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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



Raising recruits and transporting them to Isle Royale was a very difficult and costly business and it was the consistent policy of the Marine ministry to control this expense as much as possible by keeping the number of discharges to an absolute minimum. Year after year, governors, were admonished to allow only soldiers who could become useful settlers or men whose upkeep cost the government more than they were worth to leave the service. "Il ne doit estre accordé aucun congé," a typical dispatch reads, "à ceux qui sont en estat de servir, a moins qu'ils ne se fussent [habitans]." [Note 1] Nevertheless, although discharges were never distributed freely, many men were released from their obligation to serve the king on grounds other than these two.

Most of the soldiers sent back to France from Isle Royale were officially described as "invalids". When more particulars were given, it appears that some of these men were deaf or partially blind; a number were epileptic; many were described simply as "paralitique", "insensé" or "impotant". [Note 2] Most striking among these invalids are the large numbers who suffered hernias, broken limbs and other injuries while working on the fortifications .

... congedié ayant une descente qui luy est venue aux traveaux des fortifications ... [Note 3]
... a eu la Jambe Cassée par un Eboulement de terres aux traveaux des fortifications et se trouve Estropié ... [Note 4 ]
... ayant ete Enterré sous une mine en travaillant aux fortiffications il luy Reste un incommodité ... [Note 5]

Many others were simply exhausted, "... crevés par les penibles travaux qu'ils sont obligés de faire pour le service du Roy ..." [Note 6] In the 1720s and thirties especially, the governors explained the numerous discharges of invalids as a result of the dangers and hardships of the soldiers' work in construction.

These invalids were generally given free treatment in the Louisbourg hospital until they died or embarked for France. Otherwise they caused the Marine Ministry little expense or inconvenience, since very few of them received pensions. One of the incidental results of this policy of discharging the crippled and the seriously ill and leaving them to fend for themselves, was the unusually low mortality rate among Isle Royale soldiers who seldom died while still soldiers, except by sudden accidents or brief but fatal diseases. (See Appendix I.)

An attempt was made at Isle Royale to emulate a policy that had helped to develop and people Canada by encouraging soldiers to take wives and settle on the land. As early as 1718, instructions were given to discharge any married men in the Compagnies Franches who intended to establish themselves in the colony. [Note 7] A royal ordinance in 1725 went further, ordering the governor to discharge one man from each of the six French companies and two Catholic Swiss every year on condition that they not leave Isle Royale. [Note 8] These soldier-settlers were to receive a free grant of land and could collect their soldier's pay and rations for three years. The ordinance remained a dead letter until the 1750s however and, during the period that preceded the first fall of Louisbourg, only a handful of soldiers ever left the service with the discharges it offered. This was partly the fault of the colonial administrators who were less than lukewarm in their encouragement of military settlement. They argued that the few soldiers who were given the opportunity to become farmers generally spent three years hunting and fishing with government sponsorship, then found an excuse for returning to France when free supplies were cut off. [Note 9] In fact, given the poor quality of Cape Breton soils and the absence of established agricultural communities that the soldier-settlers might have fitted into, it is unlikely that this programme would have been successful even if it had received more support. Whatever its causes, the failure of the military settlement system accounts for an essential difference in the prospects of the soldiers of Canada, who could leave the service with relative ease if they were willing to marry and remain in the colony, [Note 10] and the men of the French companies at Isle Royale, who could look forward to few alternatives to indefinitely prolonged service except a crippling injury.

Of course, the soldiers of the Karrer detachment and a minority of the French troops enlisted on the express condition that they serve a term of only six years." Even so, the state did not consider itself bound to discharge them as soon as they had fulfilled their obligations. If too many men had terms which expired in one particular year, the governor could make half of them stay for a seventh year rather than allow the garrison to drop too far below strength.12 Some volunteered for subsequent terms and received a ten livres bounty. [Note 13] There may have been other factors which "encouraged" reenlistment. If any coercion or pressure was employed the official correspondence does not mention it, but there is a reference to a man who stayed on because he was in debt to his Captain. [Note 14]

Occasionally - at least 24 such cases occurred between 1722 and 1741 - the Minister of Marine ordered the discharge of a soldier whose family had requested his return to France. Pierre Giraud, a 70 year old peasant in the province of Saintonge, for example, petitioned the minister and obtained the discharge of his son Jean, "... afin qu'il puisse repasser en france pour soulager son Pere dans sa Vieillesse ..." [Note 15] It is impossible to know how many of these requests for discharge on compassionate grounds were refused but it is clear that the successful ones generally had to be accompanied by a payment of 150 livres to the Marine Treasury to offset "part" of the costs of replacing the soldier. [Note 16] The money payment alone was not enough to free a man from his obligation to the king however and the governor and ordonnateur at Louisbourg were forbidden to accept such sums directly from the soldiers. These "congés par ordre" could only be issued on the authority of the minister and only "... par des considerations particuliers ..." [Note 17] No soldier could benefit by them unless he still had relatives in France who maintained contact with him and were concerned enough about him and sufficiently experienced with the bureaucracy to request his discharge and rich enough to pay for it.

Soldiers who did not receive any of the forms of discharge listed above could only retire from the service when they qualified for one of the few "congés d'ancienneté" that were distributed in most years to the men who had served the longest periods. There are references in the official correspondence to an "established custom" of awarding one such discharge per year to the senior man in each company. [Note 18] In fact, there were many years when deaths, desertions and discharges of other sorts reduced the garrison strength to the point where the governor did not feel he could allow any "congés d'ancienneté." Thus, each desertion, each 150 livre discharge, reduced the chances that an aged veteran would be sent home. The governors were aware of this and not without sympathy for the latter. They frequently pleaded for more recruits to enable them to discharge the old men who had served, they claimed, 40 years and more .

... Nous en avons encore cinq ou six a peu pres de cette Entienneté [40 years] quy meriteroit Bien destre Congediez, Sy vostre grandeur Veut bien me permetre de leur accordés L année prochaine Cella donnera Une consolation a tous les autres soldats qui se Croyent ici sans Esperance den sortir, ce qui oblige quelques uns a la Desertion ... [Note 19]

The ordonnateur de Mézy was exaggerating somewhat when he referred to the extended periods of service as "un Espece d'esclavage." [Note 20] In one way or another, a sizable proportion of the colony's soldiers managed to leave the Compagnies Franches without having to wait the 30 or 40 years required for a "congé d'ancienneté." There is even reason to suspect, as Maurepas apparently did, that some of the many men discharged as "invalids" may have been healthy individuals who had the sympathy of colonial officials . [Note 21] They may also have been troublesome "mauvais sujets" the officers wished to be rid of. In any case, discharges were never awarded on a systematic or regular basis and none at all were allowed from 1743, when war was expected, until after the fall of Louisbourg. [Note 22] To the French soldier or the Isle Royale garrison, the prospect of receiving a discharge must have appeared remote and uncertain.

Most discharges occurred at the end of August, after the arrival of the yearly supply of recruits. Very few of the recipients chose to remain in the colony. The vast majority took advantage of the free passage to France that was accorded them. During the several weeks that intervened before the departure of the king's ship, they were maintained at government expense, in the hospital if necessary, or in the Dauphin Bastion where the healthy ones were confined, away from their former comrades, in order to prevent disorder. [Note 23] On arriving at Rochefort they were given a travel allowance of two sols per lieue to allow them to return to their homes. [Note 24] Some could also hope eventually to draw a pension of six livres per month (eight livres for corporals and 12 for sergeants) if they had served an extended period and had surgeons certificates to prove they had been disabled in the course of their duties.