In 1745, William Pepperrell led an expedition to Acadia that stunned the French government when his men and a contingent of British naval vessels captured the French fortress at Louisbourg. Louisbourg, a key fort for the French, protected the mouth of the St. Lawrence River so essential to the Canadian trade.
Furious, King Louis XV of France decided that Louisbourg must be retaken. Not only that, all of New England must be conquered and Boston, which celebrated Pepperrell’s victory, must be be bombed and reduced to ashes. These were his orders to Jean-Baptiste Louis Frédéric de La Rochefoucauld de Roye, or as he was known by his royal title, Duc D’Anville.
The Duc D’Anville had orders to assemble the largest fleet ever to sail to North America (up until the American Revolution) and retake the region. He began provisioning 64 ships (some estimates say 66) in Brest and rounding up the 11,000-man army that would carry out the mission.
The reason Pepperrell attacked Louisbourg in the first place -- and risked retaliation from the Duc D'Anville -- went back many years.
The French province of Acadia had been perilously positioned for decades before Louisbourg fell. The British had established a strong toehold in the area in 1710 with the capture of Annapolis Royal, originally a French settlement in Nova Scotia. Despite repeated attempts, the French couldn't recapture it.
When the on-again, off-again wars with the French and Indians resumed in 1744, the British decided to expand their holdings by taking Louisbourg. New Englanders were only too happy to join the fight, as they viewed the French as a hostile threat to the Georges Bank fishing grounds.
And over the years, New Englanders had built up the reputation of Louisbourg far beyond reality, exaggerating its wealth and the strength of its fort.
The fall of Louisbourg seemed almost miraculous, and Pepperrell was celebrated throughout New England. However, as word began to spread that the French planned retaliation, the New Englanders grew fearful that the British would not protect them.
The soldiers who had conquered Louisbourg were somewhat disillusioned with their victory. They had been ordered not to loot the town. For the most part, they didn't harass the townspeople as they loaded their belongings onto ships bound for France.
When the soldiers did move into the city, they found it far from the seat of elegance they imagined. And making matters worse, the long siege required to take the town had left virtually every house battered with cannon shot and explosions.
The men made the best of the situation. For a while they prospered by leaving the French flag flying over the fort to lure French ships into the port. That way, they could seize them easily as war trophies and sell their valuable cargoes.
Gradually word spread of the Duc D’Anville’s planned return, and the forces braced for an overwhelming assault. In Brest, however, D’Anville struggled.
In April of 1746 he dispatched two ships to scout the area around Louisbourg. These advance scouts would help him direct his full forces when they arrived soon after.
But his planned departure in early May didn’t happen. He shad a hard time getting his suppliers to meet their deadlines and outfit his ships. His fleet only left in late June, and a storm quickly blew the vessels back to land in Rochelle.
From there the Duc D'Anville regrouped and headed across the Atlantic again. The fleet’s troubles grew only worse. Another storm on the open ocean cost the expedition even more vessels. Lightning exploded the munitions on one ship, killing sailors. Others were lost to the heavy waves.
Meanwhile, the prolonged voyage took its toll in other ways. Food supplies began running low and typhoid, influenza, scurvy and other diseases began decimating the force.
The crew managed the grim daily exercise of burying the dead: sewing the corpses inside canvas and weighting them down with a cannon ball before dropping them over the side. Morale was awful.
By late September, the invasion force arrived in Chebucto Bay, Nova Scotia. Two ships arrived first, carrying the Duc D’anville. D’Anville had been separated from the majority of his forces. The two ships arrived at the Nova Scotia coast with no knowledge of the terrain or the ports. He fortuitously captured a local vessel and hired the captain to pilot his vessels to safety.
When the captain decided to renege on the deal, he was told he would either pilot the ships to safety or be thrown overboard with his legs bound in irons. He relented.
In port at last, D’Anville didn't know the fate of the remaining vessels, and he faced the despairing thought that perhaps they had all perished in the storms.
Death of the Duc D'Anville
In this frame of mind, D’Anville died on Sept. 27, 1746. Detractors suggested he had poisoned himself rather than face the consequences of his disastrous voyage. Others believed a stroke killed him, as he had suffered several seizures.
Shortly after his death, the remainder of D’Anville’s fleet did indeed arrive in Chebucto Bay – some 40 to 50 ships tumbled into port after one final storm tossed them about.
They were filled with sick and hungry men. One captain told of his crew nearly resorting to cannibalism. Command had fallen to D’Anville’s second-in-command Constantin-Louis Estourmel, who urged that they scrap the expedition. At a war council, however, he was overruled. Fifteen-hundred men were to be dispatched to Annapolis Royal to make an assault on that town.
Estourmel, faced with the enormity of the challenges, attempted suicide on his sword and was relieved of command. Future Canadian Governor Jacques-Pierre de Taffanel de la Jonquière was placed in charge.
The calamity continued. The two scout ships that D’Anville had originally sent out had sailed the waters around Nova Scotia for months before concluding that the armada of invading ships was not coming. They turned back to France. Upon arrival the sailors on the scout ships were shocked to learn that no one knew D’Anville’s situation.
The two ships were dispatched back to Nova Scotia with further orders for the Duc D’Anville. Arriving in October, they couldn't locate the fleet.
Meanwhile, the attempt on Annapolis Royal had led nowhere. The war council met again, and this time the evidence of defeat was overwhelming. The remaining soldiers and sailors were dying off at a rapid pace. Disease had spread to the Indians, who the French relied on on for assistance, and the epidemic would eventually wipe out uncounted hundreds of the local Indians. In addition, the weather was turning cold.
Some estimated the fleet was now reduced to roughly 1,000 healthy fighting men, and some of those falling ill every day. The French force now had no hope of retaking Louisbourg, let alone conquering New England, and a war council in late October decided it must return to France.
As the invasion was imploding in Canada, New Englanders initially knew nothing of the problems facing the French. The news reached New England that the Duc D’Anville had arrived in Nova Scotia – but the condition of his fleet was not reported.
New Englanders reacted with fear. The governor ordered 1,500 soldiers to Boston. They strengthened forts and put cannons in place. They sunk hulks in the harbor to make it difficult for invading French ships to make their way. And the city waited.
The governor ordered a Fast Day on October 16 and the Rev. Thomas Prince famously offered up a prayer in the Old South Meeting House, “Deliver us from our enemy! Send Thy tempest, Lord, upon the waters to the eastward! Raise Thy right hand. Scatter the ships of our tormentors and drive them hence. Sink their proud frigates beneath the power of Thy winds!”
When news arrived that the city was safe, the thankful New Englanders gave credit to God for keeping the Duc D’Anville and his formidable fleet away from New England.
Louisbourg, meanwhile, would return again to French control as part of a treaty between the French and British before farmers from New England resettled it.
This story about the Duc D'Anville was updated in 2018.