(1745 and 1758)


At the northeast of Acadia, only severed from the mainland by the narrow gut of Canso, lay the island of Cape Breton, a name once as familiar to the world as the Cape of Good Hope, but now almost unknown.2 Its fame rested on the great fortress of Louisbourg, which with its considerable town and ample harbor dominated the North Atlantic, and was styled the "Dunkirk of America." All Acadia had been handed over to England at the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, with the exception of this little island of Cape Breton, or in other words Louisbourg. The latter, during the late war in the year 1745, had been stormed and captured in spirited fashion by a force of New England militia under Peperall,3 acting in conjunction with Admiral Warren and an English fleet.

It was restored to the French, however, three years later at the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, amid the loud protestations of the few in England who were conversant with the politics of the North Atlantic—protestations fully justified by the immense stress laid upon its restoration by the French.

The population of Nova Scotia consisted of a few thousand French-Canadian habitants, who chiefly occupied the more fertile spots on the western coast which looked across the Bay of Fundy to the even less populous mainland. There were also, as already indicated, two or three isolated forts where small detachments of British regulars or Colonial militia under a British governor maintained an existence of appalling monotony and of almost unexampled seclusion from the outer world. . . .

The great European war was chiefly marked in North America by the capture of Louisbourg at the hands of the New Englanders in 1745. This notable achievement sent a passing quiver of excitement through the dense forests of Acadia, even to the villages on the Bay of Fundy. The Canadian missionaries renewed their efforts, which were met with a fresh show of activity in enforcing the oath.4 But so far no very tangible evil had come of all this. The Acadians were not put to the test; they were far removed from all scenes of racial strife or discord, and among their diked-in meadows and orchards continued to propagate in peace and rude plenty the most reactionary and ignorant breed of white men on the North American continent.

When Louisbourg was given back to the French, however, and some vague claims to the northern shore of the province as the only winter route to Canada were put in by them to the commissioners appointed at the treaty of 1748, all was again agog. The founding of Halifax in the following year, and the advent in force of the dreaded British settler, tho on the further shore, seemed to demolish all hopes of French supremacy in the future. England might annex and rule, for their very great content and infinite happiness, the French American colonies, but she might get tired of such an unprofitable business. It was not likely, however, that Great Britain would ever allow a province, whither she had deliberately invited her own people, to pass again into the hands of a government who hounded even their own Protestants, like lepers, from their gates. . . .

It was the 19th of February, 1758, when the Admiral sailed out of the Solent with Wolfe on board and a fraction of the army which was to operate against Louisbourg.5 The rest of the force was to be made up by troops from Loudon's army of the previous year, which were waiting at Halifax. Amherst was to follow immediately. Buffeted by winds from the very outset, and forced for some days into Plymouth, it was nearly three months before the fleet appeared in Chebucto Bay and dropt anchor in Halifax harbor on May 10th. Quebec, of course, was in the mind of Pitt and of his generals, should Fortune favor them, and that quickly, at Louisbourg; but in the matter of weather she had so far been the reverse of kind, and they had already lost a month out of their quite reasonable calculations. Amherst arrived a fortnight later, and with a fleet of nearly two hundred ships of all kinds, and an army of 12,000 men, sailed out of Halifax harbor and bore away through heavy seas before a favoring wind to Louisbourg. On June 1st the soldiers had their first sight of "the Dunkirk of the North," lifting its formidable ramparts behind a white fringe of raging surf.

Louisbourg was no town such as Boston or New York, or even Quebec and Montreal, the focus, that is to say, of a surrounding civilization; but, on the contrary, it stood like a lone oasis between a shaggy wilderness and a gray sea, the sport of storms and fogs. It counted a population of 4,000 souls, some of whom were fish-merchants and some priests, but many more were engaged in various pursuits connected with the trade of war. Louisbourg, indeed, scarcely profest to represent the interests of peace; it existed for war and for war alone. France, at the late treaty, had strained every diplomatic nerve to recover the town from the grip of the New Englanders, who in the last war, with the help of a British fleet, had seized her in a moment of comparative weakness. England, deaf to the cries of her colonial subjects, had then yielded, and was now paying the price of her blindness. With her fine harbor, her natural defenses, her commanding situation in the northern seas, Louisbourg only existed as a menace to the enemies of those who held her, a refuge to the hunted, a rallying-point for the hunters of the ocean; the scourge of Nova Scotia, the curse of the Newfoundland and New England coasts, and a name as familiar then in Europe as it is now forgotten.

Since its restoration to France, a million sterling had been spent on the fortifications. Franquet, the eminent engineer, assisted by skilled artificers, had done the work, and from behind its two-mile circle of stone bastions and massive curtains of well-mortared masonry nearly 400 cannon frowned defiance upon all comers. Drucour was now governor, while about 4,000 men, mostly, French or Canadian regulars, in addition to the same number of inhabitants, with a year's provisions, awaited Amherst behind the walls. But this was by no means all, for the Sutherland, of sixty guns, met the British fleet in the offing with the news that seven line-of-battle ships and five frigates, carrying 550 guns and 3,000 sailors, were at anchor in the harbor to assist in the defense. . . .

Boscawen6 had twenty-three ships of the line and seventeen frigates, and it was the 2d of June before his whole fleet arrived off the town. A heavy sea was running, and the rugged shore was white with an unbroken line of raging surf. Amherst, however, with Lawrence and Wolfe, the latter still suffering sorely from his dire enemy, sea-sickness, took boat, and rowing along the coast surveyed it through their glasses. There were only three places at which a landing was possible, even when the weather moderated, and these, it was seen, were all strongly entrenched. On the 5th the wind dropt a little, but gave way to a fog, which was even worse. On the 6th both wind and fog moderated, and the troops were placed in the boats; but the wind again increasing, they were ordered back to the ships. The sailors, with all the will in the world, thought gravely of any attempt to land. Boscawen sent for his captains one by one, and they were all inclined to shake their heads. A fine old sea-dog, however, one Ferguson, captain of a sixty-gun ship, the Prince, would have no halting, and by his vehemence turned the scale in favor of prompt action. On the evening of the 7th the wind fell slightly, the night proved clear, and soon after midnight the men were once more dropt into the boats. It had been arranged that the attack should be made in three divisions on three separate points. Lawrence and Whitmore were to threaten the two coves nearer the town, while Wolfe made the actual attack on Kennington Cove or Le Coromandiere, the farthest off, the most accessible, but also the most strongly defended, and some four miles distant from the city. . .

Wolfe, at once a disciplinarian and a creature of impulse, did not stand on ceremony. Feeling, no doubt, that he would himself have acted in precisely the same fashion as his gallant subalterns under like conditions, he signaled to the rest to follow their lead, setting the example himself with his own boat. The movement was successful, tho not without much loss both in boats and men. The surf was strong and the rocks were sharp; many boats were smashed to pieces, many men were drowned, but the loss was not comparable to the advantage gained. Wolfe himself, cane in hand, was one of the first to leap into the surf. These were not the men of Oswego, of Lake George, of the Monongahela, of the Virginia frontier. . . .

Amherst's first move was to send Wolfe with his light infantry on a long, rough march of seven or eight miles around the harbor to erect some batteries upon the farther shore, the necessary guns being dispatched by water. In this business, notwithstanding the scantiness of soil and the absence of suitable timber, he was so alert that by the 26th he had not only mounted his chief battery at Lighthouse Point, but had intrenched all his men in safety from the fire of the town and fleet, which had been fierce and continuous, and furthermore had effectually silenced the formidable French battery on Goat Island in the middle of the harbor entrance.

There was nothing now to prevent Boscawen, if he so chose, from sailing in with his whole fleet, so the French admiral, Desgouttes, rather than lose all his ships, prudently sunk four of them by night in the channel, to protect the rest. Wolfe, in the meantime, had been writing cheery letters to Amherst, telling him of his progress, and greatly jubilant that the French fleet were now "in a confounded scrape." This was precisely what the French admiral and his officers had been thinking for some time, and Desgouttes had urged on the Governor the desirability of getting his ships off while there was yet time. Drucour, however, thought differently, as he wanted the ships and the sailors to prolong the defense, and so prevent the besieging army from either proceeding to Quebec that season, or from helping Abercromby against Montcalm at Lake George. For a fortnight an artillery fire had been steadily proceeding upon the harbor side, while to the westward, where the serious attack was contemplated, Amherst's dispositions were not quite ready, the engineering difficulties being considerable. Wolfe, having done his work, now hurried back to the main lines, which were henceforward to be the chief scene of action. . . .

On both the right and left the English batteries were now pushed forward to within half a mile of the town, and, with Wolfe on one side and Lawrence on the other, began their deadly work. Two hundred big guns and mortars, plied upon both sides by skilled gunners, shook that desolate coast with such an uproar as no part of North America since its first discovery had ever felt. Twenty thousand disciplined troops, soldiers and sailors, led by skilful and energetic commanders, made a warlike tableau, the like of which had never yet been seen, with all the blood that had been spilled between the Mississippi and the St. Lawrence, while infinite valor animated both sides. On July 6th, a sortie was made upon the advanced trenches on the British left, which was easily repulsed. Three days afterward a much more serious effort was prest by a thousand men, stimulated by brandy, the English accounts say, upon the right. The British Grenadiers were forced back out of the trenches, fighting desperately with the bayonet in the dark. Wolfe was here, reveling in the bloody mêlee, and the enemy was ultimately driven back into the town. . . .

On both wings, indeed, the British advance was pushed so close that gun after gun was dismounted on the Louisbourg ramparts, and the masonry itself began to crack and crumble in all directions, while British soldiers were pressing forward to the very foot of the glacis, and firing upon the covered way. On the 21st one of the French ships in the harbor, the Célèbre,, was ignited by a bomb, and the flames spread to two others. The British batteries on the extreme left commanded the scene, and rained such a hail of balls upon the flaming decks that the ships could not be saved, and all three were burned to the water's edge. Shells, round shot and bombs were now falling in every part of the devoted town. Nearly all the sailors of the fleet were with the garrison, and all the townsmen who could bear arms helped to man the defenses.

On the 22d the chief house of the citadel, where the Governor and other officials were living, was almost wholly destroyed by fire. A thousand of the garrison were sick or wounded and were cowering in wretchedess and misery in the few sheltered spots and casements that remained. The soldiers had no refuge whatever from the shot and shell. Night and day—for there was a bright moon—the pitiless rain of iron fell upon the town, which, being built mostly of wood, was continually igniting and demanding the incessant labors of a garrison weakened and worn out by the necessity of sleepless vigilance. The gallantry of the defense equaled the vigor of the attack, and was all the more praiseworthy seeing how hopeless it had become. Only two ships of war were left in the harbor, and the British bluejackets, who had been spectators of the siege, now thought they saw a chance of earning some distinction for their branch of the service. So five hundred sailors, in boats, running the gantlet of the fire from the town upon the harbor side, dashed in upon Le Bienfaisant and Le Prudent, overpowered their feeble crews, burned the latter ship, and towed the other one into a corner of the harbor secured by British batteries. The harbor was now cleared of French shipping. Another great fire had just occurred in the town, destroying the barracks that had been an important point of shelter. The bastions on the land side were rapidly crumbling. On the 26th less than half a dozen guns were feebly replying to the uproar of 107 heavy pieces firing at close range from the British batteries, and more than one big breach in the walls warned the exhausted garrison of the imminence of an assault.

A council of war was now called, and the vote was unanimous that a white flag should be sent to Amherst with a request for terms. This was done, but when Amherst's answer came the opinion was equally unanimous against accepting what he offered, which was unconditional surrender within an hour. The officer was sent back again to urge a modification of such hard conditions, but Amherst, well knowing that he had Louisbourg at his mercy, refused even to see the envoy. With singular courage, seeing that no relief was possible, the French officers resolved to bear the brunt of the attack, and Franquet, the engineer who had constructed the fortifications with de la Houlière, the commander of the troops, proceeded to select the ground for a last stand.

But the townspeople had no mind to offer themselves up as victims to an infuriated soldiery, for they remembered Fort William Henry, and dreaded the result. The Commissary-General came to Drucour, and represented that whatever might be the feelings of the military with regard to their professional honor, it was not fair to subject 4,000 citizens, who had already suffered terribly, to the horrors of an assault upon that account alone. He pointed out, and with justice, that no stain, as it was, could rest on the garrison, who had acquitted themselves most bravely against a numerous and formidable foe, and his arguments had effect. The messenger, who for some cause or other had delayed in his mission, was overtaken and recalled, and Amherst's terms accepted. These last required that all the garrison should be delivered up as prisoners of war and transported to England. The non-combatants were at liberty to return to France, and the sick and wounded, numbering some 1,200, were to be looked after by Amherst. All Cape Breton and the adjacent island of Saint Jean (now the fertile province of Prince Edward), with any small garrisons or stores therein contained, were to be given up to the English.

On July the 27th the French troops were drawn up on parade before Whitmore, and, with gestures of rage and mortification, laid down their arms and filed gloomily off to the ships that were to take them to England. Five thousand six hundred and thirty-seven prisoners, soldiers and sailors, were included in the surrender. About two hundred and forty sound pieces of cannon and mortars, with a large amount of ammunition and stores, fell into the hands of the victors. The French fleet in attendance was totally destroyed, and French power upon the North Atlantic coast ceased to exist.

1From Bradley's "Fight with France for North America," arrangement with the publishers, Constable & Co., of London. These two sieges formed part of the conflict between France and England during the Eighteenth Century for control of North America, a conflict which had continued, with interruptions and in a more or leas desultory form, all through the earlier part of the century. The first siege of Louisbourg in 1745, was an incident in the conflict of that period which finally subsided on the establishment of peace between the two countries in Europe. In more serious aspects, ending finally in the supremacy of the English in North America, war again broke out in 1753, when, during the embassy of George Washington to French forts on the upper waters of the Ohio River, in the battle of Great Meadows on the southern borders of western Pennsylvania, a conflict ensued between Washington and the French in which the French commander, Jumonville, was killed. That battle, tho scarcely more than an accidental skirmish, has been fitly described as one which "set the world on fire." A conflict ensued which extended not only to America, but to Europe as well. Among its incidents in America were the dispersion of the Acadians of Nova Scotia, Braddock's defeat, and the Battle of Lake George, all in 1755; the capture by the English of Louisbourg and Fort Duquesne in 1758; the capture of Ticonderoga and Niagara in 1759; and finally the battle of Quebec in 1759, won by Wolfe against the French commander, Montcalm, which virtually closed the war. The Peace of Paris, which followed, led to the surrender of Canada and what were afterward called the Maritime Provinces to Great Britain, in 1763.

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2"Cape Breton is the oldest French name in America, probably as old as 1504," says John Fiske, "and ships from Normandy and Brittany have kept up their fishing in these waters from that day to this."

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3Sic. Usually written Sir William Pepperell. Pepperell was a native of Maine, who advanced 25,000 in aid of the first expedition against Louisbourg, became its commander-in-chief and was made a baronet in 1746 by George II.

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4That is, the oath of allegiance to Great Britain.
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5The reference here is to the war with France which followed Washington's affair with Jumonville at Great Meadows in 1758. At the time of this, the second siege of Louisbourg, the French war had passed through its earlier stages and a year later was virtually ended by the victory of Wolfe at Quebec.

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6Edward Boscawen, Admiral of the Blue, popularly known as "Old Dreadnaught," commanded the second expedition against Louisbourg. Boscawen afterward (in 1759) won a great victory over the French in the Bay of Lagos, for which he received the thanks of Parliament and a pension of 23,000 a year. This Lagos victory was followed thirty days later by Wolfe's victory at Quebec. The two events virtually closed the Seven Years' War, in so far as it affected the struggle between England and France for supremacy in America and India.

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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman