The most decisive victory of the War of 1812 occurred on the waters of Cumberland Bay on the west shore of Lake Champlain. Before the contending navies settled the fate of a threatened invasion of the Champlain Valley, the British negotiators at Ghent had called for cession of northern Maine, parts of upper New York State, and territory along the Great Lakes, and British supervision of the relations between the United States and the American Indians. When news of Macdonough’s success reached Holland on October 21 it emboldened the American territory. According to Lord Bathurst, the British Colonial Secretary, the unfortunate misadventure on Lake Champlain had altered the climate of peace negotiations, so on December 14, 1814, the British accepted a speedy settlement, largely based upon the status quo.
So decisive a role in warfare was not out of character for Lake Champlain. The historic water route was the principal means of transportation from Canada to lower New York, the easy way around the Adirondack barrier. Even before the lake became of strategic importance to the colonial powers, the Algonquins, Iroquois, and other Indian tribes used it as a great water highway. In the colonial period, control of the lake was literally the key to the fate of North America. Lake Champlain served as a vital passage during the French and Indian War, and as the avenue for the British invasions of 1776 and 1777. Control of Lake Champlain again became a significant issue during the War of 1812, when the British planned their invasion through the valley. Today, the tranquil waterway shows little surface evidence of all this past turmoil, but the signs are still being revealed to scuba divers who search Champlain’s depths for the forgotten fragments of history. Masts and spars, cannon, shot, anchors, and even whole ships still remain on the floor of Lake Champlain, many of them relics of Macdonough’s great battle.
The confrontations that led to the battle at Cumberland Bay built up over a period of two years. Largely through the energy of the commander on the scene, the United States was the first to achieve naval superiority on the lake. In September of 1812, Thomas Macdonough was assigned to command the American fleet of two gunboats, one of which was beached and waterlogged at Basin Harbor. The new commander who had seen service in the Tripolitan Wars, was both enterprising and farsighted, and by the next spring he had accumulated an armed fleet consisting of the two gunboats and four sloops—the President, Growler, Eagle, and Montgomery. Unfortunately, the dominance of the lake by the new fleet was short-lived. The President was severely damaged when she ran aground on some offshore rocks. Then in early June, Macdonough sent the Growler and Eagle to drive raiding British gunboats back into the Richelieu River. The British trapped and seized the two sloops, which then entered the British navy as HMS Chubb and HMS Finch.
Dominance of the lake now shifted to the British. In late July, the new British landed at Plattsburgh and destroyed public buildings and barracks. The fleet then proceeded across the lake to Burlington, where the Americans were busy putting another fleet together. As the British fleet anchored off the Navy dockyard, two 24-pound cannons commenced firing from a battery on a high bluff overlooking the bay. After a 20-minute stand-off, the British squadron sailed away to the mouth of the Bouquet River and then to Four Brothers Islands. Their naval prizes for the cruise amounted to four small sailing vessels.
Reacting to the British control of Lake Champlain, Macdonough requested from the Navy Department the construction of a bigger fleet. In March of 1814, Noah Brown was sent by the Navy to Vergennes, Vermont, to build a large ship and nine gunboats. The speedy construction of the fleet was remarkable by any standards. The timber for the 26-gun corvette Saratoga was cut on March 2, and the ship splashed into the water on April 11. A steamboat hull, under construction at Vergennes, was pressed into service as the 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga. In late June the builders were recalled to Vergennes to assemble yet another ship; 19 days after their arrival, the 24-gun brig Eagle was launched. When the flurry of construction ended, the American Fleet included the Saratoga, Eagle, Ticonderoga, the small sloop Preble, and ten gunboats.
Meanwhile, the British had been making nibbling forays into American waters. As the early morning mist cleared the lake on May 14, a small British fleet anchored at the mouth of Otter Creek near Burlington. At the end of the long sinuous creek was the busy American naval base. A small battery mounting seven ship’s guns, dubbed Fort Cassin, protected its entrance. After an hour and a half of mutual cannonade, the British gunboats were driven off. Before sailing for home, the gunboats were sent up the Bouquet River on the opposite shore to raid a flour mill. There they were nearly captured by angry local militiamen who had other plans for the flour.
By late spring the new American fleet cruised the open lake and rehearsed maneuvers on its glimmering waters. The fleet’s presence dashed the British plan of invasion in the summer of 1814. The new circumstances required a bigger fleet to clear the lake for the transports which would carry the British army. The British plan, similar to that attempted in the Revolution, called for an invasion through the Champlain Valley to New York City, which would divide New England from the other states. In an impressive demonstration of flexibility, the British transferred 15,000 experienced troops directly to Canada from their victory in Europe against Napoleon’s best armies. An overland invasion by an army of this size, circumventing the lake, would have required additional tons of supplies and weeks of delay as the ox-drawn wagons plodded through the rough terrain of the Adirondacks. The only feasible plan was to open the lake by defeating Macdonough’s fleet.
Fortunately for the Americans, Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General of Canada, had been in charge of British military strategy for several years, and he had wasted valuable time on useless campaigns along Lakes Erie and Ontario. The British plans were now focused on the Champlain Valley. While the troops waited for the invasion, shipwrights worked at breakneck speed to put together what would be the largest ship on the lake. On September 2, Captain George Downie of the Royal Navy arrived at Isle Aux Noix to take command of the British fleet. Sir George Prevost immediately pressed Downie to get underway, even though his flagship, Confiance, had not been completed. Prevost decided on a joint land and sea attack, though it isn’t clear whether he intended the navy to help the army or vice versa.
Meanwhile, in an incredible move, the War Department transferred 4,000 American troops under General Izard from Plattsburgh to Lake Ontario. This left General Alexander Macomb in command at Plattsburgh with only 1,500 effective soldiers. Macomb asked Vermont for more men and 2,500 volunteers under General Samuel Strong were transported across the lake. Another 700 of the Clinton and Essex militia under General Mooers marched to the Plattsburgh breastworks.
During the preceding two years there had been a lack of support for the war by some factions that were more interested in personal profit. In August 1814, Sir George Prevost acknowledged in a letter that two-thirds of his army in Canada ate beef drawn from the states of Vermont and New York. General Izard reported on July 31 that, “On the eastern side of Lake Champlain the high roads are found insufficient for the supplies of cattle which are pouring into Canada. Like herds of buffaloes they press through the forest, making paths for themselves.” Trafficking was not limited to beef. During the summer of 1814, Macdonough’s ships twice captured rafts being arduously towed by rowboats to Canada. The crews escaped, but the cargo aboard the captured rafts was a complete set of masts and topmasts for the Confiance.
On the morning of September 11 the British fleet, which included the Confiance, Linnet, Finch, Chubb and 12 gunboats, set sail for Plattsburgh. The Confiance actually sailed before she was finished and the last gangs of riggers and outfitters departed the ship only two hours prior to the battle. The fleet did not even have a shakedown cruise. On the other hand, Macdonough, after careful preparation, was ready for confrontation. He had placed his four main ships 100 years apart in a line parallel to Cumberland Head. The British would have difficulty entering the bay at this point, since the winds usually were light and unreliable. Macdonough had cleverly designed an intricate anchoring system for the ships; in the event the guns along one side were disabled, the ship could be turned, bringing the guns from the opposite side to bear on the enemy. The ships and guns of both fleets were nearly equal in strength, but Downie did have more long-range cannon. Macdonough’s planning overcame this advantage since Downie would not be able to attack from the Plattsburgh side because of Macomb’s troops; they would have to fight between Macdonough’s ships and the Cumberland shore, at close range.
At 7 a.m. the British ships came into full view. According to Theodore Roosevelt, as the British squadron hove to, Macdonough “knelt for a moment, with his officers on the quarter-deck; and then ensued a few minutes of perfect quiet, the men waiting with grim expectancy for the opening of the fight.” Downie decided that the Confiance should engage the Saratoga, while the Linnet, supported by the Chubb, would engage the Eagle, and the Finch, accompanied by the gunboats, would attack the Ticonderoga and Preble. As the Linnet passed the Saratoga, she fired a broadside which fell short except for a shot that struck a hen coop aboard the American flagship. Instead of being frightened at his unexpected liberation, the gamecock jumped up on the starboard gunwale, flapped his wings and crowed defiantly. The Saratoga‘s crew sent up a cheer, regarding the incident as a good omen. The first broadside of the Confiance had a devastating effect upon the men of the Saratoga, leaving half of them flattened on the deck, although most were simply knocked over by the blast. Fifteen minutes after the first broadside from the Confiance, Captain Downie was killed instantly when a shot from the Saratoga hit a 24-pound cannon, throwing it completely off its carriage into the British commander. His opposite number also had problems. Twice Macdonough was knocked senseless in the hot action. As he sighted a gun, part of the rigging that had been shot away fell on his head, throwing him to the deck. As he regained his composure, he was again knocked to the deck by the flying head of his own gun captain, which had been severed by a cannonball.
At the same time, the Linnet had driven the Eagle out of the line. Following the loss of her bowsprit, main boom and cables, the Chubb became unmanageable; drifting into the American lines, she was forced to surrender. The Finch, crippled by broadsides from the Ticonderoga, drifted helplessly onto a reef off Crab Island. She capitulated following several shots that were fired by two cannons manned by convalescent soldiers on the island. The Preble came under fire from the 12 British gunboats and was in constant danger of being boarded. The small sloop kept the gunboats engaged as long as possible before she was forced to retire to the Plattsburgh shoreline.
But the hottest fight was between the Saratoga and Confiance: the destruction had nearly crippled both ships. Macdonough’s last operating cannon suddenly recoiled across the Saratoga‘s deck and fell through the open main hatch. Many other guns had fallen silent during the chaos as the result of the wad being rammed into the cannon before the powder, leaving the guns inoperable. Unless the Saratoga could bring the guns from her port side to bear upon the enemy, she was finished. The crew began their prearranged anchoring maneuver. As the ship turned end to end, the men flattened themselves on the deck in anticipation of the deadly fire from the Confiance. Shots raked across the deck. The ship’s sailing master had his clothes completely torn off, leaving him entirely uninjured. The Confiance then sought to duplicate the Saratoga‘s maneuver, but in the middle of the turn a shot cut through the anchor cable, leaving the warship with her stern at the mercy of the Saratoga‘s port guns.
The Confiance was a shambles, with her rigging shattered and a hundred holes in her port side. Midshipman William Lee of the Confiance, who had been at Trafalgar with Lord Nelson, said that famous battle “was a mere fleabite in comparison with this.” The midshipman described the condition of his vessel: “The havoc on both sides is dreadful. I don’t think there are more than five of our men out of three hundred but what are killed or wounded. Never was a shower of hail so thick as the shot whistling about our ears. Were you to see my jacket, waist-coat and trousers, you would be astonished how I escaped as I did, for they are literally torn all to rags with shot and splinters; the upper part of my hat was also shot away.”
At 10:33 a.m., helpless, the Confiance struck her colors. The battle now centered on the Linnet. Since her masts, sails and rigging were shattered and disabled, escape was impossible; 15 minutes after the flagship struck, the Linnet surrendered. All of the larger British ships had been taken, but the gunboats were able to escape to the open lake and back to Canada.
Meanwhile, the land attack had also gone badly. When the British fleet arrived off Plattsburgh that morning, Sir George Prevost, instead of ordering the attacking column to move forward when the agreed signal had been given by the Confiance, gave orders for the men to go to breakfast. He then ordered his generals with their 13,000 well-fed troops to ford the Saranac River and besiege the American works. One brigade, consisting of four companies of light infantry, missed the ford across the Saranac and never really got into action. Another British continent was repulsed at a second crossing, but several companies broke through at a third crossing, only to be stopped by the New York militia and the volunteers from Vermont. When the British fleet struck its colors, Prevost ordered a retreat back to Canada. For all practical purposes, the War of 1812 was over.