- 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
Downie brought his Confiance round Cumberland Head, and struggled without success to reach the head of the American line; a foul—and failing—wind forced him to anchor opposite the American center. As his ship steadied in her position, he fired that first broadside which every captain tried to conserve to the last possible moment, because the guns had been loaded in peace and quiet, under the inspection of officers, and quoins—wedge-shaped blocks—carefully inserted beneath the breeches for point-blank range. It did frightful damage to the Saratoga , but from then on the balance of the battle turned in favor of the Americans. One British sloop was so badly knocked about that she could not let go her anchor, but drifted into the American line, and was forced to surrender. Another could not keep close enough to the wind and never reached her allotted position, running aground helplessly on Crab Island; either of these ships might have tipped the scale, for the little Preble , badly battered, had her cables shot away so that she drifted to leeward and went ashore, luckily within the American lines. As it was, Confiance and Linnet were steadily worn down by Saratoga and Eagle . In the heat of action superior drill and discipline played their parts; the effect of constant drill showed itself when the American gunners went on loading and firing steadily, despite the disorder around them, while the British fire slackened. Not only were British guns being damaged and British gunners killed, but the shaken men, with insufficient drill to make them into automata, were serving their guns badly. The hot guns, leaping madly in their carriages at each discharge, tended to fire high, and by jarring the quoins loose accentuated this effect when nobody was steady enough to drive the quoins home again. And several of the guns were improperly loaded. Wads or shot were put in before the powderfifty years later the same phenomenon was observed in many of the muzzle-loading small arms picked up on the battlefields of the Civil War. With a wad rammed home into a gun before the powder, so that the touchhole was blanked, it called for impossible steadiness to diagnose the trouble and make use of a “worm”- a gigantic corkscrew—to withdraw the wad; the gun was merely left to fall silent.
Luck declared itself for the winning side as usual; Downie was killed at the opening of the battle, and Macdonough lived through the most imminent dangers. Had Downie lived and Macdonough died, the battle might have ended differently. And, thanks to Macdonough’s careful arrangements before the action, both the Saratoga and the Eagle were able to turn themselves around in the course of the battle and present the other, undamaged broadside to the enemy, with immediately noticeable effect. Then the Confiance , with only four guns out of fifteen still serviceable on her port side, attempted the same maneuver; her stern anchor had been shot away, and the new spring line which her crew ran out to her bow cable (a remarkable feat under fire) could not turn her completely, but only exposed her bows to raking fire. Helpless, and already so full of water that her wounded below decks were in danger of drowning, she was compelled to surrender, and the Linnet , after heroically enduring fifteen minutes’ more battering, followed her example. All the British squadron was captured, save for the few gunboats which fled under oars back to Isle aux Noix, and America dominated Lake Champlain; that very night, his communications in grave peril, Prevost led his men back in a hurried retreat, and the great offensive was over. Albany and New York and Boston were safe.