SARREBOURCE DE PONTLEROY, NICOLAS, army officer and military engineer; b. 12 June 1717 in Marseilles, France, son of Jacques Sarrebource Pontleroy de Beaulieu and Madeleine Coustan; m. 17 April 1761 Élisabeth Arbalestre de Melun in Sedan, France; d. 6 Aug. 1802 in Château-Thierry, France.
A nobleman, Nicolas Sarrebource de Pontleroy stemmed from a family of the French provinces of Berry and Orléanais. He was admitted to the engineer corps in 1736 and took part in the War of the Austrian Succession from 1744 to 1748, particularly on the Italian front, where he was commended for his ability and courage. Promoted captain in 1745, he was awarded the cross of Saint-Louis eight years later for his services during the war. He was stationed at Perpignan, France, in 1749 and on the Île de Ré five years later.
After 19 years’ experience in Europe, Pontleroy was sent to Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), in 1755 to serve under Louis Franquet*, who had asked for seasoned engineer officers to assist him with the reconstruction of the fortifications. Following a year of observing Pontleroy’s surveying, mapping, and construction, Franquet recommended him enthusiastically for the post of chief engineer in New France, which had been made vacant by the death in March 1756 of Gaspard-Joseph Chaussegros* de Léry. In 1757 the court at Versailles appointed Pontleroy over Michel Chartier* de Lotbinière, the choice of Governor Pierre de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil de Cavagnial; Pontleroy’s longer service, his membership in the prestigious engineer corps, and Franquet’s recommendation were credentials that impressed French officials more than Canadian experience.
Pontleroy left Louisbourg in late September 1757 and arrived at Quebec on 15 October. He soon established himself with Louis-Joseph de Montcalm* and Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, Captain Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, but he immediately encountered the opposition of Vaudreuil and Lotbinière. Pontleroy complained to the minister of Marine, Massiac, of obstructionism by Vaudreuil, adding: “In this country I am marked with the original sin, that is, of being French.” Lotbinière shared the attitude, refusing to accept that France felt it “necessary to send from Europe an engineer to put our [fortified] places in order.” When instructed in December 1757 to build at Pointe-Lévy (Lauzon, Lévis, Que.) a hospital for the treatment of communicable diseases, Pontleroy, according to Montcalm, “believed he ought to follow the rules observed in France” by requesting tenders from all the major entrepreneurs of the town. None would bid, however, “from a spirit of faction which had been encouraged in them.” A conspiracy on the part of the Vaudreuil faction may not have been necessary, however. The stringent regulations laid down for contractors by the engineer corps, regulations that Chaussegros apparently had never applied, were possibly sufficient in themselves to discourage any of the 30 potential bidders at Quebec. A particular deterrent for Canadians may have been the rule forbidding a contractor to become indebted to the crown during the course of a project. On Île Royale strict application of engineer corps regulations had meant that general contracts were awarded exclusively to French builders brought out for the purpose.
In late June 1758 Pontleroy accompanied Montcalm to Fort Carillon (near Ticonderoga, N.Y.) to reconnoitre its surroundings and make it defensible. There he ostentatiously refused to profit personally from the hauling of building materials, and damned by faint praise the practices of Lotbinière, his predecessor at the post. In his campaign diary, Bougainville characterized Pontleroy as a man who “has an honest and upright heart; he is frank in his remarks and true in his conduct. He has a good theory of his profession, and enough of that routine and that experience of war which make a good campaign engineer.” On the recommendations of Montcalm and his senior subordinates, Pontleroy was praised by the French royal court for his performance in strengthening the defences around the fort before the battle of 8 July; the speed at which trenches and abatis were built proved to be an important factor in Montcalm’s victory. Pontleroy was promoted lieutenant-colonel on 20 Oct. 1758.
In spite of Montcalm’s fear that, in the long run, the expected British offensive against Canada in 1759 would succeed, the chief engineer was instructed to make the colony’s fortifications ready for it. Pontleroy directed further construction and repair at Carillon, and then, leaving Jean-Nicolas Desandrouins* to finish the job, moved on to the location of Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ont.). Vaudreuil wanted the fort, which had been destroyed by John Bradstreet* in August 1758, rebuilt as a supply post, but Pontleroy declared the site indefensible. At Quebec, he found the weakest fortification to be that of the Upper Town, “which, in the state it is in today, is not capable of useful defence in case of siege, having neither ditches, nor counterscarps nor covered way, and being dominated by heights behind which there is cover facilitating the approaches.” On 13 Sept. 1759, when Major-General James Wolfe*’s army stood before those walls, this assessment must have influenced Montcalm’s decision not to wait for a siege.
In the last struggle for New France, Pontleroy commanded the engineering detachment, whose strength had been augmented by three officers sent from France. Montcalm noted that during the long bombardment of Quebec in the summer of 1759 “M. de Pontleroy, sensitive to the lot of the unfortunate, opened all the posterns in the fortifications to women and children, but our regret, his and mine, was not to have bread to give to so many destitute.” Between 12 July and 18 September Pontleroy was frequently under fire, and during the battle of the Plains of Abraham he served at Montcalm’s side. He was at the war council held by Vaudreuil following the battle and voted with the majority for a retreat rather than a counter-attack as favoured by the governor; he thus apparently shared the defeatist attitude of the army.
Pontleroy left for Montreal, stopping at Trois-Rivières to strengthen its defences. In January 1760, asked by François de Lévis* whether an attack should be made on the British advanced posts, he replied in the negative, particularly if Canadians were to be used. “One would be morally certain of being defeated,” he asserted. “The Canadian is known to be brave; but he cannot, lacking any discipline, attack in open country; he is not even armed for that, and certainly he will not stand a shock and hold his ground.” Pontleroy planned the siege works for the French attack on Quebec in 1760 and on 28 April took part in the battle of Sainte-Foy. The British having retreated within the walls of Quebec, Lévis charged Pontleroy with the management of the siege of the city. It failed, however, and Vaudreuil did not lose the opportunity to criticize Pontleroy: on 17 May he wrote to Lévis, who had retreated to Montreal, that “numerous letters from the army infinitely blame M. de Pontleroy. They attribute to him much caprice and stubbornness.”
Pontleroy returned to France with Lévis in 1760. He served in the engineer corps for another 25 years, all of them in France except for a brief stint in Malta in 1761 under the command of François-Charles de Bourlamaque*. He was promoted colonel in 1763, and brigadier five years later. Named director of fortifications for Soissonnais and Picardy in 1770 and for Dauphiné and Provence seven years later, Pontleroy was promoted major-general (maréchal de camp) in 1780, five years before his retirement. He died on 18 Thermidor, Year 10 of the revolutionary calendar (6 Aug. 1802).
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Cite This Article
F. J. Thorpe, “SARREBOURCE DE PONTLEROY, NICOLAS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 28, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sarrebource_de_pontleroy_nicolas_5E.html.
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|Author of Article:||F. J. Thorpe|
|Title of Article:||SARREBOURCE DE PONTLEROY, NICOLAS|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1983|
|Year of revision:||1983|
|Access Date:||March 28, 2023|