From the painting by Jarvis
The naval story of the War of 1812 is only half told when one has finished the exploits of Hull, Decatur, and others on the Atlantic. Indeed, according to the government's original plan for winning the war, operations on the sea were to be merely defensive; those on the northern frontier were to be offensive. When our army had aggressively crossed the border and occupied the strongholds of Canada, as in 1812 it was fully expected to do within a few months, perhaps a few weeks, the United States could treat advantageously with the enemy on peace. In the fighting on the northern frontier, on the Lakes, the navy originally had not been thought of, but it was destined to play an indispensable part.
The War of 1812 was from beginning to end full of surprises to both Americans and British. Account has already been given of the exultation on one side and the amazement and mortification on the other when American frigates and sloops successfully challenged British supremacy on the sea. A corresponding shock of quite opposite character came on the pusillanimous surrender of General William Hull: the force that was to have seized western Canada yielded all of Michigan to the British without even a battle. General Hull was an uncle of Captain Isaac Hull, who commanded the Constitution. Not much better followed in the p66 autumn of the same year, when Van Rensselaer with a superior force was defeated with severe losses at Queenstown; and when Dearborn, who had advanced with a large force from Plattsburg on Montreal, turned back on reaching the border because the militia, raising a point of constitutional law, declined to leave the country; and when, a year later, Wilkinson, preceding with eight thousand men down the St. Lawrence from Sackett's Harbor toward Montreal, returned to New York and into winter quarters after no other engagement than the disgraceful skirmish at Chrystler's Farm, in which two thousand Americans were defeated by eight hundred Canadians. It is hard to believe that American armies could have met with such reverses, but the explanation is to be found in the utter lack of preparation. This was shown in the miserable roads or none at all along our northern border (resulting in difficulty of communication and lack of supplies), in poor generals (with a few exceptions), and in a foolish reliance on the ill‑organized militia called into service for only a few months at most. Many were the difficulties that confronted the hastily extemporized navy on the Lakes also; but in the Service afloat the officers in command were young and, with at least a part of their crews, had been schooled in the Tripolitan War or in the very superior merchant marine of that time.
On Lake Ontario, on Lake Erie, and on Lake Champlain there began a shipbuilding race for the control of the waterway. Lake Ontario, which constituted the center in the long American line of operations, was looked upon as the most important; and Commodore Chauncey, the senior American naval officer on the Lakes, was given command. Opposed to him was Sir James Yeo. Both were cautious; and p67 though they gave aid in the military operations of their respective forces, they preferred to fight minor indecisive engagements rather than to risk all in an effort to gain undisputed control.
Lake Erie furnishes a more brilliant chapter. For a year the British had the lead; and when Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who was sent in March, 1813, to secure control of the lake, took over the work begun by Lieutenant Jesse Elliott, he was blockaded for four months while his ships were under construction. He succeeded eventually not only in saving his ships but in getting a force of nine vessels into the open lake, where he was superior to the enemy. Then the game was reversed, for it was now Perry who was watching his opponent Barclay engaged in completing his last and strongest unit at Malden. On the 10th of November, 1813, Barclay, forced by lack of supplies to come out, found Perry ready for battle off Put‑in-Bay. The wind was light, making maneuvering slow and difficult, and there was a misunderstanding of orders in the American force. Consequently for two hours and a half Perry in his flagship the Lawrence, supported by only two small schooners, was opposed to the Detroit, the Queen Charlotte, and the Hunter, the three strongest units of the enemy. When the Lawrence1 had been pounded to the point where there was no further fight left in her, with four fifths of her crew killed or wounded, Perry made his famous trip in an open boat to the brig Niagara, which was just coming into action. p68 With an entirely fresh ship he sailed aggressively through the enemy's line, engaging with his starboard broadside the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte, which had fouled, and with his port the smaller ships. The Caledonia and other vessels of his fleet followed effectively, and within fifteen minutes the battle was won. The total British force, consisting of two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop, was captured. As this brought undisputed control of Lake Erie, General Harrison, after a year of reverses and delay, was now able to cross over into Canada and, pursuing the British and Indians, to win the battle of the Thames.
Until the third year of the war Lake Champlain received much less attention than the other two. Early in the war control of this lake had been deemed important; but it was important only as a road leading to Canada just as in the French and Indian War and in the Revolution. It is safe to say that the full extent of its strategic value was not recognized; otherwise the government, sacrificing operations in Indiana, Michigan, and New York, would have bent every effort to secure this direct waterway to Montreal. Had the American Army succeeded in gaining that stronghold, it would have broken the line of communications between Canada and England, and the British forces in Michigan and western Canada, being cut off from supplies, could not have kept the field.
Early in October, 1812, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, having received orders, journeyed from Portland, Maine, to Burlington, Vermont, much of the way on horseback, to command the future American naval force on Lake Champlain. Not the least important subject in his mind as he rode through the Notch in the White Mountains, the woods gorgeous in autumn p69 colors, was a certain lady of quality living in Middletown, Connecticut, whom he expected soon to marry.
Macdonough was then twenty-nine years old, having been in the Service not quite thirteen years. He had entered at sixteen, appointed a midshipman from Delaware. Like Decatur, he was fired by the idea of fighting the French. The U. S. S. Ganges, to which he was detailed, captured two Guineamen and a French privateer; but the young midshipman soon had to meet a much more formidable enemy, as related in his brief "Autobiography":
About this time the yellow fever made its appearance on board and many of the men and officers fell victims, after a few hours' illness, to its destructive ravages. Several midshipmen and myself, with a number of men, having caught this fever, were sent on shore at Havana and put into a dirty Spanish hospital. Nearly all of the men and officers died and were taken out in carts as so many hogs would have been. A midshipman, a surgeon's mate, and myself, through the blessing of divine Providence, recovered and took passage for the United States, destitute of all the comforts and even conveniences of life.
In the Tripolitan War Macdonough was a midshipman on the Philadelphia and escaped confinement at the pasha's castle with other officers of the ill‑fated frigate only because a few days before her capture he had been detailed to assist in taking a prize into Gibraltar.
As already stated, Macdonough was associated with Decatur, five years his senior, in the most stirring events of the Tripolitan War. In their hazardous service on the ketch Intrepid and on the gunboats they saw each other under severest tests, and the warm friendship that began then lasted through life. Macdonough's p70 own account of these events is marked by two strong characteristics — simplicity and modesty. In his "Autobiography" he relates:
I then, in the harbor of Syracuse, joined the schooner Enterprise, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, commander. Was with him when the frigate Philadelphia was burned in the harbor of Tripoli and when he captured, by boarding, the gunboats in one of the actions with the enemy's vessels and batteries. Here I consider was the school where our navy received its first lessons, and its influence has remained to this day and will continue as long as the navy exists.2
One of the most vexatious problems confronting the young Republic in the ensuing years was that which grew out of the British practice of impressing seamen. That Captain Barron should have permitted H. M. S. Leopard to take American sailors from the U. S. S. Chesapeake aroused great indignation. An incident of opposite character, unknown to fame, shows what the quiet, unassuming Macdonough could do in defense of national honor and seamen's rights. It happened only a year before the Chesapeake-Leopard affair and is related in the "Autobiography" as follows:
When I was first lieutenant of the Syren brig an occurrence took place in the harbor of Gibraltar which excited a good deal of feeling both on the side of the English and ourselves. A British man-of‑war's boat boarded an American merchantman which lay near the Syren and took out, or impressed, one of her men. I went alongside the British boat in one of ours and demanded him, which demand was refused. I then took hold of the man and took him in my boat and brought him on board the Syren. He was an American and of course we kept him.
p71 The Navy Department made no mistake in ordering such a lieutenant to the command at Lake Champlain. On arrival Macdonough found conditions as unpromising as could be imagined. The force consisted of two tiny gunboats in wretched condition and three sloops which had been purchased from merchants on the lake to be converted into warships. Materials were lacking; and among his difficulties, he wrote, was that "nobody knew anything that was necessary to be done." Local ship carpenters were secured, but such as had any experience in mounting guns and equipping a man of war were not to be found. In the emergency everyone, including a midshipman and even Macdonough himself, went to work. As soon as a vessel was ready she was hurried to Plattsburg, where General Dearborn had assembled a force to invade Canada. On 16 November, 1812, the army, consisting of five thousand regulars and militia, advanced, its right protected by Macdonough's force of two sloops with seven guns each and two gunboats with one gun each. Macdonough maintained control of the lake, but after a sharp skirmish Dearborn fell back •four miles across the border.
Early in December the American squadron went into winter quarters south of Burlington, and Macdonough properly prepared for Christmas by going to Connecticut and returning with his bride.
The following year, 1813, was one of varying fortunes for the American cause on Lake Champlain, with affairs at the end precisely in the same relation as at the beginning. Macdonough had used the winter to secure ship carpenters and guns and supplies from New York. Fitting out a third sloop and strengthening all of them, he had a much more respectable force on the lake; but his superiority vanished on the third of June p72 when the officer next in command, Lieutenant Sidney Smith, taking two gunboats, ventured imprudently down the Richelieu River, misled by his pilots. In the narrow channel, where wind and current were against him, he was attacked by three of the enemy gunboats, supported by land forces, and was obliged to surrender. Thus Macdonough lost nearly two thirds of his force. Soon the British ventured out into the lake and seized whatever lay undefended in their way, afloat or on shore. On news of this reverse the Navy Department promptly ordered Macdonough to take measure for regaining control "with unlimited authority to procure the necessary resources of men, materials, and munitions for that purpose."
Without delay he purchased two sloops and made requisition upon the navy yards at Boston and New York for ship carpenters, seamen, guns, and supplies. Boston could not furnish certain guns asked for, and New York was unable to send the seamen. Meanwhile the British sloops appeared off Plattsburg, seizing or burning such property as was exposed, and then proceeded to Burlington, either to entice Macdonough into battle when he was not ready or to destroy what he had under construction. But Macdonough, anticipating a possible attack, had placed a battery at the harbor entrance, which drove off the enemy. By the end of summer Macdonough again was willing to accept the challenge; but when he sailed out with five sloops and four gunboats, the enemy retired to their stronghold in the Richelieu.
General Hampton, then in command of the military forces on Lake Champlain, repeated Dearborn's evolutions of the year before by marching north to make a junction with Wilkinson in an advance on Montreal. p73 Macdonough again protected the army's right flank; but Hampton turned back before reaching the border, rightly distrusting Wilkinson.
In 1814 the chief theater of operations was changed from the Great Lakes to Lake Champlain. Hearing during the winter that the British were building a brig as well as smaller vessels at Isle aux Noix, Macdonough resolve still to maintain his lead by building a small frigate. Mr. Browne, a shipbuilder sent from New York, forthwith made an enviable record in rapidity of construction: on the second of March the timbers of the Saratoga were standing in the forest; on the seventh of March her keel was laid; and on the eleventh of April she was launched. Browne had promised to have her in the water in the short period of sixty days; but under the energizing influence of Macdonough, who well understood the need, he cut the time by one third — forty days from living tree to man of war!
When the Saratoga was launched, there was a delay in equipping her. The roads at this time of year proved impassable for heavily loaded wagons. It required eighty teams to forward a single consignment of naval stores from Troy to Macdonough's base at Vergennes at the southern end of the lake; but, by dint of hard and persistent effort, guns, anchors, cables, and all other equipment were secured. There was one other need, however, that no exertion on Macdonough's part could fully meet, and this was for seamen, whom recruiting officers in Boston and New York reported themselves powerless to furnish. In his necessity Macdonough appealed to General Macomb, in command at Burlington, and borrowed several hundred soldiers, whom he proceeded to prepare for duties afloat by a kind of intensive training suggestive of Plattsburg methods of today.a
p74 The British had gained a temporary lead over the Americans in the shipbuilding race; and while Macdonough was still busy in equipping the Saratoga as well as the Ticonderoga (a sixteen‑gun schooner made out of a steamer that was building on the lake), they appeared in force off Burlington and kept on to the south. Fortunately Macdonough had ample warning of their coming; and as they approached Otter Creek, which leads to Vergennes, they found a battery on the point ready for them, manned by a captain and fifty light artillerymen of the army, together with a naval contingent consisting of Lieutenant Cassin and a body of sailors. Infantry were advantageously posted to prevent the enemy's landing. Eight British gunboats, or galleys as Macdonough terms them in his report, with a bomb vessel, advanced to engage the battery, while their new brig the Linnet with four sloops and several gunboats stood •two and a half miles distant, apparently with the idea of making a landing if the first attack were successful; but the gunboats made no impression upon the works at the mouth of the creek beyond lodging a few shot and shells in the parapet. It had been feared that they might attempt to block the mouth of the channel by sinking heavily loaded hulls there, but if there was any such intention the ample preparation made for them proved discouraging. After an engagement lasting an hour and a half they sailed north again.
Two weeks later Macdonough's force, having been completed, was assembled off Plattsburg. Now it was the enemy's turn to go into hiding and soon to begin another ship. This, with their superior stores and equipment, they planned to make the largest naval unit on the lake — the frigate Confiance, mounting thirty-seven p75 guns. They were preparing for a vigorous campaign in the fall. Macdonough either did not know the full extent of their ambitious plans or else was unable to match them, for he completed during the same period only a birg, the Eagle, mounting twenty guns.
Again and again he had sailed to the northern end of the lake and seriously considered an attack upon the British squadron before it should be increased. The British, however, had chosen a position where they had the support of a land battery and a large scow mounting heavy guns; further, the position put an attacking force at a great disadvantage because of the shallow water and the narrow channel. Macdonough, though eager for an engagement, came to the conclusion that it would be "hazardous for me to approach them with the ship. . . . I would gain nothing, but lose a great deal."
Even in war there occur some pleasantries; and the exchange of notes at this time between Captain Fisher, commanding the British squadron, and Macdonough must have relieved some tedious moments. It began with a communication of the English commander:
Captain Fisher begs the honor of presenting his compliments to Commodore Macdonough. He is extremely sorry that he gave him the trouble of sending all his flotilla after him this morning, but as the gunboats of the squadrons are about equal there can be no difficulty in trying their strength on any morning between Point au Fer and Wind Mill Point. . . .
It appears from the latter part of his note that he himself had come in the morning with a flag of truce, hoping to meet Macdonough and probably to make arrangements for an engagement that should be limited to gunboats.
p76 Macdonough replied with equal courtesy, though it must be admitted that in form he was a bit out of practice. In the middle he unwittingly changed from the formal third person, which Captain Fisher had used, to the informal first person, and ends,
I am with sentiments of high respect
Your mo. ob. hum. Sr. Vt.
Macdonough did not accept the challenge, for, as he knew, the Americans would have had the odds against them, the British having a greater number of gunboats. War with him was not a sport or an affair of honor. Undoubtedly, however, he laughed over the blarney conveyed in Fisher's reply:
. . . For the rest, if all we hear is correct, I am afraid you are entirely outbuilding us. I avail myself of this opportunity to send you the latest Montreal newspaper and also some English ones, which, tho' old, I believe are the latest that have reached this country; and if at any time I can execute here any little personal commission for yourself it will afford me much pleasure. . . .
The English certainly had reason, from what was happening every day, to think that the Americans were not serious in carrying on war. One night in July four spars which were being towed down the lake toward Canada were captured by an American midshipman when already across the line; they were presumably the mainmast and three topmasts for the British frigate. A little later a large raft was seized by Macdonough's gunboats; it was made up of planks and spars and loaded with twenty-seven barrels of tar, with six or eight American citizens in charge, who were taking p77 this to the British. It is painful to reflect that two thirds of the fresh beef consumed by the British Army in Canada came from Vermont and northern New York, cattle being driven in droves by the American farmers across the border to the best market.
The year 1814 was the critical year of the war. It was marked by the offensive taken by the British and by the internal weakness shown by the United States. A lull in the Napoleonic wars had released large forces for the conflict in America, and upward of fifteen thousand of Wellington's Peninsular Army had been transported to Canada. The naval contingent also had been greatly strengthened and was enforcing the blockade with increasing strictness. Besides the large expedition that moved at will up and down the Chesapeake, burning Washington and sacking Alexandria, another expedition seized the fort at Castine, Maine, and, with only a show of force, induced the inhabitants of the country east of the Penobscot to renew their allegiance to the English crown. These operations had been such easy successes that there is little wonder the British looked forward with great confidence upon two others — an invasion of New York by way of Plattsburg and Lake Champlain and the capture of New Orleans. These were England's preparations for a peace treaty of her own making.
This was serious enough, even if there had been a united Republic to meet them; but, as England knew, the government showed signs of weakness and disunion beyond anything in its previous history. President Madison had predicted that when the flag was unfurled in war the people would rush forward to its defense; but the great mass of citizens continued to go as usual about their farming, their buying and selling; they p78 seemed unconscious of the existence of war. There was no money in the Treasury; there were next to no regulars in the army; and the militia, on which the administration had pinned its hopes at the beginning of the war, proved less and less reliable. As a matter of fact, in 1814 Massachusetts and Connecticut withdrew their militia from the last vestige of Federal control. The unpopular war was contemptuously spoken of as "Mr. Madison's war." Even before its beginning New England had talked of separation from the Union, and in 1814 sent delegates to Hartford as the first step toward forming a New England confederacy. It is no wonder that England thought the time had come for lively campaigning and a successful peace drive.
Early in September of 1814, then, General Prevost with from ten thousand to fourteen thousand troops, many of them Wellington's veterans, slowly moved across the border and toward Plattsburg. The Americans had prepared in his path several positions by which they might at least have delayed his advance, had not orders that admitted of no discretion on the part of the recipient come from the War Department requiring General Izard with four thousand regulars to proceed from Plattsburg to Sackett's Harbor, — and this in the latter part of August when a battle at Plattsburg was almost in sight. General Macomb at once concentrated his force, fifteen hundred effective regulars, together with New York and Vermont militia, at Plattsburg. The odds were heavily against him; but with the assistance of an engineer officer, a graduate of the newly established Military Academy at West Point,b he used the short time to make the most of his position behind the Saranac River, where he had determined to dispute the progress of the enemy.
p79 To make his campaign successful it was absolutely necessary for Prevost to have the support of the British squadron, now commanded by Captain George Downie; and this squadron must hold undisputed control of the lake. Scarcely had the Confiance taken the water when Prevost began his forward movement. It was only sixteen days after she slipped off her ways that she was engaged in the battle which was to decide all. Even two days before the battle, mechanics had still not completed their work; as the first lieutenant reported, artificers were then employed "fitting beds, coins, belaying pins, etc." Meanwhile the British Army slowly and rather carelessly advanced by two roads, driving the American skirmishers before them into Plattsburg. On the beach road near that city, however, they were abruptly halted by a galling fire from the American gunboats, which held their position until the enemy's artillery was brought forward.
Macdonough had decided to compel the enemy to take the initiative and make the attack in Plattsburg Bay. Judged by any ordinary standard, as he knew, the British were superior. They had 16 craft to his 14 and 92 guns to his 86, with crews of corresponding proportions. Furthermore, the Confiance, a frigate of about 1200 tons burden mounting 37 guns, not only was more than a match for the Saratoga of 734 tons with 26 guns, but, because of her unusual number of long guns opposed to the American carronades, was indeed a fair match for Macdonough's entire squadron, provided that she met her adversaries in the open lake where she could maneuver to outrange them.
Plattsburg Bayc extends from north to south, a pocket partly closed by Cumberland Head on the northeast and Crab Island on the southeast, the entrance, p80 which is •about two miles and a half wide, being toward the south. The prevailing winds on the lake are from the north or the south. The advantage of Macdonough's position lay in the fact that if the British came down on a north wind to the scene of action, as was most likely, they would find it slow and somewhat difficult to come about and enter the bay with the wind unfavorable; the lake vessels, because of their shallow draft, were dull sailers when going close to the wind. Moreover, the inclosed position would compel the British in attacking him to come into close action where their superiority in long guns would be largely lost.
Macdonough had taken his position and had everything ready on the eighth of September. His last precaution was to attach springs to his cables so that if necessary in battle to "wind" the ship, or turn her, he could do so, independent of sail power. The strongest units of his squadron were arranged in column from north to south, the brig Eagle being at the van toward Cumberland Head, followed by the frigate Saratoga, the schooner Ticonderoga, and the sloop Preble. The ten gunboats were placed at intervals inshore of the large vessels.
Early on the morning of 11 September, 1814, the American force could see the first of the enemy approaching, with the wind from the northeast. Captain Downie had been informed by Prevost of the exact number and arrangement of the American squadron, and he had planned his attack accordingly. The Confiance, relying on her great strength, was to lead the British in and sail to the head of the American column; then, coming about, she was to deliver a heavy fire on the Eagle as she passed, and anchor across the bow p81 of the Saratoga. The brig Linnet was to follow and, with the sloop Chub, engage the Eagle. The sloop Finch and twelve gunboats were to attack the rear of the American squadron. When the first ships of the British came opposite the bay, however, not being in the desired formation, they hove to; and Downie arranged his battle line.
The hours of waiting in the American force were anxious ones. The officers had made no effort by idle boasting to conceal the fact of the British superiority; but the calm, determined spirit of their leader had been remarkably contagious. Every officer, sailor, and soldier in the squadron was determined to fight to the last. As the British were standing in toward the bay, Macdonough, with his officers about him on the flagship, knelt and repeated the prayer of the Episcopal Church "to be said before a fight at sea."
The fate of the campaign and perhaps of America hinged on this engagement. Macdonough, realizing this at least in part, felt that his own strength was not enough; simple, as he always was, and deeply moved, he acted as he had been taught by his devoted mother.
The Eagle fired her long guns at the slowly approaching foe, but the shot fell short. Macdonough, noting this, held his fire. Finally, about five minutes before nine, he fired a long 24‑pounder of the Saratoga, which he trained himself. True to its mark, the shot entered near the port hawse-hole of the Confiance and ranged the length of the ship. The Confiance made no reply. She gave a fine exhibition of discipline, but as she came under the lee of Cumberland Head her progress became more painful. Shot after shot from the Saratoga and the Eagle was piercing her hull and severely testing the British powers of endurance. p82 Finally, when the port bower and spare anchor in the fore chains had been shot away, Downie gave up the attempt to reach the desired position and, dropping anchor three hundred yards off the Saratoga's starboard beam, gave orders to begin firing. The first broadside of the British, fired at point-blank range with every gun carefully aimed, was sharply felt on the Saratoga. It is said that more than a fifth of her crew fell, and that the whole ship quivered.
The Linnet and the Chub, sailing close after the Confiance, according to program, attacked the Eagle. The little British sloop, however, was playing a game with those beyond her class; with rigging shot to pieces she drifted down the American line and surrendered after a single shot from the Saratoga. She and the Finch were the sloops captured from Macdonough's lieutenant two years previously. There was added satisfaction for Americans that day in bringing them both back to their proper allegiance. On the Confiance a great disaster occurred fifteen minutes after the beginning of the engagement, when the commander of the British squadron, the gallant Captain Downie, was struck by a gun dismounted by a shot from the Saratoga and instantly killed.
The fighting everywhere, except on certain of the British gunboats which kept their distance, was of the most stubborn nature. At 10.30 the Eagle, being unable to use several of her starboard guns and finding the fire of the Linnet, with an occasional shot from the Confiance, too hot for her, spread her topsails and dropped down to a position between the Saratoga and the Ticonderoga; then, bringing her port broadside into play, she fired at the Confiance without being subject to a return fire. This left the Linnet, however, entirely p83 free, and she worked forward to a raking position off the Saratoga's bow, so that the American flagship now had to meet the concentrated attack of both ships. Their combined superiority in broadside guns, as they entered the battle, was twenty-seven to the Saratoga's thirteen. Gun after gun on the engaged side of the Saratoga was disabled by shot of the enemy or by reason of overcharging. Macdonough, who was everywhere trying to put organization and fight into his comparatively new crew, even at times aiming some of the cannon, twice was hit by débris and felled to the deck, once being knocked senseless by a broken spar. But he fought with the same spirit with which he prayed, and he had no thought of defeat.
The fire of both flagships was now weakening; indeed, nearly every gun of the Saratoga's starboard battery had been rendered useless. Only some quick maneuver could save the day for the American frigate. Letting go his stern anchor and cutting his bow cable, Macdonough proceeded to wind ship: he first hauled on the spring which had been led from his starboard quarter to a kedge anchor well off the starboard bow, the northerly wind assisting by throwing the head over; and when the stern was brought up, he completed the turning by hauling on the spring led to a kedge originally off the other bow. By this method he was soon back in the fight again, practically without changing his berth, and he had an entirely fresh broadside bearing.
This expedient of winding ship, which had succeeded because of Macdonough's forethought and careful preparation, won the battle. For some time conditions on the Confiance had been bad. Her great guns, which at the beginning of the battle had been leveled for point-blank range and had been terribly effective, as the p84 fighting crew grew more desperate were shooting above their target: the quoins had become loosened and the pieces elevated, a fact which the gunners failed to notice and correct. Furthermore, as the Saratoga renewed the battle with all thirteen guns of her port broadside, the Confiance had but four guns still serviceable to oppose her. Lieutenant Robertson, who had succeeded Captain Downie in command, tried to imitate Macdonough's maneuver, but he had not the assistance of springs to port and starboard. The result of his effort was that the Confiance swung only halfway and there hung exposed to the fire of her opponent, without ability to reply. She had so many holes in her hull that she was taking water badly; the wounded had been moved more than once to keep them from drowning. When finally a raking shot from the Saratoga entered and killed several men, "the ship's company," according to Lieutenant Robertson, "declared they would stand no longer to their quarters, nor could the officers with their utmost exertions rally them." There was nothing left for Robertson to do but to haul down his colors. This he did at 11 o'clock.
Immediately Macdonough transferred his attention to the Linnet. Winding the Saratoga a little farther, he brought his engaged broadside to bear on the doughty brig that for a half-hour had been, to put it mildly, excessively annoying. Lieutenant Pring, commanding her, knew that he was no match; but he held out, hoping that the gunboats might see his plight and, towing him out of the bay, give him a chance of escape. It happened, however, that the four British gunboats which took part in the action had been hard handled by the Ticonderoga in their attempts to board her. The rest already were fleeing. At 11.15 Lieutenant Pring p85 yielded to the inevitable and hauled down his colors. The sloop Finch meanwhile had drifted on Crab Island, and on being attacked by a gun manned by invalid sailors from the hospital there, quickly lowered her flag.
The formal surrender took place on the deck of the Saratoga, where four British commanding officers proceeded to give up their swords. An eye‑witness writes as follows:
As they stepped upon the deck of the Saratoga they met Commodore Macdonough, who kindly bowed to them, while they, holding their caps in their left hands and their swords, by the blades, in their right, advanced toward him and, bowing, presented the weapons. The commodore bowed and said: "Gentlemen, return your swords into your scabbards and wear them. You are worthy of them." And having obeyed the order, arm in arm, with their swords by their sides, they walked the deck of their conqueror.
The American gunboats were summoned to assist in removing the British prisoners to Crab Island and the wounded of both sides to the hospital Macdonough had placed there. Lieutenant Vallette was given this duty; and even after more than a hundred years one cannot fail to catch the sympathy and gentleness which lay in Macdonough's quaint instructions: "Treat them kindly." "Speak to them encouragingly." That the British were conscious of this is recorded in the letter of Lieutenant Robertson of the Confiance to Macdonough:
I am requested by the surviving officers of H. M. late Ship Confiance to express to you how sensibly they feel indebted to your unbounded liberality and humane attention not only extended to themselves but to the unfortunate wounded seamen and marines, whose sufferings have been alleviated to the utmost that circumstances would permit. . . .
p86 A similar letter was written by officers of the Linnet; and Lieutenant Pring, the senior officer of the squadron after the death of Downie, yet again referred to "the humane treatment the wounded have received" when writing to Sir James Yeo. Macdonough had won a second victory.
A half-hour after the Linnet had hauled down her colors, a gig left the Saratoga bearing the following dispatch, which carried the good tidings to anxious Washington:
U. S. Ship Saratoga,
Off Plattsburg, September 11th, 1814.
The Almighty has been pleased to grant us a signal victory on Lake Champlain in the capture of one Frigate, one Brig, and two Sloops-of‑war of the enemy.
I have the honor to be
Sir, your obt. servt.
T. Macdonough, Com'g.
Hon'ble W. Jones,
Secretary of the Navy.
The losses on the Saratoga were 28 killed, 29 wounded; on the Confiance about 50 killed and 60 wounded. A merely casual observation of the two frigates showed how desperate and determined had been the fight: the Saratoga had received 55 round shot in her hull; the Confiance 105. "Yet," as Henry Adams remarks, "at the end of two hours' combat the British squadron was on the whole victorious, and the American on the point of capture." Both ends of the American column had been turned, and for the time being the flagship was silenced. It was the intelligence, quickness, and courage of the American officers that won the battle. Macdonough p87 had foreseen just what the exigencies of the morning would be and had made his preparations. In the battle he had suffered sharp reverses, but the reverses were only smarting blows that made him fight more determinedly. For such a spirit, battle had only one conclusion, and that was victory.
In these pages there is no attempt to give a comprehensive account of the activities of the navy. Neither Decatur nor Macdonough, nor any other of the officers who made the navy famous in the War of 1812, could have done his work without the coöperation of hundreds and thousands of other real Americans. To suggest what the navy did to bring peace, mention, at least, must be made of David Porter and his extensive work in the Atlantic and Pacific. His exploits were performed in the little frigate Essex. Especially off the west coast of South America he wrought havoc on the British shipping, capturing or driving from the sea all whaling vessels there. In the end he was outmatched by the superior force the British sent against him, but that was not until 1814, when he had done his work. David Farragut was a young midshipman with Porter; and more of Porter's service will be told later in connection with Farragut's career.
Another name, the mention of which always awakens enthusiasm, is that of James Lawrence. He gained one of the cleanest‑cut victories of the war when his sloop Hornet captured the Peacock in fifteen minutes. Later, when in command of the frigate Chesapeake, he was lured into fighting a ship duel with the Shannon. At that time his crew was new and unorganized, whereas that of the Shannon had been long at sea and was unusually well-trained and officered. The nation suffered a double loss that day when an American p88 frigate was taken and her captain mortally wounded. Yet very few men who lived on for half a century longer left a richer legacy than did Lawrence by his dying words, "Don't give up the ship." The battle had gone against him, but his soul was unconquerable.
The sloops of war and privateers, though never taking part in major operations, had an appreciable influence on the result. The sloops were the light cruisers of the period. Although the British frigates were able eventually to seal up most of the American frigates by closely blockading the ports, the nimble sloops passed in and out until the end of the war. They preyed upon the British commerce on every part of the Atlantic, and a few bold captains like Johnston Blakely conducted their operations even in the English Channel. The privateers, easily converted from the fast merchantmen, gave the British especial annoyance. Some were not less bold than the sloops of war, and the waters about the West Indies, the Canaries, France, Ireland, and England itself were infested by them. France had tried privateering in the recent wars only to have her depredations promptly checked; but the American privateers, like the German submarines of a century later, defied the British Admiralty and brought disagreeably home to all merchants the fact of the war's long continuation. The British "Annual Register" for 1814 recorded as a "most mortifying reflection" that, with a navy of nearly a thousand ships and while at peace with the nations of Europe, "it was not safe for a vessel to sail without convoy from one part of the English or Irish Channel to another."3
In 1814 the war was becoming distinctly unpopular in England. Immediately after the defeat of their p89 fleet on Lake Champlain, Prevost had retreated with his army to Canada, with such precipitancy as to abandon stores and even leave his wounded to the mercies of the American Army. In its mortification the English government appealed to the Duke of Wellington to take command in America, but he was not encouraging or interested. He remarked, "I have told the ministers repeatedly that a naval superiority on the Lakes is a sine qua non of success in war on the frontier of Canada, even if our object should be wholly defensive."
All this combined to change the original instructions with which the commissioners representing Great Britain met the American commissioners at Ghent. They had at first expected to compel the United States to "rectify the boundary" by surrendering the eastern part of Maine to Great Britain, by creating a huge buffer state in the Northwest to be devoted to Indians, and by relinquishing any share in the control of the Great Lakes. The ministry made a mistake in choosing as their negotiators men who were virtually unknown and of mediocre ability. Washington, on the other hand, sent a remarkable group of men: Gallatin, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Bayard, and Russell. So although in military affairs during 1814 the British generals had much the better of it, in the peace conference just the opposite happened: it was the American representatives who outmaneuvered their opponents.
The British, however, had for some time known of the strong factions in America. Thus it is not strange that they purposely delayed matters so that they might have the advantage to be gained from Prevost's success in New York. When news came of his dismal p90 failure, the aspect of the peace conference changed very perceptibly. England gave up her demands for territory; and America, for her part, agreed to say nothing about impressment and illegal blockades, the alleged reasons for going to war.
A few in the United States may have looked upon the treaty with disappointment, — after four years of war nothing gained and nothing lost, — but the great mass of people celebrated the coming of peace with eager enthusiasm. The separation movement faded away into thin air; and the political party that had opposed the war, and in its radical wing had urged the dissolving of the Union, fell into such disfavor that it was deserted like a sinking ship. Nothing gained and nothing lost! Soon, however, the more astute observers noticed, as the war clouds blew away, that something new had come, and that was nationality. Miserable factions which from the very beginning had assailed the administration, sparing not even Washington, selfish and often dishonest, had lost their power; citizens of good repute recognized their true character and declined to give them further support.
No one has given a better statement of the result of the war than Gallatin, writing in 1816:
The war has been productive of evil and of good, but I think the good preponderates. Independent of the loss of lives, and of the property of individuals, the war has laid the foundations of permanent taxes and military establishments, which the Republicans had deemed unfavorable to the happiness and free institutions of the country. But under our former system we were becoming too selfish, to much attached exclusively to the acquisition of wealth, above all too much confined in our political feelings to local and state affairs. The war has renewed and reinstated the national p91 feeling and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening. The people have now more general objects of attachment, with which their pride and political opinions are connected. They are more Americans; they feel and act more as a nation: and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.
It is almost needless, after what has been related in the last two chapters, to call attention to the important part played by the navy in accomplishing this great result, American nationality. In a period of discouragement the navy showed the country that Americans could fight; it embarrassed the enemy in their operations and was instrumental in causing the failure of their leading campaigns; it aroused pride and enthusiasm because of its achievements. Its victories were made the subjects of songs which were sung all over the country and which lasted so long in the Service that Admiral Luce, a midshipman in the forties, says that it was through hearing them that he learned his naval history.
In thus establishing naval tradition on a firm and enduring basis, what was Macdonough's part?
He gave an example of doing the task assigned, quietly and without discussion. He knew in 1812, when he arrived at Lake Champlain, that there was no squadron, next to no men to build one, and no supplies within easy reach. But he went to work and nearly always at critical moments was a little ahead of his enemy.
He gave an example of careful, intelligent, and thorough preparation. This preparation extended through 1812, 1813, and 1814; and without this persistence he never could have appeared on the lake in 1814 to dispute the progress of the British.
p92 After making such preparation he gave an example of how to fight. No one ever threw himself into battle with more determination. The struggle in which he was leader was fought but for one ending.
Macdonough gave an example, further, of pure living and high thinking. He was deeply religious; and no one ever criticized his religion. He was thoughtful and unselfish. He never left a ship, either as first lieutenant or captain, that the officers and men did not realize that their best friend had been detached; on two occasions they expressed their warm feeling by a joint letter; on another they presented him with a sword.
Of course he had no connection with the Naval Academy, founded twenty years after his death. Yet who can see his name on the new gymnasium of that institution without feeling the fitness of placing it there! Like Sir Galahad of old, Macdonough stands as a symbol of strength and purity.
He was not insensible of the strain incident to his service on Lake Champlain, where unremitting toil was carried on through the severe northern Vermont winters; and in the fall of 1814, when nearly all danger was past, he asked to be relieved. The Navy Department gave him another assignment for a few weeks, but, hearing of British activity, recalled him to his old billet. Thus his duty on the lake, which began in 1812, continued till after peace in 1815. Macdonough was an officer who never complained of what was assigned him; but, as often happens in the navy, the duty just mentioned involved personal sacrifice. Ten years after the war, when he was still young, he ended a cruise on the Constitution in the Mediterranean to go home a sick man. He died at sea of pulmonary consumption, the result of his arduous labors in saving the nation.
1 At the beginning of the engagement Perry hoisted a flag on which were inscribed the last words of Lawrence, "Don't give up the ship." Death had overtaken Lawrence, but it was his unconquerable soul that led Perry through to victory. Perry's flag, the most famous naval flag in the country, is preserved at the United States Naval Academy (see Frontispiece).
2 Written in 1822.
3 Quoted by Adams in his "History of the United States," Vol. VIII, p197.
a The "Plattsburg idea" was a system initiated in Plattsburg in 1915, at first under private auspices, that sought to give volunteer civilians, especially business and professional men, a crash course in military preparedness. Comprehensive details are provided in an article by Penelope Clute in New York Archives magazine, available from the Plattsburgh Barracks page of the New York State Military Museum.
c Very useful to follow along with: the clear map (illustrating another account of the battle) in Admiral Clark's A Short History of the American Navy.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 3 Jul 13