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New England Takes Fort Louisbourg in 1745

William PepperrellHISTORY MATTERS

By rights May 14 should be a Portsmouth holiday. That’s the day in 1745 that our guys fired the first shot against the French at Fort Louisbourg on a damp marshy peninsula in Cape Breton, Canada. By the end of June the siege was over. The British had won and we were the British. (Continued below)


The first major military victory in New England history is all but forgotten. The New England attack on Fort Louisbourg was led by a Kittery general, the richest man around. William Pepperrell’s portrait still looms large in the Portsmouth Athenaeum next to the life-sized portrait of his comrade-in-arms Peter Warren who commanded the British naval fleet. Nearly a thousand Yankees were left behind, dead largely from disease, starvation, and exposure. But New Englanders learned a valuable lesson; We discovered that, if called to an impossible mission, we could band together and win.

Louisbourg01In 1745, starting here, Pepperrell assembled the largest militia yet seen in the New World. An estimated 4,000 men volunteered from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. He would need them. Louisbourg was the most powerful and impenetrable fort on the Atlantic Coast.

It is difficult to fathom the impact of the Louisbourg victory today. The first problem is a matter of patriotism. We were British back then, not Americans, and the victory seems to belong to another nation. The second problem is geographical. We defeated New France? Where was that? The third problem is political. In the years following Louisbourg , New Englanders saw the French and Indians as enemies, then as allies in the American Revolution, then as enemies again in the ‘Quasi War” with France. Later they gave us the Statue of Liberty and we gave them “”freedom fries.”  Whose side are they on? The fourth problem is personal; we’ve forgotten our greatest local hero.

“When I was a boy,” Kittery historian Joe Frost used to say, “everyone wanted to be George Washington. But when George Washington was a boy, everyone wanted to be William Pepperrell.”

Maine was still part of Massachusetts and William Pepperrell (eventually the first colonial ever knighted by the British crown) was arguably the richest man in North America. Unassuming and likeable, Pepperrell was a successful merchant and judge. Heir to his father's fishing fortune begun at the Isles of Shoals,  Pepperrell could walk from Kittery to Saco, Maine without ever stepping off his own land. But our national memory for heroes prior to the Revolution is short.

With France and England again at war in 1744, somebody had to rout the French menace from its Canadian stronghold. Pepperrell, at first, flatly declined the job. But Royal Governor William Shirley of Massachusetts pressed harder. No one in New England had more resources and a better reputation. Pepperrell relented, but still had to convince enough men to do the job in an era with no standing colonial army.

Gov. Shirley launched a propaganda campaign that roused the locals and may sound familiar to modern ears. The sturdy fortress at Louisbourg, Shirley said, was a palpable threat to the lives of every New Englander. They had weapons of mass destruction. If we didn’t take them out first, they would certainly come for us. Fish were as valuable as oil is today, and the French could control the cod fishing industry from their Canadian outpost. A pre-emptive strike was the only solution, Shirley said.


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