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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 archival sources do not permit anything resembling a complete account of the process by which men in France came to be soldiers at Isle Royale but they do give some clues about the recruitment practices of the Companies Franches. [Note 1] Between 1720 and 1745, more than 1000 men came to the colony to fill vacancies created by deaths, desertions or discharges in the French companies or through expansion of the garrison. About 400 Swiss arrived during the same period. The task of determining the number of recruits likely to be needed, of raising men in France and sending them to Rochefort to be loaded aboard the "king's ship" which sailed for Louisbourg each summer was an annual routine. There were a few years when no recruits were sent and one year (1741) when 139 embarked but, on the average, about 40 men were required every year, and all of them had to be found in France. [Note 2]

Recruitment for Isle Royale competed with that of other elements of the armed forces for the same pool of eligible young men under the same basic conditions and rules, but it did have a number of original characteristics. Most important was its impersonal nature. In the regular army, a captain was responsible for maintaining his company at strength and he or another company officer, perhaps aided by one or two of his men, would often personally perform the necessary recruiting. André Corvisier calls these "natural recruiters" and he shows that, year after year, many of them returned in search of men to one local area where they and the prospective recruits would probably be known to one another. [Note 3] In many cases, the family seigneurie provided a captain with a steady supply of replacements. No doubt many men who joined the army in this way were subjected to unfair pressure but just as often it seems, they agreed to serve a particular officer because of a genuine and long standing attachment to hiss or to his family. Corvisier argues that this type of recruitment was an important factor promoting cohesion in many companies of the French army where there was a personal bond between some of the officers and some of their men. [Note 4] If any such paternalistic relationships existed in the Isle Royale garrison it was certainly not the result of recruitment practices which were entirely impersonal. Only in 1730, when the garrison was expanded and two newly-appointed captains, de Gannes and d'Ailleboust, went to France to find men for their companies, were soldiers recruited by the officers who would later lead them. [Note 5] Otherwise, recruitment for the colony was performed by professional recruiters whose only interest was in the money payment they received for each body delivered and who were stigmatized with the pejorative term, "racoleurs." Men who came to Louisbourg as soldiers had not joined any particular company; in fact, until 1730 at least, they could not have known in advance that they were to be sent to Isle Royale, as recruits were raised for all the American colonies together.

"Racolage" was certainly not an uncommon method of supplying the needs of the regular army. Georges Girard and André Corvisier have shown that the officers who gathered up men to "sell" to other companies and the military and civilian "embaucheurs" who acted as "sub-contractors" often made a mockery of the laws specifying that all enlistments must be voluntary. [Note 6] All that was generally required for a man to be bound to a military unit was his acceptance of an enlistment bounty in any form and his signature or mark on a contract of "engagement." Alert young men who wished to join would negotiate in order to obtain as large a bounty as possible. They could also insist that a limited period of service be specified in the "engagement." Six years was generally the minimum but if no period was specified, there was no limit to the time a man could be made to serve. Many unfortunates however were tricked or forced into signing away their liberty and the stories of the violence and deception of 18th century "racoleurs" are legion. One example concerns a boy who was on an errand in a town near his village when he met a stranger who asked him to deliver 12 livres that he owed to the priest of the boy's village. The victim took the money and made his cross on what he believed was a receipt. In fact, he had signed an "engagement" in his father's name and the racoleur had him thrown in jail in order to force the father to report for duty.? Although there is little positive proof, the circumstantial evidence indicates that the most unappealing forms of "racolage" were probably employed to induce men to join the colonial Compagnies Franches.

Most of the recruiting for the colonies was done in Paris, one of the "lieux de prédilection du racolage." [Note 8] The officially appointed recruiters (at least before 1730) were usually colonial officers in need of extra money to make up for the salaries they lost while on leave in France. One of these, a Lieutenant Amariton attached to the marine troops in Canada, had a contract in 1716 to raise recruits for the colonies and to conduct them to the port of Rochefort. He was paid 30 livres plus travelling expenses for each body delivered to the port of Rochefort and the contract stipulated that he was responsible for paying enlistment bounties and "embaucheur's" fees. [Note 9] It seems significant that mention was made of "embaucheurs", those anonymous agents whose business it was to find men and get them to sign. Amariton would have had no interest in examining very closely the methods these people employed to land their fish. He and other recruiters would likely have been more concerned about having their merchandise accepted by the inspectors at Paris and Rochefort and about the difficult task of getting the men to the port without too many losses.

The military authorities in France or in the colonies could reject recruits on a number of pretexts. In theory, no one under the age of 16 could join (Maurepas tried to raise the minimum age for colonial service to 18), but I know of no recruits who were rejected on these grounds. [Note 10] All soldiers were supposed to be at least 5 pieds 1 pouce in height (Ever the optimist, Maurepas hoped at one time to have only men who measured 1 pouce above this limit sent to the colonies). [Note 11] This rule was not enforced strictly but some candidates were sent home because they were too short. Recruits were to be physically fit to serve. It was this article that was the cause of most of the rejections. Men chosen for Isle Royale above all, were to be strong and capable of sustaining hard labour. [Note 12] In 1732, ten men found to be suffering from gall-bladder were removed from a ship about to sail for Louisbourg and transferred to a contingent destined for Louisiana. [Note 13] Nevertheless, although the Isle Royale recruits were supposed to be healthier than the soldiers sent to other colonies, they might not have been considered superior physical specimens compared to any other reference point.

Desertion along the road from Paris to Rochefort was common but, replacements could sometimes be found along the way or at the destination.[Note 14] The recruits were normally held at the nearby Ile d'Oleron where desertion was difficult. They were given some basic training by the resident sergeant until the ships were ready to take them across the Atlantic. Until the 1730s, the assignment of recruits to specific colonies took place at Oleron. Some effort was made to send the strongest and those who professed a useful trade to Isle Royale ("... I1 ne faut absolument que de bons hommes ....," wrote the minister, ordering inferior recruits sent to Canada. [Note 15]) In later years, recruitment for each of the colonies was separate and it is even possible that men who ended up at Louisbourg may have known their destination at the time they enlisted. Still, there was always a certain amount of shuffling and mixing at Rochefort and Oleron so that a man intended for one colony could easily end up in another. [Note 16]

Service in the colonial troops had little to recommend itself and it is difficult to understand at first why anyone would volunteer for it. If a man contemplated adopting the career of soldier, one would expect him to prefer the regular army which would not take him so far from his home and family. Certainly the enlistment bounties offered by the colonial recruiters, (which must have been less than the 30 livres the latter received) could not have lured many candidates away from the regular army where much more substantial sums were offered. [Note 17] The term of enlistment was not an attractive feature either. In the 18th century most men joined the army on six year "engagements limités".[Note 18] The Swiss at Isle Royale apparently served on limited terms but most of the French soldiers in the garrison were on "engagements perpetuels"; that is, they served until the king saw fit to discharge them. In the 1720s and the thirties some men came to the colony on six year terms but the authorities wished to avoid these limited engagements in order to avoid the expense of equipping, training and transporting soldiers who would only stay for a relatively short time, but also because their presence was injurious to morale. [Note 19] It was, no doubt, the predominance of enlistments that did not limit the period of service that produced what one governor referred to in 1753 as, "le préjugé que l'on a en france que lorsqu'un soldat y est engagé, il ne peut plus revenir." [Note 20]

Why then would a man join the Isle Royale garrison? Two or three soldiers were asked just that when they were examined on charges of petty theft. One of these was Thomas Beranger dit LaRosée who had been a gardener in Saintonge in 1730 when he was involved in a drunken brawl in which a peasant was seriously injured. LaRosée had reason to fear he might be arrested and so he fled to Rochefort and joined the Compagnies Franches. [Note 21] It is impossible to determine how many soldiers came to Isle Royale as fugitives from justice but it is quite possible that many men could find no better way of escaping prosecution than to give a false name to a complacent recruiter and disappear from France without a trace. Many of these fugitive recruits were probably deserters from the French army .[Note 22]

Nicolas Lebegue dit Brulevillage was from Franche-Comté and he earned his living driving cattle with his father and brother from his native province to Paris. During one sojourn in the capital when he was about 22 years old, Lebegue got drunk and was separated from the other two who returned home without him. Alone in Paris without money or friends, he quickly signed up with Captain d'Ailleboust who would have provided the new recruit with food and lodgings from the day of his engagement. [Note 23] Joseph Lagand dit Picard was 15 or 16 years old and had not finished his apprenticeship as a cooper when his father died in 1732. The orphan was unable to support himself so he left his home in the northern town of Noyon and travelled to Paris where he encountered a recruiter named de la Fresilière and enlisted in the Isle Royale troops. Lagand had scurvy when he arrived at Louisbourg and he was continually sick for the next two years. By rights, he should have been discharged as physically unfit but the same indigence and helplessness which led him to enlist made him desperately anxious to remain a soldier. Thus, when the subject of a discharge arose a touching scene ensued .

... étant toujours attaqués de l'escorbut son capitaine voulu le congedier, mais que le Repondant qui pour lors n'avoit qu'environ seize a dix sept ans se mît a pleurer, disant que s il etoit congedié il ne sauroit que faire pour gagner sa vie ... [Note 24]

It seems quite likely that many of the men who agreed to join the Isle Royale garrison were, like Lebegue and Lagand, alone in the world and incapable of supporting themselves (even if only through lack of initiative). Since it was the material security of military life that they found most attractive, they would presumably have been less concerned than other prospective soldiers about factors such as enlistment bounties and length and location of service. Moreover, as they were often in desperate circumstances, they would have been easy game for the first recruiter they encountered who could as easily have been working for the Isle Royale troops as for any other military unit.

It is one thing to speculate about why some men would choose to join the Isle Royale companies, but quite another matter to determine how many of the colony's soldiers came as a result of anything resembling a free decision. Leaving aside the problem of the extent to which volunteers were aware at the time of enlistment which colony they would be assigned to and ignoring for lack of evidence the possibility that men may have bound themselves to serve in Isle Royale under the mistaken impression that they were joining some other military organization, [Note 25] it is still quite certain that many recruits came to the colony against or regardless of their will. The numerical importance of these soldats malgré eux cannot even be estimated but it is possible to enumerate some of the practices by which they were victimized. There is first of all, the famous "lettres de cachet", and the sources mention three men who were a sufficient nuisance to their families to be forced by such writs to serve as soldiers at Isle Royale. [Note 26] Convicts from the prisons were also sent; 30 were ordered in 1720 when no "volunteers" could be found and another 25 were sent in 1723. [Note 27] There is no indication as to what sort of prisoners these were but there was one category of criminals that supplied an important number of recruits to the colonial troops, at least before 1720. These were soldiers who were convicted of deserting from the regular army and were spared the death sentence on condition of serving in America. [Note 28] These examples of forcible enlistment were all taken from the 1716-1726 period. From the early 1730s until the fall of Louisbourg, the available sources unfortunately make almost no mention of recruitment practices and it is therefore impossible to determine whether these abuses persisted into the decades immediately preceding the mutiny and the fall of Louisbourg.

Many "men" came to Isle Royale at rather a tender age and it is the tendency of the colony's recruiters to accept underage recruits which explains perhaps as well as anything else their success in keeping the garrison up to strength or close to it. In fact, they were officially encouraged to look for candidates who were "jeunes et d'esperance", that is, not yet fully grown. [Note 29] After all, the younger a soldier was on arriving in the colony, the more years of productive service he could be expected to give. One governor commented favorably on the "jeunes gens d'Esperance" who were 15 to 16 years old and constituted the majority of the 40 recruits of 1726. [Note 30] The regular French army was not above admitting boys who had not attained the minimum age of 16 but the colonial recruiters and inspectors seem to have ignored the ordinances on this point in a more systematic fashion. They were also extremely lax about enforcing height restrictions. Of 21 men who appeared in court or deserted and were therefore described in judicial records or in other documents, four were below the minimum height of 5 pieds 1 pouce. (See Appendix C.) Officers in the regular army had a strong prejudice in favour of tall men and they accepted very few recruits who were even slightly under the minimum. [Note 31]They would not have fought with the Isle Royale recruiters for the right to enlist Jean Lafargue, who measured 4 pieds 11 pouces, or Jean-Baptiste Tomasein, 4 pieds 9 pouces. [Note 32]

Of course it was understood that colonial troops were anything but elite units. [Note 33] Even the level of education of the men of the Isle Royale garrison seems to have been inferior to that of soldiers in France. Of 65 men of the Compagnies Franches who were asked to sign legal documents or parish registers, only 27 (41.5%) were able to draw or write their names. [Note 34] Whatever meaning this may have in terms of the various definitions of "literacy", it does indicate (albeit in an inconclusive way since the sample is small) that the Isle Royale troops were generally more ignorant than the infantry regiments where Corvisier found about 70% of the soldiers able to sign in 1763. [Note 35]

The conventional view in the 18th century held that army recruits came from the "scum of the cities" and, although this is far from accurate, it could probably be applied more fairly to the Isle Royale soldiers than to the metropolitan troops. Corvisier finds that in 1737 28% or 32% of the latter were born in towns and cities, a disproportionate level of urban representation in a country where perhaps 5/6 of the population was rural. [Note 36] Of the 61 Isle Royale soldiers whose places of birth can be determined however, 31 (46%) were born in cities and 12 of them were natives of Paris (see Figure 1). Whether they were born in town or village, most of the colony's soldiers enlisted in a city, particularly Paris and Rochefort. The map of birth-places shows that a majority of this small sample group were born in Paris, in the region surrounding Rochefort and in the area between the capital and the port through which the gangs of recruits would have passed. Nevertheless, a sizable number were born in the east and the north. Since there is almost no data on the residences of the recruits when they joined, we cannot know how many of these men born in the more remote areas may have been permanently established in Paris by the time they enlisted. It seems significant that the three soldiers mentioned earlier who left some account of the circumstances of their recruitment all came to Paris or Rochefort straight from their native town or village and signed up upon arriving.

The urban character both of recruitment for the colonial garrison and of the background of so many of its members is quite striking. Unfortunately, there are no sources that would allow the inquiry to be extended into a systematic study of the social or economic status of the recruits and their families. All that is possible is cautious speculationbased upon a few remarks and examples scattered through the official correspondence and judicial records. Mention has already been made of who joined the Compagnies Franches because they were indigent and of the convicts, deserters and libertines who were forced to become soldiers. This was the element that writers had in mind when they spoke of "la lie des villes", but it would be a mistake to assume that it predominated in the Isle Royale garrison. Of those soldiers mentioned in the documents, many had had training in a trade and many of these practiced their craft in the colony. (See Appendix G.) We know the professions of some of the men's fathers and, although most were artisans, one was listed as a wine merchant, one was a stationery merchant and another was "garde des instruments de Musique de la Chapelle du Roy." [Note 37] (See Appendix H.) These examples come mostly from court records, a source which cannot be expected to favour the more respectable elements of the garrison. The only conclusion they seem to justify is that the soldiers of Isle Royale came from diverse sections of the French population.