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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





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Fortress of Louisbourg



The Karrer Regiment was founded in 1719 by Franz Adam Karrer, a Swiss officer in the service of the king of France. It began as a battalion of three companies and 600 men employed by the marine ministry which planned to use it to garrison Port Louis in Louisiana. [Note 1] A written contract ("capitulation") set down the terms of the agreement between the ministry and Karrer who promised to maintain a certain number of officers and men in exchange for money and other benefits and privileges. The terms of the original contract were occasionally revised but its basic characteristics did not change. [Note 2] Karrer had full control over the internal affairs of the regiment: he was responsible for choosing the officers, recruiting the men and providing them with pay, uniforms, food and equipment. He could offer prospective recruits whatever wages, period of engagement and other conditions he thought fit, although he was to follow the usages of other Swiss troops. In return, Karrer would receive 16 livres per month for each soldier as well as additional payments to cover recruiting expenses. The regiment was to be kept separate from French troops; the men would be drilled and disciplined only by their own officers and would even be judged by Swiss officers according to Swiss custom if they were accused of a crime. It was as a group that the Karrer regiment served the king of France; its individual members owed no direct allegiance to France and, in theory, had contact with French authorities only through their colonel.

In the summer of 1720, the entire regiment was sent to Louisiana. It stayed there only a year, losing many men through disease, before being transferred to the French ports of LaRochelle and Rochefort which would remain its home base. [Note 3] A new capitulation was signed in June, 1721 and it referred to the Swiss regiment's duties as, "le service de la Marine, soit dans les Ports, dans les Colonies ou sur les vaisseaux ..." [Note 4] Such diverse functions required that the regiment be divided into detachments and, in the years that followed, small groups of officers and men were stationed at Isle Royale and in the Caribbean colonies of Louisiana, Martinique and Santo Domingo while the rest remained at LaRochelle and Rochefort.

The first contingent of 50 Swiss was sent to Isle Royale in 1722. It was composed of 46 soldiers, one drummer, two sergeants and only one officer, an ensign. [Note 5] Before forming this first detachment, Karrer warned his employers that the majority of his soldiers were not at all inclined to serve in the colonies, preferring to serve on the ships of His Majesty's navy (perhaps a result of their unpleasant experiences in Louisiana). [Note 6] The "Conseil de la Marine" showed little interest in the soldiers' preferences and instead recommended that Karrer select for Isle Royale those men best suited for work. [Note 7] Like the unwillingness of the Swiss to serve at Isle Royale, this recommendation of the French authorities is significant in the light of the subsequent history of the Karrer regiment. In fact, the letter which communicated the advice to Karrer refers to, "le détachement des 50 Suisses qui doivent passer a l'Isle Royalle sur la fregatte le Paon pour y travailler aux fortifications de Louisbourg ...," making it clear that the Swiss were originally sent to Isle Royale not to fight an enemy but to build a fortress.

The Swiss had not been at Louisbourg long before it became clear that St. Ovide, the governor, also wished these unwilling reinforcements had stayed in France. He complained that they were rebellious and inclined to drunkenness; they were difficult to handle as there were not enough Swiss officers and the men would not obey the French officers; they could not be sent to the outposts; some of them were Protestants and therefore an unhealthy influence in a new colony; and they were not good workers. [Note 8] In a letter written late in 1723, St. Ovide outlined his reasons for preferring French to Swiss troops:

Nous avons eu l'honneur de vous representer que les compagnies françoises convenoit infiniment mieux dans Ce pays que les Suisses ou il n y a qu un seul officier pour commander Cinquante hommes, ce qui cause une infinité de difficultés Lors qu on est obligé de les detacher, ne voulant point obeir aux officiers françois, feignant de ne pas les entendre, en second Lieu, sy Lon manque a Leur fournir exactement La Ration ordinaire; il ne veut plus travailler ni monter La Garde, Les farinnes ayant manqué au mois de mai dernier dans les magasins du Roy Lon a esté obligé de faire manager du biscuit sux troupes, ce que les Suisses ont Refuser de Recevoir, on a eté obligé den punir [par] La prison une vinteine de plus seditieux, a L egard du travail Lon ne peut disconvenir Le soldat francois L emporte Infiniment su dessus du Suisse. [Note 9]

Maurepas, the new minister in charge of the Marine department, was not convinced by St. Ovide's arguments. Explaining that he considered the Swiss better workers than the French, he sent another 50 men from the Karrer regiment in 1724. [Note 10] Until 1741, that is, during most of the period the regiment was represented in the Isle Royale garrison, the "ideal " strength of the Swiss contingent remained at 100 including officers. It should have been composed of one "capitaine-lieutenant", one lieutenant, one second lieutenant, four sergeants and 93 soldiers. [Note 11] In 1741, another 50 Swiss were sent as a "temporary measure" to strengthen the Isle Royale garrison during a period of international tension. [Note 12] On the eve of the first siege there were 143 Swiss at Louisbourg: 121 Swiss soldiers, four drummers, eight corporals, six sergeants and four officers commanded by capitaine-lieutenant Schonherr. [Note 13] A year later 123 Swiss boarded ships to return to France after the fall of Louisbourg. [Note 14]

Table 3 shows the "official" strength of the Swiss contingent as given by the yearly reviews and quarterly ration accounts. A comparison between these figures and those contained in Tables 1 and 2 will make it apparent that the difference between the "ideal" and the "official" strengths of the Swiss detachment is much smaller than the gap between similar figures for the garrison as a whole. In other words, the Swiss were not under strength to the same extent that the French companies were, and the Isle Royale garrison was therefore composed of a greater proportion of Swiss than intended. Moreover, a certain number of French soldiers were always detached to the outposts whereas the Karrer soldiers remained at Louisbourg, so the Swiss were a numerically important component of the military element of the capital's population. The percentages listed in Table 3 were calculated on the assumption that 75 French soldiers would be stationed outside Louisbourg at any time from 1730 to 1745, and this is an underestimate if anything. Before 1730 the number of men sent out on detachments fluctuated greatly from season to season and cannot be estimated with any precision. It is certain that, at least during the winter seasons of this period, the men of the Karrer regiment were proportionally much more numerous than they were at any time in later years. According to St. Ovide, the Swiss actually outnumbered the French soldiers at Louisbourg on many occasions. [Note 15]

Because of its "capitulations" and because of the customary status accorded all Swiss troops serving the French crown, the Karrer regiment enjoyed a number of special privileges, some of them vague, some of them precisely defined, which separated it from the Compagnies Franches. However, the autonomy and rights of the regiment were one thing and the status of a detachment serving alongside French troops in a colonial fortress was quite another. Naturally the Swiss serving at Isle Royale would have to be subject to the control of local military authorities, all the more so as they were too far from their colonel for rapid communication. The officials at Isle Royale were often ignorant (perhaps willfully) of the exact nature and extent of the privileges of the Karrer regiment. Insofar as they were aware of the terms of Karrer's capitulations, they often found them ambiguous or difficult to implement in the institutionally and economically primitive colony. Thus, treaty 'rights had to be interpreted and adapted to local conditions. Not surprisingly, disputes arose. The French governors naturally wished to bring the Swiss under their control as much as possible and they often had the support of the Minister of Marine. Karrer's officers were equally intent on preserving and even extending their autonomy. The Swiss soldiers were inclined to limit their enthusiasm for regimental privileges to cases where their own interests were involved.

Some aspects of this special status were straight forward and uncontroversial. The monthly pay of 16 livres per man was paid out of the colony's military budget directly to Karrer's agent at Louisbourg (presumably the senior Swiss officer). The officers and men were all issued rations like those given to the French soldiers, but the cost of these provisions was deducted from the pay. It was up to the Swiss officers, under orders from their colonel, to pay their men's salaries and the French officials were instructed not to meddle in these affairs. [Note 16] Sick and wounded men were treated free in the hospital at Louisbourg. Karrer was responsible for providing his men with arms and all necessary supplies (except rations) but the king of France transported them from Rochefort in his ships and paid the rent of the building where they were stored at Louisbourg. The soldiers were also given free passage to the colony and were returned to Rochefort when their service was completed. In order that the men should not be without washerwomen who understood their language, the king even allowed a few of them to bring their wives and gave them free passage and 45 livres for travel expenses. [Note 17] The Swiss had their own sutler who presumably operated a canteen where the soldiers could drink. They may also have had a barber-surgeon as they were exempted from the deduction taken from the French soldiers' pay to support a surgeon. [Note 18] Although the capitulations do not mention housing, the Swiss were given rooms in the Louisbourg barracks.

The Karrer regiment's independence in justice, discipline and military formalities caused a number of problems. On the subject of justice, the capitulations specified only that it should be administered on the same basis as in other Swiss troops employed by the king of France. In practice this meant that Swiss soldiers accused of military crimes such as desertion were tried by a court-martial composed exclusively of officers from their own regiment. The formal procedures of the Swiss court-martials seem to have been the same as those followed by the French. The Karrer detachment's autonomy in matters of ordinary criminal justice was rather more ambiguous. A case that arose five years after the Swiss first arrived at Isle Royale seemed to establish their independence of the regular courts of law. In 1727 a butcher named Dupré laid charges with the Superior Council against sergeant Leopold Reintender who had beaten and severely wounded him. [Note 19] The council began criminal proceedings against the sergeant but soon received a protest from de Merveilleux, the Swiss commandant, who claimed the right to try the accused. Unsure of its authority in this regard, the Superior Council suspended proceedings and requested guidance from Versailles. The Minister of Marine replied that de Merveilleux was perfectly justified in demanding to hear the case himself. As a general rule, he continued, Swiss soldiers accused of crimes should always be turned over to their own officers for trial. In the case of a dispute between a Swiss soldier and a French civilian, the soldier must be imprisoned and interrogated by a Swiss officer while the Frenchman is interrogated by, and held in the prison of, the appropriate civilian judge. [Note 20]

This precedent established, the French authorities left the Swiss officers in charge of their jurisdiction, at least until the 1740s. As a result, the archival sources, all of them French, tell us nothing about how the Swiss exercised their judicial privileges. There is, however, one statement made in 1742 by the commissaire-ordonnateur, Bigot, who argued that the special legal position of the Swiss was "un grand abus " since the officers invariably acquitted soldiers accused of theft, no matter how overwhelming the evidence of their guilt. [Note 21] This statement was made in a context that gave Bigot no interest in minimizing the abusive nature of such autonomy. The governor had recently quarrelled with the commander of the Karrer detachment and Swiss privileges generally were coming under heavy attack. The minister had ordered that Swiss who injured civilians or stole should be tried by ordinary courts of the colony and Bigot accordingly handed over three Karrer soldiers, accused of stealing cod from a fisherman, to the "baillage" court for trial. [Note 22] The situation seems to have been somewhat confused in the heat of the dispute but the minister's final orders to Bigot in 1743 were to undermine Swiss judicial privileges by allowing the officers to try only minor cases while turning over Swiss soldiers accused of serious crimes to the civilian courts. At the same time, he was to avoid direct confrontation and make it appear that nothing was being changed even though, the minister might have added, this policy violated the "capitulations." [Note 23]

Swiss privileges in the areas of military discipline and ceremony were more often the subject of open conflict than was the Karrer regiment's judicial autonomy. In 1727 St. Ovide referred to a "petite difficulté" he experienced with the Swiss officers who refused to lead their troops in the Corpus-Christi procession. [Note 24] No further incidents seem to have occurred until after the arrival of Captain Cailly as commanding officer of the Karrer detachment in 1731. Cailly, who had earlier killed a cousin of Governor St. Ovide in a duel at Santo Domingo, does not seem to have enjoyed a close personal relationship with the governor as his predecessor, Merveilleux, had. [Note 25] Soon after he began his service in the colony, a minor dispute arose over the style of drumming to be used when Swiss officers were mounting guard. [Note 26] The minister supported Cailly in this case and, despite St. Ovide's objections, ordered that the Swiss fashion of drumming be used when a guard was commanded by a Swiss officer. [Note 27]

It was not until after St. Ovide's death in the early 1740s, when Duquesnel was commanding officer at Isle Royale, that the most serious disputes between Cailly and the French authorities occurred. Duquesnel attempted to reduce Swiss autonomy by increasing the control of the town major over the discipline of the foreign troops. He would not let Swiss soldiers live outside the barracks or return to their quarters late as they had done in the past with the permission of their officers. Duquesnel also began the practice of having a Swiss sergeant check the barracks-rooms after retreat and report to the sergeant of the guard; informing him if any men were absent. [Note 28] These measures could perhaps be justified as matters of security and therefore responsibilities of the major, but they irritated Cailly and led him to insist strenuously on his regimental privileges. Furthermore, Duquesnel and the civilian "commissaire des troupes" began hearing complaints from the Swiss soldiers against their officers. Cailly, who was apparently exploiting his men and keeping them in the colony after the terms of their enlistment had expired, denounced this as another affront to the privileges of his nation. [Note 29]

It was in this context that matters came to a head in September, 1741 when three deserters, two of them French and one Swiss, were court-martialed and executed. The French and Swiss were tried separately but, when Duquesnel ordered the entire garrison assembled to witness the execution of the French soldiers, Cailly forbade the Swiss drummers to signal the general assembly. It was customary for all the men in a garrison to be gathered together to witness executions but it is not clear whether the Swiss had attended these spectacles in the past. In any case, Cailly refused to allow his men to obey a direct order from the garrison commander and Duquesnel, claiming that Cailly had previously threatened violent action, considered this a serious revolt. [Note 30] Maurepas, the Minister of Marine, was equally outraged when he learned of the incident and he ordered Cailly retired from the service immediately. He informed Duquesnel that the major was indeed authorized to see that the Swiss returned to their quarters on time. That officer was also to command their movements at reviews and prescribe their battle order. [Note 31] Whatever the rights and wrongs of a particular case might be, the Swiss were not to be treated as an independent unit and their officers must be subordinate to the French commandant. [Note 32]

Soon after Cailly's confrontation with Duquesnel he was replaced by Gabriel Schonherr (or "Chener" as the French usually misspelled his name). Schonherr had not been at Louisbourg long before he ordered the Swiss sergeants to discontinue the practice of reporting each night to the guardhouse. Duquesnel was disturbed by this unilateral action of which he had not even been informed in advance ("... cela sent l'esprit de Revolte"), but once the incident had passed he seems to have had relatively harmonious relations with Cailly's successor. [Note 33]

In conclusion, three observations may be made about the special position of the Swiss detachment at Isle Royale. First of all, the nature of this special position was never clear and precise. It was defined over the years partly by adapting the written provisions of the capitulation to the Isle Royale environment and partly through improvisation in response to practical considerations. For example, the custom of exempting the Swiss from service in the outposts originated in this latter way. Secondly, the most important phase in the evolution of the special status occurred in the early 1740s when the privileges of the Swiss at Isle Royale came under attack. There can be little doubt that Bigot and Duquesnel, with the blessing of Maurepas, attempted to limit these privileges and to undermine the autonomous position of the Karrer detachment as far as was possible within the terms of the capitulation and outside it as well. Thirdly, although the Swiss soldiers may have had a special status within the Isle Royale garrison, the "Swiss privileges" discussed in the preceding paragraphs were attached, in theory, to the Karrer detachment as a body and, in practice, they affected the Swiss officers most directly. The disputes mentioned above were not simply between "Swiss" and "French"; they were between Swiss officers and French authorities, each struggling to gain greater control over the Swiss troops. The soldiers themselves were certainly active in protecting their own interests but, when it came to conflicts over parade ground formalities, they were not so much participants as they were the prize at issue.

The adjective "Swiss" used in connection with the officers and men of the Karrer regiment is misleading. The Marine ministry assumed that Karrer would do as much of his recruiting as possible in Switzerland but the original capitulation stipulated only that he form his companies with men of nationalities allowed in the other Swiss units serving the king of France. [Note 34] The capitulation of 1731 is more precise.

Les dites quatre Compagnies dudit Regiment seront composées principalement de Suisses, Grisons & alliez des Cantons Suisses; il pourra cependant estre engagé par le dit Sieur Karrer pour servir dans icelles, des Allemands, Danois, Suedois, Polonois, des hommes du Pays de Luxembourg, du Comté de Chiney, de la Province d'Alsace, Lorraine-Allemande & de la Savoye comprise dans l'Eveché de Geneve, & des hommes du Baillage de Gex. [Note 35]

Already, in 1722, within three years of founding the regiment, Karrer had found that he could not find enough recruits in Switzerland alone and asked for permission to seek them elsewhere. [Note 36] In 1739 it was alleged that there were more non-Swiss than Swiss among the officers and men of the regiment, in violation of the capitulation. [Note 37] We have an indication of the place of birth of nine Swiss soldiers who served at Isle Royale and, of these, only four were born in Switzerland while most of the rest were from Germany. Figures of this magnitude, of course, are of no statistical value but they do lend some support to the contention that not a11, probably not even the majority, of the "Swiss" soldiers of the Karrer regiment were born in Switzerland.

Little is known about the system of recruiting or the conditions of enlistment in Karrer's regiment. Recruitment was the colonel's responsibility and, in the early years at least, two of his officers and two sergeants were employed full-time in that activity. [Note 38] Apparently they did not bother to record any of the promises they made to candidates or the enlistment bonuses they offered. The men who came to Isle Royale with the first contingent of Swiss were on three year terms but, in 1726, Maurepas asked Karrer to send to the colony only men who would serve six years. [Note 39] Many soldiers however were probably forced to remain after they had served their full period and there were complaints to this effect in 1740. [Note 40]

There is some evidence that more care was taken in selecting men for the Karrer regiment than was exercised by the recruiters who supplied the Compagnies Franches. The Swiss seem to have been rather more robust than the French. They were less likely to be sent to the Louisbourg hospital and generally stayed there for shorter periods. [Note 41] Most testimony agrees that the Swiss were, on the whole, better workers and better soldiers than the French. St. Ovide was certainly not of this opinion in 1724 but subsequent governors who were often no more pleased with the Swiss presence, complained only of the turbulence and rebelliousness of the officers and men. In 1741 Cailly showed that the Swiss soldiers earned much more per capita working on the fortifications than did the French and he complained that deductions taken from the wages of the soldier-workers to pay the men who mounted guard resulted in a substantial net loss to the Swiss contingent. [Note 42] As for the martial abilities of the men of the Karrer, Governor Duquesnel himself conceded that, in contrast to the French soldiers, they could at least perform the basic military movements and duties. [Note 43] This is not surprising since it appears that many of the Swiss soldiers had already seen service elsewhere, in the Karrer regiment or in any of the armies of Europe, before coming to Isle Royale. The first groups had been sent in the 1720s primarily to assist in the construction of the fortress but Maurepas must have felt the regiment could provide good fighters as well as good workers as he sent 50 Swiss in 1741 at a time when construction was almost finished and international tension was severe. Late in 1744 when the Louisbourg garrison was in a state of mutiny, François Bigot, who had seen the troops in action and had no motive for misrepresentation, testified most strikingly to the military valour of the Swiss. There were approximately 450 French soldiers in Louisbourg at the time but, even if they could have been brought under control, wrote Bigot, they would have been no match for the Swiss who would have been outnumbered three to one. [Note 44]

In fact, the French and the Swiss soldiers did cooperate in 1744 but before that time contact between the two groups was limited. Those Karrer soldiers who did guard duty would have shared a guard-room with French soldiers, often under the command of a French officer. There are cases of Swiss soldiers fleeing with a group of French deserters. Thus, trust and friendship between members of these two elements of the garrison was not unknown. Moreover, there were apparently no cases of open conflict between Swiss and French as there was between members of the various infantry regiments that were stationed at Louisbourg in the mid 1750s. Nevertheless, the Swiss and the French soldiers led, on the whole, separate though not antagonistic lives. A number of factors kept them apart. The Swiss had distinctive uniforms and equipment and were housed in their own barracks-rooms. Some of them were native French speakers and many of the others probably learned French in the colony but most of the Swiss apparently spoke German. The Karrer detachment had its own washerwomen, its own canteen and its own administrative routines. The testimony of Abraham Dupaquier, one of the Swiss soldiers who led the revolt in 1744, indicates how little contact there was between the Swiss and French. When his comrades decided to assemble in protest they chose Dupaquier to go and secure the cooperation of the men of the Compagnies Franches, "... puisque vous Connoisses les françois ..." [Note 45] This qualification, that is knowing the French soldiers and not just their language, apparently made Dupaquier unique among the Swiss.

If the Swiss soldiers had only limited contact with their French colleagues, their contact with the rest of the Louisbourg community was even more restricted. In general, the soldiers of Isle Royale shared little with the civilian population in terms of background, experiences and material interests and this divergence was particularly pronounced where the soldiers of the Karrer regiment were concerned. The language of the Swiss must have kept them further removed than the French soldiers from the civilian life of Louisbourg and so, to some extent, did their religion. This last factor was not as important as one might suppose however, as the regiment was not completely, or even predominantly Protestant. Marcel Giraud, writing of the Karrer's early service in Louisiana, suggests that the majority of the men were probably Catholic. [Note 46] Many Swiss came to Isle Royale as Lutherans or Calvinists but they had no clergymen to guide them and at least 20 converted to Catholicism between 1722 and 1745. [Note 47] It seems likely that there were more Catholic than Protestant Swiss in Isle Royale but even the Catholics did not all participate fully in the religious life of the community because of language problems. [Note 48] According to parish records, only three Swiss soldiers and one officer were married to local girls at Louisbourg. Very few settled in the colony after they were discharged. Although the number of marriages of French soldiers was proportionately no greater, more veterans of the Compagnies Franches chose to remain at Isle Royale. Moreover, many of the French soldiers served in the colony for such long periods that they could qualify as permanent residents whereas the Swiss remained for more than six years only under exceptional circumstances.

The two or three officers that Karrer maintained at Isle Royale were the only "group" that came close to sharing the mixed religious and linguistic background of the Swiss soldiers. In some instances, they and their men were allies in the common struggle against the French authorities. There was, for example, an incident in 1723 when the soldiers, with the active support of Ensign Berthelot, protested the substitution of biscuit for bread in their rations. [Note 49] In 1741 and 1743, the Swiss commander resisted the governor's and major's moves to subject his men to a more restrictive policy on leaves-of-absence. Nevertheless, the interests of the Karrer soldiers by no means coincided with those of their officers. The latter pocketed their men's wages and even kept much of the money they earned working on the fortifications. Of course, the French officers also benefited by their control of the earnings of their soldier-workers, but the Swiss, thanks to the special status of the Karrer regiment, managed to exploit their men starting from an earlier date and with greater efficiency.