The ingénieurs du roi and the maréchal de Vauban

Military engineers in New France, like those in the Caribbean and in France itself, belonged to the Army Corps of Engineers, a division of the War Office known by many names: first as the “ingénieurs du Roi,” then the “Génie militaire” (after 1743), and then the “corps du Génie” (in the 1750s). Although there had been ingénieurs du Roi  long before the colonization of New France, they were thoroughly reorganized by Sébastien Le Prestre, maréchal de Vauban (1633–1707), France’s greatest engineer-architect and siege warfare expert, Vauban directed the construction or refurbishment of over 160 military establishments in France (and one in French Guiana), particularly the ring of fortresses around France known as the ceinture de fer. Vauban was the single most important inspiration for engineer-architects working in New France.

Royal engineers

Engineers were classed as either ingénieurs ordinaires (employed permanently) or ingénieurs volontaires (employed temporarily), all reporting to a chief engineer who oversaw either a single large garrison town (place) or several smaller places-forts. Together with his staff, the chief engineer coordinated all aspects of his place: maintaining fortifications and barracks, building new structures as needed, and directing road- and earthworks. Each place had its own office with the necessary tools of the trade, a library, and archives. Theoretical and practical books formed the basis of their collections, some on fortification and civil architecture, others on mathematics, geometry, and hydraulics.

Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry

The architecture of New France was dominated by two ingénieurs du Roi, both from Provence: Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros de Léry (1682–1756) from Toulon and Étienne Verrier (1683–1747) from Aix-en-Provence. While Verrier was primarily tasked with fortifying the small but strategically important garrison town of Louisbourg on Île-Royale (Cape Breton Island), Chaussegros had a much wider remit, designing and improving fortifications in Quebec City, Montreal, and the Mohawk town of Sault de Saint Louis (Kahnawake); forts at Chambly (1718), Niagara (1726), and Pointe à la Chevelure (Fort Frédéric, 1737); the Château Saint-Louis (1719-24), the Intendant’s Palace (1718-22) and the Epicospal Palace (1743) in Quebec City; the façade of Notre-Dame church (1722-23) and the Hôtel de Vaudreuil in Montreal (1723); and several unexecuted projects including an ostentatious Baroque renovation of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Quebec City (1745).

Chaussegros was also the only French colonial engineer-architect to write an architectural treatise, a Vauban-inspired manuscript entitled Traité de fortification divisé en huit livres (1714–27), which remains unpublished to this day. Chaussegros favored the classicizing style of Louis XIV, but sometimes quoted from older eras, referencing outdated forms like steeply pitched roofs, gambreled cupolas, bell towers, and quoining. He rarely used the classical orders, favoring the flat walls and imposing austerity that characterized Vauban’s civil architecture. Of course, this austerity was partly a result of the financial state of the colony; Chaussegros was constantly frustrated by administrators who refused to approve his budgets.
Chaussegros was born into a family of engineers and served in the army for ten years. In 1716, the Minister of State for the Navy sent him to New France to evaluate the fortifications in Quebec City and, after a brief return in France (1717–19), he spent the rest of his life in Canada as ingénieur-en-chef du Roi (chief royal engineer). He married an upper-class, Canadian-born woman, Marie-Renée Legardeur de Beauvais, and his children included engineers Joseph-Gaspard and Joseph-François, the latter of whom later served in Guadeloupe. Chaussegros was ambitious and proud, commissioning a portrait of himself in his finest attire in France and then painting over it on his own, adding his cross of the Order of Saint-Louis after receiving the honor in 1741. His contemporaries called him “hot-headed,” and for good reason: he outraged penny-pinching colonial officials when he attempted to send his designs directly to the Minister of State for the Navy for approval. His most successful projects, like the Notre-Dame façade, show him to be a skilled if ostentatious designer, devoted to projecting the splendor of France and its monarch.
Étienne Verrier
Étienne Verrier was Chaussegros’ rival, but, given the importance of his remit, he did not suffer from the same budgetary constraints. He also spent only half as much time in Canada. Born into a family of sculptors, he married in France in 1709 and died there, at La Rochelle, in 1747, two years after Louisbourg fell to the British and one year before it was returned to France. Verrier joined the engineer corps at La Rochelle in 1707 and served in that port and the nearby naval base of Rochefort almost exclusively, apart from a single voyage to inspect the Vietnamese island of Grande-Condore (Côn Sơn) in 1720. That same year, he was admitted to the Order of Saint-Louis, and in 1724, he set sail for Louisbourg. His wife and daughter lived in New France for only three years, although two of his sons worked with him there as engineers.

At Louisbourg, Verrier began working under Jean-François de Verville but was promoted to chief engineer the next year, serving in the post from 1725 to 1745. Unlike Chaussegros, whose many building projects spanned nearly 1,000 kilometers, Verrier’s work was concentrated in Louisbourg and a handful of maritime garrison towns such as Port-Dauphin and Port-Toulouse (both now in Nova Scotia) and Ile Saint-Jean (now Prince Edward Island). At Louisbourg he built the landward fortifications, city gates, a lighthouse, and the Royal and Island Batteries, and he submitted designs for a parish church and warehouses. His public architecture, including the hospital (1726) and barracks (1739), generally projected a solid monumentality that lacked opulence and grandeur, although he was certainly capable of such designs. He more than matched Chaussegros’ ornate style with the Dauphin Gate (1729), Maurepas Gate (1741), and King’s Bastion Portal (1739), the pediments of which were festooned with royal emblems, trophies of war, and fleurs-de-lys. But Verrier was more concerned with practicalities, like experimental mortars and thick wood planking to protect stone walls against the effects of freezing and thawing. In fact, he was criticized for underestimating costs rather than for submitting exorbitant budgets. He has also been partially blamed for the loss of the Louisbourg, both because his defenses could not withstand the massive Anglo-American assault and because he voted, in 1745, to surrender the town without demolishing it first.


Published in may 2021