Born in 1712 near Nimes, France, young Montcalm came from a distinguished and noble family, and started his military life at the early age of nine. His family pushed him towards a career that would be brilliant, especially in his own eyes. He achieved his first successes in Europe, primarily during the War of Austrian Succession, where he was wounded and made prisoner. At the end of the war, he was given a pension, and from 1748 to 1755 he led a gentleman's life.
The calm came to an end in the spring of 1756, when Montcalm was dispatched to New France to replace an imprisoned officer. He found himself under the orders of the Governor General Vaudreuil. The relations between the two men did not get off to a good start. Montcalm already expressed his reservations about his superior in reports to the minister of War. And things did not improve. Montcalm was a man who revealed himself to be, in his writings, vain and incapable of putting aside his prejudices on war and administration, although he was in unknown territory.
Very quickly, Montcalm was entrusted with the mission of destroying the English fort Oswego. That was supposed to occur within the framework of war of harassment that brought Vaudreuil south. Montcalm and his army quickly overcame their enemies. The expedition was successful but Montcalm was shocked by the orders that he received, which were contrary to those that he had recommended.
He was critical of Vaudreuil's methods which consisted of multiple raids to exhaust the English. According to him, the European way of waging war was honourable and efficient. He expressed all his hostility towards Canadian militiamen and the Indians in a secret report, but on the other hand attempted to gain their esteem and affection.
During the summer of 1757, Montcalm and about 8,000 men prepared to attack Fort William Henry. He was ordered to destroy it, and to continue to Fort Edward. After a European siege, with trenches and canons, the English surrendered. Montcalm made the decision not to push ahead with the campaign towards Fort Edward, an option that Vaudreuil had only considered in case of grave danger.
The governor was furious, and was not satisfied with Montcalm justifications for his withdrawal. Montcalm, satisfied with his exploits, solicited a promotion to lieutenant general. He was also able to secure a raise in salary, claiming that he was in debt for the good of the colony. (After his death, his assets revealed that he had amassed a small fortune.)
During the following winter, the whole colony watched their waste away, as supply boats were intercepted by the English. Montcalm seized the moment and violently criticized his boss and administration, which he considered ineffective and corrupt. He predicted that the fall of the colony was inevitable.
The following summer he was appointed to the defense of Fort Carillon, threatened by an army of impressive size. Luckily for him, he faced the poor strategy of Major General Abercromby; and he decided to attack without waiting for artillery. During the night, the English were on the run, and Montcalm accumulated another victory in which he was once again vilified Bigot, Vaudreuil and the Canadians.
Vaudreuil replied that the Indians no longer wanted to fight under the orders of Montcalm. The latter, exasperated, asked for his recall. The visions of the two men were irreconcilable. The Canadian opposed the suggestions of the French to abandon the distant posts in order to concentrate all the forces in the Saint Lawrence valley. Montcalm was equally convinced that defeat was just a matter of time and that what was important from now on, was to slow down the end and to retain the honour of the French army.
His request for recall was rejected, and Montcalm was entrusted with commanding all the military forces in Canada. He believed that Quebec was "unattackable", the river was too dangerous to navigate without experienced pilots. There was therefore much confusion when the English turned up and settled on the Levy point, which had not been fortified. Montcalm was late in attacking and the bombardment of Quebec began.
After a campaign of destruction in the colony in the summer of 1759, the English landed upstream from Quebec, and even when they put their feet on the Plains of Abraham, Montcalm refused to believe it. When he finally realised how dangerous the situation really was, he panicked and threw his army into a battle that could have easily been avoided. This haste, condemned by all the higher military officers in the colony, was one of the causes of the fall of New France.
Mortally wounded, Montcalm passed away having given a carte blanche to Vaudreuil to surrender. Afterwards, the military elite preferred to blame the collapse on Vaudreuil in order to preserve the army's reputation. Montcalm became the hero that he had hoped to become.
Dictionnaire biographique du Canada, "Montcalm" article, p. 495-507.