THE SIEGE OF LOUISBOURG
By Associate Luther C. Leavitt
In 1745 hundreds of New England troops, with the help of British ships, captured this important French fortress on Nova Scotia, with some of the participants destined to fight later in the Revolutionary War.
On the afternoon of June 28th, 1745 the great French bastion at Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia capitulated to besieging New England troops and supporting British naval units. This climaxed one of the most implausible but yet completely successful military campaigns anywhere at any time.
The War of the Austrian Succession had broken out in 1744 between France and England and had soon spread to North America. The great fortress at Louisbourg commanded both the St. Lawrence Estuary and the North Atlantic sea lanes and fishing grounds and France used it to advantage without delay. French naval units and privateers fell heavily upon New England's merchant ships and fishing vessels. At least 36 vessels were taken as prizes to Louisbourg in 1744. Most of those captured were from Massachusetts and the losses plus the threat of capture literally paralyzed that Colony's maritime trade.
Massachusetts Governor William Shirley tried without success to interest the British Government in taking military action to reduce Louisbourg. The fortress had taken 20 years to complete, covered an area of almost 100 acres enclosed by walls of stone 30 feet high, and had 250 cannon on itsramparts. It was by far the strongest fortification in the New World.
Shirley had proposed a and attack covered by British naval units. The Crown in its wisdom showed little enthusiasm, citing such problems as: control of the sea probably could not be assured to protect an invasion force; landings of troops and supplies on open beaches would be risky; siege artillery would be needed in large quantity with little available; North Atlantic weather in the spring was too unreliable and stormy to guarantee safe passage of troop transports; and costs would be prohibitive.
Fortress Attack Proposed
In late December, 1744 one William Vaughn appeared on the scene and caught Shirley's ear. Vaughn, a Harvard graduate and shipping owner of Maine (then a part of Massachusetts) was one whose "ox was being gored" and he wanted action. Vaughn had been convinced by John Bradstreet, a recently released prisoner of war at Louisbourg, that the bastion was in disrepair and undermanned, its garrison's morale was low, and its site was vulnerable to attack from the land side.
A model of the Fortress of Louisbourg is on display at the National Historic Park on Nova Scotia. This view shows the West Gate under siege in 1745. (Courtesy Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park.)
The irrepressible Vaughn convinced Shirley, who probably needed little urging, that the Colony could capture Louisbourg alone without the use of Crown forces. He was sure that only a small force was required, that necessary siege artillery could be captured at the scene, and the cost would be nominal! His rebuttal to the weather and open beach arguments is not a matter of record. Both Vaughn and Bradstreet stressed that time was of the essence since the element of surprise was important. Assistance from Britain was not needed and would create delays.
Shirley first approached the General Court of Massachusetts with a proposal to attack the fortress in the spring with a force of 3,000 New England troops. The plan proposed a landing on the west side of Gabarus Bay, the capture of the Grand Battery on the main land, and then the attack at several strategic points along the walls.
A special committee of the Court almost unanimously opposed the plan, stating that "the British Government was solely responsible for organizing and financing any assault on Louisbourg".
Shirley accepted the report, but Vaughn took it as an affront and redoubled his efforts.
He literally became a post rider through the Colony, encouraged a petition from Marblehead fishing interests guaranteeing shipping, got 200 "principal Gentlemen in Boston" to endorse the plan, and increased the pressure on Shirley.
Bending to the pressure, the special committee reconsidered and on February 5th recommended adoption of the plan. After a hot debate, the House of Representatives passed the measure by a one-vote margin!
Pepperrell Named Leader
In order to encourage enlistments, a popular leader would be required. Shirley persuaded William Pepperrell, a well-known and successful merchant and trader, to take command of the venture. After expressing some misgivings over his lack of military experience, he accepted the assignment as a matter of duty. Subsequent events proved the wisdom of his nomination and acceptance.
Recruiting of men in Massachusetts was vigorous and met with success. Over 3,000 volunteered for land duty and 1,000 for ship duty.
Shirley's appeals to the other colonies for help met with mingled success: Connecticut offered a 500-man force if the post of second in command was given to its Roger Walcott; Rhode Island offered 300 men and a ship; New York offered the loan only of ten 18-pounder cannon; New Jersey and Pennsylvania offered no help; and New Hampshire offered 500 men but only if Massachusetts paid 150 of them! Shirley accepted all these offers at the conditions proposed.
Another foresighted move by Shirley was to appeal to the Commander of the Naval Squadron at Jamaica and to Commodore Warren of the Leeward Islands Squadron to send naval units to Louisbourg by May to counter expected French warships. The Jamaica command took no action, but Warren showed interest because of his conviction that Louisbourg must be taken.
Events moved along rapidly and on March 24th embarkation of troops started in Boston. One week later Shirley received the welcome news from Warren that he was starting north with four warships to assist.
After rough passages for some ships, the transports began to arrive at the rendezvous port of Canso, Nova Scotia early in April and on April 23rd Warren's squadron was welcomed as was the Connecticut contingent in their own ships.
On May 10th moderating weather and the melting of ice at the destination allowed the combined fleets to sail from Canso. The next day all ships arrived and anchored in Gabarus Bay, three miles west of the Citadel. Landing of troops commenced the next morning and a good campsite was picked. A small force of French troops sallied from the fortress to offer at least token resistance to the landings, but it was easily beaten off.
By evening of the 11th 2,000 troops were ashore without casualty. All troops were ashore the next day after "wading-into the water to their middles and higher — and were obliged to lay on the cold ground and in their wet cloaths under no better covering than boughs laid together".
About midnight on the 12th the ubiquitous Vaughn, now a colonel, was ordered to lead a force of 400 men to reconnoiter the settlement and area around the Grand Battery, its capture being the first order of business for the expedition. Most of the men got out of hand, set fire to warehouses and homes and returned to camp with such plunder as they could carry. Vaughn and 12 of his men remained at the scene and at dawn he observed that the Grand Battery appeared deserted! The French had abandoned it as indefensible from the land side on the day before.
Vaughn and his small band took possession at once and with it 28 42-pounder heavy cannon, two 18-pounders, and appreciable ammunition. The cannon had been spiked, but gunsmiths with the expedition were able to clear then with some effort and the next day some of them were firing at the main bastion. Events followed rapidly from this point on.
On May 15th French fishing villages north of Louisbourg were destroyed by a naval force, this to satisfy New England's fishing interests.
Many of the captured heavy cannon were placed on heavy sledges and dragged by manpower from the Grand Battery to . siege positions near the Citadel West Gate. Hundreds of men were used to move these great guns through supposedly impassable low ground and over rocky points.
By May 30th the attackers had completed a series of entrenchments and two advanced batteries that kept the West Gate under heavy bombardment.
On June 6th a surprise night attack on the French Island Battery by 400 men failed completely, with 60 men killed and 116 taken prisoner — the first and only real set-back of the campaign.
The Fortress of Louisbourg has been reconstructed and is now a Canadian National Historic Park. This view, from the northeast, shows the Dauphine Gate, the main entrance to the town in the foreground, and the Dauphine Demi-Bastion to the right. Both were severely damaged by the New Englanders in the 1745 siege. (Courtesy Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park.)
By June 21st, Pepperrell had completed batteries on Lighthouse Point and taken the Island Battery under- fire from- this higher point. Once again cannon had been dragged by manpower following shipment by whaleboat. This effectively neutralized the troublesome Island Battery that had prevented close-in approach by Warren's Naval forces.
On June 28th, after days of heavy bombardment and facing a combined assault by land and sea (Warren's force had been augmented by the arrival of five additional ships on June 23rd), the French capitulated after working out surrender terms with Warren and Pepperrell.
The news of Louisbourg's capture was greeted with wild enthusiasm by New England people and generated great confidence in themselves and the "Citizen Soldier". Celebrations with fireworks and the flowing of "good liquor" were widespread. This confidence bred and nurtured the independent spirit that carried over to 1775 and fed the flames of resistance at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill.
Colonel Prescott of Bunker Hill fame served at Louisbourg as a young man and was commissioned in the field. Colonel Gridley, who laid out the Bunker Hill Redoubt, was in command of the Lighthouse Battery at Louisbourg.
Great Britain greeted the news with good grace. Warren was promoted to Admiral and Pepperrell made a baronet. The English man-in-the-street was elated, but the government was taken aback. Secret negotiations toward a peace treaty were undermined because the tentative terms were now rendered too liberal to the French!
Battle casualties during the seige were surprisingly light, 53 for the French and 101 for the New England troops. The 116 taken prisoner at the Island Battery were obviously liberated. As usual in those times, deaths from disease were much greater in total and increased rapidly once the overcrowded and foul inner city was occupied after the surrender. The captured French forces were returned to France as the capitulation terms decreed.
Louisbourg was returned to France by the treaty of Aix-La Chappelle in 1748. It had to be taken in 1758 by General Amherst with a force of 9,000 men and 40 ships. His campaign in many ways duplicated that of 1745. The landings in Gabarus Bay, use of
the same campsite, and the fortifying of Lighthouse Point were repeated. Massachusetts was virtually bankrupt after the campaign, but she, as well as the other participating colonies, were reimbursed in full by the Crown in 1749.
"Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it". The French had not learned a lesson in 1758 and military analysts find a striking parallel between the fall of Singapore in World War II and the two French losses of Louisbourg. In both cases defenses were strong against attack from the sea but vulnerable from the land side where natural barriers could be overcome.
The Canadian Government during the 1960s and 1970s, in part to assist a de-pressed labor area, restored the Louisbourg Citadel at great expense. It is the largest restoration in North America and a popular tourist attraction.
We tend to forget and/or overlook our colonial history. This 1745 campaign is well worth remembering. The rank and file soldiers frequently displayed a lack of discipline and respect for regulation but they performed well. The overall strategy of Governor Shirley was excellent, the intelligence estimate was accurate, and the logistics planning thorough, even to bringing ammunition and gunsmiths for the artillery to be captured!
Pepperrell, despite his admitted lack of military experience on this scale, was obviously a take-charge leader who did just that.
The landings on open beaches, the off loading of artillery and heavy equipment, and the shifting of artillery by manpower through swamps and over rocky ground are worthy of praise in any age. So, too, the siege itself!
The author's ancestor, Jonathan Cass, was a 45-year-old volunteer from New Hampshire. Invalided home in August, he died within a week. Records state that New Hampshire was unable to raise its full complement and most of those volunteering were boys. Why did Jonathan, an apparently prosperous older man (judging by his estate probate) enlist as a private? Could it have been a case of patriotism?
"Arms for Empire" - Douglas Edward Leach; MacMillan Company - 1973
"Yankees at Louisbourg" - G. A. Rawlyk; University of Maine Press - 1967
"Louisbourg" - J. S. McLennan; Fourth Edition
1979 - Book Room Limited Halifax, N.S.
"The Colonial Wars" - Howard H. Peckham; University of Chicago Press - 1964
"Sir William Pepperrell" - Neil Rolde; Harpswell Press - Brunswick, Maine 1982