The successful conquest of the great French fortress of Louisbourg took place after the imperial system was in place in New England, but was largely a collaboration between the merchants of Boston and the royal governor. The New Englanders desperately wanted to open Maine and the Maritime Provinces to British settlement and trade. They provided all the soldiers; the British fleet provided protection, but only after the fact did the British government reimburse the colonists for their expenses.
By the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, all of Acadia went to the British. This did not, however, include Cape Breton Island off the northeastern tip of Nova Scotia, which remained in French hands. This was of great strategic importance as it guarded the southern approach to the Saint Lawrence. The French decided to fortify the island, and so built the great fortress of Louisbourg, which has ever since loomed large in the tales of New England military history. Work was begun in 1713. By 1715 there was a population there of over seven hundred, not counting the soldiers in the garrison. In 1744 the garrison numbered seven hundred, and there were one hundred sixteen cannon in place, including some 36-pounders. The fort was built according to the most current military plans, the harbor was guarded, too, by some of the nastiest weather on the coast. (In many years the ice did not leave the harbor until May.) The French might well have thought themselves invulnerable there, but they fell victim to one of the grand amateur military campaigns of the eighteenth century.
In May 1744, the French at Louisbourg received word from Paris that war with England had broken out again. An expedition from the French garrison overran the nearest British fort, at Canso on the far southeastern end of Nova Scotia. Among the officers captured at Canso was a native of Nova Scotia, John Bradstreet. He was paroled to Boston, where, he insisted in later years, he gave Governor William Shirley the idea of taking Louisbourg.
William Shirley was the greatest of the British royal governors. He managed to keep the governorship of Massachusetts a record fifteen years, 1741-1756, juggling the demands of his English patron, the Duke of Newcastle, against those of the merchants of Boston. He was to fall from grace only when he unexpectedly inherited the command of all the British military forces in 1755, on General Braddock's death in battle. But that was far in the future. A lawyer with eight children and extravagant tastes, he and his ambitious wife, Frances, had arrived in Boston in 1731. He soon demonstrated a knack for judicious and politic application of the laws against smuggling, and against abusing the royal privileges that governed the great New Hampshire white pines, legally reserved for the king for ship masts. He was affable, hard-working, and had a devoted wife in Frances, who spent five years in London urging Newcastle to make her husband governor. In 1741, to the surprise of virtually no-one, her wish was granted.
Shirley was a great governor because he was able to keep the large imperial picture before himself at all times. He persuaded the legislature to vote for men for the British forces in the West Indies (in 1741, Britain was fighting Spain in the Caribbean and had not yet officially declared war on France). Shirley looked forward to war with France because of the opportunity it gave him to build patronage by awarding military contracts. He and his backers, the bankers, also looked forward to an influx of sterling to help to cure the chronic problem of devalued local currency. Yet most of the Boston merchants who controlled the legislature did not necessarily want to think about, let alone send money on, expensive defensive measures for their own territory, which at this time meant strengthening the chain of forts along the coast of Maine. By actually going to Maine and investigating the situation, Shirley made allies of the two most important landholders and patrons of the area: Samuel Waldo and William Pepperrell. Waldo and Pepperrell could only make money if they could persuade reluctant settlers to buy land from them. The settlers would not move to the Maine coast without assurances that they would be protected from the French. By 1744, Shirley, Waldo, and Pepperrell were in complete agreement with Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire that hostilities were about to break out between Britain and France in the Massachusetts sphere of influence.
France moved first and took Canso from the British. The garrison at Annapolis Royal was to be next. The French had actually fought their way past the outer buildings of the fort when the relief fleet from Boston arrived in the nick of time. Shirley had done all that he could to save Annapolis Royal. Yet, as he complained bitterly to London, the stingy Massachusetts legislature had placed strict limits on his efforts: one hundred eighty men for six months, with a monetary limit of £2,000. The legislators were willing, however, to strengthen forts under the direct control of Massachusetts.
Late in 1744, the paroled British prisoners from Canso arrived in Boston. Three of them, John Bradstreet in particular, gave Shirley a very precise report on the insufficient firepower of the cannons guarding Louisbourg, and the discontent rife among the small number of defenders. Shirley decided to strike before reinforcements arrived from France in the spring of 1745.
It took all his powers of persuasion to get a favorable vote from the legislature; he had to promise that professional British soldiers would take over from the provincials once the fort was won. On 25 February 1745, the Massachusetts legislature, guided by William Pepperrell, voted the governor the authority to raise three thousand volunteers. Shirley made Pepperrell commander-in-chief, with Waldo and Joseph Dwight of western Massachusetts as his brigadier generals. Colonies as far south as Pennsylvania sent men and supplies. Massachusetts and Maine provided 3,000 men, the largest contingent. Connecticut sent five hundred men. New Hampshire four hundred fifty. Rhode Island provided an armed ship; New York sent ten 24-pound cannon; Pennsylvania and New Jersey sent provisions. The bulk of the men, money, and materiel came from Massachusetts territory, yet the expedition was inter-colonial, and, more importantly, completely voluntary. Convinced that the British government would ultimately pay for the expedition in sterling, Shirley raised £50,000 in paper currency. He also requested that Commodore Peter Warren, commander of British naval operations in the Caribbean, escort his small fleet.
The colonial fleet of fifteen ships sailed out of Boston harbor on 28 March 1745, without Warren's escort, but buoyed on its way by the sermons of excited clergymen, convinced that Popish tyranny would soon be forever driven from North America.
Within a week after the fleet had sailed, Shirley received news that Newcastle had sent word that Warren was to be in charge of a grand effort to drive the French out of Nova Scotia once and for all. This might have caused difficult political problems for Pepperrell, but Warren proved, initially. to be most diplomatic in his dealings with the man from Maine. In June 1745, word reached Boston that the French had surrendered and that the amateurs of New England had finally beaten French regulars. The town went wild with joy. Shirley asked for the colonelcy of a British regiment (for financial, not military reasons) and a baronetcy. Yet only a few weeks later he had to sail to Louisbourg himself to quell fierce complaints among the Massachusetts soldiers that the British regulars were interfering and taking all the glory. Pepperrell wrote of Warren that all he did was to find fault because "the soldiers did not march as handsome as old regular troops, their toes were not turned out enough, etc."
It is necessary to back up and examine the events of the campaign to see how the two points of view collided. The provincial transports jumped the season that cold spring of 1745. They arrived at Canso in early April before the ice was out of the harbor at Louisbourg. On 23 April Commodore Warren joined their little fleet with four immense British naval vessels, one of sixty guns, and three of forty guns. On 29 April the fleet moved over to Gabarus Bay, which opens to the south, three miles to the west of the town of Louisbourg. The landing was easy. Only three Americans were wounded, three Frenchmen killed. The remaining Frenchmen set fire to houses outside the walls and retreated into the town. Brad street had told Shirley that there were two breaches in the walls of the Great Battery on the north side of the harbor. As predicted, a small detachment discovered on 2 May that the French had spiked the great guns (twenty-eight 42-pounders) and abandoned the well stocked battery. By 4 May the Americans were turning French cannons on their former owners. As if this were not bad enough, Warren captured a French supply ship loaded with bread, meat, and flour, and further French ships with military supplies. Mean while the Americans bombarded the fortress from the hill above the town with some of the cannon from the Great Battery, which they had dragged through the swamps. Two direct attempts to take the town failed when the Americans proved to be too drunk to keep discipline. On 15 June, the two commanders were planning a joint assault when the French sent out a flag of truce. After a day of negotiations the French commander handed over the city to Pepperrell on 17 June. Thus the greatest French fortress in North America fell, a victim of official French neglect and American enthusiasm.
Although Pepperrell and Warren understood each other very well (Warren had spent fifteen years in America, was married to a De Lancey of New York, and owned considerable property in Manhattan), trouble began at once. Warren insisted that the French flag be kept flying over Louisbourg to decoy rich merchant vessels into the range of his guns. Loot worth more than a million pounds sterling fell into his hands; according to the custom of the day half went to the British crown and half to the naval commanders, none to the shore forces. This was, to put it mildly, bitterly resented. But the real trouble came when the Americans were forced into a garrison role. They were simply too undisciplined for this. Their enlistments were for the season only, they were worried about their families in the backcountry of New England, which was open to raids from the French and Indians, and they were prone to all the illnesses that go with lack of sanitation. Of the four thousand men under Pepperrell's command, fifteen hundred were incapable of duty even before the French capitulated. By the spring of 1746, after a winter in camp, eight hundred ninety were dead.
Yet the provincials held on at Louisbourg under Warren's governorship. They deeply resented the fact that they had been pressured into enlisting for a second year, but they had no way to get home to New England. The French in Canada, as they feared, stirred up the Indians in New York state to make trouble all along the frontier and distract the British from their next objective: Quebec.
Meanwhile, the French sent an enormous fleet against Louisbourg to retake it as quickly as possible. The wind that blew the Spanish Armada up and around England in 1588 is always known as "The Protestant Wind," but the wind that saved Louisbourg in 1746 rates the same title. Everything went wrong with the French fleet: hurricanes, pestilence, the commander killed himself. The fleet turned around and fled back to France. The French king tried again in 1747; this time the fleet got only four sailing days off the cost of France when the English defeated it decisively in battle.
The American soldiers and their clergymen exulted in every new mark of God's favor towards them. They were not prepared for the final outcome of the Louisbourg campaign. England gave it back to France in the peace treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. Every thing that Shirley and his volunteers had worked for seemed to have been for nought. Again, purely European considerations had overruled the considerations of the provincials.