Victory On Lake Champlain


So the British had to find their own masts—at this distante it is impossible to discover how much delay this imposed—while the calm before the storm lay over the lake, except for idle skirmishing at the border. Elsewhere there was violent action; first Chippewa and then Lundy’s Lane, in Ontario: then the British raids on Washington and on Bangor, Maine. On August 15 Macdonough launched his Eagle ; on August 25 the senior British naval officer on the lake, Pring, launched the Confiance ; and on August 29, under orders from the War Department, three quarters of the American troops at Plattsburg marched oft to Lake Ontario, two hundred miles over the mountains to Sackett’s Harbor, from the vital and strategic point to one of minor interest. The residue left in Plattsburg was composed mostly of unorganized raw recruits, but the local militia had a keener sense of the strategic importance of Plattsburg, and in this desperate moment patriotism asserted itself despite the local yielding to the temptation to drive profitable bargains with John Bull. The traditional objection to service in another state was forgotten, and Macdonough ferried over the Vermont militia; the New Yorkers came marching in, and within a few days the llimsy entrenchments along the Saranac River, where it passed through Plattsburg, were fully manned again.

On September 2, with summer nearly over, there arrived at Isle aux Noix one of the unfortunate men of history, Captain George Downie, R.N. He had come to supersede Pring and take command of the British squadron on Champlain, and he was to hold that command for nine unhappy days. Prevost was clamoring for action, despite the fact that he had been informed some time back that Confiance could not be ready before September 15. Her guns were in, but her magazine was still under construction; she had her masts, but her rigging was not set up. The sailors destined to man her and some of the accompanying gunboats were still arriving. But Prevost, after this wasted summer, would not wait another week; perhaps he feared the consequences of a winter campaign on the Hudson, for New York, an easy day’s drive in a modern automobile, was a month’s steady marching away. He had put his army in motion from the Canadian border on the last day of August, and from the moment of Downie’s arrival Prevost began to send letters to fsle aux Noix that were most offensive in tone, demanding action on the part of the navy. Downie displayed no lack of energy; he acted with desperate haste. The Confiance was hauled out into the stream, and while the artificers worked at completing her construction and outfitting lier lor sea, the boats ol the squadron set about towing her against wind and current onto the lake. The laborious business took two days, and then at last the squadron dropped anchor in the narrows between Isle La Motte and Chazy. This was the night of September 8; it was only then—with the mechanics still at work—that the men could be given their stations at the guns.

Prevost had arrived in Plattsburg two days before, to find Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and his motley army drawn up behind their defenses, and Macdonough with his squadron anchored in Cumberland Bay, at long cannon shot from both Plattsburg and Cumberland Head. The Eagle had joined him a week earlier; the rest of his force had had the freedom of the lake since the end of May.

For two days Prevost had been studying the situation. A successful attack by Downie on the American squadron would result in isolating Macomb in Plattsburg, and thai wotdd involve his inevitable—and probably prompt—surrender. If Downie were to take station .south of Cumberland Head, cutting off the entrance of supplies, Macomb and Macclonough would be starved out and forced into action, especially if Prevost were to drag guns round the northern shore of Cumberland Bay and harass Macdonough at his anchorage. But no plan suited Prevost that involved the expenditure of time, not with winter at hand. Perhaps if he had assaulted the works at Plattsburg the very night of his arrival, before the Americans had fully settled in, he might have won a resounding success—the infantry who under Wellington had stormed Badajoz in the Peninsular War were hard men to stop; but the American militiaman behind breastworks was a different kind of soldier from the American militiaman in the open field. A repulse would have been an ominous opening for Prevost’s campaign. Having (rightly or wrongly,) allowed his best opportunity to go by, Prevost insisted on an attack by Downie, an instant, immediate attack; he went so far as to send a cavalry officer down to Chazy to keep an eye on Downie’s proceedings.

September 9 was spent at anchor in getting the British squadron into better order; a headwind on September io granted another day of grace, but even so, the mechanics were still hard at work when at midnight the wind came fair from the northeast, and Downie hove up his anchors and came gliding down the lake to his death. Sunday, September 11: dawn must have revealed a hint of mist here and there on the surface of the lovely lake. The first scarlet and the first gold must have been showing in the forests all around.