Throughout the 18th century, Britain and France squared off in a succession of conflicts to determine which country would be the world’s leading military and colonial power. In 1744, what became known as “the War of Austrian Succession” broke out between the two countries and their colonies in North America quickly became involved. The French began construction of a large garrison at Louisbourg, located in the colony of Ile Royale (known also as Cape Breton), now part of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
British subjects in the New England colonies of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island fished extensively in the “Grand Banks” off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. The French military sought to limit this activity and reassert power over colonial lands lost earlier to the British. Conflict ensued in North Atlantic waters, as the French soldiers and sailors destroyed British fishing equipment on the remote island of Canso, and French naval patrols harassed New England shipping. Frustrated, the colonial governors of Massachusetts and New Hampshire issued a call for volunteers to take the Louisbourg fortress.
By the spring of 1745, the New England colonies had raised an army of 4,000 men from their militias and procured vessel s to transport them to Louisbourg. , Commanded by Colonel William Pepperrell of Massachusetts, British Royal Navy sailors also aided in the effort. Arriving at Cape Breton in May 1745, the colonists set up camps and moved artillery pieces by sled over muddy, marshy terrain in order to besiege the Louisbourg fortress. These militiamen soon established artillery batteries, effectively attacking the fortification while receiving little return fire from the French. The colonial force drew down French supply lines and forced the capitulation of the army by June 26, 1745. Much of the sacrifice on the part of colonial militia during the siege was due to the numbers who died from disease due to unsanitary conditions in their encampment, but despite the toll on the colonial militiamen, they nevertheless won a tactical victory for the British crown.
The New Englanders’ victory was short-lived, however, as the British decided to return the fortress in 1748 to the French through the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, which ended the War of Austrian Succession. The colonists were angry and resentful that geopolitical events far from North America had overshadowed their hard-won victory. This grievance against the British government held in New England for a generation, and thirty years after the siege, veterans of Louisbourg fought against the British Army at Lexington and Concord. Thus, the Siege of Louisbourg, and what the colonists perceived as the British government’s indifference to their military sacrifice, was one of the first in a long series of events which would eventually lead to the Revolutionary War.