A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia. TOC
Part 7,
The Second Siege of Louisbourg: 1758:
Ch.05 -- "The Storm (September, 1757)."

By August 20th, Holburne's fleet of 20 British war ships were stationed of the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour. Within, was de La Motte's fleet of 24, all safely at their moorings. The French admiral had seen it all during his long career and he was ever mindful of his duty to his king and country. The English admiral could cast all the challenges he would like into his teeth, de la Motte had no intention of abandoning Louisbourg. The challenge would typically come from the English "by firing a gun and hoisting the standard of England between the ensign staff and the mizzen shrouds. An English man imprisoned in the city, who watched this powerful British fleet in battle array off the harbour, says that M. du Bois de la Mothe, the commander of the French fleet, returned the challenge by hoisting the 'bloody flag' of France at the main top gallant masthead and firing one gun, but never stirred an anchor."1 August wore on and turned into September, and Holburne's gauntleting shots did not bring forth the French fleet.

Privateers, however, still slipped in and out of Louisbourg. They had much to gain, if but they could avoid the concentrated British fleet. An escape could be made good by these smaller fore and aft rigged vessels as against the lumbering square riggers, provided that they were close hauled and on the wind. So too, their captains and their fast moving crews knew the waters and had no fear to hang close to the shores, and, always making their way while shrouded by the black of the night or the white fogs of the day. During daylight, when the visibility was clear, they would hold up in a sheltered out of the way cove. Once far enough away from the English gun boats they would come up on English merchantmen; and then these French privateers, with their holds having been filled with English bounty, would make a stealthy run back into Louisbourg. We see that on Sunday, September 12th, at Louisbourg, a bell, taken off of an English ship by Captain La Croix, "commanding a privateer of this colony" is installed and baptized ("Georges-Angelique") at the parish church.2 No doubt, during this religious service, prayers were offered up for some heavenly aid to come their way, such as might smite the menacing British fleet which at this time were repeatedly swinging back and forth on the sea horizons off of Louisbourg. Their prayers were to be answered.

On Saturday morning, September 24th, 1757, over the eastern horizon, where sea meets sky, the sun likely came up in its usual way off the coast of Nova Scotia, in a brilliant fashion with beautiful hues of red and yellow being softly reflected amongst the gathering clouds. By that evening, the sky had a dark foreboding look to it: the air was still and the British fleet hung limply on the shiny surface of the sea, it was still and the seabirds were heading inland to find temporary roosts. The seasoned sailors of these waters knew what was about to unfold.

We have a witness who was then at Louisbourg, Chevalier de Johnstone:

"It began about twelve at night, and continued with the same force until twelve next day at noon. The evening before being fair, clear and calm, the English fleet was in it usual station near the entry of the harbour, and everybody imagined it impossible for them to get clear of the land and avoid being dashed against the rocks. The next morning we expected to see the coast all covered with wrecks. The inhabitants of the Country brought us each moment news of the dismal state of the English fleet. All their ships were shattered and dispersed; five of them were seen together driving before the wind towards Newfoundland without masts. Several others were in the same Conditions. A fifty-gun ship was lost at the distance of four leagues from Louisbourg; but the crew being saved, a detachment was immediately sent to them to prevent their being butchered by the Indians."3
Vice-admiral Holburne, while still at sea, was to write his report to the admiralty:

"I have now the inexpressible mortification to acquaint their Lordships, that on the 24th being ten leagues south of Louisbourg, towards the evening of that day it began to blow very hard at east, and had the wind continued in that quarter we could have done well, as there was room enough for the ships to drive, but veering room to the southward it blew a perfect Hurricane, and drove us right on shore, the wind continued violent till near eleven next day, when providentially and happily for us, it came round to the westward of the south, we had but just room to wear the ship clear of breakers, and saw several ships at an anchor with most of their masts gone, without having it in our power to give them the least assistance in their great distress; and the wind continued to blow on the shore but one hour longer every ship of the squadron must unavoidably been lost."4

I shall not go into the tedious business here of listing all of the damages to the fleet. However, there is the damages to the Eagle which I believe might have been typical and which were described in a report despatched by her captain, Hugh Palliser.5 It is, in itself, a fine description of what happens at sea when a ship is caught in a storm off a lee shore, and which, I am sure, represents the experiences of all of those who were aboard the English ships that were caught out on that terrible night in September off the coast of Cape Breton. Here is what Captain Palliser had to write:
"Sunday, September 25th, 1757:
2 am:
Laying under the Reef'd Foresail and Reef'd and balanced Mizen, the wind blowing very hard at ESE the ship made a great deal of Water, at 5 finding the Water of gain upon us, endeavoured to bear up, but She became water logg'd and laid on her Beam ends, which obliged us to cutt away the Main mast and Mizon mast and to throw overboard Ten of the Lee upper Deck Guns and Five 6 Pounders, by which She righted a little, and this I believe saved her from sinking having then Ten feet Water in her; kept Pumping and Baling and kept her away a little, but durst not put before it knowing we were very near a Lee Shore, at having reduced the Water to about 7 feet, One of the Pump-Chains broke, and the Tiller broke in the Rudder head, got the Iron Tiller Shipped, at 10 cutt the Fore Topmast away in order to save the Foremast, the Foresail blew all to pieces, at about 11 the Wind shifted to WSW, and half an hour after it cleared up a little, saw the Breakers under our Lee distant about 2 Miles, fortunately the Foremast being standing we got her wore, and her head off shore, with a Shedding Sail hoisted to the Foremast head, we kept her SSE all Night, the Wind being then at West. Continued pumping and baling and by Monday at 8PM got her free, but she continued to have a great List to Starboard occasioned by things in the Hold and between Decks, being wash'd over to that side, found the Foremast very much sprung in Two places the Magazine having been quite full of Water, found all the Parrapets, Lockers, etc. brokedown, and every cask was Stove and all the Powder wash'd away, so that we had none left but a few Cartridges in the after Magazine; found all the dry Provisions stowed the Starboard side wet and spoiled, also a good deal of Bread, several of the Orlop Beams and Carlins worked down, the Ship strained very much Fore and Aft, ...
... I have considered the State of the Ship which is unfit for any service, therefore presuming her joining you in this shattered condition can be of no consequence to the service and in this Condition I think her by no means fit to Venture upon a dangerous and strange Coast to look for a Port where if I should arrive Safe and by Chance find you, no such repairs & Supply's can be had as the ship wants; I conclude endeavouring to get to either place will be Attended with more danger than proceeding directly for England as the bad Season is set in."
This event in September of 1757, the British fleet being racked by a North Atlantic storm, gave an opportunity which the French navy failed to cash in on. The opportunity that presented itself may not have even been recognized by the French, but the English were ever so thankful that Admiral de la Motte did not run down Holburne's weather beaten and separated fleet. Holburne, it is seen, was much concerned for his fleet and also very much concerned for Halifax thinking it likely that the French navy would swoop down upon them. One of the reasons he assigned his damaged and "leewardly" ships to the care of Hardy was so that he could make it to Halifax as fast as possible. "I thought it might be of great importance to carry the serviceable ships for the protection of that place, should the enemy have designs against it, and should all their ships remain unhurt by the late storm. I thought it not unlikely that the damages that was ours as sustained on their coast might encourage them to some attempt, at least I thought it become me to be very watchful of them in this respect."7 De la Motte's fleet rode out the storm in the comparative safety of Louisbourg Harbour, and while not unscathed by the storm8, the fleet was in far better shape than that of the British fleet which had taken the full brunt of the storm off the coast; if it, the French fleet, had been at the ready to begin with, before the storm, and the officers and crews disciplined enough, most of it could have been mustered and put to sea, and made to hunt the shattered British ships one by one, scattered as they were from Louisbourg to Halifax.9 But No! De la Motte stayed in harbour and let the English fleet escape only to regroup over the winter and come back at them again the following year. Maybe it was too much to ask of de la Motte and his crews. As mentioned, they too had been storm tossed and apparently they had been suffering from a lot of sickness in the ranks; but still, in all, they had to be a lot better off than the British were and ought to have put the best of their fleet to sea to do the work for which they were built.10

The hurricane was to leave Holburne's fleet in a very shattered condition11; and, the fact that he got most of it, eventually, back to port, was, on his part and on the part of his captains and their crews, a highly creditable piece of seamanship. It would have been just as simple to run for England with his fleet, as to go for Halifax. There were no facilities at Halifax to re-rig these huge sailing machines.12 Holburne was to write, "we could not fit them much better at Halifax than at sea, having ... neither sails nor rigging there."13 No matter, he brought the best part of his fleet to Halifax.14 It is "only the security of that place that makes me prefer returning to it rather than to take advantage of the wind and go directly to Newfoundland."15 Within a day or two of the storm, much of his scattered fleet having come together again, still at sea, Holburne arranged for his captains to join him in his state room aboard his flagship, the 80 gun Newark. After discussion, it was resolved to send the disabled ships, those that found or had been found by the main fleet, viz., Invincible, Captain, and Sunderland, directly back to England. They were to be under the escort of the Windsor since she had had all of her masts standing. Accordingly, Holburne asked Sir Charles Hardy to hoist his flag aboard the Windsor and take these ships under his command and to proceed "to the first port he can reach in England."16

After the storm, nine of Holburne's fleet, which still had masts standing, came into Halifax; the others, with jury rigs in place, carried on, either straight to England or via Newfoundland. One of these proud warships, the 60 gun Tilbury, was lost off of Esprit and of the 400 men aboard only 280 were saved. Given all the circumstances, that there was only one of Holburne's fleet dashed against the hard shores of Cape Breton, was, indeed, a marvel.

Though, no doubt, all of Holburne's captains would like to have returned with their admiral to England for a winter's refreshment, certain of them were obliged to stay over at Halifax. Holburne's instructions17 were "to leave ships enough in America to cope with whatever part of the enemy's naval force might remain." In obedience to these orders, 8 ships18 were left to winter over at Halifax. Lord Alexander Colville, who had been the captain of the 68 gun Northumberland was made a Commodore and put in charge at Halifax. Admiral Holburne returned to England on November 14th in the Newark arriving on December 7th.

As for the French fleet: de la Motte, on October 30th, gave the signal to lift anchors and most all of his fleet cleared Louisbourg for Brest.19 The men of the fleet were very "sickly." Though Admiral Hawke tried to catch it in the channel, the French fleet arrived safely home on November 23rd.20 The hospitals at Brest were soon filled up with sick French sailors suffering from typhus.

Two years of a war that was to last for seven had now passed, and England had nothing much to show for it. On the continent, Minorca had fallen and the Duke of Cumberland with 50,000 men for the defense of Hanover had fallen back before a French army. In America, the results of the 1757 season, to put it mildly, were disappointing. Forts on the western borders of her colonies had been surrendered up to Montcalm. The expense of gathering her troops at Halifax was for naught and her fleet was storm damaged. At London, by year’s end, all the reports of these events were on the table; and, a man by the name of William Pitt was pouring over them. He had just won a political power struggle with the Duke of Newcastle. Pitt, this man of the people, who was phenomenally successful at the polls, had quietly and confidently advised "his betters" that he would quit if he could not lead England through the war, his way. What did Pitt want -- Pitt "demanded nothing less than the conduct of the entire correspondence of the admirals and commanders, the admiralty being left only its executive functions."21 What Pitt wanted, and what Pitt was to get, was full control of every naval expedition, such that it was he, Pitt, who would thereafter send, under his signature, all of the necessary instructions to the commanders of squadrons and to the generals, and to the ambassadors, and to the governors. So, too, he wanted and received the power to pick and chose the men who were to receive these instructions. The war operations, particularly in America, beginning with 1758, were in for some changes.

[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 6 - "The Setting & The Start (1758)."]

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