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 Siege of 1758

The Fall of Louisbourg


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



AS had happened before in French colonial history, the capture of a French position by the English, and its subsequent return by a treaty, had increased in its owners a sense of its importance. After 1749 Louisbourg was properly supported for the first time and its garrison increased. This was made easy by the numbers of officers and men made available for positions in the colonial forces through the disbanding of regular regiments in the French service. Elaborate plans were made for strengthening the fortifications, and Franquet, an eminent engineer, was placed in charge of the work. A battery was erected at Rochfort Point. In the siege of 1745 there were many empty embrasures, but in 1758 212 guns and 17 mortars frowned from the walls and outlying batteries, and there were 44 guns in reserve.


The opening up of Isle Royale by roads, and the settlement of farmers on it and on Isle St Jean, which would make the population of Louisbourg less dependent on more distant sources of supply, were encouraged and vigorously carried out.


On the other hand England, too, was active. The importance of a base towards the east, which had impressed itself on Warren during the year he held office as governor of Cape Breton, was recognized by the authorities. Halifax was founded in 1749 and its fortifications begun. Acadia, which had remained entirely French, with the exception of a few families living in the neighbourhood of Annapolis, was now to be developed ; and, although in the long interval since 1713 various proposals for its settlement had been ignored, the work, once undertaken, was vigorously prosecuted. In three years after its founding, the population of Halifax numbered four thousand.


These local events were taking place in what was rather an imperfectly-kept truce than a peace. The War of the Austrian Succession was begun over a question of importance to the Bourbons. The capture of Louisbourg by the provincials was the event of that war which made it of significance to England and France . Colonial interests did not lose the predominance they were then given by Shirley, for the Seven Years' War, most enduring of any modern conflict in its consequences, was opened in America and spread to Europe. The pages of state documents, of contemporary historians and pamphleteers, are black with accusations of bad faith and the violation of understandings, of treaties, of international law. In point of time friction began in Nova Scotia. Here the French sent an armed force to encamp on the Isthmus of Chignecto, to the north of the Missiquash, the little stream which divides modern Nova Scotia from New Brunswick. On its southern side the English built a fort, and the like course was taken by French on the northern side. The English captured this outpost, and off the coasts of Nova Scotia took French vessels and brought them in as prizes to Halifax.


It was, however, to the west of the Alleghanies that those events happened which made the demand of trading England for the protection of its colonial interests too clamorous for its ministry to resist. The Ohio Company, strong in influence not only in the middle colonies but in London, found its most profitable territories circumscribed by French attempts to maintain possession of regions to which France's claim was prior to that of England . In the conflicts which ensued George Washington appeared on the stage of history, and the troops sent out from England under Braddock met defeat on the Ohio . French ships were seized in English ports and on the high seas, and Boscawen captured two French men-of-war. These events occurred before the declaration of war in 1756. The course of the conferences for delimitation of the boundaries between the American possessions of the two powers indicates, as clearly as these events, the temper of the governments. Far-fetched claims were put forward. No attempt was made to find a solution which would permit a solid development of the colonies of both powers. The conferences broke up, their fruitless ending serving only to intensify the feeling that war was inevitable. The force of an energetic and expanding people drove the English ministry into action, which, even in the judgment of her ally Holland, made England the aggressor. A weak French ministry, unprepared for war, hoped that all the maritime powers would take alarm and band themselves under the leadership of France to check her rival. These hopes were vain, and France was forced to defend alone that world-encircling colonial Empire which then was hers.


Louisbourg was in neither of the debatable areas wherein friction and conflict had occurred, and was therefore not disturbed until the war took a more regular form than the reprisals and isolated encounters which lasted from 1750 to 11756. It was watched by a fleet in 1756. In 1757 Lord Loudoun proposed and attempted to carry out its reduction. A force of over five thousand men was embarked at New York , and got only as far as Halifax, where it was learned that the three squadrons, which the French intended for Louisbourg, had duly arrived at that port. The certain knowledge that the French fleet was superior in strength to that of England, as well as the lateness of the season (early August), caused the postponement of the attack. The British fleet under Admiral Holborne, consisting of sixteen ships of the line, proceeded to blockade Louisbourg, which was occur pied by a French fleet of eighteen ships of the line and some frigates. Its commander-in-chief, du Bois de la Motte, did not accept Holborne's challenge to come out and attack him. He occupied the time in throwing up reinforcements for the defence of all the landing-places, both to the east and to the west of Louisbourg, which might be utilized by the enemy. While Holborne was off the port a most furious gale cast away some of his ships, rendered those of them which had survived it incapable of defence, and reduced them to such a state that, even after repairing at Halifax, the English admiral was considered to have performed a fine feat of seamanship by bringing them home through the autumn gales of the Atlantic.


Du Bois de la Motte did not take advantage of the situation and come out to destroy the crippled British vessels, although his instructions pointed out to him that aggression was often the best means of defence. He returned to France, and received the highest honours which could be given to a naval officer, as well as a handsome pension. No event marks more clearly the different conceptions of a commander's duty obtaining in the French and English navies than the fact that the year before Admiral Byng had been shot for lack of vigour much less marked than that of the French admiral who was so highly honoured. There was much dissatisfaction in England at the failure of Loudoun's expedition. Pitt, in the force he allotted, and in the leaders he chose for the next expedition-in the steps, too, which he took to cut off reinforcements-did all he could to ensure success.




The story of the siege has been admirably told by more than one historian. It began in the winter of 1758 with the intercepting of La Clue's fleet by an overpowering naval force under Osborne. Then followed the -breaking up of the other fleet intended for its relief by Hawke at the Isle of Aix, the blockading of Louisbourg by Sir Charles Hardy, whose vigilance was not watchful enough in the bad weather to prevent the safe arrival there of des Gouttes' squadron. In due time the British fleet, fitted out for the reduction of Louisbourg, assembled at Halifax and, after making final arrangements, set sail for Gabarus Bay, where it arrived on June 2.


The fleet consisted of 23 ships of 50 guns and over, mounting in all 1648 guns, and was supported by 18 frigates. Admiral Boscawen was in command. The army, 12,000 men of all ranks, was under command of Amherst, an officer of promise, who was recalled from Germany to take charge of these forces. His brigadiers were Whitmore, Lawrence and Wolfe, with Colonel Bastide as engineer-in-chief.


The magnetic personality and the professional ambition of Wolfe gave him a predominance in council, as well as in the execution of the projects undertaken for the reduction of the town - a predominance to which neither: his experience nor his seniority entitled him. He was foremost in reconnoitring [sic] the entrenchments along the shore of Gabarus Bay, where the French lay in force to resist the landing. It was his privilege to lead the division which made the principal attack. He had previously contemplated an attack by way of Mire Bay and the little harbours to the east, but the instructions from headquarters directed that the landing should be attempted nearer the town.


The War Office, under Lord Ligonier, had lavishly supplied the expedition with materials of war. It had 1140 pieces of artillery, 90,000 shot and shell, and 4,900 barrels of powder. So generous was the supply that, although the siege lasted nearly three times as long as Wolfe thought it should have done, only one-third of the powder was consumed.


The defence of the town was conducted by the governor, the Chevalier de Drucour, a sea officer of standing and character, but entirely without military experience. The force under him consisted of 4 battalions of regular troops, 2 companies of artillery, and 24 companies of colony troops from Canada, in all over 3,000 men, supplemented by a few hundred militia of the town, and aided by bands of Indians. The supply of stores and provisions was ample. The naval force was 5 ships of war, mounting 340 guns, and 6 smaller vessels.


The English force outnumbered the French by four to one. It had a proper train of artillery. It was supported by a fleet overwhelming in strength. Unless, therefore, its investment could be prevented, both French and English knew that the capture of, the town was inevitable. It was consequently the duty of de Drucour to prevent a landing, and, as the enemy, if successful, intended to proceed against Quebec, to protract the siege as long as possible. To this end the entrenchments along the shore, made in the previous year, were occupied and armed with guns. When the landing was finally attempted, two-thirds of the troops at Louisbourg were in these entrenchments, many of the soldiers having been in the encampments for more than a week in weather so bad that, from June 2, when the British fleet arrived, until June 8, there was no day on which an attempt to land was practicable. Indeed, on the 4th there was so fierce a gale blowing from the east that the


British fleet and transports were in danger. Then, or on the next day, the French ships, doomed in any case to destruction or capture, might have hazarded, with telling effect, an attack on the investing fleet and its scores of transports.


Boscawen's fleet and transports were anchored on a lee shore, a position in the highest degree disadvantageous for resistance to determined attack by a force bearing down on them with a favourable wind. The chance was seen and discussed in Louisbourg, but des Gouttes, the commodore, was unwilling to take the risk. After the enemy succeeded in landing, he and his captains wished only to escape from the doomed port. A council of war decided that the ships should remain to protract its defence, but, with one exception, they were handled without spirit, and eventually they were left to destruction, with only guards on board, while their crews helped in the defence of the fortification.


It was not until the early morning of the 8th that a landing could be attempted. Then the three divisions rowed towards the shore ; that of Wolfe, to the extreme west, attacked the entrenchments at Freshwater Cove, the strength of which reconnoitrings had not disclosed. This position was protected by abattis skillfully disposed, and its guns were concealed behind freshly-cut spruce and fir trees, which were not removed until the moment of firing. This began as soon as the boats came within range. Had it been reserved until the troops had landed on the beach and become entangled in the trees, a slaughter as great as that of Ticonderoga might have followed. The fire of the batteries was so effective that Wolfe's division, in answer to his signal of recall, began to draw off. The light breeze drove down on the entrenchments the smoke of their own and the enemy's fire. Through this Wolfe saw-what was obscured from the French-that behind a ridge which bounds the eastern side of the cove, three boats under Lieutenants Hopkins anal Brown and Ensign Grant had made good a landing on a narrow strip of sand among the rocks which was protected from the fire of the batteries. He dashed in to support them. Some little time was lost to the French by the fact that they were ignorant of what was passing on the other side of the ridge, and more, apparently, by the vacillation of Lieutenant-Colonel de St Julien, the commander of the force in the entrenchments, when he became aware of the fact that the enemy had landed. The first attack by skirmishers was beaten back by the British, and soon the invaders were strong enough to drive de St Julien and all the forces under him in disorder into the city.


The landing once made, it became on the one side a question of how quickly the town could be taken; on the' other, how long that disaster could be put off. The presence of the ships in the harbour and the Island battery at the entrance, in Boscawen's opinion, made an attack by the fleet impossible. Warren, a capable officer, would not attempt such an attack, although there were in his time no men-of-war to defend the port. On the other hand, the contempt in which the French military men held des Gouttes and most of his officers, as well as the subsequent ineffectiveness of his ships in defence, make it probable that their effect would have been much less than sound naval judgment had estimated. In consequence of the view that an attack from the sea at this stage was impracticable, Wolfe almost at once led a force to erect a battery at Lighthouse Point, to silence the Island battery, the chief defence of the port.




In the main the siege was carried on along the same lines as in 1745. The length of time from landing to surrender was, notwithstanding the different conditions, in the first attack forty-nine days, in this forty-eight. The ships in the harbour were sunk or captured, only one escaping. This was the Aréthuse, the most energetically handled of the fleet, for she alone had for many days impeded the siege works until dislodged from her advanced position. Sallies were made from the town, which inflicted loss on the besiegers, but the irregulars from Canada under Boishébert, from whom much was expected, failed signally even to annoy the enemy. The defences were broken down, the harbour was exposed to the fleet, 'the whole a dismal scene of total destruction,' when on July 26 the town, open to a general assault, was surrendered by de Drucour on the solicitation of its people. The keystone of the arch of French power in America had been shattered. It remained only utterly to destroy the arch, tottering to its fall, and from Louisbourg sailed, on June 6 of the following year, the Armada before which Quebec surrendered.


The incidents of the siege possess dignity and interest adequate to the importance of the event with which it closed. Notwithstanding the bitterness of this war, 'Never,' says one diarist, 'was a siege conducted with more delicacy of feeling.' There was the interchange of courtesies between the commanders, the solicitude to avoid injury to non-combatants, and the care of the sick and wounded ; the light-hearted bravery of the young officers who made a landing, when Wolfe felt forced to retire, and the reckless courage with which Wolfe and his men rushed in to their support. There was, too, the courage of Madame de Drucour, wife of the governor, herself the daughter of a house famed in the annals of the French navy, who animated the defenders by her daily round of the fire-swept ramparts ; of Vauquelin, commander of the Aréthuse, who redeemed the reputation of his service by his handling of his ship, and his skilful sortie through the blockading fleet ; of the officers and men of the cutting-out expedition, which completed the destruction of the French squadron, and gained new laurels for the British navy. Louisbourg, too, furnished the first signal justification of the policy of Pitt in forming the new Highland regiments. While the young Pretender still lived they began, in the service of King George II, that splendid record to which each following campaign of the British army has added a new page.


After the fall of Louisbourg four British regiments were placed as a garrison in the fortress, and Brigadier Whitmore was appointed governor. Honours and rewards were heaped upon the naval and military commanders, and all England rejoiced at the capture of a stronghold which had been for years a menace to British trade with America.


But England had no intention of keeping up the Louisbourg establishment, and with the fall of Quebec it was decided to demolish the fortress. This was done for two reasons. The French attached the greatest importance to the place, and should war break out again, France would undoubtedly make a mighty effort to recover a stronghold which meant so much to her trade and her sea power. England, moreover, had no need of Louisbourg, as Halifax was now her naval base in North America.


In 1760 Governor Whitmore received orders to make the place untenable for troops. For five months an army of men toiled at the work of demolition. The walls and glacis were levelled into the ditch, and by the middle of October only a few fishermen's houses, tumbled heaps of stones and shapeless mounds remained to mark the spot that had been the strongest artificial fortress in America.

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Source: J. S. McLENNAN, "Louisbourg: An Outpost of Empire: The Siege of 1758", in Adam SHORTT and Arthur DOUGHTY, eds., Canada and Its Provinces, Vol. I, Toronto Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1914, 312p., pp. 219-227.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College