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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p189  XII
Battle of Lake Champlain
and the Conclusion of the War

Operations on Lake Ontario

On Lake Ontario the shipbuilding contest between Sir James Lucas Yeo and Captain Isaac Chauncey, referred to in a previous chapter, continued. At the beginning of the summer of 1814, each had four ships and four brigs. This contest in building went on with the nicety of a mathematical problem. When one commander had a slight superiority, the second hid in port until he could build enough to outstrip the other. Then the second sallied forth, and the first took his turn in port. Both were overcautious.

During the previous spring, Yeo had managed to get to sea some time before Chauncey, and at once made a successful attack (May 5) on Oswego, destroying the barracks and sailing away with the Growler, together with heavy ordnance and supplies. The British, however, did not pursue their advantage, but, instead, now blockaded the American commodore at Sackett's Harbor, where he was doing his best in hurrying forward the heavy guns for his new ships. On June 5, Yeo raised the blockade; and Chauncey, on July 31, took the lake, only to find that the British commander had shut himself up at Kingston to await the completion of a ship-of‑the‑line then building.

When Major-General Brown asked the co‑operation of Chauncey in the offensive campaign against Canada, the latter, who had rendered valuable assistance the year  p190 before in the attacks on Forts George and York, objected on the plea that he had his hands full in attempting the "capture and destruction of the enemy's fleet." This was, of course, his immediate duty; and if he had accomplished it, General Brown's mission on the Niagara peninsula would have received the kind of co‑operation it most needed. But Chauncey's cautious and dilatory tactics gained nothing for himself, or for the American cause anywhere. It was the opinion of Winfield Scott that if the British had not had free access to the lake, Lundy's Lane, instead of being a drawn battle, might have been a victory so decisive as to have turned the scales of war. The Americans soon found themselves, instead of taking the offensive against Canada, forced to prepare for a threatened invasion through Lake Champlain.1

Battle of Lake Champlain

Although the condition of affairs on the Great Lakes remained unchanged during the year 1814, events of the greatest importance were taking place on Lake Champlain. This lake had not hitherto played a part in the war at all commensurate with its important position. With Lake George and the Hudson River it formed a series of water connections from the source of American supplies at New York to what should have been the true objective of an offensive war on the Canadian border, Montreal. The British, naturally on the defensive in Canada, had paid no heed to this waterway during the early years of the war, and the Americans, in their efforts, under Hull and Dearborn, to concentrate their attention on the Northwest, had neglected their opportunity. Hence we find little or no mention of Lake Champlain until June, 1813. As three of the armed sloops here were American, against one  p191 British, the former could sail where they pleased, while the British remained at their base in the lower narrows, at Isle aux Noix. On June 2, 1813, two of the American sloops, the Eagle and the Growler, while approaching too near the British garrison at the narrows, were raked from the shore and captured. The British now followed up their advantage. Captain Everard, of the British sloop Wasp, lying at Quebec, volunteered with some of his men to make a raid on the lake. He destroyed the public building at Plattsburg and the barracks at Saranac, and captured some small vessels, while Macdonough, the American commander on the lake, taken utterly by surprise, and helpless because of the loss of his two vessels, had to sit by and look on. Everard hurried back, and with Captain Pring stirred up the authorities to building ships at once on Lake Champlain.
(facing p190) 
[image ALT: A portrait in oils of a man in his thirties, with long sideburns, wearing a very plain naval uniform with a high-collared shirt. He has a pensive and gentle look. He is the early‑19c American naval commander Thomas Macdonough.]

Now began a contest in shipbuilding like the rivalry on the Great Lakes, and it continued until the fall of 1814. Macdonough had already established his base at Plattsburg, and had all his vessels, except the Eagle, ready by the latter part of May. He could then range the lake at will and bring stores from Burlington, while the British were awaiting the completion of their most powerful ship, the Confiance, which was not launched until August 25. Captain Downie took command of the British flotilla on September 2, and in response to the goading of the Governor-General of Canada, hurried the equipment of his vessels to the utmost in order to co‑operate with Prevost's invading army. By this time, the American flotilla consisted of the ship Saratoga, 26; the brig Eagle, 20; the schooner Ticonderoga, 17; the sloop Preble, 7; and about ten row‑galleys or gunboats: in all fourteen vessels, with 882 men, eighty‑six guns, and total broadside of 1194 pounds, 714 from short and 480 from long guns.

 p192  On the other hand, the British had the Confiance (rated after her capture in our navy as a frigate), mounting twenty-seven long 24‑pounders, of which one was a pivot gun and thus available for both broadsides, and ten carronades; they had, besides, the brig Linnet, 16; the Chub, 11; the Finch, 11; and about twelve gunboats: in all, sixteen vessels, with 937 men, ninety‑two guns, and total broadside of 1192 pounds, 532 from short and 660 from long guns. Thus the superiority was on the British side. The Confiance had an approximate tonnage of 1200, as against the Saratoga's 734 tons. "The two largest British vessels, Confiance and Linnet, were slightly inferior to the American Saratoga and Eagle in aggregate weight of broadside; but, like the General Pike on Ontario in 1813, the superiority of the Confiance in long guns, and under one captain, would on the open lake have made her practically equal to cope with the whole American squadron, and still more with the Saratoga alone, assuming that the Linnet gave the Eagle some occupation."2

A British army of 11,000 men, part of four brigades recently sent from Wellington's Peninsular veterans to Canada, was slowly marching, under the command of Sir George Prevost, Governor-General of Canada, up the western side of Lake Champlain. The American general, Izard, had been ordered to proceed with most of the troops at Plattsburg to Sackett's Harbor, leaving General Macomb with scarcely 2000 men to meet the invaders. Prevost kept urging Downie to set sail, so as to co‑operate with him in the attack on Plattsburg. The Governor-General drove Macomb across the Saranac, which divides Plattsburg, and then he sat down and waited for Downie. The latter thus had to offer battle prematurely to Macdonough; but although the British flotilla was somewhat  p193 handicapped by this haste, the American vessels were likewise not yet fully prepared. The crews of both flotillas had had little time for that training necessary to organized effort. The locks of some of the guns of the Confiance were useless, and similar difficulties presented themselves on the American vessels. But in these disadvantages, the opposing fleets were equally handicapped.

Macdonough, though only thirty years old, had made preparations for battle worthy of a much older head. The mouth of Plattsburg Bay, where the engagement took place, extends from Cumberland Head southwestward to the shoals of Crab Island. When Downie's fleet, early on the morning of September 11, was known to have set sail under a northeast wind, Macdonough anchored his ships in a line across the entrance of Plattsburg Bay, the larger vessels off Cumberland Head, in the following order: Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Preble; the gunboats he drew up in a line forty yards behind. Thus the heavier vessels at Cumberland Head, and the shoals at Crab Island, would check any attempt at turning Macdonough's flanks. The enemy, in a channel too narrow to beat, would have to approach bows on, close to the wind, while the Americans had the weather-gage for easy maneuvering. Besides, in case of failure of wind, or for presenting a new broadside quickly at the same berth, Macdonough had provided his vessels with springs.

The British naval commander, who could plainly see across the narrow Cumberland Head Macdonough's formation, planned his own line accordingly. The Confiance was to round the point, fire a broadside at the Eagle at the upper end of the line, and then come to anchor across the bows of the Saratoga. The Chub and the Linnet were then to anchor off the Eagle's bow and stern, and the Finch, assisted by the British gunboats, was to oppose the Ticonderoga and the Preble.
[image ALT: A schematic map of a small bay of Lake Champlain before the town of Plattsburg, NY, with an assortment of ships converging on the town. It is a schematic view of the battle of Lake Champlain in the War of 1812, described in detail in the accompanying text.]

 p194  As Downie rounded Cumberland Head, he was surprised to find no co‑operation from Prevost, but he nevertheless bravely adhered to his part of the attack. The Confiance laboriously made for the upper end of the American line, but under the concentrated fire from Macdonough's vessels and the shifting winds, she was compelled to abandon her first plan of going to the head of the line, and she came to anchor some 500 yards to the east of the Saratoga. Both port bow‑anchors of the  p195 British flagship had meanwhile been shot away, and a ball from one of the Saratoga's long 24‑pounders, fired by Macdonough himself, struck the Confiance near the hawse-hole, killing and wounding several men in its course along the length of the deck. Downie, who coolly made fast his ship before he fired a gun, now, at about nine o'clock, fired a deadly broadside which is said to have killed or wounded one‑fifth of the Saratoga's crew.

Meanwhile, the Linnet and the Chub had engaged the Eagle. The Chub, before she could anchor, received considerable damage to her sails and rigging; and, with her commander wounded, she drifted helplessly through Macdonough's line, where an American midshipman took charge of her. The Linnet, having anchored to windward of the Eagle, kept pouring a diagonal fire into the American vessel. After standing the broadsides of the Linnet and part of the fire of Confiance, the Eagle at 10.30 cut her cables and slipped down to a position between the Saratoga and the Ticonderoga. In this way she brought her fresh broadside into play against the Confiance without exposure to shots from either the Confiance or the Linnet. The Eagle's change of berth gave the Linnet an opportunity, after some slight skirmishing with the American gunboats, to shift her anchorage to a raking position off the Saratoga's bows.

At the southern end of the American line, the Finch and some of the British gunboats were attacking the Ticonderoga and the Preble. As the Finch did not keep near enough to the wind, she failed to reach the position assigned to her abreast the Ticonderoga, nor could she gain it later when the wind died down. Silenced by a few broadsides from the American schooner, she drifted on the shoals at Crab Island, where a 6‑pounder mounted on shore forced her finally to surrender. Although some of the British gunboats kept  p196 at a safe distance from their enemy's long guns and later ingloriously fled, four pressed forward to attack with desperate courage. The little Preble was obliged to cut her cable and take refuge under the American shore batteries at Plattsburg. As the American gunboats were too light to be of much assistance, the Ticonderoga was left practically unsupported, but her commander, Lieutenant Cassin, handled his schooner with marked ability. Heedless of the great danger from musketry and grape, he directed the fight from the taffrail, and gave the close-approaching gunboats loads of canister that finally drove them off, though not till some of them had got within a boat's length of their foe.

At the head of the line, where the main fighting took place, the contest dwindled down to one between the Saratoga and Eagle on the American side, and the Confiance and Linnet on the British. The vessels were firing at stationary targets, at point-blank range, and in smooth water, and under such conditions even inexperienced crews could inflict terrible damage. Downie was killed early in the action, and his death was a great loss to the British side. Gradually, owing to the inexperience and lack of longer training of the crews, confusion became apparent in both flotillas. The American sailors, when their officers were killed or wounded, overloaded the carronades, and thus destroyed the effectiveness of these guns. On the Confiance the quoins were gradually loosened by the heavy firing, and as this error was not rectified, her guns kept shooting higher and higher. Such confusion reigned at times on the British flagship, that the gunners rammed home shot without any powder, or cartridges without any shot. The first broadside of the Confiance, before Captain Downie was killed, had been directed with deadly precision, but the later confusion  p197 showed the need of that organization and co‑operation which are necessary to make crew and officers a unit in action.

The damage aboard the Saratoga was also great, nearly her whole starboard battery having been rendered useless; but it was at this crisis that Macdonough's foresight and preparation were able to bring into play the unused guns of his vessel. By means of the springs previously prepared for just such a contingency, he now winded his ship, and thus brought to bear her fresh broadside. The British tried to do the same, and as the Confiance's stern anchor had been shot away, Lieutenant Roberts tried to wind her by a spring from the bow. The attempt was not successful, and the flagship hung with her bow to the wind, affording the Saratoga an excellent opportunity to rake. With the British vessel's hold partly full of water, and a crew that refused to work the guns any longer, Roberts, in his exposed position, was compelled to strike his colors. This was at about eleven o'clock. Macdonough at once, by means of his springs, again turned his ship so that her broadside would bear on the Linnet, and after fifteen minutes forced Captain Pring also to strike. At just this time the Ticonderoga was ending her fight with the gunboats.

The battle had been fought with the greatest obstinacy on both sides. The Saratoga had been hulled by round shot fifty-five times, and the Confiance 105 times. The Eagle and the Linnet also were badly shattered. The number of killed and wounded on the American side was approximately 200; that of the British, 300. The greatest praise is due to Macdonough for this signal victory; in the careful choice of his position and in the thorough preparations for battle, he had shown unusual skill and judgment. In addition to these qualities, Macdonough  p198 possessed indomitable courage. "Down to the time of the Civil War he is the greatest figure in our naval history."3

The results of the battle of Lake Champlain were of the highest importance. Prevost's army at once fled in confusion back to Canada, thus abandoning the policy of the British Government for an offensive war. It had also a decisive effect on the pending peace negotiations in forcing England to relinquish her claim to American territory.

Concluding Events of the War

The battle of Lake Champlain practically ended the war. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814, but, owing to the slowness of the means of communication in those days, it was not ratified by our Government until Feb. 17, 1815. Since it had been expressly stipulated that hostilities were not to cease until ratification, and since it was difficult to get news of peace to vessels cruising in distant waters, several important battles took place after the signing and even after the ratification of the treaty. These included one land battle, New Orleans; and several naval engagements, the capture of the President by the British blockading squadron off New York, the battle between the Constitution and the Cyane and Levant, and the sloop action between the Hornet and the Penguin.

The part of the navy in the battle of New Orleans was small; yet the aid of the Carolina in attacking the invaders on December 23, 1814, and the assistance rendered by the crew of the Louisiana, with its naval battery mounted ashore so as to enfilade the troops of the enemy, on January 1, 1815, showed of what excellent use even a trifling naval force can be.

 p199  Loss of the President

The frigate President, lying in New York harbor had, in May, 1814, been transferred to Captain Stephen Decatur, who had brought with him the crew from his former command, the United States, then hopelessly blockaded at New London. As a formidable force under Admiral Cochrane and General Ross was now threatening our coast, the citizens of New York and Philadelphia were anxious that Decatur should remain in the vicinity.

This, and the fact that a vigilant blockading fleet was outside, kept the President shut up in New York until the night of January 14, 1815, when, in a bad northwester, she slipped out of the harbor, but unfortunately went aground in the channel. After considerable effort, the President cleared the bar, damaged so badly that her former speediness was gone. To add to her misfortune, she ran at five o'clock next morning into the blockading fleet, under Captain Hayes, consisting of the razee Majestic, 56, and the 38‑gun frigates Endymion, Pomone, and Tenedos. In the fierce gale, the British vessels were scattered, and Captain Hayes had not yet succeeded in getting his ships together.

While Captain Hayes was directing his attention to a suspicious sail to the south, which turned out to be his own frigate, the Tenedos, the Endymion started a chase of the President which lasted until nearly midnight of the fifteenth. Decatur steered his course eastward, parallel to the shore of Long Island. The Endymion, by constantly yawing, was able to bring her broadsides to bar without losing distance. Decatur endured this fire for a half hour, and then suddenly putting his helm to port headed south, with intent to cross the Endymion's bows. But the latter imitated the maneuver, and the two ships, on parallel courses, exchanged broadsides until Decatur  p200 had accomplished his purpose, which was to strip his pursuer's sails from the spars and thus prevent further pursuit. The President now, with even studding-sails set, continued her course, but although the Endymion was badly crippled, Decatur's maneuver had given the Pomone and the Tenedos a chance to overtake him. At 11 P.M., the American commander surrendered without firing another broadside.

Capture of the Cyane and Levant

The Constitution, Captain Stewart, after a long blockade in Boston harbor, managed, in December, 1814, to get to sea. Some 200 miles northeast of Madeira, on February 20, 1815, she sighted two vessels, which later were found to be the frigate Cyane, 32, and the sloop of war Levant, of 20 guns. When first seen, the British ships were ten miles apart, but in spite of the light easterly wind, they gradually joined each other, and were only 100 yards apart when they attacked the Constitution. At 6.05 P.M. the American vessel, being to windward, at 300 yards' distance, opened with her guns. The wind was so light that in the enveloping smoke the antagonists had to cease firing at times to see where they were. Stewart, with remarkable nimbleness, not only avoided being raked himself, but managed to wear the Constitution so adroitly that he raked both British vessels several times. The Cyane struck at 6.50. Stewart now set out in pursuit of the Levant, which had withdrawn while a prize crew was taking possession of the Cyane; but at 8.50 P.M. the plucky little Levant wore, and on opposite tacks the vessels exchanged broadsides. Stewart, by another quick turn, raked the Levant from the stern. The British vessel now sought safety in flight, but at ten P.M. the Constitution overtook and captured her. The divided force of the  p201 enemy in this engagement was in the Constitution's favor, but it was especially the quick and skilful maneuvering of Captain Stewart that won the battle. The Constitution and the Cyane later escaped from a British squadron and safely reached the United States, but the Levant was recaptured.


At least a passing consideration should be given to the very important service of the American privateers, although, strictly speaking, they had no place in our navy. Privateering, especially towards the end of the war, was a favorite way of harrying British trade. By diverting large numbers of seamen, it weakened the regular navy; and as the results were far less than might have been secured by men-of‑war, it seems from our point of view to have been of doubtful advantage. Yet our country, when it awoke to the fact that it had entered upon hostilities wretchedly prepared, welcomed assistance from private enterprise. Privateering was profitable business to those who succeeded, and it must be admitted commercial instinct quite as often as patriotism was the impelling motive. There were about 500 of these vessels, and they captured or destroyed 1350 British ships.

Results of the War

The treaty signed at Ghent on December 24, 1814, was silent regarding the two great issues of the war, impressment and illegal seizures under the Orders in Council. The orders had been repealed before war was declared by the United States, and though Great Britain stoutly maintained her prescriptive right to impressment, she did not later continue her practice in this regard. On the other hand, the British made concessions in the treaty that  p202 were hard for them to yield. On the strength of their possession, in 1814, of Forts Mackinac and Niagara, and of the country east of the Penobscot, England had at first laid claim to the surrender of some of our territory. The British also had sought to make military barriers of the Great Lakes, which thenceforth should be controlled by Great Britain and used by Americans only for commercial purposes. Further, they had laid claim to some of our territory in the Northwest for an independent Indian state. In the face of a possible European war, however, and more particularly by reason of Prevost's precipitous retreat to Canada, the British gave up these territorial demands, and the American position, no grant of territory whatever, was incorporated in the treaty. Moreover, to avoid future complications, the treaty provided for the adjustment of the boundary as far as the Lake of the Woods in Minnesota. Both parties also pledged themselves to use every effort to stamp out the slave trade.

The war had an excellent effect in firing anew the spirit of patriotism in the young nation, and in promoting respect abroad. The narrow selfishness of many of the merchant classes and the hostile attitude of New England to the war, had given way to a stronger national unity and a broader patriotism. The navy had contributed in no small degree to bringing about this result. While battles were being lost on land, the brilliant feats of the navy kept up the courage of our people. Although Great Britain with her thousand vessels might little miss the loss of a few frigates, still the ship-duels of this war brought the navy, and consequently the country, a world-wide respect.

The Authors' Notes:

1 Mahan, War of 1812, II, 306‑311.

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2 Mahan, War of 1812, II, 371.

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3 Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812, p399.

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