- 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
It was a decisive moment. The British had temporary command of the lake but insufficient troops on the spot. A strong landing force could have destroyed everything at Otter Greek so that the British command of the lake would have remained unchallenged for at least the rest of the year, but there was no landing force with the fleet. Doubtless there could have been one, at this, the vital point, but to have provided it would have called both lor prevision and resolution on the part of Prevost, and he was conspicuously lacking in both these qualities. If he had started in February scraping together every available man, denuding if necessary the other fronts, the blow could have been struck, but as it was the opportunity was gone forever. It had lasted for ten precious days, from May 10, 1814. By May 20, the Saratoga was ready to fight, and the British had to take shelter at Isle aux Noix and set about building a still bigger ship that would outmatch her; meanwhile Macdonough began the construction of a twenty-gun ship, the Eagle , and by good kick or good judgment—or by both combined, as so often happens in history—the design he selected was such that she was completed ten invaluable days before her British rival, the Confiance .
Thus, at the very moment that the British army was arriving in Montreal, Prevost discovered that he could not make his decisive advance. He first had to recover command of Lake Champlain; he had to pay for the wasted winter. He had neglected to provide a landing force, and he had neglected to build the navy which would have preserved his freedom of action. If instead of his Linnet he had built a Confiance , or, better still, two Confiances , Macdonough could never have emerged from Otter Creek and Prevost’s advance could have started in July. He had forgotten the experience of the past year, when a complete ship’s company was brought up from a ship of war in the St. Lawrence; more excusably, he had forgotten the experience of 1776, when a ship brought up in sections and launched as H.M.S. Inflexible had won the battle of Valcour Island over Benedict Arnold’s extempori/ed navy. For the present campaign the men and materials could have been found; during 1814 the British completed a threedecker of one hundred guns on Lake Ontario, where naval superiority was not vital as it was on Champlain.
But now the mischief was done; time lost coidd never be regained, and Prevost’s invincible brigades wailed idly at the Canadian border while the British shipwrights worked on the Confiance , and the American shipwrights worked on the Eagle , and while Macdonough made t he utmost use of his newly won naval power. American troops who had gathered in Burlington were ferried across to Plattsburg, where, solidly entrenched, they might possibly delay the British advance, unless Prevost (assuming he had command of the lake) should decide merely to “contain” them and push on for Albany. Macdonough swept the lake, cruising unhampered, and exercising his men on the sunlit waters where now a thousand pleasure craft navigate without a thought for the vital summer of 1814. He had need of vigilance; some of the Americans along the border could not resist the temptation of cash profits. For supplies Prevost was willing to pay good prices in hard money, following the admirable system Wellington had established. Wellington had found during his invasion of France that the French farmers hastened to sell their cattle and foodstuffs to British commissaries rather than submit to confiscation by the penniless French armies; similarly, American farmers greatly preferred English gold to American promises. The beef that the British troops needed was driven on the hoof along a hundred forest trails from America to Canada. Nor was it only beef that Prevost was prepared to buy; during that June and July Macclonough’s cruisers twice deterted rowboats laboriously towing strange rafts northward past Isle La Motte. Boats and rowers escaped, the crews abandoning their rafts, which proved on examination to be made up of a complete set of masts and topmasts for the Confiance .