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The War of 1812 on Land and Sea

Capt. Gregg L. Trask

The War of 1812 would be an important milestone for the Champlain Valley. The tensions between Great Britain and the young America arose, among other things, due to trade issues. There were embargoes of British goods in 1807 and 1808. The English claimed the right to search American vessels, seize anyone suspected of being a British subject and force them into the British military. Grievances were lodged on both sides. War was officially declared on June 19, 1812.

There were a number of incursions from Canada during the next two years. Lake Champlain was considered to be in the eastern division. The British plan was to dismember the United States by occupying Lake Champlain and the northern Hudson River, then attacking New York City which would separate the nation and allow for a peace in the eastern states.

The invasion force for this was given to General Prevost and numbered about 15,000 soldiers. Opposing this force was about 3,500 Americans under the command of General Alexander Macomb who were gathered at Plattsburgh. Both countries had been preparing fleets for naval operations on the Lake. In early October of 1812, a young officer named Thomas MacDonough was ordered to Lake Champlain to take command of the vessels there. He found that the region was not pleased with the government's efforts to enforce the embargo. In fact, the winter of 1809 saw meetings of the citizenry on both sides of the Lake that came to the conclusion that enforcement of the embargo was oppressive in nature. Smuggling was rampant.

In September, the British General announced his intention to seize and hold northern New York as far south as Ticonderoga and asked for residents to supply him with needed goods. General Prevost believed that his orders were to establish the British army at Plattsburgh then send forth men to destroy Vergennes and its naval operations. Prevost arrived at Plattsburgh with a force of 8,200 men. General Macomb had only about 3,400 men, some 1,400 were sick and quartered at the hospital on Crab Island. An additional 250 men were serving on the naval fleet. By September 11, General Samuel Strong had arrived with an additional 2,500 Vermonters wearing green sprigs in their hats.

When news of the invasion force was learned by the residents of Essex County, however, they rallied to the cause. When the call went out asking for volunteers to defend their homes, almost every man turned out to his assigned post in the principle settlements in the area. Able-bodied men were joined by veterans of the Revolutionary War and women and children well wishers. With pride, they marched to Plattsburgh

MacDonough moved his fleet to Plattsburgh Bay and prepared for battle. His fleet now consisted of his flag ship Saratoga, the schooner Ticonderoga, the brig Eagle, the sloops President, Preble and Montgomery, six galleys and four gunboats. An elaborate anchoring pattern was used which allowed each vessel to be turned 180 degrees to allow fresh guns on the opposite side of the vessel to be brought to bear on the enemy. Seriously undermanned, the brig Eagle added to her complement 40 army prisoners freed from their ball and chain, 5 hospital patients and 6 musicians (one with his wife).

The British commander, Captain George Downie, was ordered to sail to Plattsburgh. Adverse winds caused the entire British fleet to rendezvous off the Little Chazy River. Carpenters were continuing their work on the newly launched Confiance. The Confiance, at 147 feet and 36 guns, was the largest war vessel ever to sail Lake Champlain. The British fleet now included, besides Confiance, the brig Linnet, the sloops Chub and Finch and 12 gunboats. Captain Downie was confident of victory and hosted a great banquet on shore at Chazy Landing at which there were numerous toasts of wine and rum. Downie felt confident as he had been told by General Prevost that the American brig Eagle was being manned by prisoners of all descriptions.

Early on the morning of September 11th, the British fleet gave a pre-arranged signal to the land troops and sailed south. The masts of the American vessels were seen as the British fleet sailed along Cumberland Head. After releasing his remaining craftsmen, Captain Downie made his plans and sailed into Plattsburgh Bay. As MacDonough had planned, the English fleet was tacking against the wind on his run to engage the American fleet. When this battle commenced, General Prevost opened artillery bombardment on the American forts in Plattsburgh.

The naval battle was considerable and bloody. When it ended, many of the vessels were on the verge of sinking with their masts, spars and rigging destroyed. The Confiance and the Linnet were surrendered by their commanders. In response to local residents who blew horns and beat on tin pans to signal the British defeat, the British hospital sloop Icicle fired a cannon at a public house on Cumberland Head during her retreat. British casualties were estimated as 54 to 57 killed and 116 wounded while American losses were 52 killed and 58 wounded.

Without the British fleet, General Prevost found it impractical to stay in Plattsburgh. He ordered the British to withdraw to Plattsburgh. American General Macomb is credited with special renown for his actions. He stood steadfast in the face of a superior enemy. Had he retired and abandoned the forts of Plattsburgh as some of his officers suggested, the English may well have gained a way to compromise MacDonough's position in the Bay.

When learning of the victory, Americans celebrated with fireworks and bonfires in many parts of the country. The State of New York gifted 2000 acres of land to MacDonough and the state of Vermont purchased 200 acres of Cumberland Head for him. He was promoted to the rank of Captain and Congress struck a gold medal in his honor. Plattsburgh hosted a dinner of 17 toasts to the victor and, not to be outdone, three days later Burlington hosted a dinner with 21 toasts.

At the end of November, 1814, Captain MacDonough was ordered to relinquish command of the Lake Champlain fleet. He was then ordered to New York City where he took command of the 156 foot, steam powered floating battery, Fulton First, becoming the first commander of a steam powered warship. On his way to New York City, he was honored with dinners and balls in Troy, Albany, Middletown (CT) and New York City. He was briefly recalled to Whitehall when intelligence suspected another British invasion might be planned for Spring of 1815 but he found no evidence of it. On February 17, 1815, the United States Senate ratified the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war.

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