1758 - Siege of Louisbourg

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The siege lasted from June to July 1758

Description of Events

The British expedition

In 1758, the British mounted a huge expedition against the French fortress of Louisbourg. At the beginning of June, a fleet of 157 sail under the command of admiral Boscawen appeared in front of Louisbourg. It transported an army of 11,600 soldiers, all regulars, except 500 provincial rangers.

On June 8, the British army successfully landed at La Cormorandière (actual Freshwater Cove). Amherst then established his camp just beyond range of the French cannon, and Flat Point Cove was chosen as the landing-place of guns and stores.

On June 18, the British finally managed to get their siege-guns ashore. Until then the violence of the wave had prevented this operation.

The fortress of Louisbourg

Since 1748, Louisbourg had been repaired and strengthened. At the beginning of June 1758, it was the strongest fortress in French or British America. Nevertheless it had its weaknesses. The original plan of the works had not been fully carried out; and owing, it is said, to the bad quality of the mortar, the masonry of the ramparts was in so poor a condition that it had been replaced in some parts with fascines. The circuit of the fortifications was more than 2,5 km and the town contained about 4,000 inhabitants. The best buildings in it were the convent, the hospital, the king's storehouses, and the chapel and governor's quarters, which were under the same roof. Of the private houses, only 7 or 8 were of stone, the rest being humble wooden structures, suited to a population of fishermen. The garrison consisted of battalions of Artois, Bourgogne, Cambis, and Volontaires Étrangers, with 2 companies of artillery and 24 companies of Compagnies Franches de la Marine from Canada, in all 3,080 regular troops, besides officers; and to these were added a body of armed inhabitants and a band of Indians. Furthermore, 219 cannon and 17 mortars were mounted on the walls and outworks. Of these last the most important were the Grand Battery on the shore of the harbour opposite its mouth, and the Island Battery on the rocky islet at its entrance.

The strongest front of the works was on the land side, along the base of the peninsular triangle on which the town stood. This front, about 1,100 meters in extent, reached from the sea on the left to the harbour on the right, and consisted of four bastions with their connecting curtains: the bastion de la Princesse, bastion de la Reine, bastion du Roi and the bastion du Dauphin. The bastion du Roi formed part of the citadel. The glacis before it sloped down to an extensive marsh, which, with an adjacent pond, completely protected this part of the line. On the right, however, towards the harbour, the ground was high enough to offer advantages to an enemy, as was also the case, to a less degree, on the left, towards the sea. The best defence of Louisbourg was the craggy shore, that, for leagues on either hand, was accessible only at a few points, and even there with difficulty. All these points were vigilantly watched.

As mentioned previously, there were 7 ships of the line and 6 frigates in the harbour, carrying in all 544 guns and about 3,000 men. More precisely, this naval squadron consisted of:

Ships of the line Frigates
Prudent (74)

Entreprenant (74)
Bienfaisant (64)
Bizarre (64)
Capricieux (64)
Célèbre (64)
Apollon (56)

Aréthuse (36)

Biche (18)
Chèvre (22)
Comète (30)
Écho (26)
Fidèle (24)

The siege

Map of the siege of Louisbourg in 1758
Source: William Wood The Great Fortress: a Chronicle of Louisbourg 1720-1760
Courtesy of Tony Flores

When the siege began, 2,900 French regulars were able to bear arms.

The British had at last finished their preparations, and were urging on the siege with determined vigour. The landward view was a solitude no longer. They could be seen in multitudes piling earth and fascines beyond the hillock at the edge of the marsh.

On June 9, James Wolfe spoke to the officers and men of the army before attacking Louisbourg, Backwardness in sight of the enemy equals death. The men are trained to oppose the Indians, the Canadians and other painted savages of the Islands. The French are the only brutes and cowards in the creation.

On June 25, the guns of the Island Battery were dismounted and silenced. Wolfe then strengthened his posts, secured his communications, and returned to the main army in front of the town. The same day, British troops occupied the hillock at the edge of the marsh, and fortified themselves there under a shower of bombs. Then they threw up earth on the right, and pushed their approaches towards the Barachois, in spite of a hot fire from the frigate Aréthuse. Next they appeared on the left towards the sea about a 500 meters from the bastion de la Princesse. It was Wolfe, with a strong detachment, throwing up a redoubt and opening an entrenchment.

Now that Wolfe had silenced the Island Battery, a new and imminent danger threatened Louisbourg. Boscawen might enter the harbour, overpower the French naval force, and cannonade the town on its weakest side.

Accordingly, on June 28, Drucour resolved to sink 5 large ships (Apollon (50), Chèvre (22), Biche (18), Diane, and Fidèle (24)) across the harbour’s mouth; and on a dark and foggy night this was successfully accomplished. Two more vessels were afterwards sunk, and the harbour was then thought safe.

On July 8, news came that the partisan Boishébert was approaching with 400 Acadians, Canadians, and Micmacs to attack the British outposts and detachments. He did little or nothing, however, besides capturing a few stragglers.

On the 9th of July a captain Chevalier de Chavelin was killed. The French send out a flag of truce to bury their dead, which when over, the cannoning began again.

Late on the night of July 9, 600 French troops sallied to interrupt the work. The British grenadiers in the trenches fought stubbornly with bayonet and sword, but were forced back to the second line, where a desperate conflict in the dark took place; and after severe loss on both sides the French were driven back. Some days before, there had been another sortie on the opposite side, near the Barachois, resulting in a repulse of the French and the seizure by Wolfe of a more advanced position.

The British lines grew closer and closer, and their fire more and more destructive. Desgouttes, the naval commander, withdrew the Aréthuse from her exposed position, where her fire had greatly annoyed the besiegers. The shot-holes in her sides were plugged up. She escaped from Louisbourg on July 15th.

By mid July, a great part of Louisbourg had been reduced to ashes by the British artillery.

In the dark night July 14, the Aréthuse was towed through the obstructions in the mouth of the harbour, and sent to France to report the situation of Louisbourg. More fortunate than her predecessor, she escaped the British in a fog. Only 5 vessels (Entreprenant (74), Capricieux (64), Célèbre (64), Prudent (74) and Bienfaisant (64)) now remained afloat in the harbour, and these were feebly manned, as the greater part of their officers and crews had come ashore, to the number of 2,000 lodging under tents in the town, amid the scarcely suppressed murmurs of the army officers.

On July 16, early in the evening, a party of British, led by Wolfe, dashed forward, drove off a band of French volunteers, seized a rising ground called Hauteur-de-la-Potence (Gallows Hill), and began to entrench themselves scarcely 300 meters from the bastion du Dauphin. The town opened on them furiously with grapeshot; but in the intervals of the firing the sound of their picks and spades could plainly be heard.

In the morning of July 17, the British were seen throwing up earth like moles as they burrowed their way forward.

On July 21, the British opened another parallel, within 200 meters of the rampart. Still their sappers pushed on. The same day in the afternoon, a bomb fell on the ship Célèbre and set her on fire. An explosion followed. The few men on board could not save her, and she drifted from her moorings. The wind blew the flames into the rigging of the Entreprenant, and then into that of the Capricieux. At night all 3 were in full blaze; for when the fire broke out the British batteries turned on them a tempest of shot and shell to prevent it from being extinguished. The glare of the triple conflagration lighted up the town, the trenches, the harbour, and the surrounding hills, while the burning ships shot off their guns at random as they slowly drifted westward, and grounded at last near the Barachois, burnt to the water’s edge.

In the morning of July 22, the 3 French ships were consumed to the water's edge; and of all the squadron the Prudent and the Bienfaisant alone were left.

In the citadel, of which the bastion du Roi formed the front, there was a large oblong stone building containing the chapel, lodgings for men and officers, and at the southern end the quarters of the governor. On the morning after the burning of the ships a shell fell through the roof among a party of soldiers in the chamber below, burst, and set the place on fire. In half an hour the chapel and all the northern part of the building were in flames; and no sooner did the smoke rise above the bastion than the British threw into it a steady shower of missiles. Yet soldiers, sailors, and inhabitants hastened to the spot, and laboured desperately to check the fire. They saved the end occupied by Drucour and his wife, but all the rest was destroyed. Under the adjacent rampart were the casemates, one of which was crowded with wounded officers, and the rest with women and children seeking shelter in these subterranean dens. Before the entrances there was a long barrier of timber to protect them from exploding shells; and as the wind blew the flames towards it, there was danger that it would take fire and suffocate those within. They rushed out, crazed with fright, and ran hither and thither with outcries and shrieks amid the storm of iron.

In the neighbouring bastion de la Reine was a large range of barracks built of wood by the New England troops after their capture of the fortress in 1745. So flimsy and combustible was it that the French writers call it a "house of cards" and "a paper of matches." Here were lodged the greater part of the garrison: but such was the danger of fire, that they were now ordered to leave it; and they accordingly lay in the streets or along the foot of the ramparts, under shelters of timber which gave some little protection against bombs. The order was well timed; for on the night after the fire in the bastion du Roi, a shell filled with combustibles set this building also in flames. A fearful scene ensued. All the British batteries opened upon it. The roar of mortars and cannon, the rushing and screaming of round-shot and grape, the hissing of fuses and the explosion of grenades and bombs mingled with a storm of musketry from the covered way and trenches; while, by the glare of the conflagration, the British regiments were seen drawn up in battle array, before the ramparts, as if preparing for an assault.

On July 24, the fire from Louisbourg was very weak. On the front of the town only 4 cannon could fire at all. The rest were either dismounted or silenced by the musketry from the trenches. The masonry of the ramparts had been shaken by the concussion of their own guns; and now, in the bastion du Dauphin and bastion du Roi, the British shot brought it down in masses. The trenches had been pushed so close on the rising grounds at the right that a great part of the covered way was enfiladed, while a battery on a hill across the harbour swept the whole front with a flank fire. Amherst had ordered the gunners to spare the houses of the town; but, according to French accounts, the order had little effect, for shot and shell fell everywhere. The same day, admiral Boscawen informed Amherst that he intended to send 600 sailors in boats into the harbour to destroy or bring away the two remaining French men of war (Prudent and Bienfaisant).

On July 25 at midnight, taking advantage of the fog, captains John Laforey and George Balfour at the head of 600 British sailors silently paddled into the harbour. Meanwhile, British troops maintained a very brisk fire from the trenches to draw the enemy’s attention from the harbour. Around 1:00 am, when the sailors finally discovered the French ships in the darkness, Laforey led his division against the Prudent while Balfour did the same against the Bienfaisant. The British sailors boarded the French ships and captured them. After the first hubbub all was silent for half an hour. Then a light glowed through the thick fog that covered the water. The Prudent was burning. Being aground with the low tide, her captors had set her on fire, allowing the men on board to escape to the town in her boats. The flames soon wrapped her from stem to stern; and as the broad glare pierced the illumined mists, the British sailors, reckless of shot and shell, towed her companion-ship, with all on board, to a safe anchorage under Wolfe's batteries into the north-east harbour. The same day, Drucour, with his chief officers and the engineer, Franquet, made the tour of the covered way, and examined the state of the defences. All but Franquet were for offering to capitulate.

Indeed, the position of the besieged was deplorable. Nearly a fourth of their number were in the hospitals; while the rest, exhausted with incessant toil, could find no place to snatch an hour of sleep; "and yet," says an officer, "they still show ardour."

On July 26, the last cannon was silenced in front of the town, and the British batteries made a breach which seemed practicable for assault. In the morning, admiral Boscawen came on shore and informed general Amherst that he intended to send 6 of his men of war into the harbour the next day, to batter the fortifications from the sea side. Meanwhile, the French were holding a council of war at which were present Drucour, Franquet, Desgouttes, naval commander, Houllière, commander of the regulars, and the several chiefs of battalions. Franquet presented a memorial setting forth the state of the fortifications. As it was he who had reconstructed and repaired them, he was anxious to show the quality of his work in the best light possible; and therefore, in the view of his auditors, he understated the effects of the British fire. Hence an altercation arose, ending in a unanimous decision to ask for terms. Accordingly, at 10:00 am, a white flag was displayed over the breach in the bastion du Dauphin and an officer named Loppinot was sent out with offers to capitulate. The answer was prompt and stern: the garrison must surrender as prisoners of war; a definite reply must be given within an hour; in case of refusal the place will be attacked by land and sea.

Great was the emotion in the council; and one of its members, D'Anthonay, lieutenant-colonel of the battalion of Volontaires Étrangers, was sent to propose less rigorous terms. Amherst would not speak with him; and jointly with Boscawen despatched this note to the Governor:

Sir, We have just received the reply which it has pleased your excellency to make as to the conditions of the capitulation offered you. We shall not change in the least our views regarding them. It depends on your Excellency to accept them or not; and you will have the goodness to give your answer, yes or no, within half an hour.
We have the honor to be, etc.,
E. Boscawen
J. Amherst

Drucour answered as follows:

Gentlemen, To reply to your excellencies in as few words as possible, I have the honour to repeat that my position also remains the same, and that I persist in my first resolution.
I have the honor to be, etc.,
The Chevalier de Drucour

In other words, Drucour refused the British terms, and declared his purpose to abide the assault. Loppinot was sent back to the British camp with this note of defiance. He was no sooner gone than Prévost, the intendant, an officer of functions purely civil, brought the governor a memorial which, with or without the knowledge of the military authorities, he had drawn up in anticipation of the emergency. "Theviolent resolution which the council continues to hold," said this document, "obliges me, for the good of the state, the preservation of the king's subjects, and the averting of horrors shocking to humanity, to lay before your eyes the consequences that may ensue. What will become of the 4,000 souls who compose the families of this town, of the 1,000 or 1,200 sick in the hospitals, and the officers and crews of our unfortunate ships? They will be delivered over to carnage and the rage of an unbridled soldiery, eager for plunder, and impelled to deeds of horror by pretended resentment at what has formerly happened in Canada. Thus they will all be destroyed, and the memory of their fate will live forever in our colonies.... It remains, Monsieur," continues the paper, "to remind you that the councils you have held thus far have been composed of none but military officers. I am not surprised at their views. The glory of the king's arm and the honour of their several corps have inspired them. You and I alone are charged with the administration of the colony and the care of the king's subjects who compose it. These gentlemen, therefore, have had no regard for them. They think only of themselves and their soldiers, whose business it is to encounter the utmost extremity of peril. It is at the prayer of an intimidated people that I lay before you the considerations specified in this memorial."

"In view of these considerations," writes Drucour, "joined to the impossibility of resisting an assault, M. le Chevalier de Courserac undertook in my behalf to run after the bearer of my answer to the British commander and bring it back." It is evident that the bearer of the note had been in no hurry to deliver it, for he had scarcely got beyond the fortifications when Courserac overtook and stopped him. D'Anthonay, with Duvivier, major of the battalion of Artois, and Loppinot, the first messenger, was then sent to the British camp, empowered to accept the terms imposed. At 11:00 pm they returned with the articles of capitulation and the following letter:

Sir, We have the honour to send your excellency the articles of capitulation signed.
Lieutenant-colonel D'Anthonay has not failed to speak in behalf of the inhabitants of the town; and it is nowise our intention to distress them, but to give them all the aid in our power.
Your Excellency will have the goodness to sign a duplicate of the articles and send it to us.
It only remains to assure your excellency that we shall with great pleasure seize every opportunity to convince your excellency that we are with the most perfect consideration,
Sir, your excellency's most obedient servants,
E. Boscawen
J. Amherst

The articles stipulated that the garrison should be sent to Great Britain, prisoners of war, in British ships; that all artillery, arms, munitions, and stores, both in Louisbourg and elsewhere on the Island of Cape Breton, as well as on Isle Saint-Jean (actual Prince Edward's Island), should be given up intact; that the gate of the bastion du Dauphin should be delivered to the British troops at 8:00 am; and that the garrison should lay down their arms at noon. The victors, on their part, promised to give the French sick and wounded the same care as their own, and to protect private property from pillage.

Drucour signed the paper at midnight.

On July 27 in the morning, a body of grenadiers took possession of the Dauphin's Gate. The rude soldiery poured in, swarthy with wind and sun, and begrimed with smoke and dust; the garrison, drawn up on the esplanade, flung down their muskets and marched from the ground with tears of rage; the cross of St. George floated over the shattered rampart; and Louisbourg, with the two great islands that depended on it, passed to the British Crown. Guards were posted, a stern discipline was enforced, and perfect order maintained.

Ralph Burton wrote to John Colcraft, On July 27th, I had the pleasure of seeing 2000 French troops ground their arms, pull off of their accoutrements and go to the right about.

Aftermath

Some 5,637 officers, soldiers, and sailors were prisoners in the hands of the victors (214 officers, 2,374 soldiers fit for duty, 443 soldiers sick or wounded, 135 naval officers, 1,134 men and marines fit for duty, 1,357 men and marines sick or wounded). Furthermore, 18 mortars and 221 cannon were found in the town, along with a great quantity of arms, munitions, and stores. The British had lost about 500 killed and wounded of all ranks.

The British were now free to occupy Cape Breton Island as well as Isle Saint-Jean (actual Prince Edward's Island). They also sent parties up to Gaspé.

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  1. Parkman, Francis, Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, pp. 332-350 (the entire book is available at Nova Scotia's Electric Gleaner, see chapter 19 for details about the siege)
  2. Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 273-282
  3. Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army, Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 316-322
  4. 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. 173, 182-185, 191