For 116 years (1884-2000), one book stood alone as the definitive study of the French and Indian War in North America: Montcalm and Wolfe, Francis Parkman’s classic study of the war that most Americans have forgotten. Imbued with first-rate scholarship and written in a graceful style favored by nineteenth century historians, Montcalm and Wolfe brings the French and Indian War (1753-1760) to life for modern readers in a particularly appealing manner.
Today, Francis Parkman (1823-1893) is considered by many scholars to be the greatest American historian of all time. He was an 1844 graduate of Harvard University and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He was probably the first American scholar able to view our nation’s past through a long enough lens to write American history with a completely objective eye.
He certainly was a pioneer in doing historical research. He envisioned writing a great history of the conquest of North American continent. His vision became a lifelong project, entitled France and England in North America. Several of his finest books, including Pioneers of France in the New World; The Jesuits in North America in the Seventeenth Century; Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV; and The Old Regime in Canada, are all part of Parkman’s labor of love. Each volume is based on Parkman’s personal visits to historical sites and battlefields and meticulous scholarly research. Despite their lengthy and monotonous sounding titles, all are historical and literary masterpieces.
Montcalm and Wolfe, written in 1884, is the last, best, and climactic volume in the France and England in North America saga. Simply put, it is a magnificent work of history! With tremendous historical and literary skill, Parkman tells the story of the most historically decisive war ever fought on the North American continent. I won’t spend time here summarizing the war’s historical events; I’ve already covered that ground in my recent review of Crucible of War, Fred Anderson’s equally outstanding contemporary study of the Seven Years’ War. Suffice it to say, Parkman recounts those events in Montcalm and Wolfe clearly, objectively, and in great detail. Parkman is far less inclined than Anderson to engage the reader in lengthy discussions of internal Indian, British or French politics. He clearly intended Montcalm and Wolfe to be the “crown jewel” of his France and England in North America project. Hence, this book’s sole concern is to convey the history of the French and Indian War as it was fought in North America.
It is indeed a fascinating and well told story! Parkman writes with a precise, graceful, and most eloquent pen. With his richly textured and fast paced narrative, he demonstrates a wonderful flair for dramatizing history. Several chapters stand out for their vividly descriptive narrative. The terror felt by General Edward Braddock and his British troops, as they are about to be ambushed by French regulars and their Indian allies in a Pennsylvania forest, is almost palpable. Parkman takes his readers along as the British expel every Acadian from present-day Nova Scotia; it is an engrossing tale of British cruelty and betrayal, and Acadian heartbreak. Parkman allows readers to experience General James Wolfe’s frustration as he searches for a way to conquer Quebec, and Marquis de Montcalm’s frustration as he prepares to defend the city.
Parkman’s brilliant and detailed battle narratives put the reader squarely “in the line of fire” – at Jumonville’s Glen, Fort Duquesne, Fort Ticonderoga, Louisbourg, Quebec, and Montreal. As I read these simmering chapters, I could almost visualize armies engaged in their titanic struggles; smell the gunpowder; and hear the clatter of musketry and the cries of the wounded.
This gifted historian’s tremendous knowledge about this vast and complex subject is readily evident. So are his formidable skills as a writer. Parkman writes in the romantic style popular among nineteenth century historians and readers; yet, his prose is of such high quality that it never seems dated. In fact, as I was reading, I found it difficult to remember that Montcalm and Wolfe was written well over a century ago!
Montcalm and Wolfe is a timeless classic of history and literature, capable of holding readers spellbound from beginning to end. Whether you’re a student of history, or just someone who occasionally relishes good non-fiction, you’ll find this beautifully written book most worthwhile. Read and enjoy!