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During the Battle of Plattsburg on Lake Champlain, a newly built U.S. fleet under Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough destroys a British squadron, forcing the British to abandon their siege of the U.S. fort at Plattsburg and retreat to Canada on foot. The American victory saved New York from possible invasion and helped lead to the conclusion of peace negotiations between Britain and the United States in Ghent, Belgium.
The War of 1812 began on June 18, 1812, when the United States declared war on Britain. The war declaration, opposed by a sizable minority in Congress, had been called in response to the British economic blockade of France, the induction of American seamen into the British Royal Navy against their will, and the British support of hostile Indian tribes along the Great Lakes frontier. A faction of Congress known as the “War Hawks” had been advocating war with Britain for several years and had not hidden their hopes that a U.S. invasion of Canada might result in significant territorial gains for the United States.
In the months after President James Madison proclaimed the state of war to be in effect, American forces launched a three-point invasion of Canada, all of which were decisively unsuccessful. In 1814, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s French empire collapsing, the British were able to allocate more military resources to the American war, and Washington, D.C., fell to the British in August. In Washington, British troops burned the White House, the Capitol, and other buildings in retaliation for the earlier burning of government buildings in Canada by U.S. soldiers.
In September 1814, the tide of the war turned when Thomas Macdonough’s American naval force won a decisive victory at the Battle of Plattsburg, New York. The American victory on Lake Champlain led to the conclusion of U.S.-British peace negotiations in Belgium, and on December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, formally ending the War of 1812. By the terms of the agreement, all conquered territory was to be returned, and a commission would be established to settle the boundary of the United States and Canada.
British forces assailing the Gulf Coast were not informed of the treaty in time, and on January 8, 1815, the U.S. forces under Andrew Jackson achieved the greatest American victory of the war at the Battle of New Orleans. The American public heard of Jackson’s victory and the Treaty of Ghent at approximately the same time, fostering a greater sentiment of self-confidence and shared identity throughout the young republic.
READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About the War of 1812
Why Isn’t Lake Champlain ‘Great’?
The view from Vermont’s Mount Philo with Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains in the distance. Courtesy of Shutterstock .
by Mike Winslow | October 2, 2018
“The term ‘Great Lakes’ includes Lake Champlain.”
These seven words, quietly slipped into an appropriations bill by Vermont’s U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy in 1998, briefly elevated the national status of a picturesque but little-known body of water that nestles between New York and Vermont. A short-lived, but surprisingly fierce, regional dispute ensued about the essential question: What makes a lake great?
Lake Champlain provides one way to answer that question.
The lake forms part of the border between Vermont and New York, and extends northward into Quebec. It stretches for over 100 miles north to south, but with a maximum width of only 12 miles. The lake and environs played a key role in the American Revolution, and today it drives a good deal of the local economy, drawing tourists and businesses to this remote rural region.
So it’s no wonder that locals consider it a great lake—but is it a Great Lake?
It’s complicated. Champlain does share some features with the five Great Lakes—Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior. Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes are within the Laurentian Mixed Forest Ecoregion, meaning that the climate, topography, forest type, and soil type are similar.
And like the Great Lakes, Champlain is partially a relic of the last Ice Age. The great ice sheets that covered much of North America 18,000 years ago carved out the depressions that would become these lakes. As the glaciers retreated, meltwater to their south filled the basins, while the ice prevented a northward flow to the ocean. At one point the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain discharged to the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River. The retreat of the ice sheets uncovered today’s shared northern outflow via the St. Lawrence River, which divides northern New York state from southern Canada.
But by almost all geographic measures, the idea of Champlain as a Great Lake is ludicrous. Champlain is about half the length of the shortest of the Great Lakes. One would need to row across Lake Champlain and back twice to equal the distance it would take to cross Lake Ontario, the narrowest of the Great Lakes.
By surface area, almost 17 Champlains would fit into Ontario, the smallest of the Great Lakes. By water volume, almost 19 Champlains would fit into the second-smallest of the Great Lakes, Lake Erie, which contains less water than Ontario. There are bays on the Great Lakes that are larger than Lake Champlain: Georgian Bay on Lake Huron, and Green Bay on Lake Michigan. Only in depth can Lake Champlain at least stake a claim of being a Great Lakes peer. Lake Champlain is deeper than Lake Erie, though Lake Superior, the deepest of the Great Lakes, is more than three times deeper.
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Champlain offers a mix of open water, secluded bays, steep cliffs, and teeming marshes. The Adirondack High Peaks, New York’s tallest mountains, loom over the western shore, while the Green Mountains of Vermont mark the eastern horizon. Much of the shoreline is still undeveloped with cedar trees leaning out from limestone bluffs. Natural sand beaches develop near the mouths of the Winooski, Ausable, Saranac, and Lamoille Rivers. More than 70 islands dot the lake. Fossils from the earliest known reefs lie exposed on the surficial bedrock of the larger islands. Burlington, Vermont’s largest city, sweeps upward from the eastern shore overlooking the widest expanse of water. From Burlington, a paved bike path hugs the water, culminating in a magnificent three-mile stretch over an abandoned railroad causeway crossing the lake.
Supporters of raising Lake Champlain’s stature point to its commonalities with the Great Lakes—and its special place in early American history. In 1609, the Frenchman Samuel de Champlain became the first European to set eyes on the lake. Over the next 150 years, the lake provided a water corridor between Quebec City and New York, thus serving as a central trading route between the French to the north and the Dutch and later English to the south.
The rights to control the waterbody were often contested between the European and colonial powers. Fort Ticonderoga, an 18th-century star-shaped structure overlooking a narrow point near the southern end of the lake, epitomizes the conflicts.
Within a period of 18 years, control of the fort vacillated five times between three different countries: France, England (twice), and the United States (twice). In 1775, in one of the Revolutionary War’s first engagements, the Vermont militia—the so-called Green Mountain Boys—took control of the fort without firing a shot.
Following this capture, the Americans anticipated a British counterattack. Benedict Arnold, at this point still loyal to the rebelling colonists, had commandeered a trading schooner owned by a British loyalist in what is now Whitehall, New York, making Whitehall the self-proclaimed birthplace of the American Navy. This boat, along with another captured by Arnold’s troops, was soon joined by 13 more ships built at Ticonderoga during the summer of 1776.
When the British fleet arrived at the north end of the lake, it set out to find the Americans, and eventually encountered Arnold’s armada hidden between Valcour Island and the shore. A fierce battle ensued, with the Americans vastly out-gunned. At the end of the first day, it was clear that the American fleet would not withstand the onslaught.
But Arnold ordered the boats to be rowed past the British fleet with muffled oars under cover of darkness. To his great chagrin, British General Guy Carleton awoke the next morning to find his enemy had escaped. He gave chase through the early morning fog, at one point firing upon what he thought was a disabled colonial ship.
As the fog cleared, however, he learned that he had been firing upon a small, rocky island, which to this day bears the name Carleton’s Prize. Meanwhile, Arnold escaped to the south, eventually scuttling his remaining ships on the eastern side of the lake in what is now called Arnold’s Bay. Though Arnold lost the fight, the British fleet was sufficiently damaged for them to return to Montreal for the winter and give the colonies an extra winter to prepare and court allies.
The lesser-known Battle of Plattsburgh occurred on the lake in 1814 and was a simultaneous land-and-sea conflict. Anticipating an attack, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough constructed three gunboats, adding to the one they already had. The American and British fleets met in Plattsburgh Bay in September, with Macdonough’s fleet victorious. Without naval support, the British soon retreated from the land battle as well. The American victory forestalled British claims to Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes in the peace negotiations which ended the War of 1812 in December 1814.
Almost two centuries later, Lake Champlain was at the center of a less violent, but still passionate, battle. The 1998 legislative brouhaha about whether to classify it as one of the Great Lakes wasn’t about dimensions or ecosystems or relative historical importance.
It was about research money.
Since 1966, all states and territories of the United States with a border on an ocean or one of the Great Lakes have been eligible to host a Sea Grant program, a program within the U.S. Department of Commerce that provides federal funding for research and outreach about coastal and aquatic resources. By declaring Lake Champlain to be a Great Lake, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont saw an opportunity to make his land-locked state eligible to host a Sea Grant office. The minor edit to the appropriations bill escaped notice and the bill passed on a voice vote. President Bill Clinton signed it on March 7, 1998.
Once the inclusion became publicly known, Midwesterners were not pleased. “Lake Champlain is about as big as your little finger. It doesn’t stack up with the other lakes,” said a Michigan representative. An Ohio representative scoffed, “If Lake Champlain ends up as a Great Lake, I propose we rename it ‘Lake Plain Sham’.” The Green Bay Press in Wisconsin labelled Senator Leahy the Fourth Stooge for adding a sixth Great Lake.
The outrage centered on state pride associated with being home to a Great Lake, not with money or resources—the original motivation for the change. Therefore, politicians quickly found a resolution that left everyone happy. The offensive phrase calling Lake Champlain a Great Lake was struck, but Vermont’s eligibility for a Sea Grant office remained. Lake Champlain lost its status but retained its funding.
The addition of Lake Champlain to Sea Grant has strengthened the program overall. Lake Champlain serves as a microcosm of the Great Lakes for researchers. Experiments have been conducted to identify impediments to lake trout reproduction, enhance management of parasitic sea lamprey, and detect sources of microplastics, which contaminate the environment and accumulate in the bodies of fish and other animals. These same challenges face the Great Lakes, but research can often be conducted more efficiently on the smaller Champlain.
Champlain has lost the title of Great Lake. It has not lost its place in the history of the founding of our nation. It has not lost its utility as a laboratory for cutting-edge research. And it has not lost the affection of those who live or visit the region. The lake may not be a Great Lake, but it will ever be great.
Lake Champlain History
Bordered by the states of New York and Vermont and the Canadian province of Quebec, Lake Champlain is the eighth largest naturally occurring body of fresh water in the United States. The strategic waterway of Lake Champlain served a critical role in the founding and development of the American nation.
The lake was a corridor along which Native, French, English and American forces vied for control and defined territorial and political boundaries. Linked by canals to the south, west and north, the waterway became a shipping lane, transporting natural resources, farm products, and people, and speeding communication as the nation expanded. The lake and its tributaries offer a fascinating array of ecosystems that provide habitats for wildlife, diverse resources for people, as well as places to explore and a laboratory for understanding and addressing today’s ecological challenges.
Events on Lake Champlain reflect not only changes in transportation, land use and industry, but also political reform, the evolution of social justice and the stewardship of natural and cultural resources. At the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, the region’s maritime history, archaeology and ecology inspire learning opportunities and new insights connecting our past, present and future.
Victory On Lake Champlain
On April 11, 1814, the British army under Wellington fought the last battle of the Peninsular War at Toulouse. Less than a hundred days later—on July 12—the Governor General of Canada reported that the first brigade of this army had readied Montreal, ready to undertake offensive operations against the United States.
On April 11, 1814, the British army under Wellington fought the last battle of the Peninsular War at Toulouse. Less than a hundred days later—on July 12—the Governor General of Canada reported that the first brigade of this army had readied Montreal, ready to undertake offensive operations against the United States. The rapidity of the transfer demonstrated not merely the flexibility of sea power and the remarkable lechnical ability of the British Admiralty, but also the stoical endurance of the British soldiers, many of whom had been fighting for six years in the Peninsula and who had now been shipped directly from France to Canada without even a glimpse of their native land. The Allied governments who overthrew Hitler in 1945 did not even contemplate in closely similar circumstances an equally rapid transference of force against Japan.
The British government, as well as the British people, was in a dangerous mood. England seethed with resentment against the United States. From the British point of view America was that hypocritical country which, while preaching liberty and democracy, had stabbed England in the back at the moment when she was fighting for her life against the undisguised tyranny and limitless oppression of the Napoleonic Empire. England was the nation which had acted with studied moderation toward her newly emancipated daughter country. England had had, of course, to insist on enforcement of the rules of blockade and of visit and search she had had to continue to reclaim deserters, for these were matters on which (so she believed) depended her national existence. But in every other way she had been most considerate under the threat of war she had rescinded the Orders in Council, and yet America had persisted in fighting. England believed America to be a deliberate and dangerous mischief-maker she believed that America hoped to snatch iniquitous fruits—perhaps to annex Canada—in England’s hour of peril. Now that hour had passed and another hour had struck, and America would receive the treatment she deserved.
And also—although this was not stressed—England now had her chance to salve her wounded vanity. The Guerrière and the Macedonian , the Java and the Peacock —even the capture of the Chesapeake had not compensated for the stunning loss of those ships in the opening months of the war. The contemporary letters of British statesmen, generals, and admirals all sound notes of righteous indignation while welcoming this opportunity to teach the Yankee never again to bring ridicule upon the majesty of the British Empire. A series of smashing blows would leave the United States prostrate, humiliated, and even, possibly, split into fragments. Already British statesmen, debating among themselves, were putting forward suggestions that the terms of a future peace should leave the British dominant on the Great Lakes, should guarantee some sort of independent Indian state, and should strengthen the Canadian control over the St. Lawrence estuary by the cession to Canada of some or all of the state of Maine incidentally the possibility of the secession from the Union of the New England states was looked upon with distinct favor. The accumulation of British forces at Montreal was the first step toward achieving these results.
The blow was to be an overpowering one. Fifteen thousand British regulars were to make the advance along the obvious route from Montreal to the Hudson they were men with six years’ experience of desperate yet victorious fighting against the best of Napoleon’s armies—they were the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe, and they were to march against one of the most vulnerable as well as one of the most important strategic points in the Union. Albany was a vital crossroads: north was the route from Montreal west, the Mohawk route via Oneida to Ontario and eastward, the route to Springfield and Boston. Mr. Madison’s government could hardly hope to put into the field against the advancing British army an opposing force half as numerous or of anything like the quality, and moreover the British were planning innumerable distractions lor the already distracted government. There was the stringent blockade of the American seaboard and the interminable naval competition on Lake Ontario and the frequent heavy land fighting on its shores. At the same time that the transports were landing the British brigades at Montreal, a British amphibious expedition was moving against Bangor, Maine another dominated Long Island Sound another was accumulating in the Chesapeake to threaten Washington and Baltimore and British army officers were landing at the mouth of the Apalachicola to open negotiations with the Creeks and the Choctaws. When the main advance was to be supported by so many other wounding blows, it could hardly be doubted that the collapse or even the disintegration of the Union was near at hand.
But even the best plan of campaign is useless with a fool in command. Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, was a fussy incompetent. For two years he had ignored the importance of the route via Lake Champlain, concentrating his efforts instead on Lakes Ontario and Erie, strfking at the branches instead of at the trunk, and ineffectually. He was a man of no foresight he was surprised by the rapidity of the fall of the French Empire, by the suggestion of the advance upon Albany, by the arrival of the troops to carry it out. He was a timid man, too no one can doubt that he was oppressed by the knowledge of what had happened to Burgoyne and his army during the last advance upon Albany, just as it seems likely that the Americans were deterred from offensive action on the St. Lawrence by the memory of the disasters which had overtaken Benedict Arnold and Montgomery. Between timidity and lack of foresight, the best two months of the campaigning season were entirely wasted.
The advance of any considerable force upon Albany from Montreal depended upon the use of Lake Chainplain lor the carriage of supplies, and even of artillery, if the wooden gun-carriages were not to rack themselves to pieces on the rocky trails through the forests, By Wellington’s most economical standard, a thousand men, marching unopposed over easy country, needed one ton of stores every day. Fighting their way over difficult country, using up ammunition and boots and clothing, with wounded demanding attention, the troops would easily treble their needs. Thus, fifteen thousand British soldiers, probing through serious opposition along the shores of Lake Champlain, would need forty-five tons of stores to reach them at the front every day this was quite impossible by ox wagons even a few marches from their base. Water carriage was immeasurably easier, but water carriage demanded naval command of the lake so, for that matter, did land carriage—without command of the lake the attenuated line of communications along the New York side would be constantly interrtipted by attacks launched from Vermont.
Naval command was absolutely essential, and this the British had enjoyed since the middle of 1813. At that time two American gunboats, pursuing some small British craft from Plattsburg up the Narrows toward the British naval base of Isle aux Noix, met with the fate that frequently overtook sailing craft in confined waters having entered with a following wind, they were unable to beat out again and were overwhelmed by fire from the shores (the tourist can identify the spot easily enough just at the Canadian border). The transfer of these two vessels to the British flag gave the British a preponderance of force: the loss of their trained crews was a serious matter for the Americans.
The British naval authorities on the lake made prompt use of their superiority. They brought up from Quebec the crew of a British sloop of war to man their newly acquired vessels and swept the lake with their tiny but dominant navy. In the next two months they raided Plattsburg they went up the Vermont side of Grand Isle to raid S wan ion they threatened Burlington, to the fury of Thomas Macdonough, the senior American naval officer on the lake. Then Prevost lapsed vinto unexplainable torpor the seamen from the oceangoing navy were returned to their ship, and naval construction on Champlain proceeded only very slowly, while Macdonough, despite his numerical inferiority, was able to exercise his little fleet in repeated cruises on the lake.
In addition, he was building as rapidly as he could—as rapidly as the limited resources of his district and the small assistance granted by the Washington government would permit. First he had to establish for himself a solid base, which he sited at Otter Creek, beside the present yacht anchorage of Basin Harbor. Here he coiud build in enclosed waters where batteries at the entrance could prevent interference by the British navy. To establish batteries he had Io have guns, and an eighteen-pounder was a lump of iron weighing more than two tons which somehow had to be dragged to the site over the portages from the Hudson. Fifty rounds of powder and shot for each gun weighed another half ton. Cannon, powder, and shot were materials of war that he could not make for himself, and it was a convenience that the new-fangled steamboat service up the Hudson meant fairly rapid delivery as far as Albany. The main-topsail alone of his proposed Saratoga called for four hundred square yards of heavy canvas, to be cut and hand-sewn on the spot, and there were anchors and cables and cordage that he had to obtain from distant points. Nearly everything else he won from the countryside. There was timber—green timber—all around him. Nails and bolts and fastenings were made for him by local smiths from local outcrops of iron smelted with local charcoal, while local sawyers sawed his planking in local saw pits. It was a remarkable feat, calling for the most careful organization through all the bitter winter weather. The result was that his twenty-six-gun Saratoga was launched in April of 1814 and was completed before the end of May. It was during that interval, with the opening of navigation, that the British came up the lake and found to their consternation that Macdonough’s shore batteries kept them at arm’s length while the nearly finished ship they could perceive through their telescopes (and which their spies could tell them about) far outmatched their own newly constructed Linnet .
It was a decisive moment. The British had temporary command of the lake but insufficient troops on the spot. A strong landing force could have destroyed everything at Otter Greek so that the British command of the lake would have remained unchallenged for at least the rest of the year, but there was no landing force with the fleet. Doubtless there could have been one, at this, the vital point, but to have provided it would have called both lor prevision and resolution on the part of Prevost, and he was conspicuously lacking in both these qualities. If he had started in February scraping together every available man, denuding if necessary the other fronts, the blow could have been struck, but as it was the opportunity was gone forever. It had lasted for ten precious days, from May 10, 1814. By May 20, the Saratoga was ready to fight, and the British had to take shelter at Isle aux Noix and set about building a still bigger ship that would outmatch her meanwhile Macdonough began the construction of a twenty-gun ship, the Eagle , and by good kick or good judgment—or by both combined, as so often happens in history—the design he selected was such that she was completed ten invaluable days before her British rival, the Confiance .
Thus, at the very moment that the British army was arriving in Montreal, Prevost discovered that he could not make his decisive advance. He first had to recover command of Lake Champlain he had to pay for the wasted winter. He had neglected to provide a landing force, and he had neglected to build the navy which would have preserved his freedom of action. If instead of his Linnet he had built a Confiance , or, better still, two Confiances , Macdonough could never have emerged from Otter Creek and Prevost’s advance could have started in July. He had forgotten the experience of the past year, when a complete ship’s company was brought up from a ship of war in the St. Lawrence more excusably, he had forgotten the experience of 1776, when a ship brought up in sections and launched as H.M.S. Inflexible had won the battle of Valcour Island over Benedict Arnold’s extempori/ed navy. For the present campaign the men and materials could have been found during 1814 the British completed a threedecker of one hundred guns on Lake Ontario, where naval superiority was not vital as it was on Champlain.
But now the mischief was done time lost coidd never be regained, and Prevost’s invincible brigades wailed idly at the Canadian border while the British shipwrights worked on the Confiance , and the American shipwrights worked on the Eagle , and while Macdonough made t he utmost use of his newly won naval power. American troops who had gathered in Burlington were ferried across to Plattsburg, where, solidly entrenched, they might possibly delay the British advance, unless Prevost (assuming he had command of the lake) should decide merely to “contain” them and push on for Albany. Macdonough swept the lake, cruising unhampered, and exercising his men on the sunlit waters where now a thousand pleasure craft navigate without a thought for the vital summer of 1814. He had need of vigilance some of the Americans along the border could not resist the temptation of cash profits. For supplies Prevost was willing to pay good prices in hard money, following the admirable system Wellington had established. Wellington had found during his invasion of France that the French farmers hastened to sell their cattle and foodstuffs to British commissaries rather than submit to confiscation by the penniless French armies similarly, American farmers greatly preferred English gold to American promises. The beef that the British troops needed was driven on the hoof along a hundred forest trails from America to Canada. Nor was it only beef that Prevost was prepared to buy during that June and July Macclonough’s cruisers twice deterted rowboats laboriously towing strange rafts northward past Isle La Motte. Boats and rowers escaped, the crews abandoning their rafts, which proved on examination to be made up of a complete set of masts and topmasts for the Confiance .
So the British had to find their own masts—at this distante it is impossible to discover how much delay this imposed—while the calm before the storm lay over the lake, except for idle skirmishing at the border. Elsewhere there was violent action first Chippewa and then Lundy’s Lane, in Ontario: then the British raids on Washington and on Bangor, Maine. On August 15 Macdonough launched his Eagle on August 25 the senior British naval officer on the lake, Pring, launched the Confiance and on August 29, under orders from the War Department, three quarters of the American troops at Plattsburg marched oft to Lake Ontario, two hundred miles over the mountains to Sackett’s Harbor, from the vital and strategic point to one of minor interest. The residue left in Plattsburg was composed mostly of unorganized raw recruits, but the local militia had a keener sense of the strategic importance of Plattsburg, and in this desperate moment patriotism asserted itself despite the local yielding to the temptation to drive profitable bargains with John Bull. The traditional objection to service in another state was forgotten, and Macdonough ferried over the Vermont militia the New Yorkers came marching in, and within a few days the llimsy entrenchments along the Saranac River, where it passed through Plattsburg, were fully manned again.
On September 2, with summer nearly over, there arrived at Isle aux Noix one of the unfortunate men of history, Captain George Downie, R.N. He had come to supersede Pring and take command of the British squadron on Champlain, and he was to hold that command for nine unhappy days. Prevost was clamoring for action, despite the fact that he had been informed some time back that Confiance could not be ready before September 15. Her guns were in, but her magazine was still under construction she had her masts, but her rigging was not set up. The sailors destined to man her and some of the accompanying gunboats were still arriving. But Prevost, after this wasted summer, would not wait another week perhaps he feared the consequences of a winter campaign on the Hudson, for New York, an easy day’s drive in a modern automobile, was a month’s steady marching away. He had put his army in motion from the Canadian border on the last day of August, and from the moment of Downie’s arrival Prevost began to send letters to fsle aux Noix that were most offensive in tone, demanding action on the part of the navy. Downie displayed no lack of energy he acted with desperate haste. The Confiance was hauled out into the stream, and while the artificers worked at completing her construction and outfitting lier lor sea, the boats ol the squadron set about towing her against wind and current onto the lake. The laborious business took two days, and then at last the squadron dropped anchor in the narrows between Isle La Motte and Chazy. This was the night of September 8 it was only then—with the mechanics still at work—that the men could be given their stations at the guns.
Prevost had arrived in Plattsburg two days before, to find Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and his motley army drawn up behind their defenses, and Macdonough with his squadron anchored in Cumberland Bay, at long cannon shot from both Plattsburg and Cumberland Head. The Eagle had joined him a week earlier the rest of his force had had the freedom of the lake since the end of May.
For two days Prevost had been studying the situation. A successful attack by Downie on the American squadron would result in isolating Macomb in Plattsburg, and thai wotdd involve his inevitable—and probably prompt—surrender. If Downie were to take station .south of Cumberland Head, cutting off the entrance of supplies, Macomb and Macclonough would be starved out and forced into action, especially if Prevost were to drag guns round the northern shore of Cumberland Bay and harass Macdonough at his anchorage. But no plan suited Prevost that involved the expenditure of time, not with winter at hand. Perhaps if he had assaulted the works at Plattsburg the very night of his arrival, before the Americans had fully settled in, he might have won a resounding success—the infantry who under Wellington had stormed Badajoz in the Peninsular War were hard men to stop but the American militiaman behind breastworks was a different kind of soldier from the American militiaman in the open field. A repulse would have been an ominous opening for Prevost’s campaign. Having (rightly or wrongly,) allowed his best opportunity to go by, Prevost insisted on an attack by Downie, an instant, immediate attack he went so far as to send a cavalry officer down to Chazy to keep an eye on Downie’s proceedings.
September 9 was spent at anchor in getting the British squadron into better order a headwind on September io granted another day of grace, but even so, the mechanics were still hard at work when at midnight the wind came fair from the northeast, and Downie hove up his anchors and came gliding down the lake to his death. Sunday, September 11: dawn must have revealed a hint of mist here and there on the surface of the lovely lake. The first scarlet and the first gold must have been showing in the forests all around.
At five o’clock in the morning, with only a hint of daylight so far, the thunder of artillery echoed round the lake. Downie was “scaling” his guns, exploding blank charges in them to blow their bores clear of dirt and rust very necessary with guns long disused, but in this case with the further purpose of informing Prevost that the fleet was on its way. The day before, Prevost had written that he had held his troops in readiness from six in the morning to storm the Plattsburg works, to co-operate with the naval attack that had not come there can be no doubt that Downie expected Prevost to attack today, but Prevost stayed idle in his lines. Nobody can tell what the result would have been if Prevost had attacked, but it is hard to believe that an assault, made without artillery preparation against works held by enthusiastic soldiers long accustomed to the use of firearms, could have succeeded. Had it done so, it would have been unnecessary for Downie to enter Cumberland—or Plattsburg—Bay, with all the tactical disadvantages that implied instead, the naval battle could have been fought while the American squadron, in probable confusion, was hurriedly trying to escape. But Prevost, as his letters show, had contemplated a simultaneous attack by land and water under a double disadvantage—an unprepared infantry assault while the naval squadron beat its way close-hauled round Cumberland Head. It was a proof of muddled thinking on Prevost’s part as matters turned out, second thoughts saved him from making the assault, which, whether it failed or succeeded, could only have been followed, after the naval defeat, by retreat.
Macdonough had been thinking perfectly clearly. If Downie was rash enough to attack—or unfortunate enough to be compelled to do so—Macdonough had taken every precaution to make it a disaster. By the time Macdonough was sixteen—he had entered the Navy at fourteen—Nelson had won two great victories, at the Nile and at Copenhagen, both over fleets at anchor in confined waters. Macdonough, during his long service in the Mediterranean as one of ‘Treble’s boys,”∗ must have heard the tactics of those battles discussed in every detail, and in Cumberland Bay he showed that he had profited by those lessons. Both at the Nile and at Copenhagen, Nelson had attacked a line of anchored vessels from the windward end, eating them up from the tail like a mongoose with a snake Downie was to be allowed no such opportunity. Macdonough anchored his squadron so that the fair wind that brought Downie from the narrows of Isle La Motte would be foul for him as he rounded Cumberland Head. Downie would be aunable to reach the windward end of the line, and no attack made upon the leeward end could achieve any progress up the line. Against Nelson neither the French nor the Danes had been able to reinforce the end of the line that was attacked Macdonough made eleborate arrangements, with springs on his cables and with anchors ready astern, to be able to direct his fire in any direction and to bring fresh broadsides to bear at any weak point in his line. And the battle was fought exactly as he had planned.
∗ On September 12, 1803, soon after war broke out between the United States and Tripoli, Commodore Edward Preble arrived at Gibraltar in the Constitution , flagship of a squadron that included the frigate Philadelphia , two brigs, and three schooners. Preble himself was only forty-two at the time, but the average age of his officers was barely over twenty when he saw the list he exclaimed: “Nothing but a pack of boys!” But in the next year Preble’s tautly yet fairly run squadron became their training school, and “Preble’s boys” developed into a highly skilled cadre of professionals who justified their commander’s faith in them: during the War of 1812 they were the Navy’s backbone. Among their number, besides Macdonough, were Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, David Porter, and Charles Stewart. All rose to the rank of commodore, and all served their country with distinction.
Downie paused for a moment off Cumberland Head as he reconnoitered the position. There was no sign of any activity on the part of Prevost, but Downie was under express instructions—couched in insulting terms —to attack immediately, even though he was now in such a position that in the course of time Macdonough would be compelled to come out into the open lake at a disadvantage. Macdonough had displayed uncanny prevision in foreseeing that Downie would not be allowed to wait for anything of the sort. It is just possible to guess with what anguish Downie gave the orders that filled the British sails and sent the British squadron into disaster.
In weight of metal and in numbers the forces were fairly evenly matched it is worth noticing that neither squadron, in this battle that was to affect history so profoundly, could fire a combined broadside equal to that of the British three-decker on Lake Ontario. The smallest ship of the line—and England had a hundred in commission on the high seas—could have pounded Macdonough’s squadron into fragments in an hour’s work. There has been endless discussion regarding the relative strength of the two forces, with long guns weighed against carronades, big ships against little ships. It has been grudgingly agreed that the American squadron was the more ready for battle, and the British squadron the more suitable for fighting on the open lake instead of in the confined waters of Cumberland Bay. So it is one of Macdonough’s principal claims to fame that he induced, or compelled, the British to fight at that time and in that place.
Downie brought his Confiance round Cumberland Head, and struggled without success to reach the head of the American line a foul—and failing—wind forced him to anchor opposite the American center. As his ship steadied in her position, he fired that first broadside which every captain tried to conserve to the last possible moment, because the guns had been loaded in peace and quiet, under the inspection of officers, and quoins—wedge-shaped blocks—carefully inserted beneath the breeches for point-blank range. It did frightful damage to the Saratoga , but from then on the balance of the battle turned in favor of the Americans. One British sloop was so badly knocked about that she could not let go her anchor, but drifted into the American line, and was forced to surrender. Another could not keep close enough to the wind and never reached her allotted position, running aground helplessly on Crab Island either of these ships might have tipped the scale, for the little Preble , badly battered, had her cables shot away so that she drifted to leeward and went ashore, luckily within the American lines. As it was, Confiance and Linnet were steadily worn down by Saratoga and Eagle . In the heat of action superior drill and discipline played their parts the effect of constant drill showed itself when the American gunners went on loading and firing steadily, despite the disorder around them, while the British fire slackened. Not only were British guns being damaged and British gunners killed, but the shaken men, with insufficient drill to make them into automata, were serving their guns badly. The hot guns, leaping madly in their carriages at each discharge, tended to fire high, and by jarring the quoins loose accentuated this effect when nobody was steady enough to drive the quoins home again. And several of the guns were improperly loaded. Wads or shot were put in before the powderfifty years later the same phenomenon was observed in many of the muzzle-loading small arms picked up on the battlefields of the Civil War. With a wad rammed home into a gun before the powder, so that the touchhole was blanked, it called for impossible steadiness to diagnose the trouble and make use of a “worm”- a gigantic corkscrew—to withdraw the wad the gun was merely left to fall silent.
Luck declared itself for the winning side as usual Downie was killed at the opening of the battle, and Macdonough lived through the most imminent dangers. Had Downie lived and Macdonough died, the battle might have ended differently. And, thanks to Macdonough’s careful arrangements before the action, both the Saratoga and the Eagle were able to turn themselves around in the course of the battle and present the other, undamaged broadside to the enemy, with immediately noticeable effect. Then the Confiance , with only four guns out of fifteen still serviceable on her port side, attempted the same maneuver her stern anchor had been shot away, and the new spring line which her crew ran out to her bow cable (a remarkable feat under fire) could not turn her completely, but only exposed her bows to raking fire. Helpless, and already so full of water that her wounded below decks were in danger of drowning, she was compelled to surrender, and the Linnet , after heroically enduring fifteen minutes’ more battering, followed her example. All the British squadron was captured, save for the few gunboats which fled under oars back to Isle aux Noix, and America dominated Lake Champlain that very night, his communications in grave peril, Prevost led his men back in a hurried retreat, and the great offensive was over. Albany and New York and Boston were safe.
News of the capture of Washington, D.C., on August 24 had reached Europe on September 27, and the acting Foreign Secretary in London magnanimously informed the peace commissioners at Ghent that despite this success, despite even the excited predictions of Ross and Cochrane regarding Baltimore, despite the massing of Prevost’s army at Montreal, the British government had no intention of increasing its demands, and would even modify them. (See “The Peace of Christmas Eve” in the December, 1960, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) England would still insist on a clause (whose terms were still vague) in the coming treaty whereby the British government would have the right to supervise the relations between the United States and the American Indians England would retain a foothold on the New York side of the Niagara River, but she would be satisfied with the cession of that part of the state of Maine as far as the Aroostook instead of insisting, as before, on the cession of Maine as far as the Penobscot America, of course, was to yield up what conquests she had made on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. In view of the severity of these terms the American commissioners would be given the opportunity of referring home, but if the commissioners rejected the terms, then negotiations would be broken off instantly. The American commissioners experienced an unhappy three weeks they could not bear the thought either of rupturing negotiations or of yielding American territory. On the other hand, as the British pointed out, these were moderate terms when offered to a country on the point of dissolution. Negotiations once broken off could only be resumed on a basis far more severe—and at this moment Prevost was probably marching down the Hudson and New England had probably seceded from the Union.
And then, on October 21, the news arrived of the Battle of Lake Champlain and of Prevost’s retreat. After that, it was easy enough. It took only three days for the American commissioners to cease temporizing and to return a flat refusal to all proposals for the cession of American territory nor was the refusal followed by the promised instant rupture of negotiations. The British commissioners stayed on in Ghent as if the threat had never been made. “This unfortunate adventure on Lake Champlain,” as the Colonial Secretary, Lord Bathurst, called it, had changed the whole atmosphere of negotiations.
It really was a change of atmosphere. America had built a fleet that had beaten a British fleet in a pitched battle she had proved that she was by no means moribund. The rallying of the Vermont militia to the defense of Plattsburg, which Macdonough had made possible, proved that there was no disloyalty at the moment of the supreme test, despite the widespread trading with the enemy. Even though the French Empire had fallen, leaving America exposed without allies to the British attacks, America had fought back apparently undismayed, and effectively. Macdonough’s victory had profoundly changed the military situation, but it was just as important that America had won back the respect of her great antagonist human experience throughout the ages proves that nothing so facilitates negotiations as mutual respect. Impressment and the slave trade, seizures during the blockade and the limitation of the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, all the disputed points were glossed over at Ghent under these new conditions agreement was so speedily reached, and in such terms, as to leave the spectator wondering why the war had ever been fought. The real delay arose because of bickering among the American commissioners over the final treaty terms, and because of the negotiation of a few technical points. It was a tragic delay, for it was on the very day that peace was signed that Sir Edward Pakenham and his redcoat army were preparing to march on New Orleans, beyond recall.
Steamboats on Lake Champlain, a brief history
Circa 1910, the Ticonderoga approaching the dock at Thompson’s Point, with the Point’s motor launch Elsa tied to a small dock. Used with permission of the Charlotte Historical Society.
Dan Cole, Contributor
The first steamboat on the lake was the wood hulled Vermont I, built in 1808 in Burlington by John and James Winan, who had worked with Robert Fulton on America’s first steamboat in 1807, the Clermont. Lake Champlain was used extensively for early travel and trade, as the roads were poor and rail was non-existent, and most of the trade was with Canada. But the vagaries of the wind on the lake made sailing difficult. The problem with early steam vessels, as noted with the Redbud in our editorial in this edition, was their slow speed. The Vermont I could make about 5 knots on a good day—if it didn’t break down, which it did regularly. The quality of their construction improved and owners added cozy and well-appointed cabins to attract travelers.
This was taken at the end of Thompson’s Point during a busy summer. Photo courtesy of Ross Andrews.
Photo, Print, Drawing Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain and defeat of the British Army at Plattsburg by Genl. Macomb, Sept. 17th 1814 / painted by H. Reinagle engraved by B. Tanner.
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America victorious on Lake Champlain - HISTORY
Designed by Carol Allen
For info on Peru's History
Contact our Town Historians
Ron & Carol Allen
Email: [email protected]
P eru is a town in the eastern part of Clinton County, NY, just south of Plattsburgh, NY.
Nestled between the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain, the Town of Peru was formed from Plattsburgh and Willsborough on Dec. 28, 1792. A part of it was annexed back to Willsborough in 1799 and the towns of Ausable and Black Brook were taken off in 1839. Its present boundaries are the towns of Saranac, Schuyler Falls and Plattsburgh on the north, the towns of Ausable and Black Brook on the south, Lake Champlain on the east and the town of Black Brook on the west. The area of the town is approximately seventy-nine square miles. Some of the early settlers thought that the mountains surrounding the town resembled those of Peru, South America. Hence, the origin of the town's name. The earliest concentration of settlers was in an area called the "Union", a Quaker settlement in the vicinity of the present Keese Homestead and Quaker Cemetery on what is now Union Road. These early Quaker settlers or "Friends" as they preferred to be called, were mainly farmers and came from Dutchess County, NY and previously England. Some of the family names of those pioneer settlers still abound in the town today: Allen, Arnold, Baker, Elmore, Everett, Hay(s), Keese and Thew, to mention a few.
John Cochran had the honor of being the founder of the present site of Peru Village about the year 1795. He built a house and a grist-mill on the banks of the Little Ausable River. Harvesting abundant timber became Peru's first industry and resulted in several saw-mills being built along the river. A. Mason & Sons lumber mill, located in the heart of the village, flourished for nearly a century, from 1883 to 1972. The mill was the town's largest employer for most of those years. Now, the empty stone Heyworth/Mason building is the only surviving remnant of that once busy mill site. As the lands were cleared of timber the area's rich, fertile soil gave rise to agriculture which persists to this day in the form of dairy farms and several apple orchards. Iron making also played a major role in the economic development of early Peru with the discovery of high quality iron ore in the Arnold Hill area in 1810.
As the population of Peru grew from a small handful of settlers in 1792 to 1,923 in 1810 and 2,710 by 1820, other settlements within Peru's boundaries came into being. Goshen, Lapham's Mills or Bartonville, Peasleeville, Port Jackson, later Valcour, and Peru Landing all contributed to the town's growth. The bustling Lake Champlain ports of Peru Landing and Port Jackson led to railroads and stations built at Valcour, Lapham's Mills and Peru Village. Churches, Schools, businesses and ever expanding industries all increased in number throughout the township.
Peru has an exceptionally rich past in the form of military history. Its Lake Champlain shores saw much activity during the French and Indian War period. The lake was the main north-south corridor for war parties of Native Americans and French and British armies. Benedict Arnold's most important Revolutionary War naval engagement with the British at the Battle of Valcour Oct. 11, 1776 took place with the town. The War of 1812 brought forth the Peru militia under the leadership of Capt. David Cochran. They fired the first shots in the victorious and decisive Battle of Plattsburgh in Sept., 1814. The opening of Plattsburgh Air Force Base in 1955 brought thousands of military personnel to the area. The majority of those personnel resided within the Peru Central School District. The school district grew from 800 students to over 3,000 necessitating the building of four new schools.
The present population of Peru is 6,998 according to the 2010 census. Long gone are most of the timber and iron related industries and the many mills that once lined the banks of Peru's rivers. Fires have taken their toll on many buildings in the center of the village. It is now a relatively quiet semi-rural residential area surrounded by thousands of acres of apple orchards and dairy farms.
A history of the City of Vergennes, Vermont, USA.
Although Vergennes was settled as early as 1766 when Donald McIntosh built a homestead on Comfort Hill overlooking the Otter Creek Falls, most of the inhabitants left the county during the period from 1766 to 1783 when boundary disputes with New York and the Revolutionary War made peaceful settlement impossible. After 1783 the population expanded rapidly, and by 1787 it was evident the falls, with its milling and shipping activities, was very different from the outlying agricultural communities. In 1788, residents of the three bordering towns agreed to give up a portion of their land to establish a separate village on the Otter Creek Falls. On September 19, 1788, Vergennes was incorporated as a city, the third in the new nation and the first in the state. Its name was suggested by Ethan Allen to honor the Comte de Vergennes, French minister of foreign affairs and negotiator of the Treaty of Paris.
Vergennes grew rapidly in the next decade and diversified its manufacturing and trading activities. Many townspeople worked producing and transporting lumber and potash. A bridge was built across the falls, and by 1789 there were fifty-four households in Vergennes. The Monkton Ironworks Company was established on the falls, and at its height, around 1812, the company had nine forges, blast and air furnaces, a rolling mill, and a wire factory. A tunnel in the west bank of the falls, used to funnel water from the falls to the ironworks, and a towpath along the Otter Creek are some of the archeological remains of the once active industry.
Vergennes, with its navigable creek, access to the lake, and skilled work force, figured prominently into the War of 1812. A marker designates the site of the shipyard where Commodore Thomas Macdonough commanded the building of a fleet to defend Lake Champlain against a British invasion. On December 21, 1813, Macdonough brought his fleet up the Otter Creek to Vergennes for winter quarters. The navy’s instructions to Macdonough were to increase the size of the fleet dramatically. Vergennes was host to forges, furnaces, sawmills and a rolling mill. A shipyard was also already in operation.
At Vergennes, shipwrights built six row galleys, the schooner Ticonderoga, the brig Eagle and the frigate Confiance which was 146’ stem to stern. The 26 gun, Saratoga was completed in 40 days. The British and American fleets met in Cumberland Bay on September 11, 1814. The two fleets were nearby matched in size and firepower. The battle raged for two hours and twenty minutes and the American fleet was victorious.
The Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814 was a decisive victory for American forces. Macdonough’s fleet prevailed on the lake, and Vermont militia (commanded by General Samuel Strong of Vergennes) and New York militia drove back British regulars from outside Plattsburgh back to Canada. The treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve of 1814. The defeat of the British on Lake Champlain was considered the decisive battle of the War of 1812 and the City of Vergennes and its townspeople who worked nonstop to build the gunboats deserve much credit for the efforts.
The embargo on British goods was lifted at the end of the war, and by 1816 the Monkton Ironworks could no longer compete with less expensive imported goods and it closed. The Lake Champlain Steamship Company, however, thrived. Chartered in 1813, the company built four lake steamers on the site of the Macdonough shipyard over the next ten years.
About 1824, a new era of prosperity began for Vergennes with the opening of the Champlain Canal, which connected Lake Champlain with the Hudson River and reinvigorated the lake trade to both Canada and New York City. Many sloops and steamships docked in the city, loading cargo from buildings adjacent to the shipyard.
Many local improvements followed the increase in trade and commerce. About 1830 residents constructed the East School on the newly christened School Street. In 1834 the city laid stone sidewalks and planted shade trees along its streets. The same year local Episcopalian’s erected the brick Gothic Revival style St. Paul’s Church next to the village green, and Congregationalists built a new brick church on Water Street. Methodists followed in 1841 with their brick church across from St. Paul’s. St. Peter’s Catholic Church was constructed on South Maple Street in 1874.
In the late 1840’s plans were underway for the construction of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad, scheduled to be completed in 1849. Also, competition between rival steamship companies was improving travel on the lake. In 1848 Hiram Adams, speculating on an increase in Lake Champlain tourists and new railroad travelers, built the Franklin House Hotel, complete with a third-floor ballroom, on Main Street opposite the green.
The combination of the lake trade and a rail connection continued to support Vergennes industry through the 1870’s. Industries that used lumber to produce consumer goods prospered since their raw materials could arrive and their products could be shipped by water or by rail. By 1871, carriage, sash and door, hub and spoke, horse nail, furniture, and excelsior factories operated at the falls, as well as a tannery, grist and saw mills and a city waterworks established in 1868. The city waterworks incorporated a Flander’s pump, the Vergennes pump is the only one extant in the country.
Along Main Street during this period new commercial building were constructed in the Italianate style. Three commercial building were remodeled and connected to form one continuous block of stores. Both the Stevens and Franklin hotels were remodeled in the Italianate style with rooftop belvederes from which the thriving city could be viewed.
By the 1880’s and 1890’ the lake trade had greatly declined, but Vergennes continued to serve as the commercial center for a large and flourishing agricultural region. In 1893 the Vergennes Electric Company began power generation at the falls, lighting the city streets. And looking forward to the new century, residents in 1897 built a grand new City Hall and Opera House, designed by architects Chappell and Smith of Rutland.
After 1900 Vergennes continued much as it had in the last decade of the nineteenth century, improving services for residents and the agricultural community. In 1911, the Burlington Traction Company, chartered to produce power for Burlington’s streetcar line, built a brick power house on the falls. In 1912, funds from the estate of William Gove Bixby financed construction of the Bixby Memorial Free Library, a grand neo-Classical Revival structure designed by New York City architect G. Frederick Frost.
The State of Vermont Reform School for Troubled Youth, a part of city life since it was relocated from Waterbury to Vergennes in 1875, underwent a significant expansion during this period. By 1900 the school was housed in three buildings, including the former U.S. Arsenal, with residents working a farm acquired in 1892. In 1907 the school began a major building program that added about a dozen new structures over the next fourteen years.
During the 1930’s, business in Vergennes, as in the rest of the country, declined, and many industries along the falls closed. Among those companies that survived, the L.F. Benton Company, a manufacturer of spark plugs founded in 1907, occupied the old site of the Hayes, Falardo and Parker buildings. In 1941, the company was acquired and became Simmonds Precision Products and today the business is a unit of UTC Aerospace.
Vergennes today retains much of its historical character. The rerouting in 1962 of U.S. Route 7, bypassing the downtown commercial area, has encouraged growth without destroying the fabric of the city. Almost the entire length of Main Street, including the residential, commercial, and former manufacturing centers, is recognized as an outstanding example of town development and listed as an historic district in the National Register of Historic Places. In addition, the traditional residential area south of the business district and West Main Street are listed as historic residential districts in the State Register of Historic Places.
Vergennes residents have always recognized the value of this heritage and in the late 1990’s a Main Street revitalization effort was undertaken. The formation of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House and the subsequent restoration of the 1897 Opera House was catalyst for public and private investment. In 1999, the Vergennes Partnership, a non-profit downtown organization was incorporated, with a charge to revitalize the historic downtown and create economic growth. As a result of these efforts, numerous historic buildings were rehabilitated and streetscape improvements were undertaken. Today, with its rich legacy of industrial and commercial history, Vergennes remains one of Vermont’s most desirable communities in which to live or visit.
The Historic Architecture of Addison County Vermont Division for Historic Preservation 1992
History Space: Dramatic victory over British Navy
Two hundred years ago, the interconnected waterways of northeastern North America helped to change the world's balance of power. For Great Britain, the War of 1812 with the United States was far overshadowed by the intense struggle to defeat France's Napoleon Bonaparte.
The key to British victory was naval superiority. Their insatiable need for sailors resulted in repeated confrontations between British naval ships and neutral American vessels. By 1812, American war hawks led the country to war. In that first year of conflict, American land forces saw setbacks while the Navy proved a source of pride.
Through 1812 and 1813 the advantage shifted back and forth along the border with Canada. In 1814, with Napoleon defeated in Europe, the British brought new vigor to the war. They pressed the Americans along the Niagara Peninsula, continued their naval race on Lake Ontario, burned Washington, bombarded Baltimore, and attacked New Orleans in a tragic battle that took place after a peace treaty was negotiated. A powerful, battle-hardened British army was sent from Europe to invade the United States via Lake Champlain in order to end the war from a position of strength.
Facing this threat, hundreds of men from New York's East River shipyards traveled to Lakes Erie, Ontario and Champlain to engage their British counterparts in a "War of Shipwrights." Adam and Noah Brown, Christian Bergh and Henry Eckford led the effort to build and launch the amazing array of warships that gave U.S. Navy commanders an edge in the crucial battles of Lake Erie in 1813 and Lake Champlain in 1814.
Enter Thomas Macdonough
On Lake Champlain, 31-year-old Thomas Macdonough was starting his third year of command. He knew that the British were building with new vigor at their shipyard at Isle aux Noix (now Parks Canada's Fort Lennox historic site). The 17-gun brig Linnet, the 37-gun frigate Confiance and multiple gunboats were constructed here. Ironically, much of their shipbuilding materials and supplies for the British army were smuggled to them from Lake Champlain.
Macdonough moved to Vergennes, seven miles from the lake on Otter Creek and recruited Noah and Adam Brown, the shipwrights who had built Perry's successful Lake Erie fleet. The Lake Champlain fleet was constructed in two stages. First, in March 1814, Noah Brown built Macdonough's flagship, the 27-gun Saratoga, in 40 days from forest to launching. He also built six gunboats and converted a partially built steamboat hull into the 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga. With this accomplished, Noah and his men returned to New York City. On May 14, a British expedition appeared off Otter Creek intent on destroying the American fleet. A cannon battery and gunboats at Fort Cassin drove them off.
Later that summer, Macdonough learned that the British were building a new and powerful warship, and requested permission to do the same. Adam Brown, Noah's younger brother, was tasked to make it happen.
In his memoirs, Noah Brown recalled:
"My brother [Adam] started the day after receipt of the letter with two hundred mechanics and proceeded to Vergennes… and the BrigEaglewas put up and launched on the nineteenth day after my brother's arrival…if she had not been there, the battle would have been on the other side victorious, and we should have lost the fort as well as the fleet. My brother delivered the brig to the fleet five days before the battle was fought."
On paper the British advantage appeared insurmountable: an army of 10,000 battle-hardened British troops accompanied a naval force led by HMS Confiance, the new 37-gun British flagship — the largest warship ever on Lake Champlain. Moreover, as this British force massed at the Champlain border, the American regulars protecting Lake Champlain were ordered to march west to reinforce the army of Niagara, leaving the British army approaching Plattsburgh with a numerical advantage of 5 to 1. Facing this combined British force was Macdonough with his miracle fleet just launched at Vergennes.
“Macdonough’s Victory on Lake Champlain and Defeat of the British Army at Plattsburg by Gen. Macomb, Sept. 11, 1814.” Engraved by B. Tanner from a painting by Hugh Reinagle. (Photo: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection)
As the British army took up positions in Plattsburgh, their shipwrights worked furiously to complete the new flagship. Macdonough selected his position in Cumberland Bay and anchored his fleet in a line of battle. Gen. Macomb, in charge of U.S. land forces, worked to strengthen his positions on the south side of the Saranac River and called for militia from New York and Vermont to rally to his aid. By the morning of Sept. 11, one year and a day since Perry's victory on Lake Erie, the stage was set for the land and naval battle that would determine the outcome of the war.
Only as the British sailed into the bay to engage the American ships were the ships' carpenters working on Confiance sent ashore. Pounding gunfire and smoke filled the air as the two evenly matched squadrons clashed. Capt. George Downie, commander of the British fleet, was killed almost immediately. During the naval contest, the land forces positioned on each side of the Saranac River began their action. The Americans had strengthened their fortifications and disabled the bridges, while the British engaged them and searched for a place to ford the river. Facing the British regulars were 1,500 remaining American regulars, along with 1,500 militia from New York and 2500 volunteers from Vermont under the command of Gen. Samuel Strong of Vergennes. Still outnumbered 2 to 1, the American line offered surprisingly stiff resistance.
After two hours of naval contest, Macdonough gave the order to exercise his pre-battle anchoring strategy. His vessels were anchored so that their cables could be used to turn them 180 degrees to bring their fresh broadside of cannon to bear. The British attempted a similar maneuver, but could not complete it. As Saratoga's guns opened up on Confiance, it was clear that the contest was over. Reluctantly, the British ships struck their colors and surrendered. The naval battle for Lake Champlain was over.
When the cannon's thunder stopped and the smoke cleared, the British army was mortified to see their fleet defeated. Demoralized, the British command disengaged from their invasion and withdrew to Canada. Meanwhile, just as Perry had done a year earlier, Macdonough ordered his surgeons to treat the vanquished as equals and set about the hard work of preventing the battered warships from sinking.
The contest for Lake Champlain ended with a decisive American victory. The news of this American victory and British defeat had a profound impact on the peace negotiations that had begun in Belgium.
Confident that the lake was secure for the winter, Macdonough ordered the fleet and its prizes to Whitehall. When news of the peace reached the U.S., the Navy ordered the Lake Champlain fleet at Whitehall to be laid up. Later, they were transferred into a nearby backwater. Some of the gunboats were sold, while the larger vessels were abandoned and sank. The wrecks of four warships, the U.S. Brig Eagle, the U.S. Schooner Ticonderoga, the U.S. gunboat Allen and the British Brig Linnet still survive.
The treaty negotiated at Ghent, Belgium, ended the War of 1812. The victories at Lake Champlain and Baltimore helped America to achieve "status quo antebellum," a return to the pre-war boundaries. The Americans and British were able to get back to the business of business.
For Canadians, the conflict provided a new sense of identity, but for the Native Peoples, both the war and the peace were a disaster. Alliance with the British had represented their best hope for stopping America's relentless westward expansion. The death of Tecumseh in 1813 and the failure of the treaty to provide for a native homeland diminished their hopes for a future without conflict.
American Revolution Podcast
Today, I’m going to step away from New York City to take a look at events on Lake Champlain. At the same time the Howe Brothers in New York were using their massive military force to push Washington out of New York, Generals Guy Carleton and John Burgoyne were trying to push southward from Canada. We last looked at Canada in Episode 95 when Carleton’s troops pushed the last of the Continental Army out of Canada and into Lake Champlain in upstate New York. The remains of the Patriot’s Northern Army fell back to Fort Ticonderoga.
For the British in Canada, everything seemed to be going well during the spring. Burgoyne had a late arrival in May 1776. By the end of June, the British had pushed the Americans out of Canada entirely. Burgoyne had used the 8000 or so British and German forces he had brought with him from Britain. With the combined local militia and Indians he had a force of 11,000-12,000 men.
Following the victory in Canada, Carleton and Burgoyne’s disagreement became more apparent. Clearly, according to rank and Lord Germain’s express orders, Carleton retained command. Burgoyne would obey orders but as most top subordinates did at the time, made clear to anyone who would listen that Carlton was holding him back. He could lead the forces to victory if only Carlton did not hold his reins so tightly.
|General "Gentleman Johnny" |
Burgoyne (from Wikimedia)
There was nothing particularly new about this plan. The Ministry had been planning to use the Hudson River to cut off New England since the war began. Burgoyne’s memo added far more details on exactly what troops should be used and why. That was essentially what the ministry adopted as its plan, but with one alteration. General Carleton, not Burgoyne, would command the army after it reached Quebec.
Gen. Carleton could not easily move his British fleet on the St. Lawrence River to Lake Champlain. He would have to disassemble his ships, carry them up the rapids, and then reassemble them at St. Jean before he could sail into the Lake, or in the alternative, build new ships at St. Jean and carry over the armaments needed. Either option would take months.
Burgoyne thought they should continue to press their advantage. The British had clear military superiority and had the Continentals on the run. With the cooperation of the local Indians, the British could move overland to Fort Ticonderoga and bypass Arnold’s fleet on the lake. He also suggested moving further upriver to Lake Ontario and marching on the Americans from the west through New York.
Carleton, however, thought that these plans were too risky. He preferred the safer option of building a fleet to recapture the lake, then sailing down to Fort Ticonderoga and taking the Fort. It was undoubtedly a safer option, but it meant the British could not begin moving again until fall. That gave the rebels time to build up their defenses on the lake and at the fort. Even if the British could take the fort in the fall, that almost certainly meant pausing again for the winter and not starting down the Hudson until the spring of 1777 at the earliest.
|General Sir Guy Carleton |
Burgoyne quickly grew frustrated at waiting. In addition to a host of other reasons for wanting to see his work through to a quick ending, he had left his sick wife in London. He had hoped he could get back to care for her. Sadly, as he sat in Canada all summer waiting for things to happen, he learned that his wife had died in June.
Another good reason not to wait was smallpox. The disease had ravaged both armies during the war, and had been particularly destructive in Canada. I know I’ve talked about the ravages of disease before, but it’s hard to understate its importance. More than 90% of the military deaths during the revolution came from disease. Smallpox, Typhus, Typhoid fever, malaria, and dysentery killed thousands in Canada alone. Having soldiers sitting around all summer would likely kill more of them than sending them into battle. Unlike the Continentals who could always find more and more local men to replace the fallen, the British had to spend far more time and expense to import fresh troops from across the ocean.
Burgoyne occupied his time by keeping up a correspondence with Secretary of State, Lord Germain, in London. Germain already had a bad opinion of Carleton. He readily listened and supported Burgoyne’s frustration over Carleton’s lack of action. When the King proposed awarding Carleton the Order of the Bath, Germain tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent it. Although Carleton had other friends in high places which protected him, Germain would look for any reason to recall Carleton and promote Burgoyne. During that summer, Lord Germain issued orders to give Burgoyne an independent command of an army in New York while he left Carleton to remain in command in Canada. But those orders, mostly due to logistical problems, did not reach Canada until 1777. So for the remainder of the year, Carleton ran the show and Burgoyne sat around impatiently, waiting for something to change.
On the patriot side, fear of a British attack loomed over everything. Congress decided to change the leadership in hopes of finding someone who could whip the American Army into shape and hold off any invasion into New York. Once the British had pushed the patriots out of Canada following the battle of Three Rivers, Congress shipped General Sullivan back to New York in time to be captured at the Battle of Brooklyn. General Wooster returned to Connecticut and would resign his commission a few months later. In their place, Congress sent General Horatio Gates. Although Gates was one of the original generals Congress appointed back in the summer of 1775, I have not had much to say about him so far, as he hadn’t done much.
Gates was British born in 1727 to commoner parents. Despite his low birth, he somehow obtained a lieutenant’s commission as a young man and served in what is today Germany during the War of Austrian Succession. He must have served well, as he received a wartime promotion to captain, despite the fact that there was no way he had the money to pay for such a commission.
|Gen. Horatio Gates |
In 1775, when Congress appointed Washington as Commander in Chief, he requested that Gates also be named a General in the new Continental Army. Gates became the Army’s first Adjutant General. While Gates did well at his job, it was mostly paperwork, not the sort of thing that gets you much glory. As an experienced officer, Gates pushed for an independent command.
In May 1776, after Washington had moved from Boston to New York, Congress promoted Gates to major general, and in June assigned him the independent command of the Northern Army. Unfortunately for Gates, his independent command was not quite as independent as he had hoped. General Schuyler, his senior, remained in overall command of the region. In the past, Congress had bypassed Schuyler by leaving him in command of forces in upstate New York, but left other generals, first Montgomery, then Wooster, then Thomas, then Sullivan, in charge of the forces engaged in actual combat in Canada.
|Lake Champlain Region (from Wikimedia)|
The problem was that by the time Gates arrived in upstate New York, the Patriot forces in Canada had already retreated back into New York. There, they came under the authority of General Schuyler. As a result, Gates effectively became Schuyler’s second in command. Gates, was of course upset that his independent command now became subordinate to Schuyler’s command. He immediately began a letter writing campaign to his friends in Congress to undercut Schuyler’s reputation, and with the apparent intent of having Schuyler relieved so that he could take command.
The two men began bickering with one another, and dividing politicians as well as the army into team Schuyler and team Gates. New England politicians tended to favor Gates, based on his military experience with the regular army. New Yorkers tended to favor Schuyler, who had the senior rank and experience in the region.
Protecting Lake Champlain
Amazingly, General Benedict Arnold, who typically got along with no one, seemed to have pretty good working relationships with both men. Unfortunately, his failure to pick a side would cause him problems down the road. But for now, on this one issue at least, Arnold was often the voice of diplomacy and reason.
Although he was an army general, Arnold had made himself the naval commander of Lake Champlain. He commanded a few large ships, the Enterprise, and Liberty which he had captured right after the fall of Ticonderoga. He also had the Royal Savage which General Montgomery had captured with the fall of St. Jean. His troops were still building the Revenge near Ticonderoga. He had four large row galley ships: the Washington, Congress, Trumbull, and Gates, as well as a smaller one, the Lee. Then he had eight smaller Gondolas. All the ships had mounted cannon and would certainly harass and threaten any British ships that moved onto the lake.
Court Martial of Moses Hazen
With a lull in the fighting during the summer, the northern army took some time to take care of some delayed business. In late July, it held courts martial for Colonel Bedel and Major Butterfield for their behavior at the Battle of the Cedars back in May. Both men were found guilty and cashiered.
That same month the court martial of Moses Hazen threatened to disrupt the entire army. You may recall that Hazen was a local Canadian. He had tried to play both sides after the patriots had invaded Canada. But after the British arrested him and he escaped, he decided to stick with the patriots. He received a commission as colonel and raised a patriot regiment from among his fellow Canadians.
For some time, General Arnold seemed to have a good opinion of Hazen. That changed after the Battle of the Cedars, where Arnold thought Hazen not aggressive enough, possibly even a coward. Worse, Hazen disobeyed Arnold’s orders to destroy the property of some who had cooperated with the British and Indian attack at the Cedars. Hazen believed that such destruction might have created more enemies for the army than they could handle.
|General Benedict Arnold |
Arnold was livid at this insubordination. Congress had left Arnold on the hook for stuff like this before. He would feel honor bound to repay the merchants, but would not get reimbursement from Congress if he could not account for the property. It was also another example of Arnold’s subordinate officers simply ignoring his orders.
Arnold attempted to empanel a court martial against Hazen in early July. Hazen protested to General Gates who ordered Arnold not to proceed. Arnold had apparently selected all of the officers on the court martial himself, and had selected junior officers, even though Colonel Hazen had a right to be judged by field officers (major or higher). Gates told Arnold to cut it out, but allowed a proper court martial to be empaneled a few days later to hear charges against Hazen for neglect of duty.
The problem with the new court martial, headed by Colonel Enoch Poor, was that just about every officer on the court absolutely hated Arnold and was friends with Hazen. The Court refused even to hear testimony from the officer whom Arnold had ordered to drop off the property to Hazen and who was pretty much the only witness who could testify to Hazen’s refusal to obey Arnold’s orders to take possession of the property. They claimed the witness was an interested party, which, so what? Lots of witnesses have some interest in the case in favor of one side or the other. But the court martial did not even say what that interest was. The court also refused to give Arnold adequate time to track down other witnesses to the events in question.
Instead, the court unanimously found in favor of Hazen and acquitted him. This caused Arnold to lodge a protest with the court, suggesting that the court had erred in its decision not to hear critical testimony and in its finding. He demanded that the entire proceedings be sent to the Continental Congress for a final decision.
The court could have walked away with its acquittal of Hazen and let Arnold have his temper tantrum. But, remember, the officers on the court hated Arnold and figured they could use the power of the court against him by demanding he apologize for insulting the integrity of the court martial. Of course, Arnold refused to apologize for what he saw as simply calling them out on their bias and improper procedures. Not only did he refuse to apologize, he made clear he would be happy to face any of them in a duel if they would like the satisfaction.
This led to a flurry of letters and petitions to General Gates, the court insisting that Arnold face contempt charges, and from Arnold demanding the kangaroo court be dissolved and have his charges against Hazen sent to Congress. Gates must have shaken his head in disbelief when he received all these papers. The British Army was on the brink of attacking down Lake Champlain and destroying what remained of the Continental force. Meanwhile, his top field officer is whining about a biased court martial and the court wants him to lock up his top general for insulting their honor.
Gates tried to dispose of the matter as best he could. He approved the court’s acquittal of Hazen, and also made clear he was not going to let them pursue charges against Arnold. They had already wasted several weeks on this issue when they should be preparing to defend against an attack. We are not locking up our best field officer because someone thinks he insulted their honor. Gates sent records of all of this to Congress, but for now guys, let’s focus on the enemy and not each other.
With the court martial arguments behind him in August, Arnold could resume command of his fleet on Lake Champlain. Except, he couldn’t. Arnold faced another challenge. While he was in Canada, Schuyler had appointed Jacobus Wynkoop commander of the fleet on Lake Champlain. When Arnold started giving orders, Winkoop sent him a note saying he was still in command of the fleet, and why was Arnold issuing orders to move his ships around. Arnold, sent a rather snippy note back to Wynkoop letting him know that Schuyler had returned Arnold to command of the fleet. Wynkoop ignored that and continued to assume command. He countermanded Arnold’s orders and issued more of his own.
|American fleet on Lake Champlain (from Wikimedia)|
Arnold would have nearly another two months before Carleton was ready to unleash his fleet on Lake Champlain. So we will get to that fight a few weeks from now.
Next Week: We return to New York where Gen. Howe is finally ready to end his pause, and begin his assault on Manhattan Island.
Previous Episode 105: Staten Island Peace Conference
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Seelinger, Matthew Buying Time: The Battle of Valcour Island, July 16, 2014: https://armyhistory.org/buying-time-the-battle-of-valcour-island
(from archive.org unless noted)
Codman, John Arnold’s Expedition To Quebec, New York, MacMillan Co., 1901..
Hill, George Benedict Arnold: A Biography, Boston: E.O. Libby & Co. 1858.
Kingsford, William The History of Canada, Vol. 6, Toronto: Roswell & Hutchinson, 1887.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Fleming, Thomas 1776: Year of Illusions, W.W. Norton & Co., 1975.
Hatch, Robert Thrust for Canada, Houghton-Mifflin, 1979.
Randall, Willard Benedict Arnold: Patriot and Traitor, William Morrow & Co. 1990.