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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
At five o’clock in the morning, with only a hint of daylight so far, the thunder of artillery echoed round the lake. Downie was “scaling” his guns, exploding blank charges in them to blow their bores clear of dirt and rust; very necessary with guns long disused, but in this case with the further purpose of informing Prevost that the fleet was on its way. The day before, Prevost had written that he had held his troops in readiness from six in the morning to storm the Plattsburg works, to co-operate with the naval attack that had not come; there can be no doubt that Downie expected Prevost to attack today, but Prevost stayed idle in his lines. Nobody can tell what the result would have been if Prevost had attacked, but it is hard to believe that an assault, made without artillery preparation against works held by enthusiastic soldiers long accustomed to the use of firearms, could have succeeded. Had it done so, it would have been unnecessary for Downie to enter Cumberland—or Plattsburg—Bay, with all the tactical disadvantages that implied; instead, the naval battle could have been fought while the American squadron, in probable confusion, was hurriedly trying to escape. But Prevost, as his letters show, had contemplated a simultaneous attack by land and water under a double disadvantage—an unprepared infantry assault while the naval squadron beat its way close-hauled round Cumberland Head. It was a proof of muddled thinking on Prevost’s part; as matters turned out, second thoughts saved him from making the assault, which, whether it failed or succeeded, could only have been followed, after the naval defeat, by retreat.
Macdonough had been thinking perfectly clearly. If Downie was rash enough to attack—or unfortunate enough to be compelled to do so—Macdonough had taken every precaution to make it a disaster. By the time Macdonough was sixteen—he had entered the Navy at fourteen—Nelson had won two great victories, at the Nile and at Copenhagen, both over fleets at anchor in confined waters. Macdonough, during his long service in the Mediterranean as one of ‘Treble’s boys,”∗ must have heard the tactics of those battles discussed in every detail, and in Cumberland Bay he showed that he had profited by those lessons. Both at the Nile and at Copenhagen, Nelson had attacked a line of anchored vessels from the windward end, eating them up from the tail like a mongoose with a snake; Downie was to be allowed no such opportunity. Macdonough anchored his squadron so that the fair wind that brought Downie from the narrows of Isle La Motte would be foul for him as he rounded Cumberland Head. Downie would be aunable to reach the windward end of the line, and no attack made upon the leeward end could achieve any progress up the line. Against Nelson neither the French nor the Danes had been able to reinforce the end of the line that was attacked; Macdonough made eleborate arrangements, with springs on his cables and with anchors ready astern, to be able to direct his fire in any direction and to bring fresh broadsides to bear at any weak point in his line. And the battle was fought exactly as he had planned.
∗ On September 12, 1803, soon after war broke out between the United States and Tripoli, Commodore Edward Preble arrived at Gibraltar in the Constitution , flagship of a squadron that included the frigate Philadelphia , two brigs, and three schooners. Preble himself was only forty-two at the time, but the average age of his officers was barely over twenty; when he saw the list he exclaimed: “Nothing but a pack of boys!” But in the next year Preble’s tautly yet fairly run squadron became their training school, and “Preble’s boys” developed into a highly skilled cadre of professionals who justified their commander’s faith in them: during the War of 1812 they were the Navy’s backbone. Among their number, besides Macdonough, were Stephen Decatur, William Bainbridge, Isaac Hull, David Porter, and Charles Stewart. All rose to the rank of commodore, and all served their country with distinction.
Downie paused for a moment off Cumberland Head as he reconnoitered the position. There was no sign of any activity on the part of Prevost, but Downie was under express instructions—couched in insulting terms —to attack immediately, even though he was now in such a position that in the course of time Macdonough would be compelled to come out into the open lake at a disadvantage. Macdonough had displayed uncanny prevision in foreseeing that Downie would not be allowed to wait for anything of the sort. It is just possible to guess with what anguish Downie gave the orders that filled the British sails and sent the British squadron into disaster.
In weight of metal and in numbers the forces were fairly evenly matched; it is worth noticing that neither squadron, in this battle that was to affect history so profoundly, could fire a combined broadside equal to that of the British three-decker on Lake Ontario. The smallest ship of the line—and England had a hundred in commission on the high seas—could have pounded Macdonough’s squadron into fragments in an hour’s work. There has been endless discussion regarding the relative strength of the two forces, with long guns weighed against carronades, big ships against little ships. It has been grudgingly agreed that the American squadron was the more ready for battle, and the British squadron the more suitable for fighting on the open lake instead of in the confined waters of Cumberland Bay. So it is one of Macdonough’s principal claims to fame that he induced, or compelled, the British to fight at that time and in that place.