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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.




Louisbourg was also an important geographical stronghold giving the French control over the St. Lawrence River and inland access to North America all the way to the Great Lakes. And there was cause for alarm. The French had recently attacked the British outpost at Canso in nearby Nova Scotia. A few Maine towns (Maine was part of Massachusetts then) had been terrorized by marauding French warships. But it wasn't until French privateers stationed at Louisbourg started picking off New England fishing boats and merchant ships that the locals took notice. That’s when the men of New Hampshire and surrounding states signed on with Gen. Pepperrell for $25 per month and a free blanket each. Ultimately, it was the thrill of adventure and looting a French fort that filled the transport ships with eager volunteers.  Many took it as a holy war. The largely Protestant New Englanders were certain that God favored them over the Catholic French in America.

Although Admiral Peter Warren became an English hero after the siege, much of the credit for victory must go to Pepperrell. According to the late Joe Frost, a direct descendant, Sir William was a truly popular guy, a “man's man” in a era when, unlike today, the commander-in-chief actually went to war. Although in his early 50s, Pepperrell personally accompanied his rag-tag militia of farm boys and fishermen, often speaking to them directly, and running the show with a loose hand.

The French were expecting British naval reprisal for their attack on Canso. The star-shaped fortress at Louisbourg made the perfect hide-out. What they hadn't expected was the sheer number of plucky New Englanders who sailed to the defense of their precious fishing grounds. They hadn't expected the troops to begin the siege by land, quickly knocking out the Royal Battery, the weakest defense point at the fort, and turning the French cannons on the city.


French soldiers inside Fort Louisbourgh /


Luckily for the French, there were few trained gunners. British guns were as likely to explode or misfire as to hit their mark. For many New Englanders, the trip was, initially, more like a holiday, than war. When not wasting ammunition with target practice, Pepperrell’s men might be wrestling, running foot races, drinking, or lounging about. The New England boys raided French homes and then enjoyed playing an early version of tennis, much to the chagrin of their general, Pepperrell dared not inflict harsh discipline for fear of losing control.

Life inside the fortress of Louisbourg was harsh even in the best of times with killing Nova Scotian winters and the cutting Atlantic winds. Food was always in short supply and the reluctant French soldiers defending the populace were often ragged, over-worked and poorly trained. Pepperrell and Warren, who often disagreed on strategy, knew a great deal about the workings and layout of the fortress. New England and British traders, defecting French soldiers and exchanged prisoners had documented its weaknesses. Highest on the list were the low soldier morale and crumbling fort walls that had been hastily rebuilt with wood. Worst, the whole city was vulnerable from a high ground attack on the King's Bastion.

So that's where Pepperrell eventually attacked, dragging cannon over swampy areas thought impossible to navigate. The siege itself lasted 45 days. A steady rain of shot battered the walls and terrorized the civilians inside. French accounts offer horrible details of suffering townspeople. One report tells of a baby, blown to pieces while sitting in his father's lap. The father was untouched, but the British cannon ball passed through a wall, killing two more children.

Soldiers on both sides of the battle were often so close they could taunt each other over the collapsing walls. Yankees offered the starving French some of King George’s bread and asked if there were any good-looking girls in side. "Come in and see for yourself!" the French called back.

Only 100 New Englanders died in battle, 60 of those in an abortive night raid to storm the badly damaged Dauphin's Gate. At the first attempt, the moon was too bright. At the second, the officers in charge did not show up. At the third, the men were too drunk to row. In the fourth, a noisy New Englander alerted French sentries who killed or captured most in the raiding party.

Inside Fort Louisbourg, Cape Breton/

In the end, the greater luck was with New England. After Warren captured a critically important French supply ship and Pepperrell got his guns to the high ground, the handwriting was on the fortress wall. The French surrendered to the British king. But it was the end of luck for the men of New England. The farmer boys and fishermen who won the day were then required to hold the fortress until the British regulars arrived. They did not show up until the following spring of 1746. Through the winter as many as 17 men died per day, a total of 800 Yankees dead and over 1,000 ill from cold and disease. Too tired and weak even to dig graves, New Englanders dropped the corpses of comrades beneath the floorboards of abandoned French homes.

Three years after the battle of Louisbourg, in a political maneuver, the British gave the fortress back to the French. This greatly angered the residents of New England, already ired by the needless loss of Yankee life following the siege. The men of New England, tested at Louisbourg, felt a growing territorial pride and a sense of American, not British, nationalism. With little more than willpower, New England had defeated a supposedly invincible foe. Evolving from a raucous gang of privateers, the colonies had worked together, been tested, and emerged more united.

Almost bankrupted by the costly raid, New Englanders finally collected the debts of war from Britain. Pepperrell became a major general in the French and Indian War, then briefly served as acting governor of Massachusetts. The British again battled France and retook Louisbourg in 1758, but Pepperrell was too old to fight and died the following year. This time the British knocked down the walls of the French fort. Following the second siege, the ruins of Louisbourg lay almost forgotten until a small museum was dedicated on the distant Cape Breton site in the early 20th century. Americans raised a memorial to a thousand dead on a rocky beach where it stands today.

And that would be the whole story, a footnote in the high school history texts of four nations. Then in the 1960s the Canadian government authorized a bold $25 million restoration project, the largest ever seen in North America at the time. Fortress Louisbourg has been rebuilt, timber by timber, stone by stone. Today one-fifth of the entire city stands on its original foundations, scrupulously renovated from millions of documents found in French archives.

Today Cape Breton re-enactors, men, women and children, walk purposefully through the streets of the fortress – feeding animals, baking bread, serving meals, guarding the gates. It is, for them, 1744 – the fateful year before the men from New England will arrive. Visiting Louisbourg is as close to the real thing as imagination gets – far more authentic than anything a Hollywood film or theme park can deliver.

Among the souvenirs taken from the first siege, according to historian Joe Frost, was the bell from a Louisbourg church. One of Pepperrell’s men donated the bell to the Queen’s Chapel, what is today St. John's Episcopal Church in Portsmouth. When St. John's burned in 1806, the Louisbourg bell was sent to Paul Revere in Boston for repair. Today the name Paul Revere still rings a bell with all Americans, while the bell from the Seige of Louisbourg jogs few memories in Portsmouth. Even the great Pepperrell legacy remains as foggy as the view from a Nova Scotian bay.

SOURCES & FURTHER READING: Louisbourg Colourguide by Susan Biagi (2001), Louisbourg From its Foundations to its Fall by JS, McLennan (1918), New Englanders Take Louisbourg (Cape Breton's Magazine, 1998), Sir William Pepperrell by Neil Rolde (1982), Yankees at Louisbourg by George Rawlyk (1999).


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson writes and lectures on NH history. His books are available at local bookstores and on Robinson is also editor and owner of the popular history Web site where this column appears exclusively online he is married to historian  Maryellen Burke.

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