A Crushing Defeat – France’s Humiliating Loss of the Fortress Louisbourg

Benjamin Franklin described the sprawling French fortress at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia as "a tough nut to crack". Yet it was remarkably easy for British and colonial forces to capture in 1745, thanks to French incompetence. (Image source: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

Benjamin Franklin described the sprawling French fortress at Louisbourg, Nova Scotia as “a tough nut to crack”. Yet it was remarkably easy for British and colonial forces to capture in 1745, thanks to French incompetence. (Image source: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

“Although the Americans were an army of amateurs, French forces furnished them every possible opportunity to capture the formidable fortress of Louisbourg.”

By George Yagi Jr.

THE CAPTURE OF the seemingly impregnable Fortress of Louisbourg in 1745 has been heralded as the success of an army of amateurs and argued by some as a prelude to just what a force of colonials could accomplish against a major European power.

Louisbourg dominated the sea lanes into and out of St. Lawrence, which in the 18th Century provided access to the interior of the North American continent. (Image source: Google Maps)

Louisbourg dominated the sea lanes into and out of St. Lawrence, a vital waterway to the interior of the North American continent. (Image source: Google Maps)

Similarly, during the course of the French and Indian War, Massachusetts provincials enjoyed the reputation of having “a bold Warlike Genious,” according to British Quarter-Master General Sir John St. Clair. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, New Englanders solidified this image again during the Battles at Lexington and Concord. The steadfast minutemen driving the British army back into Boston became the stuff of national legend.

While colonial military prowess in the campaign of 1745 cannot be denied, during the capture of Fortress of Louisbourg, a key event in the four-year conflict known as King George’s War, they already enjoyed a major advantage – their French adversaries were poorly led, badly organized and utterly failed to perform their military duties. Consequently, although the Americans were an army of amateurs, French forces furnished them every possible opportunity to capture the formidable fortress of Louisbourg, often called “the Gibraltar of the North.”

Fortress Louisbourg. (Image: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

Fortress Louisbourg today. (Image: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

At the time of the invasion in May 1745, French forces at Louisbourg were under the command of Governor Louis Du Pont Duchambon. His appointment to that post owed much to fate; his predecessor, Jean-Baptiste-Louis Le Prévost Duquesnel, died suddenly the previous October. Inexperienced, indecisive, pessimistic and suffering from poor health, Duchambon was hardly a leader who could inspire confidence among his men. Although a career officer, Louisbourg would also mark his baptism of fire. Incompetent to an extreme, he did little to prepare its defenses, even though he had foreknowledge of the impending attack against his own outpost.

The defenders themselves were in an equally poor state of readiness. On December 27, 1744, the inhabitants of Louisbourg were awakened by the fortress’s drummers beating the call to arms throughout the town. No enemy forces had been sighted — the stand-to was sounded in response to a mutiny incited by Swiss mercenaries of the Régiment de Karrer.

Duchambon placated the rebels, however, the soldiers of the garrison continued to defy his authority until the arrival of the New Englanders. Although they agreed to defend the outpost if attacked, an anonymous habitant remarked, “we had no reason to rely on them… Such poorly disciplined Troops could scarcely inspire confidence in us… I decided that it was natural to mistrust them.”

In addition to an army of demoralized troops, Duchambon was joined by a body of local militia who, although determined to defend their homes, lacked sufficient training.

British troops embark for the invasion of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, 1745. (Image source: WikiCommons)

British troops embark for the invasion of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, 1745. (Image source: WikiCommons)

With the arrival of the British invaders in the spring of 1745, the French failed from the very onset of hostilities. Following much urging by a retired officer, Antoine La Poupet de La Boularderie, as well as the celebrated port captain and corsair, Pierre Morpain, the vacillating Duchambon agreed to dispatch troops to oppose the landing of the New Englanders. However, reluctant to risk a substantial part of his army, the French commander organized a meager detachment amounting to a total of 25 soldiers and 50 volunteers from among the militia. Upon their approach of the landing site on May 11, the small body of French troops discovered they had arrived too late. Finding themselves vastly outnumbered by force of 1,500 men, they quickly retreated to the safety of citadel. Adding to the failure, both Boularderie and Morpain were wounded in the skirmish, the former taken prisoner.

While initial contact with the enemy ended in defeat, actions taken at the Royal Battery proved even more disgraceful. As smoke from the nearby burning naval storehouses hung in the air, the outpost’s commander, Chassin de Thierry, dispatched a message across the harbor to Louisburg requesting permission to withdraw. Duchambon agreed. The guns were hastily spiked and their carriages left intact with shot readily available, which was supposed to have been disposed of in the harbor before retreating. When the fortification was captured by the New Englanders, they had little trouble bringing the guns back into working order.

On May 16, Major Seth Pomeroy recorded, “This Day I was ordered & had a Commission From ye General To over See Twenty odd Smith in Clearing ye Cannon Tutch holes yt ye Franch had Stopt up.”

The fortress commanded the harbour of Louisbourg. A battery on the north shore as well as one on the point opposite and the island in the mouth of the bay should have kept any attackers at arms length. It didn't. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The fortress commanded the harbour of Louisbourg. A battery on the north shore as well as one on the point opposite and the island in the mouth of the bay should have kept any attackers at arms length. It didn’t. (Image source: WikiCommons)

While French forces behaved dismally on land, so too did the navy at sea. Assigned to carry vital supplies of food and ammunition into Louisbourg, Captain Alexandre de La Maisonfort Du Boisdecourt and his 64-gun ship of the line, Vigilant, engaged the British blockade instead of sailing into the harbor on the afternoon of May 30. The brashness of La Maisonfort was unfortunate, as he was eventually overpowered by three separate vessels and the much needed stores were captured. Had these reached the besieged fortress, they would have proven invaluable to the French — gunpowder at the fort was in short supply. In addition, La Maisonfort’s 500 sailors were a formidable body of men, having severely damaged their attackers before the Vigilant was disabled. Their presence in the citadel would have doubled available French manpower. On witnessing the capture of the ship, the anonymous habitant summarized, “there was not one of us who did not curse such a poorly planned & imprudent manoeuvre.”

A view from Lighthouse point west towards the Fortress of Louisbourg, was was at the time the largest military outpost in the New World. (Image source: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

A view from Lighthouse point west towards the Fortress of Louisbourg, was was at the time the largest military outpost in the New World. (Image source: Fortress Louisbourg Association)

The final blow against Louisbourg came when the New Englanders erected a battery on Lighthouse Point to silence the Island Battery, which defended the harbor. French incompetence again assisted the invaders as ten heavy guns were recovered from a nearby cove used for ship repairs – Duchambon had failed to take measures to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Later realizing his mistake, he dispatched a detachment of 100 men to secure the ordnance, but much in the same manner as the landing, it was too late. The party was repulsed and the guns were promptly turned on the defenders.

The Battle of Louisbourg. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Battle of Louisbourg. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The fall of Louisbourg was largely due to poor French performance, which provided the army of amateurs the means of capturing the fortress. Considered impregnable, the citadel was dubbed “The Gibraltar of the North” and should have been able to withstand a prolonged siege.

Prior to the invasion, Benjamin Franklin warned: “Fortified towns are hard nuts to crack, and your teeth have not been accustomed to it… Some seem to think forts are easy taken as snuff.” While Louisbourg was by no means an effortless campaign for the New Englanders, the French made it much easier.

Dr. George Yagi Jr. is a historian at California’s University of the Pacific. His upcoming book explores Britain’s years of defeat during the Seven Years’ War. Follow him on Twitter @gyagi_jr

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