Military engineers in New France
The ingénieurs du Roi and the maréchal de Vauban. Royal Engineers. Gaspard Chaussegros de Léry. Étienne Verrier.
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.
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).
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