Fortress Louisbourg, as a short study of the map will show, is tucked in behind a rocky peninsula. No shot launched beyond the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour could reach her. And at sea, in the beyond, back and forth, prowled Warren's deadly squadron. To get close enough, the ships would have to thread themselves through a narrow passage which would put them in point blank range of French cannon, 24 pounders, all strategically placed, so as to prevent the entrance of enemy vessels. It was not likely that Warren could sail his vessels through the passage abreast of one and other. Even if the wind was right, these were close quarters and there were huge rocks about, ready to rip open even the stoutest of wooden hulls. As it turned out, half of Louisbourg's mighty harbour defences were cut away by the French, themselves, when they determined to desert the Royal Battery at the very opening day of the siege. Thus, Warren would have little to worry about, if, he were to gain access to the inner harbour. What prevented this access, was, of course, the other half: the Island Battery. It had to be somehow captured and silenced, for, while it continued to be in French hands, any English ship that was to sail past would be pounded with punishing blasts of 31 cannon. For certain, the Island Battery, as a first objective, had to be taken; and, Warren understood this early in the game.
Within three days of the troops landing, on May 3rd, Commodore Warren wrote out his plan in consultation with his captains and submitted it to General Pepperrell for his review and that of his officers.1 The conclusion of the naval commanders was that "they can't advise going into the harbour with the ships, 'till the Island Battery is taken." This operation, to take the Island Battery, could not be one in which the navy could be directly involved, but they would give "all the assistance in our power upon all occasions." The military installation to be taken was an island, thus long boats were to be used, "belonging to his Majesty's ships and the private ships of war, manned and armed."
"Every seaman a musket, a pair of pistols, hand grenade, quick match and cutlass. Every marine, his musket, and bayonet. A box of spare musket and pistol cartridges in one of the boats of every ship, in proportion to the whole number of men sent by each particular ship; one or two days' provisions and a small keg of water in each boat, or in each longboat, one cask of water, the scaling-ladders in the whale boats; if in the night, lanterns, candles, tinderbox, steel, and a good knife in each man's pocket."Warren's plan continued in a suggestive manner:
"There should be two or three schooners with a surgeon on board of each to lie as near as possible to the battery ... to receive any men that may be wounded upon the attack, and his Majesty's ships and the country armed vessels should lie near as the weather will permit."The plan allowed that it might be possible that after the island was successfully taken by the English, that the French may launch a counter attack from the mainland, from Louisbourg itself; and, the English officers must be instantly ready in the event that should they see the French being successful in their counter attack, to spike the Island Battery cannons; and, to that end carry spikes with them. The back up to spiking the cannon was to lift and throw the cannon over the walls. It was further suggested that about an hour or two before the intended attack that the troops ashore should make an attack, and, "if not thought prudent effectually to do so," then to feign an attack against the town in several places in the hopes that the French will draw off some of their troops stationed at the Island Battery, if not, then to at least divert their attention. So too, Warren suggested that if he deemed conditions right that he just might, in all the confusion, run his ships through the passage. He gave specific instructions to his captains in the event that this contingency should materialize:
"If any of the ships should be in danger of sinking by the enemy's shot, they should in that case run, or haul ashore as near the Grand Battery as possible (not in the way of the Battery's fire upon the town, nor in the line of direction of any of its cannon) in order to save their guns, arms, ammunition and provisions. [See clickable map.]Warren continues:
In going in, all the small vessels that have no great guns, should keep off the starboard side of the ships of war, and run in to the North-east harbour and land every man on the side of the Royal Battery in order to go round to join the general and the troops."
The officer at the Grand battery should be directed to be very careful in firing at the enemy, that he does not hull any of our own ships that may lie between that battery and the town ..."Warren concludes his written plan emphasizing the importance of getting such a plan executed as soon as possible:
The season of the year advancing apace that the enemy may expect provisions and succours from France, makes it highly necessary that we should take some vigorous measures, for the sudden reduction of Louisbourg ..."2Thus we see the written plans of Warren, and, these were completed and delivered to Pepperrell by May 3rd, within three days of the colonials having landed on the beaches. On May the 7th, Warren went ashore in order to further his plan.3. After a Council of War, "A summons was sent into the town and an answer returned." Governor Duchambon's answer: the French in obedience to their king "would return no answer but from the mouth of their cannon.4 The next day, on the 8th, the navy attempted to get the promised help ashore; but the sea conditions were such that they could not accomplish their mission, indeed, the conditions were such that boats were overturned and provisions lost.5 The navy persisted and over the course of three days, from the 8th to the 10th, the needed material and men for the assault on the Island Battery was landed. All this activity did not go unnoticed by the French as they peeked and peered atop their walls in order to focus on these indistinct activities. Indeed, it was at this time that the French made one of their rare sallies, it seems, more to gather intelligence than to carry out any kind of a surprise attack.6 Within days of this sally, we see where Duchambon dispatched runners. As we have seen, there was a contingent of French troops that had come directly from Quebec and just at that time was putting Annapolis Royal under siege. On May 24th, the message had gotten through to the Marins: they and their fighting men were urgently needed at Louisbourg.
As we have seen from Warren's written plan to take the Island Battery, the Royal navy was prepared to give "all the assistance in our power upon all occasions." One of the contributions were to be small wooded boats, the kind that larger ships in normal times carried in considerable number; and, had been stacked up even in greater number in anticipation of the assault on Louisbourg, amphibious in part. So, there was no lack of boats; they were to be had; the difficulty was getting these small boats in place on the shores of the inner harbour without being brought under the guns of Louisbourg. Given the number of men that were eventually to be rowing about the inner harbour, at one point in time, I would guess that there had to be better than 50 of these small wooden boats singled out on the beach at Gabarus Bay and marked for "the carryover." I say small, -- and they were, comparatively speaking; but still they were heavy wooden boats that had to be carried, not hauled; carried over rough terrain along paths contemporaneously hewed through the bush and woods, away from the ever threatening French guns. The place to which they determined to carry these boats was some three to four miles away, to the Royal Battery, a place where the New Englanders had become accustomed to gather, in broad view of their ultimate objective, Louisbourg, its steepled skyline being south from there about a mile across the interior waters. (Map.) On the 10th of May, we see that the work of getting these smaller craft carried overland started and was to carry on to at least the 22nd, though not necessarily continuously.7 On the 23rd there were enough boats in place so that a concerted attack on the Island Battery might be attempted.8
In this part of the world it is not uncommon for winter to get in its last licks during the month of May. As a review of the ships' logs will show,9 the month of May at Louisbourg, in 1745, was one of those times when winter left the land protesting. On the 23rd of May we would have seen wet snow being driven by the cold winds up against the faces and knuckles of rowing men. About 800 of them under the cover of night had pushed off. A quarter of these men were seasoned sailors which Warren had sent to assist. This floating brigade was under the joint command of Colonel Arthur Noble and Colonel John Gorham. The weather (though generally throughout the siege very cooperative) was what brought this particular effort to an end. It was such that the men couldn't keep together10 and the state of the turbulent waters leading up to the Island Battery proved too much. They rowed about most of the night and with the dawning of the morning they could be found pulling for the place from which they started, the Royal Battery.11
The news soon spread out. The boys had a bad time of it: the Island Battery was still in the hands of the French. Warren was soon to hear. Likely he was in his cabin, the largest in the stern of the Superbe. "I have to get into that harbour, to do my job!" "We have to take the Island Battery." It was all that had been on the minds of Warren and his naval captains. "Was it not to be expected that reinforcements might arrive; from Quebec, or indeed, from France?" "Time is not on our side?" "Would it not be possible to do a front on attack and overwhelm the French that are nested on this island?" "Cannot these land officers get a rein on the colonial volunteers?" And, in turn, we might imagine the replies to these worrying complaints which were reported to Pepperrell, or to Waldo, or to Gorham. The navy needed to exercise some patience: the New Englanders were there: they would get this job done. "It was the weather, you see: the conditions need to be right."
A Ruinous Debacle
The dimming moon was on the wane, the night was black and a mixed group gathered at the Grand Battery; those gathered were determined, and, between sips on their flasks, had quite concluded that the right time had arrived. It was Sunday, the 26th of May; it was time to get the job done. About 400 had gathered and had volunteered on the enticement that they might have "any plunder and were permitted to choose their own leader."12 They were "noisy, disorderly, and some riotously tipsy."13 Each of these men had somebody that they liked to report to, but no one individual leader could seem to pull them all together.14 The leaders knew perfectly well the principal difficulty: leading men with democratic notions in a military operation.15 But there was little they could do at this stage and these eager New Englanders were all that were to be had, except for a number amused sailors which Warren could afford to send ashore.16
The Island Battery is an island, and, the only way to get there, of course, was by boat; mostly to be launched from the less turbulent waters of the inner harbour, within a mile of their objective. Thus the reason for taking such pains to get all these small boats transported overland. However, boats were to be launched from more than one place. Some from the Mermaid which came in just beyond gun range of the French Batteries. These would come in from the sea and would be stealthily rowed into the mouth of the harbour. Another place, which provided a relatively short row, would be from the shores of the lighthouse point. (Again, see map) Gorham's rangers, were to circle around the harbour overland, likely following the shoreline about three miles; and, as planned, this group would meet others paddling or rowing the landing boats north-easterly across the harbour from the Royal Battery directly across the harbour; and others coming from the Mermaid, north west. Many of the paddlers, in order to come to a conjunction, would have had to come by and be practically under the noses of the French manning the island guns. These paddlers or rowers had to do their work quietly; not only for their own safety, but in order to preserve the very important element of surprise. The entire force was to meet at a point on the north-eastern shore of the harbour, at the Lighthouse Point just across from the Island Battery, a mini-castle in which two hundred French soldiers and thirty-nine French cannon were entrenched. There was a small beach on the northern side of the Island Battery on which the colonials might make their landing.17
The boats bearing the 400 men were pushed off and propelled towards their objective as the oars twisted in their muffled locks. Most had to be looking anxiously towards their objective, the Island Battery, dimly outlined in the south; and, in behind, another mile or so, the night lights of Louisbourg; and, beyond that again, the diversionary blasts of the English batteries giving off flashes in the southern sky.18 There was little activity to be seen on the island. Closer and closer they came to the rocky shores of the island. It looked like they might get the first boats ashore before the French were to become aware of their presence and rush at the walls with their scaling ladders. And then, for what ever reason,19 just within a boat length or two of the shore: the French opened up with their deadly greetings.
The French behind the fortifications of the Island Battery came instantly alive and showered piercing lead down onto the men crowded together in packed boats about to land. Howls of French joy and shrieks of English agony went up into the black night all covered by the racket, smoke and smell of the exploding cannons and muskets. The raiding New Englanders who did get ashore, about two hundred ran for cover, a number ran to the foot of the walls to avoid the langrage shot from the swivels and the cannon atop the walls. Seth Pomeroy wrote of it in his journal:
"The French being prepared with their cannon pointed down to strike the boats just before they came ashore loaded with chain and partridge shot: a greatly number of men with small arms. As soon as our people came in sight: with all the fury and resolution possible they fired upon them and cut whole boat loads of them: but in spite of all their fire, four or five boat loads got on the island and engaged them for near an hour ..."20
As many New Englanders died that dark night as did die since their arrival; indeed, as many died of battle wounds within the interval of that bloody hour or two on the shore of that small island at the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour, as did during the entire period of the siege. There was no appreciation of the extent of their losses until morning. It was foggy. And there came drifting in from the direction of the Island Battery along the shores of the harbour lifeless junks of men: bodies; some headless, some armless, some legless.21 The count was sixty dead and the French had 116 new prisoners to deal with.22
On the 29th of May, at Louisbourg, the good spring weather had finally established itself. Things were greening up and the lady slippers and trilliums which abound thereabouts were showing themselves. A number of the provincial sailing vessels were slowly swinging on their anchors as the sun glittered the surface of Gabarus Bay. Readily to be seen would have been the Shirley, John Rouse's vessel, with her 24 guns picking up the sunlight. Some of her 150 men were aloft gathering in sail -- when, suddenly, a crack is heard and seven men fall and three are killed in a moment.23 Three more bodies are thus to be brought to the New England cemetery which has now been added to the countryside of Louisbourg. A cemetery, at which, on that day, May 29th, there were gathered hundreds of quiet and reflecting men; gathered to see more than 50 of their dead comrades committed to the freshly turned earth. A melancholy scene. For the first four weeks the English invaders were buoyant; they were in charge of the entire countryside; they had smelt success. On the 27th, Pepperrell, in surveying the rumbled remnants of the four hundred which had set out the night before, declared: "Now things looked something dark."24
There was a spell over the land as the boys from New England stood at that makeshift cemetery; there, on the 29th of May; there, to bury their dead. The spell of a breezeless and beautiful June day; in the back ground could be seen Warren's men-of-war with their small boats out in front towing their respective mother ships off shore.25 The men walked slowly back to their tents and their posts, giving off by their appearances the picture of sadness and depressed spirits; however, this picture could be seen to be gradually changing -- just as was the background scenery -- into a restlessness. See, there, a small breeze which just came up, zephyr like, to stir the trees; and there, in the near background, the anchored sail boats now beginning to give a gentle tuck at their rodes; and there, in the far background, the billowy white banks of fog ominously crawling along the horizon. When -- Blam! Bang! -- Blam! Bang! The New England Batteries came to life to spit out their revenge on the gates and walls of Louisbourg.
[NEXT: Pt. 4, Ch. 12 - The Bombardment.]