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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Siege of Louisbourg

By Jeremy Belknap (1744–1798)

[Born in Boston, Mass., 1744. Died there, 1798. The History of New Hampshire. 1793.]

THE HARBOR of Louisbourg lies in latitude 45° 55′; its entrance is about four hundred yards wide. The anchorage is uniformly safe, and ships may run ashore on a soft muddy bottom. The depth of water at the entrance is from nine to twelve fathoms. The harbor lies open to the south-east. Upon a neck of land on the south side of the harbor was built the town, two miles and a quarter in circumference; fortified in every accessible part with a rampart of stone, from thirty to thirty-six feet high, and a ditch eighty feet wide. A space of about two hundred yards was left without a rampart, on the side next to the sea; it was enclosed by a simple dike and a line of pickets. The sea was so shallow in this place that it made only a narrow channel, inaccessible from its numerous reefs to any shipping whatever. The side fire from the bastions secured this spot from an attack. There were six bastions and three batteries, containing embrasures for one hundred and forty-eight cannon, of which sixty-five only were mounted, and sixteen mortars. On an island at the entrance of the harbor was planted a battery of thirty cannon, carrying twenty-eight pounds shot; and at the bottom of the harbor, directly opposite to the entrance, was the grand or royal battery of twenty-eight cannon, forty-two pounders, and two eighteen pounders. On a high cliff, opposite to the island battery, stood a lighthouse; and within this point, at the north-east part of the harbor, was a careening wharf secure from all winds, and a magazine of naval stores.

The town was regularly laid out in squares. The streets were broad; the houses mostly of wood, but some of stone. On the west side, near the rampart, was a spacious citadel, and a large parade; on one side of which were the Governor’s apartments. Under the rampart were casemates to receive the women and children during a siege. The entrance of the town on the land side was at the west gate, over a draw-bridge, near to which was a circular battery, mounting sixteen guns of twenty-four pounds shot.

These works had been twenty-five years in building; and though not finished, had cost the Crown not less than thirty millions of livres. The place was so strong as to be called “the Dunkirk of America.” It was, in peace, a safe retreat for the ships of France bound homeward from the East and West Indies; and in war, a source of distress to the northern English Colonies; its situation being extremely favorable for privateers to ruin their fishery and interrupt their coasting and foreign trade; for which reasons, the reduction of it was an object as desirable to them, as that of Carthage was to the Romans….

It has been said that a plan of this famous enterprise was first suggested by William Vaughan, a son of Lieutenant-Governor Vaughan of New Hampshire. Several other persons have claimed the like merit. How far each one’s information or advice contributed toward forming the design, cannot now be determined. Vaughan was largely concerned in the fishery on the eastern coast of Massachusetts. He was a man of good understanding, but of a daring, enterprising and tenacious mind, and one who thought of no obstacles to the accomplishment of his views. An instance of his temerity is still remembered. He had equipped, at Portsmouth, a number of boats to carry on his fishery at Montinicus. On the day appointed for sailing, in the month of March, though the wind was so boisterous that experienced mariners deemed it impossible for such vessels to carry sail, he went on board one, and ordered the others to follow. One was lost at the mouth of the river, the rest arrived with much difficulty, but in a short time, at the place of their destination. Vaughan had not been at Louisburg; but had learned from fishermen and others something of the strength and situation of the place; and nothing being in his view impracticable, which he had a mind to accomplish, he conceived a design to take the city by surprise; and even proposed going over the walls in the winter on the drifts of snow. This idea of a surprisal forcibly struck the mind of Shirley, and prevailed with him to hasten his preparations, before he could have any answer or orders from England….

The person appointed to command the expedition was William Pepperell, Esq. of Kittery, Colonel of a regiment of militia; a merchant of unblemished reputation and engaging manners, extensively known both in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and very popular. These qualities were absolutely necessary in the Commander of an army of volunteers, his own countrymen, who were to quit their domestic connections and employments, and engage in a hazardous enterprise, which none of them, from the highest to the lowest, knew how to conduct. Professional skill and experience were entirely out of the question; had these qualities been necessary, the expedition must have been laid aside; for there was no person in New England, in these respects qualified for the command. Fidelity, resolution and popularity must supply the place of military talents; and Pepperell was possessed of these. It was necessary that the men should know and love their General, or they would not enlist under him….

Before Pepperell accepted the command, he asked the opinion of the famous George Whitefield, who was then itinerating and preaching in New England. Whitefield told him, that he did not think the scheme very promising; that the eyes of all would be on him; that if it should not succeed, the widows and orphans of the slain would reproach him; and if it should succeed, many would regard him with envy, and endeavor to eclipse his glory; that he ought therefore to go with “a single eye,” and then he would find his strength proportioned to his necessity. Henry Sherburne, the Commissary of New Hampshire, another of Whitefield’s friends, pressed him to favor the expedition and give a motto for the flag; to which, after some hesitation, he consented. The motto was, “Nil desperandum Christo duce.” This gave the expedition the air of a crusade, and many of his followers enlisted. One of them, a Chaplain, carried on his shoulder a hatchet, with which he intended to destroy the images in the French churches.

There are certain latent sparks in human nature, which, by a collision of causes, are sometimes brought to light; and when once excited, their operations are not easily controlled. In undertaking anything hazardous, there is a necessity for extraordinary vigor of mind, and a degree of confidence and fortitude, which shall raise us above the dread of danger, and dispose us to run a risk which the cold maxims of prudence would forbid. The people of New England have at various times shown such an enthusiastic ardor, which has been excited by the example of their ancestors and their own exposed situation. It was never more apparent, and perhaps never more necessary, than on occasion of this expedition….

The instructions which Pepperell received from Shirley, were conformed to the plan which he had communicated to Wentworth, but much more particular and circumstantial. He was ordered to proceed to Canseau, there to build a block-house and battery, and leave two companies in garrison, and to deposit the stores which might not immediately be wanted by the army. Thence he was to send a detachment to the village of St. Peters, on the island of Cape Breton, and destroy it; to prevent any intelligence which might be carried to Louisbourg; for which purpose also, the armed vessels were to cruise before the harbor. The whole fleet was to sail from Canseau, so as to arrive in Chappeau-rouge bay about nine o’clock in the evening. The troops were to land in four divisions, and proceed to the assault before morning. If the plan for the surprisal should fail, he had particular directions where and how to land, march, encamp, attack and defend; to hold councils and keep records; and to send intelligence to Boston by certain vessels retained for the purpose, which vessels were to stop at Castle William, and there receive the Governor’s orders. Several other vessels were appointed to cruise between Canseau and the camp, to convey orders, transport stores, and catch fish for the army. To close these instructions, after the most minute detail of duty, the General was finally “left to act upon unforeseen emergencies according to his discretion;” which, in the opinion of military gentlemen, is accounted the most rational part of the whole. Such was the plan, for the reduction of a regularly constructed fortress, drawn by a lawyer, to be executed by a merchant at the head of a body of husbandmen and mechanics; animated indeed by ardent patriotism, but destitude of professional skill and experience. After they had embarked, the hearts of many began to fail. Some repented that they had voted for the expedition, or promoted it; and the most thoughtful were in the greatest perplexity.

The troops were detained at Canseau, three weeks, waiting for the ice which environed the island of Cape Breton to be dissolved. They were all this time within view of St. Peters, but were not discovered. Their provisions became short; but they were supplied by prizes taken by the cruisers. Among others, the New Hampshire sloop took a ship from Martinico, and retook one of the transports, which she had taken the day before. At length, to their great joy, Commodore Warren, in the Superbe, of sixty guns, with three other ships of forty guns each, arrived at Canseau, and having held a consultation with the General, proceeded to cruise before Louisbourg. The General, having sent the New Hampshire sloop to cover a detachment which destroyed the village of St. Peters, and scattered the inhabitants, sailed with the whole fleet; but instead of making Chappeau-rouge point in the evening, the wind falling short, they made it at the dawn of the next morning; and their appearance in the bay gave the first notice to the French of a design formed against them.

The intended surprisal being thus unhappily frustrated, the next thing after landing the troops was to invest the city. Vaughan, the adventurer from New Hampshire, had the rank and pay of a Lieutenant-Colonel, but refused to have a regular command. He was appointed one of the Council of War, and was ready for any service which the General might think suited to his genius. He conducted the first column through the woods, within sight of the city, and saluted it with three cheers. He headed a detachment, consisting chiefly of the New Hampshire troops, and marched to the north-east part of the harbor, in the night; where they burned the warehouses, containing the naval stores, and staved a large quantity of wine and brandy. The smoke of this fire being driven by the wind into the grand battery, so terrified the French, that they abandoned it and retired to the city, after having spiked the guns and cut the halliards of the flag-staff. The next morning as Vaughan was returning, with thirteen men only, he crept up the hill which overlooked the battery, and observed that the chimnies of the barrack were without smoke, and the staff without a flag. With a bottle of brandy, which he had in his pocket (though he never drank spirituous liquors), he hired one of his party, a Cape Cod Indian, to crawl in at an embrasure and open the gate. He then wrote to the General these words, “May it please your honor, to be informed, that by the grace of God, and the courage of thirteen men, I entered the royal battery, about nine o’clock, and am waiting for a reinforcement, and a flag.” Before either could arrive, one of the men climbed up the staff, with a red coat in his teeth, which he fastened by a nail to the top. This piece of triumphant vanity alarmed the city, and immediately a hundred men were despatched in boats to retake the battery. But Vaughan, with his small party, on the naked beach, and in the face of a smart fire from the city and the boats, kept them from landing, till the reinforcement arrived. In every duty of fatigue or sanguine adventure, he was always ready; and the New Hampshire troops, animated by the same enthusiastic ardor, partook of all the labors and dangers of the siege. They were employed for fourteen nights successively, in drawing cannon from the landing place to the camp, through a morass; and their Lieutenant-Colonel Messervè, being a ship carpenter, constructed sledges, on which the cannon were drawn, when it was found that their wheels were buried in the mire. The men, with straps over their shoulders, and sinking to their knees in mud, performed labor beyond the power of oxen; which labor could be done only in the night or in a foggy day; the place being within plain view and random shot of the enemy’s walls….

It has been said that “this siege was carried on in a tumultuary, random manner, resembling a Cambridge commencement.” The remark is in a great measure true. Though the business of the Council of War was conducted with all the formality of a legislative assembly; though orders were issued by the General, and returns made by the officers at the several posts, yet the want of discipline was too visible in the camp. Those who were on the spot, have frequently in my hearing, laughed at the recital of their own irregularities, and expressed their admiration when they reflected on the almost miraculous preservation of the army from destruction. They indeed presented a formidable front to the enemy; but the rear was a scene of confusion and frolic. While some were on duty at the trenches, others were racing, wrestling, pitching quoits, firing at marks or at birds, or running after shot from the enemy’s guns, for which they received a bounty, and the shot were sent back to the city. The ground was so uneven and the people so scattered, that the French could form no estimate of their numbers; nor could they learn it from the prisoners, taken at the island battery, who on their examination, as if by previous agreement, represented the number to be vastly greater than it was. The garrison of Louisbourg had been so mutinous before the siege, that the officers could not trust the men to make a sortie, lest they should desert; had they been united and acted with vigor, the camp might have been surprised and many of the people destroyed.

Much has been ascribed, and much is justly due to the activity and vigilance of Commodore Warren, and the ships under his command; much is also due to the vigor and perseverance of the land forces, and the success was doubtless owing, under God, to the joint efforts of both. Something of policy, as well as bravery, is generally necessary in such undertakings; and there was one piece of management, which, though not mentioned by any historian, yet greatly contributed to the surrender of the city.

The capture of the Vigilant, a French sixty-four gun ship, commanded by the Marquis de la Maison forte, and richly laden with military stores for the relief of the garrison, was one of the most capital exploits performed by the navy….

This event, with the erection of a battery on the high cliff at the lighthouse, under the direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Gridley, by which the island battery was much annoyed, and the preparations which were evidently making for a general assault, determined Duchambon to surrender; and accordingly, in a few days he capitulated.

Upon entering the fortress and viewing its strength, and the plenty and variety of its means of defence, the stoutest hearts were appalled, and the impracticability of carrying it by assault was fully demonstrated.

No sooner was the city taken, and the army under shelter, than the weather, which during the siege, excepting eight or nine days after the first landing, had been remarkably dry for that climate, changed for the worse; and an incessant rain of ten days succeeded. Had this happened before the surrender, the troops who had then begun to be sickly, and had none but very thin tents, must have perished in great numbers. Reinforcements of men, stores and provisions arrived, and it was determined in a Council of War to maintain the place and repair the breaches. A total demolition might have been more advantageous to the nation; but in that case, individuals would not have enjoyed the profit of drawing bills on the navy and ordnance establishments. The French flag was kept flying on the ramparts, and several rich prizes were decoyed into the harbor. The army supposed that they had a right to a share of these prizes; but means were found to suppress or evade their claim; nor did any of the Colony cruisers (except one), though they were retained in the service, under the direction of the Commodore, reap any benefit from the captures.

The news of this important victory filled America with joy, and Europe with astonishment. The enterprising spirit of New England gave a serious alarm to those jealous fears, which had long predicted the independence of the Colonies. Great pains were taken in England to ascribe all the glory to the navy, and lessen the merit of the army. However, Pepperell received the title of a Baronet, as well as Warren. The latter was promoted to be an Admiral; the former had a commission as Colonel in the British establishment, and was empowered to raise a regiment in America, to be in the pay of the Crown. The same emolument was given to Shirley, and both he and Wentworth acquired so much reputation as to be confirmed in their places. Vaughan went to England to seek a reward for his services, and there died of the small-pox. Solicitations were set on foot for a parliamentary reimbursement, which, after much difficulty and delay, was obtained; and the Colonies who had expended their substance were in credit at the British treasury. The justice and policy of this measure must appear to every one, who considers, that excepting the suppression of a rebellion within the bowels of the kingdom, this conquest was the only action which could be called a victory, on the part of the British nation, during the whole French war, and afforded them the means of purchasing a peace.