Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
August 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Louisbourg: An Outpost of Empire

The First Siege (1745)

The War of Austrian Succession


[This text was written by J. S. McLENNAN and was published in 1914. For the precise citation, see the end of the text.]

SINCE 1734 the condition of Europe had been troubled. France and England were not at war, but war between them at any time seemed possible. Considerations of defence had occupied St Ovide, his two successors in the government, and Beaucours, who was temporary governor between the administrations of St Ovide and Forant, and again in the interval between the death of the latter and the arrival of du Quesnel. All the governors pointed out the weakness of the place, and the lack of artillery and powder. They anticipated correctly the methods of attack, if attack were made, namely, that it would take place in the spring before the arrival of the fishermen or the ships-of-war, and that it would be made by the colonists, supported by a fleet of the English royal navy. They had plans for defence, and they urged various forms of attack on Acadia. Maurepas did not believe that the New Englanders would attack, and contented himself with sending an extra supply of powder for the use of privateers, and promising gun carriages, on which the insufficient cannon might be wheeled from an unattacked part of the works to places where they were needed to repulse the enemy. This neglect was not a matter of mere departmental administration. It was grave enough for a special memorandum, dealing with the affairs of Louisbourg, to be prepared for the use of the king and submitted to him. Madame de Pompadour has been blamed for the ills of New France. It may be noted that Louisbourg was never so neglected as at this time, when Louis XV did not know the famous beauty by sight, nor ever in so good a condition of defence as when she was at the height of her power.


War broke out in Europe in 1741, but its effects were not felt in America until the spring of 1744. Louisbourg, earlier advised than Boston, took advantage of the situation, and captured Canso, an outpost of the English, without any resistance ; it sent privateers against New England shipping, and an expedition against Annapolis, which was gallantly held by Major Paul Mascarene, a French Protestant in the English service. The encouragement and assistance which the French had given in the Indian wars from 1690 onward, which led to expeditions against Acadia and finally to its capture, had been resumed. The damage by privateers to the commerce of New England was trifling, as compared with that which New England privateers and H.M.S. Kinsale inflicted on the French, but they irritated and alarmed a New England which was passing through a period of bankruptcy, declining commerce, and anxiety as to the effects of Louisbourg's superior advantage in the fish trade. Louisbourg itself supplied the stimulus for New England to act against it. New England had at once the capacity to see its advantage in the situation which the French had created, and the energy to seize it.




There was more of the spirit of intense commercial rivalry than of actual warfare in the contest. Animosity was absent, for it seems probable that many of the officers of Acadia were on friendly terms with those of Louisbourg. They traded with each other, and the intercourse was close, not only with Canso, but with New York and Boston. Bigot hoped to get from the British colonies the supplies he would have to buy even if war broke out ; and the account-books of Faneuil and of other Boston merchants contained many entries of trade with the merchants of Louisbourg. The port itself was as familiar to the coasters of New England as any of their own harbours. The return to Boston in the autumn of 1744 of the garrison captured at Canso gave Shirley, the governor of Massachusetts, the latest information of the condition of the town.


Shirley was an ambitious man, the first British official who unwaveringly held the view that the French should be driven from America , popular in the province he governed, and keenly alive to the importance of the fishing industry. The reasons he gives for an expedition against Louisbourg justify the view that his object was rather the driving out of a commercial rival and the taking over of his business, than defence or territorial aggression. Indeed, the value to England of Acadia was its position as a buffer state. The following is his own account of the motives which led to the expedition :


"With regard to the state of Louisbourg, it appeared that the garrison and inhabitants must be distressed in a short time for want of provisions, having been a few weeks before exhausted by furnishing the East India fleet and squadron which convoyed it with supplies for prosecuting their voyage to France, that the troops of the garrison which consisted of only six companies of Marines and one Swiss of one hundred men each, were short of complement, and badly disciplined, the whole greatly discontented, and the Company of Swiss very mutinous, that the inhabitants were but few, and most of them unacquainted with fire arms, that several parts of the fortifications were out of repair, particularly the Grand Battery, which had one end almost open, occasioned by a new works being unfinished, and many other parts of it extremely low, and the whole commanded by a hill behind it, that Mr. Duchambon, who succeeded Mr Duquesnel, then lately dead, as governor of the colony, was wholly unskilled in the defence of a fortification, the Engineer absent, and the other officers not much used to military discipline, and that their number of troops were so small, as put it entirely out of their power to defend the several parts they were liable to be attacked in : That though the harbour was strongly fortified, there were many convenient places in Chapeau Rouge Bay for landing troops, cannon and stores on the back side of Louisbourg, free from any annoyance, and laying up the transports in such manner that the troops might have it in their power to retreat to them upon an emergency ; that the City of Louisbourg had no batteries upon the land side ; and the extent of it was so small that every house in it was exposed to the bombs and cannon of the besiegers; which must oblige both inhabitants and soldiers when off duty to retire into the casemates that were extremely damp and unwholesome : That the Grand Battery which could not make any defence by land, and from the beforementioned state of it appeared not to be tenable when attacked on that side, would probably be defeated on the first approach of the enemy ; and that by getting possession of it, and directing Fascine Batteries near the lighthouse, and in other convenient places, it would be difficult, if not impracticable for any ships to enter the harbour against the fire from them. Upon all which accounts it was extremely' improbable that the place should hold out long against a body of three to four thousand men without succours from France, which might be prevented from receiving intelligence of its circumstances in time to send it relief, by the armed vessels, which might be collected in the colonies, and would be a sufficient force to intercept whatever might come from Canada, as also any merchant ships with provisions from France in the spring."


Certain other considerations also moved him in the same direction : that help might be expected the next year from France ; that the reduction of Louisbourg would be the most effectual means of securing Nova Scotia, restoring the English fishery, destroying that of the French, and protecting the New England trade; that it would facilitate the conquest of Canada itself ; and that even should Louisbourg not fall they would recover Canso, and all the coast fisheries as far as Newfoundland, by destroying the buildings, and breaking up the settlements and fisheries of the Island of Cape Breton, and disarming the Grand Battery, which would make a later attack on the harbour more easy.


He presented the project to the House of Assembly, which first felt that it was beyond its power, and then on reconsideration decided by the narrowest of majorities to go on with it. It was taken up in the most spirited way. All the colonies were asked to assist, but only Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island sent a favourable reply. The effectiveness of the administration of Massachusetts is well seen in the fact, which Shirley recounts with pride, that within seven weeks from the time the expedition was determined on, a Massachusetts force of 3,250 men set sail for Canso, which had been appointed for their rendezvous. There they were joined by the forces of Connecticut, 516 in number, and there they joined the force of New Hampshire, 304. The total force was 4,000 men, for whom only a meagre quantity of warlike stores and provisions had been provided. This untrained and badly equipped army was under the command of William Pepperrell, a man totally inexperienced in the management of troops. Conditions, however, were more favourable than had been hoped for. Du Vivier, one of the best of the officers, had gone to France to seek aid ; the troops, led by the Swiss, mutinied shortly after Christmas, and had remained all winter in a state of revolt. The officials of the town feared that, on the appearance of the enemy, they would desert in a body, but when this event occurred they returned to their duty, pardon having been promised them, and fought bravely throughout the siege.




The naval force of the New Englanders was trifling - three small frigates and some smaller vessels, provided mostly by Massachusetts. This was entirely inadequate as a defence for the transports should France attack them in any strength, so Shirley had counted on the assistance of the British fleet then in the West Indies. Peter Warren, its commodore, was an officer of distinction, and eager for service. He had been long on the station, and was well thought of by the colonists. As soon as his orders permitted, he came to the assistance of the expedition, called at Canso while the New England troops were still there, and without delay passed on to the blockade of Louisbourg.


The New England fleet arrived in Gabarus Bay on April 30, 1745. A successful landing was made at Freshwater Cove. A party of one hundred French troops under the leadership of Morpain, captain of a privateer, was sent out by Governor du Chambon to oppose the landing. The ill-managed attack was easily repulsed, and without further fighting in the open, except in a few encounters with parties from the main force of the French, the amateur but resourceful militia of New England besieged the town, which was defended by troops whose discipline, drill and experience were not greater than their own. The besiegers showed great spirit, endured privations from insufficient clothing and the lack of tents, and within twenty-three days of the time of their first landing had erected five batteries against the town. In less than that time their most advanced batteries were within two hundred and fifty yards of its west gate. These batteries did very considerable damage to the wall of the town, their fire being concentrated on the citadel and on the west gate.


It was felt that it would be necessary for the fleet to force the harbour before the town could be taken. The Island battery made any such attempt a desperate enterprise. After many endeavours to get an expedition together to attack this battery by boats, a night attack was made on May 26. It was done with spirit but with no judgment, and ended in a disastrous repulse, in which 60 were killed or drowned, and 116 taken prisoners. Its effects were for a short time demoralizing. The difficulty which Pepperrell experienced in arranging for the attack of Louisbourg, and its ineffectiveness, make it probable that, if the French defence had been an aggressive one, the untrained New Englanders would have fared ill. The French, however, stood absolutely on the defensive, repairing and supplementing the fortifications as they were destroyed by the fire of the enemy. Meanwhile ,the New England forces erected a battery near the lighthouse on the eastern side of the harbour, and directed its fire against the Island battery.


On June i5 the condition of the town, as described by Shirley, was as follows :


"And now the Grand Battery being in the possession of the New England men, the Island Battery (esteemed by the French the Palladium of Louisbourg) so much annoyed from the Lighthouse Battery, that they could not entertain hopes of keeping it much longer; the Northeast Battery damaged, and so much exposed to the fire from the new advanced battery, that they could not stand to their guns ; the circular battery ruined, and all its cannon but three dismounted, whereby the harbour was disarmed of all its principal batteries; the West Gate of the City being demolished, and a breach made in. the adjoining wall; the West flank of the King's bastion almost destroyed, and most of their other guns which had been dismounted, during the time of the siege, being silenced ; all the houses and other buildings within the City (some of which were quite demolished), so damaged that but one among them was left unhurt; the enemy extremely harassed by their long confinement within their casemates, and their stock of ammunition being almost exhausted, Duchambon sent a flag of truce to the camp on the 15th day of June in the afternoon."


Inexperienced as was du Chambon, lacking as were the defenders in means of counter-attack on the besiegers, the above description shows that the siege was protracted to the last possible moment, and that before capitulating the garrison of the town had, with great bravery, held out against odds until they were on the point of being overwhelmed.


The honours of war were given to the garrison, and the troops and the people of the town were transported to France. New Englanders held the town until the following spring, when they were replaced by a garrison of regular troops, which was withdrawn in 1749, when, by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Cape Breton was restored to France.




This capture was an amazing achievement. Planned first as an expedition to destroy the fisheries on the island and the environs of Louisbourg, whereof the plunder would defray the cost ; then as a coup de main to carry by surprise the fortifications, as ill-equipped almost as the defenders, it was in the event a regular siege successfully carried through. Douglass, a New England writer of the time, thus sums it up with entire accuracy :


"The reduction of Louisbourg was much above our capacity ; in short, if any one circumstance had taken a wrong turn on our side, and if any one circumstance had not taken a wrong turn on the French side, the expedition must have miscarried, and our forces would have returned with shame, and an inextricable loss to the Province."


The first siege of Louisbourg is without a parallel in the history of sieges. The attacking force was composed for the most part of farmers, fishermen and clerks, and their commander-in-chief was a merchant. They were utterly without experience in this kind of warfare, and there was but little discipline in their army. When they left New England they were well aware that they were without weapons capable of effectively breaching such a fortress as Louisbourg, and confidently expected that Heaven would aid them in their enterprise. Their faith must have been strengthened by the course of events. During the entire siege they had exceptionally fine weather. They had planned before leaving Boston to capture a number of the enemy's heavy guns, and with these they intended to batter down the walls. So sure were they that they could do this that they brought with them a supply of large balls for the guns they intended to capture. Early in May a party, about four hundred strong, marched in the direction of the Royal battery. All was silent in this position, and on investigation it was found that the troops stationed there had been withdrawn, as the position was untenable. The New Englanders entered it, and soon the French cannon were pouring a destructive fire against the walls of Louisbourg. After the unsuccessful and disastrous attempt to seize the Island battery, a determined effort was made from Lighthouse Point to silence a position which made it impossible for English ships to enter the harbour. Once more French cannon aided in the work, for ten which had been hidden by the enemy at low tide in the flats were unearthed, and played an essential part in bringing about the surrender of the fortress.


Towards the close of the siege the New England troops were in a bad way. Ammunition was running low ; supplies were rapidly becoming exhausted. If the fortress did not soon fall into the hands of the besiegers, they would have to withdraw through lack of food and powder. At the critical moment a French ship-of-war, the Vigilant, carrying 64 guns and 560 men, and an abundance of munitions aid stores, hove in sight. The blockading fleet succeeded in capturing this vessel, and French food and powder and balls enabled the New Englanders to continue the siege with renewed energy.


In the Letter of an Inhabitant of Louisbourg there are the following words, with which, in the light of the capture of the Royal battery and the Vigilant, every New Englander would agree : 'We were victims devoted to the wrath of Heaven, which willed to use even our own forces against us.'

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Source: J. S. McLENNAN, "Louisbourg: An Outpost of Empire: The First Siege - The War of Austrian Succession", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto, Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 210-218.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College