LE COURTOIS DE SURLAVILLE (Le Courtois de Blais de Surlaville), MICHEL (he sometimes signed Achille-Michel-Balthasar), army officer; baptized 17 July 1714 at Bayeux, France, son of Thomas Le Courtois and Charlotte Le Blais; d. unmarried 8 Jan. 1796 in Paris.
Michel Le Courtois de Surlaville’s service in North America was a brief interlude in a long and illustrious military career. The son of a lawyer, he entered the army in 1734 as a second lieutenant in the Régiment de Foix. After serving in Italy and Germany, he purchased the adjutancy of the Régiment de La Couronne for 2,000 écus in 1742. The following year he participated in several sieges in Bohemia and Bavaria, where he was wounded, and he again saw active service in Flanders in 1744. He obtained a captain’s commission in 1745, and the same year he fought at the battle of Fontenoy (Belgium), where his valiant conduct in leading the La Couronne brigade after all the other officers had been killed or wounded won him the cross of Saint-Louis. At the siege of Tournai (Belgium) in 1746 he led a sortie from the fortress; at Brussels, shortly afterwards, he was wounded a second time. Named major of a militia brigade in 1747, he was placed in command of the town of Tubize (Belgium) by the Maréchal de Saxe. He joined the newly formed regiment the Grenadiers de France in 1749 as an adjutant.
At some point in his career, probably during his service in Bavaria, Surlaville had encountered Jean-Louis de Raymond, who in 1751 was appointed governor of Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). Raymond wanted to take Surlaville with him as his aide-de-camp, but the ministry of Marine, fearing that other colonial governors would also want such military aides, made him instead troop major of Louisbourg on 1 April 1751, simultaneously appointing him colonel of infantry, a rank Surlaville had asked for when he had accepted Raymond’s proposal. The arrangement was unusual, since the duties of town and troop major were usually performed by one person, at this time Michel de Gannes* de Falaise. The minister of Marine, Rouillé, decided that an army officer could improve the state of the garrison, however, and with Surlaville’s appointment de Gannes’s duties were limited to the regulation of affairs in the town.
The Louisbourg garrison which Surlaville was to command was a rowdy crew of ill-disciplined exiles, culled from France and surrounding countries. Two factors served to lower the quality of the troops. Unlike men in the army, the colonial regulars and other Marine troops were recruited throughout France, and they lacked the tradition of service with any one regiment. Moreover, colonial troops were frequently selected from a pool, and Marine officials did not have the same concern for quality that an officer recruiting for his own regiment would. Since most enlistments were open-ended, the men felt condemned to exile for life. Desertion was a major problem. A royal amnesty of 1750 attempted to curb the high rate within the colony, but it had little effect. Worse still, there had been a revolt among the troops at Louisbourg in 1744 [see Louis Du Pont Duchambon], and a mutiny in 1750 among a detachment at Port-Toulouse (near St Peters, N.S.) had resulted in the execution of nine soldiers.
Surlaville set about vigorously to reform this state of affairs. Soldiers were ordered to have their hair cut, uniforms and equipment were required to pass inspection under penalty, the garrison was drilled regularly, and the movements of soldiers were circumscribed. Discipline was strict but justice fair. Surlaville’s excellent records show that corporals and sergeants who abused their soldiers were sentenced in the same manner as the men. As a result of these reforms the desertion rate fell, and Louisbourg’s garrison was better regulated than it had ever been before.
An officer who possessed a critical intelligence and a literary ability far beyond most of his contemporaries, Surlaville quickly gained an understanding of the colony’s history, strategic value, commerce, and administration. He criticized numerous acts of the ministry of Marine, including the uniforms and supplies sent annually from France for the troops, and he investigated the illicit practices of Jacques Prevost de La Croix, the financial commissary. Shortly after his arrival in the colony, Raymond dispatched Surlaville to Halifax as his official representative, and the major returned to Louisbourg with a report on the newly established British settlement. Together with Thomas Pichon, he assessed the strategic weakness of the French position in Acadia and made recommendations to improve it. Surlaville also kept a journal during his two years on Île Royale in which he recorded events and heaped scorn on Raymond, whom he had come to detest. In addition, he copied and annotated some of the governor’s correspondence in a petulantly sarcastic manner to reveal how preposterous Raymond’s conduct had been. Thus when Raymond asked the minister of Marine to remember him to the king, Surlaville commented: “his imagination has actually convinced him that he is an important person who merits some of the king’s attention. . . . What folly!”
Surlaville’s posting to Louisbourg has been called the most important military appointment made there during its last decade. Yet most of his reforms were abandoned after he returned to France with Raymond in the fall of 1753, apparently because of poor health. The duties of town and troop major were reunited and once again given to a colonial officer, Robert Tarride* Duhaget. Surlaville was accorded a pension of 800 livres from the ministry of Marine for his efforts but found himself passed over for promotion in the Grenadiers de France because of his absence, and so in March 1754 he exchanged his adjutancy for a retired colonel’s brevet in the Régiment de La Couronne. In March 1757 he was appointed assistant chief of staff of infantry in the Army of the Lower Rhine, and two years later assistant chief of the army staff. Until the fall of Louisbourg in 1758 he continued to correspond with fellow officers in Acadia. These letters, his journal, and other writings have been preserved, and together they provide an intimate portrait of French activity in the region during the 1750s.
Promoted brigadier in 1761, Surlaville again served as assistant chief of staff with the French army in Germany, and in 1762 he became major-general. During this period he appears to have been in considerable financial difficulty, the causes of which are unknown. In 1759 he stated that he was about 16,000 livres in debt. Several pensions and gratuities appear to have wiped out the debt by 1763, one pension being of 12,000 livres. Little is known of his later life apart from his service in Picardy and Boulonnais from 1763 to 1771 and his promotion to lieutenant-general in 1781.
AD, Calvados (Cæn), État civil, Saint-Sauveur de Bayeux, 1714; F, 1894 (fonds Surlaville). AMA, SHA, Mémoires historiques et reconnaissances militaires, art.1105, pièce 1; Y2d, 1170 (dossier Surlaville). AN, Marine, C7, 314 (dossier Surlaville). ASQ, Polygraphie, LV, esp. 41; LVI-LVIII (Surlaville papers; copies in PAC, MG 18, F30). Les derniers jours de l’Acadie (Du Boscq de Beaumont). Crowley, “Government and interests,” 103–89. McLennan, Louisbourg, 191, 193, 329. Stanley, New France. J. C. Webster, Thomas Pichon, “the spy of Beausejour,” an account of his career in Europe and America . . . ([Sackville, N.B.], 1937).