Louisbourg, Cape Breton Island
30 April 1704
As dawn broke over the southeastern coast of Cape Breton Island, a motley fleet of fourteen ships entered the mouth of Gabarus Bay. Standing side by side on the aft deck of the fleet's flagship, the Nonesuch, were Colonel Joseph Dudley, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and the Reverend Cotton Mather, pastor of Boston's Second Congregationalist Church. Although the two men despised each other, they had been drawn together (however reluctantly) by a common threat.
Sailing into the bay, the two saw that common threat come into view. Standing on a tongue of land between the bay and the sea was the French fortress town of Louisbourg. A month after Dudley had arrived in Boston in June 1702 to take up his post, word had followed him from London that England had joined an alliance of European nations in declaring war on France. The French King, Louis XIV, had succeeded in placing his grandson upon the Spanish throne in 1700, and Louis's old enemy William III had devoted the last year of his life to assembling the anti-French alliance.
With the English in control of the former French colony of Acadia, and war declared, Louis had grown fearful for the security of Canada, the heartland of New France. He had ordered the construction of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, and by the end of 1703 it had been done. Defensive works had been thrown up across the narrow spit of land that separated the fort from the mainland, and two hundred men manned two score cannons within the fort itself. Plans had been laid to emplace batteries on a small rocky island on the west side of the harbor, and another on the shore of the harbor opposite the entrance, but as yet no work had been done in either place. The fort itself made up the sole defensive strongpoint on the harbor, and a formidible one it was too.
Governor Dudley and the Reverend Mather each had their own reasons for viewing Louisbourg with alarm. To Dudley, the French fortress represented a threat to the vast domain with which he had been entrusted by Queen Anne, both Massachusetts itself and its dependent colony of Nova Scotia. To Mather, the return of the French to Nova Scotia meant the end of his missionary work among the Abenaki Indians, and the potential loss of their souls to the diabolical Popish priests.
It had been no easy task getting the two men to cooperate. Although they had been friends once upon a time, the two had taken opposite sides in the days of Edmund Andros's old Dominion of New England in the late 1680s. Mather had led an uprising which toppled Andros and resulted in Dudley's arrest and exile to England. While Mather's allies in Boston had gone on to take Nova Scotia from the French, and keep it in defiance of the Treaty of Ryswick, Dudley had prospered in England, becoming an MP and serving as Lieutenant Governor of the Isle of Wight. Dudley had returned at last as Royal Governor of Massachusetts, and his first act had been to announce the removal of Nova Scotia from Massachusetts' control, and its establishment as a separate colony under none other than Edmund Andros. When Mather appeared in Port Royal three months later, Andros had arrested him for treason, and only the threat of another uprising in Boston had forced the minister’s release.
Then had come news that the French were building a stronghold on Cape Breton Island to the north of Nova Scotia, and the two men found themselves very reluctant allies in a campaign to persuade New England to take action. Now their rivalry became an advantage, as the two networks of patronage and obligation that had grown up during their dispute were combined to achieve the mobilization of the colony. Dudley's merchant allies provided the ships and money, and Mather's Congregationalist allies provided the men. By the spring of 1704, the expedition was ready to set forth.
A few cannon shots were fired from the fort as the flotilla passed, but none found a mark. As the ships approached Flat Point, which projected into the bay three miles west of the town, a force of some fifty men emerged from the fort.
Observing the French reaction, Dudley ordered his fleet to change course for Freshwater Cove, two miles further up the bay. The ships made landfall before the French troops could reach them, and a short fight ensued. The outnumbered Frenchmen were driven off with the loss of four of their number, and the New Englanders continued to land more men on the cove.
At mid-day, while most of the men were still setting up camp, Dudley sent a party of forty men under Captain Tyng to advanced towards the fort. Tyng's force was able to reach a range of hills (the proposed site of one of the French batteries, as it happened) just out of cannon range of the fort, and established a position there. Just before night fell, they were joined by a force of a hundred men under Major March.
1 – 23 May 1704
The next day, Dudley led the remainder of his force up to Captain Tyng's position, while his ships anchored nearby to begin offloading cannon and supplies. The position in the hills was separated from the fort by two miles of marsh, which the fort's defenders regarded as impassable, so they made no attempts to dislodge Dudley's men.
After offloading the cannon, the New Englanders began moving them across the marsh, operating mostly at night and in fog to avoid the French guns. Attempting to wheel the first cannon through the marsh resulted in a sunken cannon, so Dudley's troops built sledges to carry them through. In four days, six guns had been dragged across the marsh and planted atop Green Hill, about a mile from Louisbourg. In another week, eight more guns joined them, and Dudley's men started advancing them by stages closer to the fort.
The French commander, Costebelle, seemed paralyzed by the sudden appearance of Dudley's expedition. Apart from a few half-hearted sorties which were repulsed without loss of life on either side, the French defenders made no attempt to dislodge the New Englanders. When Dudley's cannon came within musket range of the fort's walls, the French poured fire upon them, which the New Englanders returned. However, the firing of the New England cannon eventually forced the French defenders to retire from the fort's walls, allowing more cannon to be brought up. Meanwhile, those troops not actively firing at the fort occupied themselves with target practice, tossing quoits, wrestling, even fishing and lobstering, and of course drinking.
While Dudley's cannon battered at Louisbourg, his ships blockaded the mouth of Gabarus Bay and ensured a constant stream of new supplies and men from Massachusetts and Nova Scotia. On May 19 a ship carrying much-needed supplies to the fort from France was captured by the New England fleet.
This was the last straw for Costebelle. On the morning on May 21, a French officer under a flag of truce was escorted to Dudley, to whom he delivered a note from Costebelle asking for a suspension of arms to enable him to draw up proposals for capitulation. Within two days, terms of the surrender had been agreed, and the French troops marched out to Dudley's ships, which would transport them to Boston, and from there back to France.
After the New Englanders had occupied the fort, they were joined by Cotton Mather, who preached a victory sermon to the jubilant troops. Praising their valor and hardihood, and celebrating their triumph, Mather finished with the ringing declaration: "If God should see fit to allow the Massachusetts Bay colony to endure for a thousand years, men would still say, this was their finest hour!"
(Proceed to part 11 - As the Crow Flies)