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Fortress of Louisbourg: the magnificent folly.


Are the streets being paved with gold over there?" Louis XV complained. "I fully expect to awake one morning in Versailles to see the walls of the fortress rising above the horizon." Well might he ask, for Louisbourg on the far-off coast of Ile Royale was a sinkhole for France's treasury.


Looming over the Atlantic on a narrow point of land at Havre l'Anglais on what is now Cape Breton Island, the fortress was begun in 1720 when Louis was only ten years old and it was still under construction in his early middle age--as he lounged in the arms of Madame Pompadour. Year after year, its spires slowly rose out- of the sea mists, a seemingly impregnable bastion meant to safeguard the heartland of New France. Year after year, too, officials embezzled money earmarked for its construction, and the costs of labour and building materials shipped from France continued to soar. Walls bulged, stones cracked and mortar melted away. More expensive than Pompadour, it would eventually drain his treasury of 30 million livres.

Known as the "Gibraltar of the West," the fortifications at Louisbourg were based upon the principles of defence developed by the renowned military engineer, Le Prestre de Vauban. They eventually enclosed a town area of some 57 acres with 30-foot-high masonry walls and a series of bastions bristling with 148 cannon. Smaller ramparts and gun emplacements guarded the entrance to the harbour. Marshes, Micmac Indians who were paid a livre apiece for enemy scalps, a glacis, ditch and covertway provided additional protection on the landward side.

Graced with a slender tower, the King's Bastion was Louisbourg's administrative and military centre and contained the governor's apartments, a chapel, officers' rooms, and quarters fur the garrison. The town boasted two-dozen inns and taverns, shops, brothels, a theatre, an icehouse, a hospital and a convent school. Rich and poor lived crowded together around the town. Commercial warehouses brimming with rum, sugar and tobacco from the West Indies abutted homes and public buildings and soldiers relaxed in taverns adjacent to the residences of the rich. The harbour was filled with fishing shallops and merchantmen. Fortress, and commercial centre, the cobblestone streets teemed with soldiers and sailors, merchants, fishermen, and bewigged royal officials and their ladies holding perfumed handkerchiefs to their noses as the breeze carried the reek of drying codfish across the town. The population waxed and waned by the season, reaching 4000 by mid-century.

The garrison, a mixed force of Compagnies Franches de la Marine and Swiss mercenaries, detested Louisbourg, cursing its isolation and perpetual fog. "A hideous country ... the most stony of any place on earth," one soldier called it. The common soldiers were treated abominably. Poorly paid and fed, they lived in unheated quarters so verminous that in summer they slept on the ramparts. Drunkenness was endemic. Officers, already surreptitiously trading wine and luxury goods to New England merchants, were granted the exclusive right to sell liquor and took a cut of the profits of taverns and brothels. Reduced to selling pieces of equipment on the black market or taking part-time civilian jobs on the fortifications, the troops were driven to mutiny in 1744 when a bibulous governor neglected to lay in sufficient provisions for the winter.

For years, New Englanders had looked upon Louisbourg with growing concern, but it took the outbreak of King George's War--part of the larger European War of Austrian Succession--to underscore the threat the fortress posed. French privateers began to operate out of Louisbourg, preying on coastal trade and seizing fishing boats. Annapolis Royal was attacked and, in May 1744, the settlement of Canso at the mouth of Chebucto Bay was captured and the garrison carried off to the fortress--a fatal error since this gave the English the opportunity to study its defences. The French gained little by the attacks. As one Louisbourg resident said: "The English might never have troubled us had we not affronted them first ... The inhabitants of New England wanted to live in peace with us. They would no doubt have done so had we not ill-advisedly deprived them of that security they felt toward us."


Despite Benjamin Franklin's warning that "fortified towns are hard nuts to crack, and your teeth are not accustomed to it," a rag-tag force of volunteers under the command of William Pepperell, a Boston lumberman, set sail for Louisbourg in April 1745 aboard a hastily-improvised flotilla of coastal traders and fishing vessels. Clerks, fishermen, farm boys, and students, few had any military experience. Cold and seasick, they met little resistance as they scrambled ashore in Gabarus Bay south of the town, dragging their cannon through the surf. Offshore, British warships blockaded the harbour under Sir Peter Warren, one of the first Englishmen to have a dim inkling of the fact that colonists could fight.

Undaunted by the reputation of the famous fortifications, more than 2,000 were soon ashore, setting up cannon on hillocks from which they could fire into the fortress. Others, harnessed together like oxen, manhandled their guns through the marshes then opened fire from the high ground behind Louisbourg. A group of French officers shouted insults and stood on the walls raising wine glasses in mock toasts until a cannon ball smashed into them, killing 14. Counter-battery fire from the fortress decapitated a gunner and gutted his mate. Appalled, one New Englander wrote of his first taste of war: "It is an awful thing to see men wounded and wollowing in their own blud and breething oute their last breths." The bridgehead secure, Pepperell landed the rest of his force the next morning.



Governor Louis Duchambon abandoned the outer works and withdrew his men into the fortress. Unfortunately, the guns of the Grand Battery which dominated the harbour had not been properly spiked, and within hours the New Englanders were using them to batter the Dauphin Gate. "The enemy saluted us with our own cannon," a soldier recalled, "and made a terrific fire, smashing everything within range." Inexperience sometimes led them to overcharge the guns, blowing the barrels and killing or maiming the crews. Day after day they blasted the walls. "Never was a place so mauled with cannon and shell," Pepperell said, noting that the town was hit by over 9000 cannon balls and 6000 bombs.

The destruction was tremendous, the once elegant streets and squares of the town were pounded into rubble- as civilians cowered in basements and bomb shelters. Cannon balls with hissing fuses rolled down the cobblestones and mortars exploded overhead showering death and destruction below. Not a single building remained intact. A lucky gunner shot away the bell in the citadel tower, the Marine offices on the quay collapsed alongside inns, shops, and homes. Morale, already shaky after the previous year's mutiny, hit bottom when the Vigilante, heavily laden with supplies for the garrison, was captured by Warren's fleet.

On June 27, after a seven-week bombardment, the French surrendered. With flags flying and muskets shouldered, Duchambon and his men marched out of the "impregnable bastion" and the New England militia marched in. Francois Bigot, the corrupt Intendant, left with the royal treasury of some four million livres among his "personal possessions." England and New England celebrated with ringing church bells and booming artillery salutes. Pepperell was knighted and Warren promoted. Three years later, their victory, "the people's darling conquest--the greatest Conquest that Ever was Gain'd by New England," was betrayed. Under the terms of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Louisbourg was returned to France in exchange for a trading post in India.

An ungrateful, untrustworthy England had swapped Louisbourg "for a trumpery factory in Madras."
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Title Annotation:BUILDING A NATION
Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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