Douglas & McIntyre

Interviews with author(s) of “Backs to the Wall”

D. Peter MacLeod

D. Peter MacLeod

July 2008

Douglas & McIntyre spoke with historian and researcher D. Peter MacLeod about the work that went into his epic tale of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

Why did you decide to write a book on the Battle of the Plains of Abraham?

The Battle of the Plains of Abraham is at once the most the dramatic and most important battle in Canadian history. British and American writers have written some very fine books on the history of the battle, but the last major Canadian study, C.P. Stacey’s classic Quebec, 1759 came out in 1959. It seemed to me that a new Canadian perspective was long overdue.

What exactly do you mean by a “Canadian perspective”?

On one level, this is very straightforward—giving equal time to the French and the British. This is less common than you might think. British and American historians have produced most of the recent writing on the siege of Quebec, tending to be most interested in the British side of the campaign, especially when writing they're writing biographies of James Wolfe, and have only limited access to French documents.

A Canadian perspective breaks down into multiple perspectives. In Northern Armageddon, I’ve tried to look at the battle through the eyes of American, British, Canadian, French, and First Nations participants, giving each group as much attention as the documentation allows.

What has been overlooked in previous histories of the Battle?

If there’s one group that’s been overlooked in previous histories, it’s the Americans. The invasion of Canada wasn’t just a British invasion, it was a British-American invasion. Thousands of Wolfe’s soldiers had been recruited in the American colonies, hundreds of New England sailors joined the Royal Navy for the campaign, dozens of American merchant ships helped to carry the British army to Quebec.

Can you describe a little bit about your research for this book?

Some historians travel the world doing research. I stay pretty close to home. Most of the contemporary books and manuscripts that I used came from the Military History Research Centre at the Canadian War Museum, one floor below my cubicle, or Library and Archives Canada, a ten minute walk away.

Even so, it was an amazing experience. Some days, it seemed that every time I opened a book or spun a reel of microfilm I found something new. Most important, I discovered that there was more material available on the human side of the battle than I’d ever expected. The story of the siege of Quebec and Battle of the Plains of Abraham isn't just about events that shape history; it's full of interesting people with stories to tell.

Who are three of the most interesting people in your research?

William Hunter, a master’s mate in the Royal Navy. For him, the siege of Quebec isn’t about the French empire or the British empire or the conquest of Canada, its all about William Hunter and how he might use his service in the St. Lawrence to earn a promotion to lieutenant.

Jean-Baptiste-Paschal Magnan, a Quebec merchant and militia officer. He leads the first French detachment onto the battlefield and chooses the position where Montcalm formed his battle line.

Ouiharalihte, a Huron teenager. When he follows the Huron warriors into action, his grandfather tells him to get off the battlefield and out of danger. Being a teenager, Ouiharalihte interprets this to mean “away from his grandfather and out of sight.” He stays around to watch and provides a brief but vivid account of the battle from a First Nations perspective.

Did any of these people know how important the Battle was going to be?

Some of them were pretty sure that this wasn't going to be just another battle. My personal favourite is a British sailor, part of a naval detachment that hauled artillery to the battlefield, who called Quebec “this hostile city, the ... contested prize which is to decide the fate of a western world.”

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