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  • James Houser

July 26, 1758 - The Seven Years' War, William Pitt, and the Siege of Louisbourg

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

July 26, 1758. The French fortress of Louisbourg, the linchpin of Canada’s defenses, falls to the British armies of Jeffrey Amherst and James Wolfe. The British have begun to turn the tide in the French & Indian War, which will gain them and lose them an empire. The Siege of Louisbourg is only one part of British minister William Pitt’s master plan for Britannia to stand astride the world.

When George Washington’s early mistakes in the Ohio wilderness kicked off the French and Indian War (see my post on July 9), no one thought it would be anything more than a local affair. Even subsequent British failures to drive the French from the Ohio country didn’t mean this war had to go anywhere beyond the inner wilderness of the North American continent. When fighting broke out in continental Europe, though, Britain was sucked in. After alienating the Austrians in recent years, Britain had only one possible ally in Europe – Prussia. And Prussia’s King Frederick the Great had just started a war. This sucked Britain into a war with multiple European powers – a war which became one of the most important conflicts in history.

This new war would become known as the Seven Years’ War, and would turn into the first global conflict. As George Washington led bands of continentals to fight the French in Ohio, Frederick the Great led Prussian armies against the Russians, Austrians, and Swedes in modern Poland, British expeditions attacked French possessions in the Caribbean and West African coast, and both the British and French sponsored and fought with rival factions in eastern India. The war even extended to the Philippines, the Mediterranean, and South Africa.

The main contenders were, on the one hand, France, Austria, Russia, Sweden, the Ohio Indians and eventually Spain. On the other hand, their opponents were Britain, her American colonies, Prussia, and a host of minor German states. To anyone looking at a map when this whole thing broke out in 1756, it doesn’t look good for Britain and friends. That would be misleading. Yes, by landmass and population the anti-British alliance should overwhelm the small island country and her one tough, but tiny, German ally. Britain, however, controlled the seas – and that was everything. The only issue was how to use this power.

British politics in the 18th Century are intricate, complex, and full of men in powdered wigs who hate each other, so I won’t delve too deeply into them. Suffice to say that various factions supported different high-ranking figures in the Royal family of King George II. A very large faction, for instance, supported the King’s son William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland. When Cumberland’s army fighting the French in Germany utterly shat the bed in 1757, the British cabinet of the Duke of Devonshire fell apart. To form a new government for Britain – hopefully a government that could win a war that was so far going very badly – George II had to swallow his pride and turn to Pitt.

William Pitt, the Great Commoner, is one of the unique figures of history. He was a master politician, a visionary with enormous oratorical skills and a larger-than-life magnetism. He was principled, commanding, a ruthless debater and had apparently read every book in the world. Pitt was high-minded and arrogant, a zealous foe of corruption, and enjoyed vast support from the British masses. The people adored him since he, of all the great politicians in the English government, was not a lord or a duke – his seat was in the House of Commons. He was called the Great Commoner for his dominance in that House, the most commanding figure it had ever seen. There was a problem – Pitt’s very stridency and stubbornness made him lots of enemies in high places, and one of them had been King George II.

King George hated Pitt, but when the Seven Years’ War looked like a lost cause in 1757, he realized he needed Pitt’s skills as a politician and strategist. When the new cabinet took their seats that year, the Duke of Newcastle took the seat of Prime Minister – but he was a puppet. It would be Pitt, as Secretary of State for the Southern Department and Leader of the House of Commons, who would dominate and direct the British war effort. And William Pitt had a vision.

Pitt’s strategy to win the Seven Years’ War was simple and bold. Britain would keep Prussia fighting all the other European powers at whatever cost by pumping vast subsidies into her economy. Prussia was surrounded by enemies, but with British cash she could keep fighting for years, and tie down most of the French Army in the process. Britain, meanwhile, would focus on its strength – the overwhelming dominance of the Royal Navy. Pitt’s strategy would focus on taking apart France’s colonial empire overseas, destroying the French war effort and filling British coffers with cash. As long as Britain dominated the sea lanes, everything the French had across the waves – French Canada, the West Indies, African outposts, and Indian conquests – could fall into British hands like a ripe plum. That was Pitt’s grand vision – keep Prussia alive at all costs, and seize the whole French colonial empire.

There was one hangup: this strategy required vast, unthinkable, enormous sums of money. Pitt gambled that if Britain got herself an empire, she would easily be able to pay back her debts through trade and monopoly. Pitt also changed his attitude towards the American colonies. British generals in America had tried to bully the colonists into coughing up money and troops, and they had been understandably reluctant. Pitt ASKED them for contributions, and it was like turning on the tap. The Americans, proud of their autonomy but still (at this point) loyal British subjects, wanted nothing more than to help beat the hated French – but didn’t like being forced to do it.

After the disasters of 1757, including the infamous loss of Minorca and numerous disasters in America and Germany, Pitt needed a turnaround in 1758. The only bright spots were Frederick the Great’s genius victories against all odds in Central Europe. As Britain dumped 670,000 pounds on Frederick to keep him fighting through 1758, Pitt decided to focus his own forces on the attack against French Canada. As multiple American and British forces advanced inland from New York and Virginia, an amphibious assault force would land on Cape Breton Island and capture the key French fortress of Louisbourg.

Louisbourg was the critical point for the French defense of Canada, the largest and most expensive European fortress in the Western Hemisphere. Situated on Cape Breton Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it dominated every sea approach to the French settlements in Canada. If it were in British hands, the Royal Navy could stroll right down the St. Lawrence River and attack the cities of Quebec and Montreal.

A large force of American colonials had captured Louisbourg after a long siege in 1745, a massive boost to American morale and self-confidence, but the British gave it back in the peace talks that ended that war. Since then, the French had enlarged and improved the fort, and it drove off a British attack in 1757. To assault Louisbourg this time, William Pitt put together a massive expedition – 26,000 men and 40 of the Royal Navy’s men-of-war. In command he put Major General Jeffrey Amherst. As Amherst’s chief subordinate Pitt made the surprise choice of the haughty, daring, stern 31-year-old James Wolfe.

The French knew the British were coming, and they made multiple attempts to rearm and reinforce the garrison of Louisbourg. Here is where Pitt’s strategy came into play. Thanks to the British command of the seas, it was always harder for France to send reinforcements and supplies than it was for the British. He warned his admirals to be on the lookout for French efforts to send ships and men to reinforce America, and on multiple occasions Royal Navy squadrons off the French coast intercepted ships full of food, troops and guns bound for Canada. With France itself routinely blocked from sending help to its far-flung possessions, the British could build up as many men and guns as they wanted to pluck the jewels out of the French Empire’s crown.

On May 29, Amherst’s British expedition set sail from Halifax in Nova Scotia – Britain’s main naval base in America. By June 2, they had arrived off the coast of Cape Breton Island and prepared to launch their attack. Their French opponent had only 3,500 regular troops and 3,500 sailors and marines to oppose the 14,000 in Amherst’s first wave. The French were also crippled by their failure to assemble a fleet of their own to defend Louisbourg, thanks to the blocking efforts of the Royal Navy.

The first week of June was full of bad weather for the British, preventing any landing of the assault force. As the young, impatient Wolfe fumed and paced back and forth on his ship, the most the British fleet could do was bombard the shore defenses. Conditions soon lightened, however, and on June 8 the British finally made their assault landing. At 0400, a rocket was launched as a signal, and rowboats slashed their way to the Canadian shore on a wavy sea as warships bombarded the French defenses.

The first landing was driven back by French artillery fire, as well as musketry from the French infantry. The surf was rough, and many of the redcoats were unable to make their landing even as they took fire from the French. In one of the boats, though, was young General Wolfe, and he ordered his boats to redirect west of the cove as the sea splashed around them and French shells crashed through the waves.

The risk was great, with the violent swell overturning many boats and men jumping to get onshore. A company of American rangers was the first ashore, followed by the 78th Fraser Highlanders, a brace of light infantry, and Wolfe himself, armed only with a cane. Wolfe’s redirection of the attack had found an undefended portion of the beach, and despite the fire of a few scattered French soldiers the British began building up onshore. This miniature amphibious assault outflanked the French defenses – not out of French negligence, but because they simply did not have enough men to guard the whole bay.

As Wolfe led his infantry forward against the French, they delivered a withering fire and assaulted the outer breastworks. The French had to fall back from their beach defenses into the Louisbourg fortress complex. Though Amherst had been reluctant to bring the “mere boy” along as one of his commanders, he now realized that Pitt’s ability to read people had been spot-on. Wolfe might be arrogant, ambitious and, well, an asshole, but he could think on his feet and always looked for a way to win.

As the rest of the British army landed, then, Amherst picked Wolfe again to lead an expedition to the other side of the fortress to secure the high ground of Lighthouse Point. With 1,220 picked men, Wolfe set off on June 12 infantry through unmapped, uncharted terrain to find and seize the high ground, surprising a French artillery battery. This maneuver once again unhinged the French, and within 48 hours more British ships were landing near Wolfe’s camp to unload supplies and siege guns. Louisbourg was now completely cut off, the new British position dominated the harbor, and it was only a matter of time.

After eleven days, on June 19, the British had all their guns in place. With seventy tubes of all sizes, including the heavy mortars that fired in a vertical arc to send their rounds over the fortress walls, the British opened a devastating bombardment. Within hours, their guns had destroyed some of the walls, damaged multiple buildings, and soon had even hit one of the French warships stationed in the harbor.

The bombardment was terrible for the French inhabitants, including many civilians – just as in any siege at any time in history. The French Acadian residents of Louisbourg suffered mightily under the British guns. On July 23, a British “hot shot” – a cannonball that was heated in a furnace before being fired from a gun – set the King’s Bastion, the fortress headquarters, on fire. The King’s Bastion was at the time the largest building in North America, but it burned to cinders in hours. Finally, a midnight expedition by the Royal Navy under Captain James Cook – later the famous explorer – destroyed the last few French ships left in the harbor. That was the last straw.

On July 26, 1758, the French finally surrendered Louisbourg. It was traditional for an 18th-Century fortress’s garrison, especially if they had fought long and valiantly, to be paroled and shipped home. Amherst refused this honor of war to the French, with the cold reasoning that it would deprive France of good soldiers. Even worse, he deported the population of Cape Breton Island – which is why it is called THAT now, and not Ile Royale. The French were defeated, and the defeated did not get to make terms.

The capture of Louisbourg opened up all of French Canada to British invasion and ultimately conquest. It proved the final truth of Pitt’s strategy: the French could resist as long and as bravely as they wanted to in their scattered outposts across the world, but unless they could somehow send reinforcements and supplies past the Royal Navy to these scattered outposts, the outcome was inevitable. Canada, the West Indies, Africa and India all would fall. Even when France brought a reluctant Spain into the war in 1762, that only gave the British more targets; within months, they captured Havana and Manila. Britannia ruled the waves; anything the waves touched was ripe for the taking.

The Seven Years’ War was one of the most decisive wars in European history. The British secured their dominance of the ocean, and their ability to take anything across it made them the top dog in Europe. Louisbourg was just the first of a string of victories made possible by British command of the seas, and William Pitt’s strategy succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Pitt saw a world dominated by London, and set out to make it a reality.

When Pitt had outlived his usefulness, the King dumped him in 1762 – but without Pitt, the system he had built did not work. Britain’s victory held the seeds of its own ruin, since the vast sums of money that they had borrowed to finance the war needed to be made good. Pitt had also gotten the colonies used to being treated like partners rather than subjects. So when the British taxpayers came knocking with something called the Stamp Act, the colonies were understandably upset. Pitt had made Britain a world empire – and if the British government had only listened to his advice afterwards, maybe they could have stayed one.

Because Pitt, when the Revolution came, sympathized with and defended the Americans, pleading with the government to back off. Too bad no one listened.

One man can change the world – but only so far.

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