1895 Society of Colonial Wars Relic Medal
By: M. Goudreau
As those of you who know me can attest, I collect numismatic items from across a wide spectrum of fields, I am however always looking for items with Canadian connections. One item that sparked my interest, although issued in the United States in 1895 by The Society of Colonial Wars, was the War Relic Medal. What turned out to be its raison d’être is the commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the capture of Louisbourg in 1745.
Map courtesy of Wikipedia.
The Society of Colonial Wars was incorporated in New York on Oct 7, 1892. A General Society was founded in 1893 and now consists of 32 state societies. It’s a hereditary organization consisting of men that trace their lineage to an ancestor who assisted in the establishment, defense, and preservation of the American Colonies. As indicated in The Preamble of the Articles of Incorporation of the General Society they “seek to collect and preserve manuscripts, rolls, relics, and records; to hold suitable commemorations, and to erect memorials relating to the American Colonial period”.
Louisbourg is located on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island which was known as Isle Royale during the French Regime. The French settled there in 1713 after ceding Acadia and Newfoundland to the British in accordance with the Treaty of Utrecht, while retaining Isle Royale and Isle Saint Jean (now Prince Edward Island) in today’s Maritime Provinces. France began construction of the fortified town in 1719, and in 1720 King Louis XV issued a series of “Louisbourg Founded” medals in gold, silver and copper to commemorate this event. The reverse on all these are the same, which is a view of the fortress of Louisbourg, along with wharfs, warehouses and ships in the harbour. Most European powers were participants in the War of Austrian Succession which was fought from 1740 – 1748. The campaign in North America, known as King George’s War was contested between France and Great Britian in 1744 – 1748. This was the third of four French and Indian Wars. As New England was preparing for war in late 1744 and early 1745, William Shirley the Governor of Massachusetts campaigned to convince the British colonies that an attack on Louisbourg was feasible. Economical and political concerns, promises of loot, and claims of weak defenses convinced the Massachusetts House of Representatives on February 5, 1745 to approve the attack. William Pepperrell, a merchant and soldier from Kittery, Maine which was then part of Massachusetts, was appointed commander-in-chief of the expedition. He was supported by a British naval squadron commanded by Peter Warren, a Royal Navy officer from Ireland.
American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals (1894) by the late C. Wyllys Betts
A land force of four thousand men from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and New York embarked on the invasion fleet in early May. A naval blockade was set up outside Louisbourg, as the force assembled sixty miles away at the New England seasonal fisheries outpost of Canso on the eastern tip of Nova Scotia’s mainland. While waiting for the spring ice to clear their intended anchorage site at Gabarus Bay near Louisbourg, the force helped rebuild Canso’s defenses which was captured and destroyed by the French in 1744.
The fleet entered Gabarus Bay on May 11, 1745 and after a brief skirmish, had men holding positions ashore within three miles of the fort. In the days and weeks following the landings, the invading force gradually established several batteries to bombard the French and moved into positions closer and closer to the fort. The New Englanders faced some difficulties with disease such as dysentery and a devastating failed attack on the defender’s Island Battery on June 6. Overall, the siege went very well and by mid June the attackers were in a great position to launch a final combined land and naval assault on the battered fort. Louis du Pont Duchambon, the French commander, surrendered Louisbourg on June 17 after securing favourable terms. The garrison was able to march out with the honours of war and all personnel were repatriated to France with their personal property. This angered the invaders who were promised the captured booty when they initially joined the invasion force.
The obverse has the profiles of Warren and Pepperrell along with their names. There are two small medallions bearing the figures of a North American Indian and a Colonial Soldier. The lettering around the medal is inscribed: SOCIETY OF COLONIAL WARS. NIL DESPERANDUM CHRISTO DUCE (Despair of nothing while Christ leads) IN COMMEMORATION OF THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE CAPTURE JUNE 17 1745.
The reverse is a reproduction of the Louisbourg Founded medal issued by France in 1720: LUDOVICOBURGUM FUNDATUM ET MUNITUM (Louisbourg founded and fortified). The exerque has the date: M.DCC.XX. (1720)
Louisbourg’s capture was the American colonies most important military achievement prior to the American Revolution. Jubilation greeted the news of Louisbourg’s capture in New England and the British government in London was elated. William Pepperrell was awarded a baronet and Peter Warren a knighthood. To the dismay of the colonists, Louisbourg was given back to the French in 1748 under the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle which caused great resentment towards Great Britain. A second siege would be required in 1758 to permanently drive out the French.
The Society of Colonial Wars 150th Anniversary commemorative medal has a diameter of 2 inches (50.8mm) and is made from bronze. The most interesting thing, however is that the metal used to strike these medals came from cannons recovered from a French ship sunk in Louisbourg harbour on July 21 during the siege of 1758. In a June 16, 1895 New York Times article the ship was identified as the Célèbre . The accuracy of this is questionable because the Célèbre’s location in Louisbourg harbour was only positively identified by Parks Canada in the 20th century. It’s possible that the cannons could also have come from the Entreprenant or the Capricieux because all three ships were destroyed as they drifted across the harbour in an enormous fire ignited by the Célèbre after being hit by British cannons. The large amount of wrecks from the siege makes underwater identification complicated.
The general idea of the medal was the suggestion of Howard Pell, the Chairman of the Louisburg Memorial Committee of the General Society of Colonial Wars. The medal was designed by James H. Whitehouse of the world famous Tiffany & Co in New York City which also struck the medals. As an aside, collectors of currency may be surprised to learn that in 1885 Tiffany’s revised the Great Seal of the United States and this design still adorns the one dollar bill.
Louisbourg in 2002, Photos courtesy of author.
Previously published in the ENS “The Planchet” Vol-56 Issue-10