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Wolfe's Obelisk

Stowe: The Park



This monument to Major General James Wolfe is composed of stones that once made up most of the guglio that was removed from the center of the Octagon Lake in 1754. At that time the Lake and its surrounding area of the South Front were beginning to be modified to soften their straight lines and exact geometry in keeping with the developing taste in landscape garden design.

General Wolfe's Obelisk seen from the Course
General Wolfe's Obelisk seen from the Course

According to the Dictionary of National Biography, James Wolfe (1727-1759) was a career army man whose first commission came at the age of 17 in his father's regiment of marines. He served in a number of capacities both on the Continent and in Scotland, but he achieved fame in the American campaign against the French in the Seven Years' War in the late 1750s. During the summer of 1758 he participated in the successful siege of the fortress of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia where he led his troops up a steep cliff to storm by bayonet a well-entrenched battery and routed some 1,000 French troops.

General Wolfe's Obelisk After returning to England, he asked to be of service again in America, particularly in the Saint Lawrence River area. By Christmas of that year it was settled that he would command a force to be sent up the Saint Lawrence against Quebec. He was given the rank of Major General in America on 12 January 1759. On 27 June he landed 9,000 troops on the Isle of Orleans, four miles below Quebec, and began a series of attacks. Quebec was strongly fortified: it boasted more than 100 mounted guns, a garrison of 2,000, and a force of 14,000 more troops as well as 1,000 Indians entrenched at Beauport, on the left bank of the River, immediately below the town. After being repulsed in several earlier attempts, Wolfe developed a new plan in early September to scale the ill-guarded, steep, wooded cliffs a mile and a half above the town.

Although this plan was not widely supported by his officers, Wolfe issued his final orders on 12 September. After dark, 1,700 men entered boats, and 2:00 a.m. floated downriver, landed, and scaled the cliffs to reach the heights above Quebec. By daybreak Wolfe had 4,500 men and two mounted guns there. He led his troops to the Plains of Abraham, an open tract of land about a mile from the town, and there he engaged the French force. He was wounded in battle, taking a third shot in the chest, and he died within a few hours. The French surrendered the town two days later, giving the British a decisive victory in the war.

Wolfe's body was transported back to England and was buried with full military honors in Greenwich on 17 November. The next day, Prime Minister William Pitt called for the construction of a national monument in his memory. Given the military tradition of the Temple family and their close relationship with Pitt (he and Earl Temple were brothers-in-law) it should not be surprising that the obelisk in the park at Stowe was dedicated to Wolfe before the end of the year, becoming one of several monuments nationwide celebrating Wolfe's service to his king and country.

Inscription on General Wolfe's Obelisk

It is said that Wolfe was overheard quoting lines from Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard the day before his death and claiming that he would rather be known for having written the poem than having taken Quebec. In this light it is fitting that Wolfe's Obelisk can be seen framed by the arches of the Fane of Pastoral Poetry as one looks northward out into the park. Lord Cobham's Monument is sited on the same axis through the center of the Fane to the south, a juxtaposition that draws attention to the military achievements of both men, but one that is now visible only in winter when the trees of the Grecian Valley are bare of their leaves.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu