The Lightest of a Succession of Calamities
On September 10, 1814, John Quincy Adams, son of the second president of the United States and destined to become its fifth, the most accomplished American diplomat of his generation (and perhaps the most able in American history), conversant in half a dozen languages, was, as usual, dissatisfied with his colleagues, his compatriots, his predicaments, and most of all, himself. He had just turned forty-seven, noting in his diary that “two-thirds of the period allotted to the life of man are gone by for me.” As he contemplated the days of his life, his remorseless New England conscience informed him, “I have not improved them as I ought to have done.” Nonetheless, on this autumn day he continued conscientiously to discharge one of the many duties that gave structure and meaning to his life. It was a duty that he performed after rising—as he usually did—between five and six in the morning, lighting a candle and kindling a fire, reading in the Bible (with commentaries) for an hour, followed by an austere breakfast consumed alone.
He was writing a long, gloomy letter to his mother, Abigail Adams.
Adams wrote from Ghent, in what is now Belgium, where he led (after a fashion) a delegation of five peace commissioners negotiating with their British counterparts for an end to the War of 1812. He had told Abigail at the outset, in January of that year, that he thought war a bad idea. Writing from St. Petersburg, where he then served as minister representing the United States to Russia, he had said, “We could gain nothing and could not fail to lose something of what is worth more than all other possessions to a nation, our independence” from such a war. He had no doubt about the justice of America’s stand, of course. Both Britain and France had treated the United States badly, in his view, the former attempting to reap commercial advantage from her naval dominance of the globe, in the process abusing American rights by impressing her seamen and blocking her trade. Napoleon’s France, as he knew from close observation in Europe, had embarked on a course of limitless expansion.
Adams considered these injustices and their remedies with characteristically cold clarity. He thought both England and France were doomed to fail in their overreaching ambitions, their insane “spirit of ambition, glory, and conquest.” At some point, he acknowledged, the United States might have to defend itself—“to forego the right of navigating the ocean would be a pusillanimity which of itself would degrade us from the rank and rights of an independent nation,” he wrote Abigail in May, as his views hardened. But though he favored military and naval preparedness, he understood the odds. Even if the United States Navy were four or five times its current size, a fleet of thirty frigates (rather than the actual seven), and a squadron of ships of the line (rather than none) it could only irritate the mighty Royal Navy with its 180 frigates and 150 ships of the line. An army of five or six thousand, backed by an undisciplined and ill-trained, if numerous militia, could barely hope to defend American ports.
England “has vulnerable parts,” he thought, and the United States might strike at them. But he expected little in the way of sustainable military success, and events proved him correct. An initial run of spectacular but strategically meaningless victories in individual sea fights had given way to a clamping, crushing British naval blockade of the Atlantic coast. American attempts to penetrate Canada had collapsed in campaigns as nugatory in their results as they were discreditable to the undisciplined troops who fought them and the superannuated veterans of the war of American independence who led them. After recovering from the surprise of the war, the British prepared to launch devastating raids on the coast, and even to seize parts of Maine. New England seethed with discontent at the administration of President James Madison, and, in displays of disloyalty that added to Adams’s anguish, not only did a ripping business in illegal trade with the enemy, but even, albeit in very limited quarters, contemplated secession and a separate peace. And now, at Ghent in the autumn of 1814, Adams and his colleagues faced a British negotiating team determined to exact a high price for what they understood as American insolence, aggression, and betrayal of the cause of freedom.
After a failed attempt by the tsar of Russia to mediate a peace, the Americans and British had agreed to direct negotiations at Ghent, which began in August 1814. The Americans had a formidable team: Adams as the nominal head, with Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, former secretary of the treasury; Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House of Representatives who had helped launch the war; James Bayard, the moderate Federalist from Delaware whose political maneuvers had given the presidency to Thomas Jefferson rather than the appalling Aaron Burr; and John Russell, a brilliant if insecure and not entirely honest diplomat who had represented the United States in London. Their British counterparts were somewhat less impressive: at the top the bitterly hostile Henry Goulburn, undersecretary of state for war and colonies, whose intellect had not been impaired, although his looks had, by the experience of his nurse having sat on his head when he was a baby; the aged evangelical admiral, James Gambier; and William Adams, a colorless lawyer who has left no discernible mark on the records of the negotiation.
The less talented men, however, had in the summer of 1814 the stronger cards to play. The allies had defeated Napoleon, and Great Britain could now send its tough regulars to North America. The Americans had hoped to negotiate a deal acknowledging their maritime rights. The British came in with an altogether different agenda: changes in the borders in favor of Canada; American (but not British) disarmament on the Great Lakes, both by water and by land; and perhaps most troubling of all, the creation of an Indian territory in the West. The United States, the British negotiators insisted, must extend peace to the Indian allies of Great Britain, demarcating their territory “as a permanent barrier between the dominions of Great Britain and the United States.” This provision they considered “a sine qua non of a treaty of peace.” The American negotiating team wriggled and fenced, writing lengthy memoranda and making their case over correct, if not entirely convivial dinners with their British counterparts, but the outlook remained bleak.
And bad news lurked over the horizon. In mid-July 1814, the British naval commander for the American war, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, had issued his orders to commanding officers off North America:
You are hereby required and directed to destroy & lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as you may find assailable; you will hold strictly in view the conduct of the American Army towards His Majesty’s unoffending Canadian subjects.
For only by carrying this retributary justice into the country of our enemy can we hope to make him sensible of the impolicy as well a inhumanity of the system he has adopted.
Cochrane meant it, and his subordinate, Admiral George Cockburn, ably seconded by a small British expeditionary force, followed these orders with zeal. Adams could not know, as he wrote Abigail in September, that the Royal Navy had appeared in the Chesapeake on August 16 and that a combined force of soldiers and sailors had taken Washington and burned the White House, the navy yard, and other public buildings there on the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth of that month. (When he did learn this grim news, Adams described it to his wife as merely “the lightest of a succession of calamities through which our country must pass.”) Even before hearing the details of Cockburn’s raid, however, Adams expected the negotiations to collapse. He foresaw a destructive British campaign, advertised as vengeance for the burning of some Canadian towns including York (today, Toronto), capital of Upper Canada, but really, he believed, a sustained effort to break and humble the United States. He told Abigail that he believed that the British were only waiting for some spectacular victory to break off the talks.
The day after Adams wrote his letter, however, on September 11, 1814, a battle occurred at Plattsburgh on the northern end of Lake Champlain. That battle confounded Adams’s gloomy prognostications, upset British calculations, kept the negotiations alive, and shaped the curiously indecisive yet—as it turned out—altogether satisfactory Christmas Peace of 1814.
A mere matter of marching
The War of 1812 occurred after more than a decade of tension between the United States and Great Britain. Indeed, one might argue, it resulted from the unfinished business of the American Revolution, despite the Jay Treaty of 1794 that for a time completed the adjustment of claims and boundaries, and that secured the removal of British forces from their remaining posts in the Old Northwest. The American government in 1812, at the time, made the issue of maritime rights, including freedom from impressment of American sailors and neutral rights at sea, the primary cause. British politicians suspected a greedy desire to secure Canada while Britain was preoccupied with its life-and-death struggle with France. Both, to some extent, were right. The British government, insisting that once a British subject, always a British subject, gave its captains the right to take any British-born sailor off an American ship, and they duly took thousands, including some who were not, in fact, British subjects. Three sets of government directives in 1807 and 1809 (the so?called Orders in Council) also gave the Royal Navy authority to seize ships bound for any ports that British ships could not enter and imposed other restrictions on trade with French-dominated Europe.
These policies proved onerous to Yankee merchants and, particularly when accompanied by rough enforcement, outrageous to American dignity. The attack by HMS Leopard on the USS Chesapeake in 1807—an ambush of a newly fitted-out and hence unready American frigate by a British man of war searching for British deserters—was the most egregious such incident, but there were others. The United States retaliated with embargoes that failed, in part because of the unwillingness of northeastern merchants to comply with them. The British government actually withdrew the Orders in Council on June 16, 1812, but too late: An exasperated United States government, which would not know about the British move for weeks, declared war the next day. Had a trans-Atlantic cable existed to convey the news instantaneously, the war probably would not have occurred. But even if this hypothetical is correct, one should not neglect the underlying spirit of nationalist resentment of England, and desire to expand the United States, that contributed to conflict.
President James Madison was, for so lucid a writer, remarkably unclear about his objectives and strategy in going to war. But there can be little doubt that Canada was on his mind, and on the minds of his chief subordinates. In June 1813, when Secretary of State James Monroe issued instructions to Gallatin, Adams, and Bayard as commissioners to negotiate peace with Great Britain, he noted that the British would probably wish to retain Canada. But he urged his representatives to argue “the advantages to both Countries which is promised, by a transfer of the upper parts and even the whole of Canada to the United States.” When the war began, former president Thomas Jefferson, with his customarily poor military judgment, declared that the conquest of Canada would be “a mere matter of marching,” and he was hardly alone in this belief. And certainly, it was no small or unimportant irony that the section of the country most directly affected by British restrictions on trade—the seafaring towns of New England—were the most opposed to the war.
Madison, having decided on war, and having secured narrow passage of its declaration (a vote of 79 to 49 in the House, and 19 to 13 in the Senate), decided to begin with an invasion of Canada. The odds looked good, initially. America’s population numbered over seven million, and was growing rapidly. Admittedly, it had barely six thousand regulars of uneven quality under still more uneven commanders, but behind them lay a vast, if ill-organized, mass of militia. Canada’s population numbered something on the order of four hundred thousand, with well under one hundred thousand in Upper Canada (now primarily the province of Ontario), an area in which numerous Americans of doubtful loyalty to the Crown had settled, as British authorities knew very well. But Madison and his advisers miscalculated in numerous ways. The population of Canada now included the exiled loyalists of the American Revolution and their descendants, as well as others (Scottish emigrants) who had no particular desire to join the Union. The French-speaking population was not as disaffected as it had been in 1775, when it had maintained a cool neutrality between the English and the Americans. There was no question, as during the Revolution, of the Royal Navy losing command of the sea to a French fleet, and in any event, the United States had not entered this war in alliance with any country, including France, with which relations had been almost as fraught as those with the mother country. The governor general of Canada, Sir George Prevost, son of one of the founders of the Sixtieth of Foot, the Royal Americans, spoke French fluently, and like Carleton and Haldimand before him, went to great lengths to secure French Canadian support. The Indians of the old Northwest, aroused by the threat of American immigration, and finally blessed with able leaders, fought, with some notable exceptions, on the British side. And although British generals fretted at the state of the Canadian militia, it was probably better organized and trained than its American counterparts. They had in Canada almost as many regulars as the Americans, and of better quality, including British troops and fencibles, Canadians recruited for service at home.
The invasions of Canada that characterized the first two years of the war took place chiefly along the Niagara frontier, on the narrow sector between Lakes Erie and Ontario, with occasional fighting to the north and west of Lake Erie, particularly along the Thames River Valley, and at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. The Lake Champlain sector remained much quieter. When the war began the American administration rushed troops to the Niagara frontier, pursuing operations along the eastern Lake Ontario littoral, thinking that by winning naval superiority on that lake and seizing the chief British base at Kingston, it could then follow the route of Amherst’s triumphant march to Montreal in 1760.
The Americans concentrated their efforts by land on the Niagara frontier and to the west rather than on the more direct Great Warpath route for several reasons. The availability of America’s minuscule army in the region, much of it engaged in chronic warfare with Indians in the Old Northwest (roughly, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana), plus the undoubted eagerness of westerners to fight the British and Indians, played some role. Misled by the undoubted disaffection of Americans who had settled in Canada, they anticipated a warmer reception in that part of Canada than they got. Moreover, operations along the Lake Ontario littoral offered the opportunity to cut western Canada off from “Lower Canada”—what we now think of as the province of Quebec.
There were a few American strategists who desired an invasion along the direct and traditional Lake Champlain route. Most notable of these was Secretary of War John Armstrong, himself a veteran of the Saratoga campaign. Unfortunately, Armstrong did not combine insight with skill in making his case, or the power of decision. His generals, James Wilkinson (fellow aide to Horatio Gates during the war of independence), and his predecessor, Henry Dearborn (an elderly veteran of Arnold’s march to Quebec), made halfhearted thrusts north from their base at Plattsburgh at the northern end of Lake Champlain, but the Lake Ontario sector drew off most of the American effort. And in truth, a thrust north along the Great Warpath posed numerous challenges. The Richelieu River offered an avenue for such an attack, but the British garrison at Isle aux Noix, which had surpassed the river port of St. Johns in importance, could block it. The island’s fort was crumbling, but the Americans hardly had much to throw at it, and Prevost moved swiftly to garrison it with regulars and mobilized militia, posting gunboats, planting obstacles in the river, and clearing the banks so that artillery could sweep them. The core of Canada—the citadel of Quebec and Montreal, the most important commercial city—had the largest garrisons of British troops, and the Royal Navy remained supreme on the St. Lawrence. Unlike the case in 1775–76, no American force could hope to cross north of the river without becoming cut off from the southern bank. The British could move forces easily along the waterway to any threatened point.
Politics, too, made the Champlain corridor less promising than before. Governor Daniel Tompkins of New York was a stout Republican, but his counterpart across the lake, Martin Chittenden of Vermont (son of the Thomas Chittenden who had nearly negotiated Vermont’s return to the British empire), was a no less vehement Federalist. Both states had populations ambivalent about the war, and until 1814, Tompkins had to confront a hostile legislature. He was, even so, a superbly active governor, mobilizing the militia and directing military resources to the frontier. Chittenden, however, refused to allow Vermont militia to serve outside the state. But on both sides of the lake there were many who were just as happy selling to the British as shooting them. Happier, in fact. General George Izard, the American commander on the frontier, declared in disgust that the cattle moving across the border resembled herds of buffalo, that “press through the forest, making paths for themselves. Were it not for these supplies, the British forces in Canada would be suffering from famine.” He was right. The British army in Canada fed itself on American beef, fairly bought. A more sinister, and even less scrupulous trade occurred as well, as when, in June 1814, an American naval patrol, alerted by timely intelligence, pounced on smugglers towing two spars, one eighty feet and the other eighty-five feet long, to the British naval base at Isle aux Noix. They would have served as the fore and mizzen masts of a ship of war in the British fleet, the American commander realized.
The valley itself had changed during the years since the Revolution. Wilderness had given way to a number of small towns: On the New York side, Plattsburgh, founded in 1785, numbering some three thousand residents, and including stores, mills, a forge, and a tannery, had become the seat of newly established Clinton County. On the Vermont side, across the lake and some nineteen miles to the southeast, lay Burlington. Smaller (some one thousand inhabitants), it too was the seat of a new county with nearly twenty thousand residents. Plattsburgh and Burlington offered harbors. The former served as a base for troops and materiel moving in the direction of Lake Ontario and that sector of the St. Lawrence River that flows from it; Burlington was a strong and (by 1814) a well-defended base for troops whose job was both to defend the frontier and to intercept smugglers. Vergennes, twenty-eight miles south of Burlington, situated along Otter Creek several miles from the lake, had roughly the same size population, but because of the waterfalls boasted industrial assets that would prove invaluable in the building of a fleet: blast and air furnaces, mills and forges, a wire factory and a shot tower. Whitehall (formerly Skenesborough), the remotest place on the lake and the construction site for Arnold’s fleet, served as a refuge where ships could be laid up during the winter, far from British raiders.
The War of 1812 began with the initiative and advantages squarely on the American side. Through 1813, however, the British, assisted by Canadian regulars and militia, fended off most of the American attacks along the border. On the Great Lakes, the two sides began furious shipbuilding campaigns. On Lake Erie, this culminated in a battle on September 10, 1813, that effectively deprived the British of control of that body of water; on Lake Ontario command seesawed back and forth, depending on the state of building programs at Kingston (on the British side) and Sacket’s Harbor (on the American side), at the eastern end of the lake. But during 1813, the overall advantage shifted to the British, as naval reinforcements allowed the British to blockade America’s Atlantic ports, and to begin a campaign of destructive raids designed to punish, cow, and pin down American forces along a battered seaboard.
Secretary of War John Armstrong tried a dual thrust at Montreal. The first, from the Lake Ontario side, he entrusted to the egregious Major General James Wilkinson, no stranger to the Great Warpath as Horatio Gates’s aide and confidant—a conspirator, friend of Aaron Burr, traitor (in Spanish pay), and military incompetent, but also, unfortunately, the commanding general of the United States Army. The second, northward from Plattsburgh, he consigned to Major General Wade Hampton, yet another veteran of the American Revolution. Hampton, a fifty-nine-year-old South Carolina slave-owning planter and politician in uncertain health, had crushed a Louisiana slave revolt in 1811 in a campaign that included mutilation, summary execution, and the display of heads on pikes. He despised Wilkinson. At the Battle of Chateaugay on October 26, 1813, sixteen hundred Canadian regulars, militia, and Indians, led by a French Canadian colonel, rebuffed a numerically superior force of about twenty-six hundred Americans under Hampton, who subsequently retired in disgrace. Casualties were light on both sides, but Canada acquired a unifying legend of heroic resistance, while the Americans, marching back to their base in the mud, added one more bungled campaign to the ledger.
When the United States had declared war in June 1812, Napoleon stood on the verge of his invasion of Russia. A year later, however, Napoleon, defeated in Russia (as John Quincy Adams had anticipated), and again at the monumental Battle of the Nations at Leipzig in October, had recoiled back into the core of his empire. In March 1814, the allies entered Paris, and on April 6 the tyrant abdicated. The British government, now relieved of many of its military burdens and free to indulge its anger at the Americans, had already extended that war, blockading New England ports as of that month. The British government immediately began sending reinforcements from the Duke of Wellington’s army, which had repeatedly beaten Napoleon’s forces in Spain and southern France, to Canada. Four brigades under able generals who had learned their trade under the greatest British commander of the war, a thousand artillerymen, plus engineers, over sixteen thousand soldiers in all, began sailing from French ports in May and June, the first units arriving in Canada in time for campaigning during August and September. The British negotiators at Ghent had anticipated this pulse of military activity across the Atlantic. The stunning scale of their demands to the Americans as the talks began reflected their confidence in the increasing military and naval leverage behind their diplomacy.
The British intended to take territory that would permanently secure Canada. Thus, when, in early June 1814, the Earl of Bathurst, secretary for war and the colonies, gave his guidance for the upcoming campaign to General Prevost (who, like Carleton before him, was both governor of Canada and the field commander of the army there), he notified him that most of the reinforcements from Wellington’s army would go to him. He should launch offensive operations with two objectives: to protect Canada and “to obtain if possible ultimate security to His Majesty’s Possessions in America.” Bathurst spelled out what that meant: the destruction of the American naval base at Sacket’s Harbor and with it the American fleet on Lake Ontario; the elimination of the American naval establishments on Lakes Erie and Lake Champlain; the occupation of Detroit and the Michigan territory; and finally, an advance south along Lake Champlain to a line of Prevost’s choosing, “always however taking care not to expose His Majesty’s Forces to being cut off by too extended a line of advance.” In other words, as the commissioners in Ghent made clear to their appalled American interlocutors in one of their first sessions, the British aimed at the complete and permanent elimination of American forts and naval forces on all of the lakes. Henry Goulburn twisted the knife a bit further, insisting that this demand offered “proofs of moderation of Great Britain, since she might have demanded a cession of all the borders of the Lakes to herself.”
This, then, was the context of operations along Lake Champlain in the late summer and fall of 1814. The British had in view an assault—of necessity both on land and by water—to eliminate all American naval forces and occupy land that would, at least, serve as a bargaining chip for the delegation in Ghent, and at best, permanently thicken the belt of British territory protecting the core of Canada. For a year and a half the two sides had merely shadow-boxed along the Great Warpath. Now the real match would occur.
This War of Broad Axes
In a war so often characterized by the haphazard selection of incompetent commanders, logistical mismanagement, and a haze of general confusion, the secretary of the navy had made an excellent decision in the early months of the war. He decided to replace Lieutenant Sidney Smith, in command of American naval forces on Lake Champlain, with Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough. Smith had not shone, but he did not have much of an opportunity to do so. His command, he plaintively noted, had consisted of two gunboats, one sunken, the other with seams opening up to the width of one hand, and, as he wrote the secretary, his instructions had been taking three months to arrive at Basin Harbor, Vermont. But the vigilant Governor Tompkins of New York had begun peppering the Navy Department with urgent demands for preparedness, so, on September 28, 1812, the navy sent the twenty-nine-year-old naval officer north.
Macdonough represented a new breed of American officer. He had served at sea since age seventeen, taking part in the Barbary war with Tripoli in 1804, where he had caught the eye of one of the most able and dashing of American naval officers, Stephen Decatur. He had joined that audacious officer in the nighttime boarding and destruction of the frigate Philadelphia that had run aground and been captured in Tripoli harbor. After a variety of duties, he had taken a furlough to command a merchant ship trading in the East Indies, returning just in time for another assignment on board USS Constellation, and then a gunboat command in Maine. There was nothing particularly colorful about Macdonough: He was merely devout, intelligent, even-tempered, and competent.
Upon arriving at his station in upstate New York, Macdonough began writing to his superiors. His complaints to the secretary of the navy had, at first, a superficial similarity to those of Benedict Arnold nearly forty years before—few seamen, command squabbles (the army refused to give up its four sloops), and shortages of equipment. But in truth he had considerable advantages over his predecessor. Guns, ammunition, and fittings for ships soon streamed north, and although the shortage of seamen remained a problem, he had able carpenters and shipbuilders at Burlington and Vergennes, the two key naval bases on the lake. Macdonough himself supervised the building and training of the fleet, and remained cool even when the hapless Lieutenant Smith, perhaps seeking to redeem himself in the Navy Department’s eyes, forayed north to Isle aux Noix on June 3, 1813, and managed to lose sloops Growler and Eagle to British shore batteries. The British, having briefly achieved superiority on the lake, sortied from July 29 through August 3, burning blockhouses, barracks, and storehouses at the northern end of the lake, including Plattsburgh. They poked at Burlington, found its batteries too forbidding, and withdrew, and Macdonough went back to his shipbuilding.
In the winter of 1813–14, however, matters took a far more serious turn. The Navy Department, like the rest of the government, realized that Napoleon’s impending doom would free British resources for the lakes. Reports from Isle aux Noix indicated an active program of shipbuilding, and although Macdonough believed that with the forces then in hand he could hold the lake for the moment, the same could not be said for the upcoming season.
In February 1814 Secretary of the Navy William Jones gave -Macdonough (promoted now to the rank of master commandant) a piece of welcome news. He had sent master shipbuilder Noah Brown to Vergennes (the winter quarters of the American fleet) to build a serious man of war. Noah and his brother Adam built good ships, and quickly; they had built, among other vessels, the seagoing sloop of war Peacock, of twenty guns, that would distinguish herself in one of the last ship-to-ship combats of the war. And they were patriots, willing to advance funds out of their pockets to get the job done. The navy asked them to build a new ship with unheard-of speed, sixty days from keel laying to launch. They delivered. As Macdonough informed Secretary Jones on April 11, the shipwrights had worked wonders. The small shipyard at Vergennes launched the ship—tentatively named after Secretary Jones, but later christened Saratoga—“this day, being the thirty fifth day after her Keel was laid, and all her Timber taken from the stump.” The armament had not arrived, the early spring roads near Vergennes being in a dreadful state, but when they did they were formidable: six twenty-four-pounder long guns, and twenty thirty-two-pounder carronades, the former being heavy, long-range weapons, the latter smaller, less accurate but easier to manage weapons for close-in work.
Launching a ship was one thing—fitting it out with all the necessary equipment, beginning with guns, but including rigging and maritime hardware, was another. Manning was an even more formidable problem: Macdonough reported his fleet 250 short, or at best two-thirds of what he needed. And even with full crews he would need time to train his men, particularly those who were landlubbers or loaned by the army, let alone weld the flotilla into a coherent unit. Still, this achievement, and others, bears reflection.
Lake warfare in the War of 1812 was a peculiar affair. The battle on Lake Erie aside, it consisted chiefly of feverish campaigns of construction in protected harbors, with each side alternating brief periods of ascendancy, which, however, neither could fully exploit. On Lake Ontario this went to lengths that seemed to some observers ludicrous, and by the end of the war both sides had warships as large as the ships of the line at Trafalgar under construction. But experienced sailors—and that is who both sides put in command on the lakes—saw these as contests in which having just one ship substantially more powerful than that of an opponent could tip the scales completely. As a result, the competition became one of a protoindustrial competition, a foreshadowing of the far larger mobilizational campaigns of the Civil War and the world wars. As in later conflicts, builders resorted to hasty expedients—in this case green timber of different varieties thrown together, which meant that the ships would not last very long, but could get the job done.
Thrifty administrators disliked this reckless spending of money on ever more grandiose projects to build ships that could not last more than a few years. Secretary Jones wrote Macdonough in July, “I had hoped that the irksome contest of Ship building would have been superseded, by the possession and fortification of the point which the Secretary of War had designated, for the purpose of repelling any attempt of the enemy, to pass into the Lake.” He referred to the hope that General Wilkinson, from his base at Plattsburgh, could fortify Rouse’s Point at the northern end of the lake and seal it off, although even that egregiously mendacious general promised no such thing. Meanwhile, the anxious secretary feared, “The enemy’s means and facility of increasing his naval Armament, greatly exceed those which we possess, either in equipment, transportation or manning.” “I see no end to this war of Broad Axes,” he concluded unhappily.
This was a competition in which the Americans had performed remarkably well—and far better than they had during the Revolution. In the years since that conflict, American trade, and with it the shipbuilding and maritime industries more generally, had taken off. In the twenty years between 1790 and 1810 alone, the gross tonnage of American merchant ships had more than trebled, in both foreign and internal traffic. With the shipyards and carpenters to build them, and the sailors to man them, had come as well the industry to equip them. Whereas the rebellious colonies had struggled to acquire the guns to equip Arnold’s fleet with an odd assortment of naval artillery, Macdonough and his men received American-made equipment comparable in quality to anything the Royal Navy could bring to bear.
One can nevertheless understand Jones’s anxiety about the naval building races. He had to sustain three fleets on the lakes (Erie, Ontario, and Champlain), as well as shipbuilding programs along the blockaded coast. And he knew that the Royal Navy had, after twenty years of unremitting naval conflict with France and its allies, created the most formidable maritime industry and shipyard infrastructure of its time. He knew, moreover, that the United States government teetered on the edge of bankruptcy throughout the war. Nonetheless, he poured resources into the naval building race on Lake Champlain, as elsewhere, and when he hesitated, President Madison, in a rare act of operational foresight, ordered the construction of one more vessel, which became the brig Eagle (not to be confused with the sloop of that name that Smith had lost by his ill-conceived sortie earlier that year).
Indeed, and again in a foreshadowing of things to come, the Americans contemplated seizing a technological march on their opponents. Governor Tompkins, ever alert, had informed Jones that the Lake -Champlain Steam-boat Company, which had had an exclusive contract before the war for navigating the lake with steamships, had begun building a four-hundred-ton ship at Vergennes. He urged the Navy Department to build what would have been the first steam warship of its kind, arguing that it would economize on manpower, be able to tow other ships, always be ready to fire red-hot shot heated in her furnaces and—at war’s end—revert to the useful commercial purpose of ferrying passengers around the lake. Macdonough thought seriously about this, but upon inquiry discovered that much of the machinery for the engine had not yet arrived at Vergennes and that the equipment itself was unreliable, and concluded that the delays would not be worth it. He ordered the ship converted to sail and fitted out as a schooner, and under the name Ticonderoga it sailed onto the lake in mid-May. To complete the fleet he needed only Eagle, which could not appear on the lake until the end of August at the very earliest.
Macdonough ruthlessly trimmed his fleet, disarming two sloops, in order to give himself a compact but effective force. He knew that the British would, following the pattern of lake warfare, attempt to destroy it before his force could put out from the shipyard. As he anticipated, on May 14, 1814, they tried—a British flotilla with a small military force appeared opposite Otter Creek, but after ninety minutes of gunfire from a battery carefully placed to protect against such an eventuality, withdrew. Twelve days later, in his flagship Saratoga, the young fleet commander sailed north to Plattsburgh. Aside from Saratoga he had the converted steamship Ticonderoga of seventeen guns, two sloops (Preble and Montgomery, seven and six guns respectively, the latter subsequently dropped from his battle line), plus six galleys with two guns each and four gunboats with one gun each. Against this he expected a British force led by a large ship of war being built at Isle aux Noix, the brig Linnet with eighteen guns, two sloops stronger than his own, and seventeen galleys variously mounting one or two guns, plus a boat for launching the Congreve rockets later so memorably, if ineffectively, used at the siege of Baltimore. Until the American brig Eagle arrived, he would be badly outgunned; when it did he would have rough parity in weight of metal, although a disadvantage in terms of the range of his weapons.
The British had their own robust building program at Isle aux Noix, but had not managed to build quite so quickly or effectively as the Americans. Macdonough’s intelligence, obtained from prisoners and deserters, was sound, but slightly overestimated the number of gunboats (the British had only twelve rather than the estimated seventeen), and underestimated the power of the big ship, HMS Confiance, which mounted thirty-six guns, including ten twenty-four-pounder and thirty-two-pounder carronades and twenty-six long twenty-four-pounders, with a crew of 270 men. Fortunately for Macdonough, Confiance’s completion lagged until the end of August.
Thus, as that month came to an end, the two sides girded themselves for a major clash at the northern end of the lake. General Prevost mustered an army of ten thousand men, more than Burgoyne had brought to bear a generation before, including some of Wellington’s superb, unbeaten veterans of the Peninsular War. These forces arrived just in time for a late summer–early autumn offensive: As of the beginning of August Prevost knew that the last two brigades sent from Europe were approaching Quebec by sea, but would not complete disembarkation and a march to the front until the end of the month. Given his orders, Prevost decided that he would strike at Plattsburgh rather than on the eastern shore of the lake: “The State of Vermont having shewn a decided opposition to the war, and very large supplies of specie daily coming in from thence, as well as the whole of the cattle required for the use of the troops, I mean for the present to confine myself in any offensive operations which may take place to the Western side of Lake Champlain.”
Prevost aimed to defeat the American garrison of Plattsburgh and occupy and destroy the town, while facilitating the destruction of the American fleet on Lake Champlain. He would then throw his force at Sacket’s Harbor on Lake Ontario, assuming a naval offensive there as well. All prospects of success hinged on intimate cooperation with the navy.
Macdonough’s fleet, basing itself at Plattsburgh, patrolled the northern end of the lake, waiting anxiously for word that Confiance had joined the British fleet, which would then sortie from Isle aux Noix, its new flagship in the lead. A relatively strong American military contingent of over five thousand regulars held the lines at Plattsburgh. Wilkinson, dismissed in disgrace, had given way to Major General George Izard, one of the best of the younger generation of American commanders, educated in European military academies, scholarly but decisive, who had spent the spring training and organizing them. The stage was set for battle.
The Almighty Has Been Pleased to Grant us a Signal Victory
The campaign opened, characteristically, with an American military blunder. Secretary of War John Armstrong, seeing an opportunity where none existed, ordered Izard to march with four thousand men to Ogdensburg, whence he could threaten the British naval base at Kingston from the rear. Armstrong, who unaccountably managed to convince himself that the British had not sent substantial reinforcements to Canada, thus stripped the Plattsburgh area of its best troops and most capable commander. Izard protested but, receiving orders to proceed as instructed, on August 29 dutifully began a march of several hundred miles to the west and the extinction of a promising military career. Izard’s departure opened the way for a true debacle, as the British began their invasion three days later. Izard’s deputy, Major General Alexander Macomb, commanded a small force of regulars that Izard had left behind, including recent recruits and convalescents, some fifteen hundred effectives in all. Luckily, their thirty-two-year-old commander, one of the very first students to attend the military academy at West Point, and former adjutant general of the army, was a highly competent professional soldier.
Prevost, despite his overwhelming superiority in number and quality of troops, had his troubles. He needed naval support, for one thing: Supply along the muddy roads of New York would fail him, and, as he soon learned, an active American naval force could make life miserable along a coastal march. Moreover, as long as the Americans controlled the lake, they could move reinforcements and supplies from Vermont and New York to Plattsburgh with ease. He doubted whether even after the launch of Confiance the Royal Navy would match Macdonough’s fleet, which had, throughout the summer, kept the British bottled up at the northern end of the lake. His army, composed of two brigades of Wellington’s veterans and one of regulars who had served in Canada, did not particularly care for their commander in chief, who, despite a creditable combat record early in his career in the West Indies, had spent a decade in military government in North America. It did not help that after years of rough-and-ready living under Wellington, who cared chiefly that his men marched and fought as he wished them to, their new commander welcomed them by issuing a severe rebuke about their slovenly uniforms, which reflected “a fanciful vanity inconsistent with the rules of the Service,” and enjoined all commanding officers to make sure that “the Established Uniform of their Corps is strictly observed by the Officers under their Command.”
The Royal Navy also had its own self-inflicted wounds. Commander Daniel Pring, an able and active twenty-six-year-old naval officer, had organized and directed the dockyard and naval establishment at Isle aux Noix and commanded the British fleet on Lake Champlain since the summer of 1813. Energetic and able though Pring was, his superior, Captain Sir James Lucas Yeo, the brilliant thirty-two-year-old commander of naval forces in Canada, thought him too junior to command the British flotilla once Confiance was launched. Instead Yeo dispatched Captain George Downie, his own second in command, to take charge. Downie, an experienced, long-serving sailor aged fifty-four, arrived on September 1, just as Prevost crossed the border. The flotilla commander, new to his fleet and the lake, would find himself subject to extraordinary pressures in the ten days remaining to the campaign, and his life.
On the other side of the border, the thirty-two-year-old American commander, Alexander Macomb, scrambled to prepare for the British attack. Now he found himself commanding barely fifteen hundred regulars plus, as of the beginning of September, some seven hundred militia—little more than a third the size of the force that had occupied Plattburgh only two weeks before. He made three swift decisions. He asked the commander of the district’s militia, Major General Benjamin Mooers, to summon them—which Mooers, a veteran of the Canadian campaign of 1776, did promptly and effectively, bringing in some three thousand men. Macomb repeated the appeal to Vermont’s Governor Chittenden, who, despite his personal opposition to the war, could not withhold support on the eve of actual invasion. He released volunteers from the Vermont militia to join Macomb. These soon swarmed across the lake and performed well in the subsequent battle, despite their state’s ambivalence about the war. Macomb put most of his men to work strengthening his army’s position in southern Plattsburgh, the part of the town bounded on the north by the Saranac River, on the east and south by the lake, but open by land to the southwest. Three forts, amply equipped with artillery, blocked any attack there, and blockhouses and batteries augmented Macomb’s defenses. Another of the first graduates of West Point, Major Joseph Totten, had designed the earthworks, and it would require more than a mere sudden onrush to take them. And finally, the general sent out some of his regular riflemen and militia under the command of Major John Wool, a thirty-year-old lawyer turned regular soldier, to delay the British advance by skirmishing, breaking bridges, and felling trees.
The British columns, numbering just under ten thousand men (the rest either protecting the lines of communication or ill), crossed the Chazy River on September 3, but were slowed by the obstructed roads and, increasingly, afflicted by wretched weather. When the British pushed farther on the sixth from a position eight miles from Plattburgh, the militia broke at the mere sight of the ordered British columns, which did not even form into line, trusting their own skirmishers to disperse the anxious citizen-soldiers. These latter panicked further at the sight of their own red-coated New York dragoons, who they thought were the enemy having taken position behind them. Macomb’s regulars—small units of riflemen under Major Wool—did little more than harass the British column and withdraw. The militia rallied when it got back to friendly lines, and by the seventh something approaching a siege had begun. The enemy occupied the northern bank of the Saranac and began hauling up artillery, but Prevost hesitated to launch a frontal assault across the fords and up the ridge on the dug-in Americans (who were strengthening their position with a speed that would have done their revolutionary ancestors credit) without naval support.
The British commander had experienced harassing fire from -Macdonough’s fleet as he and his men had crossed Dead Creek on the approach march to Plattsburgh, and did not like it. Prevost urged Captain Downie to attack the American fleet, now moored in Plattburgh harbor, pledging a simultaneous attack on two bridges and a ford across the Saranac. On September 9, the soldier and the sailor exchanged messages. Prevost informed Downie that he had postponed an attack on the south bank of the Saranac “until your squadron is in a state of preparation to cooperate with this Division of the army,” and he continued, “I need not dwell with you on the evils resulting to both services from delay,” adding, for reassurance, that deserters had told him that the Americans were “inefficiently manned,” and had taken to filling their ranks with prisoners. Downie responded that he intended to sail at midnight that night and conduct an attack: “I rely on any assistance you can afford the squadron,” he told Prevost. Each commander believed he needed the other—-Prevost needed Downie in order to cross the Saranac and open an attack on the final American position in Plattsburgh, Downie needed Prevost to prevent American shore batteries from hampering his own attack on the fleet. And, of course, Downie may have hoped that British shore-based artillery (including guns captured from the Americans during a successful land attack) would catch Macdonough between two fires.
Macdonough, reinforced at nearly the last minute by Eagle (which had only been launched August 11 and sailed on the twenty-sixth), had taken up his position in Plattsburgh Bay on September 1, sheltering at the northern end of the bay, just behind the mass of Cumberland Head. On the fifth he summoned his officers and laid out his plan of battle, which, as it transpired, they had six days to rehearse. Like Arnold before him, he chose his position shrewdly, intending to make the British attack him to their disadvantage. In the bay, measuring two miles by two miles, he anchored his ships as far north as he could, in a line consisting, from the north, of Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Preble; inshore and to their west he stationed his gunboats in groups of two and three, where they would be sheltered from the main action but able to engage in the gaps between his ships as circumstances allowed. By taking a position at the northern end of the bay, he would make it difficult for the British to get at him as they rounded Cumberland Head; the geometry of the position also made it more likely that the British would come within range of the short-range carronades with which he was plentifully equipped. His ships, moored bow and stern in the sheltered bay, would have steady platforms from which to fire, while the British would have to sail in exposed to raking broadsides as they maneuvered into position. Furthermore, Macdonough had his men rig springs, hawsers running along the ship attached to the stern and to the ship’s bow anchor. If the starboard side of the ship—the side facing the enemy—were badly mauled, by winding these cables in the sailors could winch the ship around, presenting the larboard broadside, which originally faced the shore, to the enemy. The enemy’s flagship, Confiance, which had most of the British firepower, was the key: Sink, disable, or take her, and the battle was won.
An adverse wind delayed Downie one day, but early on September 11, he reconnoitered in a rowboat just beyond Cumberland Head, took in the American line of battle, and planned his attack. It was vintage Royal Navy, a microcosm, on a petty scale on a lake in the American wilderness, of the tactics that had given the British crushing victories in the great fleet engagements of the wars of the French Revolution and Empire. The British intended to break the enemy line, overwhelming one segment of it while the remainder of their fleet held the rest of the enemy line at bay; having crippled, sunk, or captured the enemy’s van, the fleet would unite to finish off the rest of the enemy fleet. The concept worked at, among other great sea fights, the Battle of the Nile in 1798, when Admiral Horatio Nelson had led his squadron in against a moored French fleet of equal if not slightly superior strength, destroying or capturing eleven of the thirteen enemy ships of the line.
The Confiance, more powerful than any of her American counterparts, would sail past the first American ship, the brig Eagle, giving her a broadside, and then cross the American line, sailing across the bow of Macdonough’s flagship, Saratoga, which she would then engage with a raking fire, the most destructive possible, since every shot that went home would travel the length of the enemy ship. Brig Linnet and sloop Chub, following on, would overwhelm Eagle, already weakened by Confiance’s broadside. Sloop Finch and the gunboats would take on the American schooner Ticonderoga and sloop Preble. Finch was to start with the more dangerous opponent, Ticonderoga, assisting the gunboats in taking her, and only then going after the sloop. (See the table on p. 290). At best, this part of the British line would take the American schooner and sloop, but in any event they would pin them down while Linnet and Chub took Eagle, and Confiance, with its superior firepower and positioning, destroyed the Saratoga. With Eagle and Saratoga taken or destroyed, all that would remain would be mopping up and assisting the British land assault into Plattsburgh. This was not a desperate scheme, but rather a quintessentially audacious plan by a fighting captain of the Royal Navy, which received no criticism from naval colleagues after the battle.
Downie’s concern about American shore batteries was misplaced—they seem not to have engaged at all. But he faced far more serious problems. Some of these he understood: The British would have to approach the American position under constant fire from gunboats as well as the moored ships. British tactics in this as in other great sea battles of the past two decades depended for success not on numbers, superior ship design, or better cannon, but on adroit seamanship and ship handling, and on rapid, close-range fire followed by boarding. The key to British supremacy lay in well-trained crews, highly competent officers, and superior command and control. But although Downie had the advantage of more experienced sailors than the Americans, he lacked experienced crews. His claim to parity in firepower with the Americans rested on the strength of the Confiance. But Confiance had entered the river less than two weeks before. According to its sailing master, most of the crew had come aboard only six days before the battle, and some only two days before. Its armament had lacked modern gunlocks for their cannon and carronades; its crew consisted of detached sailors from Royal Navy ships in Canada plus some soldiers who knew neither one another nor their officers; the roughness of the new deck made the guns difficult to work, and as it was, the British had only exercised the guns a few times before the battle. Furthermore, although the British had considerably more long-range firepower than the Americans, they bore a disadvantage in the short-range “smashers”—the carronades that threw heavier shot at slower velocities for short distances, but that expended all their energy on their target. And this would be a close-in fight by virtue of Macdonough’s careful positioning of the fleet as well as Royal Navy preference.
Macdonough had his problems, too. His crews remained understrength, and it is quite true that he accepted a draft of forty men under sentence for various disciplinary infractions who gladly (if possibly unwisely) exchanged ball and chain for ship duty. Moreover, Robert Henley, the skipper of the newly arrived Eagle, was jealous of his superior’s command, having served alongside him earlier in his career, and initially did not even consider himself subordinate to him. Still, Macdonough had built this fleet, knew these waters, and most important, had had months to train his crews and nearly a week to prepare his tactics for this particular fight in Plattsburgh Bay. Downie, under severe pressure from Prevost, whom he had been instructed to support, had none of these advantages.
The British made sail at 7:40 a.m. on September 11—and just as they entered the bay the wind shifted from north-northeast (the prevailing direction) to west-northwest. As a result, Downie’s ships now had to sail into the wind, which, to make matters worse, began fading away. His plan fell apart as it did so. Linnet, under the superseded Commander Pring, did indeed lay itself alongside Eagle. Confiance, however, could not get in position for a broadside at Eagle, or maneuver to break the American line. Instead, it moored some three hundred yards away from Saratoga. American fire during the British approach also disrupted the British plan. The British sloop Chub, which had been intended to join Linnet in the attack on Eagle, lost its cables, bowsprit, and main boom to American fire and its commander lost control of the vessel after firing one broadside. The disabled sloop drifted off to the south, and, to make matters worse, ended up slipping between Confiance and Saratoga. Macdonough took the opportunity to pour two broadsides into the hapless sloop, crippling and leaving it prey for the American gunboats. Finch engaged Preble and only then attempted to close with Ticonderoga (the plan had been the other way around), but, badly damaged, drifted off to the south, where it ran aground off Crab Island, a small island that included a hospital and a small American battery.
Beginning at 9:30 a.m., the real battle between Confiance and Saratoga began, with a well-aimed British broadside, the long guns being loaded with two shot each, plus a charge of canister (small shot and metal scraps)—a devastating, hammering blow that knocked more than half of the American crew, including Macdonough, off their feet, killing his first lieutenant and killing or wounding forty more. The return fire of the American flagship inflicted a no less grievous loss on the British, knocking a gun off its carriage on Confiance, where it smashed into Downie’s groin, killing him instantly and flattening his watch (recovered after the battle), which showed the exact moment of its owner’s demise. A brutal slugging match ensued at close range that, as Macdonough had anticipated, benefited Saratoga, with its armament composed chiefly of carronades, unlike the Confiance’s much larger armament of long guns. Macdonough was knocked off his feet twice more, once by a falling spar, once by the decapitated head of one of his gun captains hit by an enemy cannonball.
At the southern end of the line the American sloop Preble, pummeled by Finch and the gunboats, cut her cable and drifted to shore, either surrendering (according to the British) or merely avoiding capture (according to its commander). But the Ticonderoga battered Finch and the gunboats, driving off the latter without too much difficulty, its thirty-two-pounder carronades loaded with grapeshot dissuading the British from trying to board.
The one part of the battle going well for the British at this point was Pring’s combat in Linnet with Eagle. Linnet had a weaker armament (sixteen twelve-pounder long guns, versus twelve thirty-two-pounder car-ronades and eight eighteen-pounder long guns for Eagle) but a better-trained crew and an altogether superior commander. After an hour-and-a-half duel, during which both ships were badly mauled, Eagle’s commander attempted to turn his vessel using springs, could not, cut his cable, and slipped out of the line of battle. At the vexed Macdonough’s urgently shouted order, however, Henley managed to reposition himself in the gap between Saratoga and the next American ship, Ticonderoga, where he opened up on Confiance. Macdonough’s report to Secretary of the Navy Jones made it clear what he thought of Henley’s “unfortunately leaving me exposed to the galling fire from the Enemy’s Brig” in addition to the battering of Confiance’s diminished, but still powerful batteries.
The critical point in the battle had now arrived. British fire had battered in Saratoga’s starboard side. Nearly all of the American flagship’s guns were dismounted or obstructed by wreckage and thus unable to fire. Macdonough ordered his men to cut the cable of the stern anchor and wind in the hawser, slowly turning the ship in an arc to bring the port side to face the enemy. It was a fearful moment, because it meant exposing the vulnerable stern of the Saratoga to raking fire from Confiance, and, what was immediately worse, Linnet. After a heart-stopping hitch, and a well-aimed broadside from Linnet, however, Macdonough’s men succeeded in pivoting Saratoga around. Confiance, which itself had only four working guns opposite the Americans, attempted but could not accomplish the same maneuver. With a fresh broadside toward the enemy, Saratoga soon put Confiance out of commission, the British flagship striking around ten-thirty in the morning. Saratoga then turned on Linnet and compelled her to strike as well, fifteen minutes later. The engagement had lasted little more than two and a half hours in total, with the principal part of the fighting between the two flagships having gone on for only one hour.
Because of the close range, the still waters, and the heavy guns on both sides, however, that one hour of battle had been, for its size, as brutal an encounter as any fought in the age of sail. According to Macdonough’s initial report, Saratoga had taken 55 shots to its hull; Confiance, much of whose fire had gone high (partly because the crews were unfamiliar with the long guns that had formed the major part of their armament), had taken no fewer than 105. (On closer inspection, Macdonough learned Confiance had suffered almost twice as many hits). American fire had killed and wounded roughly half of Confiance’s crew of 270, while Saratoga had suffered more than a quarter of its own men killed and wounded. It was not until sunset that the Americans could get their prisoners ashore, their own vessels being been crippled by lost spars and cut rigging as well as damage to their hulls. But Thomas Macdonough, pious, clear, concise, and accurate, put it simply in his victory dispatch, which read, in its entirety, “The Almighty has been pleased to grant us a signal victory on Lake Champlain in the capture of one frigate, one brig, and two sloops of war of the enemy.” He and his men had wiped out the British fleet, save for a few gunboats.
General Prevost quickly drew his conclusion: The campaign had ended almost as it had begun. He had ordered attacks across the bridges and ford along the Saranac as the Royal Navy attacked, but called them off as soon as he saw the British defeat in the bay, as a result of “unfortunate events to which Naval Warfare is peculiarly exposed”—a phrase that outraged his naval colleagues later on. He subsequently ordered his forces to withdraw to Canada, leaving behind, in a hasty if unforced evacuation, large quantities of supplies, including ammunition, tents, and (according to General Macomb) some three hundred deserters. In a private letter to the secretary at war and of the colonies, the Earl of Bathurst, Prevost made his case for what seemed to many in the army, in Canada, and subsequently, in London, an ignominious retreat. He could not destroy the American naval establishment without a naval force; the roads were appallingly bad and deteriorating in the rain. Furthermore, he declared, “The enemy’s militia were raising en masse around me, desertion increasing, and the supply of provisions scanty.” Understanding that he would be condemned for doing so, he decided to withdraw rather than launch an assault on the American fortifications that might very well fail, given that the Americans had been “cheered by the sight of a naval victory.”
Prevost did indeed attract furious denunciation. Alicia Cockburn, wife of a British major attached to a unit of Canadian regulars, wrote to her cousin in late October, “Had any man with common abilities been at the head of this Government, unbiased by the invidious counsels of fools and sycophants, we must long ago have taught the Yankees submission and been at peace. Such is the decided opinion of every military man in the Province.”
Commodore James Yeo, grieving for the loss of his former second in command, and furious at Prevost for pressuring Downie to launch a premature attack on Macdonough, immediately began a campaign to pin the blame for the failure of the attack on the general. Less than two weeks after the battle, he wrote to John Croker, the powerful secretary of the Admiralty, that “Captain Downie was urged, and his ship hurried into action before she was in a fit state to meet the enemy.” Moreover, he insisted, and British naval opinion agreed, that had Prevost played his part by seizing the American batteries on the shore or emplacing his own, they would have defeated the American squadron. These two contentions, of course, were not entirely compatible: If Downie and his fleet were not “in a fit state to meet the enemy,” how could the attempt have succeeded no matter what Prevost did?
That, however, was hardly the point. British naval amour propre suffered multiple wounds during the War of 1812. Of course it could blockade the American coast and wipe out American commerce—the navy, and the British public, expected that as a matter of course. But in a series of operationally insignificant but politically important ship-on-ship battles, the Royal Navy had been worsted, and even some countervailing successes (the capture of the frigate Chesapeake by Shannon, for example) did not take the sting away from a service and a country used to unvarying triumph on water. The Royal Navy never suppressed American privateers, which did not cripple British commerce, but did hurt it. As the Battle of Baltimore proved, it could not force a defended American harbor. And most important of all, it had failed on the lakes in the heart of the continent. On Lake Ontario it had fought and built its way to a mere draw with the Americans; on Lakes Erie and Champlain the fleets it had sent out under capable commanders had experienced not merely defeat, but annihilation.
The court-martial that, in accordance with naval practice, took place a year later, cleared Downie and his principal subordinates of all responsibility for the defeat, which the naval officers present insisted was “principally caused by the British squadron having been urged into Battle previous to its being in a proper state to meet its Enemy by a promised Co?operation of the Land Forces which was not carried into effect.” The court was implicitly critical of the commander of Chub and explicitly so of most of the gunboat commanders and crew (many of them Canadian militia), “who failed in their duty” by not taking Ticonderoga. The Royal Navy was not going to take responsibility for this debacle.
Neither, if he had his way, was George Prevost. His opportunity, however, never came. On March 1, 1815, he learned that the United States government had ratified the peace treaty signed in Ghent at the very end of December 1814, officially bringing the war to an end. The next day, he learned that the British government had recalled him: Ill, depressed, and deeply wounded by criticism from the press, the navy, and British Canadians (many of whom resented his good treatment of the French speakers), he looked forward to his own court-martial to clear his name. He would have received it, had he not died at the very beginning of 1816, his health crushed in part by the burdens of office during a long and difficult war.
There was, in fact, much to respect in Prevost as governor and commander. Like Guy Carleton before him, he had little natural charm, but considerable administrative skill; like Carleton, too, he understood the importance of maintaining the allegiance of French Canadians, even at the expense of exciting the animosity of English settlers who disdained their papist neighbors. The forces under his overall command had parried repeated American assaults on Canada, and none had suffered the debacles that afflicted the Royal Navy on Lakes Erie and Champlain. In 1814 he proceeded cautiously, but not without reason. He may have realized better than those in London that the Americans had winnowed out the incompetent and decrepit generals of the war’s early days. Macomb made an altogether more formidable foe than Dearborn or Wilkinson. American regulars had shown themselves as competent and determined as their British counterparts in the skirmishing before Plattsburgh, and in more substantial fighting along the Niagara frontier. And although the militia scattered before British columns in the field, when positioned behind fortifications, amply supplied with weapons and ammunition, excited by the naval victory, and supported by the fleet that had won it, they might very well have repulsed a British attack, or inflicted such a heavy price that success would hardly have been worth it. Had Edward Pakenham, Wellington’s brother-in-law, made a similar calculation when encountering Andrew Jackson’s southern militia at New Orleans four months later, he (and two thousand of his men) might have survived the war unscathed.
As for the relationship between the two services, Prevost undoubtedly pressured Downie, but it is not clear that Downie resisted all that much. After the war, Prevost’s liaison with Downie reported that in his meeting with the British fleet commander the latter had thought that the enemy was superior in weight of guns, but “expressed himself full of confidence in a successful issue to the Battle.” No doubt, Downie would have preferred to have British shore batteries playing on the American fleet (though they would have had to do so at extreme range), but there is no record that suggests that he viewed that as a prerequisite for success. Rather, the defeat of the British fleet stemmed from overconfidence despite the unreadiness of the force to execute a standard Royal Navy tactical plan, the vagaries of wind, and most of all, a highly competent and creditable defense by an American commander and his fleet. There was a profound lesson here. Only one British strategist understood it, but, as will be seen, he was the only one who mattered.
The victory remains with the Americans
In Ghent throughout the autumn of 1814 the wearisome negotiations continued. The Americans had reluctantly accepted a compromise on the Indian issue, much to the chagrin of John Quincy Adams, who disliked even the anodyne agreement that the Americans would conclude peace with the Indians with whom it had fought during the war and restore their possessions. Adams’s lectures to the British wearied them and his own colleagues, although they agreed with the underlying argument. Adams saw a future of American expansion, and the displacement and compensation of American Indians as a relatively benign alternative to the other fate that would await them—extermination.
To condemn vast regions of territory to perpetual barrenness and solitude that a few hundred savages might find wild beasts to hunt upon it, was a species of game law that a nation descended from Britons would never endure. It was as incompatible with the moral as with the physical nature of things.
The British government, and for that matter, the American government, could not prevent the movement westward without massive violence, and a fixed boundary to Indian country would not do much good either. “It was opposing a feather to a torrent,” Adams declared.
The British negotiators ground their teeth at Adams’s rhetoric, but they conceded this point. Still, having beaten down American insistence on making maritime rights a part of the peace treaty, they persisted in the belief that they could, and would, gain more. The prime minister, the Earl of Liverpool, told Castlereagh, his foreign secretary, that “if our commander does his duty, I am persuaded we shall have acquired by our arms every point on the Canadian frontier which we ought to insist on keeping.” And throughout September the British government, to which the negotiators at Ghent referred constantly, aspired to retain territory seized during the war. By the end of the month matters looked particularly promising. The British government had learned of the operations in the Chesapeake and the capture of Washington; the prime minister informed the Duke of Wellington in Paris and Lord Castlereagh that the British would soon occupy Rhode Island, destroy Baltimore, and seize other coastal positions, while Prevost took Plattsburgh and Sacket’s Harbor.
Thus, just before news of Plattsburgh arrived in London, the British government offered the Americans peace on the basis of uti possidetis, namely, both sides’ keeping the territory held at the end of the war. Given that the British had various bits of American territory, and had expected more after this campaign (including Plattsburgh and even Sacket’s Harbor on Lake Ontario and possibly New Orleans, as well as key forts in the Northwest), it would have been a major advantage. Given this, the British were willing to let slide their earlier demand that the United States recognize an Indian frontier. They were stunned, however, at the American insistence on the “extravagant doctrine of some of the revolutionary governments of France, viz., that they will never cede any part of their dominions, even though they shall have been conquered by their enemies.” The Americans simply refused to play by the normal rules of European politics.
Into an otherwise pleasing prospect of humbling American pride, punishing its dastardly attack on Canada, and securing that colony’s security through strategically acquired points of territory, came crashing, first, word of the failed attack on Baltimore, and then the news of Plattsburgh. Henry Goulburn, the chief British negotiator, could not interpret the latter as anything other than a major defeat, and, his dislike of Americans deepening the more he dealt with them, he told his government that “even our brilliant success at Baltimore, as it did not terminate in the capture of the town, will be considered by the Americans as a victory, and not as an escape.” Plattsburgh, however, admitted of no such interpretation.
The Times of London, equally sour, had to acknowledge that “the victory remains with the Americans. The invasion and threatened occupation of their territory has been frustrated, and we know enough of their propensity to magnify their successes, not to doubt that the exploits of Commodore Macdonough and General Macomb will be placed on a par with the greatest feats in history, ancient or modern.” To be sure, the paper called for renewed efforts to continue the war. Contemplating the American situation, it foresaw “a fund of the bitterest animosity laid up against us in future, with our flag disgraced on the ocean and on the lakes, and with the laurels withered at Plattburgh which were so hardly but so gloriously earned in Portugal, and Spain, and France.” It called for sending the Duke of Wellington to North America. John Quincy Adams, flinty son of New England, dismissed all this as blubbering.
The British government thought hard about doing what the Times recommended, Liverpool writing to Wellington on November 4 proposing sending him to America to “make peace, or to continue the war, if peace should be found impracticable, with renewed vigor.” Wellington, while ready to do whatever the government asked him, advised against it. The situation in Paris had deteriorated: The occupied French were turbulent, and peace negotiations required his presence. Under even moderately competent generals his veterans could defend Canada, he felt quite sure. But without naval superiority on the lakes the British government could accomplish nothing, and he saw no prospect of changing that. And as for the present negotiations, “I confess that I think you have no right from the state of the war to demand any concession of territory from America.” Moreover, he pointed out, with justifiable self-regard, to send him over would be a kind of “triumph for the Americans,” making them out to be a more formidable enemy than they were. A lion should not pay a pole cat that kind of compliment.
The British government, weary of war, anxious about domestic unrest, reluctantly went along with the Iron Duke’s advice—although it did retain a hope that if the Americans refused to ratify the treaty the British might be able to retain New Orleans, or even offer a separate peace to the New England states, believed to be on the verge of secession.
Goulburn hated it. He never wanted to accommodate any American wishes, found the outcome of Plattsburgh “unaccountable,” and despised “the fixed determination which prevails in the breast of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.” Still, he dutifully implemented instructions. His no less acidic American counterpart recorded in his diary his irritation with Goulburn, with his colleagues (“Mr. Clay is losing his temper and growing peevish and fractious”), and, of course, with himself. Adams had completed (re)reading the Old Testament, but found fault with his own increasingly frivolous habits. “I have this month frequented too much the theatre and other public amusements; indulged too much conviviality, and taken too little exercise.” He was becoming fat and lazy, and teetered, he feared, on the edge of indolence and dissipation as a way of life.
Six weeks of haggling produced the so?called Christmas Peace, the Treaty of Ghent. It is a remarkably boring and disappointing document, because it merely established peace on the basis of status quo ante—going back to where both sides were in May 1812. Most of its articles talk about the mechanics of establishing peace, restoring prisoners and property, and demarcating a boundary with the aid of a neutral commission. Both Americans and British promised, in the ninth article, to restore to their Indian enemies “all the possessions, rights, and privileges which they may have enjoyed or been entitled to in one thousand eight hundred and eleven previous to such hostilities,” providing the Indians ceased hostilities. But since in 1811 the Indians were already being swamped and dispossessed by a tidal wave of American migrants, that could provide no comfort to Britain’s Indian allies, who had, parenthetically, played a vital role in the defense of Canada. Of other issues—maritime rights and impressment, the supposed casus belli, above all—not a word.
Ultimately, Canada and Canadians won the War of 1812. If the conquest of that country had not been an American objective when the war began, it surely had become such shortly after it opened. Not only did the colony remain intact: It had acquired heroes, British and French, and a narrative of plucky defense against foreign invasion, that helped carry it to nationhood. As for the British government, it might have desired a more punitive peace, and the several naval defeats still stung, but on the whole the British government had done well: It had defended its colony against considerable odds, yielded nothing in terms of what it understood to be its rights as the dominant naval power, and had given Jonathan (as the British press called the Americans) several good drubbings. The Americans, some (and not only British) historians contend, lost. The nominal causes for which they had fought the war had advanced not an iota; they had failed in their objective of conquering Canada; they had suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of numerically inferior enemies; the Royal Navy had driven American commerce from the seas; and American national finance had suffered severely.
Americans at the time, and, by and large, since, did not see matters that way. Some of this has to do with myth, understood as powerful stories that frame a deeper conception of one’s own history. They clung to the victorious naval duels of the USS Constitution, the “bombs bursting in air” over Fort McHenry, the fleet action on Lake Erie, the battle of New Orleans (which did not take place after the war had ended, as some believe, because the peace had yet to be ratified by Congress)—and, very much, Plattsburgh. Nor did Americans alone see the War of 1812 as something of a success. After the war Adams, an observant diplomat, remarked to a friend that “the effect of the war had been to raise our national character in the opinion of Europe.”
The American sense of self-confidence coming out of the war, merited or not, helps explain why it is that just three weeks after ratifying the Peace of Ghent, President James Madison requested, and Congress heartily approved, sending virtually the entire United States Navy to the Mediterranean to impose a victor’s settlement on the states of North Africa, which had continued to attack American commerce. The United States, delusionally or not, took from the War of 1812 a tremendous boost to its self-confidence. It was the kind of outcome that infuriated many scorekeepers then and since tallying up the numbers of defeats, casualties, and destruction, but it was a psychological, and hence a political reality nonetheless.
Before Plattsburgh, the British had already abandoned the idea of an Indian buffer state (presumably under British protection), which would have been a serious threat to the future expansion of the United States and, from the American point of view, the most dangerous outcome of the war. But even so, Plattsburgh was a decisive battle, one of the few that deserve that description. Even without the projected buffer state, the British had hoped forever to neutralize American threats to Canada by seizing key territory and demilitarizing the American side of the border. The British could, and did, interpret the rebuff before Baltimore as of less significance, particularly given the context in which it occurred, namely, the occupation of Washington and punitive destruction of public buildings there. After Plattsburgh they gave up on the idea of seizing American territory to physically limit the United States, including by holding New Orleans (although the expedition there had already been launched).
Plattsburgh was also a profoundly revealing battle. As Wellington’s correspondence indicates, Plattsburgh provided conclusive proof that Britain had failed on America’s inland seas. It not only shook the confidence of British statesmen: It revealed a deeper truth, that henceforth no European power could project into North America military power capable of seriously threatening the United States. When a rising young politician, an acolyte of Henry Clay, considered his country’s future a quarter of a century after these events, he asked, “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” Abraham Lincoln’s certainty owed something to what Plattsburgh had demonstrated.
Americans in later years have taken for granted the idea that foreign enemies might raid the United States, as at Pearl Harbor in 1941 or New York and Washington in 2001, but could never project conventional armed forces into the heartland. This was far from being the case until Plattsburgh. Moreover, the Lake Champlain campaign of 1814 demonstrated America’s enormous potential military strengths—the extraordinary speed with which the Brown brothers built effective warships bespoke the new country’s military-industrial capacity, while the ability of a small cadre of professional officers like Macdonough and Macomb to train and lead a large body of citizen-soldiers suggested the country’s capacity for rapid and effective mobilization should the need arise.
By the end of the negotiations, John Quincy Adams had achieved a modicum of fellow feeling for his colleagues. He had even come to see in Henry Clay “the same dogmatical, overbearing manner, the same harshness of look and expression, and the same forgetfulness of the courtesies of society” that he sadly recognized in himself. Upon signing the treaty on Christmas Eve, 1814, he again sat down to write to his mother, more cheerfully than he had three months before, but still cautiously. “We have abandoned no essential right, and if we have left everything open for future controversy, we have at least secured to our country the power at her own option to extinguish the war.” He could not know that the flames would never again leap up so high as they had at Plattsburgh, but, as Adams knew very well, embers remained.