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Louisbourg: It Didn’t Have to Happen. It Just Didn’t Have to Happen

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Louisbourg: It Didn’t Have to Happen. It Just Didn’t Have to Happen

The French fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton was captured by New England forces in 1745, and an attempt by the French to recapture it failed. Strife between England and France continued and these disputes were settled for a while by the Peace of Utrecht in 1748. By that Peace, England gained possession of Acadia, while the French regained possession of Cape Breton and therefore of the fort at Louisbourg. Meanwhile, the English established a military base at Halifax. The endless disputes between England and France continued at a reduced level, and they never did agree as to what constituted ‘Acadia.’

English attempts to attract settlers to Nova Scotia had only limited success, and Halifax remained mostly a military establishment. New Englanders were reluctant to move into such a wilderness without inducements and, besides, they were afraid of the Acadians and the Mi’kmaq. So, the English deported the Acadians in the ‘Expulsion’ and, in 1758, attacked the fort at Louisbourg again. The French population at the fortress and the town of Louisbourg was considerable — in excess of 4,000.

The diary of an English military surgeon who served during the siege, entitled “The Diary of Nathaniel Knap,” was presented earlier in this blog. Today is a description of the siege from the French point of view. It is a condensed and edited from Louisbourg in 1745; the anonymous Lettre d’un habitant de Louisbourg…, translated and published by George McKinnon Wrong in Toronto, 1897.

In this letter, the mostly anonymous ‘B.L.N.’ complained about the mismanagement of Louisbourg, which he believed to be the cause of their loss. I have entitled it “Louisbourg: It Didn’t Have to Happen. It Just Didn’t Have to Happen.”


Louisbourg, a Mighty Fortress



Louisbourg: It Didn’t Have to Happen. It Just Didn’t Have to Happen

I thank you, Sir and very dear friend, for the interest you take in the misfortune which has happened to me. I have not so much to complain of as have a multitude of miserable people, stripped of everything,—sad results of a war in which we appear to be the only unfortunates! We are overwhelmed with the most terrible reverses and despoiled of the possessions which were the fruit of many years’ labour. May our loss mark the only progress which the English will make this year!

The first cause of our misfortune was the weakness of our wretched colony and the numerous mistakes which were made. I recommend that you to keep secret what I am going to unveil to you and do not to reveal my name. It is often unsafe to tell the truth.

Every day we were in receipt of information that the New England colonies were arming along their whole coast. There was then abundant time to take measures for protection against the threatened danger; something was done, but not all that should have been.

Our situation, on the verge of pressing danger, was indicated to the Court. We sought prompt succour, and this ought to have been provided. After all, our colony was important and it was necessary to be masters of the River which leads to New France. Our settlements in Canada required this. Besides, those dangerous waters required a port of refuge.

The two ships of war, Ardent and Caribou, ought to be blamed in the first instance. If their commanders had consented to aid in an expedition against Acadia we should have ruined the English and made it impossible for them to execute their plan. But most of the officers of the King’s ships carry on trade operations, although this is forbidden. Trade ventures would have been neglected and the welfare of the State would have interfered with their interests. Those near to the Minister share in this traffic and they it from him. Forgive these strong expressions; although harsh they are true.

Governor, M. du Quesnel, could not induce the naval commanders to sail against Acadia. They argued that they had no orders from the Court, as if it was necessary to have special orders before keeping enemies from the door. Would to God that the Governor had abandoned his madness of undertaking the matter alone. The ill-success which followed is the cause of our loss. The English would not have troubled us if we had not affronted them. It was in the interest of the people of New England to live at peace with us and they would have done so if we had not disturbed their security. Both sides should have held aloof from the war in Europe.

When our Governor learned of the declaration of war he formed projects which resulted in our misfortune. Poor man, he was whimsical, changeable, given to drink. He had affronted nearly all the officers of Louisbourg and destroyed their authority with the soldiers. It was because he had such problems that he had been sent to Cape Breton in the first place. The foolish enterprise against Canso was the first cause of the loss of a colony so useful to the King.

du Quesnel was determined to distinguish himself against the English. He therefore armed a schooner with fourteen guns, and a bateau, upon which he put about six hundred men to seize the little island of Canso! His force came back victorious, but the enterprise had no merit. The English did not suspect attack and were without the least defence. They did not know that we were at war with their nation, as we had been the first to hear of it. We burned a wretched and worthless little town—for nothing.

du Quesnel next resolved to take Port Royal even without the commanders of the Ardent and the Caribou who refused to cooperate. In July, he commissioned four officers from the Fort, and two others from St. John Island [PEI], together with ninety soldiers and three to four hundred Indians to carry out his plan. They established themselves on a very good position overlooking the fort and, with the help of the Acadians, prepared ladders to scale the walls.

The appearance of the French before Annapolis so frightened the English Governor that he promised to surrender, as soon as he should see the Ardent and the Caribou which were expected to arrive. The ships never appeared, however, and the invading force retired more than fifty leagues inland causing the expedition to fail.

du Quesnel died at about that time, and was replaced by M. du Chambon. He sent out a party to rescue the initial invading force from Annapolis, but they had fled back into the woods and this rescue party also withdrew. This English thought that we were weak and began their own methodical military preparations, continued all winter. Reinforcements were sent from England and even from Jamaica.

It was known from the beginning that the English were readying for war, but nothing was done. Our ships remained in port, not even venturing out to defend against privateers. Councils were held while time slipped away. We needed to strengthen here, to enlarge there, to provide posts, to visit those on the island to find the number of persons who could bear arms; in a word, to show activity usual in the situation. Nothing like this was done. There was time, even after the first ships blockaded us, to protect ourselves better than we did.

Our condition was as follows. The Garrison was composed eight companies of seventy men each, including the sick. There were also five or six hundred militia from the neighbourhood, and these, added to the force in the town, made up from thirteen to fourteen hundred men. The militia could have been increased further, but communication was cut off by the time it was decided to send for them.

Munitions and food were in greater supply than has been made known, especially of food. Since we were long threatened with a siege we should have retrenched in everything, as if scarcity existed. Powder should not have been wasted in foolish enterprises which did not make our condition less serious. These actions deprived us of salvation.

Military discipline was badly maintained by our late Governor, with mischievous results. The day after Christmas, the Swiss revolted and came out without officers, drums beating, bayonets fixed, and swords in hand. Those who approached them would have lost their lives if prudence had not been used. The French soldiers were as bad and mutinied also. The whole town was in alarm. It was promised that the mutineers’ grievances should be removed. The mutiny was only for butter and bacon. They should have been punished if it could have been done with safety, but their judges were not the bravest and, in the end, they laid lay down their arms at a cost of seven or eight thousand livres. So ended the matter without, the bloodshed that had been feared. The troops did their duty throughout the siege; but who knows whether they would have done so if there had been opportunity to escape.

On the 14th March we saw the first hostile ships. There were as yet only two, but their number increased daily until the end of May. For a long time they cruised about without attempting anything. The European contingent did not come until June. The enterprise was less that of the nation or of the King than of the inhabitants of New England alone. These people have a system of laws peculiar to themselves, and their Governor carries himself like a monarch. Although war was already declared between the two crowns, he declared it against us of his own right and in his own name. Admiral Warren had no authority over the troops sent by the Governor of Boston, although it was to him that we finally surrendered.

On May 11th, we saw ninety-six transports coming in order of battle from the direction of Canso. Then it was that we saw the need for the precautions that we ought to have taken, and a detachment of one hundred men was sent in command of M. Morpain. But what could such a force do against such a large disembarkation? Part of our force was killed. M. Morpain found about two thousand men already disembarked and killed some of them. He then retired.

The enemy took possession of the surrounding country and terror seized us all. There was talk of abandoning the battery, which would have been our chief defence. Tumultuous councils were held and the fateful decision was taken on the basis that there were two breaches which had never been repaired. How could this have happened? There had been ample time to put things in order. The battery was abandoned on the 13th, with thirty cannons left in place—not even having been disabled. There was so much activity that a barrel of gun powder exploded and nearly killed several men. On the 14th, the enemy began to fire upon us with our own cannons. We answered from the walls, but could not return the harm which they did to us. Houses were knocking down and shattering everything within range.

The enemy then established several other batteries and the bombardment intensified. They also drained the swamp, thus opening an avenue for attack from the front. A tardy resolution was taken to send to Acadia to summon aid from a detachment which had left Quebec to join the attack on Annapolis. However, their arrival was delayed. A month earlier, we had given to the Quebec detachment both powder and balls, which left us short in our time of need. Some of our other supplies had also been wasted. In the meantime, the force from Quebec could not come to our aid since the English, by that time, controlled the whole countryside. Finally, seized with the urgency of the moment, they gathered some Indians and managed to fight their way toward us. They arrived too late, however, for Louisbourg had surrendered.

On the 18th we perceived a ship carrying the French flag trying to enter the port, and the vigour of our fire prevented the English from sinking her. We were not so fortunate with another French vessel which had to surrender. It is thought that our fall was caused by the loss of this second ship, and it is true that we suffered from the loss of her cargo. But we should still have been able to hold if we had not made so many other mistakes. We had already begun to lose hope when this ship approached. If she had entered we would still hold our property and the English would have had to retire.

The Vigilant came in sight on the 28th or 29th of May, and nothing could have prevented her from entering. However, she wasted her time chasing a privateer, which drew her close to the English who captured her. She had been loaded with ammunition and, we learned later, the English were running short of such supplies. We perceived that after the capture their firing increased greatly. The enemy was busy all the remainder of the month in cannonading and bombarding us. All our shots carried while the greater part of theirs was wasted. In truth, our scarcity of powder caused us to be careful.

At the beginning of June the besiegers planned to attack us from the sea. They tried to surprise the battery at the harbour entrance, but their detachment of about 500 men was cut in pieces by M. d’Aillebout, who commanded there. More than three hundred were left dead, and none were saved except those who asked for quarter. We made one hundred and nineteen prisoners, and on our side had only three killed or wounded.

Still wishing to possess the battery, the assailants commenced to build a fort opposite it. A hundred of our men, reinforced by thirty Indians, were chosen to dislodge them. We attacked and they lost two hundred and thirty men, of whom a hundred and fifty were killed and eighty wounded. The number of the enemy kept increased, however, and we finally had to retreat.

To make things worse, on the 15th a squadron of six warships reached the English from London, and this no doubt encouraged the land army to bring the battle to an end. The army General was anxious to force our surrender before the Admiral of the fleet took the honour and on the 21st an officer came to propose that it would be better to surrender to the Admiral. We said that we had no intention to surrender. This was pure bluster on our part, as we were in desperate straits. Councils were held more frequently than ever, but with no better results; they met without knowing why, and knew not what to resolve. There was only confusion and indecision.

The object of our Councils was to draw articles of capitulation. This occupied us until the 27th, when an officer, M. Lopinot, went out to carry them to the General. Our proposals were so extraordinary that, notwithstanding that the General wanted us to capitulate to him, he had scarcely the patience to listen to them. The same conditions were then proposed to the Admiral who rejected most of them. Eventually, however, terms were agreed to that were sufficiently honourable. We were reassured a little by this, for we apprehended the saddest fate. We feared at every moment that the enemy would press forward to carry the place by assault. Everything invited them to do so, including the fact that we had two breaches, each about fifty feet wide. We also had not enough powder left for three charges, although the public is deceived to think that we still had twenty thousand pounds. These were lies.

The articles of capitulation provided that the Garrison should march out with arms and flags, which should be given up until after their arrival in France; that, if our own ships did not suffice to transport our persons and effects to France, then the English would furnish transport and provisions; that all the commissioned officers and inhabitants of the town should be allowed to live in their houses with free exercise of their religion until they could be removed; that the non-commissioned officers and the soldiers should be placed on board the British ships immediately after the surrender until they also should be taken to France; that our sick and wounded should receive the same care as those of the enemy; that the Commandant of the Garrison should have the right to take out two covered wagons which should be inspected by one officer only, to see that there were no munitions of war; and that, if any persons of the town or garrison did not wish to be recognized by the English, they should be permitted to go out masked.

The enemy caused all to embark and did not allow any settler to remain upon the island.

Such is my description of the siege of Louisbourg, which would not have lasted so long had we been attacked by an enemy better versed in the art of war. No complaint can be made of the settlers, who served with the same precision as did the troops, and had to bear the greatest fatigues. The regular soldiers were distrusted, so that it was necessary to charge the inhabitants with the most dangerous duties. Children, ten and twelve years old, carried arms, and were to be seen on the ramparts, exposing themselves with a courage beyond their years. Our loss scarcely reached one hundred and thirty men, and it is certain that that of the English was more than two thousand. Yet their force was so great that for them this loss was inconsiderable. They had, at disembarking, as many as from eight to nine thousand men.

I will finish this sad narrative which makes me weep, by saying that the court should extend its charity to an immense number of unfortunates who, if not succoured, will die of hunger in France. We, the inhabitants of the town, owing to the terms of capitulation, have still preserved something from the ruin, but those who dwelt in the country have lost everything. I have seen numerous families embark without having anything to cover them, and wring compassion from even the English themselves.

In saying all this I have paid only the respect which I owe to truth.

Adieu, my dear friend; love me well always, and rely upon the fondest return and the liveliest gratitude.

I am, etc.


At . . . August 28th, 1745


Written by johnwood1946

November 2, 2016 at 8:19 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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