Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Fortress of Futility

The message came from the top. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to infiltrate the French-built Fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia.

There's a catch, however. We need to infiltrate the Fortress circa early 1700s. 1744, to be precise.

Art and I look at each other. No problem. Time traveling is our specialty.

So we do our time traveling thing and arrive safely in 1744. Our dossier on Louisbourg stated that construction of the fortress began in 1713. France had just lost its outposts in Newfoundland and the Bay of Fundy to Britain. Its North American coastal holdings were now down to two islands - Cape Breton and Prince Edward. The French weren't about to lose those islands to anyone. Especially those pesky British.

So they had a plan. They would build a walled city, a fortress, that would support a commercial economy based on cod fishing and trade. And it would house a mighty military presence that would protect Louisbourg from assault by land or sea. It's now the year 1744, and so far, so good. But Art and I know the clock is ticking for the good folks of Louisbourg.

We proceed cautiously to the fortress gate, aware that we are under the muzzles of heavy artillery and in the sights of musketmen.

We reach the gate, but encounter our first obstacle. A French soldier on guard duty.

Word is that the French soldiers here only drink rum. They would, of course, prefer to drink French wine. But they can't afford it. So they drink cheap rum while their officers and the town administrators and the many well-to-do merchants enjoy the French wine.

We attempt to bribe the guard with a bottle of France's finest. A 2005 Louis Latour. It was the best we could do. Fortunately, the guard does not look too closely at the label.

We're in. The city of Louisbourg is before us.

Our main objectives on this mission: find and document the French armament and see what the citizens of Louisbourg are up to.

It's not long before we encounter our first stronghold. We see a formidable array of cannon, each capable of firing an iron ball weighing 26 pounds. We document our discovery.

Suddenly, we hear the beating of a drum. It's soon accompanied by the high clear notes of a fife. We observe the citizens of Louisbourg hurrying down the Rue Toulouse to Place Royale, the main town square. We join the crowd and are witness to a show of French firepower.

After this impressive display, meant to reassure the townspeople of the security of the fortress and serve as a warning to any spies who might be in town, we notice one lone soldier heading towards the King's Bastion, the main battery of Louisbourg. Knowing we will see even more artillery there, as well as get a good birds-eye view of the entire town, we stealthily follow him into the citadel.

Once inside, we behold the ramparts. And more cannon. It seems the French are serious, deadly serious, about preserving their North American assets. Little do they know, it won't be enough.

We observe an officer up on the ramparts. There's something familiar about him. His posture, his bearing. Could it be?

Alas, no. Napoleon Bonaparte was not even born until 1769.

We furtively climb up the ramparts and peer over the wall into the town. And a pretty little town it is, too. With a population of roughly 4,000 people (1/4 of those being soldiers), Louisbourg in 1744 is doing what it was built to do. It's a bustling home port for French fishing and merchant fleets. In fact, in 1744, Louisbourg is the 4th most important port in North America, after Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

We climb down the ramparts and head back to the main town square to rendezvous with our contact. Ah, there she is! Code name: Little Red Riding Hood. We've seen Louisbourg's military prowess; Red is our ticket into the other side of this fortress town: its homes and its citizens.

And, evidently, its gardens. Cabbage, beans and carrots add essential nutrients to a diet heavy on bread and salted cod.

Red takes us into an inn. Look! It's a ceilidh! No, sorry. It's two French (not Scottish) fishermen playing the guitar and fiddle. I wonder what the French word for ceilidh is.

With Red's assistance (she knows the cook), we enter a Louisbourg residence. We slip into the kitchen and immediately realize that we are not in the kitchen of a poor fisherman, or even a moderately wealthy merchant. This is the kitchen of a prominent citizen: Etienne Verrier, a military engineer and the architect of Louisbourg's bastions, as well as the main gates and most of the public buildings in town. Busy man.

Food is in abundance in this kitchen...meats, fowl, vegetables, grains. And the man has a chocolate pot! Monsieur Verrier is, indeed, a member of Louisbourg's elite.

But egads! What is that? Some hideous 18th century torture device?

Ah, thankfully, no. Art, my own personal engineer, quickly ascertains its true nature. It's an ingenious invention that automatically, without electricity (remember, this is 1744), turns a spit for roasting meats. It uses a heavy weight on a chain, along with a speed control and gears. I want one.

Red sneaks us into a few more homes. We are privileged to meet and speak with the folks who are the heart and soul of Louisbourg. But knowing what's to come, Art and I realize we need to leave these good people. The future must have its day.

As we leave Louisbourg, we look back at the town and its harbor and think about what will unfold here in the months to come.

Later in the year, France will declare war on Britain (the War of the Austrian Succession, also called King George's War in North America). As French forces from Louisbourg attack various British ports in other parts of Nova Scotia, French privateers are harassing New England ships. Neither the British nor the New England colonists are amused.

The governor of Massachusetts decides that the French threat to New England must be dealt with immediately. Knowing that Britain has its hands full dealing with the French in Europe, he proposes assembling a colonial force to capture - yes, actually capture - the Fortress of Louisbourg. You have got to be kidding. A novice militia daring to take on veteran troops who are safe behind massive fortifications? Those gutsy New Englanders! Now we know where the American Revolution militias got their grit. But back to Louisbourg. The operation is authorized and over 4,000 colonial volunteers (from Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Hampshire) get ready to head to Louisbourg. The Massachusetts governor decides to appeal to London for naval support and three British warships from the Caribbean are sent to aid the New Englanders.

Knowing there will be repercussions for their military forays, Louisbourg prepares for an attack. Expecting it to come from the sea, expecting it to be led by the British, expecting it to be led by the British in war ships, Louisbourg points nearly all its cannon at the harbor and its mouth. But on April 30, 1745, the New England militia lands two miles down the coast from Louisbourg! They face no opposition as they bring in men and artillery.

Much has been written about what then ensues, and therefore, I won't go into the details here (although I am, don't you know, sorely tempted :-D ). But for the purposes of this blog, let me just say this...what does ensue is a seven week siege of the fortress, with heavy losses on both sides, culminating in the surrender of the French on June 16, 1745. The mighty Fortress of Louisbourg is handed over to the British. The remaining French soldiers and citizens of Louisbourg are allowed to return to France. The New England colonies are reimbursed for the costs of the expedition.

And the British give Louisbourg back to the French.


Yes. In the 1748 treaty that ends the war that began in 1744, Britain gives Louisbourg back to France.

The New England colonists are, understandably, furious. They did not plan, participate in, suffer and sacrifice their lives in the capture of Louisbourg to have it simply handed back to the French. They do not wish to be poker chips in some grand imperial game. They will not forget this.

In the meantime, the French return to Louisbourg. Fishing resumes, commercial shipping resumes, the French garrison triples its numbers and the town grows to a population of 6,000.

And in 1755, the next war breaks out between Britain and France. Yes, another one. This time it's the Seven Years War, known in North America as the French and Indian War. And this time, because the New England colonists have not forgotten, there is little to no enthusiasm in New England for helping the mother country. When, in 1758, the British lay siege to and capture Louisbourg once again, it will take 13,000 British troops and 40 warships. The New England colonists could be forgiven, I should think, if they feel a bit of grim satisfaction when they hear this.

We now bring the story of Louisbourg to a close. In 1759, the fortress serves as a British base for a successful attack on Quebec. It is the beginning of the end for the French empire in North America. And in 1760, to ensure that the French will not once again regain possession of Louisbourg in a future peace treaty, King George III orders Louisbourg to be demolished. The Fortress of Louisbourg is no more.

DISCLAIMER: Okay, we confess. There was no time traveling. At least not in the scientific (or even science fiction) sense of the word. But we did visit the Parks Canada historical reconstruction of 1/4 of the original Fortress of Louisbourg, as it was in 1744. It was a fantastic experience and one of the highlights of our trip. Archaeologists, historians, engineers and architects were all involved in the reconstruction, as well as many unemployed coal miners from Cape Breton who were taught 18th century French masonry techniques in order to create a reconstruction that was as historically accurate as possible. The original plans for the fortress, found in France, were used, as well as many of the original stones. The result? You would swear you were in Louisbourg in 1744! And for a while there, Art and I really thought we were. ;-D

I'd like to bring this update to a close by sharing with you photos of a couple of paintings of Louisbourg. They were painted by Canadian Lewis Parker who did extensive research on the fortress. I hope these paintings will give you even a better idea of what Louisbourg was like in 1744.

"View from the Clock Tower" (above) and "View from a French Warship" (below) show the very busy Louisbourg harbor as it would have appeared in the summer of 1744. Parks Canada staff helped Lewis Parker gather information on the ships that were actually in the harbor on August 18, 1744.

A final and personal note: it's pretty clear that when I began writing this update, my mood was one of whimsy. But as I found myself getting deeper into the history of Louisbourg, I couldn't keep it up. Reading and writing about war will do that to you.

But sometimes, somehow, whimsy and war come together. Here's one more photo from Louisbourg. We call this one "Irony."

--- Barbara (currently in Mystic, Connecticut)
Day 107
Total miles: 9,865


YTM said...

Great story; I really enjoyed it!

YTM said...

Great story; I really enjoyed it!