The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)

BOOK TWO. Mr. Pitt’s Global War (1757–1760)

7. FORTRESS ATLANTIS

Suggestions of a stalemate aside, as 1757 drew to a close it still appeared to many observers of the New World—French and British alike—that the war in North America was being decisively won by the French. Not only did Montcalm write to his superiors anticipating its quick end, but he boasted of French claims as expansive as ever. He proposed that should time permit between a peace treaty and his return to France, he would very much like to survey the Great Lakes and the upper Ohio “with military and political views.”1

Clearly, Montcalm thought that New France was expanding, not contracting. But the festering political problem for the French in Canada in the new year of 1758 was that Old World observers in France saw the entire North American continent as a disjointed and most unwelcome distraction from European battlefields. William Pitt, of course, saw just the opposite.

With the duke of Cumberland cowed by his own defeat in Europe, Pitt was now free to accelerate his global strategy. Central to implementing this strategy was his firm belief that “Canada was to be attacked from all sides and exhausted.” To do so, Pitt devised a massive three-prong offensive. The first prong was to be directed against the citadel of Louisbourg. Lord Loudoun’s effort there in 1757 had never hit the beach, and this time Pitt was determined to staff the attack with far more aggressive leaders.

The second prong was to stab northward from the muddle at Fort Edward and take the French positions at Forts Carillon and Saint Frédéric. With that done, the way down Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River to Montreal would be open.

Finally, Pitt’s third great prong was to revisit General Braddock’s ill-traveled road, seize Fort Duquesne, and then swing northward to Fort Niagara, effectively cutting ties between Canada and Louisiana. To make this all happen, Pitt tenaciously committed 20,000 British regulars and 22,000 colonials to the coming campaigns, “numbers such as had never before been thrown into the balance of colonial conflicts.”2

After the massacre at Fort William Henry, the New York Mercury avowed as how “’tis certain that the growth of the British colonies has long been the grand object of French envy; and ’tis said that their officers have orders … to make the present war as bloody and destructive as possible!”3 The French had indeed done that, and the result was that even the Quakers of Pennsylvania—besieged by fierce Indian raids all along their western borders—had come to heed Benjamin Franklin’s admonishment that “it was useless to hope for a permanent peace so long as the French were masters of Canada.”4 In fact, thanks in large part to these French and Indian pressures, the British colonies were beginning to cooperate in ways that might have surprised even the delegates at Albany four years before.

But any military and political concerns overlooked a fatal weakness in Canada that was even more acute than Louis XV’s lack of interest. New France was starving. Never mind the glories or, in the case of William Henry, the indiscretions on the battlefields. What good were they if the colony could not feed itself? With a limited agricultural base, provisions from France had never been more than barely adequate and these slowed to a trickle as Pitt tightened the Royal Navy’s noose around the mouth of the Saint Lawrence.

There perhaps was no more graphic example of the fundamental difference between New France and the British colonies than two scenes played out in September 1757. That autumn, despite the horror and havoc recently visited on their compatriots at Fort William Henry, British colonists at King’s College in New York celebrated the start of the academic year with abundant pomp and ceremony. The frontier might be in disarray, but the underpinnings were secure. Life went on. Meanwhile, about 450 miles to the north, the Quebec Seminary took the extraordinary step of dismissing its students because there was not enough food to feed them. It was an enormous contrast and would only grow more so, as Pitt’s armies sought to encircle Canada.5

But to whom would Pitt turn to do his military bidding? His disdain for many in Great Britain’s high command was well founded. After all, given recent events both in North America and on the continent, there were certainly no shining stars. Pitt might well be crazy—as some critics charged—but history would also come to call him a shrewd judge of men. In the first of many such appointments, Pitt reached down through the royal ranks and elevated a promising young colonel to command the Louisbourg prong of his grand scheme.

At first glance, Jeffery Amherst was an unlikely choice. Unquestionably, he had been a loyal and competent aide to three notable patrons, but he had never held center stage himself or, for that matter, led an independent command. Amherst had been born in Kent on January 29, 1717. His father was another Jeffery Amherst; and, as the second son, young Jeffery was destined for the military. His first patron was his father’s neighbor the duke of Dorset. Jeffery served Dorset as a page, and the duke bought him an ensign’s commission before he was fifteen. Later, on Dorset’s recommendation, General Sir John Ligonier made Amherst his aide-de-camp. After duty in Flanders and at the battles of Dettingen and Fontenoy, Ligonier recommended Amherst to the duke of Cumberland. By now forty years of age and a lieutenant colonel, Amherst served on Cumberland’s staff long enough to earn the duke’s admiration, but also to suffer the indignities of his defeat at Hastenbeck and the subsequent humiliation in the Convention of Kloster-Zeven.

Jeffery Amherst’s greatest patron, however, was to be William Pitt, thanks in no small measure to the continued recommendations of Ligonier and to kind words as well from the duke of Cumberland. The latter was now disgraced, but the former had become his replacement as commander in chief of the British army. So it was that in the icy cold of January 1758, in Stade in northern Hanover, Colonel Jeffery Amherst received instructions to report posthaste to London. He did so as soon as ice in the Elbe River permitted his ship to sail and was soon afterward commissioned “Major General of Our Forces in North America, and Commander-in-Chief of a Body of Our Land Forces, to be employed in the siege of Louisbourg.”6

To some, Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island was an impregnable fortress—France’s North American Gibraltar before the real Gibraltar had attained such significance for the British. Indeed, the mere mention of French activities at Louisbourg made most of New England tremble. For a time in the summer of 1755, Boston feared that an invasion from Louisbourg might be imminent. Then, the Boston Evening Post printed a correction of a slipped digit. “Our candid readers are desired to correct or pardon an error in our last Monday’s paper,” pleaded the Post, “and instead of 13000 French troops said to be arrived in Louisbourg, read 1300.”7 But there were still plenty of British colonists who groused that the crown should never have returned the fortress as part of the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle.

It will be remembered that under the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, Great Britain managed to secure its first Canadian toeholds in an attempt to constrain New France. Great Britain received Newfoundland, whose remoteness kept it out of the story; and mainland Nova Scotia, whose proximity to land retained by the French—Ile Royale (Cape Breton Island) and Ile Saint Jean (Prince Edward Island)—had just the opposite effect, setting up half a century of border maneuverings and warfare.

Starting out as a small base for cod fishing, Louisbourg quickly became the linchpin of these French possessions as well as the guardian of the sea lanes into the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. By the 1730s, more than 150 ships called at Louisbourg annually, making it one of the busiest seaports in North America. A decade later, its permanent population had swelled to almost 3,000. While many inhabitants were French, Louisbourg was a cosmopolitan place and counted several hundred Basques and 150 Germans and Swiss among its inhabitants. William Pepperell’s capture of Louisbourg in 1745 stirred things up for a while, but when the dust of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle settled, Louisbourg was again in French hands.

The phrase “impregnable fortress” suggests a high-walled castle bristling with cannon atop a rocky precipice, but Louisbourg was hardly that. Rather, it was a fortified town whose main defenses stretched nearly a mile. Not only did the generally flat and marshy terrain preclude any grand hilltop edifice, but eighteenth-century improvements in artillery had long rendered such medieval castles obsolete. Instead, the design of Louisbourg’s main fortifications relied on stout walls banked on the attacking side with earthworks, or glacis, to deflect or absorb cannon fire, and backed on the defenders’ side with earthen ramparts topped with parapets from which artillery and small-arms fire could be returned. These walls, called curtain walls, were anchored by multisided bastions from which fire could be directed in several directions and used to protect and cover other bastions as well as the connecting curtain walls.

Seven major bastions encircled Louisbourg. Four protected the landward side, chief of which was the King’s Bastion. Three others secured the eastern approaches from the harbor and Rochefort Point. No one could enter the town except through one of several heavily guarded gates; the principal one was the Dauphin Gate below the Dauphin Bastion adjacent to the western harbor.

The harbor itself was defended by four major artillery batteries, two of which were located in the bastions on either side of the waterfront. A third battery occupied the small island at the mouth of the harbor. The fourth sat on the north shore, from which its field of fire could sweep the entire harbor. In the summer of 1758, some 3,500 French soldiers and militia under the command of Governor Augustin de Drucour manned these fortifications and waited for what they knew was inevitable.8

Indeed, what the British were up to was certainly no secret. Once again, French spies had only to look at English newspapers and sort through a little misinformation to read the obvious. In North America, the Pennsylvania Gazetteboasted that the British fleet sailing for Louisbourg would be the “greatest, best manned, and otherwise the best equipped of any fleet that sailed from England since the last Dutch War.”9 This was debatable, of course, but what was not was the fact that the British were to have the North Atlantic increasingly to themselves.

Admiral de la Motte’s French fleet, which had proved Louis XV’s high command wrong on its two previous voyages to North America, had returned to France in the fall of 1757 with its crews decimated by disease and its ships badly in need of repairs. Other French naval units had fallen victim to British victories in the Mediterranean, and a French resupply fleet assembling near La Rochelle on the Bay of Biscay was soon scattered.

Only Captain d’Escadre des Gouttes aboard Prudent managed to slip out of Brest harbor with four other ships of the line and a frigate and make for the open North Atlantic. Later, another two ships of the line and four others converted to transports did likewise, but only about half of these little fleets made it safely into Louisbourg’s harbor. Once there, they faced entrapment and posed little strategic threat to the converging British navy.

Meanwhile, Admiral Edward Boscawen departed England on February 19 with ten ships of the line and an assortment of frigates. Numerous transports carrying two regiments and supplies had already sailed for Halifax. With Boscawen in his fleet was one of Jeffery Amherst’s chosen lieutenants, Brigadier General James Wolfe. Two other brigadiers—Edward Whitmore and Nova Scotia’s governor, Charles Lawrence—were to rendezvous with them in Halifax with additional ships and forces of both regulars and colonials.

Pitt’s orders were that once 8,000 troops assembled at Halifax, they were to embark for Louisbourg under Lawrence’s command—with or without their commander in chief. General Amherst was detained in England until March 16; and Pitt, it seems, was most anxious that the Louisbourg campaign should begin early enough in the season that a subsequent advance up the Saint Lawrence against Quebec might be possible before fall.10

Amherst’s general orders were quite similar to those already given to Admiral Boscawen. With both his newly appointed major general and the veteran admiral, Pitt went to great lengths to stress the need for cooperation with the other service—something far more rare than might be expected. In this endeavor, Amherst and Boscawen were to form a fruitful partnership. The amphibious landings on Cape Breton Island—Boscawen, of course, was particularly well versed in the specifics of Louisbourg, not to mention the fickle weather that swirled around it—and their accompanying naval operations were to set the standard for later such operations.

“What an amazing change over the preceding years,” wrote the historian Walter Dorn, with no small amount of hyperbole, “to find the army and navy, Englishmen and colonists, co-operating toward a common end and inspired by the spirit of heroic enterprise! Henceforth Canada was a beleaguered fortress.”11

But if General Amherst was to be delayed, so too were Boscawen and Wolfe. The admiral’s ships took a miserable eleven weeks to cross the storm-tossed Atlantic, and most, including his flagship, the ninety-gun ship of the line Namur, did not reach Halifax Harbor until May 9, 1758. Perhaps no one in the entire fleet was more seasick than Brigadier General James Wolfe, who weathered the crossing on the eighty-gun Princess Amelia. “From Christopher Columbus’s time to our days there perhaps has never been a more extraordinary voyage,” wrote Wolfe, with shaky pen. “The continual opposition of contrary winds, calms, or currents baffled all our skill and wore out all our patience.”12

This was putting it mildly. Patience was not all that had worn thin for Wolfe. He was tall and slight—one might say gangly—with reddish hair and a constitution given to a host of chronic ailments. He had been born in Westerham, Kent, on January 2, 1727, not very far from the birthplace of Jeffery Amherst, who was ten years his senior. Wolfe’s father, Edward, had served under Marlborough in the Netherlands and Scotland and risen to the rank of major general. In 1741, at the age of fourteen, young Wolfe was given a commission as a second lieutenant in his father’s regiment.

Two years later, at Dettingen in Bavaria, Wolfe, though only sixteen, received his first real test in battle. His regiment stood in the center of the British line and took the most casualties. Wolfe reported to his father that he was acting adjutant and had his horse shot from underneath him so that “I was obliged to do the duty of an adjutant all that and the next day on foot, in a pair of heavy boots.”13 Two years after that, at Culloden against the last gasp of the Stuarts, his regiment again suffered the most, losing one-third of its men. Clearly, young Wolfe was not one to run from the sound of the guns.

This rather frail man quickly achieved a reputation as a competent regimental officer that seems to have baffled even him. “I reckon it a very great misfortune to this country,” Wolfe wrote to his mother in 1755, “that I, your son, who have, I know, but a very modest capacity, and some degree of diligence a little above the ordinary run, should be thought, as I generally am, one of the best officers of my rank in the service.”14

His humility did not, however, keep Wolfe from being peeved when he was twice passed over for the command of the Twentieth Foot Regiment—no doubt because some judged him too young. In the meantime, a month past his thirtieth birthday, Wolfe was made quartermaster of troops in Ireland. He found the duty less than stimulating; and when both battalions of the Twentieth Foot were deployed for a raid against Rochefort on the French coast, Wolfe was all too eager to join them, this time as quartermaster of the entire expeditionary force.

The raid at Rochefort was conceived by Pitt as a way to put pressure on France’s western borders and thus offer some relief to his Prussian allies without actually committing British troops to the continent. It proved a boondoggle from beginning to end. About 8,400 British soldiers and marines embarked in fifty-five transports protected by thirty warships. The British occupied the Ile d’Aix, but when junior officers, including Wolfe, urged an advance on the mainland as planned, the council of staid British admirals and generals commanding the force balked and ordered a retreat.

“We blundered most egregiously on all sides—sea and land,” Wolfe wrote to his father, but he later confessed that he was “not sorry that I went, notwithstanding what has happened; one may always pick up something useful from amongst the most fatal errors.” One thing Wolfe seems to have learned is that any amphibious landing must not dawdle, but rather strike quickly and “lose no time in getting the troops on shore.”15

Pitt suffered much embarrassment over this episode, but he stoutly weathered the inevitable criticism, believing that the failure of the expedition was born of poor execution, not a poor concept. Contrasting Wolfe’s role with that of his superiors, Pitt predictably marked Wolfe as a man to get things done. Three months later, Wolfe was summoned to London and offered a promotion to brigadier general and command of a brigade in the Louisbourg expedition. He accepted, of course, but acknowledged that “the very passage [crossing the Atlantic] threatens my life, and that my constitution must be utterly ruined and undone.”16 Whatever else he was, James Wolfe was definitely not a sailor.

On May 28, 1758, following Pitt’s instructions not to wait for General Amherst, Boscawen’s fleet sailed out of Halifax bound for Louisbourg with brigadiers Lawrence, Wolfe, and Whitmore onboard. The approximately 150 warships and transports had barely cleared the harbor, however, when the sails of a lone British ship of the line appeared on the eastern horizon. It proved to be Captain George Rodney’s seventy-four-gun Dublin, but it flew the pennant of Major General Jeffery Amherst. The commander in chief had arrived in time after all—barely.

Though a far better sailor than Wolfe, Amherst, too, had had a long and tedious crossing, interrupted by Rodney’s diverting to capture a French merchantman off the coast of Spain. But now, after ten weeks of worrying in his journal, Amherst reported almost casually that “we saw the land off Halifax Harbor and about eight o’clock saw several ships coming out.”17

While Lawrence, Wolfe, and Whitmore welcomed their commander warmly, one can only wonder what their true feelings were. Suddenly, they were no longer on their own. Before Amherst’s arrival, Wolfe and his fellow brigadiers had devised a three-prong attack. Wolfe was to lead the main force in a landing at Miré Bay, north of Louisbourg, and then move southward to join up with troops who would come ashore on the southern coast and move north, effectively encircling the landward approaches to the town. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Charles Lawrence’s division and Admiral Boscawen were to make two separate diversions and confuse the French as to the true landing points.

Amherst liked the idea of a diversion and had no qualms about entrusting Wolfe with the main attack, but he insisted that all operations be concentrated in Gabarus Bay on the southern shore where Pepperell’s New England troops had successfully landed in 1745. Accordingly, Boscawen’s fleet anchored in Gabarus Bay; and on June 2, 1758, Wolfe, seasick as usual, accompanied Amherst as he reconnoitered its shoreline.

Initially, Amherst favored a coordinated attack by three divisions along the full extent of Gabarus Bay. Wolfe was to move left of Flat Point against what the British called Kennington Cove (the French called it Anse de la Cormorandière, Cormorant Bay); Lawrence would attack in the center between Flat Point and White Point; and Whitmore would circle around White Point and come ashore to the east of it. But as the high tides of late spring pounded the rocky coastline and a heavy fog ensnared the fleet, more than one British soldier wondered if he would ever get to land. Doubtless none was more anxious to do so than Wolfe himself.

By the time the heavy swells had subsided somewhat, it was the early hours of June 8 and Amherst had altered his plan. Wolfe and his division were now to force the way into Kennington Cove on their own, while the divisions of Lawrence and Whitmore were to create diversions and then either move ashore as originally planned or row left to support Wolfe.

The French, of course, were hardly oblivious to any of this. The preceding year, Admiral de la Motte had employed large numbers of his sailors to aid the French garrison in constructing a series of earthworks at every feasible landing site along the coast. Large trees were cut and placed in front of the works, their limbs forming an abatis-like tangle. Behind these fortifications, from Kennington Cove eastward to Flat Point and around White Point, there were now posted some 2,000 regulars, militia, and Micmac Indian allies under the command of Colonel St. Julien. Artillery pieces were interspersed among them like coiled rattlesnakes ready to strike.

At the appointed hour, Wolfe led his division into this waiting maelstrom, feinting first toward Flat Point and then angling left into Kennington Cove as planned. The first enemy his troops encountered was the pounding surf, which capsized some boats and splintered others on the gnawing rocks. Then, as the British boats struggled closer toward shore, the French artillery pieces belched their destructive missiles and French musket fire added its staccato to the din. Wolfe looked about him and quickly recognized the obvious. His force was in danger of being cut to pieces.

Standing erect in the pitching bow of his boat, Wolfe raised his hat high over his head and signaled furiously. But what did he mean? Some historians have argued that Wolfe was desperately trying to call off the attack. Perhaps. But at that same instant, a boatload of Highlanders saw a partially protected sandy nook in the rocky shore and rowed toward it with a vengeance. Other boats quickly followed, and soon Wolfe himself was leaping into the knee-deep surf. Armed only with his cane, the lanky brigadier urged his troops onward.

Battles for Louisbourg, 1758

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And onward they came. As company after company struggled ashore, Wolfe formed them into ranks in the face of French fire that was even more withering than it had been in the boats. But once the British troops returned volley fire and began to move inland, the thin French line collapsed. Soon, not only Wolfe’s entire division but the divisions of Lawrence and Whitmore as well were streaming ashore, all concentrating in this one area of Kennington Cove. The French remained spread out along the entire shore of Gabarus Bay until it was too late. Those French troops near Wolfe’s landing site feared being encircled and beat a hasty retreat toward Louisbourg. Soon, all of St. Julien’s remaining troops around Gabarus Bay were following them.18

By nightfall, Amherst had joined Wolfe onshore and advanced with his troops to within range of the guns of the city itself over what Amherst described as “the roughest and worst ground I ever saw.”19 With one wave of Wolfe’s hat and the loss of about 100 men killed, wounded, or drowned, Amherst had managed to surround and lay siege to Fortress Louisbourg. Amherst’s plan had been sound, but it was clear that he owed its execution to his able young brigadier.

What about that wave of Wolfe’s hat? Had Wolfe been signaling a retreat or urging his men forward? For his own part, Wolfe was forever coy about the answer, acknowledging to his uncle some weeks later only that “it is impossible to go into any detail of our operations: they would neither amuse nor instruct, and we are all hurried in our letters. In general, it may be said that we made a rash and ill-advised attempt to land, and by the greatest of good fortune imaginable we succeeded.”20

Other reports filled in a few more details, but reached the same general conclusion. Somehow, despite all their defensive preparations, the French had been surprised by the British resolve in forcing a landing. Indeed, British resolve seems to have been met with only halfhearted resistance by the defenders.

“Knowing your eyes are turned on us, and that you are impatient to hear how we go on,” wrote a British observer the day after the landings, “I take the first opportunity to inform you, that our troops are all landed in front of the enemy who had fortified every place where they thought it practicable for us to land. It was a place not to be forced if those [who] were to defend it had done their duty.”21

And duty, or a lapse of it, seems to have been at the core of the French defeat. Most of the French line along Gabarus Bay was preoccupied by the diversions of Whitmore and Lawrence’s divisions rowing about. No one seems to have recognized the seriousness of Wolfe’s initial landing until, in the words of one French report, “several thousand of English soldiers had been landed and drawn up in battle array, having cut off the regiment of Artois [about 500 men] from the rest of our troops.”22

Once the Artois regiment broke and fled toward Louisbourg, the remaining French troops did likewise as Wolfe’s troops pressed on eastward along the coast and until “all Gabarus Bay was ours by one o’clock.” A captured French grenadier captain described the attack as “desperate and presumptuous,” and said that “no people in the world but the British troops would have attempted and carried it.” Perhaps, but an English commentary published in Boston recognized that while “no people behaved better than our troops, and more cowardly than the French,” the French troops were “very sickly for want of fresh provisions” and anxious to desert if given the opportunity.23

There it was again—the issue of food. How could troops of any nation be expected to fight if their stomachs were empty and had frequently been empty for much of the preceding winter? Since becoming governor of Louisbourg in 1754, Drucour had pleaded incessantly with the French government in Paris for two things: more troops and more provisions. Drucour, the younger son of a noble Norman family, had entered the French navy in 1719 and served in a variety of posts. As his responsibilities increased, he had been almost ruined financially by the entertainment he was expected to provide because he “preferred to maintain the dignity of any position to which his sovereign had called him, rather than exercise a reasonable regard for his private interests.”24

There was no doubt that Drucour was determined to maintain the dignity of his position at Louisbourg, but rarely had his pleas for troops and provisions been answered in sufficient quantities. This proved increasingly true as British naval superiority increased and reprovisioning Louisbourg became more and more of a gamble. The winter of 1756–1757 had been particularly bleak and “not a family had an ounce of flour in the house” by the end of a winter that was so long that “there remained eighteen inches of snow on the ground on the twelfth of May.” Only the arrival of a lone supply ship in January 1758, far later in the season than many thought possible, had sustained the garrison through yet another cold winter. Now, with Amherst’s army busy digging siege trenches just beyond his walls, what was Drucour to do?25

As mentioned above, a scattering of French ships had managed to elude the British fleet earlier in the spring and reach Louisbourg. Now, their importance as a means of delaying the British came into play. Under a more aggressive commander, they might have emerged from Louisbourg Harbor to contest the British landings in a daring raid. Indeed, at this season of the year the prevailing easterly winds would have favored the French ships leaving Louisbourg Harbor. Taking advantage of the frequent fogs, they might have run westward with the wind in an hour’s time and surprised the British fleet that was crowded into Gabarus Bay. The prevailing winds would have made maneuvering away from the rocky shore difficult for the British. The French ships, of which there appear to have been at least five ships of the line, including the seventy-four-gun Prudent and seventy-four-gun Entreprenant, might have been able to inflict considerable chaos, if not outright destruction, as they sailed past.

But this did not occur. Instead, Captain des Gouttes petitioned Governor Drucour on the very evening of Wolfe’s landings that his fleet be permitted to weigh anchor and leave the harbor—not to engage the British, but to take the opportunity to escape to France. The governor convened a council of war and denied the request, reminding des Gouttes that the fleet had been sent to Louisbourg to bolster its defense and that such a flight would show a weakness to the enemy. “Being doomed to the same fate, it is proper to run the same risks,” the governor told him.26

Drucour recognized the inevitable doom, but he was nonetheless determined to hold out as long as possible—not to win glory by a stand at Louisbourg, but rather to buy as much time as possible for Quebec. Every day that Drucour kept Amherst in the trenches in front of Louisbourg was one more day of summer that slipped away and would not be available to Amherst for an attack on Quebec. “It was a matter of deferring our fate as long as possible,” wrote Drucour. “Thus, I said: if the French ships leave on 10 June … the admiral [Boscawen] will enter immediately after that. And in that case we would have been taken before the end of the month [June], and that would have given the attacking generals the advantage of using July and August to … take their ships up the river while the season was favorable to them.”27

So, des Gouttes’s ships remained at anchor in Louisbourg Harbor even as an advance guard of 400 colonial rangers and a main force of about 1,200 regulars led by Wolfe circled the harbor on the morning of June 12. Slipping past the French ships without notice, they quickly captured Lighthouse Point at the harbor’s eastern mouth. Drucour had already abandoned the royal battery guarding the center of the harbor and had withdrawn almost all the troops into the main fortifications. So hasty was the French retreat from Lighthouse Point that Wolfe’s men found French tents still standing, along with a large quantity of tools.

Only the small island at the mouth of the harbor remained in French hands to afford some measure of deterrence against Boscawen’s ships sailing into the harbor and engaging the French men-of-war. Once again, des Gouttes and his captains appealed to Drucour that their ships be permitted to run the tightening gauntlet and make for the open ocean. Still Drucour declined. The governor avowed that the town was safe as long as the ships remained and that if they sailed and the town fell, he would charge des Gouttes and his squadron with its loss. On June 25, Wolfe’s troops occupied the island battery, and the noose around Louisbourg Harbor was complete. Thereafter, the French sank four ships at the entrance to the harbor to block it and the majority of men, provisions, and powder were transferred from the remaining ships to the fortress.

Meanwhile, the British had erected a heavily entrenched encampment west of town on the same site used by Pepperell’s colonial forces in 1745. Amherst seems to have taken his time with elaborate defensive preparations despite the fact that whatever thoughts Drucour might have had about venturing outside Louisbourg’s walls to repulse the invaders vanished with St. Julien’s rout from Wolfe’s beachhead. By now, the British had landed heavy artillery and begun encircling the town and the full extent of the harbor in preparation for a full-scale bombardment.28

But such preparations did not stop the sort of chivalrous exchanges between attackers and besieged that seem to have been the norm of eighteenth-century warfare. Reports vary as to the exact transactions, but General Amherst appears to have started the exchanges when he dispatched a note to Governor Drucour and included with it a present of two pineapples for Madame Drucour. The governor responded with several bottles of champagne—the French, after all, had their traditions no matter how extreme the circumstances—which in turn were answered by more pineapples. This time, Madame Drucour responded with fresh butter, which she had made herself.29

There may, of course, have been ulterior motives in such exchanges, because they afforded each side the opportunity of a closer look at the other’s fortifications while under a flag of truce. Even after Wolfe circled Louisbourg Harbor and captured Lighthouse Point, he “received a compliment, with a pyramid of sweetmeats, from the governor’s lady, by a flag of truce sent to the eastern shore, by whom he returned his—with a pineapple, which he happened to have.” Such European civilities caused one colonial observer to express great surprise at such “strange complaisance between inveterate enemies!”30

As June turned into July, Drucour had gotten the delay he had sought, but British artillery attacks were increasing and causing extensive damage to both the military and the civilian parts of the town. The French made one sortie outside the walls with about 1,000 men to disrupt the trenches closest to the Queen’s Bastion, but then quickly retreated back inside the walls. On July 15, the frigate Aréthuse slipped out of the harbor and sailed for France with the news that only a miracle could now save Fortress Louisbourg.

Four days later, des Gouttes asked permission to burn what remained of his fleet, lest it fall into British hands. His ships had accomplished their purpose, as their firepower had added considerably to the cannon along Louisbourg’s walls. But in turn, they had suffered great damage, notably the destruction of the sixty-four-gun Célèbre, the seventy-four-gun Entreprenant, and sixty-four-gun Capricieux, all of which were destroyed after a shell from one of Wolfe’s heavy batteries exploded in the Célebre’s powder magazine. The resulting fire quickly spread to the other two ships, closely anchored under Louisbourg’s walls as they were, and all three burned to their water lines. Whether or not des Gouttes now had second thoughts about having failed to challenge Boscawen’s landings has gone unrecorded.

The Dauphin Bastion had already sustained major damage, and the day after the three ships went up on flames, similar damage was visited upon the King’s Bastion and the Citadel. The barracks in the Queen’s Bastion were set afire the following night. Then, on the night of July 25, under the cover of yet another heavy fog, Admiral Boscawen dispatched the sloop Hunter and fireship Aetna into the harbor to seize the remaining two principal French ships. The British succeeded in towing off Bienfaisant, but Prudent stuck hard aground at low tide and was burned instead.

Now, whatever protections Drucour had sought from the French fleet were completely gone. Six of Boscawen’s ships prepared to move into the harbor and bombard the town from its weakest side. Drucour summoned his officers early on the morning of July 26 and determined that it was finally time to ask Amherst for terms. An adjutant named Lippinot was sent to Amherst’s headquarters. In one of the ironies of war, Lippinot had first rowed into Louisbourg from the Tigre back in 1749 to arrange the return of Louisbourg to the French after the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. Now, nine years later, his journey was being reversed.

Drucour hoped for terms similar to those given the British garrison at Port Mahon on Minorca in 1756. Then, after capitulating, the British troops were merely transferred to Gibraltar. But Amherst and Admiral Boscawen—who had gone ashore to participate in the negotiations—were in no mood for such leniency. For one thing, the horrors of Fort William Henry were too fresh in their minds. There was also a growing frustration with the lateness of the season. Besides, where should the French be sent? Certainly not to Quebec. No, if Drucour wished to surrender, it would have to be unconditionally. For a moment, Drucour was again determined to fight, but then he was reminded that such a stance would only prolong the inevitable and cause grievous casualties among the town’s civilian inhabitants. Reluctantly, he accepted the stringent terms.31

At eight o’clock the next morning, July 27, 1758, the Dauphin Gate of France’s Atlantic fortress was opened and three companies of British grenadiers marched through it. “I have now the pleasure to write you,” noted one British soldier, “that yesterday morning I was agreeably entertained with the ‘Grenadiers March,’ finely played, upon three fifes, and two drums relieving the grenadiers guard, under British colors, upon the walls of Louisbourg, which is a fine tune the French have not danced to for some time; but now it’s time for ’em to pay the fifers.” A few hours later, Brigadier Whitmore marched in with about 500 more men and took possession of the parade ground, where the French garrison was drawn up. The French officers were permitted to keep their swords, but that was the extent of Amherst and Boscawen’s graciousness.

Louisbourg was in ruins from the British artillery fire. “The largest and best buildings in the city are reduced to ashes, and the rest all shattered and tore with shot and shells,” continued the soldier. 32 All who had borne arms were to be sent to England as prisoners of war, including not only other troops on Cape Breton Island but also those on nearby Ile Saint Jean (Prince Edward Island). Those civilians who had not borne arms were to be transported to France at Admiral Boscawen’s discretion.

According to another letter in the Boston Gazette, “The garrison seems as well pleased to leave Louisbourg, prisoners, as we conquerors, are to possess it.”33 Indeed, that was particularly true of a German regiment that had been enlisted by the French for service in Prussia, but had then been sent to Louisbourg four years before. By their own admission, these troops had been more slaves than soldiers and had “longed for a British invasion” to free them.34

There were others not so fortunate. There was to be no repetition of Fort William Henry, but the massacre there the previous year had by no means been forgotten. Revenge had already been extracted by the rangers from Massachusetts who first came ashore with Wolfe. Among the bodies of the French and their Abenaki and Micmac allies that lay above Gabarus Bay were “one hundred and odd French regulars and two Indians, which our rangers scalped.”35

Wolfe himself seems to have dismissed the Abenaki and Micmac with a sweeping generality of contempt. “These are a dastardly set of bloody rascals,” he wrote. “We cut them to pieces whenever we found them, in return for a thousand acts of cruelty and barbarity.”36

At least a few Frenchmen proved unhumbled by defeat. One English observer noted that “the polite treatment which the French have met with since the reduction of this place, has made them extremely impudent,” including an officer who struck the coxswain of the barge ferrying him as a prisoner out to the waiting British fleet. “And another French officer having the impudence to run his hand under one of the Highlander’s plaids, in an improper place, the Highlander immediately eased him of his arm and hand, by cutting them off with his broadsword.”37

As Amherst pondered his next moves, he appointed Brigadier Edward Whitmore temporary governor of Louisbourg. It was a bittersweet assignment. Not only was Whitmore charged with governing a town largely in ruins, but Amherst’s instructions gave him the unpleasant task of deporting another generation of Acadians from throughout Cape Breton and its neighboring islands. Little, if any, thought was given to doing otherwise. Amherst was convinced that their population was growing so rapidly that “many years would not have passed before the inhabitants would have been sufficient to have defended it.” Having just removed the French flag from Louisbourg for the second time in a dozen years, the British were determined that there not be a “next time.” That the Acadians might have been integrated into the British colony of Nova Scotia and governed out of Halifax seemed to occur to no one.38

Perhaps an even greater irony was that a French priest in Acadia, witnessing the deportation of those who had tried for two generations to make a living on its rocky shores, could see more of the global picture than his sovereign had deigned to view. “What good is Louisbourg?” he asked. “It would be good if France were as strong at sea as England.”39 Indeed, when the front door of France’s North American empire was closed, far more than Cape Breton Island reverberated with its slamming shut.

Meanwhile, in England, William Pitt stewed over the lack of news from North America. Pitt had gambled heavily on Amherst, and much if not all of his global strategy hinged on Amherst’s success at Louisbourg. Returning to London after a few days of rest in the country, Pitt found Captain Amherst waiting for him and eagerly received the general’s younger brother as “the most welcome messenger that had arrived in this kingdom for years.”

After Captain Amherst laid out his report, the prime minister called it the greatest of news and hastened to advise Sir John Ligonier of his protégé’s success. Both men went to report to the king, but with his typical Hanoverian stubbornness, George II seemed more concerned with reiterating his disapproval of Amherst’s appointment in the first place than with celebrating his victory. In the face of this reaction, Pitt could afford to be smug. Things were finally beginning to go his way. Soon, all of England was celebrating the news.

“If I can go to Quebec, I will,” Amherst had written in his dispatches, and Pitt saw no reason why he could not. Any day now might bring more good news from the other two prongs of Pitt’s grand assault—Abercromby before Ticonderoga and Forbes en route to Fort Duquesne. Then, all that remained was for them to join Amherst in converging on Quebec. As always, Pitt’s strategy was sound, but it would take a few more stumbles before it could be executed in full.40