François-Gaston Levis

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(August 20, 1719–November 26, 1787) French Army Officer

Levis was probably the most accomplished French military leader of the French and Indian War, with several impressive victories over the English to his credit. Had he commanded French forces in Canada at the beginning of that conflict, the inevitable outcome might have been contested much longer.

François Levis was born in Limoux, Languedoc, France, into an impoverished branch of an old aristocratic family. He joined the army at the age of 15 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Regiment de la Marine on March 25, 1735. For such a poor Gascon cadet, he enjoyed impeccable bloodlines and counted among his relatives the Duke of Levis-Mirepoix, soon to be a French marshal, who appointed him to his staff. From the onset, Levis proved himself a gallant and able soldier. He fought continuously and with great distinction throughout the War of the Polish Succession, rising to captain in 1737. Levis subsequently participated in numerous battles of the War of the Austrian Succession and also fought at Dettingen in 1743. After campaigning in Italy in 1747, he left his regiment to serve as a staff officer with a brevet rank of colonel and appointment as assistant chief of staff under the Prince de Conti. This position not only conferred greater respect on the young soldier but also afforded him greater pay. Nonetheless, Levis lacked the money to raise and equip a regiment of his own and was forced to look elsewhere for military and monetary advancement. In 1765, he volunteered to accompany Gen. Louis-Joseph de Montcalm to Canada and gained appointments as brigadier general and second in command of French regulars there.

No sooner had Levis arrived at Quebec in May 1756 than he became embroiled in the cross fire between Montcalm, his superior officer, and Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil, the governor-general. As a professional soldier, he studiously avoided personal politics, and the doughty Vaudreuil eventually came to express a great fondness for him. Levis was nonetheless carefully discreet in his dealings with the governor- general, however, lest the appearance of favoritism raise the ire of Montcalm. When the latter went off to successfully besiege British forts at Oswego, New York, Levis received an independent command along Lake Champlain. Little fighting occurred during this period of Levis’s career, but he became thoroughly acquainted with New World military tactics, including bush fighting with light infantry, Native Americans, and other irregular forces. In the spring of 1757, he accompanied a raid against Fort William Henry at the head of Lake George, New York, and the following summer accompanied the campaign against it. There Levis commanded the siege train, the transport boats, and the advance guard with consummate skill, but Montcalm’s inability to follow up his victory angered the governor-general. Again, Levis remained diplomatic toward both parties and astutely steered a neutral path. In fact, Vaudreuil was so impressed by his performance that he advised superiors back in France to promote Levis to major general.

In the spring of 1758, Vaudreuil conceived a strategy whereby Levis and 3,000 men would be dispatched into the heart of Iroquois territory. His mission was not so much an attack as an attempt to cow that tribe into changing its alliance from England to France. However, Levis had no sooner embarked on his mission than he was speedily recalled back to reinforce Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga) in New York. He arrived just as an English army of 15,000 men under Gen. James Abercromby was positioning itself to attack. Levis was posted to the exposed right flank, which Abercromby made no attempt to turn, and was conspicuously engaged in the disastrous repulse of July 8, 1758. When Montcalm again gave the appearance of being unwilling to follow up on a victory, Vaudreuil demanded his recall back to France and replacement by Levis. Levis was, in fact, promoted to major general, but when the government decided to leave Montcalm in command, he graciously accepted his continuing role as a subordinate.

The tempo of events quickened in the summer of 1759 when an army and fleet under Gen. James Wolfe arrived off Quebec. Levis argued strenuously with Montcalm that French forces should not remain in the city and be trapped there. At length, he was allowed to take a picked force to guard the shoreline from St. Charles to Montmorency. Levis’s foresight was rewarded on July 31, 1757, when Wolfe made an attempted landing at Montmorency and French forces defeated him handily. Subsequent British gains at Fort Niagara in western New York then convinced Montcalm that a possible offensive against Montreal was in the offing, and in August he dispatched Levis to that city with 800 men. Thus, Levis was absent during the decisive British victory over French forces on the Plains of Abraham, September 13, 1759, in which both Wolfe and Montcalm were slain. Levis, now senior commander, hurried back to Quebec to collect the disorganized remnants of French forces and shepherded them back to Montreal. Over the ensuing winter he made great strides in improving morale and integrating Canadian militia with regular forces. Levis also struck up a cordial written relationship with Gen. James Murray, now commanding the English garrison at Quebec. The two erstwhile enemies remained friends for life.

In the spring of 1760, Levis became convinced that Quebec could and should be recaptured at any cost. He authorized an active war of outposts against English forces, prevented them from foraging, and allowed scurvy to do its work. By March, Murray’s 7,000-man garrison had dwindled to half its strength, and Levis set out to engage him. On April 28, 1760, Murray’s 4,000 soldiers met a similar force under Levis at Saint Foy, not far from where Montcalm and Wolf had died. After a stiff fight, the British right flank was turned, and Murray hastily withdrew back to the city with heavy losses. Levis then laid siege to the town in hopeful anticipation of reinforcements from French ships on the St. Lawrence River. When ships did appear in May, they turned out to be British, so Levis abandoned Quebec and fell back to Montreal. The British responded with a three-pronged advance on that city, which convinced Governor-General Vaudreuil that the war was lost. On September 6, 1760, articles of capitulation were drawn up by Gen. Jeffrey Amherst, but Levis, seeing they denied the French garrison honors of war, strongly protested. He clearly preferred to fight rather than dishonor himself and the men under his command. Vaudreuil, not given to such niceties, commanded him to accept the terms as written. He obeyed, but Levis flatly refused to meet with Amherst or extend any of the traditional courtesies due a victorious general.

Levis returned to France shortly after his surrender, and he politely and rather generously praised Governor-General Vaudreuil’s performance. The French war minister remained impressed by his performance in the field and conferred upon him the rank of lieutenant general. In this capacity Levis fought under the Prince de Soubise and the Prince de Conde, distinguishing himself in several actions against the Prussians. The Seven Years’ War then concluded in 1763, and Levis retired from active service two years later to serve as governor of Artois. In 1771, he was selected for the highly honorific post of commanding a Garde du Corps company, tasked with guarding the dauphin, or king’s son. In June 1783, the old soldier was elevated to the rank of marshal, France’s highest military distinction. Levis died at Arras on November 26, 1787, quite possibly the most effective soldier in the war to preserve Canada for France.

Bibliography Chartrand, Rene. Quebec: The Heights of Abraham, 1759: The Armies of Wolfe and Montcalm. Oxford: Osprey Military, 1999; Chartrand, Rene. The French Soldier in Colonial America. Bloomfield, Ont: Museum Restoration Service, 1984; Henderson, Susan W. “The French Regular Officer Corps in Canada, 1755-1760: A Group Portrait.” Unpublished Ph. D. dissertation, University of Maine, 1975; Lapierre, Laurier L. 1759: The Battle for Canada. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1990; Macleod, Malcolm. “Fight at West Gate, 1760.” Ontario History 58 (1966): 172-194; Murray, James. Governor Murray’s Journal of Quebec from 18th September 1759 to 25th May 1760. Quebec: Middleton and Dawson, 1871; Nicolai, Martin L. “A Different Kind of Courage: The French Military and the Canadian Irregular Soldier During the Seven Years’ War.” Canadian Historical Review 70 (1989): 53-75; Schwartz, Seymour I. The French and Indian War, 1754-1763: The Imperial Struggle for North America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994; Stanley, George F. G. New France: The Last Phase, 1744-1760. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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