The Last Veteran Of The Plains Of Abraham

September 30, 2009 by Peter Black
Sir Benjamin West’s painting The Death Of Wolfe depicts the final moments of the British general in 1759. [ILLUSTRATION: SIR BENJAMIN WEST, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19910216-332]

Sir Benjamin West’s painting The Death Of Wolfe depicts the final moments of the British general in 1759.
ILLUSTRATION: SIR BENJAMIN WEST, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19910216-332

A Union Jack snaps in the breeze on a sunny, but chilly November morning. It’s hoisted high on the Quebec City cliff where the St. Lawrence River narrows. Dignitaries have gathered in the Jardin des Gouverneurs near the Chateau St. Louis, the fortress quarters for governors of New France and British North America dating back more than two centuries to Champlain. It is 1827 and the officials are there to lay the cornerstone for the monument to General James Wolfe and Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

At the ceremony, dressed in full regalia befitting such an important occasion, are top officers with the British garrison in Quebec City and grand masters of the Masonic Lodge which has taken on the monument project. The skirl of the highlanders’ pipes wafts into the labyrinthine streets of the bustling town of 27,000. The guest of honour is Governor General Lord Dalhousie, who has chipped in a sizable chunk of his personal wealth to see that a proper monument to Wolfe—and Montcalm, of course—be built.

Dalhousie believes it is a disgrace that 68 years after the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Lower Canadians have not yet seen fit to honour the doomed heroes of the famous battle.

Says Dalhousie, “We are met today to lay the foundation of a Column in honour of two illustrious men, whose deeds and whose fall have immortalized their own names, and placed Quebec in the rank of Cities famous in the history of the world.”

Nearing the climax of the ceremony Dalhousie turns his attention to an old man in the crowd. “Mr. Thompson, we honour you here as the companion in arms, and a venerable living witness of the fall of Wolfe: do us also the favour to bear witness on this occasion by the Mallet in your hand.”

James Thompson, then an astounding 95 years old and still very much quick of wit, shuffles forward. At his elbow is Captain John Young of the 79th Highlanders Regiment, the man who designed the 60-foot obelisk. Mallet “held firmly,” Thompson dutifully clangs the stone with the Mason’s ceremonial Three Mystic Strokes, inaugurating the monument to the fallen commanders and, in a sense, to himself. After all, James Thompson is acknowledged then as the last known surviving veteran—British, French, native or American—of that brief, but crucial clash on the morning of Sept. 13, 1759.

The Quebec City monument to Wolfe and Montcalm. [PHOTO: SIR SANDFORD FLEMING COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C-003440]

The Quebec City monument to Wolfe and Montcalm.
PHOTO: SIR SANDFORD FLEMING COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C-003440

Thompson dictated a detailed account of the Quebec campaign late in his life in which he notes the heavy sacrifice of his 78th Highlanders Regt. during the fateful battle while pursuing the fleeing French. “A hot skirmishing ensued, in which they (the Highlanders) suffered a good deal.”

Thompson would have had a first-hand sense of the suffering since he was not on the Plains for the actual battle, but was in charge of speeding the wounded from his regiment down the cliff and into boats for transport to a field hospital across the river in Levis. He was very much in harm’s way, however, in Wolfe’s bloody reversal at Beauport back in July, at the French triumph of Ste. Foy in the spring of 1760, and in the decisive British capture of Montreal later in that summer.

He was also with Wolfe a year earlier at Louisbourg, where the young soldier came to view the giant of British history as a father figure. Sentimental thoughts of this time in his life surely must have run through Thompson’s mind during the monument dedication. Among them, perhaps a special memory harkening back to the late summer of 1758, after the British had taken the French fortress on Cape Breton Island.

Thompson later recalled his first chance encounter with Wolfe. In a reminiscence recorded by his son, James Jr., titled General Wolfe—the Soldier’s Friend, Thompson noted that the French fort’s water “…had a particularly bad effect on the whole army, and I consequently did not escape it, but was attacked by a disorder that in a few days brought me down to a mere skeleton.” Thompson, hoping to “to pick up a little flesh,” forced himself to take walks on the Cape Breton highland terrain so familiar to his Scottish home of Tain.

“One day as I was sauntering along in this manner, I saw a person coming towards me in plain clothes and who should it prove to be but General Wolfe. When he had come up to me he accosted me by the term ‘Brother Soldier’ (which was) his customary mode of addressing the men.”

After asking about his health, Wolfe suggested he and Thompson sit down on a rock to rest and talk. “He gave me a good deal of good advice and cautioned me to be very particular in what I ate, and more so in what I drank. After sitting together in this manner for some time, and his asking as many questions as he thought I was able to bear, he left me, with the parting words which I shall never forget, saying ‘Be of good cheer, Brother Soldier!’ Oh, he was a noble fellow! And he was so kind and attentive to our men, that they would have gone through fire and water to have serv’d him.”

Barely a year later, at Quebec, Thompson rendered Wolfe a final service. “…(I)t fell to my lot to have the direction of the party that convey’d his body on board the gunship of war, whose name I now forget, that took it to England.”

An artist’s depiction of the taking of Quebec in 1759. [ILLUSTRATION: JULES-ERNEST LIVERNOIS, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C-001078]

An artist’s depiction of the taking of Quebec in 1759.
ILLUSTRATION: JULES-ERNEST LIVERNOIS, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—C-001078

The ship was actually the Royal William and, as Thompson also recounts, it nearly foundered in a gale off Île d’Orléans on its departure.

As unforgettable as it was, Thompson’s time with Wolfe was but one extraordinary event in a very long life full of dramatic action and indefatigable service to the small, but highly strategic town of Quebec.

When he was in his early 20s, Thompson, known to be a tall and strapping fellow, was drawn to the notion of leaving Scotland for land and prosperity in the New World. At the urging of a cousin, he joined the British army which was then actively recruiting highlanders. Unfortunately for Thompson, his mentor and ticket to an army commission was among the first to be felled by French cannon fire at Louisbourg.

While his military ambitions suffered a setback, Thompson would create his own considerable legacy as a civilian serving in Quebec, a very well-documented legacy as it turns out, thanks to his extraordinary memory, an eye for detail and a gift for writing in English—most of the recruits in the invasion force’s three highland regiments (42nd, 77th and 78th) spoke only Gaelic. His voluminous notes, diaries and reminiscences have been for historians a treasure trove of quotidian detail of life in Quebec post-1759.

For example, given he was such a rational man, his account of the “Dark Day of Canada” (odd weather of Oct. 16, 1785) makes chilling reading: “At 4, there was darkness again, and a very extraordinary clap of thunder, which shocked our people in the old citadel most sensibly and, (as they say), caused such a stench of sulphur as was like to stifle them. The water in their tubs and under the eave-spouts got as black as ink. Water everywhere appeared black, especially that exposed to the air…. This is the first time in my life that I eat my dinner at two o’clock in the day, by candlelight.”

His flair with the quill has earned him the status of “unofficial bard” of the highlanders, according to military historian and highlander authority Ian Macpherson McCulloch, who along with author Earl Chapman, is working on a full-length biography of the ubiquitous Thompson.

The Death Of General Montgomery, December 1775. [ILLUSTRATION: JOHN TRUMBULL, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19930042-001]

The Death Of General Montgomery, December 1775.
ILLUSTRATION: JOHN TRUMBULL, BEAVERBROOK COLLECTION, CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM—19930042-001

Although the facts of his youth are murky, it seems Thompson was, in his son’s words, “by profession an engineer.” Following the disbanding of his regiment after the peace of 1763, he eventually found work with the British authorities now faced with the task of repairing, fortifying and defending their new North American acquisitions. Given that the British had spent four months levelling Quebec City with constant bombardment, much work was to be done.

Thompson oversaw the construction of dozens of fortifications, including the Citadel, which decades later would become home to the Royal 22nd Regt. and alternate residence of governors general. The picture one gets of Thompson as documented in his notes, is a man constantly on the move, travelling throughout the countryside in all weather, dealing with all manner of issues, from a secure stock of materials from local suppliers, to reprimanding drunken workers, which seems to have been a frequent occurrence. Thompson would continue as overseer for virtually the rest of his life—until 1825.

In his journals Thompson sometimes departed from business details to reveal his personal feelings. One touching example is an entry for Nov. 21, 1780. In it he confides how he arranged to propose marriage while making his business rounds. “In this trip I contribed [sic] it so as to get miss Fanny Cooper to favour me with her company, for whom I have contracted the greatest esteem for some time, and I find it daily growing upon me, tho’ I have endeavoured to conceal it from her, and the world, till within a few days past I have found the opportunity of expressing to my lovely girl the passion I had for her and allowed her some little time to consider of it, and thought thus a favourable opportunity.”

Thompson rejoices that Fanny Cooper “completed my happiness as to promise her hand” and then returns to documenting the business end of the trip. A short while later Thompson applied for a marriage licence, but a delay in the paperwork struck Thompson “instantly with terror.” The matter is resolved and the couple are married and go on to have nine children, three of whom would die in infancy, including baby William whose sickness and death, and his mother’s torment thereupon, Thompson records poignantly in his log.

The historic home of James Thompson. [PHOTO: MAISON HISTORIQUE JAMES THOMPSON]

The historic home of James Thompson.
PHOTO: MAISON HISTORIQUE JAMES THOMPSON

His marriage to Fanny was not Thompson’s first betrothal, though. We learn in passing through a later account of his life that Thompson had married some time after the peace of 1763 and had six children with the first wife. And here we come upon a bit of a mystery—and a shocking tragedy—in the otherwise well-documented life of James Thompson. The unnamed wife and six children apparently died all at once, presumably on or about 1776 since Thompson noted in 1780 “it is now near four years since I was a single man.” Anecdotal accounts say this first family died in a fire, possibly while he was off on one of his innumerable business forays.

As for the identity of the mother and children, a brief biographical booklet published this year offers a few clues. James Thompson, A Highlander in Quebec, commissioned for Scotland’s Year of Homecoming by an historical society in Thompson’s birthplace of Tain, states the first Mrs. Thompson was probably French-Canadian since “there were a very few British women in Quebec in the early years after its capture.” The same entry says the couple had four sons and two daughters—the identical composition of the second family that lived through infancy.

Ironically, one of the few other existing references to Thompson’s first wife arises through accounts of the other extraordinary military encounter of Thompson’s life. When the American War of Independence began to spill into Canada, Thompson was assigned to prepare fortifications to fend off a two-pronged attack led by General Richard Montgomery from Montreal and General Benedict Arnold northward from New England. Thompson wrote that he was overseeing a multitude of defence projects and was busy “on horseback from the rising to the setting of the sun.”

In the famous attack on Quebec in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve, 1775, Montgomery was killed by a spray of grapeshot. Thompson was quickly on the scene and had Montgomery’s body buried in a graveyard “near his first wife.” Thompson had a bond with Montgomery; the two had fought together at Louisbourg. Forty-two years later, when Montgomery’s widow asked for the return of her husband’s remains, Thompson was summoned to point out the exact spot where he had been buried.

Another fascinating anecdote arises from the Montgomery episode. Thompson, believing he deserved it for his successful efforts in preparing the city’s defences, had claimed Montgomery’s sword—purchased from a drummer boy who had snatched it from beside the general’s corpse. The sword was passed down by Thompson’s descendants, one of whom sold it to Governor General Lord Lorne in 1878, thinking it a fitting souvenir for the Queen’s representative. Lorne turned around and gave it to Montgomery’s American descendants, to the “great indignation” of Thompson’s heirs, according to an account written in 1905 for the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, where the sword had been on display for decades.

Thompson’s own broadsword or “claymore,” the one he brought with him from Scotland as a young highlander and used in battle, is now in the Canadian War Museum’s Seven Years War collection, along with two of his daggers, called “dirks,” one whose handle Thompson carved himself.

If there is sustained and even renewed interest in the current day in the “old sergeant,” as he was known to townspeople and governors general alike, that may be due to one of the more modest structures Thompson built in the old city. Tourists by the thousand stroll past Thompson’s large but hardly luxurious house on rue Ste. Ursule. Built in 1793, the three-storey gabled home stayed in the Thompson family until 1957. Today the designated heritage building is a popular bed and breakfast bought in 1995 and meticulously renovated by a retired fireman from Toronto, Greg Alexander, himself a history buff and member of the revived ceremonial garrison of Fraser’s Highlanders in Quebec City.

“How I wish I could give James Thompson a tour,” says Alexander of the house rescued from near ruin and returned to its 18th century look, fitted with modern plumbing, and decorated with an eye for authenticity. With his firefighter background and his sensitivity to architecture in the old city, Alexander has installed a “very elaborate fire detection system.” He is clearly aware of the story that Thompson’s first wife and family died in a house fire. Thompson survived that trauma and many other ordeals to lead if not one of the most dramatic and surely one of the most productive and dutiful lives in the early nation of Canada.

“As a soldier he was intrepid, as a servant of the King he was strictly faithful,” notes Thompson’s obituary in the Quebec Mercury newspaper of August 1830. One might want to add, that as a Canadian historical figure he was probably unique for his longevity, blessed with a 98-year life that spanned the slaughter of Culloden in Scotland to the stirrings of rebellion in Canada. Perhaps there was something to General Wolfe’s health tips offered on their highland walk together at Louisbourg so long ago. The good health granted Thompson allowed him to oversee—and document—many of the marvels that make up the charm and wonder of today’s Quebec City.

The last veteran left a lasting legacy indeed.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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