Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

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1814 on the Great Lakes

Over the winter of 1813-4, both the British and American sides continued their ship-building contest in the Great Lakes.  After the victory on Lake Erie, the Americans wanted to secure control of Lake Huron as well.  Still, as the ice melted in the spring, neither side wished to enjoin battle unless certain of victory.

The British Army in Canada had been reinforced with troops freed up from the recently-concluded Napoleonic Wars with orders to make offensives across the border into the United States.  Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, the Commander in Chief and Governor General of the Canadas determined that his best opportunity lay in taking Plattsburg, a fort on Lake Champlain which had recently been mostly vacated when United States Army troops moved to Sackets Harbor.  Only about 1,000 troops remained around the town.  On the lake, however, Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough had worked hard all summer to overcome the British naval superiority, creating a squadron of 4 modest sized ships and a number of galleys.

At the end of August, the British troops advanced south towards Plattsburg.  Prevost waited impatiently for his water support, but the ships were unable to join the offensive until September 9.  By that time, MacDonough had anchored his ships as a row of sea batteries and waited for action.  Bad weather delayed the battle a day, but on the morning of the 11th the British ships also anchored in a line 300 yards off the American ships and a horrific artillery duel commenced.  It lasted about two hours.  The British naval commander, George Downie, was killed, along with many others from both sides, but one by one the British ships surrendered.

The land battle was slow to get underway and as soon as Prevost realized that the sea battle was lost, he ordered his troops to withdraw northward.  With the retreat, the final British assault into the United States territory was ended.