The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West is a painting which has always fascinated me. Wolfe’s victory at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 sealed the doom of New France and also the doom ultimately of British rule in the 13 colonies. Freed from the menace of their ancestral enemy, the colonists were also free to rethink the ties that bound them to the British crown. West’s painting captures a pivotal moment in American history. Not only is Wolfe dying, but an old order in America, not only for France but also for Great Britain, is mortally stricken. American independence would have appalled James Wolfe, who had little love for Americans, but it is given to none of us to know the impact of our lives after our deaths. Wolfe of course had a death of legend, as the great historian of the struggle between New France and the British, Francis Parkman details:
They asked him [Wolfe] if he would have a surgeon; but he shook his head, and answered that all was over with him. His eyes closed with the torpor of approaching death, and those around sustained his fainting form. Yet they could not withhold their gaze from the wild turmoil before them, and the charging ranks of their companions rushing through the line of fire and smoke.
“See how they run.” one of the officers exclaimed, as the French fled in confusion before the leveled bayonets.
“Who run?” demanded Wolfe, opening his eyes like a man aroused from sleep.
“The enemy, sir,” was the reply; “they give way everywhere.”“Then,” said the dying general, “tell Colonel River, to cut off their retreat from the bridge. Now, God be praised, I die contented,” he murmured; and, turning on his side, he calmly breathed his last breath.