The Battle of Lake Champlain,
From

The Naval War of 1812
or the
History of the United States Navy during
the Last War with Great Britain
to Which Is Appended an Account of
the Battle of New Orleans

by Theodore Roosevelt

edited by Brian Anderson

When 26-year-old Lt. Thomas Macdonough was sent to Lake Champlain in upstate New York in the fall of 1812, his orders were simple. He was to take command of a squadron of boats, and use it to control the lake and the water route from Canada down into New York. Simple, but not easy. He found, upon his arrival, that his “squadron” consisted of two gunboats. One had opened its seams to the point where he could stick his hand through the gaps in the planks. (The ships in that area at that time seem to have been made mostly of very green wood.) The other hadn’t dried out quite so badly, because it was on the bottom of the lake.

He began by requisitioning six small sloops from the Army. After rebuilding and refitting the gunboats and the sloops to carry cannon, things no doubt started looking a little better. But the British were beginning to put together a rival squadron on the Richelieu River that flowed north out of Champlain to the St. Lawrence River. Macdonough sent two sloops to station themselves on the north end of the lake at the head of the Richelieu to prevent any British ships from entering the lake. Their commander, Lt. Smith, though under strict orders not to enter British territory, never-the-less sailed down the river chasing a couple of enemy gunboats. At three o'clock in the morning Lt. Smith found the galleys had taken refuge under the guns of a British fort at Isle Aux Noix. A fairly large British force had gathered to welcome him, and the daring officer discovered that it is hard to sail back up a river against the current with the wind on the nose and ended up surrendering both sloops and the 110 precious men in them after a four hour battle.

The British, apparently grateful for the blunder, which at a stroke gave them overwhelming force, quickly assembled a flotilla and spent the rest of the summer raiding up and down the lake. Macdonough retreated 10 miles up Otter Creek to the town of Vergennes, near the southern end of the lake.

He and the fledgling United States were lucky. At the time, Vergennes was home to 8 forges, a blast furnace, a rolling mill, a wire factory, and a saw mill. Otter Creek could be protected by a battery at its mouth, and it was probably the only town on the lake that was both defensible and capable of providing Macdonough with the raw materials he needed to try to rescue the situation by building a new squadron.

In January 1814, Macdonough received authorization to build a ship and after finding carpenters, got down to work. On March 2, his men began what would become the 734-ton ship Saratoga. Her keel was laid on the 7th, and when she was finished just 40 days later, she was 143’ long and carried 26 guns. In their spare time, the men under Macdonough also converted a steamboat into the schooner Ticonderoga, 350 tons and 16 guns and saw to repairs on a half-dozen gunboats some 75’ long, each with two masts carrying lateen sails in addition to their 40 oars.

As work continued on the U.S. squadron into the summer, Macdonough was aware of the growing strength of the British squadron, notably the construction of the 1200-ton frigate Confiance. On July 23, he set to work on another brig, the Eagle. When it took its place on Otter Creek among the others on August 11, it weighed in at 500 tons and mounted 20 guns. They had built a brig, about 120’ long, in 20 days. It was all just in time. The carpenter and bosun must have just been putting the finishing touches on the masts, guns and rigging when word came that an army of some 11,000 British troops, many of them battle-hardened from fighting Napoleon in Spain, was marching down from Canada to invade the United States.

(Much of the information used in this introduction was compiled by James P. Millard and the full text, as well as a general history of Lake Champlain, can be found at http://www.historiclakes.org)

The Battle of Lake Champlain

Theodore Roosevelt was 23 when he published
The Naval War of 1812.
The full text can be found at http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/9104

THIS LAKE, which had hitherto played but an inconspicuous part, was now to become the scene of the greatest naval battle of the war. A British army of 11,000 men under Sir George Prevost undertook the invasion of New York by advancing up the western bank of Lake Champlain. This advance was impracticable unless there was a sufficiently strong British naval force to drive back the American squadron at the same time. Accordingly, the British began to construct a frigate, the Confiance, to be added to their already existing force, which conisted of a brig, two sloops, and 12 or 14 gun-boats.

The British army advanced slowly toward Plattsburg, which was held by General Macomb with less than 2,000 effective American troops. Captain Thomas Macdonough, the American commodore, took the lake a day or two before his antagonist, and came to anchor in Plattsburg harbor. (The titles of captain and commodore here were apparently courtesies due Lieutenant Macdonough because of his responsibility for captaining a ship and commanding a squadron) The British fleet, under Captain George Downie, moved from Isle-aux-Noix on Sept. 8th, and on the morning of the 11th sailed into Plattsburg harbor.

Macdonough and Downie were hurried into action before they had time to prepare themselves thoroughly; but it was a disadvantage common to both, and arose from the nature of the case, which called for immediate action.

MACDONOUGH'S FORCE

Name Tons Crew
Broadside
(lbs)
Metal, from long
or short guns (lbs)
Saratoga
734
240
414
long, 96
short, 318
Eagle
500
150
264
long, 72
short, 192
Ticonderoga
350
112
180
long, 84
short, 96
Preble
80
30
36
long, 36
Six gun-boats
420
246
252
long, 144
short, 108
Four gun-boats
160
104
48
long, 48

In all, 14 vessels of 2,244 tons and 882 men, with 86 guns throwing at a broadside 1,194 lbs. of shot, 480 from long, and 714 from short guns.

DOWNIE'S SQUADRON

Name Tons Crew
Broadside
(lbs)
Metal, from long
or short guns (lbs)
Confiance
1200
325
480
long, 384
short, 96
Linnet
350
125
96
long, 96
Chubb
112
50
96
long, 6
short, 90
Finch
110
50
84
long, 12
short, 72
Five gun-boats
350
205
254
long 12
short, 72
Seven gun-boats
280
182
182
long, 54
short, 128


Commodore Thomas Macdonough

Macdonough saw that the British would be forced to make the attack in order to get the control of the waters. On this long, narrow lake the winds usually blow pretty nearly north or south, and the set of the current is of course northward; all the vessels, being flat and shallow, could not beat to windward well, so there was little chance of the British making the attack when there was a southerly wind blowing. So late in the season there was danger of sudden and furious gales, which would make it risky for Downie to wait outside the bay till the wind suited him; and inside the bay the wind was pretty sure to be light and baffling. Young Macdonough (then but 28 years of age) calculated all these chances very coolly and decided to await the attack at anchor in Plattsburg Bay, with the head of his line so far to the north that it could hardly be turned; and then proceeded to make all the other preparations with the same foresight. Not only were his vessels provided with springs, but also with anchors to be used astern in any emergency. The Saratoga was further prepared for a change of wind, or for the necessity of winding ship, by having a kedge planted broad off on each of her bows, with a hawser and preventer hawser (hanging in bights under water) leading from each quarter to the kedge on that side. There had not been time to train the men thoroughly at the guns; and to make these produce their full effect the constant supervision of the officers had to be exerted. The British were laboring under this same disadvantage, but neither side felt the want very much, as the smooth water, stationary position of the ships, and fair range, made the fire of both sides very destructive.


(click to enlarge)

Plattsburg Bay is deep and opens to the southward; so that a wind which would enable the British to sail up the lake would force them to beat when entering the bay. The east side of the mouth of the bay is formed by Cumberland Head; the entrance is about a mile and a half across, and the other boundary, southwest from the Head, is an extensive shoal, and a small, low island. This is called Crab Island, and on it was a hospital and one six-pounder gun, which was to be manned in case of necessity by the strongest patients. Macdonough had anchored in a north-and-south line a little to the south of the outlet of the Saranac, and out of range of the shore batteries, being two miles from the western shore. The head of his line was so near Cumberland Head that an attempt to turn it would place the opponent under a very heavy fire, while to the south the shoal prevented a flank attack. The Eagle lay to the north, flanked on each side by a couple of gun-boats; then came the Saratoga, with three gun-boats between her and the Ticonderoga, the next in line; then came three gun-boats and the Preble. The four large vessels were at anchor; the galleys being under their sweeps and forming a second line about 40 yards back, some of them keeping their places and some not doing so. By this arrangement his line could not be doubled upon, there was not room to anchor on his broadside out of reach of his carronades, and the enemy was forced to attack by standing in bows on.

The morning of September 11th opened with a light breeze from the northeast. Downie's fleet weighed anchor at daylight, and came down the lake with the wind nearly aft, the booms of the two sloops swinging out to starboard. At half-past seven, the people in the ships could see their adversaries' upper sails across the narrow strip of land ending in Cumberland Head, before the British doubled the latter. Captain Downie hove to with his four large vessels when he had fairly opened the Bay, and waited for his galleys to overtake him. Then his four vessels filled on the starboard tack and headed for the American line, going abreast, the Chubb to the north, heading well to windward of the Eagle, for whose bows the Linnet was headed, while the Confiance was to be laid athwart the hawse of the Saratoga; the Finch was to leeward with the twelve gun-boats, and was to engage the rear of the American line.

As the English squadron stood bravely in, young Macdonough, who feared his foes not at all, but his God a great deal, 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. The Eagle spoke first with her long 18's, but to no effect, for the shot fell short. Then, as the Linnet passed the Saratoga, she fired her broadside of long 12's, but her shot also fell short, except one that struck a hen-coop which happened to be aboard the Saratoga. There was a game cock inside, and, instead of being frightened at his sudden release, he jumped up on a gun-slide, clapped his wings, and crowed lustily. The men laughed and cheered; and immediately afterward Macdonough himself fired the first shot from one of the long guns. The 24-pound ball struck the Confiance near the hawse-hole and ranged the length of her deck, killing and wounding several men. All the American long guns now opened and were replied to by the British galleys.

The Confiance stood steadily on without replying. But she was baffled by shifting winds, and was soon so cut up, having both her port bow-anchors shot away, and suffering much loss, that she was obliged to port her helm and come to while still nearly a quarter of a mile distant from the Saratoga. Captain Downie came to anchor in grand style -- securing every thing carefully before he fired a gun, and then opening with a terribly destructive broadside. The Chubb and Linnet stood farther in, and anchored forward the Eagle's beam. Meanwhile the Finch got abreast of the Ticonderoga, under her sweeps, supported by the gunboats. The main fighting was thus to take place between the vans, where the Eagle, Saratoga, and six or seven gun-boats were engaged with the Chubb, Linnet, Confiance, and two or three gun-boats; while in the rear, the Ticonderoga, the Preble, and the other American galleys engaged the Finch and the remaining nine or ten English galleys. The battle at the foot of the line was fought on the part of the Americans to prevent their flank being turned, and on the part of the British to effect that object. At first, the fighting was at long range, but gradually the British galleys closed up, firing very well. The American galleys at this end of the line were chiefly the small ones, armed with one 12-pounder apiece, and they by degrees drew back before the heavy fire of their opponents. About an hour after the discharge of the first gun had been fired the Finch closed up toward the Ticonderoga, and was completely crippled by a couple of broadsides from the latter. She drifted helplessly down the line and grounded near Crab Island; some of the convalescent patients manned the six-pounder and fired a shot or two at her, when she struck, nearly half of her crew being killed or wounded. About the same time the British gun-boats forced the Preble out of line, whereupon she cut her cable and drifted inshore out of the fight. Two or three of the British gun-boats had already been sufficiently damaged by some of the shot from the Ticonderoga's long guns to make them wary; and the contest at this part of the line narrowed down to one between the American schooner and the remaining British gun-boats, who combined to make a most determined attack upon her. So hastily had the squadron been fitted out that many of the matches for her guns were at the last moment found to be defective. The captain of one of the divisions was a midshipman, but sixteen years old, Hiram Paulding. When he found the matches to be bad he fired the guns of his section by having pistols flashed at them, and continued this through the whole fight. The Ticonderoga's commander, Lieut. Cassin, fought his schooner most nobly. He kept walking the taffrail amidst showers of musketry and grape, coolly watching the movements of the galleys and directing the guns to be loaded with canister and bags of bullets, when the enemy tried to board. The British galleys were handled with determined gallantry, under the command of Lieutenant Bell. Had they driven off the Ticonderoga they would have won the day for their side, and they pushed up till they were not a boat-hook's length distant, to try to carry her by boarding; but every attempt was repulsed and they were forced to draw off, some of them so crippled by the slaughter they had suffered that they could hardly man the oars.


Water battle - Macdonough's victory, 1814
From an old print: The Centenary of the Battle of Plattsburg (1914)
Floyd Harwood Collection

Meanwhile the fighting at the head of the line had been even fiercer. The first broadside of the Confiance, fired from 16 long 24's, double-shotted, coolly sighted, in smooth water, at point-blank range, produced the most terrible effect on the Saratoga. Her hull shivered all over with the shock, and when the crash subsided nearly half of her people were seen stretched on deck, for many had been knocked down who were not seriously hurt. Among the slain was her first lieutenant, Peter Gamble; he was kneeling down to sight the bow-gun, when a shot entered the port, split the quoin, and drove a portion of it against his side, killing him without breaking the skin. The survivors carried on the fight with undiminished energy. Macdonough himself worked like a common sailor, in pointing and handling a favorite gun. While bending over to sight it a round shot cut in two the spanker boom, which fell on his head and struck him senseless for two or three minutes; he then leaped to his feet and continued as before, when a shot took off the head of the captain of the gun and drove it in his face with such a force as to knock him to the other side of the deck. But after the first broadside not so much injury was done; the guns of the Confiance had been leveled to point-blank range, and as the quoins were loosened by the successive discharges they were not properly replaced, so that her broadsides kept going higher and higher and doing less and less damage. Very shortly after the beginning of the action her gallant captain was slain. He was standing behind one of the long guns when a shot from the Saratoga struck it and threw it completely off the carriage against his right groin, killing him almost instantly. His skin was not broken; a black mark, about the size of a small plate, was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with its hands pointing to the very second at which he received the fatal blow. As the contest went on the fire gradually decreased in weight, the guns being disabled. The inexperience of both crews partly caused this. The American sailors overloaded their carronades so as to very much destroy the effect of their fire; when the officers became disabled, the men would cram the guns with shot till the last projected from the muzzle. Of course, this lessened the execution, and also gradually crippled the guns. On board the Confiance the confusion was even worse: after the battle the charges of the guns were drawn, and on the side she had fought one was found with a canvas bag containing two round of shot rammed home and wadded without any powder; another with two cartridges and no shot; and a third with a wad below the cartridge.

At the extreme head of the line the advantage had been with the British. The Chubb and Linnet had begun a brisk engagement with the Eagle and American gun-boats. In a short time the Chubb had her cable, bowsprit, and main-boom shot away, drifted within the American lines, and was taken possession of by one of the Saratoga's midshipmen. The Linnet paid no attention to the American gunboats, directing her whole fire against the Eagle, and the latter was, in addition, exposed to part of the fire of the Confiance. After keeping up a heavy fire for a long time her springs were shot away, and she came up into the wind, hanging so that she could not return a shot to the well-directed broadsides of the Linnet. Henly accordingly cut his cable, started home his top-sails, ran down, and anchored by the stern between and inshore of the Confiance and Ticonderoga, from which position he opened on the Confiance. The Linnet now directed her attention to the American gun-boats, which at this end of the line were very well fought, but she soon drove them off, and then sprung her broadside so as to rake the Saratoga on her bows.

Macdonough by this time had his hands full, and his fire was slackening; he was bearing the whole brunt of the action, with the frigate on his beam and the brig raking him. Twice his ship had been set on fire by the hot shot of the Confiance; one by one his long guns were disabled by shot, and his carronades were either treated the same way or else rendered useless by excessive overcharging. Finally but a single carronade was left in the starboard batteries, and on firing it the naval-bolt broke, the gun flew off the carriage and fell down the main hatch, leaving the Commodore without a single gun to oppose to the few the Confiance still presented. The battle would have been lost had not Macdonough's foresight provided the means of retrieving it.

The anchor suspended astern of the Saratoga was let go, and the men hauled in on the hawser that led to the starboard quarter, bringing the ship's stern up over the kedge. The ship now rode by the kedge and by a line that had been bent to a bight in the stream cable, and she was raked badly by the accurate fire of the Linnet. By rousing on the line the ship was at length got so far round that the aftermost gun of the port broadside bore on the Confiance. The men had been sent forward to keep as much out of harm's way as possible, and now some were at once called back to man the piece, which then opened with effect. The next gun was treated in the same manner; but the ship now hung and would go no farther round. The hawser leading from the port quarter was then got forward under the bows and passed aft to the starboard quarter, and a minute afterward the ship's whole port battery opened with fatal effect. The Confiance meanwhile had also attempted to round. Her springs, like those of the Linnet, were on the starboard side, and so of course could not be shot away as the Eagle's were; but, as she had nothing but springs to rely on, her efforts did little beyond forcing her forward, and she hung with her head to the wind. She had lost over half of her crew, most of her guns on the engaged side were dismounted, and her stout masts had been splintered till they looked like bundles of matches; her sails had been torn to rags, and she was forced to strike, about two hours after she had fired the first broadside. Without pausing a minute the Saratoga again hauled on her starboard hawser till her broadside was sprung to bear on the Linnet, and the ship and brig began a brisk fight, which the Eagle from her position could take no part in, while the Ticonderoga was just finishing up the British galleys.

The shattered and disabled state of the Linnet's masts, sails, and yards precluded the most distant hope of Capt. Pring's effecting his escape by cutting his cable; but he kept up a most gallant fight with his greatly superior foe, in hopes that some of the gun-boats would come and tow him off, and dispatched a lieutenant to the Confiance to ascertain her state. The lieutenant returned with news of Capt. Downie's death, while the British gun-boats had been driven half a mile off; and, after having maintained the fight single-handed for fifteen minutes, until, from the number of shot between wind and water, the water had risen a foot above her lower deck, the plucky little brig hauled down her colors, and the fight ended, a little over two hours and a half after the first gun had been fired. Not one of the larger vessels had a mast that would bear canvas, and the prizes were in a sinking condition.

On both sides the ships had been cut up in the most extraordinary manner; the Saratoga had 55 shot-holes in her hull, and the Confiance 105 in hers, and the Eagle and Linnet had suffered in proportion. The number of killed and wounded can not be exactly stated; it was probably about 200 on the American side, and over 300 on the British.

Captain Macdonough at once returned the British officers their swords. Captain Pring writes: "I have much satisfaction in making you acquainted with the humane treatment the wounded have received from Commodore Macdonough; they were immediately removed to his own hospital on Crab Island, and furnished with every requisite. His generous and polite attention to myself, the officers, and men, will ever hereafter be gratefully remembered." The effects of the victory were immediate and of the highest importance. Sir George Prevost and his army at once fled in great haste and confusion back to Canada, leaving our northern frontier clear for the remainder of the war; while the victory had a very great effect on the negotiations for peace. (The British were apparently hoping to negotiate a peace in which they kept much of what they had gained, which could have amounted to Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and much of upstate New York as well.)

BRITISH LOSS

Name
Tons
Guns
Remarks
Brig
100
10
Burnt by Lieut. Gregory
Magnet
187
12
Burnt by her crew
Black Snake
30
1
Captured
Gun-boat
50
2
Captured
Gun-boat
50
3
Captured
Confiance
1,200
37
Captured
Linnet
350
16
Captured
Chubb
112
11
Captured
Finch
110
11
Captured
9 Vessels
2,189
103

AMERICAN LOSS

Name
Tons
Guns
Remarks
Growler
81
7
Captured
Boat
50
2
Captured
Tigress
96
1
Captured
Scorpion
86
2
Captured
Ohio
94
1
Captured
Somers
98
2
Captured
6 Vessels
505
15
Captured