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Lake George, and Richelieu River
By James P. Millard
Part VI: THE WAR OF 1812 ON LAKE CHAMPLAIN
JUNE 1812- DECEMBER 1813
Spelling and punctuation in quotes are as found in the original. Black text with
underlines indicates a hyperlink.
June 4, 1812
"Horace Bucklin Sawyer of Burlington entered the navy of the United States as a midshipman and was at once ordered to the Eagle (Lieut. Sidney Smith) which cruised in company with the Growler (sailing master Jairus Loomis) protecting American interests on Lake Champlain."**
The second War for Independence
The War of 1812: 1812-1815
The United States issues a Declaration of War against Great Britain.
Despite its proven strategic importance, there are few military vessels on Lake Champlain. There are two gunboats under the control of the Navy, built in 1809. Constructed to enforce the embargo against Canada, they have been allowed to deteriorate and sit on the lake bottom at berth in Basin Harbor. One of them is restored to some semblance of usefulness and is armed with a 9-pounder.
The Army, having mobilized faster on the lakes than the Navy, acquires from local shipping interests six sloops. The
President, Bull Dog, and Hunter; along with three other small vessels, are utilized primarily as transports.
" 'You will proceed with the military stores and articles direct to Whitehall on Lake Champlain, from whence you will transport them, together with the cannon ball belonging to the State, lying at Whitehall to Plattsburgh and Essex arsenals. If an immediate conveyance by water cannot be obtained, you will proceed by land with the articles for Plattsburgh through Vermont to Burlington, and from thence send for Gun Boats and other vessels from Plattsburgh, or employ them at Burlington, to transport the articles to Plattsburgh, and from the proper point on Vermont shore send across those for Elizabethtown, Essex County.'--Orders of Gov. Tompkins from Albany, to Maj. John Mills, Washington County."**
July 12, 1812
"Eight companies of the Vermont militia under Col. Williams are quartered in the new barracks, east of the "green" at Swanton. The barracks are built in the form of a crescent, with a parade ground at the north-west."**
"The news of the declaration of the second war between the United States and Great Britain reached this county a month after the event. About this time Col. Isaac Clark of the Eleventh U.S. Infantry, and a veteran of the Revolution, arrived at Burlington to make the necessary preparations. He was a son-in-law of Gov. Thomas Chittenden and was known as "Old Rifle" among the Green Mountain Boys. For the government he bought ten acres on a bluff overlooking the lake, the present Battery Park being a part of the same."**
By September 1, an estimated 8,000 troops are massed on the western shore of Lake Champlain at Plattsburgh. Advanced outposts are established at Champlain and Chazy.
The Navy assigns 28 year old Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough to Burlington. Despite his youth, Macdonough has distinguished himself in service on the high seas during the the War with Tripoli. Arriving at Burlington on October 8, Macdonough assumes command and throws himself into the task of preparing for the defense of the lake.
His first task is to commandeer the few ships on the lake from the Army. Once again the head of navigation on the lakes, Whitehall (formerly Skenesborough) becomes the scene of frenetic military shipbuilding and re-fitting activity. 160 batteaux*, long the standard vehicle for troop and matériel transport on the lakes, are constructed here. The six large vessels are rebuilt to allow them to mount cannon. The Hunter and Bull Dog sloops are mounted with seven guns each including an 18-pounder swivel cannon. The President's hull is strengthened enough to allow it to carry 8 guns- six 18-pounders, and two 12-pounders. The President becomes Macdonough's flagship, while the Hunter is renamed the Growler, and the Bull Dog becomes the Eagle.
October 13, 1812
"The new commander of the lake fleet, after consultation with Gen. Dearborn at Plattsburgh, went to Whitehall, where he began to fit out two gunboats to prepare for service the sloops
Hunter and Bull Dog. These were remodeled to carry eleven guns in place of seven and their names changed to Growler and Eagle."**
Despite the small size of his fleet, Macdonough has already achieved naval superiority on the lake. The fleet spends the first part of November patrolling and escorting the many troop transports moving back and forth between Burlington and Plattsburgh.
An invasion force of some 5,000 regulars and militia prepares to cross the border into Canada at Champlain, New York.
An advance party moves on the British outpost at Lacolle, Quebec. In the pre-dawn darkness, two American detachments fire upon each other for some 30 minutes, resulting in a number of casualties (2 dead, 13 wounded, 5 missing- Everest)1. This foray against British and Canadian forces ends abruptly when the humbled American forces pull back across the border.
Shortly after the debacle at Lacolle, most militia are sent home and Army and Navy regulars go into winter quarters. Stationed at Plattsburgh under Col. Zebulon Pike, are the U.S. 6th, 15th and 16th Regiments, while the 9th, 11th, 21st, and 25th are assigned to Gen. John Chandler at Burlington. Lieut. Macdonough has retired to Shelburne Bay with the fleet. He uses this break in hostilities to good advantage, refitting the President, Growler and Eagle with more guns.
Construction of log barracks is finally begun at the site of the army's winter quarters in Plattsburg along the Saranac River. Previous to this time, the 2,000 regular army soldiers had been housed only in tents. The encampment, known as Camp Saranak, Camp Plattsburg, Cantonment Sarenac or Pike's Cantonment2, was the scene of much suffering over the long winter. Reportedly, over 100 men will die over the next month from sickness and exposure. Colonel Pike himself takes ill, resulting in further demoralization of the troops.
December 8, 1812
"The eight companies of the First Vermont militia, stationed at Swanton barracks, discharged, but soon replaced by Col. Fifield's regiment, which remained but five or six weeks before being ordered away and then back again into winter quarters."**
"Macdonough married in Middletown, Conn., Lucy Shaler, daughter of Nathaniel Shaler, in early life a Tory. The new commander brought his bride to Burlington, where they spent the winter, while he superintended the fitting out of the fleet which was to engage the enemy and protect the lake."**
"Macdonough, in his report to the navy department, names the
President, a sloop which had previously been under the control of Dearborn, with six transports, all of which were transferred to the commander of the fleet. Macdonough made the
President his flagship and so it remained during 1813."**
March 25, 1813
A large force from Chandler's brigade at Burlington is sent to thwart an attack at Sackett's Harbor, New York. Some 300 sleighs are utilized to carry the troops across the frozen lake using teams impressed from Vermont farms.
A fleet reduced in size to five vessels, but vastly improved in armament, sails out of winter quarters to Plattsburgh. Macdonough's fleet now consists of the three sloops,
President, mounting 12 guns; Eagle and Growler; each mounting 11 guns. There are still only two gunboats, each with 2 cannons.
The gunboats are temporarily laid up at Plattsburgh so that the crews can be utilized in the severely under-manned sloops. A critical shortage of manpower, always a source of concern on inland waterways, proves to be one of Macdonough's most vexing problems. His woes are compounded shortly as the flagship,
President runs aground off Plattsburgh, sustaining major damage.
May 13, 1813
flotilla, consisting of the brig Linnet, with 20 guns,
commanded by Captain Daniel Pring, six sloops and schooners and
10 row-galleys passed up the lake from Rouses Point, and in the
afternoon appeared off the village of Essex. The soldiers in one
row-galley, after giving chase to a small row boat which escaped
up the Boquet, landed on the north side of that river and
plundered a farm house."**
For an account of this engagement visit
"The Battle of
the Bouquet River" by David C. Glenn.
May 27, 1813
"Mid. Horace Bucklin Sawyer was directed by Com. Macdonough to take one of the gun boats to Plattsburgh. On entering the bay, however, she was struck by a gust of wind and thrown on her end beam and it was several hours before her crew were rescued more dead than alive from their immersion in nearly ice-cold water and taken on board the
Five companies of the Thirteenth U.S. Infantry arrive at Burlington together with a detachment of artillery and two 24- pounders for emplacement at the battery there. Troops continue to arrive all month, by the end of June some 4,000 soldiers are stationed at Burlington, including some 800 militia.3
Responding to reports of British activity south of the border, Lieut. Sidney Smith is ordered north from Plattsburgh with the
Growler and the Eagle. Contrary to Macdonough's advice and direction, the sloops advance into Canada down the Richelieu chasing three British gunboats. By the time they had approached the British base at Isle aux Noix, the American vessels were in trouble. A strong southerly wind hampered their attempts to beat back against the strong current of the river. Smith spent a desperate evening trying to get the vessels out of the river and into the safety of the lake. By first light, it was too late. The British, seeing the plight of the two sloops, sent out heavily armed row galleys, and distributed several hundred infantrymen along both banks of the river. A fierce battle ensued, culminating in the sinking of the
Eagle, and the Growler being run ashore. American losses were 1 killed and 19 wounded. All 112 crewmen were captured. The British lost no vessels, but were reported to have taken heavy casualties. The loss to the American Navy couldn't have been more devastating. The tide had turned, naval superiority was now in the hands of the British. They would put the spoils of war to good use. The
Eagle and Growler were refitted and renamed HMS Broke and
Shannon. Soon, these vessels would be turned against their builders.
"At three o'clock in the morning Lieut. Smith found himself at Ash Island while the enemy's row-galleys had taken refuge under the guns and fortifications of Isle Aux Noix. Retreat against the current of the lake and in the face of a strong south wind, was impossible and in the four-hour engagement that followed the Americans were forced to surrender. The officers, among whom were Lieut. Smith, Loomis, sailing master of the
Eagle; Sawyer, midshipman, and Capt. Herrick, were sent first to Montreal and then to Halifax where they were confined in one of H.M. ships of war, commanded by Hon. Capt. Douglas "who treated them with great kindness although his government had proposed to deal with them as traitors until assured by our government that for everyone so dealt with, two Englishmen should receive similar treatment." After an exchange had been effected, Mid. Sawyer was ordered to the
General Wade Hampton arrives in Burlington to command the forces for the invasion of Canada.
"Far from his own family, Capt. John Schenck, aged 29, died in his country's service and was buried on Cumberland Head. He, no doubt, belonged to the troops stationed at the fortification, which Gen. Woolsey, Major Addams, and other military exempts helped to throw up."**
Thomas Macdonough is promoted to Master Commandant.
Murray's Raid begins. A British force of some 1,400 regulars and marines aboard the
Broke, Shannon; the three gunboats and some 40 plus bateaus crosses the border south into the lake.
"Col. Murray embarked with his force numbering over 1,400 men, including infantry, sailors and marines in two war sloops, three gunboats, and forty-seven longboats, and, crossing the lines, passed Champlain where the Americans had not, and never had a naval establishment. The same day some of the British gunboats menaced Burlington and exchanged a few shots with our batteries while Gen. Hampton was organizing his forces in town, intending to invade Canada, and Com. Macdonough was procuring the necessary equipment for his flotilla then occupying the harbor."**
British troops under Col. John Murray enter Plattsburgh, New York. Unopposed, they destroy a blockhouse, hospital, arsenal and the armory within the Village in addition to private property.
"Murray and his force landed in Plattsburgh without opposition and began a work of destruction. In spite of his assurances that private property and unarmed citizens should be unmolested, in addition to destroying a block-house, arsenal on Broad Street, armory and hospital and the military cantonment at Fredenburgh Falls, two miles up the river, the British wantonly burned three private storehouses, taking possession of hardware belonging to merchants of the city of Boston, and broke into and robbed private dwellings. Judge Delord, Peter Sailly, Esq., Judge Palmer, Dr. Miller, Bostwick Buck, Jacob Ferris and Major Platt were among the losers. Three of the British vessels appeared in Burlington bay and commenced to bombard the Battery, but the fire was returned from the guns mounted on the parapet with such vigor that the enemy retired."**
August 1, 1813
"At ten o'clock Murray, having completed his work of destruction, embarked in haste, leaving a picket guard of 21 men, which were immediately seized and sent as prisoners to Burlington. The longboats and two of the gunboats went north, landing their men at Cumberland Head and Point au Roche, where they pillaged the houses and farms of Henry W. Brand, Judge Treadwell and Jeremiah Stowe. At Chazy Landing, the enemy burned a store belonging to Judge Saxe and at Swanton, Vt., some old barracks and plundered several citizens. The two sloops and the other gunboat sailed south ten or twelve miles above Burlington and then returned towards Canada, firing a few shots at Burlington as they passed."**
Burlington, Vermont is bombarded by ships detached from the force of Col. John Murray. Commercial vessels are taken or destroyed in the vicinity of Charlotte and Shelburne Bay. At the same time another detachment marches on Swanton, Vermont.
General Wade Hampton, stationed at Burlington, Vermont, is ordered to advance on the British base at Isle aux Noix.
September 7, 1813
Hampton asks Macdonough to join the attack on Isle aux Noix, believing a joint land and naval attack would have greater likelihood of success. In a controversial decision, Macdonough declines to participate, fearing another fiasco similar to what occurred on June 2 in the Richelieu.
September 19-October 26 1813
A force of 4,000 troops assembled at Cumberland Head, advances down the lake towards Canada escorted by the fleet. Traveling in batteaus, they travel the four miles up the Great Chazy river to the rapids. Here, a landing is made and the force is joined by two artillery companies that have come north by land.
The army crosses the border, then returns to Champlain, after a stay in Canada of one day, Hampton cites a shortage of water as his reason. Finally, on September 26 an advance is made towards Montreal by way of Chateaugay- the attack on Isle aux Noix having been abandoned due to Macdonough's reluctance to assist. At Chateaugay the army again halts for almost a month. On October 20, Hampton crosses the border into Canada, only to be repelled by a tiny Canadian force in an engagement at the Chateaugay River. Continuing a pattern of ineptitude in the campaigns against the British on land, the American force retreats back to Plattsburgh by way of Chateaugay.
The American fleet is increased in strength by the addition of two more gunboats, built at Plattsburgh. In addition, two small sloops,
Frances and Wasp, have been refitted for use as armed tenders. The same drought that sent Hampton back to Champlain for water after an advance of one day has reduced lake levels to record depths. Hence, navigation at the southern post of Whitehall is difficult at best.
Col. Isaac Clark, commander of American forces at Champlain, crosses the lake to Philipsburg, Quebec on Missisquoi Bay. Ordered to create a diversion, Clark surprises the small British force stationed here. In one of the few successful engagements on land by American forces, the British take 23 casualties, and Clark takes 101 prisoners to Burlington.
November 5, 1813
Capt. Daniel Pring leads a
British force of four gun boats south to Chazy, New York. He is to meet
a land force at Chazy where they will together destroy stores and
provisions set aside for Gen. Wade Hampton's army. The stores are
guarded by a small force of militia. Pring occupies Chazy for several
days but Major Perault (who was to command the land troops) does not
arrive. Pring abandons Chazy, destroying the customs house and barracks
at Windmill Point as he returns to Isle aux Noix.5
" ' Evening of the 7th. The first artillery train arrived, when Gens. Bloomfield and Mooers discussed with me the plans of coming engagements. Orders sent out in various directions to the Rangers, and information to the Indians.'--Williams"**
Vermont's Federalist Governor, Martin Chittenden, never a supporter of the war, orders the Vermont Militia stationed in New York back to Vermont, ostensibly because "...an extensive section of our own frontier is left, in a measure, unprotected, and the peaceable, good citizens thereof are put in great jeopardy, and exposed to the retaliatory incursions and ravages of an exasperated enemy..."
In an unprecedented gesture, the Vermont Militia "absolutely and positively refuse obedience to the order", stating "that when we are ordered into the service of the United States, it becomes our duty, when required, to march to the defence of any section of the union."
" 'Returned north-- and in the afternoon heard heavy cannonading in direction of the lines. Troops were sent out from many ways to this point, and before going myself issued orders to the whole Corps of Observations.'-- Williams"**
In the Battle of Chrysler's Farm, some 2,000 American troops are roundly defeated by a force of less than 800 British. In the face of stiff opposition by determined British and Canadian troops, General Wilkinson pulls back his estimated 8-10,000 troops. His proud boast that "I am destined to and determined on the attack at Montreal, if not prevented by some act of God..." must have been met with some amount of skepticism considering the dismal record of the forces under his command. Generals Hampton and Wilkinson each blame the other for their failures in Canada.
" 'A Council of War to-day, in which I was made conspicuous as the only person who could give the desired information. In the Council disclosures were made in relation to the plans, which were contrary to my expectations, and far from being honorable to the public service. The decision, however, may be reversed, but in the meantime outspoken demonstration must be made by the American army of its intended invasion of the British Province. The Rangers report the enemy is not so formidable in our front as to give any fear of unfavorable results if our advance was made upon them. The Canadians are still unwilling to bear arms against the Americans, since they had a skirmish with the royal troops at La Chine in August last. They are forced into the service, and are not to be depended on.'--Williams"**
December 4-5, 1813
The Plattsburgh area is again the scene of a raid by British forces. Captain Daniel Pring, commanding a force of some 400, ascend the lake in 6 galleys to Cumberland Head. They succeed in torching a large, empty storehouse before being chased back down the Richelieu by American forces led by Lt. Stephen Cassin.
Macdonough sails his fleet into winter quarters at Vergennes, Vermont on the Otter Creek. Vermont's only inland port will offer protection from surprise attack over the frozen lake. It is also the ideal location for building the new ships that the American navy knows must be built to maintain naval superiority on Lake Champlain. The British have embarked on a major shipbuilding endeavor at Isle aux Noix.
" 'Wedding' was the password that night among the troops at Plattsburgh, for it was the wedding night of young Dr. Benj. J. Mooers and Mary Platt of Cumberland Head. A few months later the young doctor was using his skills as a surgeon among the wounded of those troops."**
** THREE CENTURIES IN THE CHAMPLAIN VALLEY: A COLLECTION OF HISTORICAL FACTS AND INCIDENTS- TERCENTENARY EDITION. 1909: Compiled and Edited by Mrs. George Fuller Tuttle. Saranac Chapter, D.A.R. Plattsburgh, NY.
1 Allan S. Everest,
"The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley" (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, New York: 1981) 92
2 Ibid., 93
3 Ibid., 111
4 Ibid., 64
5 Thomas Hooper,
The Royal Navy Station
at Ile-aux-Noix, 1812-1839. Monograph 1967, AMICUS No. 30647268: Library and
*Batteaux, used extensively in all conflicts on the lakes, were approximately 8' wide by 37' long. They typically carried some 40-50 men. For a detailed look at the role Batteaux played in the history of the lakes, see
Batteaux and 'Battoe Men': An American Colonial Response to the Problem of Logistics in Mountain Warfare,
by Joseph F. Meany Jr., Ph.D. Senior Historian, New York State Museum at
This is the conclusion of TIMELINE Part VI: The War of 1812 on Lake Champlain
The TIMELINE continues HERE
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