- Historic Sites
Victory On Lake Champlain
Hundreds of miles from salt water, two tiny, improvised fleets hammered away at each other in one of the decisive naval engagements of the War of 1812
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
On April 11, 1814, the British army under Wellington fought the last battle of the Peninsular War at Toulouse. Less than a hundred days later—on July 12—the Governor General of Canada reported that the first brigade of this army had readied Montreal, ready to undertake offensive operations against the United States.
On April 11, 1814, the British army under Wellington fought the last battle of the Peninsular War at Toulouse. Less than a hundred days later—on July 12—the Governor General of Canada reported that the first brigade of this army had readied Montreal, ready to undertake offensive operations against the United States. The rapidity of the transfer demonstrated not merely the flexibility of sea power and the remarkable lechnical ability of the British Admiralty, but also the stoical endurance of the British soldiers, many of whom had been fighting for six years in the Peninsula and who had now been shipped directly from France to Canada without even a glimpse of their native land. The Allied governments who overthrew Hitler in 1945 did not even contemplate in closely similar circumstances an equally rapid transference of force against Japan.
The British government, as well as the British people, was in a dangerous mood. England seethed with resentment against the United States. From the British point of view America was that hypocritical country which, while preaching liberty and democracy, had stabbed England in the back at the moment when she was fighting for her life against the undisguised tyranny and limitless oppression of the Napoleonic Empire. England was the nation which had acted with studied moderation toward her newly emancipated daughter country. England had had, of course, to insist on enforcement of the rules of blockade and of visit and search; she had had to continue to reclaim deserters, for these were matters on which (so she believed) depended her national existence. But in every other way she had been most considerate; under the threat of war she had rescinded the Orders in Council, and yet America had persisted in fighting. England believed America to be a deliberate and dangerous mischief-maker; she believed that America hoped to snatch iniquitous fruits—perhaps to annex Canada—in England’s hour of peril. Now that hour had passed and another hour had struck, and America would receive the treatment she deserved.
And also—although this was not stressed—England now had her chance to salve her wounded vanity. The Guerrière and the Macedonian , the Java and the Peacock —even the capture of the Chesapeake had not compensated for the stunning loss of those ships in the opening months of the war. The contemporary letters of British statesmen, generals, and admirals all sound notes of righteous indignation while welcoming this opportunity to teach the Yankee never again to bring ridicule upon the majesty of the British Empire. A series of smashing blows would leave the United States prostrate, humiliated, and even, possibly, split into fragments. Already British statesmen, debating among themselves, were putting forward suggestions that the terms of a future peace should leave the British dominant on the Great Lakes, should guarantee some sort of independent Indian state, and should strengthen the Canadian control over the St. Lawrence estuary by the cession to Canada of some or all of the state of Maine; incidentally the possibility of the secession from the Union of the New England states was looked upon with distinct favor. The accumulation of British forces at Montreal was the first step toward achieving these results.
The blow was to be an overpowering one. Fifteen thousand British regulars were to make the advance along the obvious route from Montreal to the Hudson; they were men with six years’ experience of desperate yet victorious fighting against the best of Napoleon’s armies—they were the conquerors of the conquerors of Europe, and they were to march against one of the most vulnerable as well as one of the most important strategic points in the Union. Albany was a vital crossroads: north was the route from Montreal; west, the Mohawk route via Oneida to Ontario; and eastward, the route to Springfield and Boston. Mr. Madison’s government could hardly hope to put into the field against the advancing British army an opposing force half as numerous or of anything like the quality, and moreover the British were planning innumerable distractions lor the already distracted government. There was the stringent blockade of the American seaboard and the interminable naval competition on Lake Ontario and the frequent heavy land fighting on its shores. At the same time that the transports were landing the British brigades at Montreal, a British amphibious expedition was moving against Bangor, Maine; another dominated Long Island Sound; another was accumulating in the Chesapeake to threaten Washington and Baltimore; and British army officers were landing at the mouth of the Apalachicola to open negotiations with the Creeks and the Choctaws. When the main advance was to be supported by so many other wounding blows, it could hardly be doubted that the collapse or even the disintegration of the Union was near at hand.