The Miraculous Defeat of the French Fleet, 1746

In Response to a Day of Prayer and Fasting

By Stephen McDowell

 

God has providentially moved throughout history to accomplish His purposes for men and nations. While “He does according to His will in the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth” (Dan. 4:35), He responds to the prayers of His people. The founders of America believed strongly in the providence of God and in the need to cry out to Him in prayer to seek His will and aid. During the first 200 years of our history, government bodies (local, state, and national) proclaimed over 1300 Fast and Thanksgiving Days.(1) They witnessed God’s answer to these official days of prayer myriads of times, often in dramatic fashion where God used all kinds of events, including the weather, to move on their behalf. One such miraculous answer to prayer occurred in 1746.

In response to French attacks on Britain and her American colonies, New England and British forces captured Louisburg in Nova Scotia, June 17, 1745.(2) As a result of this, France resolved to raise “a fleet and armament to recover that place, to make a conquest of Novascotia, and to lay waste the whole seacoast from Novascotia to Georgia.”(3) The fleet and forces they raised were very significant, comprised of about 70 ships — large and small gunners, fire ships, bombers, transports — in all carrying about 8000 troops.

This force, under the command of Duke d’Anville, was to have sailed the beginning of May, 1746, but “the hand of that providence, which commands the winds and the seas,” sent contrary winds to delay their departure until June 22. They were supposed to meet four ships in the West Indies, who, after waiting so long without finding the fleet and being “severly combated by storms and fogs,” grew discouraged and returned to France.(4)

When the Americans heard of the sailing of the French fleet under d’Anville they were greatly alarmed. Their fears were assuaged somewhat when they also got word a British fleet was being sent for their relief. But this proved abortive, as the fleet attempted to sail from England seven times, but was driven back each time by contrary winds.

After finally departing, the French fleet sailed too far southward, which slowed their travel and caused them to encounter the extreme heat of summer. This brought on a great sickness which killed 1300 troops at sea. The rest were weakened and dispirited. But they continued on  to attempt to accomplish their mission.

When news arrived in America that the French fleet was approaching the coast, it brought great distress upon the people, for in the natural there looked to be no hope to avoid defeat. But the people cried out to God and their Christian faith provided extraordinary support to them. In a Thanksgiving Sermon from November 29, 1798, Rev. Jonathan French, declared: “A God hearing prayer, stretched forth the arm of His power, and destroyed that mighty Armament, in a manner almost as extraordinary as the drowning of Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea.”(5)

Fast Day Proclamation, October 16, 1746

New Englanders began to prepare for a potential invasion by the French. They prepared in the natural by assembling troops for their defense, but they also prepared spiritually by declaring a Fast Day for October 16. Such days had been a part of the heritage of the New England Christians. They knew God answered prayer, and looked to His providential care at this time of imminent danger. With the greatness of the approaching armada, and the small numbers of those able to resist, His aid was the only real chance for their success.(6)

Historian Catherine Drinker Bowen relates events of that day:

The Governor [of Massachusetts, Shirley] had proclaimed a Fast Day to pray for deliverance from this present peril. Everywhere men observed it, thronging to the churches.

In Boston the Reverend Thomas Prince, from the high pulpit of the Old South Meeting-house, prayed before hundreds. The morning was clear and calm, people had walked to church through sunshine. “Deliver us from our enemy!” the minister implored. “Send Thy tempest, Lord, upon the waters to the eastward! Raise Thy right hand. Scatter the ships of our tormentors and drive them hence. Sink their proud frigates beneath the power of Thy winds!”

He had scarcely pronounced the words when the sun was gone and the morning darkened. All the church was in shadow. A wind shrieked round the walls, sudden, violent, hammering at the windows with a giant hand. No man was in the steeple — afterward the sexton swore it — yet the great bell struck twice, a wild, uneven sound. Thomas Prince paused in his prayer, both arms raised. “We hear Thy voice, O Lord!” he thundered triumphantly. “We hear it! Thy breath is upon the waters to the eastward, even upon the deep. Thy bell tolls for the death of our enemies!” He bowed his head; when he looked up, tears streamed down his face. “Thine be the glory, Lord. Amen and amen!”

Amen and amen! said Massachusetts, her hope renewed. All the Province heard of this prayer and this answering tempest. Governor Shirley sent a sloop, the Rising Sun, northward for news. The Rising Sun found the French fleet south of Chebucto [now Halifax Harbor] and got chased for her pains. But she brought news so good it was miraculous — if one could believe it. . . . Two of the largest French frigates had sunk in a storm, they said, on the Isle of Sable. The whole fleet was nearly lost, the men very sick with scurvy or some pestilential fever. Their great admiral, the Duc d’Anville, was dead.

A week later the news was confirmed by other vessels entering Boston from the northeastward. D’Anville was indeed dead; it was said he had poisoned himself in grief and despair when he saw his men dying round him. Two thousand were already buried, four thousand were sick, and not above a thousand of the land forces remained on their feet. Vice-Admiral d’Estournelle had run himself through the heart with his sword.(7)

Yet on the 16th, the remaining forces pressed forward on their voyage with plans to lay waste to New England. Rev. French writes:

On this great emergency, and day of darkness and doubtful expectation, the 16th of October was observed as a day of Fasting and Prayer throughout the Province. And, wonderful to relate, that very night God sent upon them a more dreadful storm than either of the former, and completed their destruction. Some overset, some foundered, and a remnant only of this miserable fleet, returned to France to carry the news. Thus New England stood still, and saw the salvation of God.(8)

Bowen declares:

Pestilence, storm and sudden death — how directly and with what extraordinary vigor the Lord had answered New England prayers!

The country fell on its knees. Pharaoh’s hosts overwhelmed in the Red Sea were no greater miracle. A paper with d’Anville’s orders had been found, instructing him to take Cape Breton Island, then proceed to Boston — “lay that Town in Ashes and destroy all he could upon the Coast of North America; then proceed to the West Indies and distress the Islands.”

Storm and pestilence — why, it was like the destruction of the Spanish Armada! Governor Shirley said so, to the Massachusetts Legislature assembled. Never had there been so direct an interference of Providence. “Afflavit Deus,” said Shirley, “et dissipantur — The Lord caused the wind to blow and they were scattered.” A day of Thanksgiving and prayer was proclaimed. From every pulpit the good news rang. Hip and thigh, the Lord had smitten the Philistines. There was no end to the joyful quotation: If God be for us, who can be against us?(9)

The Thanksgiving Day was observed on November 27, 1746. Thomas Prince was one of the many pastors who preached a sermon on that day. Later printed, this sermon, entitled “The Salvations of God in 1746,” recounts the defeat of the French Fleet. Prince makes much of the remarkable coincidence that it was on the day of their fast that God

put a total end to their mischievous enterprise. . . . Thus when on our solemn Day of General Prayer we expressly cried to the Lord, “Let God arise, let his enemies be scattered, . . .” then his own Arm brought Salvation to us and his Fury upheld him. He trode down our Enemies in his Anger, he made them drunk in his Fury, and he brought down their Strength to the Earth. Terrors took hold on them as Waters: A Tempest bore them away in the Night: The East Wind carried them away, and they departed; and with a Storm he hurled them out of their Place.(10)

We have need of the same mighty God moving on our behalf today. But for this to occur, we  have need of the faith and heart of these early Americans. Their example shows us, in the words of President Ronald Reagan in a National Day of Prayer Proclamation, May 6, 1982, “that it is not enough to depend on our own courage and goodness; we must also seek help from God, our Father and Preserver.”

End Notes

  1. See W. DeLoss Love, Jr., The Fast and Thanksgiving Days of New England, New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1895.
  2. The capture of Louisburg was seen as a miraculous and providential event by the troops: they said, “God has gone out of the way of his common providence in a remarkable and almost miraculous manner, to incline the hearts of the French to give up, and deliver this strong city into our hands.”(George Bancroft, History of the United States, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1874, vol. III, p. 463.)
  3. Rev. Jonathan French, “Thanksgiving Sermon, November 29, 1798,” in The Christian History of the American Revolution, Consider and Ponder, Verna M. Hall, compiler, San Francisco: Foundation for American Christian Education, 1976, pp. 50-51.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. See Love, pp. 305-306.
  7. Catherine Drinker Bowen, John Adams and the American Revolution, Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1951, pp. 10-11.
  8. French in The Christian History of the American Revolution, Consider and Ponder, p. 51.
  9. Bowen.
  10. Thomas Prince, “The Salvations of God in 1746,” in Love, 305-306. See also p. 532 for complete sermon title and various printings.