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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
News of the capture of Washington, D.C., on August 24 had reached Europe on September 27, and the acting Foreign Secretary in London magnanimously informed the peace commissioners at Ghent that despite this success, despite even the excited predictions of Ross and Cochrane regarding Baltimore, despite the massing of Prevost’s army at Montreal, the British government had no intention of increasing its demands, and would even modify them. (See “The Peace of Christmas Eve” in the December, 1960, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .) England would still insist on a clause (whose terms were still vague) in the coming treaty whereby the British government would have the right to supervise the relations between the United States and the American Indians; England would retain a foothold on the New York side of the Niagara River, but she would be satisfied with the cession of that part of the state of Maine as far as the Aroostook instead of insisting, as before, on the cession of Maine as far as the Penobscot; America, of course, was to yield up what conquests she had made on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes. In view of the severity of these terms the American commissioners would be given the opportunity of referring home, but if the commissioners rejected the terms, then negotiations would be broken off instantly. The American commissioners experienced an unhappy three weeks; they could not bear the thought either of rupturing negotiations or of yielding American territory. On the other hand, as the British pointed out, these were moderate terms when offered to a country on the point of dissolution. Negotiations once broken off could only be resumed on a basis far more severe—and at this moment Prevost was probably marching down the Hudson and New England had probably seceded from the Union.
And then, on October 21, the news arrived of the Battle of Lake Champlain and of Prevost’s retreat. After that, it was easy enough. It took only three days for the American commissioners to cease temporizing and to return a flat refusal to all proposals for the cession of American territory; nor was the refusal followed by the promised instant rupture of negotiations. The British commissioners stayed on in Ghent as if the threat had never been made. “This unfortunate adventure on Lake Champlain,” as the Colonial Secretary, Lord Bathurst, called it, had changed the whole atmosphere of negotiations.
It really was a change of atmosphere. America had built a fleet that had beaten a British fleet in a pitched battle; she had proved that she was by no means moribund. The rallying of the Vermont militia to the defense of Plattsburg, which Macdonough had made possible, proved that there was no disloyalty at the moment of the supreme test, despite the widespread trading with the enemy. Even though the French Empire had fallen, leaving America exposed without allies to the British attacks, America had fought back apparently undismayed, and effectively. Macdonough’s victory had profoundly changed the military situation, but it was just as important that America had won back the respect of her great antagonist; human experience throughout the ages proves that nothing so facilitates negotiations as mutual respect. Impressment and the slave trade, seizures during the blockade and the limitation of the boundaries of the Louisiana Purchase, all the disputed points were glossed over at Ghent under these new conditions; agreement was so speedily reached, and in such terms, as to leave the spectator wondering why the war had ever been fought. The real delay arose because of bickering among the American commissioners over the final treaty terms, and because of the negotiation of a few technical points. It was a tragic delay, for it was on the very day that peace was signed that Sir Edward Pakenham and his redcoat army were preparing to march on New Orleans, beyond recall.