François-Gaston, Duc de Lévis, French army officer (born 20 August 1719 near Limoux, France; died 26 November 1787 in Arras, France). Born into an impoverished branch of the French nobility, he rose through the military hierarchy thanks to his family connections, his sangfroid and his bravery on the battlefield. Deployed to New France during the Seven Years’ War, he was named second-in-command to Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm. On 28 April 1760, he won the Battle of Ste-Foy against the British garrison in Quebec City commanded by James Murray.
François-Gaston de Lévis was born on 20 August 1719 at the Château d’Ajac near Limoux, in the south of France. He was the youngest son of one of the oldest noble families in France. Two of his ancestors were Viceroys of New France (1625 and 1644).
In 1735, François-Gaston de Lévis became a second lieutenant in the Régiment de la Marine. While a member of the nobility, he was relatively poor, but did have excellent family connections. He was a cousin of the Duc de Lévis-Mirepoix, who became a marshal of France in 1751. Quickly promoted to the rank of lieutenant, he fought in the battle of Clausen (War of the Polish Succession), where his bravery earned him another promotion. On 1 June 1737, aged 17, he was promoted to the rank of captain.
In 1741, he served in the French auxiliary corps of the Bavarian army which invaded Bohemia during the War of the Austrian Succession. It was during this campaign that he is said to have met Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. Wounded during the siege of Prague in 1742, he was present at the heroic defence of the city by Brigadier François de Chevert, but was unable to take part in it.
Lévis’ participation in the Austrian, Bohemian and German campaigns won him great honours. He earned a reputation for bravery and sangfroid among the officers, who held him in high esteem. In 1748, he was made a Chevalier de l’Ordre de Saint-Louis (Knight of the Order of Saint Louis) and received the Cross of Saint Louis, a prestigious military award.
Campaign in Canada
François-Gaston de Lévis was ambitious and, while he did not have the money required to maintain a regiment of his own, he was eager to advance his career. In 1756, he was named second-in-command of the French troops fighting in the Seven Years’ War in North America. Assigned the rank of brigadier, he was under the command of Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm.
Sailing from Brest, France, he arrived in Quebec City on 31 May, following a 56-day crossing on the frigate La Sauvage. He then went to Montreal to meet with the governor general of New France, Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil, with whom he had a cordial relationship. François-Gaston de Lévis was instrumental in many military successes throughout the war. Sent to Lac Saint-Sacrement (now Lake George, in New York State) in the summer of 1756, he prepared to meet the enemy at Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga); however, the attack did not take place. The following year, he commanded the 3,000 man vanguard force of General Montcalm’s army, which was advancing on Fort William Henry. The British fort surrendered following a six-day siege.
Battle of Carillon
The year 1758 marked a major turning point in the war. In July, a British expeditionary force took over the Fortress of Louisbourg, tightening the stranglehold on the Laurentian colony. On 7 July, François-Gaston de Lévis and a detachment of elite troops marched day and night to join the French army amassed at Fort Carillon (now Fort Ticonderoga). The next day, they were attacked by the 15,400 men under the command of James Abercromby, whose soldiers unsuccessfully launched repeated attacks on the trenches manned by 3,500 French riflemen. The battle raged throughout the day. The British lines were hampered by ground littered with branches and tree trunks piled in front of the French trenches and the attackers were decimated. During this battle, François-Gaston de Lévis commanded the right flank of the army. The French strategy was highly successful. By the end of the day, the French had won a decisive victory in the Battle of Carillon.
Battle of Beauport
The excitement of victory was short-lived, however, because the British forces that had taken Louisbourg were now marching on Quebec City. During the summer of 1759, General James Wolfe laid siege to Quebec City with an army of almost 10,000 men. François-Gaston de Lévis took command of the 13,000 men left flank of the French army, strategically entrenched along the Beauport shore. On 31 July 1759, Wolfe ordered a direct attack on the position of the Chevalier de Lévis, who anticipated it and stood his ground. Thus began the battle of Montmorency Falls. While the British grenadiers were attacking the heights of Montmorency, a violent storm broke out, putting them in a vulnerable position. The British side had more than 400 dead or wounded, while the French had fewer than 70 casualties. Once again, the Chevalier de Lévis proved himself to be an experienced military officer and an able tactician.
Following the loss of Fort Niagara in July 1759, Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, feared a British push towards Montreal and sent François-Gaston de Lévis with 800 men to counter this threat. It was there that Lévis learned of the rout of the French army during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which was fought on September 13 and in which he was unable to take part. Becoming commander-in-chief of the French troops following the death of General Montcalm, he reassembled the routed army and planned, with Governor Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil, to retake Quebec City.
Battle of Ste-Foy
In April 1760, François-Gaston de Lévis reached Quebec City with an army of 7,000 men, ready to storm the city. He defeated the 3,400-man British army led by James Murray in the Battle of Ste-Foy, very close to where General Montcalm was defeated on the Plains of Abraham several months earlier. But the French were unable to capitalize on this victory. François-Gaston de Lévis besieged the city, but faulty artillery and the arrival of British reinforcements forced him to pull back towards Montreal several days later.
In September 1760, François-Gaston de Lévis and his 2,100 fighters were surrounded by three British armies, 18,200 men strong, which had converged on Montreal. Despite the desperate situation, General François-Gaston de Lévis insisted on waging one more battle, but Governor Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil refused to sacrifice more lives. On September 8, he signed the capitulation of Montreal, thus ceding Canada to the British. In a gesture of protest, the Chevalier de Lévis ordered the regimental flags burned, rather than suffer the humiliation of having to turn them over to the enemy.
Reputation and End of Career
During the war, Chevalier François-Gaston de Lévis demonstrated generosity towards both his superiors and his enemies. Following the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, he wrote to François Charles de Bourlamaque to defend the military decisions made by the Marquis de Montcalm and to request that the Marquis be given full military honours. Before and after the Battle of Ste-Foy, he carried on a polite correspondence with his adversary, Scottish general James Murray. The two adversaries who confronted each other at Quebec City enjoyed a friendship characterized by mutual respect throughout their lives.
Upon his return to France, François-Gaston de Lévis pleaded his case in Paris. He petitioned for a promotion to lieutenant-general, a pay increase, and release from the term of the capitulation of Montreal barring him from serving for the remainder of the war. All of his requests were granted. His military feats were so famous that the former British prime minister, William Pitt, sent him a personal letter stating:
“…the pleasant news, which the King has authorized me to tell you, is that despite the Capitulation to General Amherst by Mr. de Vaudreuil, you are free to serve anywhere, provided that it is in Europe.”
In February 1762, François-Gaston de Lévis married Gabrielle-Augustine-Michel de Tharon, the daughter of a wealthy administrator. He continued to distinguish himself through his courage and boldness on the battlefield to the end of the Seven Years’ War. His services won him recognition from the State, which appointed him governor of Artois in 1765, and a marshal of France in 1783. One year later, at the age of 64, he became a duke. He died at the age of 67, while performing his duties despite being in poor health.
The life of François-Gaston de Lévis is a remarkable 18th century social success story. The heir of an impoverished family, he had to essentially rely on his personal ability to fulfill his ambitions and to reach the highest levels of French society.