A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia. TOC
Part 7,
The Second Siege of Louisbourg: 1758:
TOC
Ch.03 -- "The Gathering at Halifax (1757)."

On July the 23rd, 1756, the Earl of Loudoun arrived in America.1 He had been appointed as the commander in chief of the English forces. He was an unfortunate choice -- "a man with excellent connections (a friend of Lord Halifax, the minister for the colonies), but not well qualified for this difficult and responsible post."2 Whatever Loudoun's qualifications, he apparently was not a diplomat, and a diplomat of the first order was what was required to bring the divergent colonies together in the common cause: to defeat the French in North America. The war was well and truly started by the time Loudoun stepped off at New York; but, being July, the season was too far advanced to mount an attack against a North American foe -- at least, that would seem to have been Loudoun's view.3 It seems, in 1756, Loudoun spent his time making plans, one of which was to concentrate his forces at Halifax with the object being to attack Louisbourg, however, Loudoun needed time and thought the thing would best be done, come 1757.

Thus it was, in 1757, that Halifax was inundated with thousands of men, some twelve thousand soldiers4 and maybe eight thousand sailors aboard the supporting naval vessels. The civilian population of Halifax, having had been founded just but eight short years earlier, was not large and amounted to only about 1,200 persons. Great sums of money had been spent on its establishment in 1749, one of the few cities ever to come into being by royal fiat. Civilians of the poor variety (no other variety being much interested) were subsidized and shipped over from both England and from Germany. It was however somewhat like pouring people into a large holed sieve: many of them after touching down at Halifax, being mightily inspired after having spent a winter or two there, carried on down to the English colonies to the south where the opportunities were greater and the weather milder.5 Akins deals with the point:

"Notwithstanding the advantages held out by Government to the settlers at Halifax, and the repeated large grants of money by Parliament, the people were rapidly removing to the old Colonies. Little progress had been made in clearing the country. The fishery, one of the main inducements of the settlement, was almost altogether neglected, and the population was reduced to much less than half its original number. They subsisted chiefly on the money expended on the Army and the Navy, and were dependent on Boston for their provisions and many other necessary supplies."6
Though Loudoun was to take his time about it, he had, at New York, by June of 1757, assembled a pretty impressive force. There were upwards to 9,400 soldiers organized in "six battalions": the 22nd, 44th, 48th and 42nd Regiments; the 2nd and 4th Battalions of Royal Americans. Just as impressive was the fleet of 87 transports, 2 hospital ships, a Horseship, 12 Victualers, and 3 Packets.7 The fleet was under the command of Sir Charles Hardy. It is doubtful that there was much in the way of an escort for this large fleet, maybe as many as six gun ships, one of which was the 50 gun Sutherland (350 men, Captain Edward Falkingham).8 It does not seem to me that this was sufficient protection for such a large vulnerable fleet. War had been declared and transporting men and material at sea was risky business. Indeed, fleets of French men-of-war had left France for America, and, might well have been expected to show up in the waters between New York and Halifax.9 In any event, this very large force floated up the coast in over 100 vessels and arrived at Halifax on June 30th, without incident.

Not long after Loudoun's arrival at Halifax, in came the fleet under Vice-admiral Holburne on July 9th, 1757. Five thousand two hundred soldiers had embarked at Cork, Ireland.10 They had departed May the 8th and the fleet consisted of 45 transports, 15 men-of war, two war sloops and two fire or bomb ships.11 John Knox was to set forth, in his ever so interesting fashion, details on certain of the social functions that occurred during the passage:

"The voyage we performed in seven weeks and five days, and, though we had a good deal of rough, blowing weather, with thick fogs to sour our passage, yet upon the whole we esteemed ourselves peculiarly fortunate; the duty of the chaplain was performed by an Officer, who read the service of the church every Sunday upon deck, when the weather permitted; and was very decently attended by the greatest part of the men and women on board: one circumstance, however, though it may appear trifling, I cannot omit on this occasion: The Master of our ship, who was a very sober moral man, always attended divine service with great decorum, and answered the responses with much devotion; but, if unfortunately (which was sometimes the case) the attention of the man at the helm was diverted from his duty, and consequently the ship yawed in the wind, or perhaps was taken a-back, our son of Neptune interrupted our prayers with some of the ordinary profane language of the common sailors, which, immediately following a response of the Litany, provoked some of our people to laugh, seemingly against their inclination; while others remained steady and attentive to their devotions, looking upon such uncouth interventions, though seasonable at the time, as the mere effects of custom, and I am persuaded they proceeded from no other motive."12
Holburne's instructions were "to hand over the troops he was carrying, and then to accompany the whole force of the commander-in-chief to Louisbourg in order to support the siege operations on land with the fleet."13 Within a day of their arrival, the troops were disembarked and were encamped with the battalions that had come up from New York with Loudoun "about a half mile from the town."14 The troops that came in from Ireland were at first quite happy with Halifax after having been at sea for 8 weeks. As Lieutenant Henry Pringle of the 27th was to report in a letter written to his brother, "the next morning, equal'd my idea of Paradise, yet upon a nearer acquaintance, I found this gay looking scene to be made up entirely of small pine trees, & stumps & stones." Lieutenant Pringle was to continue with his description of Halifax:
"The town, situated upon a strip, looked like a tolerable place at a distance from it -- the ground it stands upon, is of pretty large extent, & surrounded with close, strong picquets, by way of fortification. The streets are regularly laid out, long & wide; but broke up by streams of water ... There are some batteries of guns upon the quays that would annoy an enemy, if they would take the trouble of placing themselves properly for that purpose, as they could easily destroy the town, without giving the guns any trouble, for which reason a very expensive work is begun upon George's Island, to prevent an enemy's approach, which is no difficult task, as the harbour is too easy of access at all hours."15
At about the same time John Knox was to give forth, in the year of 1757, with his observations of Halifax:
"The town of Halifax is large: the streets (which are not paved) are tolerably regular, and of a good breadth; but their houses, upon a nearer view, are mean, and do not display any great knowledge of architecture, much less of taste, in those who erected them; which in general, together with a capacious church [St. Paul's which yet stands], are of wood, and covered with the same materials. Great allowances must nevertheless be made for a settlement still in its infancy, and the inhabitants, together with the troops, have had incredible difficulties to struggle with: one circumstance however is to be regretted, namely, that the settlers who are of different countries (as well as religions) have no great inducements to continue here, the country about it being entirely rude, and not worth cultivating: consequently as their chief prospects of gain, and dependence for support, are by the sale of ships, haberdashery wares, and liquors to the navy and army (which is a precarious trade) the inhabitants can at best be only reputed sojourners; for, as their profits upon these several articles are immense, so it is natural to suppose they will remove to some less inhospitable climate, where they may enjoy their wealth more to their satisfaction, or lay it out to good advantage in land and agriculture. Their batteries, citadel, and other fortifications are of timber, these being though sufficient to protect them against an Indian enemy; but the channel of the river is well defended by a respectable battery on the eastern shore, and by several others upon George's island; there is also a post at the head of this river, where there is a small picketed fort, called Fort Sackville, occupied by a party of regulars; this is about twelve miles from Halifax [current day Bedford]. They have here a great variety of excellent fish, the staple commodity of this country and its dependent islands: as for the other necessaries and conveniences of life, they must be indebted for them to New England, the other provides to the southward, and to the mother-country; but I must not omit that Chebucto or Halifax Harbour is one of the finest in the whole world, for depth of water, good anchorage and safety: they have a royal dock here, with all of the conveniences for the largest first-rate ship to heave down and careen; moreover, it very rarely happens, that this harbour is frozen up in the winter; for which several reasons, it is the rendezvous of all his Majesty's ships in America, and is frequently resorted to by others from the West-Indies, whenever they have occasion to undergo any repairs."16
While Knox and Pringle -- for which historians are most thankful -- found some spare time to write out their thoughts, they, together with all the newly arrived troops, hardly had too many extra moments, as, they were all kept very busy: "Nothing was neglected necessary for such an attack; large jointed boats [whatever they may be?] were made for the landing, & facines &c have been making every day."17 A fake fort was built and the troops were made to build trenches before it.18

In all of this, the weather was not too cooperative. Again, our contemporary witness, Captain Knox:

"Hitherto we had great variety of weather, with sudden transitions from heat to cold, high winds and heavy rains, with thunder and lightning, and almost perpetual fogs. The troops are employed in clearing and leveling their camp, which to some of the regiments is a work of much difficulty, for the rudeness of the ground, by reason of swamps and immense rocks, is beyond conception."19
Such numbers of men, fifteen thousand; and such activities, gathering siege materials and the conducting mock battles -- was to have, as one might imagine, a great effect on the new and small wilderness town of Halifax. The small permanent community was swamped as tents were spread on all available space within and around a town which had a civilian population but a tenth of the population of the descending soldiers. This was, understandably, to cause many problems. The permanent residents of Halifax determined to make the most of their situation. They became sutlers; and, anything a soldier should want could be had if he had the money. Captain Knox was to report:
"The prices we paid for the following articles of provisions were, beef and mutton six- pence per pound; veal from one shilling to one shilling and six-pence; fresh butter (scarce and very indifferent) sixteen-pence; milk four-pence per quart; a loaf of good soft bread (about three pounds and a half) one shilling; most kinds of fish, and particularly lobsters, in great plenty; but the demand for them was such as rendered them much dearer than might be expected."20
Liquor flowed as it seems it has always flowed, in Halifax. Drunken soldiers were a problem: to themselves, to their regimental commanders, and, too, to those citizens who were trying to keep some order in this military town. Steps were taken to curb the abuses. The "Council empowered the Provost Marshall and his deputies to enter such houses, seize the liquors and place them in the King's store until the army and the navy departed."21 That this order was made to prevent the men from going on a toot -- well, that could have been the case, likely, though, it was more of a case of the officers trying to protect their own special preserve. The officers, as was the custom, ran canteens and sold liquor to the men. At Halifax, spruce beer was the big commodity and thought to be a very good beverage for the men. Knox set out a recipe for it: "It is made of the tops and branches of the spruces-tree, boiled for three hours, then strained into casks, with a certain quantity of molasses; and, as soon as cold, it is fit for use." While encamped at Halifax the soldiers drank great quantities of spruce beer, "the allowance was two quarts per day to each man, or three gallons and an half week, for which he paid seven pence New York currency ..."22

So, at Halifax in the summer of 1757, there was to be thousands of military men.23 The English prime minister, Pitt, had wanted this force to proceed after a few days rest; but, Lord Loudoun -- so some thought -- proceeded upon his preparations with "traditional and pedantic accuracy."24 Loudoun determined -- and, I do not think unreasonably -- to exercise and instruct his army, which, by July the 9th, at Halifax, consisted of around 12,000 men.25 A fascine fort was erected on the north side of citadel hill, and the proposed siege of Louisbourg was rehearsed "with great firing, in the presence of a multitude of spectators." His Lordship also laid out a large vegetable garden for the benefit of the sick or wounded likely to be sent to the base during the siege.26 On July 31st, three weeks after Holburne's arrival -- a reasonable delay for the organization of such an amphibious expedition27 -- the army was prepared to embark.

Knox wrote that on August 2nd all the troops were embarked; each brigade having been assembled at their assigned wharf.28 Then on the 5th, just before the invasion fleet was to sail, into Halifax Harbour came a prize under escort. It was a French transport schooner captured off the fishing banks. She was making her way from Louisbourg to France. Directly the English man-of-war came up to her she struck her flag, pulled into the wind and dropped her sails. Just as the English vessel was coming up to her, it was observed, that she "pretended" to throw a packet overboard; but, upon searching her, a small bag was found in an unsuspected place, under a parcel of dry fish, which contained letters to the French ministry:

"acquainting them with the arrival of their fleet at Louisbourg, consisting of twenty-two ships of the line, besides frigates; and that, exclusive of a garrison of 3000 men, they have an army of 4000, intrenched up to their necks, with twenty-five pieces of cannon (of different dimensions) and three mortars, in order to oppose our descent; that their fleet and army are in great spirits, and provided with every thing necessary for a good defence."29
This might have been a ruse on the part of the French; but it gave Lord Loudoun great concern. This unexpected intelligence of such a naval and military force assembled at Louisbourg constituted a special emergency. Loudoun wrote Holburne a short note, the point of which was: "In view of intelligence received from Louisbourg is there any chance of success in its attempted reduction?" To which Holburne replied on the same day, "that the season is too far advanced, and the enemy too strong, for attempt to be successful." Thus it was resolved: "That, considering the great strength of the enemy, and the advanced season of the year, it was expedient to postpone the attack upon Louisbourg."30

Other than the three regiments which were taken off the loaded transports, the soldiers, I imagine, remained on board; and, on August 16th, they and Lord Loudoun headed to sea in order to return to New York.31 In addition to the three regiments, several of the vessels were left behind to winter over.32 Three regiments, incidently, equates to over 2,000 men; so, Halifax, while undoubtedly reeling from a very busy summer, was not quite returned to its status before the troops began to arrive earlier that year, in June. Not all of the soldiers, however, were to stay at Halifax, as the English garrisons at Fort Anne (Annapolis Royal), at Fort Edward (Windsor) and at Fort Cumberland (as Fort Beauséjour at the isthmus was to be renamed) were all strengthened.33 (See map.) No one knew exactly what the French plans were for the coming winter: and everyone knew the French made a specially of surprise winter attacks.


[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 4 - "Action at Sea, Off of Louisbourg (1755-1757)."]

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