Fortifications in New France

Flying over Fort Beauséjour in 1975 I took this photo using infra red colour film. It gives the landscape a peculiar colour but what strikes you most forcibly is the plan of the fort and the earthworks surrounding it.

The basic plan is like a five-pointed star with massive pointed earthworks sticking out into yet more geometric earthworks and deep ditches. In the centre is the yard of the fort, once occupied by necessary buildings.

Where does such a peculiar design come from and what is its function meant to be? To get some insights I think it is necessary to go back in time and look at the history of fortifications. Because the subject interests me, and because in these troubled times of the virus plague pleasurable distraction is good, I present you with this digression.


A Short History of Fortification

Fortifications first became necessary at the end of the stone age when agriculture became widely practised and animals were domesticated to the point where there was an annual surplus. People could congregate in one place – the first villages – and this required that loose groups required Leadership. This was the beginning of Government. In Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago Leadership needed Justification for Taking Action and this was when Leadership became connected to Deities who communicated Their Will to what had now evolved into the position of Priest King or a theocracy, where the will of the king was said to be the will of god. Tall pyramidal temple structures known as ziggurats with communication rooms at the top were built out of mud brick and surrounded by high mud brick walls.

Here is an aerial view of the partially restored Ziggurat of Ur. It would once have looked like the drawing.

Agricultural surplus and the first domesticated animals had to be protected and so the high walls of mud brick were built either to keep greedy neighbours out or to keep the population in, under the eye of suspicious Priest Kings. Opinions vary. For millennia these city states rose and fell and troubled Mesopotamia developed its reputation for violence and aggression which is alive and well today. Warfare, like so many of the essentials of Civilisation, was born in mud brick Mesopotamia.

Ancient Egypt, insulated by its position along the length of the Nile was only vulnerable at the Delta, where descendants of the Mesopotamian city states tried to invade, as was their wont. The remains of fortifications are ephemeral, but descriptions and depictions of great battles are common in Egyptian art, especially after the introduction of the horse and chariot around 1500 BC by one of the invaders, the Hyksos. In its isolation Egypt had the advantage of being ruled by kings who became gods immediately upon accession to the throne. As long as the country remained united the need for fortifications was limited.

In the Second Millennium BC great walled cities appeared in Asia Minor, Crete and Mainland Greece. One thinks of Troy, Knossos and Mycenae, Tiryns and Gla. Spectacular remains of these are to be seen today. With the spread of civilisation came the spread of hostility and threat generated by the desire for power. Great stone walls were never great enough, and they all fell into decay. Their remains today, such as the Lion Gate at Mycenae, are a source of wonder. Forty-one years ago I explored these walls when I studied in Greece and was intimidated by the sheer size of the stones which later generations in the classical age called “cyclopean,” meaning they could only have been put in place by the one-eyed giants described in Homer’s Odyssey.

The Greeks inherited the idea of the walled central stronghold from the Mycenaeans and their city states usually had a high city or acropolis which contained the temple of their dominant deity, such as the acropolis at Athens. Rich cities also, at various times, built walls, portions of which can be found all over Greece. In the Classical era they built fortifications of astonishing beauty – perhaps the most elegant ever built – using carefully finished blocks of ashlar and rusticated masonry.

The Romans on the Italian peninsula gradually conquered all their neighbours, obliterated the enigmatic Etruscan civilisation in Tuscany, and turned their attention to Egypt, Greece, North Africa, Britain and Europe, all of which they conquered with efficient rapidity and absorbed into a vast empire that lasted for centuries. They became the greatest military power in the history of the world. That, in itself, is not particularly nice, but what is wonderful is that through their colonising activity, and systematisation of their world administration, they laid the groundwork for modern civilisation, with its laws, art, literature, architecture and the organisation into recognisable urban units all the territories they conquered. Most of all, in the end, they laid the aesthetic foundation for our creative activities in most areas of our evolution.

Walls inevitably come to mind, and they are everywhere. The most famous is Hadrian’s Wall in Britain but it is almost impossible to visit any major city in Europe and the Near East without tripping over Roman walls made of stone or brick. Walls are obstacles that must be breached in one way or another and so the Romans became expert at this sort of things. They used battering rams, they devised ways of excavating under walls to provide passage for soldiers or to precipitate a collapse. They also became famous for building mobile siege towers which could be moved against a city wall to mask the activity of those who excavated below, accommodate suspended battering rams that could swing, again and again, against a wall to weaken or destroy it, and at the top there was a drawbridge that could be dropped over the top of the wall to permit the attackers to shoot from above or simply take over the tops of the fortifications.

Here is such tower placed along a section of the great Aurelian Wall still standing in Rome.

The fall of Rome brought an end to organised and sophisticated military campaigns with highly trained infantry and cavalry, but the memory of these skills was never lost and, in smaller ways lasted through the period of the Dark Ages.

By the Twelfth Century countries in Europe once again were able to wage war on a large scale, and just like the amazing Gothic cathedrals that sprang up all over the place with their highly sophisticated architecture, so too did new forms of fortifications appear and spread, constructed according to the new building technology that had rapidly appeared. Art historians speak of a Twelfth Century Renaissance. The basic element of the fortification was a massive wall with round towers at the corners, forming bastions which allowed for crossfire. More towers could be built along the wall, or curtain, as it was called, to permit more crossfire and weakening of the attacking force. Two great fortresses of the Mediaeval age are quite spectacular in construction and sheer volume. The Crusades were a powerful driving and economic force behind this new construction. Look at the Krak des Chevaliers begun in the Twelfth Century in what is now Syria.

And look at the fortified city of Carcassonne in the South of France, the former holdout of the Cathars. It had been a fortress since ancient times and during the Middle Ages was expanded to enclose the town.

It has been much altered with time and was extensively restored during the Nineteenth Century, but it is essentially a perfect mediaeval fortified town with long stretches of vulnerable wall, relieved at intervals by towers of limited defensive function. This was to be the dream and standard of the Middle Ages and all the major cities of Europe worked to encircle themselves with variations on this pattern, adjusting to the local topography.

All this would begin to change in the Renaissance which had to deal with the appearance of a new deadly force – gunpowder. The cannon had been invented and contributed in a major way to the fall of one of the most heavily fortified cities in Europe when on 29 May 1453 Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, led by the brilliant 21-year-old Mehmed II, thus marking the death of the Byzantine Empire and its sophisticated civilisation. From that point on military theory and practice would begin to change in a dramatic way. New ways of deflecting cannon fire had to be invented because exploding shells could now easily blow holes through those vast expanses of curtain walls on the mediaeval fortresses. Engineers began to devise solutions to counteract the action of cannon fire and the most effective they were able to achieve was to build pointed extensions to the walls called bastions.

In the late 1520s the city of Florence, with its conventional mediaeval fortifications was being threatened by the invading troops of the Holy Roman Emperor. The sculptor Michelangelo was hired by the city to devise new ways of protecting all its city gates from bombardment. He was soon director of fortifications and a number of drawings survive in Florence which show how he proposed to do that. Here is one of those precious drawings from the Casa Buonarroti collection showing what he proposed to do for the gate called the Porta al Prato di Ognissanti.

You can see how attacking forces would be divided and too the great potential for controlling many different lines of fire.

Of course, none of this was ever built because Michelangelo was so slow at getting things done and there was simply no time and money for such large-scale projects. However, the tide had changed and from now on the mediaeval fortress was a thing of the past.

As the Sixteenth Century progressed there was a very rapid evolution of thought in fortification design and when the new city of Palmanova, on the border of Venetian territory and the Dalmatian coast was built in 1593 as a defense against possible Ottoman attacks from conquered Greece, it was a round geometrical construction bristling with pointed bastions filled with cannon embrasures. The final stage of modern fortification had begun.

These polygonal cities could be built to any size from city to offensive or defensive fort in the wilderness. That is what was available to military engineers when the Seven Years War in New France began in 1755. At that time the inspiration for all fortifications was French and its great genius was Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban, later Marquis de Vauban (1633–1707) commonly referred to as Vauban.


Vauban the Military Engineer of Louis XIV

In 1698, ninety-five years after the construction of Palmanova, Vauban, in his old age, erected on new ground the fortress of Neuf-Brisach in Alsace as part of Louis XIV’s grand plan to encircle the country with impregnable fortresses. This was the result.

For the past century and more, gunpowder and cannon had taken over as the major offensive weapon against citadels and all new design was focussed on minimising the damage done by exploding cannon balls. Military theory also changed dramatically and new books on the subject appeared regularly. In France it was the theory of Vauban, both for fortification design and military tactics that dominated the later Seventeenth Century, all of the Eighteenth and part of the Nineteenth. Indeed, his instructions for trench warfare were still being used by continental army units in World War I.


Who was Vauban?

The military engineer who designed these earthworks at Neuf-Brisach was Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, Seigneur de Vauban, later Marquis de Vauban (1633–707) commonly referred to as Vauban. Here he is in a chalk drawing attributed to both Charles Le Brun and Hyacinthe Rigaud. Vauban fought in each of Louis XIV’s many wars and the scar on his cheek is an old battle wound. Louis put into effect plans to fortify a series of towns on a massive scale to produce a geographical “safe area” surrounded by large fortresses or fortified cities, all designed by Vauban. In all during his career Vauban designed 170 fortresses and 9 new fortified towns. Neuf-Brisach in Alsace was one of them.

Vauban’s ideas were written down by himself and by others. The Smithsonian has a very fine manuscript produce in 1700 that is a treatise both on military architecture and tactics. It is so thorough that every single tool used by soldiers for tending to cannon and digging trenches and tunnelling under walls is illustrated. One is reminded in this illustration from the manuscript that these massive earthworks were constructed by human labour using mostly the pick, shovel and wheelbarrow.

The title of this work is Traité des sièges et de l’attaque des places, meaning Treatise on Sieges and the Attack of Specific Topographies, and is his last definitive work on the subject. From time to time a reprint is available on the internet, but with great good luck I was able to find this pdf file of the Smithsonian manuscript in colour and make it available to you here.

1700 Vauban – Traitté des siéges et de l’attaque des places – Smithsonian

Here are several coloured drawings from the manuscript which were intended to be engraved on copper for inclusion in the book. The first shows a fortress, in the best modern style, set in a landscape of fields and a river. Every possible way of digging trenches or setting lines of fire is indicated. The method is discussed point by point in the manuscript.

Here is another plate that that gives several views of what Vauban believes is the ideal system of building up the various components that make up a complete military barrier, with ditches, rising and descending slopes, platforms and even water. He does not indicate in this drawing the underground chambers used for accommodation and supplies that were found at intervals in a fortress.

And here we have illustrations of humble hands-on tasks performed by those who do the digging – the sappers or sapeur in French – with their carefully woven wickerwork bundles used to articulate the tops of trenches. This technique was still being used during World War I.

Vauban was considered the expert in his field during the reign of the Sun King, basing his designs for fortresses on the ideas that had emerged during the Renaissance that a fortress should divide the enemy with sharp protruding bastions that would in turn provide the defenders with opportunities for close cross fire. All this was arranged, sometimes in a number of layers, and his crowning glory can be found in the city of Lille in northeast France, where slopes and ditches and where possible, moats, make getting close enough to breaching a wall was almost impossible. Here is a photo of a model of the Lille defences. Of all his projects, Vauban was most proud of this.

Lille, in Northern France near the Flemish border, was fortified by a massive system of fortifications with a great separate fortress arranged in pentagonal form at the request of Louis XIV between 1667-70. Good period maps are difficult to find on the internet and this one from the 18th Century was the best I could find.

This circa 1840 steel plate engraving from my collection gives you a fine crisp view of what the fortress and the walled city looked like.

The Vauban system is best understood in cross-section drawings. Unfortunately, the best drawings that I could find were all labelled in Polish and so we will, for the moment, have to do with this sketch labelled in French. Since such forts are to be found in various stages of preservation all over Europe it is not surprising that there is a great deal of interest in the subject.

As you can see approach to the fort or city wall is everything. Everything is designed to absorb cannon fire and to pick off approaching infantry and cavalry. There are rising slopes, sudden drops, wet and dry ditches, and vast underground passageways leading to all important points and also underground quarters for the soldiers.

Today military tourists can visit 12 other fortified towns that were intended to form a defensive ring about France that bear the inspiration of Vauban.

This site provides illustrations and descriptions of these locations.


Forts in New France: Ile Royal, Acadia and Ile Saint-Jean

All the military engineers in New France were trained in the precepts of Vauban not only in offensive military tactics but also in the constructions of forts. There were many manuals of tactics, artillery and defenses and these are not difficult to find. The English, much influenced by French theory, produced their own manuals. For example, here is a pdf of the most famous treatise on fortification published in various editions over the years by John Muller. This is the 1799 edition. In my collection I have a facsimile of the 1746 edition, more relevant to the practices of fort building at the time of the conquest of New France.

Muller – Treatise on Fortification 1799 edition – Google

Muller also wrote a Treatise of Artillery and this is a copy of the 1768 edition.

Muller – Treatise of Artillery 1768 – Google

Sadly, when there is a fold-out plate the scanning methods only reproduce it in its folded state.



I finished my discussion of fortifications in France with the city and fortress of Lille and I begin my discussion of this topic in New France with the city and fortress of Louisbourg, on the rocky shore of Ile Royale or Cape Breton Island.

What you see in this aerial photograph supplied by Parks Canada shows the restorations of the fortress and parts of the town that were done in the 1960s. They are very fine indeed and give you a feeling for an Eighteenth-Century fortress and town. But they are only part of the story. This engraving gives you a better idea of the dream for a fully completed fortress and town. Because it is so full of detail, prepared as it was by the English conquerors after the final siege of 1745, I give you also a pdf of the very large map that I have reduced here.

1746 Gridley, Richard and Peter Pelham – Louisbourg pdf


Here is a detail from that map showing the Vauban-inspired profile of the wall system with its parts labelled in the language of fortification.

The French had turned their attention to Louisbourg in 1713 after losing Acadia and Newfoundland to the English by the Treaty of Utrecht. Their only possessions in the region were Cape Breton Island or Ile Royale and Ile Saint-Jean or Prince Edward Island. They had no interest at the time in Ile Saint-Jean and chose to build a fortress and town facing the Atlantic Ocean in a protected cove on Ile Royale. It took from 1719 to 1745 to construct most of the fortified town they had envisioned. With the fishing industry it became a thriving community.

The English attacked the town in 1745. The defenses should have withstood the attack but in reality Louisbourg was poorly situated on the seaside of very extensive low bog that can be seen in the aerial photograph above. The French however regained the town three years later by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle but in 1758 Louisbourg was attacked again and fell for the last time after seven weeks of fighting. To prevent re-use by the French the English destroyed much of the fortifications.

Louisbourg had been designed by engineers who were totally immersed in the Vauban system of fortification, and it was the last of that style ever to be built.


Ile Saint-Jean

Louisbourg was the centre of power in the Atlantic region and governed, in a remote fashion, the Acadians who had been living in British territory since 1713. When France decided to colonise Ile Saint-Jean in 1720 settlers from France and parts of Acadia came an established the various towns built on the Island. It was intended that forts in the style of Vauban should be built in key locations and I will discuss those in a future post. Suffice it to say that by the 1730s a four-pointed star fort was in the process of being built at Port la Joye, the capital of Ile Saint-Jean. An image of it – reality or wishful thinking -has survived in a splendid 1734 watercolour panorama of the settlement and here is a detail of what may be the first Vauban-style fort constructed in Atlantic Canada.

As you can see it was a simple rectangular fort with corner bastions and associated earthworks supplemented by a high pointed palisade.


New Town Planning Directions: Halifax

The English were determined to establish themselves in lucrative Acadia and so in 1749 built a centre of administration which they called Halifax, in honour of George Montague-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax, who was the President of the Board of Trade. This moment of city planning in Acadia was a practical as well as a highly significant gesture in how to bring geometrical and rational order to the wasteland of the New World. The grid plan was based on the ancient Roman military camp, described in detail in Vitruvius’ Ten Books of Architecture, written about the time of Christ. The English, having no other practical guide to exploiting unchartered wilderness, followed the example of the Romans as their empire expanded and began with the model of the Roman military camp – a standard design for the Empire. In this 1749 plan of the proposed city by Harris Moses we see the grid plan of the city, and in the best French Vauban-inspired tradition, fortifications at key points along the perimeter. Other cities in the wilderness would be laid out in this fashion during the next generation, giving us masterpieces of design the best of which would be Charlottetown in 1768.


Building of Fort Lawrence – 1750

As the 1740s came to a close tension over the exact borders and ownership of Acadia began to mount. Beaubassin, or Chignecto as the English and Mi’kmaq called it, was the most prosperous region of Acadia and sat on what was generally agreed – for the moment – the boundary between English Acadia and French territory in what would be called New Brunswick. Tensions, intensified with violent skirmishes fomented by a French priest, the Abbé Le Loutre, and which involved both Acadians and aboriginals, led to the building of a small fort on the former site of Beaubassin which had been burned to the ground under the directives of Le Loutre a few years earlier. In this lovely sketch by John Hamilton in 1755 it looks quite substantial, but when you look at its plan you can see that it was the most basic and cheapest presence, they could have that looked like a fort.

Here is a fine summary of the history of Fort Lawrence by Parks Canada.


Fort Beauséjour

Fort Beauséjour is built in 1751-52 according to a sophisticated plan inspired by Vauban by the French military engineer Louis Franquet. Here is his plan preserved in the national archives in Ottawa.

This, from the same sheet, is his design for the cross section of the fort.

Here is its profile, drawn in 1755 by Winckworth Tonge, an Irish British soldier at Fort Lawrence, from a point overlooking Ile de la Valliere in the middle ground, which he would eventually own and rename Tonge’s Island. The fort has an impressive profile and dominates the end of Beauséjour Ridge then as it does today.

The fort fell in June 1755 when a shell lobbed by the English hit a bastion and exploded, killing both French and English officers in the casemate, or underground chamber, contained within it. It has been reconstructed by Parks Canada in the huge amount of work they did on the site in the 1960s.


Fort Beausejour becomes Fort Cumberland

After the conquest of Beausejour the English took over the very fine fort and abandoned Fort Lawrence which no longer had any use. They reconstructed the fort, rebuilding with fine stone and spectacular brick vaulting the various underground chambers.

Here is a model on view at the Fort Beausejour-Fort Cumberland Museum of the fort in its English phase.

Here is a painting, one of a series, done by the artist Lewis Parker that gives you a vivid feel for what life in Fort Cumberland might have been like.

You can see more of Parker’s historical reconstructions at this site.

The fort continued to play an important role in the defense of Acadia/Nova Scotia until it was besieged by New Englanders during the American War of Independence in 1776. In time it fell into disuse, and then into ruin until interest in it was revived by Dr. Clarence Webster in the 1930s.

In this graphic panel prepared by Parks Canada you can see which parts of the French fort were preserved in the 1960s restoration. This is what you experience when you visit there today.

Check out these sites for more specific and detailed information on the forts.



Fort Gaspareaux

A small fort was built near Port Elgin near the mouth of the Gaspareaux River during the Abbé Le Loutre small war. The site is not well-known and seldom visited. Here is a sketch of it done after the conquest in 1756 by an English military engineer John Brewse, inset into a map of the surveyed parts of Nova Scotia. Brewse (or Bruce) did the first survey of what would become Halifax in 1749. He was wounded at the siege of Beausejour.

This is what Fort Gaspareaux looks like today. There’s not much to it and it is seldom visited, and the site often closed.

This story of the forts of Chignecto, with its surprising digression into the history of fortification and the great achievements of Vauban is a brief one, but it is one that connects to a much wider story from a point of view of architectural history.

When you study architecture, everything connects.

After my next blog post I will leave Acadia and finally begin to focus all my attention – or most of it – on Ile Saint-Jean and Prince Edward Island, but first I want to explore briefly the importance – and beauty – of using aerial archaeology as a tool in the study of architecture. Here is a last view of Fort Beausejour/Cumberland after the first snowfall of winter – a crucial element in aerial archaeology.



Clarke, Ernest, The Siege of Fort Cumberland, 1776: An Episode in the American Revolution, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1995.

Gooding, S. James, An Introduction to British Artillery in North America, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, 1988.

Gooding, S.J., (introduction) Military Exercises: 1730, Museum Restoration Service, West Hill, Ontario, 1962.

Houlding, J.A., French Arms Drill of the 18th Century: 1703-1760, Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, 1988.

Johnston, A.J.B., “Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban: Reflections on His Fame, His Fortifications, and His Influence,” French Colonial History, Vol. 3, Michigan State University press, 2003.

Johnston – Vauban 2003

Lennox, Jeffers, “Nova Scotia Lost and Found: The Acadian Boundary Negotiation and Imperial Envisioning, 1750-1755,” Acadiensis, XL, No. 2, pp. 3-31, 2011.

Muller, John, A Treatise Containing the Elementary Part of Fortification, Regular and Irregular, John Nourse at the Lamb, London, 1756, Reprinted by Museum Restoration Service, Ottawa, Ontario, 1968.

Muller, John, A Treatise of Artillery: Containing …, John Millar, Whitehall, 1780, reprinted by Museum Restoration Service, Bloomfield, Ontario, 1977.

Vachon, André, with Victorin Chabot and André Desrosiers, Taking Root: Canada from 1700 to 1760 in Records of Our History, Public Archives Canada, 1985.

Vauban, Traité des sièges et de l’attaque des places, Manuscript, Smithsonian Institution, 1700.

1700 Vauban – Traitté des siéges et de l’attaque des places – Smithsonian

Webster, John Clarence, The Forts of Chignecto: A study of the Eighteenth Century conflict between France and Great Britain in Acadia [With Plates, Including Portraits, and Maps], Privately Published, 1930.

Wolfe, General James, General Wolfe’s Instructions to Young Officers … , Second Edition, London, 1780, reprinted by Museum Restoration Service, Ottawa, Ontario, 1967.