Battles in the War of 1812: Invasion of Lake Champlain



The final year of the war of 1812 was distinguished by a greater invasive energy of the British forces than had previously characterized them. The American territory was entered at three different points, by way of Lake Champlain, of Chesapeake Bay, and of the Mississippi. The Northern movement was conducted by Sir George Prevost, who designed to follow the pathway so often adventured in preceding wars, and to penetrate New York at least as far as Crown Point. Chance favored his design, for the greater part of the garrison of Plattsburg was removed, late in August, to relieve General Brown at Fort Erie. General Macomb was left at Plattsburg with about twenty-five hundred men. To these he added reinforcements of three thousand militia on learning of Prevost's invasion. This was a small force to meet the army of fourteen thousand men with which Prevost advanced along the shores of the lake. There accompanied him four ships and twelve barges, under Captain Downie, with which he designed to master the American fleet on the lake. He did not dare leave this intact to threaten his communications.

The American fleet consisted of ten gunboats and four larger vessels, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough. These lay in the harbor at Plattsburg, near the fortifications which the Americans had constructed on the small peninsula at that point. Prevost proposed to take the fort by an attack from the rear, while Downie with the fleet should assail the American ships. He had little doubt of victory, not foreseeing how sturdy an antagonist he was destined to find in the youthful commander of the American fleet, or with what courage his attack on the small redoubts at Plattsburg would be repulsed.

On September 11 the British flotilla rounded Cumberland Head, and attacked the ships in the harbor, while simultaneously the troops on shore attempted to cross the Saranac River and assail the fort. Macdonough had drawn up his four vessels in line across the mouth of the harbor, with the gunboats inside and opposite the intervals between the larger vessels. The brunt of the battle was between the English flag-ship Confiance and the Saratoga on the American side. The first broadside from the Confiance struck down forty men on the Saratoga, and eventually every gun of her starboard battery was disabled. But Macdonough had prepared for this, and had laid out kedges by which he now swung his ship round and presented her larboard battery at his antagonist. The Confiance attempted the same manceuvre, but without success, and the raking fire which she received soon compelled her to strike her colors. The fight with the remainder of the fleet was equally successful for the Americans. Most of the galleys drifted out into the lake and escaped, but the other vessels of the fleet were forced to surrender.

The victory on the lake was complete. Meanwhile, Prevost had not succeeded in crossing the Saranac in face of the American fire. On perceiving the loss of his fleet he desisted, recalled his troops, and gave up his project of invading New York. The gallant Macdonough, with a much smaller force in men and guns than his antagonist, had by his skilful dispositions and brave defence won an important victory and completely disconcerted a deep-laid scheme of invasion.





Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)