Authors: Jennifer Crump
Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000
The French soldiers attacked a small New England fishing fort at Canso, captured it, and took several captives back to Louisbourg. Then they turned their attention to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, with the intention of liberating Acadia from the British. But the French were outmanned and outgunned and the Acadians showed little enthusiasm for the cause. After a half-hearted attack, the French withdrew back to Louisburg.
The New Englanders were still hesitant to attack Louisburg. A secret ballot held in both the senate and the legislature denied the governor the power to launch an invasion. The fortress, their experts argued, was too strong, too impenetrable; the invasion of Canso was regrettable, but in the end it was not worth a war. But the Puritan public, already irritated by the close and competing presence of French speaking papists, forced another vote and finally the invasion was approved. Governor Shirley wrote to his neighbours requesting their support. Massachusetts sent over 3,000 men, New Hampshire and Connecticut sent 500 each.
The force gathered at Canso and waited impatiently for the ice to thaw. While they waited the officers attempted to drill their men, and preachers shouted outdoor sermons lauding the soldier's courage and the justness of the mission. Sometimes the cacophony made it difficult to distinguish between preacher and officer. As one diarist put it, “Severall sorts of Busnesses [
] was a-Going on: Sum a-Exercising, Sum a-Hearing o' the Preaching.”
By the time the New Englanders began to gather at Canso, Louisburg was already eroding from within. Because they were caught up in battles closer to home, France had failed to adequately supply or repair the fort. In December, the small force of regular soldiers at the fort, a mere 560 men, mutinied after discovering that government officials were cheating them out of their rations. The mutiny was diffused, but the cheating continued and government and military officials regarded each other with growing resentment. The only other defenders were the militia, which comprised the largest part of Louisburg's fighting force and included nearly every Cape Bretoner who could stand and hold a musket. There were young boys and old men, nearly 1,300 in all.
Despite the clear rumblings that warned of an imminent invasion, little was being done within the fort to prepare. Councils of war were called and there was a lot of discussion, but no action was taken. Instead, they waited for reinforcements. France had promised an additional 2,000 troops to launch a full-scale invasion of Acadia. Rumours of the imminent arrival of a Quebec guerrilla fighter named Marin, along with a small force of First Nation and Quebec fighters, buoyed the residents of Louisbourg. It could only be a matter of time before the French soldiers arrived. Unfortunately for Louisbourg, neither Marin nor the promised French reinforcements arrived.
Within the walls of the fort, life continued in much the same way it always had. The civilian population, which easily equalled that of the military, continued to work, trade, and live their lives. Their confidence returned as the threat of invasion seemed to fade. The fortress was, after all, impenetrable.
A few worried voices did reach out to France, chiefly that of an anonymous inhabitant of Louisbourg who warned of the imminent invasion and the ill-equipped fort that would attempt to repel it. The warning went unheeded. The expected reinforcements from France failed to arrive and the New Englanders launched their attack. Luck, wrote the habitant, was clearly on the side of the New Englanders. Even the weather co-operated. “The English â¦ seemed to have enlisted heaven in their interests,” he wrote. “So long as the expedition lasted, they enjoyed the most beautiful weather in the world.”
The wild winds that usually whipped the Cape Breton coastline abated, the fog that enshrouded it lifted. On the morning of March 14, the habitant watched in horror as host of British American ships entered the bay, coming from all directions: Acadia, Boston, Placentiaâ¦. The invasion had begun.
Although the habitant, locked securely in the fortress of Louisbourg, could not have known it, two French ships did eventually try to come to the rescue of Louisbourg. The first, the
had been sent in January and was forced to wait until the ice had broken up before it could reach the area. Finally, at the end of March it sailed by Canso, where it caught the attention of the English who pursued the ship until its captain finally gave up and returned to France. A second French ship, the
was dispatched loaded with provisions and carrying a full contingent of reinforcements, some 600 men. The
sailed into Louisbourg harbour on May 20 and again the British gave chase. A fierce battle raged through the day and night, and finally the French ship struck its colours. No more reinforcements would be sent; Louisbourg was on its own.
On board one of the English ships was a merchant named William Pepperell, who had been handpicked by Governor Shirley to lead the expedition. Pepperell, like most of the Massachusetts militia, had no military experience, but he was well respected, sensible, and committed to the cause. The mission itself had begun to take on almost a crusade-like atmosphere as religious leaders in the colonies whipped up anti-Catholic and anti-French fervour. One of the chief advocates of these sentiments was the evangelical leader George Whitfield. But despite his zealous support for the cause in his pulpit, Whitfield had warned his friend Pepperell that he would be envied if he succeeded and abused if he failed.
Both men believed the latter was the far likelier outcome.
Carefully hiding any misgivings he may have had, Pepperell sailed his flotilla into Gabarus Bay, alongside four ships commanded by the British Commodore Peter Warren. Almost immediately the bells of Louisbourg began to peel out a warning and a canon fired a single shot. Citizens from the surrounding countryside scurried to safety behind the fortress' great walls. Also inside, the anonymous habitant decried the ill-conceived French raid on Canso. “The English would perhaps not have troubled us if we had not first affronted them,”
he wrote. The habitant appeared to have an intimate knowledge of the fortress and had reservations about its ability to withstand an assault. In his letter he refers to several unrepaired breaches in the walls of the Royal Battery. In his official report the acting governor of Louisbourg admitted that many outer defences had been destroyed in advance of a longer term plan to rebuild them.
Unfortunately for Louisbourg, Governor Shirley was also very familiar with the fortress's flaws. The prisoners taken at Canso had returned from Louisbourg with a detailed description of the fort, and the information they lacked was supplied by the many merchants who had carried on an illicit and very profitable trade with the fort for years. Shirley gathered this information and drafted a complex plan of attack for Pepperell to follow. The plan was an interesting one. It called for Pepperell to make his landing at night. Once on land, the force would separate into four parts. The first two would advance toward the walls in complete silence. The third would approach the Royal Battery and also wait in complete silence for a prearranged signal. The final silent group would approach the fort from the beach, climb the walls, and capture the governor. Shirley expected all of that to be accomplished undetected and in unfamiliar territory.
Pepperell might have lacked military experience but he certainly recognized a ludicrous military plan when he heard one. After a quick feint that drew the French in another direction, he landed his troops several kilometres to the southwest of the fort in the daylight, setup camp, and dispatched troops to do some reconnaissance. The troops raided nearby farms and then discovered and set fire to the naval storehouses. Then their commander, William Vaughn, made camp for the night, allowing his men to scatter and find their own way back. By morning there were only 13 men remaining. Rather than risk running into a French advance force, he decided to return to Pepperell and the main camp. On their way they passed to the rear of the Royal Battery. No smoke rose from fires, no guards walked the rampart, only silence called to them from behind the high walls. Vaughn and his 13 soldiers crept closer, but there was still no sign of life from within the battery. They bribed a local Mi'kmaq who, feigning drunkenness, stumbled up to the gate of the fort. He found the entire battery deserted. The French soldiers, shaken by the fires and the blinding smoke of the burning naval storehouses, had slipped away in the night.
Vaughn marched his small band of men into the fort and one of the youngest shimmied up the flag pole, tore down the French blue, and replaced it with his own red jacket. Vaughn then penned a quick letter to Pepperell requesting a proper flag and few additional men to hold the battery. They also discovered that the French had made a fateful mistake in their hasty abandoning of the Royal Battery.
They had failed to spike the guns or destroy the stores, leaving the invaders with easy access to arms and munitions, both of which they immediately turned on Louisbourg with devastating effect. Within the fortress walls, the booming guns of the Royal Battery wreaked havoc as houses collapsed and the inhabitants ran in terror into the streets.
Pepperell then set his sights on Louisbourg itself. Within sight of his encampment lay the perfect venue from which to launch an attack on the fortress city: the high hills that surrounded its walls. But between Pepperell and the hills lay exposure to Louisbourg's formidable guns and a deep, murky bog that stretched for several kilometres. The first attempt made by the army to cross it ended disastrously with the colonists' guns lost in the thick mud. Finally, one of the soldiers designed a gun-sleigh that could be pulled across the marsh. Up to 200 men manned each sleigh, making slow, painful progress across the wet bog. Orders from their superiors had them travelling only at night or under cover of one of Louisbourg's notorious fogs. Experience eventually taught them to take a different route every time, since crossing the bog twice in the same location turned the ground into an impassable soup. Each morning, as the sun rose over the ocean, the soldiers, wet, cold, and exhausted, would take refuge behind a boulder or tree and try to sleep as the French shells landed all around them. Then, as darkness fell, they would pick up their ropes and continue their trek toward the hills.
Pirates and Privateers
Pirate attacks were a frequent, and occasionally fatal, annoyance during the War
of 1812. In fact, Canadian pirates, sanctioned by local governments and the British
navy, helped win the battle for the Atlantic coast, capturing dozens of American ships
and winning a fortune in prizes for their owners.
But the War of 1812 was not the only time that pirates sailed Canadian waters.
Eighteenth century French privateers regularly harried the Massachusetts coast from
their home port at Fort Louisbourg. These pirates were also a key participant in the
defence of Port Royal and Louisbourg from the English who would have taken it. Ca-
nadian privateers were also active throughout the Napoleonic Wars. When the French
disrupted Nova Scotia's profitable trade with the West Indies, Canadian pirates re-
taliated by attacking French and Spanish merchant ships. That venture proved even
more profitable than the original trade with the West Indies had been. The Rover was
the most infamous of the Canadian pirate ships of that time. It quickly established a
reputation as a ship with a crew as ruthless and they were undefeatable, even against
incredible odds. Working alone, the crew of the Rover once attacked a convoy of seven
merchant ships, seizing three of them; in another instance it engaged three Spanish
warships and defeated all of them.
With its numerous isolated settlements and expansive coastline, Canada was
also a favourite hunting ground for pirates from other nations, particularly in the
earliest days. One of the first pirate attacks occurred in 1582 when a pair of English
pirates raided Portuguese and Spanish fishermen on the Avalon Peninsula. In 1668,
Dutch privateers twice raided the Avalon, burning ships, houses, and chattel in the
harbour and briefly taking St. John's. But when they returned in 1673 the people of
St. Johns were ready for them. They laid a heavy chain across the harbour that caught
and held the Dutch ships. Before they could disengage themselves, the men of St. John's
sent a small flotilla of fire ships toward the Dutch pirates, burning several of them to
the waterline and forcing the rest back out into the Atlantic.
By May 4, the colonials had set up a battery on Green Hill, less than 1,500 metres from Louisbourg. They had also managed to turn several of the guns from the abandoned Royal Battery back onto Louisbourg. The soldiers continued to roll the guns toward the hills, setting up batteries and not slowing until they set up their final advance battery less than 225 metres from the west gate of Louisbourg. It seemed, at least for a few moments, that Louisbourg might collapse easily and quickly. Within Louisbourg itself, the prospects seemed bleak. Soldiers and citizens alike took refuge when the shelling was at its most intense and crept out during the occasionally lightening of the barrage to repair the damage. It was a futile task. The shells fell almost continuously and building after building was destroyed. By the time siege ended just one house remained standing.
Provisions were scarce. For days no one had ventured from the fortress and no relief ships had found their way in. No reinforcements arrived from Annapolis or France. The men, women, and children of Louisbourg were on their own. Food was scarce and strictly rationed with the choices bits saved for the officers and government officials. From outside the walls they heard the taunts of the British soldiers only metres from their front gate. The defiant return taunts of their own soldiers did little to buoy their spirits. No action was taken; no soldiers marched to meet the enemy. There were rumours that the French governor had received a demand for surrender from the English and that he had turned it down, there were countless councils of war but nothing seemed to happen. Instead, they waited, hungry, exhausted, and terrified. Whether they waited for reinforcements or rescue no one was really certain. The only thing they could be sure of was that the colonists waited outside their doorstep and on nearly every hill surrounding the city that was crumbling around them.