In September 1814, American land and naval forces in and around Plattsburgh, New York, confronted a British-Canadian invasion force of nearly 10,000 men. The invaders, under Canadian Governor-General George Prevost, intended to capture large swaths of American territory and thereby coerce American peace negotiators to accept exorbitant and punitive British demands. Marching on the western shore of Lake Champlain; a large body of water lying along the New York-Vermont border, the British advance was checked on the north bank of the Saranac River. A small American force under Colonel Alexander Macomb had fortified Plattsburgh, on the south bank of the river, and the British force could go no further until the town and river crossing were taken. An American naval squadron under Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, had sailed earlier into Plattsburgh Bay with his squadron of 14 vessels. The guns of Macdonough’s vessels bolstered the American position, but their presence was also meant to challenge the British squadron under Captain George Downie to come out and fight. Beseeched by his own army to do just that, Downie arrived off the bay on the morning of 11 September.
The resulting engagement would be among the most decisive in American naval history. Most accounts of the battle focus on Macdonough’s tactical ingenuity and the heavyweight brawl between the squadrons’ flagships. Less heralded in modern sources is the able performance of the American schooner Ticonderoga under Lieutenant Stephen Cassin tasked with holding the southern end of the American line. During three hours of battle, Ticonderoga faced the guns and men of 11 British gunboats and a British schooner. Her stand would preserve the American line, helping ensure American dominance of the lake and an acceptable peace.
On the morning of 11 September, Macdonough’s ships were lined astern, north to south, with starboard guns facing the mouth of the bay. The 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga was third in the line. Ahead of her, the 20-gun brig Eagle followed by Macdonough’s flagship, the 26-gun corvette Saratoga, were the northern most vessels. Astern Ticonderoga, the tiny 7-gun sloop Preble guarded the rear of the line as its southernmost ship. Macdonough’s squadron laid anchors so that manipulating them could “wind” or “turn” the ship in place without reliance on sail. The American ships were to fight entirely at anchor. Directly south of the American line was a small patch of land named Crab Island. Ten small one-gun and two-gun gunboats idled behind the main line of battle, hoping at best to lob a few pot-shots at any foe that should approach.
Ticonderoga was under the command of 31-year-old Cassin, the son of an American Revolutionary War veteran and a veteran himself of the French Quasi-War and the Tripolitan War. He had discovered the uncompleted hull that later became Ticonderoga on the ways of the Lake Champlain Steamboat Company at Vergennes, Vermont. When the purchase and conversion of the ship to a schooner was completed in May 1814, he became her first commander. He had already earned a name among the sailors on Lake Champlain on 14 May 1814 when the British squadron with 1,000 soldiers attempted to block the mouth of Otter Creek where the American squadron was anchored. Commanding a defensive artillery position dubbed Fort Cassin, the lieutenant and his 7-gun battery engaged in an artillery duel with the British, and deterred the planned assault with cooperation of American Army and militia units. The British would soon test Cassin’s for guns a second time.
When Downie and his squadron arrived off the Cumberland Head peninsula at the mouth of Plattsburgh Bay, he surely realized Macdonough’s position was formidable. The Americans’ lodgment in the bay forced any battle to be contested at close range. Such an engagement would disadvantage the British ships armed primarily with long-ranged guns and benefit the American squadron armed primarily with powerful, short-ranged carronades. In addition, the American position and north-to-south winds of the lake would force the British to round Cumberland Head and sail directly into the guns of the American squadron. The British squadron enjoyed advantages as well. Downie’s flagship, the 36-gun frigate Confiance, was the most powerful ship on the lake. Downie boasted that with Confiance alone “he could lick the entire American squadron.” The remainder of his squadron consisted of the 16-gun brig Linnet, 11-gun schooners Chubb and Finch and 11 gunboats. The British squadron slightly outgunned and outmanned its opponents. In addition, Downie, like Macdonough, would know that fighting at anchor was a major tactical gamble, one that the Royal Navy had defeated at both the Battle of the Nile (1798) and the Battle of Copenhagen (1801), resulting in the complete destruction of the opposing fleets. With a shortened campaign season, the risk of poor weather on the lake as autumn approached, and the Army demanding action, Downie opted to attack.
Downie’s plan assumed the greatest threat to his squadron was Saratoga and focused on encircling the American flagship. Confiance would sail up the American line, fire one crushing broadside at the foremost American ship Eagle, and then take station off Saratoga’s bow, pummeling it into submission. Linnet and Chubb would then finish off Eagle at the northern flank and turn their guns on Saratoga. Lacking another ship able to go toe-to-toe with Ticonderoga, Downie assigned his gunboats to fire one shot at the schooner and board her before her third broadside. Finch was to support the gunboats and then continue to capture Preble. If successful, the gunboats and Finch would turn the American southern flank, completing the encirclement of Saratoga. With their orders, the British squadron rounded Cumberland Head at around 0800.
Unfortunately for the British, the wind did not cooperate. Soon after rounding the peninsula the north-northeasterly winds slacked to a light and fitful west-northwesterly breeze. As Eagle and Saratoga opened on the plodding Confiance, Finch drifted further south than intended and set a course for Preble hoping to make quick work of the tiny vessel by boarding. Cassin singled Finch out as his ship’s first target and Ticonderoga engaged in a short duel with the passing British schooner at 0900. The fire of Cassin’s men was true; the commanding officer of Finch noted “Nearly every shot from the schooner either cut away some of my rigging or huld me.”
On board Ticonderoga, 16-year-old midshipman Hiram Paulding commanded the schooner’s second division of guns. The young officer found that the slow burning matches to fire his cannon were defective. Determined that his division would join the fight, Paulding struck the flintlock hammer of his pistol over the touchhole of the cannon, producing a spark that fired the guns and exposed his hand to white hot flame. He repeated this painful act for the duration of the battle. The midshipman’s actions at the battle would be well known Navy legend by the time Paulding was commissioned rear admiral nearly five decades later.
While Finch closed on Preble, keeping part of her fire on Ticonderoga, the planned swarm of British gunboats never entirely materialized. The commander of the gunboat squadron signaled the attack, but then immediately pulled his boat out of the fight, complaining his guns were defective. While four gunboats, with crews of approximately 30 or 40 each, pressed the attack, when faced with fire from Ticonderoga, another six fell back, firing at Ticonderoga at a distance or entirely avoiding the fight. The four gunboats that continued forward, however, had enough men on board to match Ticonderoga hand-to-hand. After a short battle with Finch and with gunboats approaching, at 0945 Preble cut her anchor and drifted ashore and out of the fight. The gunboat Borer peaked out from behind Ticonderoga’s bow to take the British under her fire. Immediately, she was met with a well-placed British shot that killed two crewmembers. She quickly withdrew again behind the schooner. Facing four enemy gunboats and a schooner, Ticonderoga stood alone at the foot of the line.
To the north, the battle was bitterly contested. Under American fire and unable to bring her guns to bear on Eagle for the earlier planned opening broadside, Confiance anchored across from Saratoga. Downie’s initial double-shotted broadside devastated the American flagship. The British commander, however, was killed when a cannon he was sighting took a direct hit from an American solid shot and crushed him. Eagle was facing the combined fire of Chubb, Linnet, and Confiance’s forward guns, but scored a minor victory when Chubb drifted out of control and struck her colors. That victory was short-lived as Eagle’s entire starboard battery soon fell silent due to casualties and damage. Her commanding officer, Master Commandant Robert Henley, attempted to wind ship but failed, forcing the brig to cut her anchors and drift down the line, taking a new station between Saratoga and Ticonderoga with port guns facing the enemy. Eagle’s maneuver brought her gun crews back into the battle, but left Saratoga in a precarious position, dueling Confiance on her beam, and taking raking fire from Linnet on her starboard quarter.
With the American northern flank effectively turned, the British attempted to do the same in the south. Ticonderoga wound ship to take Finch and the gunboats under fire. While supervising the men working the anchors, Lieutenant John Stansbury, Cassin’s executive officer, was killed instantly by solid shot. Ticonderoga answered with a torrent of fire. Finch dueled and attempted to close on Ticonderoga, but her rigging was badly cut up from the earlier exchange and she was taking on water fast. The British schooner quickly got the worst of the exchange and drifted helplessly southward into the shallows off of Crab Island and grounded. The four gunboats continued forward, threatening to board. In his History of the Navy of the United States of America, James Fenimore Cooper, himself a Navy veteran of service on Lake Champlain, wrote “Lieutenant Commandant Cassin, walked the taffrail, where he could watch the movements of the enemy's galleys, amidst showers of canister and grape, directing discharges of bags of musket-balls, and other light missiles, effectually keeping the British at bay.” Before long the gunboats were in flight. Ticonderoga had cleared the southern flank by itself. Cassin next wound ship to face Confiance and poured a steady and deliberate raking fire into the stern of the British flagship.
Confiance and Saratoga’s starboard sides were in shambles. The British flagship now faced fire from Eagle, Saratoga and Ticonderoga, while Linnet and Confiance focused on Saratoga. Both flagships’ guns fell silent as the weight of fire crashing into their decks disabled cannon and killed crewmembers. At this critical moment, around 1100, Macdonough wound ship, swinging his bow 180 degrees to the south, presenting his undamaged port battery to Confiance. The British flagship attempted to match Macdonough’s maneuver, but failed mid-turn, exposing Confiance’s unprotected bow to the American gunners. Left with no other alternative, the British frigate struck her colors. The battle continued for 15 more minutes, as Linnet fought the entire American line, but struck at 1135. Finch struck last while on the rocks. The British gunboats pulled for Canada and would play no further role in the war. Lake Champlain now belonged to the American squadron. Without support on the lake, the British land attack was called off. Macdonough and his squadron had turned back the British invasion. Estimates suggest American forces took some 200 to 250 casualties for the British. These numbers accounted for approximately one-fourth of the men engaged in the battle. Casualties on Ticonderoga were relatively light, with 12 dead or wounded.
Ticonderoga played an important role in the victory. Her guns engaged nearly every British vessel on the line, and raked the British flagship at a critical juncture in the battle. Cooper later wrote, “There was a common feeling of admiration at the manner in which the Ticonderoga, Lieutenant Commandant Cassin, defended the rear of the line, and at the noble conduct of all on board her. Once or twice the nearest vessels thought that schooner in flames, in consequence of the awful rapidity of her fire.” Macdonough awarded Cassin the honor of carrying the captured British colors to Washington. On the way, the lieutenant was feted in New York and passed through Baltimore days after the defenders of Fort McHenry and Hampstead Hill turned back the British attack on Baltimore. Cassin later received a promotion to master commandant and a Congressional Gold Medal along with other commanders at Plattsburgh. Across the Atlantic, the defeat at Plattsburgh caused British negotiators to drop their punitive demands and sign the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814, officially ending the war. The remains of Ticonderoga were raised from Lake Champlain in 1958 and can be viewed on public display in Whitehall, New York.
Essay by S. Matthew Cheser, NHHC Histories and Archives Division, September 2018
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