Military history


Amherst at Louisbourg


ALTHOUGH MONTCALM heard nothing of it until September, Louisbourg had been in British hands since July 26. Jeffery Amherst had begun operations against Cape Breton Island immediately upon his arrival, landing troops at Gabarus Bay about four miles southwest of the fortress on June 8. As they came ashore in heavy surf and under fire from entrenched French defenders, only luck prevented the British from suffering a defeat as devastating as Abercromby’s. Wolfe, who commanded the operation, thought it “a rash and ill-advised attempt to land,” and believed that it succeeded “by the greatest of good fortune imaginable.” Because the French fell back to the safety of the city once the landings were well under way, the British suffered only about a hundred casualties, and by the evening of that same day they had taken up positions in a long arc just outside the reach of Louisbourg’s guns. From that point onward, bad weather, rough terrain, and the determined opposition of the city’s defenders slowed the progress of the siege to a crawl. 1

Louisbourg was a typical eighteenth-century fortress and no more than middle-sized by European standards, but so formidable in its New World setting that it had been called “the American Dunkirk” and “the Gibraltar of the North.” The fortress and two outlying artillery batteries guarded the entrance to a large, sheltered harbor within which eleven French warships (including five ships of the line) rode at anchor, displaying hundreds of cannon to discourage Admiral Boscawen’s Royal Navy fleet from trying to force an entrance. Two bastions (King and Queen) and two half-bastions (Dauphin and Princess) defended Louisbourg’s landward wall, mounting cannon that could sweep the outer defenses, glacis, and ditch clear of assaulting infantrymen. Manning the bastions and walls were eight battalions of regular infantry, twenty-four companies of troupes de la marine, and two companies of artillerists, plus the town militia and the sailors and marines from the ships in the harbor: in all nearly six thousand men. 2


The assault landing at Louisbourg, June 8, 1758. This sketch depicts the three divisions of the invading force just before troops under Wolfe’s command landed at the cove on the left. The French had, as an annotation says, “very Strong breast works and Cannon Mounted” along the shore. In heavy surf and under fire, Wolfe tried to call off the landing, but a boat commander misinterpreted the signal and ran his craft ashore anyway; seeing this accidental success, Wolfe reversed himself and led the remaining boats in, to land at the same point. That night the invaders established their siege camp in the vicinity of the creek (Fresh Water Brook) at the center, two miles from the city. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Louisbourg was an impressive adversary, but like all Vauban-style fortresses, it was vulnerable to an attack conducted according to the principles of siege craft that Vauban himself had perfected. Every professional European officer knew the rules and rituals of that epitome of eighteenth-century civilized warfare, the siège en forme. Once the commander of the attacking force had formally notified the defending commander that he intended to invest his position, and after the defenders had responded with defiance (as honor demanded), the attackers would withdraw beyond cannon range to begin digging the network of trenches that would seal the fate of any fortress, unless relief came from outside. First a parallel trench, opposite one of the fortress walls; then a sap, or approach trench, running toward the wall; then a second parallel; another sap; a third parallel; and so on, until cannon, hauled forward through the trenches, could be brought close enough to form breaching batteries that would pound the walls and bastions of the fort to rubble.


The Siege of Louisbourg, June 8–July 26, 1758. This map, from Rocque’s Set of Plans and Forts, accurately depicts both the formidable land-side defenses of Louisbourg and the three parallels of the British siege lines, at the upper right. (The illustration is oriented with north at the bottom.) Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

As the besieging forces inched closer, protected by their trenches—or by gabions, huge earth-filled wicker baskets thrown up where the ground refused to yield to picks and shovels—the defenders would rain artillery and musket fire on them; launch spoiling raids, or sorties, from the fortress; and work day and night to repair the damage to the walls. Everything the defenders could do, however, only served to delay the inevitable, for no unrelieved fortress could indefinitely withstand a well-supplied siege. Vauban had calculated that a properly invested fortress should be able to hold out no longer than forty days if cut off from external aid.3 By the middle of the eighteenth century the virtual certainty of a siege’s outcome was so well known that these ponderous minuets almost never ended with the attackers storming through broken walls and slaughtering fortresses’ last starved defenders. Instead, garrison commanders who believed that they had satisfied the demands of honor generally asked to be granted terms of surrender that comported with the stoutheartedness of their defense. If the siege had been a long one, the victor would respond with terms like those Montcalm had offered at Fort William Henry in 1757: the defenders would be allowed to keep their colors, personal property, small arms, and perhaps even a symbolic cannon, and would be allowed to withdraw on parole—that is, having given their word that they would not appear in arms for a stated period—without being made prisoners of war.

More than any other siege of the war in America, Louisbourg in 1758 offered the opportunity to operate in strict accordance with these rules. The city held out steadfastly for more than six weeks against besiegers whose techniques conformed exactly to the precepts Vauban had set down in his essay On the Attack and Defense of Fortified Places. Immediately after landing on June 8, the British began to dig their first parallel trenches. By the twelfth Wolfe had driven the last of the defenders back to the city from the outlying works and batteries around the harbor. On the nineteenth the first British cannon opened fire, from extreme range, on the city’s bastions and the ships in the harbor. The digging of parallels and saps went forward relentlessly until, on July 3, batteries had been erected within six hundred yards of the city’s landward wall. By the sixth British shells—mortar bombs and incendiaries—were falling within the walls of the city. In growing desperation, and without much effect, the French tried launching night sorties against the enemy batteries. Day after day the shelling continued; night after night the digging went on. On July 21, a red-hot cannonball struck one of the French ships of the line at anchor in the harbor and detonated the powder in its magazine. The vessel and its two nearest neighbors burned to the water line.4

By this time fire was taking as inexorable a toll on the city as on the ships. On July 22 the King’s Bastion, key to the landward defenses of the city, burned; under a rain of red-hot shot from the British guns, buildings within the walls were going up in flames faster than fire crews could put them out. On the night of the twenty-fifth, concealed by a heavy fog, sailors from Boscawen’s fleet entered the harbor in boats and boarded the two remaining ships of the line, burning one and towing the other to safety across the harbor. The capture of this second vessel—the sixty-four–gun Bienfaisant, which was not only the last surviving line-of-battle ship but also the squadron’s flagship—struck a heavy blow to the morale of Louisbourg’s defenders. But it was the next twelve hours, during which at least a thousand rounds of British shot and shell landed within the city, that convinced Louisbourg’s governor, the chevalier de Drucour, that further resistance was folly. Already nearly a third of the defending garrison was out of action, since four hundred soldiers had been killed under the bombardment and more than thirteen hundred had been incapacitated by wounds or disease. Thus on the morning of the twenty-sixth, with only four serviceable cannon left in the last working battery of the last bastion, with six British ships of the line making sail to enter the harbor and shell the town from its undefended water side, and with a breaching battery preparing to open fire on the landward wall at close range, Drucour hoisted a flag of truce and asked for terms. He had done all that he could to satisfy the conventions of honor and military professionalism. The well-learned etiquette of siege craft gave him confidence that the British would grant his garrison the honors of war.5

And yet, in ways Drucour had not yet grasped, the siege of Louisbourg had only superficially conformed to civilized European practice. At least one Englishman realized with shock on the very day of the landings that this was no ordinary encounter between professionals. Surveying the French lines after the defenders had fled back to the city, a naval officer had found “the Bodies of one hundred & odd French Regulars & two Indians, which our Rangers Scalped”—a gruesome token of the intention to repay the massacre of Fort William Henry in kind.6 The rangers who accompanied the expedition were mainly men from Massachusetts, and some were veterans of the 1757 campaign, but this episode in fact demonstrated more than a few New Englanders’ desire to settle scores. In a letter to his uncle, Wolfe himself casually and approvingly mentioned the English policy of massacring whatever Indians they encountered. As for the savages, he wrote, “I take them to be the most contemptible canaille upon earth. Those to the southward are much braver and better men; these are a dastardly set of bloody rascals. We cut them to pieces whenever we found them, in return for a thousand acts of cruelty and barbarity.”7

But the legacy of Fort William Henry in fact extended beyond the hunting down and slaughter of the Micmacs and Abenakis in alliance with the French, for in the end the heroism of the defenders and the civilians who had endured weeks of bombardment counted for nothing.


The capture of the Bienfaisant. Admiral Boscawen ordered two detachments of sailors to enter the harbor in boats on the night of July 25 to capture the only two surviving French men-of-war. In this splendid 1771 mezzotint the Prudent, aground at left, has been set ablaze; meanwhile, the Bienfaisant, already wearing the Union Jack, is being towed out of cannon range as the harborside batteries open an ineffectual fire. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Amherst replied to Drucour’s request for terms by denying him and his garrison all honors. The town would not be opened to plunder and the civilians within it would be allowed to retain their personal effects, but all those who had resisted in arms would be made prisoners of war and transported to England. Louisbourg’s civilian population, along with the rest of the inhabitants of Cape Breton and the neighboring island of St.-Jean (today’s Prince Edward Island), would be deported to France: in all, more than eight thousand men, women, and children. No longer would Britain count only the soldiers of the French king their enemies; at least in New France, civilians would also be subject to military action.8

Such harsh measures had been in a sense foretold by the expulsion of the Acadians in 1755; yet that was arguably the act not of professional soldiers but of politicians interested in land speculation. No officer in the British army was a more thoroughgoing regular than Jeffery Amherst, however, and his refusal to play the magnanimous victor imparted a kind of totality to this war in the New World that was alien to the presumptions and standards of the old. Amherst’s policy henceforth would be the one that Montcalm, in the aftermath of the Fort William Henry debacle, had feared most. No matter how gallant the conduct of a defending force, Amherst would never again accord any defeated enemy the honors of war.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!