French and Indian War: Siege of Louisbourg (1758)

Jeffery Amherst
Field Marshal Jeffrey Amherst. Public Domain

The Siege of Louisbourg lasted from June 8 to July 26, 1758, and was part of the French & Indian War (1754-1763). Located on the approaches to the St. Lawrence River, the fortress at Louisbourg was a critical part of New France's defenses. Eager to strike at Quebec, the British first attempted to take the town in 1757 but were thwarted. A second attempt in 1758 saw a large expedition led by Major General Jeffery Amherst and Admiral Edward Boscawen land forces near the town and conduct a siege of its defenses. After several weeks of fighting, Louisbourg fell to Amherst's men and the path to advancing up the St. Lawrence had been opened.

Background

Situated on Cape Breton Island, the fortress town of Louisbourg had been captured from the French by American colonial forces in 1745 during the War of the Austrian Succession. With the end of the conflict in 1748, it was returned to the French in the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in exchange for Madras, India. This decision proved controversial in Britain as it was understood that Louisbourg was critical to the defense of French holdings in North America as it controlled the approaches to the St. Lawrence River.

Nine years later, with the French & Indian War underway, it again became necessary for the British to capture Louisbourg as a precursor to a move against Quebec. In 1757, Lord Loudoun, the British commander in North America, planned to fight on the defensive along the frontier while mounting an expedition against Quebec. A change in administration in London coupled with delays in receiving orders ultimately saw the expedition redirected against Louisbourg. The effort ultimately failed due to the arrival of French naval reinforcements and severe weather. 

A Second Attempt

The failure in 1757 led Prime Minister William Pitt (the Elder) to make the capture of Louisbourg a priority in 1758. To accomplish this, a large force was assembled under the command of Admiral Edward Boscawen. This expedition sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia in late May 1758. Moving up the coast, Boscawen's fleet met the ship carrying Major General Jeffery Amherst who had been assigned to oversee the ground forces. The two assessed the situation planned to land the invasion force along the shores of Gabarus Bay.

Armies & Commanders:

British

  • Major General Jeffery Amherst
  • Admiral Edward Boscawen
  • Brigadier General James Wolfe
  • 14,000 men, 12,000 sailors/marines
  • 40 warships

French

  • Chevalier de Drucour
  • 3,500 men, 3,500 sailors/marines
  • 5 warships

French Preparations

Aware of British intentions, the French commander at Louisbourg, Chevalier de Drucour, made preparations to repel the British landing and resist a siege. Along the shores of Gabarus Bay, entrenchments and gun emplacements were built, while five ships of the line were positioned to defend the harbor approaches. Arriving off Gabarus Bay, the British were delayed in landing by unfavorable weather. Finally on June 8, the landing force set out under the command of Brigadier General James Wolfe and supported by the guns of Boscawen's fleet. This effort was aided by feints against White Point and Flat Point by Brigadier Generals Charles Lawrence and Edward Whitmore.

Coming Ashore

Meeting heavy resistance from the French defenses near the beach, Wolfe's boats were forced to fall back. As they retreated, several drifted to the east and spotted a small landing area protected by large rocks. Going ashore, British light infantry secured a small beachhead which allowed for the landing of the remainder of Wolfe's men. Attacking, his men hit the French line from the flank and rear forcing them to retreat back to Louisbourg. Largely in control of the country around the town, Amherst's men endured rough seas and boggy terrain as they landed their supplies and guns. Overcoming these issues, they commenced an advance against the town.

The Siege Begins

As the British siege train moved towards Louisbourg and lines were constructed opposite its defenses, Wolfe was ordered to move around the harbor and capture Lighthouse Point. Marching with 1,220 picked men, he succeeded in his objective on June 12. Constructing a battery on the point, Wolfe was in prime position to bombard the harbor and the water side of the town. On June 19, British guns opened fire on Louisbourg. Hammering the town's walls, the bombardment from Amherst's artillery was met by fire from 218 French guns.

The French Position Weakens

As the days passed, French fire began to slacken as their guns became disabled and the town's walls were reduced. While Drucour was determined to hold out, fortunes quickly turned against him on July 21. As the bombardment continued, a mortar shell from the battery on Lighthouse Point struck Le Célèbre in the harbor causing an explosion and setting the ship on fire. Fanned by a strong wind, the fire grew and soon consumed the two adjacent ships, Le Capricieux and L'Entreprenant. In a single stroke, Drucour had lost sixty percent of his naval strength.

Final Days

The French position worsened further two days later when heated British shot set the King's Bastion on fire. Situated inside the fortress, the King's Bastion served as the fortress' headquarters and was one of the largest buildings in North America. The loss of this, quickly followed by the burning of the Queen's Bastion, crippled French morale. On July 25, Boscawen dispatched a cutting out party to capture or destroy the two remaining French warships. Slipping into the harbor, they captured Bienfaisant and burned Prudent. Bienfaisant was sailed out of the harbor and joined the British fleet. Realizing that all was lost, Drucour surrendered the town the following day.

Aftermath

The siege of Louisbourg cost Amherst 172 killed and 355 wounded, while the French suffered 102 killed, 303 wounded, and the remainder taken prisoner. In addition, four French warships were burned and one captured. The victory at Louisbourg opened the way for the British to campaign up the St. Lawrence River with the goal of taking Quebec. Following that city's surrender in 1759, British engineers began the systematic reduction of Louisbourg's defenses to prevent it being returned to the French by any future peace treaty.