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The Battle of Signal Hill

This story was initially published in 2010

On September 15, 1762, the Battle of Signal Hill was fought atop Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The British victory paved the way for the recapture of St. John’s from the French, who had held the town all summer. It was the last battle fought in North America during the Seven Years' War.

A view of Signal Hill
© Parks Canada / André Cornelier / 1988
The Seven Years' War lasted from 1756 until 1763. It was caused by a breakdown of alliances forged during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48) and by ongoing rivalries in Europe. On May 7, 1762, forces led by the Chevalier Louis d'Arsac de Ternay left France and sailed for Newfoundland to disrupt the British fisheries. After Ternay easily captured St. John’s on June 27, he decided to hold onto it for the coming winter, surprising even France’s minister responsible for the navy and army, the Duc du Choiseul. Choiseul, who saw the capture as an opportunity to improve France’s bargaining position, ordered reinforcements and supplies to be sent to St. John’s. The ships carrying them, however, were intercepted by the British.

To recapture St. John’s, the British organized a joint army-navy force, led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Amherst and Rear-Admiral Lord Alexander Colvill. On September 13, Amherst’s men landed at Torbay and began their advance on St. John’s. Two days later, they drove the French from Signal Hill into Fort William, at the foot of the hill. With the British now firmly in control of the high ground, they established mortar batteries on Signal Hill and opened fire on Fort William on the night of the 17th. Realizing that their position was hopeless, the French surrendered the next day.

A symbol of Newfoundland: Cabot Tower was built in 1897 at the top of Signal Hill
© Parks Canada / Pam Coristine
With the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, France ceded New France and Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) to Britain, but retained its coastal fishing rights in northern Newfoundland. France also received the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon off Newfoundland's south coast as a shelter for its Grand Banks fishing fleet. In the 1770s, the British built Fort Townshend west of Fort William, out of range of any cannons that could be placed on Signal Hill. Then, in the 1790s, they fortified Signal Hill itself. It would remain the most important military position in St. John's until the British garrison withdrew in 1870.

This year is the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Signal Hill. The Battle of Signal Hill was designated a National Historic Event in 1959. Signal Hill and Fort Townshend were designated National Historic Sites in 1951, as was Fort William in 1952.

For more stories about the Seven Years War, read British Land at Louisbourg, The British Capture Fort Frontenac, and The Capitulation of New France in the This Week in History archives. For more information on Signal Hill, visit Signal Hill National Historic Site of Canada on the Parks Canada website.

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