- 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
Worse still lay before them. Over rough and roadless terrain, without any transport animals, the guns must be dragged more than two miles by manpower. Inland rose a line of hills commanding the town and harbor. That high ground could be the key to Louisbourg, as the Plains of Abraham would prove for Quebec and Mount Defiance for Fort Ticonderoga.
Sand first—easy going considering what was to come. Brawny hands laid hold of long anchor cables, attached to gun and mortar carriages, and heaved away. On they rolled at a good pace. Rocks now, slowing them, lest they break wheels. Long stretches of dense scrub and brush to push through or be hacked clear by axemen. Finally swamps confronted them, boulderstudded bogs deceptively carpeted with moss. Wheels mired, sank past hubs till carriages, then guns, went under, gulped down by sucking mud. They hauled them out on to patches of firmer ground and halted in bafflement. There was no other approach to the heights except through the swamp. While they stood there, gunners in Louisbourg sighted them and opened fire with every piece that would bear, forcing them to take cover.
A man stepped forward to meet the crisis—Lieutenant Colonel Nathaniel Meserve of New Hampshire, a shipbuilder. He set lumbermen, farmers, and carpenters to constructing sledges, six-feet-by-five, like the familiar stone boats used to clear New England fields of rocks.
A cannon was placed on each and a team of 200 men harnessed themselves in like horses with breaststraps and rope traces. By night or in fog, to avoid the daylight hail of French shells, they hauled and tugged, staggering ahead, floundering through the clinging mud. No route could be used twice; the passage of a single sledge had churned it into an impassable slough. Gun by gun, they won their way through the blackness and the haze to solid footing.
Earthworks and emplacements were waiting for them. Six pieces were sited on Green Hill, little more than a mile from the citadel, the King’s Bastion. A week more of back-breaking toil, and another battery was in position: four 22’s and ten of the small mortars called “coehorns” after the Dutch baron who invented them. At length five batteries were in action, the last consisting of five captured French 42-pounders, which had required teams of 300 men to drag each one through the quagmire. Muzzles flamed, and iron fists knocked clangorously at the gates of Louisbourg.
Din of cannonading mingled with the rattle of musketry where the range was close. The French ventured one half-hearted sortie which was beaten back—then resumed the artillery duel. Between salvos their gunners drank toasts and leaned over the ramparts to make mocking offers of brimming cups of wine to the thirsty Bostonais.
Gallic bravado soon was dispelled by converging fire from the semi-circle of American batteries in the hills. They blasted away with captured ammunition and their own, landed from the fleet.
Americans suffered more from their own inexperience than from enemy retaliation. Guns and mortars, overcharged and double-shotted, burst, killing and wounding their crews. Since competent artillerists were too few to prevent such accidents, Commodore Warren spared four master gunners from his warships to help instruct the rash amateurs.
May wore into June. A month of constant combat, exhausting labor, and exposure had taken toll. But in spite of losses from bursting pieces, French counterbattery fire, and a sick list of 1,500 down with fever and dysentery, the bombardment of Louisbourg seldom slackened. American artillerymen, many barefoot and in tatters now, kept the guns in action.
Pepperrell and his council of war ordered the storming of the Island Battery. Far from being a weak point, it was armed with thirty heavy cannon, two mortars, and seven swivels, yet a surprise night attack might well carry it, if the French were caught off guard. On a dark June midnight a party of 300 volunteers paddled across the bay from the Grand Battery. They picked up 100 more men on Lighthouse Point and made a landing through high surf on the shores of a narrow cove beneath the walls. Twelve scaling ladders had been planted without detection when a trooper with a bellyfull of rum burst out with three loud and hearty cheers. Alerted, the garrison sprang to arms. Guns, swivels, and muskets poured down a withering fire from the ramparts. In a bloody repulse, the Provincials lost 189 men, casualties and prisoners. An assault that might have succeeded had been ruined by an undisciplined sot.
Now the issue depended again upon the besiegers’ guns. Lieutenant Colonel Gridley, acting as chief engineer as well as second in command of the artillery train, put cannon ashore on the rocks of almost inaccessible Lighthouse Point. Panting, sweating men hoisted them up a steep cliff—dragged them a mile and a quarter to a place of vantage. Soon ten more pieces, buried by the French in the sand, were spotted at low tide and sent up the cliff to join the others. Shot and shell rained down on the Island Battery. Bursting bombs shattered the casemates, and balls hurtled through embrasures, wrecking gun carriages. So fierce and effective was the bombardment that Frenchmen ran from the fort and dove into the sea to escape the storm of iron. Their cannon fell silent.