BOSTON -- In 1745, a horde of New Englanders, among them a number from Harvard College, laid siege to a fort in Nova Scotia with noble visions of vanquishing the French and ignoble visions of plundering the joint.
But pickings at the ill-supplied Louisbourg Fortress were so scant that Harvard's only war trophy of record was a crude, wrought-iron cross. For most of this century, the Canadians have tried to get the cross back, while Harvard resisted -- until Wednesday.
On the 250th anniversary of the raid and the opening at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Massachusetts of an exhibit on the little-known siege of Louisbourg, Harvard finally gave the cross back -- sort of.
"It's a permanent loan. We must stress it's a permanent loan, not a gift," Harley Holden, the curator of Harvard University Archives, whispered.
No one at Harvard -- nor in Canada, for that matter -- considered the 34-by-22-inch Louisbourg cross sacred. In fact, while the cross was in Harvard's possession, it was misplaced, charred in a fire, stolen from above a doorway, returned, then buried in a vault. "Venerated, abused, secreted, abused, secreted . . . . What a life," an observer opined recently in Harvard Magazine.
The cross was, however, one of the few cultural artifacts known to exist from the Louisbourg Fortress, which the Canadians painstakingly have rebuilt as a tourist attraction on Cape Breton.
"It means a lot to us," explained Sandy Balcom, a Louisbourg historian from Nova Scotia. "It was quite a deal to get it out of Harvard." From Harvard's point of view, however, it was quite a deal to get the cross in the first place.
In the mid-18th century, Louisbourg was a French colonial capital, a major fishing port, and harbor to French privateers preying on British shipping to and from the American colonies.
Gov. William Shirley in Boston raised a force of 4,000 volunteers who spent 48 days in the spring of 1745 lobbing 9,000 cannonballs and 6,000 bombs at the French. Historians noted that the fort was so badly built that its walls also came down from the vibrations of its own cannon fire.
The spoils of victory were few. In all likelihood, the cross came home with the expedition's irascible senior chaplain, Parson Samuel Moody (Harvard, 1697), a man with little tolerance for French Catholics.