Death of General Wolfe

Words by Anonymous; to the tune of "Bold Wolfe," 1760

What was the French and Indian War? When and where was it from? Between whom was it fought? Why?

The first verse of this ballad differs from all the others. What is different about it? It’s in second person. Who is it being sung to? Young men. What is their occupation? Soldiers. What is the singer trying to do? Encourage, boost morale. What does he tell them? Be brave; don’t lose your courage until the hard times are over; be loyal, don’t give in. Why does he then go into the story about General Wolfe? Wolfe was a hero—they should act like him; be brave to honor his memory; avenge his death

What story does the rest of the song tell? Let’s diagram the plot of this song, starting with verse 2 (use the graphic organizer). In the first block, write the first thing that happens. Wolfe crosses the ocean to free America. In the second block, write the second event, etc. Note: there is not a one-to-one correspondence between verses and events.

After diagramming the plot, put this story into your own words. What character traits did Wolfe have? What made him a hero?

Why would the colonizers sing a song about a Canadian battle? Before 1776, Canada shared the same status as a British colony; in fact, Canada was invited to sign the Declaration of Independence, but declined.

Find the plains of Abraham on a map of North America. What other territory did France claim in North America? Upper Ohio Valley, Great Lakes, Mississippi Valley. How was the territory divided up in the treaty that ended the war? France relinquished land east of the Mississippi.

“Death of General Wolfe” performed by David and Ginger Hildebrand on George Washington: Music for the First President. © 1999. Available on iTunes, Spotify and YouTube.

This ballad was sung to an anonymous folk tune, which soon became known as “Bold Wolfe” because of the popularity of this song. It has since been used for other ballads. The peculiar musical setting, a non-traditional minor mode, intensifies the somber tone of the song.

View the music and lyrics for this song.

View the published broadside.

General James Wolfe (1727–59) was a hero of the French and Indian War. He and Vice Admiral Charles Saunders laid siege to Quebec in June 1759. On September 13, under cover of night, Wolfe led a battalion of British soldiers up a sheer bluff from the St. Lawrence River in a surprise attack on the French, who were under the command of the distinguished Marquis de Montcalm (1712–59). The battle was fought on the “plains of Abraham,” a level field in the city of Quebec. Although this decisive victory altered the trajectory of the war, in which the British ultimately gained control of Canada from France, both leaders died in this battle. Wolfe’s dying words were said to express joy that he lived to defeat the French. Legend has it that when he was told the battle was won he said something like, “I die a happy man.”

Shortly after the battle, several songs appeared that told of Wolfe’s success and immortalized him. “Death of General Wolfe” is the most famous. Other songs about this battle are narrative, but this one is a lament for the fallen hero. It also humanizes Wolfe by referring to his recent engagement. The first verse invites the audience to gather around and listen. It then urges listeners to emulate Wolfe. Benjamin West's "The Death of General Wolfe"

Benjamin West's painting, "The Death of General Wolfe," 1770.

weeds: Mourning clothes.


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