CANADA

Louisbourg, NS

New France’s Louisbourg Fortress: Mistakes Were Made

The fortress of Louisbourg recreates the fortified town as it would have looked in 1744.

The Fortress of Louisbourg recreates the fortified town as it would have looked in 1744, the year before the British first took it. Looking towards the Royal Battery,
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE FATE OF the Fortress of Louisbourg is a good example of what happens when people learn nothing from history.

In 1745 a ragtag army of New Englanders attacked French-held Louisbourg in what has been called the “Campaign of Amateurs.” They figured out that coming at the fortress by sea was a mug’s game, so they snuck up by land on the Royal Battery, a smaller position across the bay.

The battery was only built to withstand seaside assaults. It was indefensible from its land side so the French abandoned it, spiking the cannon before they left. They should have destroyed them. The New Englanders unspiked the guns and turned them on the fortress, which surrendered after a six-week siege.

Louisbourg’s 3,200 people were deported, but three years later France and Britain signed a treaty that restored the fortress to French hands. Its inhabitants returned.

A decade later the French and British were fighting again. In 1758 the British attacked Louisbourg with a much stronger force than the amateurs of 1745, but took it using exactly the same tactic.

There would be no third time lucky for Louisbourg. The British blew it up and for 200 years the headland site was tended only by wind and fog.

In 1961 the Canadian government committed $26 million to rebuilding one-fifth of the site. The job took years to complete and costs millions to maintain, but the result is one of the largest and most beguiling chunks of historical recreation in the New World.

Because there’s been very little development nearby, the view from the fortress is of the same wilderness the French knew in the 1700s. “On a foggy day,” says Louisbourg park interpreter Karen Pink, “you can’t even see the modern town. It’s like going back in time.” Even on a clear day, if you stand at the corner of rue Royale and rue Toulouse, it’s the 18th century every way you turn.

There are more than 25 buildings to visit, from seaside taverns to the imposing governor’s house. So meticulous was the rebuilding that at the corner of the Quay and rue St-Louis is a bricked-up entrance.

Karen Pink explains that in the 1740s this was a passageway to a house behind, but when the house burned down the entrance was blocked. Historians knew the story, so they included it in the reconstruction.

Historians know quite a bit about the fortress, in fact. The French were great at keeping records—there are more than a million documents from Louisbourg, plus journals and letters from the 2,500 civilians and 700 soldiers living there in the 1740s. In summer, 150 people in costume recreate the lives of some of those inhabitants.

Besides the rebuilt part, you can also take a self-guided tour through the other four-fifths of Louisbourg. In the wind-blown fields you can see where the hospital, breweries and executioner’s house stood. You can look back at the spires of Louisbourg and towards the Royal Battery across the bay. And let the history soak in.

 

ACCESS

For more information visit Parks Canada’s Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site web page at www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/ns/louisbourg.

For information on travel in Nova Scotia visit the Tourism Nova Scotia website at www.novascotia.com.