A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 4, "First Siege of Louisbourg (1745)"TOC
Chapter. 9, "Siege Work."

At Louisbourg, during the first week of May, 1745, there was a disuniformed collection of Englishmen in charge of the surrounding grounds. The initial success of these reveling invaders, achieved without any loss, had come about more to good luck than to good management. They had many detractors both at home and abroad; many, who would have bet good money (and would continue to do so, despite this initial success) that bunches of farmers and fishermen, headed up by lawyers and merchants, would not succeed at cracking this French military nut. The boys from New England may have been enthusiastic and excited, and more so; now that they were before the walls, standing there, back at a safe distance, their mouths agape, marveling at this medieval apparition; but, the next stage -- the detractors might well have said -- would require some real soldiering. There was no place in all of English North America that could compare to Louisbourg with its European style fortifications. Many of the young colonial boys must have been rudely started by their guffawing elders. There was work to be done; there was a siege to be gotten underway.

Behind the walls with Duchambon were 2,500; and out in the surrounding woods and bogs with Pepperrell were 4,000 provincials.1 A formal siege during the times of which we write was "a highly standardized process of advancing guns and men up to the walls in a series of parallel trenches connected by zigzag approaches." No one had illustrated this to the colonials. Indeed, they had originally thought that they could just run up to the walls, and, climbing over, surprise the French in their beds. This idea of a surprise attack was soon forgotten, especially after certain of the landing parties were forced to mix it up with Morpain and Boularderie. So, a siege it was to be. The colonials hauled their cannon off the ships, over the rocky beaches, and over impassible bogs (thought so by the French); then, under the cover of night and fog, to set up their cannon and to start blasting their cannon balls against the fort. All of this activity of les Bastonnais was very much to the amazement of the French regulars who had come to expect a siege was an artistic event which took time to stage. This view of things mattered little to these enthusiastic raiders from New England. They had a French fort to take; they were fresh; and they were no strangers to weltering work and tricky terrain. On account of non-stop hard work, on the fifth day after the landing, "a battery was in position opposite the citadel at a distance of 1550 yards, and then opened fire on the town."2

The English landed 34 guns and mortars and they were first "stood ranked on their wheeled carriages or platforms along the beach." One is going to have to go to Louisbourg to appreciate the challenge that then faced these New Englanders. (See map.) Between the landing beach -- which, as we have seen, was approximately three miles away -- and the walls of Louisbourg, there was a Nova Scotian bog. Indeed, such a bog practically ringed the neck of the peninsula on which the fort was built. I would describe it as a thin lake with a bottomless bottom of mud all covered by a thick carpet of moss and low bush. The New Englanders, familiar with methods of moving large boulders in the business of clearing land back home, built 16 by 5 foot sleds (stone-boats) and loaded up a cannon on each. There were no horses3, no oxen: just men to move the great burden over the bog, the marsh, the swamp, the "miry barrier, the mud sucking trap." In a contemporaneous report prepared under the supervision of Pepperrell, we read:4

"The transporting the cannon was with almost incredible labour and fatigue. For all of the roads over which they were drawn, saving here and there small patches of rocky hills, was a deep Morass, in which whilst the cannon were upon wheels, they several times sunk, so as to bury not only the carriages, but the whole body of the cannon likewise. Horses and oxen could not be employed in this service, but the whole was to be done by the men, themselves up to their knees in mud at the same time. ... They went on cheerfully without being discouraged or murmuring, and by the help of sledges of about sixteen feet in length, and five feet in width, and twelve inches thick they transported the cannon over these ways, which the French had always thought impassable for such heavy bodies; and was indeed impracticable by any people of less resolution and perseverance, or less experience in removing heavy weights; and besides this they had all the provisions, powder, shot and shells, that they daily made use of, to transport over the same ways, upon their backs."5
When reflecting on the trouble that an invading force took to get cannon in place, it is important to understand that cannon were absolutely necessary if fortifications are to be pierced and opened up for entry. One could just cut off supplies and wait for the effect of starvation to take hold; but such an approach was not an option to invaders camped on barren lands and freezing weather but only, ever, just months away. This much Pepperrell understood, advised as he was by a regular British naval officer, Peter Warren: the English had a chance for success, but only if immediate pressure was brought to bear on the population of Louisbourg and if such pressure was to be kept up in a relentless fashion.6

The pressure to which Warren referred and which he could not himself directly effect, was to keep up an effective cannonade of Louisbourg. The primary purpose, of course, would be to make a breech in the fortifications; but, more generally, to rain down missiles upon the heads of the besieged which it was hoped would have the effect, in the terrorization of the sheltering population, to bring on internal political forces leading to a capitulation. For this last purpose, the captured French Royal Battery was used to full advantage. At Louisbourg, what was needed, and what was planned for, was a battery or batteries positioned as near as was possible to their target, being, the west gate, the principal entrance from the land side. There were three batteries set up: the "Eight Gun Battery," "Titcomb's Battery"7 and "Sherburne's Battery"8 (the latter sometimes during the course of the siege referred to as "The Advanced Battery"). These batteries were fascine batteries. "Titcomb's" was to eventually consist of five of the 42 pounders which were hauled over from the Grand Battery and was located northeast, 800 yards from the West Gate and was operational by May 20th9 it was booming away on target. On the 17th "Sherburne's" was raised 250 yards from the same gate; it mounted two 42 lb cannon which were labouriously hauled from the Royal Battery.10 (See map.) Though, as we will see, the New Englanders were to do considerable damage with these batteries that they had set up, they did at times, due to their inexperience, manage to do damage to themselves; this, because too many times they stuffed more powder down the barrels of the cannons they served than they could stand, once ignited. "We have split 3 cannon at the Grand Battery." So, too, one of the cannons at one of the fascine batteries, "broke ... sorely wounding the chief gunner so that his leg was cut off."11 Another example is given by Joseph Sherburne who was in charge of the Forward Battery, he wrote in his journal, "loaded the 42 pounder by some unskillful hand which split one and dismounted another blew up about 1½ barrels of powder killed two men and wounded two more."12

I should note, before passing on, that the besieging batteries were not constantly firing away; for, in respect to the land forces, there was a general shortage of powder. And, even when powder showed up behind the lines,13 it had to be a tricky and risky business to get it up to the batteries.14 Naval powder, for whatever reason, was not made available to the colonial batteries. My general impression, is: that while Warren and Pepperrell were to receive compliments for their cooperation with one another throughout, Warren would only send help, by way of men or supplies, if such a step was to suit the objectives of the royal navy. The principal objective being to get ships into Louisbourg Harbour, so as to reduce it with naval guns. And, so we do see where Warren did send men to assist in the attempt to silence the Island Battery; or, powder, when a grand assault was planned just before Louisbourg's capitulation on the 16th of June (o.s.).15 I think, though, that early on, Warren did send some of his experienced gunners to shore, for at least a period of time, in order to give some badly needed direction to the New Englanders who had little or no experience in the handling of big guns, and, who, were doing themselves grievous damage and injury due to their mismanagement and inexperience.

Not all New Englanders were involved in any steady way in the excessively arduous work of establishing batteries and serving them, indeed, most of them weren't. A number were to be sent out to scout and keep an eye on the wide perimeter. As a general proposition, these men were undisciplined, untrained and totally disinterested in military procedure; a number were out for loot and a good time. Certainly most of them, it seems, were pouring rum into themselves, day and night. Further, there are numerous forthright references made in the journals about the plunder and destruction that went on.16 Waldo, who was put in direct charge of the captured Grand Battery, observed that three fourths of those under his charge "are partly employed in speculation on the neighbouring hills and partly employed in ravaging the country."17

Plainly, both Pepperrell and Waldo were very much perturbed with all this pillaging, but it would appear there was not much they could do about it.18 War is a harsh activity and the participants are usually in no position to give much regard to civilians who get in the way. This is so with a disciplined army; with irregular troops, war is that much more of a scourge, as the unordered, with their blood worked up, go about combing and looting the country side.19 This activity slowed down as the pickings in the surrounding communities became slim.20 One, however, should not take away the impression that all the New Englanders were there just to loot the place. There were some very serious men at work who thoughtfully and carefully and with great dexterity and industry did all to advance the goal of taking Louisbourg, believing as they did that it was a threat to their country and their families.21 Many men were to maim themselves as they hauled material to the lines and went about the business of erecting batteries. "These were pushed forward with a celerity which was possible only among a force made up of men, some with the dexterity of seafarers, others with that of woodsmen accustomed to handle mast timber from the stump in the forests of New Hampshire to its berth in the vessel."22

And, so we see, that by about May 20th, some twenty days after their landing that the New Englanders had the siege of Louisbourg well and truly underway. The invaders were in charge of the entire countryside. They had set up their cannon in two separate batteries but a short distance from the West Gate and were battering it away. At the same time they were making full use of the Royal Battery approximately a mile across the harbour water, north of the city; lobbing missiles directly into the city. All of this was having considerable effect and the French were busy throwing up additional breastwork atop their walls and repositioning their cannon. And, if we were there -- high on the walls -- we would see to the east in the direction of the ocean and out of firing range, Warren's men of war "cruising off and on before the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour."23

[NEXT: Pt. 4, Ch. 10 - Royal Naval Operations.]

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