Fortress of Louisbourg

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Fortress of Louisbourg (1719-1768) - A French colonial fortified city established in 1719 after Queen Anne's War on present day Cape Breton Island, Cape Breton County, Nova Scotia, Canada. Abandoned in 1768.

Fortress of Louisbourg, Dauphin Demi-Bastion and Semi-circular battery
Fortress of Louisbourg, Front of Kings Bastion Barracks
Fortress of Louisbourg, Kings Bastion Interior and Kings Bastion Barracks. Photo taken from the Kings Bastion Barbette


Fortress of Louisbourg, Dauphin Gate
Fortress of Louisbourg, Dauphin Demi-Bastion interior, showing the Semi-circular battery
Fortress of Louisbourg Town Site
Fortress of Louisbourg Ordonnatur's Residence
Fortress of Louisbourg Magasin Général (Royal Storehouse)
Plan of the Fortress of Louisbourg in 1744

Founding, 1713

In the 17th and 18th centuries France and Britain competed both for control of Atlantic Canada and for the valuable cod fisheries off its coasts. In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), Britain acquired control of French territories in Newfoundland and Acadia (mainland Nova Scotia). That year the French colonized Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and founded Louisbourg (initially called Havre à l'Anglois). Subsequently, the fishing port grew to become a substantial town, a major commercial port and a strongly defended fortress. Little agriculture was carried out there, the cod fishery being the principal economic activity. As a base for the fishing industry, Louisbourg developed diversified shipping links. Each year the port welcomed trading vessels from France, the Caribbean, the British American colonies, Acadia and Québec. Fishermen from France and Spain — Breton, Norman and Basque — joined the fishing industry each summer. Louisbourg was a popular port and was the third busiest port in North America (after Boston and Philadelphia.) The town's settler population, drawn partly from New France and from France itself, grew to roughly 2,000 by 1740. By 1752, the population of Louisbourg had increased to 4,174.

Although its governor was nominally subservient to the governor general of New France at Québec, Île Royale functioned as a separate colony. With its military garrison, its importance as a fishing and trading port, and its strategic location on the eastern tip of Île Royale at the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Louisbourg was the centre of French power in the region guarding the gateway to New France.

Construction and design of the fortifications

The fortress, which took over 24 years to complete, was constructed by military engineers, civilian and solider laborers, under the direction of Jean-François Verville, and later Étienne Verrier. The defences were based on designs by Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the chief engineer of French king Louis XIV. The stone faced landward walls were up to 11 meters thick, and rose nine metres above a deep ditch, fronted by open earthen slopes known as glacis. The layout of the fortifications was designed to make maximum use of enfilade (or flanking) fire against any attackers who should manage to reach the base of any of the main walls. The short walls perpendicular to the curtain walls sheltered cannons with a clear line of fire directly down the curtain walls and across the face of the neighbouring bastions. The fortress faced the sea on three sides so additional gun batteries around Louisbourg harbour and on Battery Island in the harbour entrance further protected the seaward approaches to the town.

The city had four gates that lead into the city. The Dauphin Gate, which is currently reconstructed, was the busiest, leading to the extensive fishing compounds around the harbour and to the main road leading inland. The Frederick Gate, also reconstructed, was the waterfront entrance. The Maurepas Gate, facing the narrows, connected the fishing establishments, dwellings and cemeteries on Rocheford Point and was elaborately decorated as it was very visible to arriving ships. The Queen's Gate on the sparsely populated seaward side saw little use. Louisbourg was also home to six bastions, two of which are reconstructed. Dauphin bastion, commonly referred to as a 'demi-bastion' for its modification, the King's bastion, Queen's bastion, Princess bastion, Maurepas bastion and the Brouillon bastion. On the harbour side of the fortress, 15 guns pointed out to the harbour from the Semi-circular battery. The walls on this harbour side of town were only 4.9 metres high and 2 metres across.

The key to the fortress landward defence was the glacis that protected the fortress walls from enemy cannon fire, and the covered way on the outer edge of the ditch surrounding the walls. Defenders could move relatively safely in the cover of the ditch and could engage in active countermeasures to keep control of the glacis by creating defensive earthworks to deny the enemy access to the glacis and thus to firing points that could bear directly onto the walls. Lunettes were inserted built into the glacis to further protect the curtain walls. Stone lined counter mines were dug into the glacis to intercept and disrupt attempts to mine the fortress walls. The walls and batteries contained emplacements for 148 cannon, though the full complement of guns was never installed. The open ground beyond landward side of Louisbourg was considered to be too marshy to allow an attacking enemy to deploy heavy artillery within range of the walls unless a protracted siege took place.

First Siege, 1745

By 1744, Britain had been drawn into conflict with France as part of the larger War of the Austrian Succession (known in the British colonies as King George’s War). Until this time, Louisbourg had not participated in any military actions, although the fortress had provided refuge for Indigenous people allied with the French who raided English settlements. Louisbourg also offered a safe harbour for French privateers who preyed on fishing fleets and ships from New England.

On 24 May 1744, a force of soldiers from Louisbourg aboard a fleet of 17 vessels, under the command of Captain François du Pont Duvivier, made a surprise attack on the small English fort and settlement at Grassy Island, near Canso (on the present-day Nova Scotia mainland), forcing the British garrison there to surrender. The French destroyed the settlement and took the British to Louisbourg as prisoners. While the British awaited transfer to Boston in a prisoner exchange, their officers were free to move about the town where they were able to take note of existing weaknesses in the fortress.

In Boston, these officers reported their observations to Massachusetts governor William Shirley. They told him that Louisbourg’s garrison was undermanned, and that morale among the French troops was low, largely because of poor food and because they hadn’t been paid in months. They also said that due to poor construction, parts of the seemingly formidable walls were crumbling. They also revealed the presence of nearby ridges and hills overlooking Louisbourg’s landward walls. And they made sketches of Louisbourg’s defences, which they gave to Shirley.

Shirley raised a force of more than 4,000 New Englanders, commanded by William Pepperell, for an expedition against Louisbourg. The colonial army would be supported by a Royal Navy squadron under Commodore Peter Warren. In April 1745, Pepperell established a base at Canso, where he met with Warren in early May to plan a land and sea operation.

The first siege of Louisbourg began on 11 May 1745. Pepperell had captured strategic points near the fortress, and Warren’s ships blockaded the harbour. The colonial army used sledges to haul artillery across marshy ground to high points from which the guns could bombard the town and batter the walls. The French warship Vigilant carrying vital supplies and reinforcements, was captured by Warren’s squadron. By 28 June, Louisbourg’s walls had been breached and Warren’s fleet was poised to enter the harbour. Short of supplies and ammunition, and under pressure from the town’s merchants to capitulate, French governor Louis DuPont Duchambon surrendered.

Arrangements were made for most of the population to be transported to France. Warren was promoted to rear admiral, and Pepperell was rewarded by Britain with a baronetcy.

A major expedition by the French to recapture the fortress led by Jean-Baptiste de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, duc d'Anville, the following year was destroyed by storms, disease and British naval attacks before it ever reached the fortress.

Returned to France, 1748

In 1748, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of the Austrian Succession, restored Louisbourg to France in return for territory gained in the Austrian Netherlands and the British trading post at Madras in India. Maurepas, the ministre de la marine, was determined to have it back. He regarded the fortified harbour as essential to maintaining French dominance in the fisheries of the area.

The new French governor, Augustine de Boschenry de Drucour, strengthened Louisbourg’s defences and increased the garrison to more than 3,500 regular troops augmented by militia, marines and sailors. He stocked the storehouses with enough provisions and munitions to last a year in the event of another siege.

A large-scale French naval deployment in 1757 fended off an attempted assault by the British in 1757.

Second Siege, 1758

Britain’s ultimate objective in North America during the 1750s was the capture of the French stronghold of Québec. Before an invasion force could be sent up the St. Lawrence River, however, Louisbourg — guarding the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence — would have to be taken again. That attempt came in 1758 during the Seven Years War (1756–63), known in the American colonies as the French and Indian War.

A British fleet appeared off Louisbourg in early June 1758. In command were Major-General Jeffery Amherst and Admiral Edward Boscawen. One of the senior officers was Brigadier-General James Wolfe.

The second siege of Louisbourg began on 8 June when Wolfe led troops ashore at Kennington Cove in Gabarus Bay, 5 km. down the coast, southwest of Louisbourg. French defenses were initially successful and after heavy losses, Wolfe ordered a retreat. However, at the last minute, a boatload of light infantry in Wolfe's division (i.e., members of Rogers Rangers) found a rocky inlet protected from French fire and secured a beachhead. Wolfe redirected the rest of his division to follow. Outflanked, the French retreated rapidly back to their fortress.

Continuing heavy seas and the difficulty inherent to moving siege equipment over boggy terrain delayed the commencement of the formal siege. In the meantime, Wolfe was sent with 1,220 picked men around the harbour to seize Lighthouse Point, which dominated the harbour entrance. This he did on 12 June. After eleven days, on 19 June, the British artillery batteries were in position and the orders were given to open fire on the French. The British battery consisted of seventy cannons and mortars of all sizes. By 25 June, his artillery had knocked the French guns on Battery Island out of action, and his siege was drawing nearer to Louisbourg’s walls. In one of the many skirmishes and raids that took place during the siege, Wolfe captured the high ground overlooking the fortress's Dauphin Gate. That enabled the British to move in their biggest guns, 24 and 32 pounders, to fire on the town and on the five French warships that were anchored as close to the walls as possible.

The French returned fire, but as the days passed, most of their cannon were disabled. On 21 July, a British mortar shell exploded in the magazine — the ammunition storeroom — of a French ship, causing a fire that spread to two other vessels, burning all three to the waterline. On 25 July, a British Royal Navy raiding party attacked the two remaining French warships. They set one on fire, and sailed the other one away to join the British fleet. James Cook, who later became famous as an explorer, took part in this operation and recorded it in his ship's log book.

Realizing that he could not hold out any longer, Drucour surrendered the next day. The town’s civilians would be allowed to return to France, but soldiers and officers would be sent to England as prisoners of war. After the capture of Montréal in 1760, to ensure that Louisbourg would never again pose a threat should a treaty once more return it to the French, British engineers completely destroyed the fortifications of the town. The British continued to have a garrison at Louisbourg until 1768 when the townsite and remaining buildings were abandoned. They fell into disrepair and were eventually torn down by later settlers, who used their valuable building materials for construction elsewhere on the island.

Louisbourg had held out long enough to prevent an attack on Quebec in 1758. However the fall of the fortress led to the loss of French territory across Atlantic Canada. From Louisbourg, British forces spent the remainder of the year routing French forces and occupying French settlements in what is today New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. The second wave of the Acadian expulsion began. The British engaged in the St. John River Campaign, the Cape Sable Campaign, the Petitcodiac River Campaign, the Ile Saint-Jean Campaign, and the removal of Acadians in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Campaign (1758).


The loss of Louisbourg deprived New France of naval protection, opening the Saint Lawrence to attack. Louisbourg was used in 1759 as the staging point for General Wolfe's famous Siege of Quebec ending French rule in North America. Former French territories became part of British North America. The small islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland, were acquired by France in 1763 — replacing Île Royale as a French base for the fishing industry.

Click to enlarge - CAUTION LARGE FILE - SLOW TO LOAD - This map, dated 1746, has an inset "Plan of the City and Port of Louisbourg" along the top centre edge.

Current Status

Must See! Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada, Nova Scotia, Canada. Operated by Parks Canada. This is a re-creation of the French Fortress of Louisbourg as it appeared in 1744. The re-creation was done in the 1960s by Canadian coal miners and artisans brought in from Europe. About 1/5 of the fortress was completely rebuilt from scratch as there were no remaining buildings from that period, only ruins. The main features that have been replicated include the massive Kings Bastion and Kings Bastion Barracks, the Dauphin Demi- Bastion and Semi-circular battery, the Dauphine Gate, the Frederic Gate and four square blocks of the town. The town site buildings include a mix of residences, shops and fortress related buildings. Other buildings are scattered about as they would have been at the time. These are all substantial period stone and frame buildings with period furnishing and manned by knowledgeable individuals.

The fortress is populated with dozens of reactors in period costume, both military and civilian, who interact with visitors. It would seem at first glance that the whole population of the real town works at the recreated fortress but the reactors move around enough to create the illusion of a larger population.

Many period guns and carriages, mounted versions in the Kings Bastion and the Dauphine Semi-circular battery. A row of unmounted cannons outside the Artillery store building.

Activities throughout the day included two cannon firings (11:45 and 16:30) musket firings, guided tours and kids activities. Plan on a full day at the fort or better yet spend two shorter days. Opens at 9:30 and closes at 5:00. Off site visitor center with shuttle bus service to the fortress. Exceptional displays and museum in the Kings Bastion Barracks. Admission charge.

Location: Louisbourg, Cape Breton County, Nova Scotia, Canada

Maps & Images

Lat: 45.8911358 Long: -59.9859202



Visited: 5-6 Jul 2013

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