1757 - British expedition against Louisbourg
The campaign lasted from May to September 1757
At the beginning of 1757, Loudoun was commander-in-chief in North America. He initially planned to launch a direct attack on Québec to force the French to remain on the defensive. Regiments would be assembled in Halifax and then escorted by a British Fleet to Québec. Louisbourg would be by-passed. However, Prime Minister Pitt instructed him to first capture the Fortress of Louisbourg before turning his attention to Québec.
On January 3, Loudoun laid a general embargo on all outward-bound ships in American colonial ports. His objects were, firstly, to prevent the communication of intelligence to the enemy; secondly, to obtain the necessary transports; and thirdly, to secure additional seamen for his Majesty's ships. From a military point of view, these measures were justifiable but they were also very detrimental to commerce and produced strong dissatisfaction in America. Furthermore, since Great Britain desperately needed corn, the embargo was soon lifted.
British and French reinforcements for the Americas
At the beginning of 1757, the French were very busy in fitting out two great fleets at Brest and Lorient.
In January, British transports arrived at New York with large body of troops from Great Britain to reinforce the army in North America. Loudoun billeted the troops in public and private houses, causing some protests in the population.
At the end of March and the beginning of April, several British squadrons were equipping at Portsmouth and Plymouth.
The French Court was informed that a great British fleet was fitting out for North America. It reacted immediately by ordering three squadrons across the Atlantic, with instructions to rendezvous at Louisbourg, the conjectured point of attack. A large British fleet under Sir Edward Hawke was lying off Brest harbour to observe the French fleet. Despite all these precautions, a French squadron managed to get out of Brest and another one from Lorient. The French squadron under the command of M. de Beaufremont consisted of 15 ships of the line and 5 frigates and convoyed some 5,000 men for the West-Indies. The other French squadron set sail for the East-Indies.
The third French squadron under the command of M. de Revest sailed from Toulon for America. Admiral Saunders was then at Gibraltar with a British squadron. When Saunders was informed that the French had appeared off Málaga, he pursued them with 5 ships.
On April 5, Saunders saw the French squadron and, being to leeward, formed a line. The French did the same. Some of the ships began to engage at a distance but the British then lost sight of the French and could not re-establish contact. The French squadron successfully passed the strait of Gibraltar and sailed for America.
With these French reinforcements heading for America, part of it for the West-Indies, the British West-India fleet under Admiral Townshend was threatened because it then consisted only of 4 ships of the line and 3 frigates.
On April 16, a British squadron under Admiral West sailed from St. Hellen’s. It was designed for Ireland to pick up troops on its way to America and consisted of 11 ships of the line, 1 frigate, 1 bomb ketch and a convoy of 50 transports.
On May 3, M. Dubois de la Motte escaped from Brest with a further reinforcement (9 ships of the line, 4 frigates and 2 battalions of Berry Infanterie) and reached Louisbourg. Dubois was enabled to escape by the fact that the blockading British squadron before the place, under Vice-Admiral Temple West, had been driven from its station by bad weather.
On May 5, after much delay, the British fleet, now under the command of Admiral Holbourne, sailed from Cork in Ireland for Halifax, where Loudoun was to meet it with additional forces. Holbourne's fleet consisted of 15 ships of the line and 3 frigates, with 7 battalions (about 5,000 troops) on board.
West was afterwards relieved in front of Brest by Rear-Admiral Thomas Broderick, who remained cruising till June, when Vice-Admiral Edward Boscawen took the command of the squadron for about a month. Prizes were made, but there was no meeting between the fleets of the two countries.
British preparations for the expedition against Louisbourg
From March 18 to 27, Loudoun assembled the governors of the neighbouring colonies in Philadelphia where they decided upon the defensive measures to undertake and upon the number of troops that each colony should supply.
In April, Loudoun prepared 90 transport vessels in Boston and New York and additional ones at Philadelphia.
By May 5, all transports were assembled at New York. Sir Charles Hardy, governor of New York, was commissioned as rear-admiral of the Blue. His squadron consisted of:
- Sutherland (50), Captain Edward Falkingham
- Nightingale (24), Captain James Campbell, flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Hardy
- Kennington (20), Captain Dudley Digges
- Vulture (14), Commander Sampson Salt
- Ferret (14), Commander Arthur Upton
Admiral Holbourne's fleet was expected at Halifax from Great Britain at about this time. In fact, as mentioned in the preceding section, it was just getting to sea.
Between May 22 and 25, troops embarked on board the transports at New York. The siege artillery available to Loudoun was old with rusted out and honey-combed barrels, subject to easy bursting. The fleet then sailed to Sandy Hook where it anchored.
On May 23, Beauffremont's squadron, which had previously reinforced the West Indies, arrived at Louisbourg. This force consisted of:
- Tonnant (80), M. de Beauffremont
- Défenseur (74), M. de Blénac
- Inflexible (64), Captain Saint-Laurent
- Éveillé (64), Captain de Merville
- Diadème (74), Captain Rosily
- Brune (32), Captain la Prévalaye
On June 5, Loudoun joined the fleet and removed his flag to the Sutherland (50). He decided to wait for Holbourne. He decided to wait for Holbourne because 5 French ships of the line and 1 frigate had been reported at Louisbourg.
On June 15, M. de Revest arrived at Louisbourg from Toulon with 4 ships of the line:
- Sage (64), Captain d'Abon
- Achille (64), Captain de Panat
- Hector (74), Captain Curvesse
- Vaillant (64), Captain Saurin
On June 20, another French squadron under M. Dubois de la Motte, arriving from Brest, reached Louisbourg. It consisted of:
- Formidable (80), carrying the flag of Vice-Admiral Dubois de la Motte
- Duc-de-Bourgogne (80), M. d'Aubigny
- Superbe (74), Captain Choiseul
- Glorieux (74), Captain Chavagnac
- Dauphin Royal (74), Captain d'Urtubie
- Belliqueux (64), Captain d'Orvillers
- Célèbre (64), Captain La Jonquière
- Héros (74), Captain Chateloger
- Bizarre (64), Captain Montalet
On the same day (June 20), after waiting in vain for Holbourne, Loudoun finally put to sea and sailed from Sandy Hook to Halifax.
The united French squadrons now totalled 18 ships of the line and 5 frigates (Brune (32), Abénaquise (38) under Captain Macarty, Comète (30) under Captain de Brugnon, Fleur de Lys (30) under Captain de Tourville and Hermione (26)) under Lieutenant Dubois. The French fleet then cruised off Halifax. Meanwhile, Loudoun sent two sloops to reconnoitre the coast. They soon came back without spotting the French vessels.
The French commitment to Louisbourg was truly massive. In June 1757, there were only 42 ships of the line and 13 frigates in the entire French Navy. A full 40% of the French Navy was positioned at Louisbourg. In contrast, both the French Atlantic ports and the Mediterranean ports were each allocated eight ships of the line. At this same time, the British had 96 ships of the line and were rapidly expanding their fleet.
On June 30, Loudoun arrived at Halifax without meeting any opposition. The troops were soon landed and encamped. Parties of rangers were also sent to patrol the surrounding woods. Meanwhile, vessels were sent to reconnoitre the harbour of Louisbourg.
The British and Colonial contingents make their junction at Halifax
On July 7, all of Holbourne's fleet was finally at anchor before Halifax. Once combined with Loudoun's squadron, the fleet counted 17 ships of the line, 14 frigates and sloops, 2 bomb ketches and 1 fire ship escorting 179 transports. More precisely, the war fleet consisted of:
- Ships of the line:
- Sloops of war:
- Bomb ketches:
- another unidentified bomb ketch (14)
- Fire ships:
(1) : from these vessels, 1 ship of the line (Sutherland) and 12 frigates were already in America.
The combined land forces consisted of 16 battalions regiments, 500 men of the train, 500 rangers (including 3 coys of Rogers' Rangers) and 100 carpenters, amounting to nearly 12,000 men. More precisely:
- Loudoun's force arriving from New York (6 bns)
- Understrength regiments already stationed in Nova Scotia (3 bns)
- Troops arriving from Great Britain (7 bns)
The land forces were landed at Halifax and several weeks were spent drilling them.
Between stores in New York, New England, and Nova Scotia, Loudon had managed to assemble four light brass 12-pdrs, three brass 8-in mortars, four 8-in howitzers, four brass royal mortars (5 1/2-in), fifteen brass 6-pdrs, four 3-pdrs, and nineteen brass coehorn mortars (4 2/5-in). After rejecting all the large bore iron cannon then in Nova Scotia, he had no cannon to form even a single breaching battery. Loudoun knew artillery was being sent to Halifax from England, but he may or may not known their composition or numbers (conflicting information). Pitt was sending an additional eighteen heavy brass 24-pdrs, twelve heavy brass 12-pdrs, four light brass 6-pdrs, four brass royal 5 1/2-in howitzers, two 13-in mortars, two 10-in mortars, four 8-in mortars, and thirty brass coehorn mortars (4 2/5-in).
Meanwhile, some attempts were made to learn the state of Louisbourg. Captain Gorham and some of his rangers reconnoitred it from a fishing vessel and brought back an imperfect report. Based on this report, it was resolved to proceed to the attack of Louisbourg.
Vice-Admiral Holbourne sent Captain Rous with the Winchelsea (24) and other frigates, to look into Louisbourg. Rous returned and made his report, which grossly underrated the strength of the French forces.
The enterprise is abandoned
On August 1 and 2 in consequence of Rous report, the British army was re-embarked and a rendezvous was appointed in Gabarus Bay, 10 km west of Louisbourg.
On August 4, all was ready when a sloop came from Newfoundland, bringing letters found on board a French schooner lately captured. According to these letters, it appeared that all three of the French squadrons were now united in the harbour of Louisbourg and 4,000 regulars besides its garrison (3,000 men) were available for its defence. Indeed, La Motte, the French admiral, had with him a fleet carrying an aggregate of 1,360 guns, anchored in a sheltered harbour under the guns of Louisbourg. Success was now hopeless, and the costly enterprise was at once abandoned.
For his part, Dubois de la Motte had been expressly ordered to protect Louisbourg and on no account to hazard an engagement with the British fleet unless he should be in such overwhelming force as to place the question of his success beyond a doubt. For this reasons, he made no attempt to attack Holbourne's squadron, nor to blockade the British in Halifax.
The fate of Holbourne's squadron
On August 10, Holbourne resolved to reconnoitre Louisbourg for himself. Leaving, a few vessels for the defence of Halifax, he sailed for Louisbourg.
On August 16, Loudoun with his troops sailed back for New York while some regiments remained in Halifax and others, under convoy, went to the Bay of Fundy, Fort Cumberland, and Annapolis Royal. Loudoun was still at sea, off the coast of Nova Scotia, when a despatch-boat from Governor Pownall of Massachusetts informed him that Fort William Henry was attacked. A few days later, he learned by another boat that the fort had been taken. He ordered Webb to hold his position without risking a battle till he should himself arrive.
On August 20, Holbourne arrived before Louisbourg. Near the harbour's mouth some of his ships got close enough in to draw the fire from the island battery. The vice-admiral was thus able to satisfy himself that the strength of the enemy had not been exaggerated. Dubois de la Motte signalled his fleet to unmoor, whereupon the British tacked, stood off, and at nightfall bore away.
On August 24, the 78th Fraser's Highlanders arrived off Halifax, several weeks after the expedition had been cancelled. It had left Ireland in late June.
On August 31, Loudoun reached New York and heard that the French had withdrawn. He nevertheless sent his troops up the Hudson.
On September 3, the 77th Montgomery's Highlanders, which at the direction of Pitt had sailed directly from Ireland, arrived in South Carolina.
On September 11, Holbourne was again at Halifax, where he found reinforcements of 4 ships of the line from Great Britain (Somerset (64), Devonshire (74), Eagle (58) and York (60)), under Captain Francis Geary.
Vice-Admiral Holbourne, after watering and rewooding his fleet, which by that time consisted of 19 ships of the line, 2 fifty-gun ships, and several frigates; sailed for Louisbourg with the intention of blockading the French, until the approach of winter and shortness of supplies should oblige them to come out and fight him.
On September 24, Holbourne's squadron was only about 100 km south of Louisbourg, when a fresh easterly gale sprang up. In the night it veered to the southward and blew an awful hurricane until about 11:00 a.m. on September 25. Then, fortunately, it again veered to the north, otherwise the fleet could scarcely have been saved from destruction. The Tilbury (58), with nearly all her crew, was lost 11 km from Louisbourg, struck and went to pieces. The Grafton (70), bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Charles Holmes, also struck, but was got off. She lost her mainmast, fore-topmast, and rudder; but the ship was safely steered to Great Britain by means of a jury-rudder devised by Commodore Holmes. The Ferret (14), Commander Arthur Upton, foundered with all hands. All the other ships of the fleet were seriously damaged, no fewer than 12 being dismasted either wholly or in part. Not one was left fit for immediate action. Had La Motte sailed out of Louisbourg, he would have had them all at his mercy. His own fleet also suffered, the Tonnant (80) and the Abénaquise (38) being badly damaged.
Vice-Admiral Holbourne sent his most damaged ships direct to Great Britain, under Sir Charles Hardy and Commodore Charles Holmes, and went with the rest to Halifax.
After refitting, Holbourne too sailed for Great Britain, leaving a few ships under Captain Lord Colville, of the Northumberland (70), to winter at Halifax. Lord Colville had orders to endeavour, when the season should permit, to prevent supplies from getting into Louisbourg.
Holbourne's squadron returned to Great Britain in a very bad condition. On December 7, it arrived at Spithead. Holbourne was then appointed port admiral at Portsmouth.
The French squadron returns home
On October 22, a fleet of 15 sail of the line and several frigates, under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke and Vice-Admiral Edward Boscawen, sailed from Spithead. It was sent to sea with a view to intercept the home-coming French squadron from Louisbourg.
At the end of October, the French naval forces in Louisbourg put to sea and recrossed the Atlantic, suffering from very bad weather during the voyage. Unfortunately, the ships from the West Indies carried a variety of tropical diseases north to Louisbourg including malaria, yellow fever, but particularly typhus. Others suffered from scurvy. By September, some 400 sailors had died and another 1,200 men were sick.
When on its station, the British squadron was dispersed by a gale.
On November 23, the vanguard under Captain Robert Swanton sighted the French squadron of M. Dubois de la Motte. Swanton's vanguard was engaged by some of the French ships. Dubois de la Motte finally called off his chasers for fear of attracting the attention of the British fleet. Indeed, the British main squadron had not yet regained its assigned position and the French squadron got into Brest unmolested. On its way, the squadron had lost only the Hermione (26) and another frigate to British cruisers.
With the return of the French fleet to Brest, 4,000 men, a quarter of La Motte's squadron, were landed sick. They spread an epidemic of typhus to the civilian population throughout western Bretagne and some 5,000 civilians died. By the end of the year, nearly 6,000 sailors sent to Louisbourg had died, half the complement. This represented a huge loss to the French Navy that could not be replaced and that would make it very difficult to man a squadron from Brest in 1758.
On December 15, Hawke and Boscawen returned to Spithead with no tangible results.
This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:
- Anonymous: A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 201-206, 227-235
- Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 167-169, 171-172
- Lévis, Chevalier de: Journal des campagnes du chevalier de Lévis en Canada de 1756 à 1760, Montréal, Beauchemin, 1889, pp. 110-112
- Parkman, Francis: Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 272-274
- Bougainville, Louis Antoine de: Adventure in the Wilderness - The American Journal of Louis Antoide de Bougainville 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press translated by Edward P. Hamilton, pp. 139-140, 188
Boscawen, Hugh: The Capture of Louisbourg, 1758, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2011, p. 80
Castex, Jean-Claude: Dictionnaire des batailles terrestres franco-anglaises de la Guerre de Sept Ans, Presse de l'université Laval, Québec: 2006, pp. 319-321
Dull, J. R.: The French Navy and the Seven Years' War. (France Overseas: Studies in Empire and Decolonization.), Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005, pp 80, 87, 268
Dunne, Kenneth P.: The 35th Regiment of Foot and the British Artillery at the Siege of Fort William Henry and the Role of Lord Loudoun, James Campbell, August 1757 p. 40
La Galissonière: Études Historiques sur la Marine Militaire de France, Chap. XIV in La Revue Maritime, Vol. 114p. 487
Phillip, Michael: Ships of the Old Navy
Rodger, N. A. M.: The Command of the Ocean – A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815, p. 276
Kenneth P. Dunne for researching the order of battle of the British land forces and the French fleet