- Historic Sites
Yankee Gunners at Louisbourg
Gallant exploits against long odds helped the American militia capture the famous French citadel.
February 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 2
Fortified towns are hard nuts to crack, and your teeth are not accustomed to it. Taking strong places is a particular trade, which you have taken up without serving an apprenticeship to it. Armies and veterans need skillful engineers to direct them in their attack. Have you any? But some seem to think that forts are as easy taken as snuff.
--Benjamin Franklin in a letter to his brother in Boston before the siege of Louisbourg.
Lines of hurrying men, volunteer militia from Massachusetts and her sub-province of Maine, loaded munitions and supplies on ships moored to the wharves of Boston in the spring of 1745. Artillerymen hoisted aboard cannon, stripped from harbor defenses, and others borrowed from as far away as New York. Slings of roundshot were lowered into holds, along with casks of powder, salt meat, hard bread, of water and of rum. Crammed with troops and cargo, vessels cast off and moved out to anchor in the bay. On March 24, a fleet of sixty sail, transports with an escort of a frigate and a few armed sloops, put to sea.
Off the Nova Scotian fishing village of Canso, they would make rendezvous with contingents from New Hampshire, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and sail on to lay siege to Louisbourg in French Acadia, one of the mightiest fortresses of the day.
To New Englanders, Louisbourg was a frowning menace, never to be forgotten, lying grim and ominous just over the horizon—symbol of the threat which, as New England folk saw it, was implicit in French power in the North Country.
For Louisbourg represented not only the might of the French king but the majesty of the intricate professional military science of the day. It was a great masonry fortress, protected by strong outworks, laid out according to the principles of the famous Vauban, manned by veteran troops—definitely not the sort of place for amateurs to tackle. And it was an amateur army that was going to try to take it—a collection of some 4,000 citizen-soldiers, farmers and fishermen and shopkeepers and artisans, Colonials with the barest smattering of military training. William Pepperrell, commander of the expedition, was a prosperous merchant and politician from Kittery, in Maine, and a colonel of militia; a solid citizen and a good leader of men, but in no sense a professional military figure.
The old struggle between Great Britain and France over North American colonies had flared up in a conflict spilled over from Europe—King George’s War, declared in the past year. But New Englanders were ready and willing to claim this quarrel from the second George for their own. To them Louisbourg, sea link with France and gateway to Quebec, which must some day be taken in its turn, was a stronghold of “Popery, privateers, and pirates,” a menacing and insolent rival of New England commerce and fisheries. Louisbourg must fall.
Neither British Regulars nor the Royal Exchequer were asked to support this expedition, organized by Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts and commanded by doughty General Pepperrell. A British fleet in the West Indies had been requested to coëperate, but its commodore, lacking orders, refused. In sublime disregard of the Royal Navy as unessential, the American flotilla sailed north. Had even one French ship of the line intercepted, she could have blown the few small American warships out of the water and sunk the transports at leisure.
Louisbourg, famed as the Gibraltar of the West, had been 25 years in building. Its cost had mounted to thirty million livres, then equivalent to six million dollars. Two thousand Regulars and Canadian militia garrisoned it. On the land side, above an eight-foot moat, rose walls thirty feet high and forty feet thick at the base with jutting bastions and a citadel. Its seaward face was considered still more impregnable. Two formidable batteries protected the harbor entrance of its site on Cape Breton Island. Ramparts bristled with 250 cannon—powerful guns and mortars and swivels. Those small but murderous pieces could ruin attempts at an escalade, sweeping storming parties from their ladders with deadly blasts of langrage—charges of nails, bolts, chain links and other scrap iron linked together.
To counter the fire of the French batteries and to bombard and breach massive walls the Americans carried only eight 22-pounders, ten 18’s, twelve 9’s, and four mortars from 12- to 9-inch. A large proportion of the ammunition consisted of 42-pound cannonballs, almost twice too big for the caliber of the expedition’s heaviest ordnance. Those, however, would exactly fit the bores of heavy cannon known to form a considerable part of the French armament. It would only be necessary to storm the Grand or the Island Battery, load captured 42’s with balls foresightedly provided, open fire and demolish the remainder of Louisbourg’s defenses. Although such strategy, as Thomas Hutchinson caustically remarked, was “like selling the skin of a bear before catching him,” few paid any more heed to him than to Ben Franklin’s warning that fortified towns are not as easy taken as snuff.