A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #1: Acadia.
Part 7,
The Second Siege of Louisbourg: 1758:
Ch.09 -- "The Bombardment."

The fortifications of Louisbourg were in bad condition. The damage which had come about from the 1745 siege had not been fully repaired.1 The French had taken the precaution of demolishing the Royal Battery2 (see map) with its 36 guns, not again would these guns be used by besiegers to bombard the exposed town as was the case in 1745, though the English in 1758 were able to occupy the defensive works of the Royal Battery and mount guns of their own to shell the town.3

In addition to the civilian population at Louisbourg there were 5637 military men, divided up between those army men that were at the garrison (3031) and the marines (2606) that had come in with the French naval ships earlier that spring. By the time the British were ashore, certainly by the next day, on June 7th, most all of these men defending Louisbourg were behind the walls of their Fortress.4 Indeed, that evening, at about seven o'clock the second contingent of the Cambis regiment (the first had arrived the day before and had been stationed along the shore) arrived at the back of Louisbourg harbour having just completed their march overland from Baie des Espagnols (Spanish Bay, present day Sydney). The French sent launches over the harbour so to convoy them safely to the fortified harbour front of Louisbourg.5

Their failure to repulse the English at the beaches left everyone from Governor Drucour, on down, in poor spirits. Their duty was now clear: it was to keep the invaders out until reinforcements arrived or until winter came to freeze the British in their position; or, more generally, to tie up the British so that they could not go on to the French citadel at Quebec. Drucour had a warning that an invasion was coming; his allies, the Indians, had reported that there was a large gathering at Halifax, and, indeed, had reported the progress of the fleet as it made its way up the coast. He had called in the Port Toulose and Port Dauphin garrisons (see nos. 14 & 17 on map); and, "two dépôts of provisions were made on the Mire."6

The population at Louisbourg,7 due to the English blockade of the previous season, had just come through a most difficult time. During the winter, "not a family had an once of flour in the house." Not only had there been a shortage of food but there had been a lot of snow that winter, the last of which was still on the ground as of May 12th.8 It must be remembered, too, due to the actions of the English on the mainland that Louisbourg was the refuge of a number of Acadians and Indians.9

The French had intended that they should be at Louisbourg in as an impressive strength as they were the season before. There was a fleet from Toulon under M. de la Clue, but this fleet, while still in the Mediterranean sighted a much larger British fleet under Vice Admiral Osborn. The French fleet ran into the Spanish port of Cartagena, and there remained bottled up. Admiral Hawke had similar success with another French fleet just off the French coast by La Rochelle and Rochefort.10 However, six ships slipped away from Brest, and managed to reach Louisbourg during March.11 By April, as we have seen, Commodore, Sir Charles Hardy had sailed from Halifax with eight ships of the line and two frigates, but, due mainly to the inclement weather, Hardy was not able to seal off the harbour completely. During the course of April and May, French ships were able to get into Louisbourg before Boscawen was to get his large fleet into position. Thus it was, as Macdonald explains in his work12 that,

"notwithstanding Hardy's vigilance and the vigilance of the British Admirals in European waters, a strong French squadron carrying troops and supplies of every kind, commanded by M. de Chaffant, stole into the harbour. The French commander did not remain long at Louisbourg. Dreading to be shut up in the port, and foreseeing his fate he hastened to Quebec, reluctantly leaving 6 of his ships and some frigates to help to defend the place at the earnest request of Drucour."

We last left off seeing where the English had, to the amazement of attacker and defender alike, in short time and with very little loss, put the bulk of their troops on the foreboding shore to the west of Louisbourg (see map); and how, within hours all the land surrounding the fort of Louisbourg was fully under the control of the British; and how the British were to immediately capture supplies13 that were lost to the French, supplies which proved to be invaluable in keeping the landed British troops going for the first few days.14

The Landing Shores at Louisbourg.

So, by the 9th, the British had landed and were in good shape. They had the ground all to themselves and the only shots sent to them were when they strayed a little too close to the walls of Louisbourg. The areas chosen for encampment were cleared; however, the surf was "so high that very few tents or baggage of the army could be landed" that first full day. On the 10th we see this entry in Gordon's Journal, "Saturday 10. Still clearing our camp, pitching tents, and getting our baggage on shore which was attended with great trouble on account of the surge it being equally violent as at the place we landed."15

Six Block Houses of Squared Timber which had been designed by Bastide and built at Halifax over the winter were no doubt employed as intended, "end rideouts for the protection of the camp."16 The timbers for the blockhouses were all marked such as they could be erected in a few hours. The upper platform of the blockhouse formed a raised and level place on which small cannon could be mounted. This upper platform was surrounded by a musquet proof parapet, and underneath Musquetry may likewise be used through loop holes.

The first objective of the British was to surround the harbour so to fully pincer in Louisbourg. Three battalions (Lt-Colonel Morrice, Lt-Colonel Rollo and Major Ross) consisting of 1220 men17 were put under Brigadier James Wolfe together with four companies of Grenadiers. The orders of the day for the 10th of June:

"Four hundred of the Light Infantry and Rangers are to march this night, and take post in the woods, round the upper part of the North East Harbour, there lay in ambush, and cover the March of a detachment of the army, which will be ordered to take post at Lorembeck, at the end of the North East Harbour, and upon the Light House Point."18
The View At Lighthouse Point (from a contemporary drawing).

On the 12th, Wolfe's forces marched and made their way well up the harbour and made camp. Their march was covered by "a thick fog" so they were unmolested by the guns of the French navy then lying in the harbour.19 By the 13th, Wolfe was east of the lighthouse and setting up his camp. With difficulty20 and under French bombardment, equipment and supplies21 were brought up from the shore over newly built roads (see map) and up to the Lighthouse Battery.22 By the night of the 19th-20th the British were ready and the Lighthouse Battery was blasting out its iron balls of destruction.23 The naval ships in the harbour and at the Island Battery returned the fire. Both day and night, the inhabitants of Louisbourg were reminded of the British strength: in day-light, thousands of British troops could be seen just beyond gun range and 180 ships could be seen riding at their anchors to seaward in Gabarus Bay; at night, all along the length of the harbour, the English kept fires burning.

Though Wolfe was positioned at the Lighthouse point by June the 13th, yet, a number of days after that were to pass before the British force was, as a whole, ready to get into serious siege work. The weather was not cooperative and high seas persisted resulting in delays in getting materials ashore. Indeed, apparently, it was the 17th, before Amherst came ashore to personally look over the ground; and it would have been on that day we would have seen Amherst accompanied by his officers riding about stealing looks at the French citadel.24 On June 18th, the first 24-lb gun was landed. By June 19th-20th, as mentioned, the Lighthouse Battery, having been built on the spot, started in with its deadly fire.25

This setting up of a British battery at the Lighthouse Point was Wolfe's idea. Amherst was a great admirer of Wolfe and approved Wolfe's plans. Not every one agreed that the approach proposed by Wolfe and adopted by Amherst was the best; indeed, the engineers had a different view, as Long, one of Amherst's biographers, points out:

"Chief Engineer J. H. Bastide, Colonel Williamson and Major McKullough were agreed that the way to take Louisbourg was to build a fortress at a point known as Green Hill, less than a mile southwest from the town. Concentrate everything there. The engineers were opposed to the whole project of shelling the fleet. Wolfe's headlong methods did not suit them, an opinion in which there seemed to be a note of jealousy. Their view of Wolfe was shared by William Amherst, the General's brother, who wrote in his diary concerning the expedition to Lighthouse point: "Shells thrown at ships must be very uncertain ... nor do I conceive that a small battery, even elevated as this was, and secure from the fire of the ships, to be of much consequence." And later: "A report from Brigadier Wolfe ... they imagine one of the enemy's ships damaged by a shell. All imagination, I am afraid."26
The big assault cannons27 of the British had to be hauled over the same forbidding terrain as was there when the colonials did the job in 1745. The regular army, however, was more up to the job. Plans had been made to engage huge carts, or "machines" as Wolfe called them, to carry the heavy metal cannons up from the shore and across the bogs. However, once the engineers surveyed the "morasses, rocks, sand, and bush" a decision was made to build a road. This took more time than that taken by the colonials but the effort was easier on the men and in the end they had a good and solid throughway over which to haul the cannon to their positions.28

It would appear, once Wolfe had the Lighthouse battery up and running he went back to rejoin Amherst to assist in the landward attack on Louisbourg from the west.29 Wolfe in no time was showing to both his fellow British and to the French his relentless military spirit; he pushed ahead at all times. His motto was known to all: "The greatest of an object should come into consideration as opposed to the impediments that lie in the way." He pushed and he pushed. His men were put to work30; roads were built so that the heavy cannon could be moved into position after being off loaded from the ships. He turned his mind to every angle and through his leadership turned his thoughts into action. All along and at every turn advancing things to that single object which he held out for himself, his fellow officers and his men: the taking of Louisbourg.31

From the 20th of June through to the 25th the roar and pounding thuds of cannon fire carried over the harbour and resounded off the ramparts of Louisbourg and resounded again off the distant hills. By the 25th, according to Brown, the island Battery was silenced, all the embrasures destroyed, and the parapets reduced to a heap of ruins.32 With the silencing of the Island Battery33, the French became concerned that the British navy which waited outside the harbour may make a run in and bombard Louisbourg from the port side. Thus, the French decided to sacrifice part of their navy in order to thwart the British navy. On the night of June 27th-28th, five vessels [Appollon, Chêvre, Fidèle, Biche, and La Ville de Saint Malo (a merchant ship)] were sunk by the French at the mouth of Louisbourg harbour.34

Just before the cannon duel began on the 20th of June, a line of communication had been opened up between the respective leaders: Governor Drucour and General Amherst. It was natural that this should be so; all that was necessary was to advance a small party towards the enemy under the a white flag displayed and understood by all to be a token of peaceful or friendly intention, a desire for a parley. The exchange consisted of more than just a note, indeed, often gifts were send in and out of the walls of Louisbourg in this manner:

"... Amherst sent a polite note to the Governor, and a present of two pineapples to Madame Drucour. An equally polite note was returned, and Drucour again displayed his lavishness by sending back some bottles of champagne (June 17 and 18). This promptly brought back again more pineapples, one at least of which was not good (Tourville). The present in return included some fresh butter, which indicates that the ordinary activities of life in the town had not been entirely suspended. Inquiries and replies as to the missing officers taken prisoners at the landing had been exchanged; effects had been sent to them; and never, said one diarist, was war carried on with more courtesy."35
July arrived and the British tightened their hold; their cannon continued to pound away on the western walls of Louisbourg and shells whistled beyond and into the city centre. The advance was slow but steady. No position gained was ever lost. At one point (6th of July) a British shell having been blasted over the walls exploded in the crowded hospital; a surgeon was killed and other persons were wounded. Governor Drucour remonstrated by sending a message out to the British. Amherst and Boscawen considered the matter. "Well, yes: the sick and the people who treat them should be safe, but that was not be achieved by leaving them within the walls of the fortress." What was suggested to Drucour was that he should place the injured and the medical workers out on Battery Island, or put them on one of the French war ships and anchor it well away from the fort, or placed among Boscawen's fleet outside36; in any one of these positions, they, for whom Drucour had concern, would be safe. None of these suggestions, however, appealed to the French.

The besieged French garrison did make the occasional sortie, or dash upon the English; and -- while sometimes succeeding and sometimes not -- in short order made their way back in behind the protective walls of Louisbourg. One in particular to which I might make reference: it was on the night of July 9th, when 724 French soldiers made there way on to the front line of the British and caught them napping. They took two officers and 28 men as prisoners, but by morning's light they were once again back behind their protective walls.

On the night of the 15th of July, the 36 gun Aréthuse, one of the smaller French war ships in the harbour managed to slip its moorings, make sail and head through the channel by the Lighthouse Battery and carried on, right out to sea. The British at the Lighthouse Point battery, though coming alive to the breakout late, did, however, manage to get a few cannon balls into the Aréthuse's stern; but, soon, she was out of range. The British then frantically sent signals37 off to the waiting British war ships outside of the harbour, but too late; either due to good sailing, or good winds, or just plain good luck (likely a combination of all three) the Aréthuse was able to get away, none of the British ships being able to catch up to her.38

To the west of the fort the British keep creeping up in the face of the French guns on the ramparts. Like moles, the British would, in the dead of night, mound up dirt and turn them into protective walls; once done, it would be done again, and again, night after night, only ever but just a couple of feet at a time: angled walls of dirt and timber moved steadily towards the walls of Louisbourg. The morning watch on the ramparts would see certain of the cannon a little closer then the day before and no less protected. Closer and closer, pounding away at certain spots in the walls of Louisbourg.39 The gentle people of Louisbourg trembled; the women and children in the dark and damp casemates felt and heard the ceaseless rumblings.

We now come to July 21st, and, to an event which was to bring, in its aftermath, an end to the contest.

At least six French men-o-war had made it into Louisbourg, two 74s and four 64s. They had arrived under the command of Commodore Desgouttes (Marquis Desgouttes).40 However, two or 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. This extra fire power of the three stripped ships would be missed, but the supplies they brought "placed Drucour in a position to carry on his defence without further anxiety about munitions or supplies."41 Another French squadron, consisting of "five warships and a frigate"42 under Du Chaffault de Besné almost got themselves into Louisbourg harbour, but were obliged, in order to avoid Hardy's squadron which by this time were patrolling along the coast, to sail north along the tip of the Cape Breton Island to Port Dauphin (Ste Ann's, see map). This second French fleet was carrying the Cambis regiment. This regiment, as we have seen, eventually found it way to Louisbourg, arriving just a day or so before the English made their landing at Gabarus Bay. After seeing to the landing of the troops and supplies, Besné then put his fleet to sea and sailed to Quebec.

McLennan gives his short version of the events of July 21st:

"The ships remained as they were, firing occasionally, but with direction so bad that on the 18th their grape fell among their own men in the covered way. Cartridges began to be scarce, also balls for their 24-lb. guns. Iron scraps were used in the mortars, English shot were picked up and fired back. Houses had to be torn down for wood to repair fortifications, and such work had to be carried on under a fire which swept not only the defences, but the streets of the town. ...
In the early afternoon of the 21st, a shot struck the poop of the Célèbre, which set off some cartridges stored there. The fire caught her mizzen mast, and the score of men on board were unable to check it. She swung so that sparks from her caught aft on the Entreprenant. While her men were working at this blaze, fire had been smouldering on her bowsprit. It broke out freely in a quarter of an hour, and she in turn set fire to the Capricieux, unable to move. ...
The horror of the conflagration was increased by the loaded guns of the ships, as they became hot, going off and taking effect on the other ships, on the boats, and town. The ships made a prodigious blaze all night..."
Our contemporary observer, Gordon, reported:
"Friday, 21st ... About 2 o'clock there was a great explosion on board the Entreprennant, set her on fire and her flames caught the Célèbre and the Capricieux by ten at night, the three were burnt to the waters edge ... a shot from the marine battery striking an iron bolt in the Entreprennant's power room ... [to the enemy] the scene was very shocking."44
The French which now crowded the dock looked on in amazement as three of their great ships of war were ablaze. There, on the docks, they had a good view. There, we would have seen women and little children which had fled the casements. There, too, we would have seen the sick which had been trundled down to the open area of the docks so that they would not suffocate in the crowded hospital. The people in the town were frantic. Governor Drucour was to report: "The few casemates are placed in the inner part of the citadel, in them were shut in the ladies and some of the women of the town, and one was kept for wounded officers. There was every reason to fear that the fire would reach the protection which had been placed in front of these casemates, and by the direction of the wind the smoke might stifle the women shut up in them, so that all the women and a great number of little children came out, running to and fro, not knowing where to go in the midst of bombs and balls falling on every side ..."45

The final touch to the frightful situation came as the flames reached the guns of the Capricieux which was lying with her broadside toward the docks, and the whole of her battery was fired into the gawking crowd, all at once.46

In the early morning light, not far off the docks would have been seen the Entreprenant, Célèbre and Capricieux: burnt to their water lines; they soon, thereafter, sank to the harbour's bottom, the remains of which can still be seen amongst the kelp and the fishes.47

All was mayhem and everything in ruins; the population confused and disordered; the soldiers exhausted and their ramparts falling apart. The British followed up and conducted the siege with fury. "All night long bombs, some of them charged with combustibles were hurled into the town." The fire within the city on July the 22nd spread to the King's Bastion and on the 23rd the wooden barracks of the Queen's Bastion caught fire: "inflammable as a pack of matches," three times it caught fire and three times the struggling population put it out; "... only by pulling down the neighbouring huts and a favouring wind, was the fire prevented from spreading to the town."48 This was on the 23rd of July, and still the French laid behind their walls. But by the 23rd, however, it was plain that all was lost; the breaches in the walls were opening up.


"The town was no longer defensible, and scaling ladders were ready in the trenches. The British had seen great pieces of the wall fall into the moat after every successful shot, and meantime the fire of the bombs, as many as 300 in a night, was continued, so that there was not a house in the town which was uninjured. There were only five cannon to reply to this bombardment --."49
And then came the final blow, and, it came from the navy; who, due to circumstances of this engagement, had pretty well been restricted to transporters of men and supplies -- restricted to the side lines, to advise and to observe. Boscawen and his naval officers decided it was time for them to take some decisive action.

On the morning of July 25th, a group of smaller vessels, -- mostly pinnaces, twenty five in all, among them one sailing sloop which had come to Louisbourg with the fleet -- came into the harbour. Six hundred men silently slid, under the darkness of night, through the channel and by the beleaguered French taking them unawares. The object of these hand signaling British sailors aboard these small boats was to take the last two remaining French war ships out of commission.

These last two French men of war, the Bienfaisant and the Prudent were anchored very close to the harbour front of the town;50 they only had about sixty or seventy men aboard, and, the highest ranking officer present was an ensign. The visibility was bad and only the sentinels were above deck. "The sentinel hailed a boat. A voice from it replied in French that it was from town and that it was coming aboard." Before the French sailors had an opportunity to organize themselves, as McLennan describes, "there were two hundred men in possession of the deck. The officers were taken, guards placed on the hatchways, twenty English prisoners released, combustibles placed in the gun-room and at the foot of the masts, ignited, the sentries withdrawn, and the English made off to the north."51

Macdonald gives an accounting of the mission which became known as, "The Cutting Out of the Bienfaisant and the Prudent":

"The attention of the French was distracted by a vigorous cannonade from all the British batteries, and scaling ladders were ostentatiously displayed at the front to lead them to anticipate a general assault on the land side. By this ruse de guerre the French were drawn to the land walls about midnight, while 600 men, divided into two squadrons, commanded by LeFroy and Balfour, stole into the harbour in barges and pinnaces. Passing close to the Island Battery and within hail of the town, screened by a thick fog, the British dashed for the Bienfaisant and Prudent; but as the boats ran alongside, the sentinels at the gangways of both battleships raised a loud alarm. The French crews rushed tumultuously from below, and the well-known British cheers, the clash of cutlasses, the rattle of musketry, and the confused uproar soon warned Louisbourg of what was happening in her fog-bound port. The city was instantly thrown into disorder. Threatened, it seemed, with an assault by land and sea, the consternation of the inhabitants almost developed into a panic, and some artillerymen increased the confusion by turning the guns of the harbour and Point Rochefort forts on the Bienfaisant and the Prudent.
... the Prudent, which lay so hard aground that she could not be moved, was set on fire after some small craft had been moored alongside for the escape of her crew.
... the spectacle of the Prudent burning fiercely on the harbour waters, with her brave seamen pouring over the sides into the vessels left for their escape, affected the French almost to tears. Tongues of crimson flame darting from her ports and hatchways, ascended with incredible rapidity to her lofty masts, blazed through the intricate riggings, enveloped the ponderous yards, and expanded into vivid sheets as the sails burst their lashings and took fire. Clouds of black smoke pouring from all parts of the ship hung like a pall over the harbour; her guns exploded, hurling destruction into the city; and the blackened ruins of the Prudent soon disfigured the sparkling waves. Flames burst intermittently from the hull until nearly eight o'clock; but at that hour the beautiful battleship was reduced to a mass of charred timber, and in her smouldering ruins expired the last hopes of Louisbourg."
Our contemporary observer, Gordon, reported:
"Tuesday, 25th ... The Prudent set on fire and the Bienfaisant towed off to the northeast harbour by the boats of the fleet ... the Prudent being on ground obliged to set fire to her ... eleven officers ... and about 122 sailors out of the two were made prisoners." Gordon also writes that this was accomplished with little resistance from the French who kept below decks. There was some fire from the city once the French figured out was happening, "fired grape and musquetry, did not kill above seven and wounded about as many ..."53
"The Cutting Out of the Bienfaisant and the Prudent"
The original at National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Admiral Boscowan gives his version of the exercise in his diary:

"The boats of the squadron were in two divisions, commanded by the Captains Laforey and Balfour, to endeavour either to take or burn the Prudent, of 74 guns, and the Bienfaisant, of 64, the only remaining ships in the harbour, in which they succeeded so well as to burn the former, she being aground, and to take the latter and tow her into the north-east harbour, notwithstanding they were exposed to the cannon and musketry of the Island Battery, Point Rochefort, and the town, being favoured with a dark night. Our loss was inconsiderable: seven men killed and nine wounded."54
Of this incident, Amherst writes in his journal:
"25th. The batteries played with great success. The admiral wrote me word he intended to take or destroy the Prudent and the Bienfaisant in the harbour and had ordered 600 men under the command of Capts. Laforey and Balfour to do it at night. I ordered all the batteries at night to play as much as possible to keep the enemys attention to the land. In the evening I went to the trenches and stayed there till two o'clock and began to despair of the boats coming, but at last they came and took the Bienfaisant, burnt the Prudent with the loss of three men. 152 prisoners taken and some Englishmen that were taken in English ships on board the Prudent. The Bienfaisant was towed into the N. E. Harbour."55
The harbour was now totally open to the British fleet and the underbelly of the city would soon be exposed to the big naval guns, 1842 of them. Daylight came and the tired and beaten French looked about; the situation had become hopeless. Drucour concluded that his purpose had been met, it being "to resist and postpone our end as long as possible"; the time had come to capitulate.

[NEXT: Pt. 7, Ch. 10 - "The Surrender."]

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