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Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)
Globe writer Ian Brown dresses up in 18th-century British regalia on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec: 'It felt surprisingly grave.' (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon - info@francisvachon.com)

Globe Focus

In Wolfe's clothing Add to ...

This is what I discovered about putting on a historically accurate, 18th-century British officer's uniform and standing on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City pretending I was General James Wolfe: I might have looked like an overgrown lunatic playing dress-up, but when I actually slipped the coat and hat on, it felt surprisingly grave. It made me want to be serious.

If events had turned out the way a lot of people wanted, I might not have been alone.

Had things gone another way, several thousand men and women dressed as 18th-century French and British soldiers would be re-enacting the battle of the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City this weekend, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the short-lived skirmish that's conventionally remembered as having transformed New France into an English colony, establishing the future character of Canada.

It would have been the first time the country's most historic battle had been restaged on the very spot where the original took place.

The boom of cannons besieging Quebec would be filling the air. The plains would be thick with musket smoke from the 60,000 shots fired in the course of the battle.

Three hundred thousand tourists would be spending $30-million in Quebec City when they weren't wandering through a copy of an 18th century French and English military encampment. The tourists would be asking questions of seamstresses and tanners and blacksmiths living in neatly lined up, 18th-century-style tents, cooking 18th-century-style meals in 18th-century-replica pots over open fires started in 18th-century ways.

The seamstresses and tanners and blacksmiths in turn would be showing the great curious public how cowhide windows were made or what shoes looked like then or how wool was woven into linen as a flame retardant, because a leading cause of death among 18th-century women was infection due to burns suffered while cooking over an open fire, and people would be saying, "Isn't that interesting?"

Most of all, everyone would be intensely debating the fine points of what actually happened on the Plains of Abraham and how significant the battle was, or was not. That, after all, is what re-enactors do: They try to make history real.

But none of this will happen.

Last February, a pocket of Quebec City separatists complained that the re-enactment would "celebrate" the conquest of French Canada. A media howl ensued. Within days the event had been cancelled.

Which is why - and this is a scoop, dear reader - two weeks ago, on a damp spit of green park in the sleepy town of Ogdensburg, N.Y., 275 miles from the nearest Quebec City indépendantiste , 250 French and English participants secretly re-re-enacted the cancelled re-enactment.

They pretended a line of split cedar rails were the walls of Quebec City. The riverside shores of upstate New York were the cliffs at Anse au Fulon, where General Wolfe landed his troops to surprise the French general, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm.

It wasn't the same, of course. They were re-enacting history. If they'd been allowed to do it on the actual Plains of Abraham, they would have made history too. Maybe the past would have been appeased.

II. Eight minutes to change an empire? Not exactly

The standard take on the battle of the Plains of Abraham, as military historian Desmond Morton sarcastically put it, is "eight minutes to change an empire, to eliminate the French and bring on the English: 'One volley, and the French dissolve - ha-ha, what do you expect?'"

Prof. Morton (thanks in part to his mentor, the great Col. C. P. Steacey) was one of the first historians to challenge that cliché.

In fact, he said: "The hidden part of the battle on the Plains was that it continued until dark, sustained by [French]Canadian militia and their native allies.

"When Quebec sovereigntists killed plans to re-enact the battle, they kept that heroic story secret."

Prof. Morton wasn't even sure the Quebec City re-enactors would have gotten it right. "My experience of re-enactors is that they're very conscientious, but they're also quite conservative."

In this case, though, he needn't have worried: Harry Hunkin was on the event committee.

A former Ontario school principal, Mr. Hunkin moved to Quebec City after he remarried because his second wife (22 years younger than him, and a federalist - a niece of the late Claude Ryan, the former Quebec Liberal leader) wanted to raise their daughter in French, a language Mr. Hunkin did not speak at the time.

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