes in this regard. If you are tempted to forget to return those items to Miss Lowther, I would invite you to recall the pressure you exerted to have me end my courtship of Elizabeth Lawson, all because, as in Miss Lowther’s case, the dowry offered was modest. It is only because of filial devotion that I die a bachelor.
Nonetheless, in every other respect, you have been always my champion and my comfort, and for those gifts I am grateful. Perhaps when you read these words, you will already be a mother with no surviving children. It saddens me to think of your grief. I am also sorry to leave you so soon after Father’s death.
I wish you much health, and am, dear Madam,
Your dutiful and affectionate son,
Rona Altrows is the author of two short story collections, A Run On Hose (Thistledown Press) and Key In Lock (Recliner Books). Her website is www.ronaaltrows.com. “General James Wolfe’s Last Letter to His Mother” was previously published online in the Freshwater Pearls Anthology Online Supplement.