A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.TOC
Part 4, "First Siege of Louisbourg (1745)"TOC
Chapter. 10, "Royal Naval Operations."

We have seen where Warren left Antigua on March 13th in his flag ship, Superbe, a large man-of-war (60 guns) in company with the Mermaid (40 guns) and the Launceston (40 guns). They were to arrive off Canso on April 23rd. Just at that time they were joined by a fourth, Eltham (44 guns) which had come up from Boston.1 They did not spend any time at Canso but were to proceed, all four, a further way up the coast so as to blockade Louisbourg. (See map 1 and map 2.)

The French, in choosing a location on the northeast coast of North America for their new stronghold, certainly chose right. Louisbourg has an inner harbour, access to which can be denied to any sailing vessel, armed or otherwise. This was to be accomplished by placing cannon-fortresses at key positions found within this rock ensconced harbour. One should consider the harbour and the locations of the Royal Battery and the Island Battery. Once the French had fortified the place, during the 1730s, to sail into Louisbourg Harbour was to sail into the mouths of well bunkered cannon. The French military engineers, some would argue the best of the age, in the building of the defences at Louisbourg, had indeed taken full advantage of the coastal configurations of the place. While naval cannon could, soon enough, bring her occupants to their knees, its impenetrable harbour kept Louisbourg out of reach, as, naval ships would be ripped apart upon their entry. Warren's job, therefore, as he would have known, was to shut the place up by maintaining a blockade, he never had any reasonable expectation of getting into the harbour to use his naval cannon on the walls of Louisbourg.2

So, initially we see Warren with four British men-of-war standing off the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour.3 With such a number to be effective they would have to keep sailing and stand in fairly close to the shores surrounding the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour; so close, that on occasion the French gunners were tempted to get in a shot at them.4 Rarely did these vessels go into Gabarus Bay, the handiest anchorage outside of Louisbourg Harbour. They would constantly have been sailing back and forth, no matter the weather5 or sea condition; for a blockade was only effective if they were to keep it up. If a sail showed up on the horizon, in concert with the other blockading vessels, and ever mindful of keeping a continual cover on the mouth of the harbour, they would chase it down. This business would require the involvement of all available vessels; yet, we see where on May the seventh, or thereabouts, the Eltham was detached and sent over the top end of Cape Breton Island (See map, from #15 to #17) to get at the settlement at St. Ann's (Port Dauphin), there "to burn and destroy what they could of the enemy."6 Because of the limited number in Warren's fleet, and, because, it was not entirely devoted to the blockade, Warren, while achieving considerable success, did not shut down Louisbourg's harbour entirely. We see, that on May 13th, "A French snow from Bordeaux got in ..."7 Warren wrote of this:

"Sir,
I have received yours, and am extremely sorry to hear a snow is got in, when there are now out two men of war and eight colony cruisers, most of them to the eastward. As
Mr Noble says many more may get in, I should have gone to sea before I received yours if it had been possible. I always thought the grand battery could have prevented a snow from getting in. I advised an English flag on the lighthouse, and am sure it would have a good effect, for, as I have often told you, if all the cruisers in Britain were here, vessels may escape them. I shall sail the moment I can with the Launceston, who has fitted her main yard that was broken." 8
Warren Takes the Vigilant
The role of
Warren's fleet at Louisbourg, therefore, was to lock up Louisbourg's harbour. Its job, in this regard, was to be made easier and indeed the role was to change with the addition of more men-of-war. New arrivals, and a capture, as we shall see, were to eventually put eleven British war ships off Louisbourg though not all of them were in place until the first of June. These very impressive men-of-war carried near as many men as were on shore: "3,585 officers, seamen, and marines." And, much more in the way of firepower: 554 naval cannon.9

France had not entirely forgotten Louisbourg, she knew that Canada's sentinel would require war provisions and to this end had dispatched the 64 gun, man-of-war, Vigilant, under the command of Alexandre Boisdescourt, Marquis de La Maisonfort.10 She was to fall into Warren's snare. On May 19th (o.s.) she had a following wind which would have breezed her directly into the mouth of Louisbourg harbour.11 However, as Maisonfort closed on Louisbourg he spied the Mermaid; it must have appeared to Maisonfort that she was sailing alone.12 Slipping his spyglass into its case, the keen French naval officer made a bad decision -- in spite of his orders that his primary objective was to get supplies into Louisbourg -- he sailed down wind handy the shore and pass the mouth of the harbour with a view to coming up to the British man-of war, the 40 gun, Mermaid.13 A New York newspaper gave a contemporary account of the engagement:

That on the 18th ult. the Mermaid, Capt. Douglas, a 40 gun ship, and the Shirley-Galley, Capt. Rouse, one of our cruizers, fell in with a French Man of War, and engaged her, the former broadside and broadside; and the latter being too small to lay along-side, and going well, annoyed her astern, or ahead, or on the quarter, as he could best; and as she proved a ship of force, they knowing how the Commodore got along side near enough to engage, when after 2 or 3 broadsides, she struck and asked for quarters, and was the next day secured; she is called the Vigilant, a new ship never at sea before, of 64 guns, and 560 men, and was commanded by the Marquis du Maisonfort ..."14
Seth Pomeroy, witnessing the event from the shore observed that the battle, "yard arm to yard arm," took place over a period of two hours. "The Suberbe, the Mermaid, Eltham, Massachusetts Frigate and Shirley Galley were all in the engagement and at the taking of her ..."15 At such odds, it is a wonder that the Vigilant fought on for better than two hours. Pomeroy reported that the British lost four men and the French, 30 and many more wounded.16

As for the Vigilant: She was towed, with much panache, along the coast in front of the Frenchmen in the fort, so to taunt them, and then into Gabarus Bay and put at anchor.17 The French sailors were taken off as prisoners18 and numbers of English sailors were put aboard.19 These sailors were first "employed about rigging and clearing the gun deck" and "fitting rigging." This work was to be carried out on the Vigilant over the next two weeks and by June the 4th she was sailing in company with her sisters as a commissioned English man-of-war; giving additional strength to Warren's fleet off Louisbourg. On the quarterdeck of this impressive 64 gun man-of-war sailing vessel one would have seen Captain James Douglas, formally in command of the 40 gun Mermaid; the Vigilant was given to Douglas by Warren, as he was the one who "led her to me."20

The Vigilant was a handsome dividend21 and all of those comprising of Warren's squadron must have been indeed very pleased with themselves; but the capture of the Vigilant, as valuable as she was in British hands, paid a larger dividend, viz., the eventual delivery of Louisbourg. Had the Vigilant gotten in it's doubtful whether Louisbourg would have been taken that season.22 And, so, like manna from heaven, valuable military stores fell into the hands of the English. The most valuable and most needed of the supplies aboard the Vigilant was that of the gun powder: one thousand barrels of it. As well, taken off of her and added to the British stores, were twenty bronze cannons, these, together with the other captured provisions, if they had been delivered, might will have extended Louisbourg's French life for a further four months after which time the invaders, in the face of winter, would have had to retire from the field. The capture of the Vigilant also denied the Louisbourg garrison the reinforcement of three hundred soldiers which were aboard the Vigilant.23

Warren gets Reinforcement
The capture of the Vigilant was accomplished through a coordinated effort of the fleet under Warren's command which, at the time of her capture, May the 20th, only amounted to four men-of-war. Just within a couple of days of the capture, over the southern horizon, came three more vessels: the Princess Mary, the Hector and the Bien Aime; all having come up from Nantasket (Boston), presumably due to Warren's general order (see
fn#1) to report to him at Louisbourg. The first two24 were to fit themselves in with the four that had been there since the first: the Superb, the Mermaid, the Launceston, and the Eltham. Thus, by the 24th of May, there were six of these magnificent wind driven battleships blockading Louisbourg: seven when one counts in the Vigilant. These seven were to be joined by four more direct from England which reported to Warren on the 12th of June: the Chester, the Sunderland, the Canterbury, and the Lark.25

So it was, on June 12th, 1745, Commodore Peter Warren "commanded the largest British squadron in North American waters since 1711": Eleven men-of-war, including the captured Vigilant.26 With such forces at his command, Warren was chafing at the bit. All that was necessary was to get close enough to Louisbourg so as to employ his more than 500 naval cannon. But that could come about, only if he could make his way into Louisbourg Harbour; and for that, his fleet would have to sail by in close range to the Island Battery, and, in so doing, suffer from the point blank punishment meted out by crack French crews who were manning well fortified and stationary gun emplacements; and who, were at the ready.


[NEXT: Pt. 4, Ch. 11 - The Island Battery.]

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