- 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
But even the best plan of campaign is useless with a fool in command. Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, was a fussy incompetent. For two years he had ignored the importance of the route via Lake Champlain, concentrating his efforts instead on Lakes Ontario and Erie, strfking at the branches instead of at the trunk, and ineffectually. He was a man of no foresight; he was surprised by the rapidity of the fall of the French Empire, by the suggestion of the advance upon Albany, by the arrival of the troops to carry it out. He was a timid man, too; no one can doubt that he was oppressed by the knowledge of what had happened to Burgoyne and his army during the last advance upon Albany, just as it seems likely that the Americans were deterred from offensive action on the St. Lawrence by the memory of the disasters which had overtaken Benedict Arnold and Montgomery. Between timidity and lack of foresight, the best two months of the campaigning season were entirely wasted.
The advance of any considerable force upon Albany from Montreal depended upon the use of Lake Chainplain lor the carriage of supplies, and even of artillery, if the wooden gun-carriages were not to rack themselves to pieces on the rocky trails through the forests, By Wellington’s most economical standard, a thousand men, marching unopposed over easy country, needed one ton of stores every day. Fighting their way over difficult country, using up ammunition and boots and clothing, with wounded demanding attention, the troops would easily treble their needs. Thus, fifteen thousand British soldiers, probing through serious opposition along the shores of Lake Champlain, would need forty-five tons of stores to reach them at the front every day; this was quite impossible by ox wagons even a few marches from their base. Water carriage was immeasurably easier, but water carriage demanded naval command of the lake; so, for that matter, did land carriage—without command of the lake the attenuated line of communications along the New York side would be constantly interrtipted by attacks launched from Vermont.
Naval command was absolutely essential, and this the British had enjoyed since the middle of 1813. At that time two American gunboats, pursuing some small British craft from Plattsburg up the Narrows toward the British naval base of Isle aux Noix, met with the fate that frequently overtook sailing craft in confined waters; having entered with a following wind, they were unable to beat out again and were overwhelmed by fire from the shores (the tourist can identify the spot easily enough just at the Canadian border). The transfer of these two vessels to the British flag gave the British a preponderance of force: the loss of their trained crews was a serious matter for the Americans.
The British naval authorities on the lake made prompt use of their superiority. They brought up from Quebec the crew of a British sloop of war to man their newly acquired vessels and swept the lake with their tiny but dominant navy. In the next two months they raided Plattsburg; they went up the Vermont side of Grand Isle to raid S wan ion; they threatened Burlington, to the fury of Thomas Macdonough, the senior American naval officer on the lake. Then Prevost lapsed vinto unexplainable torpor; the seamen from the oceangoing navy were returned to their ship, and naval construction on Champlain proceeded only very slowly, while Macdonough, despite his numerical inferiority, was able to exercise his little fleet in repeated cruises on the lake.
In addition, he was building as rapidly as he could—as rapidly as the limited resources of his district and the small assistance granted by the Washington government would permit. First he had to establish for himself a solid base, which he sited at Otter Creek, beside the present yacht anchorage of Basin Harbor. Here he coiud build in enclosed waters where batteries at the entrance could prevent interference by the British navy. To establish batteries he had Io have guns, and an eighteen-pounder was a lump of iron weighing more than two tons which somehow had to be dragged to the site over the portages from the Hudson. Fifty rounds of powder and shot for each gun weighed another half ton. Cannon, powder, and shot were materials of war that he could not make for himself, and it was a convenience that the new-fangled steamboat service up the Hudson meant fairly rapid delivery as far as Albany. The main-topsail alone of his proposed Saratoga called for four hundred square yards of heavy canvas, to be cut and hand-sewn on the spot, and there were anchors and cables and cordage that he had to obtain from distant points. Nearly everything else he won from the countryside. There was timber—green timber—all around him. Nails and bolts and fastenings were made for him by local smiths from local outcrops of iron smelted with local charcoal, while local sawyers sawed his planking in local saw pits. It was a remarkable feat, calling for the most careful organization through all the bitter winter weather. The result was that his twenty-six-gun Saratoga was launched in April of 1814 and was completed before the end of May. It was during that interval, with the opening of navigation, that the British came up the lake and found to their consternation that Macdonough’s shore batteries kept them at arm’s length while the nearly finished ship they could perceive through their telescopes (and which their spies could tell them about) far outmatched their own newly constructed Linnet .