BEN FRANKLIN WARNED THAT IT WOULD BE A
“HARD NUT TO CRACK”–BUT IN 1745 A RAGTAG
ARMY OF NEW ENGLANDERS CAPTURED FRANCE’S
MOST IMPOSING NORTH AMERICAN STRONGHOLD.
BY B.A. BALCOM
The early spring of 1745 saw New England preparing for war. Seaports bustled as a makeshift armada prepared to carry a newly raised, inexperienced colonial army of farmers, fishermen, merchants, and frontiersmen into battle. The unlikely objective was Louisbourg, a heavily fortified seaport and capital of the French colony of Ile Royale some six hundred miles northeast of Boston.*
Longstanding colonial rivalries between Great Britain and France fueled the expedition. By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain had driven Portuguese and Spanish fishermen from the rich Newfoundland banks; New Holland and New Sweden had become the British colonies of New York and Delaware; and many Native North Americans had been decimated and displaced. Among European powers, only the French to the north and the Spanish to the south contested the British dominance.
In the northeast, natural barriers separated the heartlands of New England and New France. Lake Champlain and the Hudson River offered a corridor between New York and Montreal, but the distance separating the rival settlements offered each a measure of security. Maine was disputed territory, claimed both by the New England colonies and by Acadian settlements on the Bay of Fundy.
An uneasy peace had existed between England and France since 1713, when the Treaty of Utrecht brought the War of Spanish Succession–called Queen Anne’s War by the British colonists–to a close. That peace ended in March 1744, when France declared war on Great Britain. The War of Austrian Succession, or King George’s War, soon engulfed the belligerents’ North American colonies, the French at Louisbourg gaining an initial advantage when they received news of the state of war in early May, three weeks in advance of their English counterparts in Boston.
France saw the new conflict as a golden opportunity to recover Nova Scotia, ceded by treaty to Britain thirty-one years earlier. Attacks by Nova Scotia’s aboriginal native occupants, the Mi`kmaq, had restricted British settlement there to fortified outposts at Annapolis Royal and Canso.
The French struck first at Canso, an important seasonal New England fishery at the easternmost tip of Nova Scotia that had employed up to 250 schooners and 3,000 fishermen during the 1720s and 1730s. Situated only sixty miles by sea from Louisbourg, the British port threatened a vital supply route from the Acadian farmlands. Since Louisbourg was short of food that spring, hunger proved an effective spur to action. Using fishing vessels as transports and two privateers as escorts, 350 soldiers and sailors under Captain François Du Pont Duvivier moved on the attack.
With only eighty-seven soldiers defending rudimentary fortifications, the British surrendered after a short bombardment and minimal resistance. The French destroyed both the fortifications and the settlement and took the garrison, their families, and a few fishermen back to Louisbourg as prisoners.
French privateers followed this success by attacking New England’s fisheries and commerce. The raiders began by striking at rival vessels encountered off the Nova Scotia coast and eventually extended their reach down to New England itself. French warships on their way to and from Louisbourg also attacked New England shipping. But the British colonies soon replied with privateers of their own and, by August, had largely bottled up French shipping in Louisbourg.
With Canso’s destruction, Annapolis Royal became the sole remaining British stronghold in Nova Scotia. Its garrison too was under-strength and poorly equipped, but its earthen fortifications recently had been repaired, and its defenders expected an attack. Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts, fearing a domino-like string of French successes that would bring the enemy to his colony’s shores, rallied support for Annapolis Royal’s defense. Massachusetts raised almost two hundred men (many of whom would not receive their weapons until arriving at Annapolis Royal).
The first attack on the British settlement came not from the French but from the Mi`kmaq. From July 12 to July 16, approximately three hundred Mi`kmaq and neighboring Maliseet, encouraged by the French missionaries, attacked the fort. Lacking artillery, the Native warriors proved incapable of capturing the outpost, and the timely appearance of reinforcements from Massachusetts led the Mi`kmaq attackers first to withdraw and then to disband. Additional reinforcements from Massachusetts arrived later in the summer.
The French attack finally came in August when a Louisbourg detachment commanded by François Du Pont Duvivier arrived at Annapolis Royal with a force of 50 French soldiers, 160 Mi`kmaq, and 70 Maliseet. Duvivier, expecting support from two French warships, launched harassing night attacks. Eventually, the English commander, Paul Mascarene, agreed to a truce and to surrender if and when the French warships arrived.
Irked by the continued delay, Duvivier abandoned the truce and resumed fighting. Although no French ships appeared, Duvivier stubbornly continued the siege until October 2, when Michel de Gannes, a higher-ranking officer, ordered a withdrawal.
Despite the reprieve, New England continued to view Louisbourg as a serious military threat. After all, Annapolis Royal had barely escaped capture, and a more determined–and better coordinated–attack in 1745 just might succeed. The loss of Nova Scotia and the consequent return of thousands of Acadians to French authority would, Governor Shirley feared, threaten English settlement in Maine and even New Hampshire. Louisbourg, moreover, still acted as a safe haven for privateers and naval vessels that harassed New England’s shipping, and the French colony was an economic rival in the Atlantic fishery, particularly for the dried fish markets of southern Europe. Passions were further inflamed by religious animosity between Protestant New England and Roman Catholic New France.
Many in New England nevertheless had strong misgivings about the wisdom of a direct attack on the French stronghold. Prohibitions notwithstanding, New Englanders had traded at Louisbourg for years and well knew its substantial fortifications. The French garrison there was large (about 1,500 regulars and militiamen), and its harborfront batteries bristled with heavy cannon. New England lacked both military regulars and artillery. Many agreed with Ben Franklin’s admonition to his brother in Massachusetts that “fortified towns are hard nuts to crack; and your teeth are not been accustomed to it. Taking strong places is a particular trade, which you have taken up without serving an apprenticeship to it. . . . But some seem to think forts are as easy taken as snuff.”
Undeterred, Governor Shirley and his supporters campaigned during the fall and winter of 1744-45 to convince the New England colonies, particularly Massachusetts, that an attack on Louisbourg was practical. They buttressed their arguments with reports of the town’s weaknesses from Canso prisoners, who had been repatriated after spending the summer of 1744 in Louisbourg. In addition to noting low morale among the troops, these eyewitnesses reported on the poor state of Louisbourg’s masonry fortifications and revealed that many of its cannon–particularly those facing the land–were not mounted, leaving that front less protected than the seaward side.
By combining the New Englander’s political and economic concerns with promises of plentiful loot, claims of the fortress’s weakness, and admonitions from clergy about the “Stronghold of Satan,” advocates of the attack waged a close but ultimately successful campaign. On February 5, 1745, the Massachusetts House of Representatives narrowly approved a plan to move against Louisbourg in conjunction with the other British colonies.
With Massachusetts taking the lead, the colonies quickly raised a land force of four thousand men and gathered the vessels necessary to transport them to Louisbourg. Massachusetts, which then included the Maine District, assembled seven regiments; Connecticut and New Hampshire each raised one. Rhode Island contributed a warship and supplied three companies of soldiers (who did not arrive until the siege had ended), and New York chipped in with some badly needed artillery. Commodore Peter Warren, who had long advocated an expedition against Louisbourg, justified his participation on general orders from the British Admiralty encouraging him to make “any Attempts upon the French.”
William Pepperrell, a well-known merchant, member of the Massachusetts Council, and militia officer from Kittery, Maine, became the expedition’s commander. In early April, even before naval support for their mission had been confirmed, the troops embarked for Nova Scotia, and a flotilla of small colonial warships assumed blockade duty off Louisbourg. En route to their rendez- vous at Canso, the large Massachusetts contingent encountered a storm that scattered the transports. One New Englander reported that his vessel was turned into “A Very Hospital, we were all Sick, in a Greater or lesser Degree.”
Even after the New England force assembled in Canso, Pepperrell had to bide time until the spring drift ice left Gabarus Bay, the fleet’s intended anchorage during the siege. The New Englanders used the time at Canso for much-needed training and to rebuild the port’s defenses.
On May 3, the British warship Eltham arrived with the welcome news that the sixty-gun Superbe–Warren’s flagship–and several other naval vessels would join the attack. A week later, with the drift ice departed, the expedition sailed for Louisbourg. Two smaller attacks were launched as well against the French settlements at Port Toulouse (St. Peters) and then at Niganiche (Ingonish), also on Ile Royale.
Officials at Louisbourg, meanwhile, remained unaware of the scale of the coming attack. Prisoners returning from Boston in the fall of 1744 had warned of a planned assault but provided no details. The French considered the fractious British colonies incapable of unified action. A formal siege, they reasoned, would require support from Britain, thus allowing time for their reinforcements to sail from France.
Louis Du Pont Duchambon, interim commander of Louisbourg, received troubling accounts of activity at Canso, though he was unable to confirm them. The drift ice frequently kept the English vessels patrolling off Louisbourg at a distance, moderating the effect of the blockade. Then on May 7, an armed French merchant ship managed to enter the harbor and confirm that there was indeed a New England blockade of the port.
Duchambon faced major problems in planning Louisbourg’s defense. Although its builders had expected any full-scale assault to come from the sea, they allowed three of Louisbourg’s four major seaward batteries to remain vulnerable to bombardment from higher ground. Also troubling was the state of mind of the garrison–eight companies of French Marines and a detachment of the Swiss Karrer Regiment–which had mutinied in December 1744. Although the men had since returned to duty, the officers understandably were concerned about their reliability under fire.
On May 11, the New England fleet entered Gabarus Bay and on anchoring could see “the light house & ye steeples in the town.” Within hours, the troops clambered into boats and pulled for shore at a spot about three miles from the fortress. About a hundred men under the command of Louisbourg Port Captain Pierre Morpain opposed the landing. After a brief skirmish in which the New Englanders suffered only a few wounded, the French retreated.
Having tasted their first victory, the New Englanders began a disorderly advance toward Louisbourg; one New Englander reported that “Everyone Did what was Right in his own Eyes. . . .” Soon French artillery fire convinced the attackers to halt their advance on the low hills overlooking the town.
Louisbourg and its fortifications gave the New Englanders good reason to pause. Built on a broad, low peninsula at the southwestern end of the harbor, the King’s and Queen’s Bastions, each built on a slight hill, centered the thirty-foot high landward front that ended at the Dauphin Demi-bastion on the harbor side and the Princess Demi-bastion on the seaward side.* A sloping glacis beyond a broad ditch shielded part of the wall from direct fire. Except for a few areas of high ground, the terrain in front of the landward fortifications was composed of marshy bog that seemed to serve as a natural defense to the walls.
Louisbourg’s builders had paid particular attention to guarding the harbor entrance with interlocking fields of fire from heavy artillery in the Island Battery at the mouth of the harbor; at the Royal Battery on its north shore; and, within the walls, at the Pièce de la Grave Battery at the east end of the town’s waterfront and the Circular Battery adjacent to the Dauphin Demi-bastion.
In addition to being in a considerable state of disrepair, the fortifications possessed several weak points. Most bothersome was the noticeable drop in elevation from the King’s Bastion to the harbor that exposed that bastion’s right flank and the low-lying Dauphin Demi-bastion to artillery fire from nearby hills. Moreover, a large pond between the King’s and Dauphin bastions eliminated the protective slope of the glacis.
The day after the landing was a busy one for both sides. The New Englanders established camps and landed supplies. During these first days of the siege, a lack of discipline among his troops plagued Pepperrell. A large party of New Englanders looted and burned storehouses at the northeast end of the harbor, much to everyone’s annoyance when the extent of the waste was realized.
In order to gain a clear view of enemy troops who might attempt to approach the fortress’s Dauphin Gate, the main landward entrance to the town, the French indulged in some destruction of their own, burning a number of the houses that lay only a short distance from the walls on the road that led to the Royal Battery.
Fearing that the isolated Royal Battery itself would easily fall to the enemy, thus costing them one quarter of the total Louisbourg garrison, the French withdrew, taking with them food supplies and military stores but leaving behind a quantity of mortar shells and cannonballs. Mindful of how much this battery had cost to build and of the key role it played in defending the harbor, the French chose not to destroy it but only to spike its cannon so that they could not readily be turned on the town.
Two days after the landing, William Vaughan and about a dozen men, roving near the Royal Battery, noticed the absence of chimney smoke. Vaughan and his party entered the abandoned defenses; shortly afterward they repulsed several boatloads of French evidently intent on removing the remaining military stores. This easy capture of an important outlying battery boosted New England morale and provided an unexpected vantage point for the New Englanders’ cannoneers and their siege lines, which soon stretched in an irregular series of batteries, trenches, and camps to the besiegers’ main camp near the mouth of a stream known as Freshwater Brook.
Major Seth Pomeroy and twenty smiths soon drilled out the touchholes of the Royal Battery’s spiked cannon, making it possible for the New Englanders to begin firing at the French with their own guns just one day after the battery’s capture. The French responded with an ineffectual bombardment from the town and the Island Battery.
Meanwhile, the New Englanders were landing additional artillery at Freshwater Cove and moving them across the rough and swampy ground to a rocky hill opposite the King’s Bastion. Moving large cannon through the bog–something the French believed no sane attacker would ever attempt–was “attended with incredible Difficulty there being no possibility of drawing them with Horses or oxen.” Finally, Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Meserve, a New Hampshire shipwright, constructed large sledges upon which the heavy cannon could be dragged more easily across the rough terrain.
Green Hill was the most prominent eminence outside the walls, though at 1,760 yards distance, it was at extreme range. By May 15, the third day after the landing, the New Englanders opened fire from the hill with mortars and some of their lighter guns, but they were simply too far away to have much effect. Two days later, however, they began building a Coehorn battery at almost half the distance between Green Hill and the town, and within a week, they began yet another battery near the harbor and still closer to the town. By month’s end they had placed an advanced battery only 250 yards from the low-lying Dauphin Demi-bastion. The rival forces were now close enough to exchange musket fire as well as taunts and insults.
Bombardment became the order of the day with “Cannons B[ombs] Cohorns &c Continually roaring on Boath Sides[.] Women and Children heard to Screach and Cry out . . . when our B[ombs] Came amongst them.” Shortages of powder provided frequent interruptions in the New England barrage, and inexperienced gunners blew up no fewer than nine cannon and a large mortar.
On May 31, the New Englanders opened a fifth battery against the west end of the town where they mounted 42-pounders moved from the Royal Battery. Its fire across the southwest corner of the harbor proved particularly effective against the Dauphin Demi-bastion and adjoining Circular Battery.
Few New Englanders were casualties of the French return fire, but within two weeks of landing many had taken ill. Seth Pomeroy thought the reasons were plain: “ye ground here is Cold and weet[.] ye water . . . a Redish Coaller and stagnated[.] . . . no beds To Ly on nor Tents To Keep off ye Fogs & Dews[.] our Provision is Chiefly Poark and Breaad withou[t] Sauce.” Many came down with dysentery–known as the “bloody fluxes”–although few died from its effects.
As the siege dragged on and the New England bombardment continued, Louisbourg looked desperately to the sea for relief. Like all European-style fortresses of the period, Louisbourg was not intended to hold out indefinitely against a besieging force. But distance and supply lines were crucial factors for survival, and in 1745 both worked against Louisbourg. The French in Quebec did not learn of the New England assault until mid-June, and France learned even later of the town’s dire straits.
The first French warship to depart for Louisbourg in 1745 was the thirty-two-gun frigate Renommée. The vessel sailed from France in February, but was unable to enter Louisbourg harbor and eventually returned to France, arriving back there in late June.
The French man-of-war Vigilante, which left France in April, posed a much greater threat to the New England siege because she carried a five-hundred-man crew and badly needed supplies. Arriving off Louisbourg on May 31, the Vigilante fought a desperate battle that ended with her capture–a major loss to the French effort.
As the New England cannon slowly opened a breach in Louisbourg’s fortifications, the besiegers considered how to eliminate the batteries protecting the harbor so that the British fleet might join in a combined land and sea assault on the town. An attempt on the night of June 6 to take the Island Battery, whose guns kept the fleet at bay, seemed likely to succeed. After a fierce fight, however, the New England troops were compelled to withdraw with casualties numbering almost half their force. The next day the disheartened siege batteries fell silent.
Checked by this disastrous amphibious assault, the New Englanders turned to Lighthouse Point. There they constructed a battery whose fire swept the Island Battery, but was so placed that return fire had little effect. On June 24, the New Englanders moved a large mortar to the Lighthouse Point battery, and the next day saw seventeen of nineteen shells hit inside the Island Battery. “When the French saw a bomb coming,” said one witness, “they would jump out of the ambuseers [embrasures] into the sea.”
With the British fleet now massing at the harbor entrance, the French assessed their situation. What they found was not good. The Royal Battery had been captured, and the Island Battery was largely silenced. Only three guns were still mounted at the Circular Battery, and the Dauphin Gate and the adjoining wall had been breached. Little gunpowder remained. The soldiers, continually laboring to repair the fortifications, were exhausted. The townspeople, huddled during the bombardment in bomb-proof casemates beneath the barracks, petitioned for surrender negotiations to commence.
One June 26, as Pepperrell and Warren–who was now able to sail his ships into the harbor–prepared for a last, massive land and naval assault, Duchambon initiated a capitulation.* Under the surrender terms, the military garrison would be able to march out with the honors of war, and the inhabitants were to be repatriated to France with their movable property. This provision angered the New Englanders who, in return for their service, had been promised plunder and booty.
There was some minor jostling between Warren and Pepperrell over preeminence at the surrender. But in the end “our Army Marcht To ye Citty the Colours were flying the Drums Beating Trumpets Sounding Flutes & Vials Playing . . . .” Thus the army celebrated “the greatest Conquest, that Ever was Gain’d by New England” while “ye French men and women & Children on ye Parade they Lookt verry sorrowful.”
Paris was stunned that its strongest North American post could be taken by an untrained army of provincials. Boston, however, received the news with joyous celebrations. And London, for its part, was overjoyed at word of Louisbourg’s capture. Honors, tributes and testimonials were heaped upon the victors. Warren was promoted to the rank of rear admiral. Pepperrell became a baronet and, along with Governor Shirley, was given the right to raise regiments, an honor that provided remuneration as well as status.
With the fighting over, the troops wanted to go home. They had enlisted for an expedition, not for garrison duty. Nonetheless, more than two thousand were forced to remain in Louisbourg until relieved the next year by British regulars from Gibraltar.
In September Governor Shirley averted a threatened mutiny by promising an increase in pay. But the winter of 1745-46 was one of death for the New Englanders, whose main task was now to repair and rebuild the fortifications in the event of a French attack. Louisbourg’s harsh climate, the ruinous condition of its buildings following the siege, and the filth in which the occupation force lived resulted in sickness running wild. After having lost only about one hundred men to enemy fire and another thirty to illness during the siege, the New Englanders buried 561 of their number between the end of November and the middle of February.** Many of these casualties, due to the frozen ground, were buried under floorboards until Spring.
The New Englanders’ sacrifice, therefore, had been great. Thus it was understandable that the return of Louisbourg to France in 1748 through the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle engendered lingering New England resentment against Great Britain.
Louisbourg’s return to French control ultimately sealed its fate. The British established Halifax in Nova Scotia in 1749 as a counterbalance to the French fortress. When hostilities between Britain and France erupted again in the 1750s, Louisbourg had to be taken once again before the British could advance on French Canada in Quebec.
Two years after its recapture in 1758–this time by the British Army–engineers planted explosive charges in Louisbourg’s fortifications and blew the massive walls into piles of rubble. For the next two centuries these ruins would bear silent witness to the turbulent role the Fortress of Louisbourg had played in North American history.
*Pepperrell noted in June 1746 that about twelve hundred of his men had died.
**Ile Royale, which comprised present-day Cape Breton (also known as Ile Royale) and Prince Edward Island (Ile St. Jean),was a colony in itself, separate from the vast expanse along the St. Lawrence River and the eastern Great Lakes that wasknown as Canada or New France.
B.A. Balcom is a historian with Parks Canada’s Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.