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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada





Report H E 08

Fortress of Louisbourg



The "Compagnies Franches de la Marine" were formed in 1690 by the integration of several different military elements administered by the Ministère de la Marine. [Note 1] In the 18th century these units served on board ships, in French naval ports and in the colonies. They supplied the nucleus of the Isle Royale garrison throughout the French occupation. Six to eight companies served here before 1745 and 24 during the second period of French rule. They were stationed here permanently and were never replaced as a unit, although a few officers and men were transferred to or from other colonies or ports.

Between 1722 and 1745 these companies were supplemented by 50 to 150 men of the Karrer Swiss regiment employed by the Ministère de la Marine. The Swiss enjoyed certain special privileges and the affairs of the contingent that served at Isle Royale were administered separately from those of the French companies. The extent and nature of this special status was frequently the subject of violent debate and it will be considered in detail in a subsequent chapter. In the present context it is sufficient to note that the Swiss contingent, regardless of its size, apparently operated as a single company. It was led by two to four officers and its commanding officer, usually a "capitaine-lieutenant" was subordinate to the Louisbourg commandant where garrison duties were concerned, but responsible directly to Karrer, his colonel in France, for supply, recruitment and most matters of internal administration. The correspondence between Karrer and his officers at Louisbourg has not been located, and so we know much less about the Swiss than about the French soldiers. One of the most fruitful sources for a study of the latter is the letters and reports of the governors and other officials of the colony, but these are often silent where the Swiss are concerned. The discussion of military life in the chapters that follow will therefore necessarily concentrate on the men of the Compagnies Franches.

The Swiss did not return to Isle Royale when the colony was returned to France in 1749. In 1755, however, the French marines were joined by two battalions of regular infantry, one from the Artois the other from the Bourgogne regiments. Three years later, on the eve of the second siege, a battalion of Volontaires Etrangers and one from the Cambis regiment arrived. [Note 2]

In the first period, all French military personnel were attached to one of the companies, except the commander (who was, in most cases, also governor of the colony) and the town major and his staff, officers in charge of the garrison as a whole. The commander was, of course, the highest military authority and he communicated directly with the Minister of Marine on matters of general military policy. Under the commander's supervision, the major was responsible for the daily routine of administering the garrison. He was assisted by the adjutant ("aide-major") who in turn had one or two "garçons-major" to help him. Together they organized drills and inspections, assigned officers and men to guard duty, supervised military justice and discipline and kept records of the officers and men of the companies and of any changes in their composition.

The Compagnies Franches were not organized into regiments and each company was fairly antonymous. They were normally composed of 45-65 soldiers, two sergeants, two corporals and one drummer (After 1741 there were two drummers per company. [Note 3]). The corporals were generally the oldest and most senior men in a company. More care was taken in the selection of sergeants who were appointed from among the soldiers, often at an early stage of their military career, on the basis of merit and potential ability. [Note 4] These non-commissioned officers supervised the daily routine of the company and reported to the officers. Because a corporal or sergeant was required at each guard-post, they probably spent a great deal of time on guard-duty. Originally, the officers of a company consisted of a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign, but after 1723 they were joined by a sub-ensign.[Note 5] The captain commanded the company, administered its affairs and was responsible for its welfare. He did not belong to a company; rather, the company belonged to the captain and was named after him. The lieutenant assisted him and took command in his absence. The ensigns were the junior officers of a company.

In addition to the normal Compagnies Franches was the "canoniers-bombardiers" company established in 1743. There were always artillery experts at Isle Royale, but it was not until shortly before the first siege that they were organized into a separate unit. In an effort to form a nucleus of specialists, Governor St. Ovide had in 1735 appointed two soldiers from each French company to be trained by the master gunner. [Note 6] These men, judged most apt to profit by such instruction, remained attached to their companies but devoted their days to the maintenance of Louisbourg's batteries and to learning to aim and fire canons. An extra six livres per month was added to the canoneers' pay since they had no time to earn money working on the construction of the fortress or elsewhere as their comrades did. [Note 7] Thus, their artillery service before 1743 was, in a sense, simply a "job" outside their normal duties.

In 1739 plans were made to set up a special company but it was four years before they were put into effect. In the meantime, an artillery school was set up in the barracks, an officer was placed in charge of artillery and 11 experienced canoneers were sent from France for three years. When the artillery company was finally established it was to be composed of 13 "canoniers", 12 "bombardiers", one drummer, two corporals and two sergeants, led by a lieutenant and a captain. (There seems to have been no distinction between the functions of a "bombardier" and those of a "canonier"; the difference was in salary, the "bombardiers" being paid more than the others in order to encourage competition and reward excellence. [Note 8]) The men were given a higher salary than members of the other companies and they had the opportunity of earning cash prizes for good marksmanship. [Note 9] The artillery company was given its own barracks-rooms and a distinctive uniform and marched in the place of honour at the head of the garrison. It was, in fact, an elite unit quite separate from the rest of the garrison and, when the soldiers mutinied in 1744 the canoneers did not take part in the revolt.

Cadets enjoyed a special status which made their lives quite different from those of the ordinary soldiers who are the main subjects of this report. In the early years of the colony the category "cadet" was an informal one with no official sanction. It was applied to any boy or young man who served in a company as training for a future career as an officer. In practice, the cadets at Isle Royale were almost always sons of officers of the garrison.

To some extent, especially in the early period, officers used the custom of admitting cadets to enroll their sons at a tender age (five years, for example), so that they themselves could collect an extra salary and rations. [Note 10] In 1717 the admission of officers' children under the age of 14 was prohibited but this did not stop the abuse. [Note 11] Obviously such small children contributed nothing to the service but their names. It is more difficult to determine what sort of life the older cadets led, what their duties were and to what extent they shared the lot of the ordinary soldier. There is one reference in 1725 to cadets doing guard duty in the summer only, but we know nothing more about their activities before the 1730s. [Note 12] In any case, there were two or three cadets in each company - 16 in all the Compagnies Franches in 1726 [Note 13] - and they existed generally outside the soldiers' society.

In 1732 an ordinance established the position of cadet on a formal and regular basis. [Note 14] There were to be two cadets chosen by the governor in each of the French companies at Isle Royale. These "cadets à l'aiguilette" had distinctive decorations on their soldiers' uniforms and were paid slightly more than ordinary soldiers. They had some authority over the latter but they were under the corporals and sergeants. One cadet, for example, was given the job of supervising the soldiers who were employed to work in the governor's garden. [Note 15] At least two others were sent to live at an Indian mission in order to learn the native language in preparation for their future duties as officers. [Note 16] These cadets were apparently being prepared for a specific military career, that of an officer of the Isle Royale garrison.

Most of the "cadets à l'aiguilette" were born in the colony the sons of officers of the Compagnies Franches and they were destined to become officers in the same garrison. Occasionally, a young man who came to Louisbourg as a soldier would be given a vacant cadet's position if he was of noble birth or if his family had sufficient influence with the Minister of Marine, but generally the institution of cadet served to preserve the French officer corps of Isle Royale as a closed caste.

The wealth of records kept by the 18th century bureaucracy makes it deceptively simple to determine how many men served at Isle Royale in any particular year. Over the years, the number of companies assigned to the colony and the size of each company were altered by royal ordinances. Table 1 shows these organizational transformations and the total number of men they assigned to the garrison. [Note 17] However, the Isle Royale companies were chronically under-strength. Fortunately we have access to documents which indicate the number of men who were assumed, for payroll and other purposes, to have actually served in the colony for every year from 1719 to 1743.

Table 2 displays the "official" strength of the garrison (including both French and Swiss troops) for each year. It is based on figures obtained from two related series of sources - reviews and ration lists. The reviews are the records of an event held at least once a year and usually on the first day of November, when the entire garrison would be assembled in front of the military commander and the civilian commissaire-ordonnateur, who would inspect it and mark down the number of men present in each company. A copy was sent to France for the guidance of the minister in remitting wages and ordering recruits; those covering the years 1719 to 1730 have been preserved. [Note 18] Although reviews for the 1730s and forties seem to be missing, their absence is more than made up for by the much more interesting ration lists. [Note 19] These are the accounts drawn four times a year by the functionary in charge of the government storehouse. For each quarter they indicate the number of men supplied with rations in each company and in the Swiss contingent. These figures were no doubt obtained from reviews but they were kept up to date. Thus the lists note the dates at which the rations allotted to a company increased because new recruits were inducted, or decreased because of losses through death, desertion or discharge.

The "official" figures give a better indication of the numerical strength of the Isle Royale garrison than do the "ideal" figures laid down by the ordinances, but unfortunately they are flawed by careless accounting procedures and intentional deception. First of all, these statistics lack internal consistency. If one adds the recruits recorded on one quarterly ration list and subtracts the losses from the garrison total the result should be the total for the following quarter, but in fact, this is not always the case. Moreover, we know that it was a common practice in the 18th century for captains to keep missing or dead soldiers on the company roils in order to draw extra pay and rations. [Note 20] At Isle Royale, the ordonnateur and his subordinates, civilians with no apparent interest in allowing such abuses among the military officers, were supposed to keep track of the number of soldiers actually serving, mainly by conducting reviews. But, even laying aside any suspicion of collusion between these watchdogs and the officers, it is unlikely that they discharged this aspect of their duties perfectly.

Only the soldiers stationed at Louisbourg could actually be counted, but an important section of the garrison were stationed elsewhere in the colony. Furthermore, at any given time, a number of soldiers would be absent from the town hunting or gathering materials for construction of the fortifications. Since the officers did not bother issuing formal leaves for such absences and since rations were distributed in a rather disorganized fashion, the ordonnateur was generally obliged to accept the captains' accounts of the whereabouts of soldiers not present at reviews. One ordonnateur refers to soldiers who had been counted present although they had not been seen in Louisbourg for 12 or 15 years and he implies that the captains were using the pretext of service at the outposts to exaggerate the strengths of their companies. [Note 21]

We may conclude that the figures given for "official strength" in Table 2 are probably greater than the actual number of men who served at Isle Royale in each year. It is impossible to say how much they exaggerate the real strength but they are nevertheless not without value. They at least set an outside limit on real strength and their variations, from year to year and from quarter to quarter, probably reflect similar changes in the actual number of soldiers.

Of course, all these figures relate to the Isle Royale garrison of which the Louisbourg garrison was only a part. In the early years of the colony, the troops were distributed among the posts of Louisbourg, Port Toulouse (modern St. Peter's) and Port Dauphin (St. Ann's) in varying proportions. As Louisbourg became better established in the 1720s, they were concentrated there, but detachments were always maintained at the other two posts and at Isle St. Jean (Prince Edward Island) which was attached to the colony. In the 1730s and early forties when the system was relatively stable, the official figures show that there were normally about 40 men with two or three officers stationed at Isle St. Jean, 25 men and two officers at Port Toulouse and seven or eight men at Port Dauphin. [Note 22]

These outposts were all manned by members of the Compagnies Franches. In some cases, the entire garrison of an outpost would be drawn from one company, but more often it would be composed of a few men from each of the French companies. Generally, it was considered a hardship to serve at the outposts where the lodgings were poor, where there was little opportunity to earn extra money and where there were even fewer facilities for amusement than in Louisbourg. Captains often sent undesirable soldiers from their companies to serve there and, although they were supposed to be rotated every year, the outpost garrisons were generally left in place indefinitely. [Note 23] The result was a high rate of desertion and a very low level of morale among men who often felt they had been left to rot in a forgotten corner of a remote colony. [Note 24]