From 1740 – 1760, the colossal walls of the Fortress of Louisbourg stood vigil over the eastern shores of Cape Breton like a medieval castle. Built by the French to protect their lucrative fishing ports against British naval aggression, the Fortress of Louisbourg was renowned as one of the largest and most grandiose citadels to be constructed in the New World.

Over those 20 years, two sieges would be fought for control over the fortress and it would pass hands between French and British control several times – most significantly during the Seven Years when the British would use their new prize as a staging point for the Siege of the Quebec. The victory set the stage for the climactic Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which saw control of France’s North American colonies permanently ceded to the British, paving the way for Canada to exist as we know it. 

Today, the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site offers the chance to relive the heyday of this historic citadel, with a ¼ recreation of the original buildings and fortifications, which were largely demolished by the British in 1760.

Explore the Fortress of Louisbourg Atlantic Canadas Lost Citadel Building

Why Was the Fortress of Louisbourg Built?

By the early 1700s, Isle Royale and Isle Saint-Jean (modern day Cape Breton and Prince Edward Island) had become important fishing ports for the French. However, their close proximity to the British colony of New England led to fears that they could be easy prey for the Royal Navy, leading to one of the most ambitious construction projects in Atlantic Canada’s history. Originally built as a garrison town in 1713, the decision was made to erect massive stone fortifications around the coastal village of Louisbourg to rival anything seen in old Europe.

Costing an estimated 30 million French livres, the construction took 20 years to complete, by which point the small village had grown into a considerable trading hub and was seen by many as the gateway into Canada. However, by 1745, war had once again broken out between France and Britain, and British forces in New England set their eyes on Louisbourg.

While the fortress was all but impregnable from the sea, it was built on lowlands surrounded by several hills. Once the British forces landed, they were able to erect or takeover artillery batteries and bombard the French defences day and night from the high ground. The fortress’s inexperienced garrison ultimately surrendered Louisbourg after about a month and a half.

Explore the Fortress of Louisbourg Atlantic Canadas Lost Citadel Man

Enraged at the loss, the French dispatched a large naval expedition from Europe to retake the lost citadel – However, the fleet was beset by storms and disease, making it easy prey for the Royal Navy.

The fortress would go on to be a major bargaining chip in the following peace negotiations, with the British trading it back to the French in exchange for lost territories in the Netherlands and India. The New Englanders who’d taken over Louisbourg in the first place were so disgusted, that they took its famous cross with them when they handed the fortress back over to the French. 

Today, the recovered cross can be seen in display at the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site, courtesy of Harvard University.

Explore the Fortress of Louisbourg Atlantic Canadas Lost Citadel Cannon

The Second Siege of Louisbourg

As was so often the case in the 16th century, peace between the French and British would prove to be short-lived, and hostilities resumed in 1756 with the Seven Years’ War. By 1757, the Fortress of Louisbourg would once again find itself under threat by the British forces. However, while the first siege was largely fought between local colonial forces, the second was waged by a full force of European regulars and dozens of warships. 

With the fortress perfectly placed to guard the mouth of the St. Lawrence, the British forces were determined to take it to facilitate their conquest of Quebec. With the Royal Navy poised to prevent reinforcements from the French navy, an invasion force of 13,000 troops and 150 war ships descended on Louisbourg in 1758.

While the French fleet was outnumbered five to one, the fortress held up admirably against the barrage from the British ships. However, on June 12, General James Wolfe – who would go on to lead the British forces at the Plains of Abraham – led an elite battalion to take over the lighthouse at the mouth of the harbour and erect artillery batteries.

Ultimately, the French forces held out for six weeks before surrendering in the face of constant cannon fire. The conquest of Louisbourg not only facilitated the invasion of Quebec but allowed the British to conquer French territory across Atlantic Canada.

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Visiting the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site

Today, the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site offers plenty of fun for the whole family! Not only do costumed reenactors walk the cobblestoned streets, ready to tell visitors about life in the garrison in the 1700s, but you can explore over 20 reconstructed buildings. Walking trails along the coast will take you to critical sites in the fortress’s history, including the spot where General Wolfe’s forces landed to take Lighthouse Point.

Special thanks to the staff of the Comfort Inn in Sydney, NS for their suggestions.

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