- 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
At first sight of hostile sails on April 30, signal cannon on the Louisbourg battlements boomed, and alarm bells called in all inhabitants living outside the town. Pepperrell wasted no time. Hardly had his transports anchored when boats were lowered, and infantry clambered down into them. Sturdy arms at the oars drove them through crashing surf past jagged rocks, pulling for Gabarus Bay west of the harbor. A party from the garrison raced along the shore to repulse them. The boats were beached ahead of them, and cheering Americans poured out. There was a short, sharp clash. The French fled, leaving twenty dead. By nightfall 2,000 troops had landed, followed by the rest of the force the next day. It was a neat amphibious operation, but the militiamen, huddled around their campfires, lost some of their confidence as they stared in awe toward the citadel of Louisbourg and its flanking batteries, looming high and forbidding above them.
Louisbourg had two principal outworks—the seemingly impregnable Island Battery situated on an outcrop in the middle of the harbor entrance, and an ominous work known as the Grand Battery, across the harbor from the fortress itself. To open a successful fire on the fortress, it would be necessary to reduce both of these works first, along with any lesser outworks which the French might have established in support. In addition, guns would have to be mounted on high ground overlooking Louisbourg, and the ponderous guns would have to be brought ashore from ships, taken across soggy ground, and lugged up steep slopes by main strength—under fire, no doubt, of the French defenders. All in all, it would be a tough assignment.
Colonel William Vaughan, leading his regiment inland, came upon several undefended naval storehouses. Promptly he put the torch to them. Clouds of smoke, thick and black from tar, pitch and oil, drifted down on the Grand or Royal Battery. The colonel and his troops, grinning over the coughing and eye-smarting to which they had treated the Frenchies, turned in for the night.
In the morning Vaughan advanced with thirteen men to reconnoitre. When they drew no fire from the battery, the colonel bribed an Indian of his detachment with a flask of brandy and sent him forward. Climbing up through an embrasure, the scout soon signaled them on with a whoop. They rushed in to find the works abandoned by their 400-man garrison. The Grand Battery had been swept clean by a smoke screen with nothing behind it.
While a young soldier hoisted his scarlet coat on the staff to serve as a flag and the guns of the citadel loosed an angry, futile salvo, Colonel Vaughan sent for reinforcements. Before they could arrive, four boatloads from Louisbourg sped in to attack and redeem the ignominious loss of the vital battery. The little party of Americans rushed down to the beach and blazed away until the French retreated before a regiment coming up on the double to clinch the victory.
In the Grand Battery were found large supplies of powder and shot and twenty heavy cannon. The French artillerymen had failed miserably and disgracefully to blow up the magazine and permanently disable their ordnance. They had hastily spiked the guns with iron rods hammered into their vents but neglected to knock off trunnions, supporting the barrels on carriages, and to burn the latter. Major Pomeroy and twenty other gunsmiths, quickly summoned, handily drilled out the vents. By next morning the captured pieces were ready for action. Jubilant Yankee gunners shifted them, trained them on the town and opened a thunderous bombardment. “The enemy,” wrote the Habitant de Louisbourg , “saluted us with our own cannon and made a terrific fire, smashing everything within range.” There was no need for the Americans to be sparing of the French ammunition, for most of the Grand Battery guns were 42’s. The 42-pound cannonballs, so optimistically stowed at Boston, would shortly be available and serve admirably.
The Grand Battery, easy prize of panic, roared on, crushing outer works and riddling houses in the town. But its shot alone could not breach the principal defenses of the citadel nor even reach the Island Battery, which barred entrance to the harbor and supported the main fortress. Guns must be brought ashore from the fleet and put in commanding positions.
The achievement of that tremendous feat by raw militia would establish traditions for American artillery, carried on but never surpassed in all our wars.
Flatboats were launched from the transports, tossing at anchor. Down into those clumsy craft were lowered cannon, ammunition, and stores. Rowers plunged sweeps in waves that dashed over gunwales, threatening swamping, and pulled with all their might. The flatboats, too big and heavily laden to clear rocky barriers offshore and be beached, had to be held in the shallows by force of arm and oar, while soldiers swung overside and waded waist-deep through the icy surf, unloading them. Tide and backwash wrenched at them as they struggled ashore, powder casks lifted high on head and shoulders. They risked the rocks to bring the cannon barges closer in and, for every gun landed, lost a boat, pounded to pulpwood. Drenched, exhausted men slept shelterless through cold, foggy nights and each morning limped stiffly back to their task until it was finished.