Book Reviews

Book Cover – A Bard of Wolfe’s Army

Book Cover – A Bard of Wolfe’s Army

A Bard of Wolfe’s Army: James Thompson, Gentleman Volunteer, 1733-1830

Earl John Chapman and Ian Macpherson (eds.)
Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2010
361 pages, $34.95 PB

Print PDF

For more information on accessing this file, please visit our help page.

Reviewed by  John R. Grodzinski

This book is based upon a remarkable collection of personal anecdotes found in an old letter book held by the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and a similar document that was acquired by the Stewart Museum of  Montreal in 2009. Accounts by members of the army rank and file from the Seven Years’ War are rare, and thus, the publication of anecdotes from a veteran of the siege of Louisbourg and the 1759 and 1760 sieges of Québec is an important addition to the published literature of this period.

Sergeant James Thompson enjoyed a long life that included military service with the 78th Regiment of Foot, the famous Fraser Highlanders of the Seven Years’ War. When that regiment was being raised in 1757, Thompson, a member of the Highland gentry that was disenfranchised following the 1745 uprising, hoped that the patronage of Charles Baillie, his best friend and commander of the Fraser’s grenadier company, would help him secure a commission as a junior officer. This connection failed, and Thompson chose instead to enrol as a gentleman volunteer and serve as a sergeant until a vacancy became available in the grenadier company.

 Unfortunately, his patron Baillie was killed on the beaches near Louisbourg in 1758, ending any hope of preferment. Thereafter, Sergeant Thompson enjoyed a charmed existence as he survived every major action in which his regiment participated without receiving a scratch. His adventures, left to posterity in 44 anecdotes covering his exploits with the Fraser’s, also include his reminiscences as Overseer of Works for Quebec, and experiences during the siege of Quebec during the American War of Independence. These ‘anecdotes’ owe their existence to Thompson’s son James, who began transcribing his father’s war stories in 1830, providing the rationale for the book’s title, for the senior Thompson was a bard, which, in old Scottish culture, was a collector of history and genealogy in the form of oral history.

The book is organized in three parts. The first is a detailed biographical essay on James Thompson, and it is followed by the centrepiece of the book containing all the anecdotes, collated from the two previously mentioned letter books, and two other sources. The final section provides more than 70 pages of biographical notes pertaining to the key individuals from the period, or those mentioned in the text. The anecdotes touch upon many aspects of the life of an 18thCcentury soldier-too many to describe here, so what follows is a taste of what is offered. Anecdote 4 recounts the landing at Louisborg, and it was first published in the Québec newspaper Star and Commercial Advertiser in 1828. Here, we learn of Captain Baillie’s death: “My Captain, poor fellow! … for whose sake I came away from Scotland, and who was my best and most intimate friend, poor Captain Baillie! He was sitting on the opposite side of the Boat, and was struck so mortally … that he expired without the least struggle.” Moving ahead to September 1759, when the British line advanced during the battle of Québec in 1759, Brigadier-General James Murray, the commander of the brigade that included the Frasers, cried out: “… the Piper was missing, and he knowing well the value of one on such occasions, he sent in all directions for him, and he was heard to say about, ‘Where’s the highland Piper!’? and ‘Five pounds for a piper,’ but devil a bit did the piper come forward the sooner.” Thompson was an admirer of Major-General James Wolfe, and he lamented his death: “Oh! He was a noble fellow! And he was so kind and attentive to our men, that they would have gone thro’ fire and water [which they did] to serve him!”

The editors, both respected for their work on the history of the 78th Fraser Highlanders and Highlanders in the Seven Years’ War, were wise in annotating the anecdotes, and their notes define period military terminology, explain obscure cultural references, offer biographical information, and speculate upon whom Thompson might have been referring to when he was silent on a name. An example is contained at Page 177, Note 146, where the editors assume Thompson was making reference to Brigadier-General Robert Monckton. In acknowledgement of the challenges of working with transcribed oral accounts, the authors have also corrected several passages where Sergeant Thompson’s “memory is hazy,” (Page 124, Note 34) or where unintentional errors, such as ‘James Jr.’ inserting himself into one account, occurs.

The publication of the oral tales of a sergeant from the Seven Years’ War, who was present at so many important events in Canadian history, is welcome. It is well illustrated, including a 14 plate colour album, and period and modern maps as only the wonderful book designer Robin Brass can provide.  A Bard of Wolfe’s Army is a perfect example of how a book of this type should be compiled, annotated, designed, and presented.