- 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
It might look possible, on paper. But for a volunteer army, ill-equipped with artillery and poorly trained in its use, to go up against a fortress whose reduction would require a greater use of artillery than any fight in the New World had yet involved, was a very chancy venture. In future generations Americans would show that they were singularly apt at the use of heavy guns; here, in 1745, would be the first time for them to develop and demonstrate that knack.
Experienced gunners for the campaign were as few as guns were scant and light. In the New World, cannon of fortresses from Canada to Spanish Florida and defenses of seaboard towns were manned by small detachments, trained and commanded by such European professionals as might be available. For the most part American gunnery was confined to privateersmen and remained a naval specialty, as testified by the term for a cannoneer, matross, derived from the French for sailor, matelot, and more closely the Dutch matroos.
Fortunately, the expedition’s artillery train included officers with some knowledge of the gunner’s art. Twenty were or had been members of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston. Founded in 1638 by colonists from the London Company, chartered 100 years earlier, this oldest military organization in America is still in existence, with headquarters at Faneuil Hall. As “scholars of great gunnes,” the Company had learned at least the rudiments of handling engines of war, developed from the catapult and ballista after the Chinese discovered the explosive mixture they called “thunder of the earth”—gunpowder—and Thirteenth-Century Europeans improved it.
Colonel Joseph Dwight and Lieutenant Colonel Richard Gridley of the artillery had mustered artificers to maintain and repair the guns. In addition they could count upon the services of gunsmiths, black-smiths, and armorers in other commands, such as Major Seth Pomeroy of one of the infantry regiments. Pomeroy, who carried a musket of his own make, would come to the aid of the gunners at a critical moment with his smith’s skill. And in the rank and file of the army, many, though they might never have seen a cannon before, possessed the resourcefulness and handiness of pioneers. Show them how to put a piece in position, to load, aim and fire, and they would manage.
Spirit and resolution were strong in these volunteers who had flocked to enlist for the attack on Louisbourg at meager pay, though not without hopes of plunder. Booty, trade, and fishing rights aside, the campaign was hailed as a Protestant crusade against a New World Rome, a crusade proclaimed and sustained by the presence of a “goodly company of preachers.” Chief of Chaplains was the redoubtable Samuel Moody whose York, Maine, congregation endured its winter worship standing in an icy meetinghouse for his two-hour prayers, followed by sermons demanding equal fortitude; only the gift of a barrel of cider would induce the minister to show mercy. Chaplain Moses Coffin of Newbury—his life would be providentially saved by a pocket Bible in which a bullet lodged—doubled as a drummer and was known as “the drum ecclesiastic.”
Not every regiment carried a parson on its rolls, but the artillery train took care to list its chaplain, Joseph Hawley. An aura of brimstone still lingered from the days when the secrets of the gunners’ guild were denounced as a compact with the Devil. Servers of cannon long were regarded with superstitious horror, and captured artillerymen in early European wars were likely to be tortured and mutilated before they were put to death. One Pope saw fit to ex-communicate all artillerymen.
Prejudice was not slow to cross the Atlantic. “Many a time it falleth out that most men employed for gunners are very negligent of the fear of God,” declared a Puritan moralist, who added a fable about a wicked artilleryman scathingly named “Christopher Slime” and claimed by the Devil for his own. The Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, soon after its organization, prudently banned infernal associations by requesting some eminent divine to preach them an annual sermon. None other than the celebrated Cotton Mather had obligingly responded with a redeeming discourse which pronounced that “Prayer was the great field-piece of Jehoshaphat, and Luther was wont to style it the gun-shot of the soul.”
But even the most fervent did not expect prayer to make a second Jericho of Louisbourg. Its walls would have to be scaled or battered down. By the time the Canso rendezvous was kept, no better plan had been evolved than a complicated night attack. Four divisions were to land separately, advance in “profound silence” (unlikely in view of the expected generous issue of rum), and launch an assault on the Grand Battery.
While the Provincial fleet was held at Canso by a report that Louisbourg harbor was ice-locked, five warships of the Royal Navy, led by the 6o-gun Superbe, arrived after all, Commodore Peter Warren having received orders. He could be relied on to beat off French attempts to relieve the fortress by sea. The expeditionary force sailed on, more confident than ever, its assurance echoed in a letter, brought by a dispatch boat from Boston, to one of its colonels:
“I hope this will find you at Louisbourg with a Bowl of Punch, a Pipe, and a P—k of C—ds in your hand and whatever else you desire (I had forgot to mention a Pretty French Madammoselle).”