Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820

Author: James Fenimore Cooper  | Date: 1814

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The Battle of Lake Champlain

IN the autumn of 1814 the enemy contemplated an invasion of the northern and least populous counties of New York, with a large force, following the route laid down for General Burgoyne, in his unfortunate expedition of 1777. It was most probably intended to occupy a portion of the northern frontier, with the expectation of turning the circumstance to account in the pending negotiations, the English commissioners soon after advancing a claim to drive the Americans back from their ancient boundaries, with a view to leaving Great Britain the entire possession of the lakes. In such an expedition the command of Champlain became of great importance, as it flanked the march of the invading army for more than a hundred miles, and offered so many facilities for forwarding supplies, as well as for annoyance and defense. Until this season neither nation had a force of any moment on that water, but the Americans had built a ship and a schooner, during the winter and spring; and when it was found that the enemy was preparing for a serious effort the keel of a brig was laid. Many galleys, or gunboats, were also constructed….

On the 6th of September Captain Macdonough ordered the galleys to the head of the bay, to annoy the English army, and a cannonading occurred which lasted two hours. The wind coming on to blow a gale that menaced the galleys with shipwreck, Mr. Duncan, a midshipman of the Saratoga, was sent in a gig to order them to retire. It is supposed that the appearance of the boat induced the enemy to think that Captain Macdonough himself had joined his galleys; for he concentrated a fire on the galley Mr. Duncan was in, and that young officer received a severe wound, by which he lost the use of his arm. Afterward one of the galleys drifted in, under the guns of the enemy, and she also sustained some loss, but was eventually brought off.

Captain Macdonough had chosen an anchorage a little to the south of the outlet of the Saranac. His vessels lay in a line parallel to the coast, extending north and south, and distant from the western shore nearly two miles. The last vessel at the southward was so near the shoal as to prevent the English from passing that end of the line, while all the ships lay so far out toward Cumberland Head as to bring the enemy within reach of carronades, should he enter the bay on that side.

The total force of the American present consisted of fourteen vessels, mounting eighty-six guns and containing about 850 men, including officers and a small detachment of soldiers, who did duty as marines, none of the corps having been sent on Lake Champlain. To complete his order of battle, Captain Macdonough directed two of the galleys to keep inshore of the Eagle, and a little to windward of her, to sustain the head of the line; one or two more to lie opposite to the interval between the Eagle and Saratoga; a few opposite to the interval between the Saratoga and Ticonderoga; and two or three opposite the interval between the Ticonderoga and Preble. The Americans were, consequently, formed in two lines, distant from each other about forty yards; the large vessels at anchor, and the gallery under their sweeps.

The force of the enemy was materially greater than that of the Americans. His largest vessel, the Confiance, commanded by Captain Downie in person, had the gundeck of a heavy frigate, mounting on it an armament similar to that of the Constitution or United States, or thirty long twenty-fours…. The whole force of Captain Downie consisted of sixteen or seventeen vessels, as the case may have been, mounting in all, ninety-five or ninety-six guns, and carrying about one thousand men….

The guard-boat of the Americans pulled in shortly after the sun had risen, and announced the approach of the enemy. As the wind was fair, a good working breeze at the northward and eastward, Captain Macdonough ordered the vessels cleared, and preparations mad to fight at anchor. Eight bells were striking in the American squadron as the upper sails of the English vessels were seen passing along the land, in the main lake, on their way to double Cumberland Head….

The enemy was now standing in, close-hauled, the Chubb looking well to windward of the Eagle, the vessel that lay at the head of the American line, the Linnet laying her course for the bows of the same brig, the Confiance intending to fetch far enough ahead of the Saratoga to lay that ship athwart hawse, and the Finch, with the gunboats, standing for the Ticonderoga and Preble.

As the enemy filled the American vessels sprung their broadsides to bear, and a few minutes were passed in the solemn and silent expectation, that, in a disciplined ship, precedes a battle. Suddenly the Eagle discharged, in quick succession, her four long eighteens. In clearing the decks of the Saratoga some hen-coops were thrown overboard, and the poultry had been permitted to run at large. Startled by the reports of the guns, a young cock flew upon a gunslide, clapped his wings and crowed. At this animating sound the men spontaneously gave three cheers. This little occurrence relieved the usual breathing time between preparation and the combat, and it had a powerful influence on the known tendencies of the seamen.

Still Captain Macdonough did not give the order to commence, although the enemy’s galleys now opened; for it was apparent that the fire of the Eagle, which vessel continued to engage, was useless. As soon, however, as it was seen that her shot told, Captain Macdonough himself sighted a long twenty-four, and the gun was fired. This shot is said to have struck the Confiance near the outer hawse-hole, and to have passed the length of her deck, killing and wounding several men, and carrying away the wheel. It was a signal for all the American long guns to open, and it was soon seen that the English commanding ship, in particular, was suffering heavily. Still the enemy advanced, and in the most gallant manner, confident if he could get the desired position, that the great weight of the Confiance would at once decide the fate of the day. But he had miscalculated his own powers of endurance. The anchors of the Confiance were hanging by the stoppers, in readiness to be let go, and the larboard bower was soon cut away, as well as a spare anchor in the larboard fore-chains….

The English vessels came to in very handsome style, nor did the Confiance fire a single gun until secured; although the American line was now engaged with all its force. As soon as Captain Downie had performed this duty, in a seamanlike manner, his ship appeared a sheet of fire, discharging all her guns at nearly the same instant, pointed principally at the Saratoga. The effect of this broadside was terrible in the little ship that received it. After the crash had subsided Captain Macdonough saw that nearly half his crew was on the deck, for many had been knocked down who sustained no real injuries. It is supposed, however, that about forty men, or near one-fifth of her complement, were killed and wounded on board the Saratoga by this single discharge. The hatches had been fastened down, as usual, but the bodies so cumbered the deck that it was found necessary to remove the fastenings and to pass them below. The effect continued but a moment, when the ship resumed her fire as gallantly as ever. Among the slain was Mr. Peter Gamble, the first lieutenant. By this early loss but one officer of that rank, Acting Lieutenant Lavallette, was left in the Saratoga. Shortly after, Captain Downie, the English commanding officer, fell also….

The rear of the American line was certainly its weakest point; and having compelled the little Preble to retreat, the enemy’s galleys were emboldened to renew their efforts against the vessel ahead of her, which was the Ticonderoga. This schooner was better able to resist them, and she was very nobly fought. Her spirited commander, Lieutenant-Commandant Cassin, walked the taffrail, where he could watch the movements of the enemy’s galleys, and showers of canister and grape, directing discharges of bags of musket-balls, and other light missiles, effectually keeping the British at bay. Several times the English galleys, of which many were very gallantly fought, closed quite near, with an intent to board; but the great steadiness on board the Ticonderoga beat them back, and completely covered the rear of the line for the remainder of the day. So desperate were some of the assaults, notwithstanding, that the galleys have been described as several times getting nearly within a boathook’s length of the schooner, and their people as rising from the sweeps in readiness to spring.

While these reverses and successes were occurring in the rear of the two lines, the Americans were suffering heavily at the other extremity. The Linnet had got a very commanding position, and she was admirably fought; while the Eagle, which received all her fire, and part of that of the Confiance, having lost her springs, found herself so situated as not to be able to bring her guns fairly to bear on either of the enemy’s vessels. Captain Henley had run his topsailyards, with the sails stopped, to the mastheads, previously to engaging, and he now cut his cable, sheeted home his topsails, cast the brig, and running down, anchored by the stern, between the Saratoga and Ticonderoga, necessarily a little inshore of both. Here he opened fire afresh, and with better effect, on the Confiance and galleys, using his larboard guns. But this movement left the Saratoga exposed to nearly the whole fire of the Linnet, which brig now sprung her broadside in a manner to rake the American ship on her bows.

Shortly after this important change had occurred at the head of the lines, the fire of the two ships began materially to lessen, as gun after gun became disabled; the Saratoga, in particular, having had all her long pieces rendered useless by shot, while most of the carronades were dismounted, either in the same manner, or in consequence of a disposition in the men to overcharge them. At length but a single carronade remained in the starboard batteries, and on firing it the navel-bolt broke, the gun flew off the carriage, and it actually fell down the main hatch. By this accident the American commanding vessel was left in the middle of the battle, without a single available gun. Nothing remained but to make an immediate attempt to wind the ship.

The stream anchor suspended astern was let go accordingly. The men then clapped on the hawser that led to the starboard quarter, and brought the ship’s stern up over the kedge; but here she hung, there not being sufficient wind, or current, to force her bows round. A line had been bent to a bight in the stream cable, with a view to help wind the ship, and she now rode by the kedge and this line, with her stern under the raking broadside of the Linnet, which brig kept up a steady and well-directed fire. The larboard batteries having been manned and got ready, Captain Macdonough ordered all the men from the guns, where they were uselessly suffering, telling them to go forward. By rowsing on the line the ship was at length got so far round that the aftermost gun would bear on the Confiance, when it was instantly manned, and began to play. The next gun was used in the same manner, but it was soon apparent that the ship could be got no farther round, for she was now nearly end-on to the wind. At this critical moment Mr. Brum, the master, bethought him of the hawser that had led to the larboard quarter. It was got forward under the bows, and passed aft to the starboard quarter, when the ship’s stern was immediately sprung to the westward, so as to bring all her larboard guns to bear on the English ship, with fatal effect.

As soon as the preparations were made to wind the Saratoga, the Confiance attempted to perform the same evolution. Her springs were hauled on, but they merely forced the ship ahead, and having borne the fresh broadside of the Americans, until she had scarcely a gun with which to return the fire, and failing in all her efforts to get round, about two hours and a quarter after the commencement of the action, her commanding officer lowered his flag. By hauling again upon the starboard hawser the Saratoga’s broadside was immediately sprung to bear on the Linnet, which brig struck about fifteen minutes after her consort. The enemy’s galleys had been driven back, nearly or quite half a mile, and they lay irregularly scattered, and setting to leeward, keeping up a desultory firing. As soon as they found that the large vessels had submitted, they ceased the combat, and lowered their colors. At this proud moment, it is believed, on authority entitled to the highest respect, there was not a single English ensign, out of sixteen or seventeen, that had so lately been flying, left abroad in the bay!

In this long and bloody conflict the Saratoga had 28 men killed and 29 wounded, or more than a fourth of all on board her; the Eagle, 13 killed and 20 wounded, which was sustaining a loss in nearly an equal proportion; the Ticonderoga, 6 killed and 6 wounded; the Preble, 2 killed; while on board the ten galleys only 3 were killed and 3 wounded. The Saratoga was hulled fifty-five times, principally by twenty-four-pound shot; and the Eagle thirty-nine times.

According to the report of Captain Pring, of the Linnet, dated on the 12th of September, the Confiance lost 41 killed and 40 wounded. It was admitted, however, that no good opportunity had then existed to ascertain the casualties. At a later day the English themselves enumerated her wounded at 83. This would make the total loss of that ship 124; but even this number is supposed to be materially short of the truth….

Captain Macdonough, who was already very favorably known to the service for his personal intrepidity, obtained a vast accession of reputation by the results of this day. His dispositions for receiving the attacks were highly judicious and seamanlike. By the manner in which he anchored his vessels, with the shoal so near the rear of his line as to cover that extremity, and the land of Cumberland Head so near his broadside as necessary to bring the enemy within reach of his short guns, he made all his force completely available. The English were not near enough, perhaps, to give to carronades their full effect; but this disadvantage was unavoidable, the assailing party having, of course, a choice in the distance. All that could be obtained, under the circumstances, appears to have been secured, and the result proved the wisdom of the actual arrangement. The personal deportment of Captain Macdonough in this engagement, like that of Captain Perry in the battle of Lake Erie, was the subject of general admiration in his little squadron. His coolness was undisturbed throughout all the trying scenes on board his own ship, and although lying against a vessel of double the force and nearly double the tonnage of the Saratoga, he met and resisted her attack with a constancy that seemed to set defeat at defiance….

The consequences of this victory were immediate and important. During the action Sir George Prevost had skirmished sharply in front of the American works, and was busy in making demonstrations for a more serious attack. As soon, however, as the fate of the British squadron was ascertained, he made a precipitate and unmilitary retreat, abandoning much of his heavy artillery, stores, and supplies, and from that moment to the end of the war the northern frontier was cleared of the enemy.


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Chicago: James Fenimore Cooper, "The Battle of Lake Champlain," Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820 in America, Vol.5, Pp.212-222 Original Sources, accessed December 9, 2022, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHIRAGQGV88MQFJ.

MLA: Cooper, James Fenimore. "The Battle of Lake Champlain." Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820, in America, Vol.5, Pp.212-222, Original Sources. 9 Dec. 2022. http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHIRAGQGV88MQFJ.

Harvard: Cooper, JF, 'The Battle of Lake Champlain' in Westward Expansion and the War of 1812, 1803-1820. cited in , America, Vol.5, Pp.212-222. Original Sources, retrieved 9 December 2022, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=SHIRAGQGV88MQFJ.