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Behind the scenes of this historic fortress and the battles fought over it

How do you feed 4,000 men who have just been put ashore in a wilderness area, in a strange country? Where will you get the many pounds of beef that will be required each week? The potatoes, the vegetables, the bread, the beer, etc?

That was only one set of questions facing William Pepperell, commanding officer of the American and British forces involved in the first siege of Louisbourg in 1745. He would also have to garrison these troops, and co-ordinate all the varied logistical elements involved in a seven-week siege. It was a monumental undertaking.

On May 11, 1745, approximately 4,000 New Englanders landed in Kennington Cove to begin a 7-week siege of the Fortress of Louisbourg, on Cape Breton Island. They were supported and transported, by a squadron of British ships and marines from the Royal Navy.

This amateur colonial army was made up, for the most part, of a poorly-trained militia, and various under-trained civilians. It was also woefully ill-equipped, but the army did have some heavy cannon.

The garrison at the Fortress of Louisbourg was made up of about 600 soldiers and 900 militia. Of the landing itself, we have the first-hand account of one unknown Massachusetts soldier. Notice the unique spellings throughout.

“Landed the remainder of the Troops and began to encamp - and to get on shoar some provisions and Stores. The landing of the provisions and Store, as well as the heavy Artillery, was attended with extreme Difficulty and Fatigue for want of a Harbour for the Vessalls, the Surff running very high on the Beach almost contenually. 

Often there was no landing, so that the Men were obliged to wade into the Water to their Middles and often higher, for almost every thing they got on Shoar which would other wise have been spoild with the Salt water. The men then lay on the Cold Ground in their Wet Cloaths under no better Covering than some tree Boughs laid together. The night was exceeding cold and foggy.” 

This description of this ambitious undertaking is far more authentic than those written by any academic or historical researcher that I can recall. His reference to setting up an encampment (military camp) indicates that some serious planning had taken place prior to the launch of this campaign.

Parks Canada archaeologist Rebecca Dunham (with arm extended) explains that while sites have been identified, much remains to be discovered.

In July 1999, I was invited to spend a day at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, in the company of a number of post-graduate students from the then-named University College of Cape Breton (UCCB, now Cape Breton University). They were enrolled in the certificate in heritage preservation program, a unique summer program put on as a joint venture between UCCB and Louisbourg.

On this, the first day of class, we were going to take a close-up look at two locations that played a very important role in the first siege of Louisbourg during 1745.

The first was Kennington Cove, with its two lovely beaches, located about three miles southwest of the Fortress itself. This was where, over a period of two days, the approximately 4,000 colonial troops were put ashore.

The second was the site of the American encampment, located along the service road that runs from the Fortress to Kennington Cove. In a location known to only a few, the camp is concealed in the woods, on both sides of the road, and covers an area of approximately two square miles. 

To the untrained eye, there would appear to be nothing out of the ordinary with this particular area of woodland. However, to the two trained researchers who led us on this expedition, the lay of the land gave evidence of previous occupancy. They saw concealed evidence of the major undertaking that went on here more than 270 years ago, while what we saw appeared to be nothing but natural features in the landscape.

Bruce Fry, chief archaeologist at the Fortress, explained that a few sites had been partly excavated, revealing fascinating evidence of what conditions were like in a large military camp. Countless others, however, remain still hidden beneath the forest floor, waiting for that future time when increased funding and manpower will permit a full scale investigation.

Archaeologist Charles Burke, a Louisbourg native, led us to the stone foundation of quite a large building, the largest site yet identified, with sides more than 40 feet long; possibly a former military hospital. It will take a lot more research, and excavation, to precisely determine the exact nature of each of these sites.

Other sites could possibly include a bakery, tavern, brewery, field kitchen, stables for horses, and stone foundations of wooden huts for the officers. Soldiers and militiamen used tents. 

One of the most interesting sites, from an archaeological point of view, was a stone-lined latrine or military toilet, that had been examined. The well-preserved evidence made it possible to identify many of the food items in the soldiers’ daily menu.

I tried to imagine what life would have been like in this camp in 1745. This was a fully functioning little town, with most of the facilities that a colonial settlement would have provided at that time. 

Over the next seven weeks colonial forces made their way around and behind the fortified town, setting up many siege batteries, while ships of the Royal Navy blockaded the harbour, preventing any relief supplies and troops from entering. Under constant bombardment and with food and shells running short, the French governor had no choice but to surrender on June 17, 1745. After the town was occupied, most of the French civilians were placed on ships and returned to France. During the seven-week siege the New England troops suffered 101 fatalities. The French defenders lost 53 men due to military action. In a sad commentary on the futility of war, the victorious New Englanders lost 12 times as many men during their first winter of occupation as they did during the siege itself. More than 1,200 died as a result of fever and dysentery, brought on by cold, wet, living conditions in the bombed-out town, as well as a shortage of food, shelter, and warm clothing.

Three years later, thanks to the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, England returned the relatively intact Fortress of Louisbourg to France. Needless to say, this political manoeuver did not go down well with the citizen soldiers and militia of the New England colonies. 

Now, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this story: the many pounds of beef required each week was brought by supply ships from New England, as were the potatoes, other vegetables, flour, and tobacco. Bread was baked on site, while at least one local brewery made sure that a ready supply of alcohol was available.

Fast forward to the spring of 2010. On Saturday, June 12, I joined a group of 12 members of the Old Sydney Society, who met at the Louisbourg Visitor Centre where Parks Canada archaeologists Rebecca (Becky) Dunham and Bruce Fry gave a short history of the second siege of Louisbourg in 1758.

As in the first siege, the French defenders were vastly outnumbered by the British forces, by a ratio of more than three to one. This time there were hardly any New Englanders involved. 

The British had more than 27,000 soldiers and sailors, with 39 warships armed with 1842 guns. The French had fewer than 8,000 soldiers and sailors, along with about 4,000 civilians in the fortified town. There were also around 100 aboriginal warriors. The French fleet consisted of only 10 ships and fewer than 700 heavy guns.

To make a long story short, the British forces made their first landing in Kennington Cove on June 8, 1758, 13 years after the New England colonial army had landed at that same site. In spite of heavy opposition, once the British forces were ashore the outcome was never in doubt. The plan was the same as before: encircle and shell the fortified town and blockade the harbour. The Fortress held out for not quite seven weeks, before capitulating on July 26.

Now that the fortified town was in British hands, they quickly took advantage of it. Using Louisbourg as a major staging base, they captured Quebec in 1759, and Montreal in 1760.

British army engineers in 1760 took the precaution of using explosives to reduce the walls and fortifications of Louisbourg to a mass of rubble. Most of the town, except for damage from the siege itself, was left intact.

Most of the inhabitants were placed on ships and returned to France.

The French Empire in Canada was basically finished.

About Fortress Louisbourg

The Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site is the largest historical reconstruction in North America.

One fourth of the original fortress walls, and one fifth of the town, were reconstructed.

There is a difference between a “fort” and a “fortress”: the fortifications of a fortress enclose a town, while those of a fort do not.

After the fortress was destroyed in 1758, some of the stone from its walls was used in construction in Sydney, Halifax, and even Boston.

The scope, size and scale of the site’s archaeological resources and collections are one of the defining attributes of the Fortress of Louisbourg, and represent an unparalleled resource.

By 1940 the Parks Branch acquired additional land, and Louisbourg became officially known as the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Park. The Park included the old town site, Battery Island, and the Royal Battery. Eventually the site came to include much of the area covered by the siege works erected in the assaults of 1745 and 1758. 

This ensured the protection of one of the best-preserved and most extensive 18th century siege landscapes in the Western World; an incomparable archaeological treasure.

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