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View of Lake Champlain from Battery Park showing an interpretive panel about Burlington Cantonment

Burlington, Vermont  
During the War of 1812

By James P. Millard

Detail of map from the Library of Congress showing Lake Champlain and Burlington in 1814When people think of the critical role Lake Champlain played during the War of 1812, Plattsburgh and Vergennes are the cities that come to mind. There is good reason for this, the role these towns played is important. Few would think of Burlington. That is unfortunate, for the Village of Burlington did play a vital role in the defense of the Lakes.

As early as June 1812 troops were building a Battery along the lake. This earthen embankment with some thirteen embrasures was built by Lt. Sylvester Churchill upon the high bluff where Battery Park is now located.

Map showing Lake Champlain and Burlington in 1814. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

The original 550 regular Army troops were soon reinforced by additional 700 soldiers marched up from Boston by Brigadier General John Chandler. Initially, 6 24-pounders were the armament.1

Detail of the interpretive panel about Burlington Cantonment at Battery Park
Before long, a major military presence was established at Burlington. The Commander of the Cantonment, Colonel Isaac Clark, purchased a 10-acre lot adjacent to the Battery. The Army base was located in the two-block area now fronted by Park and Front Streets. Extending approximately from Pearl to North Street, the base consisted of some 14 buildings. The Soldier's Barracks was a crude single-story, wooden structure, measuring approximately 110'x18'. Situated next to it was the more substantially built two-story Officer's Quarters. This building measured some 60'x18'. The hospital was by far the largest structure on the post. It was 300' long, 20' wide, boasted two stories and a large cellar.  There were storehouses, gun sheds, magazines, and a guardhouse- all needed to supply a standing army.2 

Detail from interpretive panel at Battery Park describing site of Burlington Cantonment. (Click on thumbnail to see full-size photo)

National Archives: Record Group 107: Letters rec'd. by Sec'y. of War, File A-68 (1817)

The hospital was sorely needed, for as was so often was the case during the early days of the Republic, illness and disease took a heavy toll on the crowded troops. Within a few short months, the ranks had swollen to some 4,000 men. Despite sending 1,600 soldiers to the Plattsburgh base, sickness ran rampant. The unsanitary, crowded conditions took their toll. Diarrhea, Measles, Smallpox and a particularly violent and contagious form of  pneumonia spread through the ranks. During the winter of 1812-1813, at least one in 8 of the soldiers died. Often communities welcome the military to their Contemporary image of Thomas Macdonoughenvirons, realizing commercial gain from having so many new inhabitants with their various needs. The residents of Burlington, however, soon realized the troops brought them more than they had bargained for. By February 1813, 73 civilians had died from the pneumonia. By the end of the winter, it is estimated that one in twenty Burlingtonians had succumbed to the illnesses brought by the troops quartered by the lake.3

By October 1812, young Lt. Thomas Macdonough had arrived in Burlington to assume command of the American fleet on the lake. His orders were simple- attain and keep control of the waterway. He was to build the fleet necessary to do this, and he was to do it in a hurry. Late fall was occupied with ferrying troops from Burlington to Plattsburgh, after which the small fleet went into winter quarters in Shelburne bay.  Macdonough left Burlington to marry in December, but soon returned with his new bride.

In July 1813, General Wade Hampton arrived in Burlington to command the forces for the invasion of Canada. However, before he set out, the British struck first. On August 2 at approximately 2:30 pm; fresh from attacks upon Plattsburgh, New York and Swanton, Vermont; three ships, the Broke, the Shannon, and a row galley under the command of Lt. Colonel John Murray appeared off Burlington. Ironically, just 60 days previously these same ships were under American flag, they had been captured and refitted by the British after being lost in an ill-fated misadventure in the RichelieuSign about the War of 1812 bombardment of the Burlington Battery River. They took to bombarding the battery, making much of a stir but actually doing little damage. After attacking the battery, the British continued south, towards Shelburne Bay, where they captured several private vessels. One of these, Gideon King's 50-ton sloop Essex, was burned to the waterline after an unsuccessful attempt to tow her back to Canada. Although Macdonough had a sizable fleet on hand in Burlington-three sloops, two schooners, two one-gun scows and a floating battery, he opted not to chase the enemy at this time. (For a more complete account of Murray’s' Raid, click here.) Macdonough's instructions were to regain control of the lakes, he would do this only by continuing to build and maintain the size of his fleet. After all, there was an arms race underway. The British were furiously building a large fleet at Isle aux Noix. 4

In late October, Hampton's force finally set sail for the ill-fated invasion of Canada. Macdonough concentrated his efforts on Vergennes, where he set out to build his fleet at the foot of the falls

Again, the ominous specter of a North Country winter hovered over the garrison. With the snow came disease, and the smaller number of troops suffered as well. One Burlington resident is quoted as saying, "Several hundred died weekly, and it was not uncommon to find that twenty had died in a night."5. The militia went home, and the regular army huddled in its barracks.  As troops came to the city and then embarked off for the front, the garrison alternately swelled and shrunk in size. Housing continued to be a problem and the Army entered into negotiations with the University of Vermont, hoping to lease the college building for a temporary barracks. Vermont governor Martin Chittenden, never a supporter of the war, was outraged. He complained of federal troops "ranging without constraint through the halls..." This group of soldiers, known as the College Cantonment, was a constant thorn in the side of the college's neighbors. Many a hapless trooper was court-martialed for thievery from the citizens on the hill. Among the punishments meted out was confinement in ball and chain for up to 30 days.6

As the 1814 campaign opened, Burlington continued to be used as a staging ground for the unsuccessful attacks against Canada. Finally, in September, a massive British army crossed the border into the United States at Champlain, New York. The immediate target was Battery Park Scene. Photo by Jim MillardPlattsburgh and the huge munitions depot there. The hospital again became severely overcrowded with the arrival of 400 sick and wounded evacuated from Crab Island*. What American forces lacked on the ground, however, they more than made up for on the water. On September 11, 1814, General George Prevost sailed his mighty fleet to defeat at Plattsburgh.  Commodore Thomas Macdonough, together with General Alexander Macomb, successfully turned the tide against the British in this significant victory. It is safe to state that many, if not all of the American forces that took part in the great victory, had at one time been stationed in Burlington.

By 1817, the Army had abandoned the facility. The Army sent Col. H. Atkinson, together with Lt. Colonel G.T. Totten to make a recommendation as to how to dispose of the once bustling Burlington Cantonment. Their report to the Secretary of War,  issued August 16, 1817 makes for fascinating reading. Their recommendation was to sell the property, a hundred acre wood lot to the north being the key selling point. The report that "the Barracks were slightly built, and are falling to pieces" is especially telling. Continuing in their description of the Barracks- "...there is not a post, stud, or brace in the sides or ends of the whole building... the whole of the Barracks are put together in the corsest (sic) manner...' the cracks between the edges of the planks that form the walls are stopped with battens. These buildings were never fit to put troops in, only on temporary cases of emergency, in the summer months, and are not now worth preserving...".7

Marker commemorating Burlington's unknown at Lake View CemeteryToday, beautiful Battery Park stands as a testimony to the military encampment that once was here. There is a small memorial tablet commemorating the bombardment of the battery (incidentally, the plaque is incorrect- the date is listed as June 13; the actual attack was on August 2, 1813. Also the "gunboats" were two sloops and a row galley)  and some statues and memorials to veterans of later American wars, but no mention of Thomas Macdonough or Alexander Macomb. Directly opposite the park, Monroe Street is still named after the President in the White House at the time. Aging homes now fill the area where the  barracks stood. Children play in the swings and slides where the parade ground was located.  Many of the city streets are named for prominent military men who served at the garrison. To find mention of the soldiers who suffered and died here, one must go further down North Avenue to Lake View Cemetery. Here amidst several dozen tiny headstones, each graced with a small American flag, one will find a memorial to Burlington's Unknown.  Doubtless, many of these unknown are the soldiers who did not survive the winter of the War of 1812.

(click for map of Burlington and Battery Park)
Click here for more information about historic Burlington, Vermont


* "Apprehensive that the sick would fall into the hands of the enemy... it was suggested to transport as many as were able to be moved in open bateaus to Burlington. The weather had been boisterous, and passage unsafe in small boats; but providentially, the winds subsided, and the waters became smooth; so that they arrived on the opposite shore without any unpleasant accident in small detachments; the last on the day of the memorable action, between the fleets. The patients, at Burlington, found comfortable accommodations; their number, at this time, amounted to 815; 50 of whom were wounded. The evils arising from crowded wards were soon perceived; but could not, under existing circumstances, be remedied..."8 (italics added)  



1Karen Stites Campbell, "Propaganda, Pestilence and Prosperity: Burlington's Camptown Days During the War of 1812"   (VERMONT HISTORY- The proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society, Summer 1996) 138.
2National Archives, Record Group 107:H. Atkinson letter, Letters Rec'd by Secy. of War File A-68 (1817)
Campbell 146, 147.
Russell P. Bellico, "SAILS AND STEAM IN THE MOUNTAINS- A Maritime and Military History of Lake George and Lake Champlain," (Fleischmanns, New York: Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., 1992) 210
Walter Hill Crockett, "A History of Lake Champlain," (Burlington, Vermont: Hobart J. Shanley & Co. 1909) 253
Campbell 152, 153.
National Archives. Record Group 107:H. Atkinson letter, Letters Rec'd by Secy. of War File A-68 (1817)

Last modified: 01/09/2016

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