- 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.
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).”
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.
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.
Fire from the inland emplacements and the Grand Battery redoubled. Great gaps yawned now in the citadel walls. Debris heaped higher, filling the moat. Pepperrell and Warren, whose reinforced fleet had been gathering in French prizes, made ready for a grand assault by land and sea.
It never was delivered. Suddenly a white flag of truce fluttered from the staff of the citadel. Louisbourg was surrendering.
Under terms of capitulation the garrison marched out, colors flying and drums beating, to be later embarked, along with the townsfolk, for France. They left behind them a shattered citadel.
Chaplain Moody raged through the French churches, wielding an axe with bigoted zeal on altar and images; mollified, he astonished and delighted hungry diners at the victory banquet by limiting himself to a two-sentence grace of record brevity. Spoils of war included a silver cross presented to Harvard College, but the army was bitterly disappointed in hopes of rich loot from Louisbourg. There ensued, wrote one disgusted trooper, “a great Noys and hubbub a mongst ye Soldiers a bout ye Plunder; Som Cursing, som a Swarein.” It was the British Crown and Navy that drew huge dividends from the triumph: five million dollars’ worth of French prizes, including a treasure ship from Peru, lured into the harbor by flying the fleur-de-lys banner over the citadel again in place of the English ensign.
In the end, it seemed almost a mockery, and many a New Englander felt that the blood and toil spent at Louisbourg had been spent in vain—and, in his mental account book, chalked up a remembered item against the British government in London. For the British statesmen of that particular moment had their eyes on India rather than on the bleak coast of Nova Scotia; and at the peace conference which brought the war to an end, they blithely traded Louisbourg back to the French in exchange for possession of Madras, in India. After the peace settlement, the flag of the French king flew again over Louisbourg—and in 1758, when another war came, it had to be taken all over again.
Yet the siege, one of the most desperate and gallant exploits in the annals of warfare, an artillery epic, was far from futile. There, against long odds and logical military expectation, Americans justified their confidence in themselves, confidence they never would lose. It was a strong thirty years later at the outbreak of the Revolution, and its token and symbol were veterans of Louisbourg, old men in faded uniforms marching once more to the sound of the guns.