Fortress of Louisbourg

In a very rare display of joint effort the British North Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745.

Plan of Louisbourg, published at the conclusion of the French & Indian War, from Bellin’s Petit Atlas Maritime. The map shows major fortifications and includes a key locating 14 important points of interest.

Louisbourg was originally settled in 1713, and initially called Havre à l’Anglois. Subsequently, the fishing port grew to become a major commercial port and a strongly defended fortress. The fortifications eventually surrounded the town. The walls were constructed mainly between 1720 and 1740.

By the mid-1740s Louisbourg, named for Louis XIV of France, was one of the most extensive (and expensive) European fortifications constructed in North America. It was supported by two smaller garrisons on Île Royale located at present-day St. Peter’s and Englishtown. The Fortress of Louisbourg suffered key weaknesses, since it was erected on low-lying ground commanded by nearby hills and its design was directed mainly toward sea-based assaults, leaving the land-facing defences relatively weak. A third weakness was that it was a long way from France or Quebec, from which reinforcements might be sent.

Louisbourg was first captured by New England based British colonists in 1745, and was a major bargaining chip in the negotiations leading to the 1748 treaty ending the War of the Austrian Succession. It was returned to the French in exchange for border towns in what is today Belgium. It was captured again in 1758 by British forces in the Seven Years’ War, after which its fortifications were systematically destroyed by British engineers.

Even counting in the St Lawrence settlements, the people of French Canada amounted to seventy thousand or less at the time of the Seven Years War, which put them at a numerical disadvantage of something like twenty to one compared with the British Americans to the south. Until almost the very end, however, the Canadians maintained a clear superiority in mobility and military prowess over the British – seemingly incredible assets which they owed to a greater centralisation of control (despite notorious corruption in high places), their skill at managing the canoe and the musket, the facility of water transport, and their generally good relations with the Indians.

In contrast, the open but far more thickly-settled British colonies of the eastern seaboard grew at the slow pace of self-sufficient agricultural communities. They were boxed into the north by the nations of the Iroquois confederation and their French associates, and to the west by the Appalachians. There was little sign of common purpose among the British colonies. Indeed, out of all the expeditions mounted by the British in the earlier wars the only ones which bore lasting fruits were the enterprises which wrested New Amsterdam (New York) from the Dutch in 1664, and gained Port Royal (Annapolis Royal) and the mastery of Acadia in 1710. Louis XIV had to renounce Acadia (a lightly settled coastal province) and the great island of Newfoundland at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713.

Building a Fortress

The French appreciated that they would have to take fresh measures to safeguard the seaward approaches to the St Lawrence. Already in 1706 an anonymous memorandum had urged the government to set up a fortified colony on lIe Royale (Cape Breton Island), which formed the southern shore of the entrance to the Gulf of St Lawrence:

The proposed establishment will concentrate all the fisheries in the hands of the French and deny them to the English altogether; it will defend the colonies of Canada, Newfoundland and Acadia against all the enterprises of the English … and ruin their colony at Boston by excluding them from this great tract of land; it will give refuge to our crippled vessels … it will promote Canadian trade and facilitate the export of its grain and other produce; it will furnish the royal arsenals with masts, yards, timbers and planks. (McLennan, 1957, 30-1)

The Conseil Royal decided in favour of the thing in 1715. The first small band of settlers came ashore in the following year, and the chief engineer of Canada, Jean-Francois du Verger de Verville began a series of lengthy reconnaissances. In 1721 work finally began on the new fortress of Louisbourg. The chosen site was on the east coast of the island at Havre al’Anglais, a roadstead capable of sheltering an entire French fleet, which might then bottle up any British ships that sailed into the St Lawrence. Verville planted the town on a peninsula, and closed off the neck by a perimeter of two full bastions, three curtains, and two half bastions – one on each of the seaward flanks. A highly original feature of the design was the way the full bastion to the right, looking from the town (Bastion du Roi) was formed into a miniature citadel with gorge wall, barracks, governor’s lodging and chapel. The one factor which the French left out of their calculations was the absence ofanything which could be termed a ‘building season’. The fog and rain prevented the mortar from drying out during the summer, and the imprisoned water froze every winter, with devastating results to the masonry. Verville disliked the Canadian climate intensely, and the Canadians still more, and he spent every winter in the comfort of France. Thus Louisbourg absorbed immense sums of money, without ever being in good repair, and Louis XV complained that he almost expected to see the ramparts of this costly ‘Dunkirk of America’ rising above the horizon of France.

In a very rare display of joint effort the British North Americans managed to get this establishment into their possession in 1745. The canny and popular merchant William Pepperell gathered 4,000 troops from the New England colonies (which was a considerable achievement in its own right) and sailed to Cape Breton Island in the company of Commodore Warren and 1,000 marines. The many seamen and backwoodsmen proved to be an immense Lhelp in building the siege batteries, though somebody complained that the force was ‘in great want of good gunners that have a disposition to be sober in the daytime’ (ibid., 152). There were no engineers with the expedition at all (until two officers arrived from Annapolis on 5 June), and the French were perplexed by the very irregularity and unpredictability of the conduct of the siege. Louisbourg fell on 17 June after six weeks of attack.

The new governor, Commodore Charles Knowles, had no very high opinion of any kind of fortress as a prize: ‘Neither the coast of Acadia nor any of the harbours in Newfoundland (except St Johns and Placentia) are fortified, and these but triflingly, and yet we always be masters of the cod fisheries for that year whether there be a Louisbourg or not’ (ibid., 175). Indeed, the British government was not disinclined to listen to the instances of the French, who at the peace conference at Aix in 1748 were determined to regain Louisbourg at almost any price. The Comte de Maurepas, the minister of marine, viewed the place as the guardian of both New France and the Grand Banks fisheries, which latter were of great economic importance and a nursery of seamen. Out of these considerations the French sacrificed Madras in far-off India and the brilliant conquests of de Saxe in the Netherlands.

The British accordingly gave up Louisbourg. They partially made up for the loss in 1749 when they built four forts and a barricade at Halifax on the adjacent peninsula of Nova Scotia (Acadia). Within three years Halifax had a population of four thousand, and the potential to become one of the most important avenues of entry for British power to North America.

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