A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia. TOC
Part 7,
The Second Siege of Louisbourg: 1758:
Ch.06 -- "The Setting & The Start."

"The religious convulsions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were over, and the earthquake of the French Revolution had not begun. At the middle of the eighteenth century the history of Europe turned on the balance of power... bargains, intrigue, force, diplomacy, and the musket, in the interest not of peoples but of rulers."1
The last war between England and France, the War of the Austrian Succession, having begun in 1744 had ended in October of 1748 when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed. The war resolved nothing; it ended because the parties, particularly France, was financially exhausted. The next war, the Seven Years War was officially declared by the two countries in 1756. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was, the historians consider, misnamed; it ought to have been called the Truce of Aix-la-Chapelle. The years between 1748 and 1756 was but a suspension of hostilities, the parties continued to quarrel with one another. In America, because of territorial claims, by 1755, these quarrels had erupted into fighting. In July of 1754, beyond the main ridge of the Alleghenies, at a spot known to history as the Great Meadows, an English scouting group headed up by a young Virginian by the name of George Washington was to get itself involved in a shootout between it and a French military detachment which was then roaming the same territory. Though Washington and his forces put up a brave fight, they were decisively thrown out of the land which the French claimed for themselves. The following year, in 1755, notwithstanding that the two countries were officially at peace, the English determined to attack the French at four points at once: Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh), Fort Niagara, Crown Point and Fort Beauséjour. With the exception of Fort Beauséjour, the French withstood these attacks; and, indeed, particularly because of the events on the road to Fort Duquesne, were to chalk up 1755 as a victorious year for the French in America.

The main contest, however, was expected to be in Europe, which, of course, in those days, was the centre of all things. On January 16th, 1756, the Westminster Convention was signed which bound Austria and England in a common defence against Prussia and France.2 In America there was to be a significant build up of both sides. The Marquis de Montcalm was appointed the French commander, arriving at Quebec in May. A month after that, in June of 1756, England and France were declaring war on one another; the precipitating event being France's successful attack on the English garrison located on the Island of Minorca in the Mediterranean. In July of 1756, a new commander in chief for America, the Earl of Loudoun, arrived at New York. In 1756, an English squadron was dispatched to blockade Louisbourg. Further, in 1756, while Lord Loudoun fiddled, Montcalm took Fort Henry.

In the year 1757, Lord Loudoun was to attack and take Louisbourg. At considerable expense a great fleet and upwards of 12,000 men were gathered together at Halifax. Receiving disquieting intelligence about the strength of the French at Louisbourg, Loudoun called off the attack and returned to New York without making any attempt. The English fleet under Admiral Holburne consisting of 20 men-of-war, though they were sent to assist Loudoun in his assault, was then left to see what they could do to tease the French fleet of 23 out of Louisbourg, so as to engage them in battle. There was to be no engagement, indeed, nature was to do what the French wished they might have done: "a perfect hurricane" came up and caused massive damages to the English fleet which returned to their ports in a "shattered condition."

We left off in our last chapter, by observing, that with the close of 1757, two war seasons had passed, and, England had nothing much to show for it. England had suffered setbacks in India and Flanders. In America: Louisbourg was found to be impregnable and Montcalm continued to be successful in his operations and was banging on the back door of New England (Fort Henry was lost at Lake George and a dreadful massacre had taken place during the English retreat). To this is added Holburne's losses which his fleet had suffered at sea. Things were bleak and the English people were feeling the full effects of all these losses; and English spirits had sunk mightily. There then came forward William Pitt; and to the House he proclaimed: "My lords, I am sure I can save this country and nobody else can."3

Pitt was given the conduct of the war. His policy: he would leave the European theatre almost exclusively to their ally, Prussia which was under its heroic king, Frederick the Great; and, while not sending many men, would send considerable British supplies and money. This would allow, then, Pitt to focus his attentions on America. Generally, Pitt was to put the bad experiences of 1757 down to the generals and commanders having too much discretion in the field. What was needed to conduct this global war was a central authority. This was to be Pitt, he determined to direct and coordinate all military efforts. The first order of business was to recall Loudoun, whose incompetence, as far as Pitt was concerned, was fully displayed by the results of the previous year. What Pitt concluded was needed, was to exclude "leaders of the old school" and to employ "young and capable men, from whom he could expect both strict obedience and greater energy." The trick was to get new commanders in place, to start early, and to get the full cooperation of the colonies.

"As commander of the fleet he appointed his friend, Admiral Boscawen, a personal relative, who had previously done good service in India, America, and elsewhere; the land army was placed under Colonel Jeffrey Amherst, an energetic but prudent commander, distinguished for obstinate tenacity, who was not likely to agree to the premature abandonment of any enterprise. He was promoted to the rank of major-general. With him was associated, as a kind of counterpoise to his prudence, the impetuous Colonel James Wolfe, who had represented the aggressive policy in the Rochefort expedition, and had vainly attempted to persuade his superiors to adopt his plan. His precipitate daring disinclined Pitt to trust him with the supreme command, but in a subordinate position he might contribute largely to success."4
Fifteen thousand men, ten thousand of which were regulars, were to be employed in the 1758 expedition against Louisbourg. While most were already in America,5 still it was to be a massive undertaking to get the troops refitted, assembled and transported to the theatre of operations. We are amazed at the complexity of military operations in the current day of instant communication and where troops can be landed at a front within days of leaving home base even though a half a world away: in the mid-18th century all things including hand written instructions had to be moved physically by slow transport. Problems were particularly acute because of the remoteness of Louisbourg. This remoteness, however, was to be a recognizable disadvantage to both combatants. Because the attacking English could not depend on supply lines they would have to bring just about everything with them, this meant somewhere handy there would have to be a staging area: this was to be the recently establish capital of Halifax; and, it was there, at Halifax, that there was to be a great gathering of ships, men and war supplies. While the element of surprise was to be important to the English, as it is to all attackers, such a gathering could not help but be noticed and the news of it would be brought by any one of numerous trading vessels that came to Louisbourg. This disadvantage, viz., the remoteness of Louisbourg, also worked against the French defenders, as, supply ships could not usually be expected to get through northern waters, British blockade or no, until late spring. The plan for the attacking British was to attack Louisbourg early, before the French supply ships could get in from Quebec or France; and to attack it hard, so that the object, its capitulation, would be achieved before the season advanced too much, so as to allow, if at all possible, to get the troops, so expensive to assemble and transport, before the walls of Quebec within the same season; and, it seems, the English thought it possible to take both French strongholds in one season. Thus the central point to Pitt's instructions6, was, that, the forces were to be in place at Halifax so that operations could start punctually; he even picked a date where all was to be in place at Halifax, the 20th of April.7

Pitt wanted the British army that had been assembled in North America to do double duty. It was to take Louisbourg; and, at the same, under General Abercrombie to get at Montcalm's back by advancing up through territory which we now know as upstate New York.8 Thus, in that year, 1758, two separate military operations in North American, at two locations separated by a very long distance, were to be gotten underway pretty much at the same time. I believe Pitt's instructions, should Louisbourg fall early, was that the forces under Amherst and Boscawen should proceed up the St. Lawrence to get at Montcalm's front; and, should they not, then to at least get down and bolster Abercrombie on Lake George. What Pitt knew is that it took the colonials, in 1745, 116 days to take Louisbourg. Even assuming that the British regular army with its substantial naval support could do better this time around, if Amherst was to be of any help to Abercrombie, an early start out of Halifax was seen to be essential.9

An Early Start:

Having been appointed as Boscawen's second in command, Sir Charles Hardy, having been on the same water the year before, left England for Nova Scotia in the 64 gun Captain on January the 20th, apparently, in company with the 28 gun Boreas.10 Hardy arrived at Halifax on March 19th, 1758, and was to find the squadron that had wintered over11 there under Lord Colville "in great forwardness." Hardy reported that "the severity of the season [winter at Halifax] would not admit of their caulking, but we have it now in hand and if the weather does not set in severe, I hope a few days will enable me to proceed to Sea, when I shall use my utmost endeavours to block up the port of Louisbourg, agreeable to Vice Admiral Boscawen's orders to me."12

By April 5th, Hardy made good on his word and was on station off the mouth of Louisbourg Harbour with eight ships of the line and two frigates. Hardy, it is to be remembered, was to be the lesser part of the larger whole; Boscawen was bringing out a large and fresh fleet from England, but, as we will see it was mid May before they were to arrive at Halifax. Hardy's job was to muster the naval forces that had wintered over at Halifax, get them on station, and prevent reinforcements and supplies from getting into Louisbourg Harbour. However, in the transatlantic race for Louisbourg, France was to win out, as oft they did.13 A French naval fleet of six men-o-war with supplies and men had made it in but days before. Included were two 74s and four 64s.14 However, two of three were en flûte, that is to say stripped down with many of their guns removed so as to accommodate the transport of supplies and men.15

With Hardy having departed with the fleet, Halifax was cleared pretty much of large sailing ships: this situation, however, as we will see, was but of short duration. In the meantime the harbour shores echoed from morning to night as soldiers16 and hired hands, with little respite, continued their work of getting things ready for the forthcoming siege and of preparing for the arrival of the land and naval forces that were soon to gather there at Halifax. The British forces were to arrive aboard fleets of ships; they came into Halifax in a series of waves.

On April 15th, the 64 gun Prince Frederick and the 32 gun Juno after a passage from England lasting two and half months hauled into Halifax. With them were transports and some ordinance ships. Aboard the transports were about 900 regulars, men of the 15th Regiment (Amherst's). The Prince Frederick was lacking a mast or two, they having come away in a gale. One of the transports had sunk on the way over, though the troops were saved. The masts of Arc en Ciel which had been left behind by Hardy and which had been laboriously fitted but months before, were taken out and installed into the Prince Frederick in order to make her ready for sea.17 While this work was being carried out, about a week later in came another fleet of ships. This fleet had left Boston but a couple of days earlier, and, likely, had aboard 2,000 more soldiers, The 60th Regiment of Foot (The Royal Americans). Apparently, Governor Lawrence had earlier left his post at Halifax and went to Boston so that he could personally oversee the embarkation.18 Whereas, the year before, the troops were put ashore at Halifax and were encamped around citadel hill, it would appear that a good many of them in 1758 remained on the transports and were "extremely healthy."19

In the succeeding days, those gathered looked anxiously seaward. Boscawen and his fleet of war ships were expected. Pitt had wanted everyone to be at Halifax before April was out. Where was Boscawen?20 On May 5th, into the harbour came a harbinger of Boscawen's arrival, the 28 gun Trent; she had become separated from Boscawen's fleet off Bermuda. Sure enough -- a couple of days after, the sea horizon between Chebucto head and Devil's Island became dotted with sails. On May 9th, Boscawen's fleet plowed into Halifax Harbour; it consisted of nine ships of the line, one frigate and two fire ships.21 With one or two exceptions all the ships arrived "healthy." Boscawen would have been aboard his flag ship, the 90 gun Namur. Amherst, incidently who was to head up the land forces, did not travel over with the fleet; he was to come along later, indeed, he almost missed the sailing from Halifax to Louisbourg.22 Wolfe, who was, in the next fourteen months, to make an indelible mark on history came into Halifax with the fleet aboard the 80 gun Princess Amelia.

With the arrival of Boscawen's impressive fleet of war ships on May 9th, the English strike force, was taking shape, however, many more soldiers were yet to be added; and, were added, as the month of May wore on. Indeed, on the very day Boscawen arrived, on the 9th, there was to arrive from Philadelphia, transports with the 35th (Otway's) and the 48th (Webb's), together with the "R.A's."23 On May, 16th: Durrell arrived in the 66 gun Devonshire. He had provided an escort for the transport ships from New York which carried the 17th and 22nd Regiments. Most all of these troops coming in from other parts of America, it will now be understood, had been at Halifax the year before with Lord Loudoun. Also, at this time, came in "artillery and stores" together with three companies of artillery and "Thirty-two empty Transports and Victualers."24 On the 17th, the 60 gun York which had left England on January 30th came in with the soldiers of the 58th (Anstruther's Regiment), which, 685 of them, had gone aboard the transports at Ireland; they were "sickly." (See table.)

Thus, by May 16th, there was to be a sizable collection of sailing vessels, and men, at Halifax. Pitt's primary directive that the British forces should get the earliest possible start on the Louisbourg campaign was on the minds of all the commanding officers.25 They couldn't get directly away, as the ships that had just come in from a long transatlantic voyage needed attention, for example, we see, that all the ships were to immediately "take in water and clean." Many of the soldiers, it would seem, were to continue to stay on board the transports in which they came, at least those that came up from Boston and New York. The men, however, were exercised in order to keep them "in health and vigour."26 One eye witness was to observe, "the Generals did not fail to accustom the troops to what they were soon to encounter. Some Military operations were daily carried on. They frequently landed in the boats of the Transports and practiced in the woods, the different Maneuvers they were likely to act on the Island of Cape Breton. In all these operations you may imagine that Gen. Wolfe was remarkably active."27

As we have emphasized -- Pitt wanted an early start; not only because the chances of success would be greater, but early success would allow the assembled force the option to push on, in the same year, and make an attack on Quebec; or, at least, to get some of Amherst's forces down to Abercrombie for his push up through Lakes George and Champlain. The two principal leaders of the Louisbourg Expedition, however, did not arrive at Halifax until late; indeed, Amherst only got to Halifax just as the fleet was clearing the harbour approaches. If both Boscawen and Amherst had been with their officers and men it is likely that things would have gotten underway earlier. But this delay, though unplanned, might have added to their chances of success. Wolfe, not a man to lie around, rehearsed the invasion on the shores around Halifax.28 Up to this time in British military history, it was unknown, and certainly unknown to the troops who were to do the job, on how to go about putting a great number of soldiers and a vast quantity of supplies and ordinance ashore on a hostile coast defended by a determined enemy; and how, after, it landed its evading army and all its accoutrements including heavy artillery, the army should be lined-up against the enemy, on what was, by all reports, a tough terrain -- this, is, a hard enough task even when you have dry and rested men and all the gear on wheels. As Hitsman and Bond were to observe:

"Furthermore, while it was not the usual practice to undertake training in combined operations with troops accustomed only to the barrack square and the battle fields of continental Europe - they were simply expected to jump into the surf from ordinary ship's boats and clamber ashore in the face of any odds - in this case, because of unexpected delays in assembling the expedition at Halifax, an opportunity was given for the Navy to rehearse many of the troops in their landing role."29
It would seem, that by May 17th, most all of the British forces were assembled at Halifax: over 13,000 soldiers and as many again who acted as crews to upwards of 180 warships and transports.30 Reports were coming in from Hardy who continued to go back and forth, covering the approaches to Louisbourg. Any ship that didn't pass inspection was immediately seized, and, with either a covering ship or with a prize crew having been put aboard, was sent down to Halifax. On May 12th, we see, where John Rouse who had been with Hardy came into Halifax Harbour in his 50 gun British naval ship, the Sutherland. He bore a despatch from Hardy for Boscawen: it was learned that the British squadron off Louisbourg, at times, was sailing in snow31 and through fields of ice. Also, Hardy was to confirm that a few French men-of-war had managed to get into Louisbourg's Harbour and that the French troops were busy throwing up entrenchments on the shores of Gabarus Bay.

Prime Minister Pitt had been ever so careful with details. The redundancy of the enterprise was such, that, if a part of the attack force was missing, even a key officer, then, the instructions were, the attack should be gotten underway rather than to sacrifice an early start. Amherst, the appointed leader, was not at Halifax. This detail, too, apparently, had been covered off: the next most senior officer in place was to take command.32 While on May 21st Boscawen issued orders in respect to the departure of the force for Louisbourg, it is to be remembered -- that these were the days of sailing ships and any who wished to use them must by necessity wait for the right wind and tide.33 By the 24th, we see Wolfe writing, the "troops have been all embarked there three or four days (except Bragg's and two hundred men from Lunenburg, who we suppose to be at hand), but the war ships are not quite ready, and, if they were, the wind, rain, and fog of this last week would have kept us here."34 By Monday, the 29th, however, the advance was begun.35 At dawn the signal to unmoor was given from Boscawen's flag ship, the 90 gun Namur. The whole, 27 thousand men, as James Cunningham, our contemporary witness was to observe, were in good "harmony, spirit, and confidence." At nine o'clock in the morning all of the ships of the fleet were underway. From the battery atop citadel hill at Halifax there boomed out a seventeen gun salute. A manoeuvering fleet large as this no matter the copious harbour meant for tight quarters for square riggers; they moved slow; there was not much wind. The breeze was so light that crews were put out in their row boats to assist in the movement hoping that the wind would come up once they cleared the land and got themselves into the broad expanse of the sea. By 10:30 the ships' boats were still towing, and by the afternoon they had not made much head way, being yet only off Cape Sambro.36

On the horizon stretched a fleet of "180 sail."37 In addition to 120 transports and other auxiliary vessels, Boscawen's fleet consisted "of 23 men-of-war and 16 smaller vessels, mounting 1842 guns, and carrying crews of 14,005 men." These crews were in addition to an equal number of soldiers.38 And still, at this date, May the 29th, this grand fleet was being augmented. The vessels carrying Bragg's (28th), and some detachments from the Bay of Fundy and the new settlement of Lunenburg, joined the fleet of the mouth at the harbour and continued with it. And, in the offing could be seen the 74 gun Dublin. As if on cue, the leader of the army arrived. In from the sea came General Amherst, who, in short order was transferred to join Boscawen aboard the Namur.39

Westerly breezes filled in and this very large amphibious force began its easy sail up the coast of Nova Scotia -- to the French Fortress of Louisbourg, a day’s sail away.

[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 6 - "The Landing."]

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