Gilbert: Battle of Quebec

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(HOST) Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Quebec.  Commentator and Executive Director of the Vermont Humanities Council Peter Gilbert reflects on that compelling story, and on two historic heroes in his own life.

(GILBERT) The Battle of Quebec has all the features of great drama, a great story.  It was a climactic, winner-take-all battle – that decided the fate of Empire.

The story begins with tension, suspense, clever initiative, and perhaps luck: after weeks of frustration and with winter on the way, the British attackers are running out of time.  But they find a narrow track that enables them, in the dark of night, to scale the cliffs above the St. Lawrence River, taking them from their ships to the very gates of the enemy, where the French find them at dawn.  One morning’s battle would then determine whether not just Quebec City, but all of Canada would be French or British, a set battle between two great armies on a flat plain, outside a walled city. Even the name of the battlefield conveys Old Testament grandeur and significance: the Plains of Abraham.

Two great generals, Wolfe and Montcalm, are pitted against each other, red versus blue.  The battle itself takes less than fifteen minutes.  And not one but both generals are slain in battle, victor and vanquished alike.  In the years that follow, their death scenes would be memorialized in the most romantic (and unrealistic) terms on massive canvases by master painters, both French and British.  The city falls, French efforts to recapture it fail, and within a year the British conquest of Canada is over.

Whether one’s sympathies today are with English or French, whether one views the battle as a story of triumph or tragedy, it’s a compelling tale.  And, of course, the consequences of that battle are still all around us today.   

Tomorrow is the 250th anniversary of that important day.  As we honor Generals Montcalm and Wolfe and all the rest, I also pay tribute to two personal heroes of mine – two of the finest teachers I’ve ever had — the two middle school history teachers who taught me about that battle and so much more about our heritage: Robert Peterson and Bob O’Grady.  Smart, knowledgeable, demanding, and possessing an infectious enthusiasm for their subject, they inspired in me a life-long interest in history by conveying the power of story.   History begins with story.  It’s what makes history memorable, makes it human.  It’s the narratives that capture the imagination and minds of boys and girls and turn them on to the power of the past.  Some of those stories don’t yet have an ending.  Will, for example, an on-going effort begun 233 years ago to form an increasingly "more perfect union" continue its incremental progress, or will it grind to an ignominious halt?

That’s what great teachers do – they sow seeds in kids’ minds – stories, ideas, ideals, and the appetite to learn more; the Bob O’Gradys and Robert Petersons, heroes no less than Wolfe and Montcalm.

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