I could tell you about the siege of Louisbourg, I honestly could, but it’s a big story and this post alone has taken up more space than I thought it would. Instead I’m going to focus on an often told story during the siege, but a story that isn’t usually elaborated on. The very 18th century story of the wife of the governor of Île Royale; Madame Drucourt, sometimes known as “La Bombardier”.
Marie Anne Aubert de Drucourt née Courserac was the daughter of a proud naval family that went back to the 17th century. They were lords of Courcerac, a town in the Charente-Maritime district of the Poitou Charentes region of western France. The west of France is a cradle of often rugged coast and was home to some of the most famous French sea ports. Brest at the north west tip, the infamous nest of privateers St Malo, and ancient trade centre of La Rochelle in the middle and wealthy Bordeaux in the south. It was were France bred her sailor’s and the Courserac’s were a family with sea salt in their veins.
Marie Anne’s date of birth has so far eluded me, however I have found out some things that might help narrow it down, for one I have found out who her father was. His name was Seigneur Charles Aubert, Chevalier de Courserac, born on 6 March 1670 in the family seat of Courcerac, he joined the navy and by the War of the Spanish Succession 1703-1714 he had risen to command rank and from 1706 to 1712 and then probably to his death, Charles Aubin served under the legendary Corsair Admiral, Chevalier Duguay Trouin, operating out of Brest and St Malo. Notably he fought in the Battle of the Lizard in command of the 64 gun Jason, a former command of Trouin’s, where he tackled Chester which was made a prize. As one of Trouin’s most loyal and capable commanders, he was given command of squadrons and during the 1711 campaign to take Rio de Janeiro, he commanded the rearguard in the 11 day operation to seize the hitherto impregnable city. He died on the 30th of July 1724, leaving his wife Anne de Longueville whom he married on 26 July 1710, and four children, one of whom was Marie-Anne. She was either his first or second child, her closest brother, Chevalier Denis Aubert de Bardon Courserac, was born 1704 in Brest the eldest son of Charles Aubert and he followed his illustrious father into the Navy and served in the 1737 Quebec campaign, the siege of Louisbourg in 1745 and the 1755 Canada campaign. He married twice, once in 1745 (to Francoise Guernelez Mol) and then in later life to Marie Jeanne de la Laurencie on 27 May 1766 at the age of 62 years, she had been born in 1733.
Interestingly he is probably the same Chevalier Courserac who commanded the 64 gun Bienfaisant at Louisbourg in 1758. He died Childless on 13 December 1787 after an exceptionally long life, and his wife represented him at the 1789 estates general assembly.
Given this history I have dared to approximate that Marie-Anne must have been born between 1703 and 1711, (My guess, charitably supposing she is Anne de Longueville’s child, is that her birthday would have been possibly in 1711-12) in either Brest or Courcerac, and was presumably the 2nd born but I have found no proof of this. She married twice, the first time on 26 Sept 1737 to Melchior Armand Béguin de Savigny (Born Reims 25 May 1701) who tragically went down with his ship on the 12 April 1741 (so presumably he was a sailor) widowing her. She must have remarried at some point between 1742-54 my guess is c1750, to Chevalier Augustin de Droucourt, (born March 27 1703).
And so the road to Louisbourg began, Chevalier Augustine Drucourt, a distiguished officer in the navy, had been serving in an administrative capacity in Brest since 1749, when he was made a Chevalier of the Military order of St Louis, and Marie-Anne moved to Brest with him after they were married. In 1754 he was appointed governor of Île de Royale (Cape Breton Island). He and Marie took eight domestic servants and Sailed from Brest in June 1754 they arrived on 15 August. By this time Drucourt was about 53, we might assume that his wife was slightly younger than him, but the two were happy. Marie took up her duties as mistress of the governors residence with alacrity and was soon a favourite with the entire garrison, not only had she made her new home on the far flung edge of French territory an attractive place to live, but she endeared herself to all there with her intelligence and her grace, she was kind to everyone no matter who they were or what they did, and her proud lineage would have made her very popular amongst the men of the French fleet stationed in Lousibourg. It would also seem highly probable that she was able to be reunited with her brother Denis, who was in command of a ’64 in the harbour, completing the picture quite nicely.
The domestic idyll was broken when war broke out in America between Britain and France the next year, 1755. The spark had been the argument over who owned the Ohio valley, the prize would prove to be the dominance of Canada and America. After initial French successes the British had to land a blow that would turn the tide, this happened at Louisbourg in 1758. General Jeffrey Amherst and Admiral Hugh Boscowen launched a joint land and sea operation to size the strategically vital fortress that guarded the entrance to the St Lawrence river. In July the British under James Wolfe effected a daring landing on the well protected coast and Louisbourg came into a state of siege.
With her and her husband’s new life on the line and her brother facing off against the British fleet, Marie-Anne was determined to live up to her revered father’s memory. No Courserac was a stranger to the exercise of great guns and when the British bombardment started, she proved it.
Every morning the gun crews in the large triangular bastions of Louisbourg were cheered to see the governor’s wife appear in their batteries, one later reference has her bringing them food, but they were more encouraged and impressed by the fact that she, with her own hand, routinely fired three big guns every day, come rain or shine, and wether or not the British were already firing.
The deafening schedule of battering was interrupted now and again for parleying. General Amherst, Admiral Boscowen and Chevalier Drucourt were all gentlemen as well as soldiers, and in the 18th century courtesy and manners counted as much on a battlefield as in a ballroom, war was bad enough without there being unpleasantness between enemies. In the truce of the 17th of June when the guns fell silent and the messages crossed between the opposing armies, Amherst made his apologies for the inconvenience that he must be causing Madame Drucourt by sieging her home, to make amends he thoughtfully sent her two West Indian pineapples as a treat. Though Augustine and Marie-Anne might have shared a smile at the thought of Amherst feeling bad about inconveniencing a lady who was routinely firing three guns at his army every day, she was delighted with the delicacy and happily reciprocated by sending the enemy General a basket of wine.
On the 24th of June another truce occurred, Amherst sent a drummer under a white flag to deliver letters concerning prisoners, sending along with them, two more Pineapples, Marie-Anne thanked the drummer and tipped him handsomely but replied with no more wine, prompting her husband to write that the British general seemed to want to exchange his wine cellar for pineapples. Nevertheless Chevalier Drucourt did offer the services of his excellent surgeon for any of Amherst’s officers that might require them.
Pleasant chivalric interludes aside there was the dirty business of war to be done. Each commander fought with as much skill as his experience had given him. The siege dragged on for two months, and time was on the side of the British, Louisbourg’s defences had been in need of repair for sometime when the siege began, and the French would eventually end up running out of food and ammunition unless relieved. The British crept closer and closer to the walls, taking out shipping and silencing batteries, despite brave French sorties and the valiant efforts of the gunners in the bastion’s, Drucourt was now fighting a losing battle, and on the 25th of July the walls were breached, not a building in the town was untouched by the bombardment, yet the French gave as good as they got. The end came one night when Boscowen’s sailors launched a daring night raid on the warships lying at anchor in the harbour. One of them was the Bienfaisant, a brand spanking new ship launched in 1754, commanded by Marie-Anne’s brother Denis, what he was doing at the time is unclear to me, but since the ships’ crews were mostly ashore helping on the land defences after having been bottled in by the Royal Navy, he probably was not aboard at the time his ship was taken, and the other ’64 burned to the waterline.
With the eastern defences breached and the Royal Navy poised to pour into the harbour, Drucourt, who had become increasingly ill during the siege, asked for terms. They were harsh, the British knew full well that the garrison of Fort William Henry had been set upon and nearly massacred after surrendering and were not in the mood to be overly generous to a gallant foe. Drucourt gathered his officers and aquatinted them with the situation, who infuriated, demanded that they be allowed to fight to the last man. The Chevalier agreed but in the end, fearful of the carnage that would ensue, he surrendered to Amherst and Boscowen on 26-27 July 1758. Though the men of the Cambris regiment mutinied, broke their muskets and burned their colours rather than surrender them to the British, the Siege of Louisbourg was over.
The garrison were made prisoners and transported to England aboard Boscowen’s ships. The evacuation was conducted in perfect order, with every honour possible given to the defeated garrison, who took their leave of their crumbling fortress as if it was a voyage of pleasure. The British Admiral granted every request from Marie-Anne, who’s heroism would earn her the nickname “La Bombardier”, and whose reputation was enhanced even in defeat as she went amongst those who had lost the most, and “Interested herself” on their behalf.
What happens next is a return to vagary but it appears that the POW’s were first sent to England, Drucourt seems to have landed in Essex, where the civilians were sent back to France, Marie-Anne amongst them, while the officers were held until exchanged or their parole obtained. I must assume Drucourt was exchanged as he landed in Dunkirk some time after Marie got there, probably in late 1758, he and the other officers that joined him were so poor that they had to be given money to continue their journey. The ailing Chevalier had lost everything at Louisbourg and had to live on the patronage of his brother in Le Havre for the rest of his life. Marie-Anne remained a devoted wife to him, for she seems to have truly loved the gallant Chevalier, and to her dying breath defended his reputation as a soldier, forwarding his journal of the siege to the government to vindicate him, I must assume that few people shunned him as he rejoined the Navy briefly in 1759, but he never recovered his health and died on August 28 1762, leaving Marie-Anne with a pension of 1,000 livres. The brave heroine of Louisbourg now somewhere around 50 years old, lived only two months more than her husband, perhaps she had fallen ill too, maybe the fatigue of the siege and the trip weakened her, or perhaps all of these merely overwhelmed her and when her husband breathed his last, she simply gave up at last.
It is her courage we remember, and for me she epitomises the siege of Lousibourg more than anyone else, and though a romantic story about pineapples, guns and wine is her only lasting legacy, she was also a gracious, kind and loving woman, who might have been a great lady, and I am glad at least for the echoes of these three daily cannon shots, because otherwise I might never have got to learn about her.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.
My thanks to Peter Mahood for his help in translating some of the French material I found, Merci beaucoup mon ami. Just as a note I have used the French spelling of Louisburg throughout.
(Allot of this post has been pieced together through scratches and snippets gathered from old digitalised French and English books and added to my own non virtual sources, I have provided a list below for you if you would like to investigate yourself)
Mémoires de Duguay-Trouin.
Fortune Favours the Brave tales of Courage and tenacity in Canadian military history: Colonel Bernd Horn.
Record of the Nobility of Saintonge and Aunis.
Crucible of War
Louisbourg 1758 Rene Chartrand
Armorial general: ou, Registres de la noblesse de France, vol 6.
The Capture of Louisbourg 1758: Hugh Boscawen
Endgame 1758: The Promise, the glory and the despair of Louisbourg’s last decade, AJB Johnston
Louisbourg: From it’s foundation to its fall 1713-1758: JS McLennan.
Montcalm and Wolfe: Francis Parkman
Genuine letters and memoirs relating to the natural, civil, and commercial history of the islands of Cape Breton and Saint John : from the first settlement there, to the taking of Louisbourg by the English in 1758: Thomas Pichon.
Female Warriors: Ellen C. Clayton