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Fall Of Fortress At Louisbourg Signals Beginning Of The End


The growing French population in Acadia might not have been so bothersome to the British if they had been isolated from other Frenchmen. But while the Acadians had pledged neutrality in a shooting war, they continued regular commerce with French neighbors at Louisbourg, one of the strongest forts in North America.

Military historian Fairfax Downey described it this way:

"Guardian of the approaches of the St. Lawrence River, gateway to the heart of French Canada, Louisbourg also stood sentinel over the immensely valuable cod fisheries of the Banks. (It was) hailed as another Gilbraltar... (and) the guns of Louisbourg menaced the lifelines of the New England colonies."

According to Charles Mahaffie, Isle Royale, the town of 2,000 residents that grew up next to the protecting walls of the fortress, "was remarkable for its sophistication, its commerce, and its military display....(In 1739), the Fleur-de-lis atop the clock tower overlooked a crowded harbor, lively streets, block after block of substantial buildings....Men of wealth and position gambled and intrigued. Their wives and daughters gossiped and flirted. The aristocrat and the would-be aristocrat strutted and postered like their counterparts at Versailles, while artisans, petty tradesmen, laborers, and servants knew and kept their places in a community as ordered as Paris. Louisbourg's merchants fattened on commerce that outstripped all the ports of North America, save Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Its soldiers gloried in lofty battlements, glowering cannon, and a fearsome reputation. This was a stronghold that everyone believed impregnable."

He continues, "The French king's American domain now included not only Isle Royale and Isle St. Jean and the original New France stretching along the St. Lawrence but also Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley, the Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, and St. Barthelemy, the part of Hispaniola that is now Haiti, a piece of St. Martin, and a steamy South American foothold in what is now called French Guiana. The products of the New World empire were furs from the continent's woods and streams, fish from the North Atlantic and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and sugar and molasses from the West Indies. At Louisbourg, the trading routes met. Ships riding the Gulf Stream and the westerlies to Europe from the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean sailed northeast to make their crossing at the latitude of Cape Breton. Ships from Quebec leaving the Gulf of St. Lawrence via Cabot Strait had to pass by Louisbourg....Louisbourg was an entre port, a transportation center and a hub for ships trading among the mother country, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and Canada."

It was a place both feared and envied by the British in New England, and the New Englanders looked for a chance and a way to do away with it.

The War of Austrian Succession, another of those European disputes about whose heirs will sit on which throne, provided the opportunity. England and France were on opposite sides of the fracas, and, as always, the fighting spilled over into North America.

Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts saw this as the chance to take Louisbourg, and thought that he could muster enough firepower to do it. He invited colonists from as far south as Pennsylvania to join an expedition to take the fort. Only New Englanders showed up, but they showed up in numbers. William Pepperell of Kittery, Maine, a merchant and lumberman with little military experience, was named commander of the expedition. In April 1745 he set sail with 4,200 men aboard 90 ships. They reached Louisbourg on April 28.

They were about to take on the fortress that French propaganda had declared impregnable. Unfortunately for the French, government ministers in France believed it themselves.

Bad weather and other delays to the British fleet gave the French time to prepare for the attack. Jean Frederic Phelippeaux, Comte de Maurepas, France's Minister of Marine, got word of the planned British invasion, but decided that the fort was strong enough, without any help from France. He waited until it was too late to send French Navy ships to help out in the fight.

According to Downey, Louisbourg was also troubled because of the "gross incompetence of (Governor Louis Depont Duchambron), in whose hands rested the safety of Louisbourg."

As the attack loomed, his garrison was in mutiny over lack of pay and poor provisions. He was outmanned even if the garrison would fight, and - despite that - he turned down reinforcements from Quebec. Even as the British sailed into sight and prepared to land troops, the governor and his key lieutenants were dancing the night away at a ball at Duchambron's palace.

Duchambron and Maurepas thought that the brutal crossfire that could be poured from the fortress guns and a battery of cannon across the harbor from it would keep away any British fleet and prevent armed enemies from coming ashore. They were right. But the British were sneaky.

Pepperell had better sense than to try to sail through the French crossfire. He planned to put his troops ashore at Flat Point, three miles west of the fort. Duchambron saw what they were going to do, but he also remembered the mutinous state of mind of most of his soldiers. As the British were landing, the fortress was not only working to keep them out, it was also holding in French soldiers who would never come back if they were allowed outside the walls.

Duchambron had only a handful of men whom he could trust outside the fort's walls. Captain Louis Morpain led these men out of the fort to block the British landing. He got to Flat Point in time to dig in and wait for the enemy rowing longboats filled with soldiers toward the shore.

The small French force was in good position and could probably have picked apart the larger British force as it neared the shore. But, suddenly, the British veered away as though they would not risk the boiling surf at Flat Point's rocky coast. It was a trick. While Morpain had been preoccupied with the longboats heading to Flat Point, the British had lowered more boats from their ships and were rowing hard for Fresh Water Cove, two miles to the west. The boats from Flat Point were on their way to join this invading force. Morpain and his men dashed down the coast, but arrived at Fresh Water Cove too late. A large British force was already ashore, and more of their boats were heading to the beach. Pepperell soon established a beachhead. Louisbourg had been flanked. With no French naval fleet to challenge the British ships, they were able to unload men and cannons at leisure. It was only a matter to time before the "impregnable" Louisbourg fortress would be forced to surrender.

News of the fall of the great fortress reached Boston at one o'clock on the morning of July 3, 1745. Clanging church bells and booming cannon awoke the town and the townsfolk began a celebration that spread across New England.

The news also spread into Acadia, where farmfolk, though less sophisticated than their merchant neighbors, recognized bad news when they heard it.