During the years immediately leading up to the siege of Louisbourg in 1758, there were great numbers of English and French war ships in Nova Scotian waters; like no other time since the years 1745 and 1746. (It will be recalled that it was in 1745 that Warren's fleet was at Louisbourg; 1746 was the year that the Duc d'Anville's fleet was sent by the French to take revenge.) Depleted treasuries, especially that of France, drove the parties to the tables at Aix-la-Chapelle. It was there that a treaty was signed in the fall of 1748, and, The War of the Austrian Succession was brought to an end. Unresolved issues, however, continued to seethe such that the parties in 1756 went at it again and a new war began. This war has been labeled by historians as the Seven Years War. Its outcome was to have a profound effect on the future geo-political makeup of North America.
A brief observation concerning the relative naval strengths of France and England at this point would be in order. From 1714 to 1752 the number of English war ships advanced from 247 to 291, 44 ships, net, having been added in 38 years; while, for England, from 1752 to 1760, the numbers increased from 291 to 412, an addition of 121 in 8 years. Von Ruville sets out a table showing the disposition of the English fleet during the year 1756. Thirty-two ships of the line (out of 125) and 22 lesser types (out of 79) were to be found in the waters of the West Indies and North America. In comparison: the French fleet, which, at the beginning of the century during the reign of Louis XIV, was the equal of England's, had been allowed to slip, such that, in 1747, the number of French ships of the line had sunk to just, but 31. It should be noted, too, that there was at this time no facilities in North America, either for the English or the French, such that it was possible to leave any of these large ocean going sailing vessels at their stations during the winter.1
In 1755, France and England were to send sizeable fleets to North America. At the first of the year, the English cabinet authorized the sending of a naval squadron to America with instructions, notwithstanding that the countries had yet to declare war, to "fall upon any French ships of war that shall be attempting to land troops in Nova Scotia or to go to Cape Breton or through the St. Lawrence to Quebec."2 The intelligence was that the French were going to build up their military presence in America. The aim was to catch the French fleet in a net of British war ships. Admiral Boscawen was put in charge of two fleets, his and another under Admiral Holburne. The combined fleets amounted to 21 war vessels which cruised between Halifax and the southern coast of Newfoundland. In June, four French naval ships3 were to fall into the net, an event which I have already dealt with, "The Taking of the Alcide and the Lys."
Boscawen was to spend a lot of time in Halifax during the summer and fall of 1755, indeed, he was consulted by Governor Lawrence when the decision was being considered to deport the Acadians. His naval ships were back and forth, and, were to bring into Halifax a number of French prizes for condemnation and sale. It would seem that the larger part of his fleet was to continue to cruise Nova Scotian waters until late in the fall, when they set sail for England, with pickled Acadian beef in their holds which Joshua Maugher had rustled up from the vacated Acadian farms. Boscawen was to leave behind at Halifax four warships and two sloops, despite the lack of a careening wharf.4 The following spring the six vessels at Halifax, having been made ready for another season, were joined by two more which came over with a new commander, Commodore Holmes; in 1756, presumably, Boscawen was off to other waters.
C. Ochiltree Macdonald, in his splendid little book, The Last Siege of Louisbourg, was to describe the only engagement that was to place in Nova Scotia during 1756:
"... in July an indecisive battle was fought off the port [Louisbourg] between the ships sent out of Halifax to destroy them [privateers] and M. Beausier's squadron [of French warships]. While returning from Quebec to Louisbourg, on July 26th, M. Beausier sighted the British three leagues southward of Louisbourg, and bore down on them before a northerly gale. But they tacked in order to stand off and, fearing to fall to leeward of Louisbourg, into which he was carrying provisions, Beausier went into the harbour to land them, and started in quest of the English at 5 o'clock next morning, with the Héros, 74; Illustre, 64; the frigate Syrene, 36; and a 36-gun frigate. Sighting the Grafton and Nottingham, 70 guns, and a Jamaica sloop, about noon, he crowded all sail to come up with them, and the Syrene briskly attacked the sloop; but the Grafton and Nottingham beat her off. M. Beausier bore up to her support under press of canvas, and opened fire upon the Grafton, leaving the Nottingham, which lay upon his quarter, to the Illustre; but a calm coming on at that moment, the Illustre could not support him, and the Héros lay exposed to the guns of the Grafton and Nottingham until the Illustre came to her assistance at 7 o'clock in the evening, before a rising gale. The dusk falling upon the sea terminated the combat, and the French bore off the Héros to Louisbourg, where she arrived next morning, with two hundred shot in her hull and masts, others between wind and water, 18 of her crew killed and 48 wounded, the tattered flag of France still flying triumphantly at her mast head."5The killing of soldiers is but an unfortunate outcome in a tactical manoeuver, an expedient; it is not the object of war. The essential object of war is to beggar the enemy, to bring the people of the other country to a point of despair such that their leaders are obliged to sue for peace. The first thing to do is to get a choke-hold on the other. Cutting the supply lines of the other country better serves the strategy of war. In the days we write of, indeed throughout history, the capturing or sinking of supply ships becomes a major activity during times of war. With war having broken out in 1756, both sides wanted to get as many armed vessels put to sea as they could, so to prey on the merchant vessels of the other country. The quickest way to do this was to engage private vessels; of these, there were quite a number at Louisbourg. A bounty system would turn them out. In addition to allowing the privateer to keep any captured cargo (with a tenth to go to the crown), the French king declared he would pay: 100 livres for each gun taken off a merchantman (easy pickings), 150 for each off an English privateer and 200 for each taken off an English man of war. Similar arrangements were made for men taken off English vessels: 30 livres for any man taken off a merchantman or a privateer and 50 livres per head for every prisoner taken out of a man-of-war. In addition, "privateers shall be exempt from all taxes or duties whatsoever on provisions, artillery, ammunition, and all other necessaries for their construction, victualing, and armament." In addition, "The officers and sailors on board privateers, that shall be wounded and disabled, shall receive the sea half-pay, and pensions shall be allowed to the widows of those that shall be killed."6 It should therefore cause little wonder to see that great numbers of French privateers had set out from Louisbourg. Such numbers, indeed, that the English authorities were prompted during the winter of 1756/57 to work up plans for a spring offensive aimed at Louisbourg. The objective was to destroy Louisbourg: this French threat at the backs of the English colonies in North America: this nest for French privateers: this haven for French warships.
At London, "the Great Commoner," William Pitt had come to the head of the English government. Plans were immediately formulated for "the reduction of Louisbourg in the early part of the season, to be followed by an attack on Quebec."7 On June 30, 1757, as we have seen, Lord Loudoun, who had been appointed the British Commander-in-Chief the year before, arrived at Halifax from New York "with a body of 6300 men and abundant siege material." He expected to rendezvous with a second British force which was coming from England, via Cork, directly to Halifax. Admiral Holburne with his fleet, having been nine weeks at sea and running late, did not come into Halifax Harbour until July 9th. Holburne's transports bore as many soldiers as had Loudoun brought up with him from New York. Thus, in the summer of 1757, at Halifax, there was to be 12,000 army men; and 8,000 royal navy sailors, there and nearby, afloat. Though it was intended that the combined force should get immediately underway and land at Louisbourg, Loudoun delayed matters. The troops needed to be exercised, especially those that had just come in from a long sea voyage; and so he encamped them at Halifax and worked them up to the business of siege work. In the meantime, Loudoun was to get some very unsettling reports about their intended target. A fleet of 24 French war ships had settled in at Louisbourg; and, this French fortress, its defensible reputation having had achieved mythical levels, had been considerably strengthened with men and supplies. Now long into the month of August, Lord Loudoun called the attack off. On August 16th, Loudoun with all but 2,000 of his troops returned to New York. (For more of Lord Loudoun at Halifax in 1757, see "The Gathering at Halifax.")
Vice-admiral Holburne, in 1757, had made a long trip over the Atlantic and had at his command 16 ships of the line.8 His instructions had been "to hand over the troops he was carrying [aboard the 45 transports which were in company], 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." On August 16th, he knew that the attack on Louisbourg was not to happen. It was early yet. So he determined to go on a little reconnoitering cruise which he did proceeding north, up the coast.9 Thus, by September of 1757, we would have seen English Men-o-war dancing off the mouth of Louisbourg daring the French fleet to come out and do battle. So close they were that the big guns on the Louisbourg walls would take shots at these large fluttering targets. The French navy men, their large fleet safely ensconced within the confines of Louisbourg Harbour, however, did not take the bait: they did not come out. De la Motte, as McLennan points out, was most impressed with the instructions which he had received from his superiors, viz., "he must secure Louisbourg from attack. The men from his ships, together with the garrison, occupied themselves in throwing up earthworks and in fortifying every cove, both to the east and west of Louisbourg, where a landing might be effected, and in keeping in them a sufficient garrison to resist a first attack."10
Overall, the forces at Louisbourg were indeed formidable. And this was not an independent circumstance, as the French at Versailles had been tipped-off.11 The military strength at Louisbourg in 1757 consisted of 24 French Men-of-war12 and 7,000 regular troops. The French naval fleet was under Dubois de la Motte who, we saw earlier, was in Nova Scotian waters in 1755, when he was in charge of a fleet of 43 sail. He had been dispatched with both provisions and men for the French strongholds at Louisbourg and at Quebec. At that time, 1755, France and England were not at war; this time, 1757, they were. In addition to de la Motte, there was at Louisbourg in 1757 two other notable French naval officers: Joseph de Beauffremont (d.1781) and M. du Revest. In fact, there was three different French squadrons, two from Brest and one from Toulon (du Revest). They all had come out of the French ports and sailed across the Atlantic, undetected, or, at least, unmolested by the British.
[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 5 - "The Storm (September, 1757)."]