Chronicles of America 

King George's War, 1739-1748

When, in 1744, open war between the two nations came at last in Europe, each prepared to spring at the other in America--and France sprang first. In Nova Scotia, on the narrow strait which separates the mainland from the island of Cape Breton, the British had a weak little fishing settlement called Canseau. Suddenly in May, 1744, when the British at Canseau had heard nothing of war, two armed vessels from Louisbourg with six or seven hundred soldiers and sailors appeared before the poor little place and demanded its surrender. To this the eighty British defenders agreed on the condition that they should be sent to Boston which, as yet, had not heard of the war. Meanwhile they were taken to Louisbourg where they kept their eyes open. But the French continued in their offensive. The one vital place held by the British in Nova Scotia was Annapolis, at that time so neglected that the sandy ramparts had crumbled into the ditch supposed to protect them, and cows from the neighboring fields walked up the slope and looked down into the fort. It was Duvivier, the captor of Canseau, who attacked Annapolis. He had hoped much for help from the Indians and the Acadians, but, though both seemed eager, both failed him in action. Paul Mascarene, who defended Annapolis, was of Huguenot blood, which stimulated him to fight the better against the Catholic French. Boston sent him help, for that little capital was deeply moved, and so Annapolis did not fall, though it was harassed during the whole summer of 1744; and New England; in a fever at the new perils of war, prepared a mighty stroke against the French.

This expedition was to undertake nothing less than the capture of Louisbourg itself. The colonial troops had been so often reminded of their inferiority to regular troops as fighting forces that, with provincial docility, they had almost come to accept the estimate. It was well enough for them to fight irregular French and Indian bands, but to attack a fortress defended by a French garrison was something that only a few bold spirits among them could imagine. Such a spirit, however, was William Vaughan, a Maine trader, deeply involved in the fishing industry and confronted with ruin from hostile Louisbourg. Shirley, the Governor of Massachusetts, a man of eager ambition, took up the proposal and worked out an elaborate plan. The prisoners who had been captured at Canseau by the French and interned at Louisbourg now arrived at Boston and told of bad conditions in the fortress. In January, 1745, Shirley called a session of the General Court, the little parliament of Massachusetts, and, having taken the unusual step of pledging the members to secrecy, he unfolded his plan. But it proved too bold for the prudent legislators, and they voted it down. Meanwhile New England trade was suffering from ships which used Louisbourg as a base. At length public opinion was aroused and, when Shirley again called the General Court, a bare majority endorsed his plan. Soon thereafter New England was aflame. Appeals for help were sent to England and, it is said, even to Jamaica. Shirley counted on aid from a British squadron, under Commodore Peter Warren, in American waters, but at first Warren had no instructions to help such a plan. This disappointment did not keep New England from going on alone. In the end Warren received instructions to give the necessary substantial aid, and he established a strict blockade which played a vital part in the siege of the French fortress.

In this hour of deadly peril Louisbourg was in not quite happy case. Some of the French officers, who, would otherwise have starved on their low pay, were taking part in illicit trade and were neglecting their duties. Just after Christmas in 1744, there had been a mutiny over a petty question of butter and bacon. Here, as in all French colonies, there were cliques, with the suspicions and bitterness which they involve. The Governor Duchambon, though brave enough, was a man of poor judgment in a position that required both tact and talent. The English did not make the mistake of delaying their preparations. They were indeed so prompt that they arrived at Canseau early in April and had to wait for the ice to break up in Gabarus Bay, near Louisbourg, where they intended to land. Here, on April 30, the great fleet appeared. A watcher in Louisbourg counted ninety-six ships standing off shore. With little opposition from the French the amazing army landed at Freshwater Cove.

Then began an astonishing siege. The commander of the New England forces, William Pepperrell, was a Maine trader, who dealt in a little of everything, fish, groceries, lumber, ships, land. Though innocent of military science, he was firm and tactful. A British officer with strict military ideas could not, perhaps, have led that strange army with success. Pepperrell knew that he had good fighting material; he knew, too, how to handle it. In his army of some four thousand men there was probably not one officer with a regular training. Few of his force had proper equipment, but nearly all his men were handy on a ship as well as on land. In Louisbourg were about two thousand defenders, of whom only five or six hundred were French regulars. These professional soldiers watched with contempt not untouched with apprehension the breaches of military precedent in the operations of the besiegers. Men harnessed like horses dragged guns through morasses into position, exposed themselves recklessly, and showed the skill, initiative, and resolution which we have now come to consider the dominant qualities of the Yankee. In time Warren arrived with a British squadron and then the French were puzzled anew. They could not understand the relations between the fleet and the army, which seemed to them to belong to different nations. The New Englanders appeared to be under a Governor who was something like an independent monarch. He had drawn up elaborate plans for his army, comical in their apparent disregard of the realities of war, naming the hour when the force should land "unobserved" before Louisbourg, instructing Pepperrell to surprise that place while every one was asleep, and so on. Kindly Providence was expected even to give continuous good weather. "The English appear to have enlisted Heaven in their interests," said a despairing resident of the town; "so long as the expedition lasted they had the most beautiful weather in the world." There were no storms; the winds were favorable; fog, so common on that coast, did not creep in; and the sky was clear.

Among the French the opinion prevailed that the English colonists were ferocious pirates plotting eternally to destroy the power of France. Their liberty, however, it was well understood, had made them strong; and now they quickly became formidable soldiers. Their shooting, bad at first, was, in the end, superb. Sometimes in their excess of zeal they overcharged their cannon so that the guns burst. But they managed to hit practically every house in Louisbourg, and since most of the houses were of wood there was constant danger of fire. Some of the French fought well. Even children of ten and twelve helped to carry ammunition.

The Governor Duchambon tried to keep up the spirits of the garrison by absurd exaggeration of British losses. He was relying much on help from France, but only a single ship reached port. On May 19, 1745, the besieged saw approaching Louisbourg a great French ship of war, the Vigilant, long looked for, carrying 64 guns and 560 men. A northwest wind was blowing which would have brought her quickly into the harbor. The British fleet was two and a half leagues away to leeward. The great ship, thinking herself secure, did not even stop to communicate with Louisbourg but wantonly gave chase to a small British privateer which she encountered near the shore. By skillful maneuvering the smaller ship led the French frigate out to sea again, and then the British squadron came up. From five o'clock to ten in the evening anxious men in Louisbourg watched the fight and saw at last the Vigilant surrender after losing eighty men. This disaster broke the spirit of the defenders, who were already short of ammunition. When they knew that the British were preparing for a combined assault by land and sea, they made terms and surrendered on the 17th of June, after the siege had lasted for seven weeks. The garrison marched out with the honors of war, to be transported to France, together with such of the civilian population as wished to go.

The British squadron then sailed into the harbor. Pepperrell's strange army, ragged and war-worn after the long siege, entered the town by the south gate. They had fought as crusaders, for to many of them Catholic Louisbourg was a stronghold of Satan. Whitfield, the great English evangelist, then in New England, had given them a motto--Nil desperandum Christo duce. There is a story that one of the English chaplains, old Parson Moody, a man of about seventy, had brought with him from Boston an axe and was soon found using it to hew down the altar and images in the church at Louisbourg. If the story is true, it does something to explain the belief of the French in the savagery of their opponents who would so treat things which their enemies held to be most sacred. The French had met this fanaticism with a savagery equally intense and directed not against things but against the flesh of men. An inhabitant of Louisbourg during the siege describes the dauntless bravery of the Indian allies of the French during the siege: "Full of hatred for the English whose ferocity they abhor, they destroy all upon whom they can lay hands." He does not have even a word of censure for the savages who tortured and killed in cold blood a party of some twenty English who had been induced to surrender on promise of life. The French declared that not they but the savages were responsible for such barbarities, and the English retorted that the French must control their allies. Feeling on such things was naturally bitter on both sides and did much to decide that the war between the two nations should be to the death.

The fall of Louisbourg brought great exultation to the English colonies. It was a unique event, the first prolonged and successful siege that had as yet taken place north of Mexico. An odd chance of war had decreed that untrained soldiers should win a success so prodigious. New England, it is true, had incurred a heavy expenditure, and her men, having done so much, naturally imagined that they had done everything, and talked as if the siege was wholly their triumph. They were, of course, greatly aided by the fleet under Warren, and the achievement was a joint triumph of army and navy. New England alone, however, had the credit of conceiving and of arousing others to carry out a brilliant exploit.

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