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The Battle of Lake Champlain and the End of the War of 1812


Macdonough's Victory on Lake Champlain, 1814

Macdonough's Victory on Lake Champlain, 1814 Water by Edward Tufnell, depicting the U.S. Sloop Saratoga (left center) and the U.S. Brig Eagle (right) engaging the British flagship Confiance (center) off Plattsburg, New York, 11 September 1814. Saratoga was flagship of the American commander, Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. (NH 51480-KN)


The last great naval victory of the War of 1812 happened at an unlikely place—the placid waters of Lake Champlain, in upstate New York—and at an unlikely moment, as the U.S. war effort, in its final stages, was faltering on all fronts.

The Battle of Lake Champlain, the joint Army-Navy operation also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh, provides a window into an ambivalent moment in U.S. history. What did this victory mean to contemporaries, coming as it did amid so much terrible news, and what impact might it have had on the shape of the peace, which commissioners from both sides were already negotiating in Ghent, United Netherlands (now Belgium)?

The naval battle itself was remarkable in its ferocity and complexity, yet spectacular events happening at the same time elsewhere—on the eastern seaboard and in Europe—overshadowed news of this latest naval victory and thereby consigned the Battle of Lake Champlain to relative obscurity.[1]

Preparing for Battle

On the U.S.–Canadian[2] border, particularly near Lake Champlain in northern New York, the war was intensifying by the late summer of 1814. The British were now, finally, on the offensive because Napoleon’s recent defeat in Europe had freed up troops, ships, materiel, supplies, and funds for the ongoing war against the United States.

General George Prevost, stationed just over the Canadian border, received reinforcements of some 13,000 men, most of whom he would use to invade the United States and take Plattsburgh and the rest of the Champlain Valley.[3

On 29 August, Major General Izard departed northern New York for the Niagara area, which cleared the way for Prevost to cross the border with confidence two days later.[4] Tending toward caution, however, Prevost decided that his troops would not attack without naval support—indeed not without a concurrent naval battle on Lake Champlain, near the town of Plattsburgh.[5] The Royal Navy’s Captain George Downie would guard Prevost’s left flank and secure supply lines as British troops occupied the area. Despite this caution, Prevost, Downie, their officers, their men, and their government believed that a decisive British victory was at hand.[6]

Unfortunately for the British, stores and guns were not yet ready at the start of September, nor was HMS Confiance, which constructors at the Royal Navy yard at Île aux Noix, on the Richelieu River (in present-day Quebec), raced to finish in time for engagement on Lake Champlain.[7]

When Confiance appeared for battle on 11 September, she did so without a finished magazine. Small boats, laden with the necessary ordnance, had to follow in her wake. The gunlocks, moreover, were actually ill fitting fastenings hastily improvised by the crew.[8] Confiance was hardly what one could call finished.

Her crew, embarked as late as 5 September—6 days before battle—was newly assembled and had trouble working together; they were, according to a British post-action report, “totally unknown either to the Officers or to each other.”[9]

The U.S. Navy’s Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough and his Sailors were much more fortunate. A visitor to Saratoga, Macdonough’s ship, described him as “light and agile in frame, easy and graceful in his manners, with an expressive countenance, remarkably placid.” These qualities proved decisive during the battle that was to come. Most important, Macdonough inspired in his officers something like “unbounded confidence.”[10]

Macdonough decided he would fight a stationary battle against the British and therefore waited for the enemy squadron to come within range.[11] He instructed his four ships (assisted by ten gunboats) to anchor in Cumberland Bay at even distances in a line from north to south: the brig Eagle, the 26-gun corvette Saratoga, and then Preble and Ticonderoga, both sloops. The latter would manage to “engage nearly every British vessel on the line,” even raking “the British flagship at a crucial juncture in the battle,” as historian Matthew Cheser has pointed out in an essay on the battle.

Even before the battle began, the Americans could claim several advantages:

  • Stationary battle meant that Sailors could focus almost entirely on gunnery;

  • The shoals in and around Cumberland Bay meant that the British would be vulnerable to natural traps they could not see;

  • The winds in this part of the lake were unpredictable, subject to distortions and disturbances by the proximity of the coast.[12]

On 11 September, moreover, winds were light, and the British therefore lost the only real advantage they possessed: the preponderance of long guns. Without much wind, the British ships would be unable to maneuver in such a way as effectively to fire broadsides from a distance. A battle at close quarters became the foregone conclusion. Deadly to both sides, this eventuality nonetheless played into the Americans’ hands.[13]

The Battle on the Lake

The British squadron weighed anchor as the sun came up on 11 September. Within an hour, the squadron’s lookouts caught sight of the American ships—“moored in line . . . , with a Division of 5 Gun Boats on Each Flank.” At 7:40, the Royal Navy officers circulated final instructions among each other and their sailors and soon after their vessels headed for the American line.[14]

The battle opened at about 9:45 with a deafening roar that continued for nearly two hours. Spectators on nearby Cumberland Head felt the ground shake beneath their feet. Smoke eventually obscured the view as the ships fired at each other at extremely close range.[15]

“The whole force, on both sides, became engaged,” according to Macdonough, who tried from his position on Saratoga to keep track of the melee. He could see that despite his own ship’s sorry and deteriorating condition, her direct foe at this stage of battle, Confiance, was probably making out worse.[16] Indeed, the subsequent account of a Royal Navy eyewitness confirms Macdonough’s assessment: “Confiance having two Anchors shot away . . . , And the wind baffling[,] was obliged to anchor . . . within two Cables length of her adversary.”[17] This proximity, paired with Confiance’s increasing difficulty maneuvering, would be her undoing.

Quite early in the battle, a gun on Confiance came off its carriage and crushed Captain Downie, her commanding officer. Both the ship and the squadron were now without their commander. Although Lieutenant James Robertson, next in line of command, took up his post immediately, he soon found that getting news and orders to the other ships of the squadron would be all but impossible because Confiance’s signal book was nowhere to be found.[18]

Macdonough, though injured, managed to avoid death and continue to direct the battle, even as his ship caught fire twice because of “hot Shot from the Enemy’s ship.”[19]

Meanwhile, the British brig Linnet engaged Eagle, but the British sloop Chub, commanded by Lieutenant James McGhie, failed to assist after losing her anchor cables, bowsprit, and main boom. Unable to control her own course, she “drifted within the enemy’s line,” according to McGhie, “and was obliged to surrender.”[20] In the process, McGhie lost two fingertips and took a splinter to the thigh.[21]

The British sloop Finch (captured from the U.S. Navy in 1813) also lost the ability to maneuver when her commanding officer “had the Mortification to strike on a reef of rocks”—in fact, one of the shoals that only the Americans knew about—an hour or so into battle.[22] Only Linnet and Confiance, herself in grave danger, remained operable.

Mercifully, the mortal struggle between Confiance and Saratoga appeared to abate. Sustained enemy fire had immobilized each ship’s battle-facing guns—Confiance’s port side, Saratoga’s starboard.[23] The relative calm was deceptive, however. Macdonough was about to deliver a most punishing coup de grace.[24]

“Winding” the Ship and Winning the Battle

“Winding” a ship refers to the standard practice whereby ships of sail could rotate on a central axis by manual adjustment of various anchors at and around the bow and stern. Winding the ship was not an easy process, particularly now, two hours into a battle at close range.

With Saratoga’s portside guns still perfectly operable, Macdonough now issued orders to wind the ship, whereupon the undamaged guns would smash Confiance to splinters. When Confiance’s captain finally saw what was about to happen, he tried to wind his own ship, but to no avail. Confiance’s cable became tangled, which in turn stymied the crew’s efforts to turn the stricken vessel. Meanwhile, Saratoga swung into position and loosed a mortal broadside from her portside guns.[25]

Engulfed in smoke, awash with blood, and filling with water, Confiance was in a pitiful state. Her crew refused to remain at quarters, despite the “utmost exertions to rally them.”[26]

The surrender of the last operable British ship, Linnet, provided a sorry denouement to the Royal Navy’s stunning defeat. When “the whole attention of the Enemy’s force” now “directed towards Linnet,” as a British after-action report put it, the ship’s crew and officers requested that their commanding officer surrender. Honoring the request, and in order to “prevent a useless waste of valuable lives,” Lieutenant McGhie “gave the painful orders for the colours to be struck.”[27]

The scene on the lake was gruesome. To the naked eye, it might have been hard to tell who had won, so wrecked were both sides’ ships. Perhaps the principal indication of an American victory, at least to those on shore, was the flight of the Royal Navy’s gunboats. According to historian John H. Schroeder, spectators at Cumberland Head cheered, banged pans, rang bells, and blew horns as the gunboats sped past, whereupon one of the vessels “silenced the joyous racket with a single cannon shot.”[28] The Americans had indeed won the battle but not necessarily the war.

The Aftermath

Confiance suffered a shattered hull and the loss of much of her crew, somewhere around 150 men killed or wounded. Only about 40 men passed through the ordeal unhurt.[29] Blood filled the ship’s deck seams, and bodies and parts of bodies littered the deck.[30] Macdonough had the enemy’s wounded men transported to the U.S. hospital encampment on nearby Crab Island and, according to British reports, saw to it that they received treatment as good as any American might get.[31]

On hearing the news of the defeat on Lake Champlain, General Prevost canceled the ground battle and fled the scene with his troops. The Americans, under Major General Alexander Macomb, followed in hot pursuit.[32]

Still, the British onslaught against American positions near the Canadian border continued apace. “Our hopes are now centered in the Ontario fleet,” Lieutenant Colonel Edward B. Brenton (British Army) wrote a day after the Battle of Lake Champlain. Confiance, lost in her first engagement with the enemy, was now out of sight and out of mind: “I am anxiously expecting the intelligence of the safe launching of the New Ship,” Brenton continued, “to retrieve the misfortunes of the other lakes.”[33] Although the British had yet to score any major victory in any of the naval battles for the Great Lakes, they had little intention and indeed no compulsion to give up just yet.

The Regional Context

President James Madison’s aim in the invasion of British North America, which had commenced more than two years prior to the Battle of Lake Champlain, had been to strike fear into the hearts of the British secretary of state for foreign affairs, the prime minister, and influential cabinet members and members of Parliament—so much so that they might agree to sign a treaty with the United States that pledged respect for American merchant vessels and an end to the impressment—kidnapping, essentially—of U.S. merchant mariners into the Royal Navy. British North America would be the Americans’ ransom in this effort to get what historian J.C.A. Stagg calls “a scrap of paper that by the end of 1814 had failed to materialize.” Indeed, the Americans never managed to hold on to significant swaths of British territory for long. Winning the Battle of Lake Champlain, deep in American territory, did not bring the United States any closer to its war aims. If anything, the outcome of the battle made conquest of British North America even less likely. Grievously damaged by the battle, Macdonough’s ships could no longer get underway.[34]

Macdonough’s victory also made no immediate difference to conditions on the New York–Canadian border, which were not in the Americans’ favor. The area had more or less descended into chaos and something like civil war.[35]

The smuggling of foodstuffs and supplies from the United States to the British over the border near Lake Champlain hit an all-time high in the summer before the battle. In July 1814, General Izard observed the “open disregard . . . for the laws prohibiting [trading] with the enemy.” Just east of Lake Champlain, “the high roads are found insufficient for the supplies of cattle which are [illegally] pouring into Canada [from the United States]. Like herds of buffaloes, they press through the forest making paths for themselves.” Indeed, as historian Alan Taylor observes, this “smuggled produce and livestock sustained the British army in Canada” even as it nearly tripled in size and far outstripped the food supply in Upper Canada.[36] Salt pork, grains, and flour crowded the waterways to British North America. The American victory at Lake Champlain changed none of this.[37]

The victory at Lake Champlain also left entirely unresolved the more complex and exceedingly destructive dimensions of the War of 1812 as it unfolded on the U.S.–Canadian border. Loyalists and the children of Loyalists, who opposed U.S. independence; Irish people on both sides, who had complicated but usually adversarial relationships with the British state; and Native American groups, who mostly joined the British in order to check the Americans’ voracious appetite for Indian lands—all took part in the war at the U.S.–Canadian border.[38]

The War of 1812 had unleashed a war of all against all in the northern borderlands—a violent eruption that the naval battle on Lake Champlain, however decisive, failed to stem. On the contrary, the American war effort was collapsing: Congress refused to fund it, the War Department failed to manage it, and the American people no longer supported it.[39]

The National Context

Just 18 days before the Battle of Lake Champlain, the British conquered Washington, DC, and soldiers of the Royal Engineers set about torching the White House and the Capitol, which, together, housed all three branches of government. With news of the fiery destruction of these most potent symbols of U.S. popular sovereignty, confidence in the Madison administration evaporated.[40

Amid the ruins and oblivious to conditions on the Canadian front, Congress began a six-week debate on whether to abandon the capital for good but could not determine where might be safer.[41] Senators, representatives, and the public now knew that if Washington could fall in flames, so too might New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.

Indeed, the very day of the Battle of Lake Champlain, Major General Robert Ross (British Army) and his force of about 4,600 landed at North Point, just fourteen miles from Baltimore, in order to besiege it. The next day, they started on foot for the city. The day after that, a preparatory barrage on Fort McHenry began. Yet in the meantime, a sniper from Maryland’s militia managed to fell Major General Ross, even though the militia failed to halt the British advance.[42] This loss and the British failure to take Fort McHenry spared Baltimore and became the bright spot toward the end of an otherwise dismal summer.

Nevertheless, it was to a burned and broken capital that news of the victories at Baltimore and Lake Champlain first arrived. Moreover, in September alone, Madison’s three most important cabinet members resigned: Secretary of the Treasury George W. Campbell; Secretary of War John Armstrong; and Secretary of the Navy William Jones.[43] This was nothing short of an administrative disaster.

Jones now prepared Madison for the worst: Without access to credit, the war did not appear winnable or even sustainable anymore.[44]  “We seem to forget,” he told the President shortly after resigning, “that we are at War with the most potent Naval power” on earth, and this Jones said after he had heard about the victory at Lake Champlain.[45]

What impact, then, did news of the Lake Champlain victory have on decision-makers in Washington and financiers in the big cities of the eastern seaboard? It is true that Macdonough and Macomb were feted as heroes, but there is scant evidence to suggest that the battle changed public opinion in any way: Nothing could unburn the capital, and no one was willing to restock the treasury.[46]

The International Context

Although some historians understand the Battle of Lake Champlain (and Prevost’s retreat from Plattsburgh) as having a decisive effect on the negotiations at Ghent, where American and British commissioners stalled as they sought advantage in the settlement to end the war, most historians and most of the evidence point to the contrary argument: that the battle was of little consequence to the British.[47]

The British commissioners continued to operate from a position of strength, even after learning of their side’s defeat at Lake Champlain, while the American commissioners were still reeling from the sacking of their nation’s capital.

When in November the British commissioners declared that they were ready to conclude a peace and get out of the North American war, John Quincy Adams, U.S. commissioner at Ghent, still mourning the capital, connected Britain’s fortuitous about-face to the Battle of Lake Champlain.

Yet the principal reason had nothing to do with the Battle of Lake Champlain. Indeed, the sudden effort of the British to end the war in late 1814 probably had little to do with the United States at all.

The French monarchy, which Britain and her allies had emplaced in Paris after Napoleon’s defeat, was fast losing support among the majority of its subjects. Moreover, a current of revanchism among a large segment French society threatened not just the stability of France but also the security of the rest of Europe. The British now needed their forces closer to home.

The American and British commissioners therefore concluded a hasty and rudimentary peace. The treaty, signed on 24 December 1814, gave Madison not a single one of his war aims. The British government, on the contrary, achieved its principal objective since the beginning of the war: the restoration of 1811 borders in North America and the continued license to interfere with American shipping and kidnap American mariners, should the need arise again someday.

Conclusion

Throughout the War of 1812, with some notable exceptions, U.S. naval operations had supplied most of the Americans’ good news. Macdonough’s victory at Lake Champlain constitutes the last great naval triumph of the war, yet its legacy is complicated by historical context. A war that was supposed to change, fundamentally, the relationship between Britain and the United States instead resulted in the status quo antebellum.

–– Adam Bisno, PhD, NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, September 2019

 

**** 

[1] Naval historians have given excellent accounts and analyses of the Battle of Lake Champlain. Most recently, S. Matthew Cheser has reconstructed with exemplary clarity the events from the perspective of the U.S. schooner Ticonderoga, available here. In addition, a 2015 monograph by John H. Schroeder narrates, analyzes, and explains the battle in wonderfully fascinating detail and concludes with a discussion of the battle’s wider significance. –The Battle of Lake Champlain: A “Brilliant and Extraordinary Victory” (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2015). 

[2] Canada, here, refers to Upper and Lower Canada, present day Ontario and Quebec. These regions were a part of British North America, colonial holdings still under British rule. This analysis uses the term “British North America” to refer to all British colonial holdings in North America in the period 1783 to 1811.

[3] J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 132.

[4] Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Knopf, 2011), 402; Michael J. Crawford, The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, vol. 3: 1814–1815: Chesapeake Bay, Northern Lakes, and Pacific Ocean (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2002), 596. On Izard’s movements in a regional and military context, see Edward F. Keen III, “The Evolution of a Leader: An Assessment of Major General George Izard’s Leadership in the War of 1812,” Master’s thesis, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (2015), Chapter 4.

[5] Cmdr. Daniel Pring, RN, to Commodore Sir James L. Yeo, RN, letter of 12 September 1814, in Crawford, Naval War of 1812 (op. cit., hereafter: 1812), 3:610. On the issue of Prevost as a “cautious, defensive-minded commander,” and examples to the contrary, see John R. Grodzinski, Defender of Canada: Sir George Prevost and the War of 1812 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013), 7–9 and 112ff.

[6] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 62. Cf. Stagg, War of 1812, 132.

[7] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:610; Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, letter of 3 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:597.

[8] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 58.

[9] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:610; Allan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States, 2nd edition (New York: Free Press, 1994), 114–15.

[10] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 63.

[11] Crawford, 1812, 3:607.

[12] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 62–63.

[13] Stagg, War of 1812, 132; Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 62.

[14] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:610.

[15] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 77.

[16] Macdonough to Jones, letter of 13 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:614.

[17] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:610.

[18] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 77–78; Lieutenant Colonel Edward B. Brenton (British Army), to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:608; Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:608.

[19] Macdonough to Jones, letter of 3 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:615.

[20] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:610.

[21] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 78.

[22] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:611.

[23] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 82.

[24] Ibid., 63.

[25] Ibid., 85.

[26] Ibid., 82.

[27] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:611.

[28] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 83.

[29] Brenton to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3: 608.

[30] Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 83.

[31] Pring to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:611.

[32] Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb, USA, to Acting Secretary of War James Monroe, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:609; Taylor, Civil War of 1812, 403. 

[33] Brenton to Yeo, letter of 12 Sept. 1814, in 1812, 3:608.

[34] The casualties of the battle exacerbated the shortage of trained seamen. See Stagg, War of 1812, 135.

[35] Taylor, Civil War of 1812, 6–10. Cf. C. A. Baily, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), 114.

[36] Taylor, Civil War of 1812, 290.

[37] The British were willing to pay higher prices than the U.S. Department of War. As a result, precious foodstuffs passed into British hands and at inflated prices, which put further strain on the Americans’ ability to continue the war. –Ibid., 292.

[38] The American government, in turn, marshalled its own Native American militias from Indian reservations on the U.S. side of the border. –Ibid., 9–10. Cf. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1813–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 85–87.

[39] Stagg, War of 1812, 138.

[40] Ibid., 131.

[41] Ibid., 133.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., 134.

[44] Ibid., 114.

[45] Ibid., 135–36.

[46] Cf. Schroeder, Battle of Lake Champlain, 93–100, who argues “the news from Lake Champlain and Baltimore helped restore confidence in the administration [and] removed pressure on Congress to act quickly and decisively.” For a more detailed account and argument about the inconsequential nature of the news about Lake Champlain, see Stagg, War of 1812, 131–33, who shows that even the Madison administration had effectively forgotten about Canada when the Battle of Lake Champlain occurred and that the chaos of the ensuing weeks and then months kept other theaters and other difficulties at the forefront. 

[47] Cf. ibid, 122: Schroeder does find evidence of British disappointment at the defeat and even a letter from one of the British commissioners at Ghent to the Prime Minister in London, which states, “If we had either burnt Baltimore or held Plattsburg, I believe we should have had peace on the [more advantageous] terms you have sent to us [within] a month at least. As things appear to be going on in America, the result of our negotiation may be very different.” This letter is not the smoking gun it appears to be—presented, in this way, out of the context of British foreign policy in the fall of 1814, which was obsessed by the looming disaster on the Continent. Events in Vienna and Paris determined British foreign policy, not the events in Britain’s North American borderlands. It is best to read British efforts to exit the American war in the terms of European politics—that is, until we find a compelling reason to do otherwise.


Commodore Thomas Macdonough, USN

Commodore Thomas Macdonough. A full-length portrait painting by John Wesley Jarvis, circa 1814. The original painting was purchased from Jarvis by the City of New York on 4 December 1815 for $400 and still hangs in the New York City Hal. Courtesy of A.E. Peterson, Executive Secretary, Art Comm. of New York. (NH 48036)


Published: Tue Sep 10 17:59:00 EDT 2019