Compagnies Franches de la Marine - Officers
The officers of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine constituted, as in France in the same period, a very particular category of the population, namely the nobility and more specifically the nobility d’épée (sword). The officer was above all an aristocrat, member of a “caste” with its rights and duties. However, in the XVIIIth century , from 33% to 50% of the officers came from the bourgeoisie. Indeed, during the reign of Louis XIV, the old aristocracy had been brought to heel; the monarch judging that the nobility should not be acquired by birth but rather by proving oneself (particularly on the battlefields). However, under Louis XV, the tendency began to invert with the return in strength of the high nobility eager to expel from its ranks these recently ennobled commoners. This goal was finally reached during the reign of Louis XVI by the Edict of Ségur in 1781. From then on, to claim the rank of officer, it became necessary to prove one's nobility down to his four grand-parents, making it almost impossible for those recently ennobled!
War being the exclusive domain of the French aristocracy, what were the practices in Nouvelle France? If in the home country, nobility was established through lineage, in Canada from the arrival of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine in 1683, the officer came from the bourgeoisie (thus a commoner) eager to build a reputation and a name, and trying to acquire a title by joining the Troupes de la Marine; or a gentleman, often penniless, originating from the French landed gentry trying to reach the same goals! Furthermore, from their arrival in North America in 1683, the Troupes de la Marine were supervised by officers from the home country. However, around 1730, only 50% of the officers still came from France. Finally, in the 1750s, almost all officers originated from the colony. How such a shift had been possible?
These men, conscious of their noble status, would play an essential role in the defence of Nouvelle France, really constituting the military elite of the Canadian society. Louise Dechêne mentions: “Officers (…) make the fame of Nouvelle France. They distinguished themselves in the defence of the territory and above all in the partisan war.”
Towards a “Canadianisation” of officers
In this section, we will study three important phases in what we have called the “canadianisation” of the charge of officer in the Troupes de la Marine. These three phases are not chronologically independent but rather overlapping each other.
The first officers
To explain the term “canadianisation” of the charge of officer in Nouvelle France, one must go back before the arrival of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine in 1683 to the first years after the foundation of Québec in 1608. The prospect of rapid fortune in Nouvelle France induced many provincial nobles or burghers to cross the Atlantic to establish themselves there. During this period, Canada was ruled by commercial companies, also responsible for colonisation. The most famous among them being doubtless the Compagnie des Cent-Associés. This company, to ensure the protection of settlers, received the king's authorisation to send soldiers supervised by officers, all of them paid by the company.
Among them, let's mention Jean Baptiste Legardeur de Repentigny (born at Thury-Harcourt in Normandy in 1632, died at Montréal on September 9, 1709) who arrived in Canada in 1636 with his parents to seek their fortune in the fur trade. He took part in the war against the Iroquois. Lieutenant in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine in 1688, captain in 1692. He married in 1656 a woman of his condition, Marguerite Nicollet de Belleborne (daughter of Jean Nicollet de Belleborne arrived in Québec in 1618 and one of the architect of the Indian alliance), they had 21 children, two of which, Louis and Pierre (the elder, he was made lord in 1680) were officers in the Troupes de la Marine.
Charles Le Moyne de Longueuil and de Chateauguay (born in Dieppe in August 1626, died in Montréal in 1685) arrived in Nouvelle France at the age of 15. He began his brilliant career as soldier and was promoted officers a few years later. He brilliantly distinguished himself in the war against the Iroquois. He was made lord in 1657 and ennobled in 1668. In 1654, he married Catherine Thierry (1640-1690) who gave him two daughters and 12 sons, the two most famous of them being Le Moyne D’Iberville and Le Moyne de Bienville who distinguished themselves in the history of Nouvelle France!
In 1663, the insolvent Compagnie des Cent-Associés was dissolved. From then on, Nouvelle France was managed as a French province. In front of the threat that the Iroquois represented for the colony, Louis XIV resolved to send the Carignan-Salières Regiment to Canada.
The Carignan-Salières Regiment
In 1665, 1,200 officers and soldiers of the Carignan-Salières Regiment arrived. Without covering the military role of this unit, let's simply mention that the regiment was sent to Canada by Louis XIV to fight the Iroquois. In 1668, the mission of the regiment being successfully accomplished, these men were offered the opportunity to remain in Canada, to compensate for the lack of settlers in Nouvelle France. René Chartrand, in his book “The French Soldier in Colonial America”, explains that “the greatest contribution made by these soldiers to Canada was that 400 among them chose to stay as settlers”. The soldiers were offered lots (with provisions and cattle) and the 30 officers who decided to stay in Canada received estates. Antoine Pécaudy de Contrecoeur (Vignieu 1596 - Contrecoeur 1688), Pierre de Saint Ours (Grenoble 1640 - Saint Ours 1724), Alexandre Berthier (Bergerac 1638, left for France in 1668 with the regiment but returned to Nouvelle France in 1670 where he obtained the estate of Bellechasse where he died in 1708) or Michel Dugué de Boisbriand (Nantes 1638 - Montréal 1688) were the most famous of these officers. Many of their descendants would be officers in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. All these officers, born in France in the provincial nobility, married women of their condition in Canada.
The arrival of the Compagnies Franches de la Marine
In 1683, the first Troupes de la Marine arrived in Nouvelle France. The young officers came from the small nobility and were hungry for adventure and glory. At the end of the service, many of these officers were offered estates in Canada, always with the promotion of the colonisation of Nouvelle France in mind.
Constant le Marchand de Lignery (born in Charentilly in 1663, died at Trois Rivières in 1731) began his career as lieutenant in Auvergne Infanterie in 1675. In 1686, he was transferred to the navy and served as marine guard at Rochefort. In 1687, he arrived in Canada as lieutenant and made a nice career. One of his son, François Marie became captain in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine, entering service as cadet at the age of 14 and dying in July 1759 during the British attack against Fort Niagara.
Another famous figure is Philippe Rigaud de Vaudreuil, future governor-general of Nouvelle France. In 1687, penniless (at his parents' death, his elder brother inherited of everything), he decided to emigrate to Canada where he made a brilliant career. One of his son, Pierre Rigaud de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial (born in Québec in November 1698, died in Paris in August 1778) was the last governor-general of the colony. He joined the Troupes de marine as an ensign at the age of 10.
Let's also mention the Liénard de Beaujeu's family. Louis (born Paris April 16 1683 – died December 27 1750) was the first to arrive in Canada in 1697 to seek fortune. On April 1 1702, he obtained a commission of ensign in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine and was promoted captain in June 1711. In 1706, he had married Thérèse Denise Migeon de Branssat (daughter of Jean Baptiste Migeon de Branssat a merchant arrived in Canada in 1697). Two of his sons, Louis and Daniel Hyacinthe Marie became captain in the Troupes de la Marine.
Among the officer corps, there were also some atypical characters, forced by justice to depart for Nouvelle France. Antoine de Crisafy, Marquis de Crisafy (born in Messina, Sicily; died at Trois Rivières in 1709) had a good military experience when Sicilians revolted against Spain. His estates were confiscated and he took refuge in France. He was imprisoned in 1683 and freed the same year under the condition that he would leave for Canada. He became captain the following year and distinguished himself in the war against the Iroquois! Jacques Maleray de Noiré de La Mollerie (born in Poitou in 1657, died at sea during an engagement against an English ship in 1704) arrived in Nouvelle France in 1685 after having killed M. de Guillot de La Forest in a duel. He became officer and commanded the fort of Lachine in 1690 and 1701! In 1687, he had married Françoise Picoté de Belestre, born in the militaro-commercial Canadian nobility.
The Compagnies Franches de la Marine constituted “THE” natural spillway of this Canadian aristocracy, these units representing the sole military structure in Nouvelle France. Therefore, if all officers originated from France in 1683, 40 years later, 50 % of them came from Canada, a proportion reaching 90% in the 1750s, recruitment of officers becoming exclusively local (contrarily to the recruitment of soldiers which was still done in France).
As soon as 1687, the grade of ensign (standard bearer) was created in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine and recruitment for this rank was made exclusively in Canada. In 1722, the rank of second-ensign was established with similar conditions of recruitment. In 1731, the grade of cadet was established, still with the same recruitment mode.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that the grade of officer in the Troupes de la Marine was not subjected to venality of charges because the king took charge of the nominations. Contrarily to the practice in the French army, a commission of officer in the Troupes de la Marine could not be bought. Thus, a certain number of nobles, who could not afford to buy a commission of captain in a regular regiment, enlisted in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. This was the case of Gaspard Adhémar de Lantagnac (born in Monaco in 1681, died in Montréal in 1756). He was 21 years old when he enlisted in an infantry regiment of the Royal Household but never managed to buy a commission in this unit. Therefore, he resolved to leave for Canada in 1712, becoming captain in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine three years later.
The job of officer
Before getting into the heart of the matter, it is important to reconsider the organisational chart of the French army on the eve of the Seven Years' War. There were two officers corps. The first was constituted by the “general officers”, regrouping the maréchaux, the lieutenant-generals, the maréchaux de camp and the brigadiers. These ranks were not subjected to the venality of charge and were obtained by seniority or distinction.
The second group called Officiers Particuliers was subdivided into two categories. The first, the Officiers Supérieurs included colonels, lieutenant-colonels, majors and captains. Finally, the Officiers Subalternes regrouped the lieutenants and ensigns. All ranks were subjected to the venality of charge with the approbation of the ministry of war, notably for the charges of colonel and captain.
Cadets, also called cadets à l’aiguillette, constituted a peculiarity of the Compagnies Franches de La Marine which had been established in 1731. They were sort of candidate officers. The cadets in question were young men (mainly belonging to the families of officers) who learned the trade and were promoted ensign if they could prove their ability. They received the same pay as privates and were considered as such during reviews and inspections. Cadets wore a blue and white cord called aiguillette on the right shoulder which lent them the designation of cadet à l’aiguillette. It is in this function that many future young officers made their first arms in the Troupes de la Marine.
During the XVIIIth century, one entered into the profession of arms very young. It was not uncommon to find young boys aged 10 or 11 in companies! The future Marquis de Montcalm entered in the military service in 1721 at the age of 9, as ensign in the regiment of Hainaut where his father was colonel. Gaston de Lévis, commander in second in Montcalm's army and future maréchal de France entered into the military service in 1735 at the age of 16 as lieutenant in La Marine Infanterie. There are numerous similar examples in the French metropolitan army as well as in the Compagnies Franches de la Marine. Indeed, the young Pierre Rigaud de Cavagnial (future last governor-general of Nouvelle France) entered the military service at the age of 9. François Marie Le Marchand de Lignery was cadet when he was only 14 and Louis Legardeur de Repentigny joined the army at the age of 13.
There were no military institution where one could learn the art of war in Canada, contrarily to France where, for example, the Military School of the Champs de Mars opened in 1756; often future officers got their first idea of the profession by residing in a fort with their father or an uncle, or during operations against the enemy. The rank of cadet introduced in 1731 illustrates this fact quite well. For example, Louis Coulon de Villiers (born in Verchères, Nouvelle France in August 1710, died in Québec in November 1757), the future victor at Fort Necessity in July 1754, began his military career as cadet under the command of his father Nicolas Antoine at Fort Saint-Joseph (in present-day Michigan). To learn the customs and traditions of the Indians, Jean Baptiste Testard de Montigny (born in Montréal in June 1724, died in Blois (France) in November 1786) followed his father Jacques Testard de Montigny to Fort Michillimakinac where the latter was promoted commander from 1730 to 1732. The young Jean Baptiste (he was only 6 years old) distinguished himself there. He became cadet in 1736 at Fort Saint Frédéric where he learned to conduct reconnaissances with his soldiers and Allied Indians. His courage was rewarded by his promotion to the rank of ensign in second in 1742 and ensign in 1743. He was promoted lieutenant in 1753 and captain in 1757. Laurent Nerich in his book “La guerre de Sept Ans en Nouvelle France” explains that:
- “officers were trying to recruit their sons, cousins and nephews in these units which led to a large number of family connections within the Compagnies Franches” turning sometimes, according to some authors, to oligarchy”.
The captain: the keystone of the company
There are several differences and many similarities between the officers of the Compagnies Franches de La Marine and their metropolitan counterparts.
Indeed, a captain of the French army had to recruit his soldiers by himself (see Recruitment and daily life of soldiers in the second half of the XVIIIth century), he was also responsible to supply recruits with clothings (shirts, underpants, shoes, gaiters...), the king supplying only the fabric for the coat, waistcoat and breeches. The captain had to supply the equipment of the soldiers (the king supplied the musket and the bayonet) as well as camping material (tents, tools…). In exchange for this, the captain received a daily pay of 3 livres, an annual indemnity of 150 livres for recruiting expenses and 65 livres per soldier admitted during the review made by the Commissaire des Guerres. The captain had to look at the good performance of his company and was held accountable for it by his colonel or by the Commissaire des Guerres during inspections. Furthermore, in the French army all officers were noble, even though several of them originated from the bourgeoisie (from 33% to 50% as per Lee Kennett) and a huge gap existed between the officer corps and the soldiers.
The situation was rather different in the Troupes de La Marine. Indeed, a captain was not responsible for recruitment, he rather received his new recruits from France. The Ministère de La Marine provided everything necessary to the soldier while the king supplied the musket, the bayonet and the uniform. Some officers of the Compagnies Franches de La Marine were noble but, as seen previously, several commoners originating from the bourgeoisie belonged to this corps. The two classes merging by marriage! A fact hardly understandable for an officer of a metropolitan unit.
Similarities existed too. The captain did not take part to military exercises of his soldiers. “Officers are conspicuously absent from the garrison service in Québec” mentions Gilles Proulx. Indeed, several among them preferred to make their estates yield a profit rather than to attend to military exercises. This practise was often backed by colonial authorities since in 1729, Governor-general Charles de La Boische, Marquis de Beauharnais (1671-1749) authorised the poorest officers to remain in their estates under condition that two officers would be present with the company.
Generally speaking, the captain relied on his lieutenant and his ensigns, and even more on his NCO s (sergeant and corporal). Those were the men who managed the good performance of the company and of the men and to the quality of the material. They saw to discipline and supervised training. When soldiers were barracked, these officers and NCO s saw to the tidiness of the barracks, made the roll calls and commanded detachments, In a word, they took charge of the daily military life!
However, the captain occupied a central position in the company wearing his name. Of course, he managed it and this was his main role but several officers did not limit themselves to leading their men as in France during the same period. Real ties existed between them and their men. This corresponds to the typical tactical schema of the Canadian theatre of operation. Indeed, these men often fought in small isolated groups, covering long distances in Summer as in Winter, they were sent to distant forts or posts. Therefore, there existed a real cohesion perhaps even companionship between officers and soldiers, all having to rely on each other.
Contrarily to metropolitan France where ranks had to be bought, promotions in the Compagnies franches de la Marine were granted by the king at Versailles upon the governor-general's recommendations. If this system contrasted sharply with the venality of charges in metropolitan France and could even be perceived as fairer because it was based on merit rather than fortune, it was not flawless and some officers from families well regarded by colonial authorities could see their promotion accelerated!
Attribution of ranks could take a long time, particularly during peace time. Thus, between the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1713 and 1744 during the War of the Austrian Succession, a long period of peace took place between France and Great Britain and promotions slowed down. Only retirements or deaths opened ranks to new promotions. However, respectively in 1722 and 1731, the ranks of ensign in second and cadet were created opening new perspectives.
From 1744 to 1760, an era of conflicts took place, accelerating promotions. The Ministère de la Marine (Navy Ministry) decided to raise new companies for which additional officers were needed. Furthermore, during the strange “Carthaginian peace” between 1748 and 1754, soldiers were regularly sent to Canada to organise new companies and several officers were promoted to superior ranks. Numbers speak by themselves. The Compagnies Franches de La Marine stationed at Louisbourg in 1741 counted 8 companies totalling 560 men and 32 officers (a ratio of 70 men per company). By 1749, this force had increased to 24 companies regrouping 1,200 men and 96 officers (50 men per company).
Before concluding, it is worthwhile to include in this section one of the highest distinction of the period: the Croix de Saint-Louis. This distinction was also a real promotion, social as well as financial (pensions were usually granted to holders). Organised by Louis XIV in 1693, the military Order of Saint-Louis rewarded catholic officers for their numerous years of service (usually more than 10 years). Exceptionally, one did not have to be noble to receive this distinction. In 1750, a royal decree automatically ennobled all holders of this distinction, the goal was to create a purely military aristocracy. The Chevalier (the lowest rank of the order who also included the ranks of Commandeur, Grand Croix and Grand Maître, the latter being the king himself) wore on his lapels the medal and its red ribbon. The medal had the form of the Cross of Malta with, in its centre a representation of Saint-Louis accompanied by the Latin motto: “LUD(OVICUS) M(AGNUS) IN(STITUIT) 1693” (Louis the Great has instituted it in 1693). René Chartrand estimates at more than 140, the number of officers who have received this prestigious distinction in Nouvelle France.
In the Compagnies Franches de La Marine, contrarily to soldiers whose pay was called solde, officers received a traitement varying according to rank. René Chartrand indicates that, towards the middle of the XVIIIth century, a captain received 1,080 livres annually; a lieutenant, 720; a first ensign, 450; a second ensign, 300. As we have seen before, the cadet received the same pay as the soldier. If an officer distinguished himself in an action or if he had a particular talent (translator, scout, interpret in an Indian language), he received a “bonus” on top of his standard pay.
Contrarily to soldiers, officers had free room, board and laundry but they had to face more expenses since they had to provide their own uniform and weapons and to keep proper standing. They were particularly vulnerable to price inflation in Nouvelle France. Because of this, a fringe of poor officers gradually materialised. Owning a piece of land or better an estate, or making a good marriage, guaranteed additional revenues allowing to live comfortably. Gilles Proulx mentions that “the officer cannot consider to make fortune with his sole military salary”. Another form of revenue allowing captains to improve their day-to-day life was the fur trade. Even though nobility did not compromise itself in trade, leaving this to commoner, a transfer to a trading post gave them opportunities to inveigle part of this financial manna. This explains the importance of nominations of officers to forts or trading posts qualified as economically profitable. For example, Fort Carillon and Fort Saint-Frédéric presented little interest because there was no trade in these quarters. However, western posts such as Fort Niagara and Fort Pontchartrain were considered as more profitable.
Finally, the captain in the Compagnies Franches de La Marine, contrarily to his counterpart in the metropolitan army, could not resell his charge upon retirement. Nor could he, during his career, make a profit by cutting down on the supply of his soldiers. Therefore, two important sources of revenues available to metropolitan officers were blocked to the officers of the Compagnies Franches de La Marine.
Nouvelle France gave birth to a new form of military elite as it has given birth to a particular form of war! Born in Canada, or originating from the provincial nobility or from the commons, or part of the Canadian merchant bourgeoisie; this military aristocracy would become the rampart of the colony! The job of officer in the Compagnies Franches de La Marine was a profession where one started young. It was not very profitable if we exclude other revenues from trade or from owned estates. It was also deadly since 20% of officers were killed in service during the Seven Years' War. A certain companionship existed between officers and soldiers, another specific Canadian characteristic. To conclude this section, we'll leave the last words to Louise Dechêne:
- “Officers and cadets fight for the honour to serve the King, for personal glory, for their pleasure, often for war profits, to maintain or enhance the name of their family, for all kind of motives so intricately interwoven that they were unable to distinguish duty from interest!”
Bakshian, Aram Jr.: Soldiers of New France - French and Indian War, The Armchair General Vol. 1 No. 3, 1968
Chartrand, René: Canadian Military Heritage, Volume 1, 1000-1754, Art Global, 1993
Chartrand, René and Eugène Leliepvre: Louis XV’s army (5). Colonial and Naval troops, Osprey Military, 1998
Dechêne, Louise: Le Peuple, l’Etat et la Guerre au Canada sous le Régime Français, éd. Boréal, Montréal, 2008.
Kennett, Lee: The French Armies in the Seven Years' War, Duke University Press, 1967
Merllie, Louis: La rivière “Mal Engueulée”, in Carnet de la Sabretache 1977/37
Parkman, Francis: Montcalm and Wolfe, Collier Books, New York, 1884, p. 215
Proulx, Gilles: La garnison de Québec de 1748 à 1759, Ministre des Approvisionnements et Services, Canada, 1991
Summers Jack L. and René Chartrand: History and Uniform of the Compagnies franches de la marine, 1683-1760
Valiquette, Louis and André Senkara: Uniformes portés par les soldats et les officiers des Compagnies franches de la Marine, Compagnie Franche de la Marine de Montréal
Veyssière, Laurent and Bertrand Fonck: La Guerre de Sept Ans en Nouvelle France, PUPS/ éditions du Septentrion, 2011.
N.B.: the section Service during the War is mostly derived from our articles depicting the various campaigns, battles and sieges.
Jean-Charles Soulié for the initial version of this article