American plans for the War of 1812 included gaining control of Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes. To that end, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough was charged with the organization of the U.S. naval fleet on Lake Champlain. This fleet already had two vessels; the navy had built two 40-ton row galleys in 1808 to stop smuggling with Canada. As the army and navy began to assemble their forces in the Champlain Valley, the War Department acquired six sloops. The navy acted primarily as a transport for troops and supplies between the army bases in Plattsburgh and Burlington. The American fleet was then stationed in Shelburne Bay for the winter, where they made repairs and modifications to the vessels.
The first actual engagement between the two opposing navies took place in the channel of the Richelieu River on July 3, 1813. The American sloops Growler and Eagle, each with 11 guns, mistakenly sailed too far into the river channel and became trapped by three British gunboats and troops along the shore. The American vessels were captured, repaired, and renamed Broke and Shannon.
In June 1813 Macdonough received permission to purchase the necessary vessels, men, material, and munitions to keep control of the lake. He purchased the Montgomery and the 50-ton merchant sloop Rising Sun, which was renamed Preble. He also rented the sloops Francis and Wasp. On July 24 Macdonough was promoted to master commandant of the small but growing lake fleet. On July 29, the British departed from Isle-aux-Noix for Plattsburgh with 1,000 men, Broke, Shannon, three gunboats, and more than 40 bateaux. The British raided Plattsburgh, Point au Roche, Swanton, Chazy, and Champlain and burned an arsenal, blockhouses, warehouses, barracks, and a hospital. They also looted a number of private homes and captured or burned a number of privately owned vessels.
On December 21, 1813, Macdonough brought his fleet 7mi (11.3km) up Otter Creek to Vergennes, Vermont, for winter quarters. Vergennes was chosen in anticipation of a major shipbuilding program scheduled to begin in early 1814. The navy’s instructions for Macdonough were to increase the size of the fleet dramatically. Vergennes was not only surrounded by stands of oak and pine, but it also had a waterfall that powered a host of industries including eight forges, two furnaces, a wire factory, a rolling mill, gristmills, and sawmills. A shipyard was also already in operation below the falls. Vergennes also had one of the most developed iron industries in the region, which processed bog iron ore from Monkton, Vermont. Vergennes not only had secure access to the lake but was also located on a major road through the Champlain Valley.
At Vergennes, shipwrights built six 70-ton row galleys, each armed with one 24-pounder cannon, and one 18-pounder cannon named Allen, Borer, Burrows, Centipede, Nettle, and Viper. During the late spring, the 26-gun ship Saratoga, which had a length of 143ft (43.6m) and width of 36ft (11.0m) was built in an amazing 40 days. They also converted a steamboat hull partly constructed at Vergennes into the schooner Ticonderoga. The 120ft (36.6m) vessel with a beam of approximately 26ft (7.9m) mounted with 17 guns taken from the two small sloops Francis and Wasp. The British were also enlarging their fleet during the spring of 1814, busily constructing the 16-gun, 82ft (25.0m) brig Linnet (VT-RU-0317) at their shipyard at St. Jean.
On May 14, 1814, the British fleet arrived at the mouth of Otter Creek in hopes of blockading or destroying the American fleet on the river. The British were unable to approach the mouth of Otter Creek due to the presence of Fort Cassin, an earthen fort located at the mouth of the river. The fort and the British fleet engaged in a 1½-hour battery with few causalities to either side. The American fleet quickly moved down to the mouth of the creek, but the British fleet retreated northward before they arrived. Nevertheless, British naval commander Captain Daniel Pring obtained detailed information from a spy about the American fleet, which led him to begin construction of Confiance, a 37-gun frigate and the largest sailing warship that would ever be constructed on Lake Champlain.
The American fleet spent most of the summer patrolling and escorting bateaux between Plattsburgh and Burlington with troops and supplies. On August 11, 1814, the last American vessel, the 120ft (36.6m) brig Eagle, was launched in 19 days. On August 25, the frigate Confiance was launched. The 831-ton square-rigged, three-masted ship was 146ft (44.5m) long on the gun deck and had a beam of 36ft (11.0m).
The two fleets finally met in Cumberland Bay on September 11, 1814. Macdonough positioned the American vessels inside the bay to permit the American fleet to use its short-range guns more effectively in the inevitable battle. Macdonough’s strategy for engaging the British was very similar to that used at Valcour Bay by Benedict Arnold in 1776. Macdonough positioned his fleet in a north-south line inside the bay with an intricate anchoring system rigged with spring lines. This system allowed the American vessels to be turned end-to-end to bring fresh guns on the opposite side of the ship to bear on the enemy should the guns on the original side become disabled.
The two fleets were nearly matched in size and firepower, although the British had greater weight in long-range guns. Command of the British fleet was given to Captain George Downie only days before the battle, leaving him to take command of his new crew in unfamiliar waters. Both fleets had crews consisting of trained seaman and inexperienced land troops; none of the crews, however, were prepared for the devastating battle that was about to begin. The battle raged for two hours and twenty minutes with deafening cannon and musket fire and resulted in a high number of causalities. Thanks in part to their spring lines the American fleet ultimately defeated the Royal Navy, and the British army withdrew its artillery from the New York shore and returned to Canada.
After the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve of 1814, there was little need for the naval fleet on Lake Champlain. Most were brought to Whitehall at the southern end of the lake and laid up in ordinary. The vessels were then stripped of their masts, guns, sails, and naval stores in early March 1815. Some of the vessels were sold for commercial trade on the lake, while the remaining vessels were destroyed or moved up the Poultney River and abandoned.
Searching for a New Market (1815-1823)
The War of 1812 had expanded commercial ties with businessmen in the Hudson Valley, and post-war British tariffs on imports to Canada prevented Canadian markets from once again monopolizing the Champlain Valley’s trade. The lack of a navigable waterway to the Hudson River continued to impede trade to the south. Stagecoaches and wagon trains connecting the valleys could accommodate people and small amounts of goods, but bulky, heavy cargoes such as timber, potash, iron, and other raw materials were still without an economical means of transportation. Because of this effective commercial barrier, the population of the Champlain Valley increased only a small amount following the War of 1812.
The Champlain Valley desperately needed canals to connect directly to Canadian or New York markets so that bulk cargoes could be easily and cheaply transported to market. With renewed interest in expanding the Champlain Valley’s markets and exports, enthusiasm for building these canals gained momentum. Both canals had been suggested and researched during the Revolutionary War, but at that time such an effort was an insurmountable project for any single, independent company. This transportation barrier was resolved in 1817, when the legislature of New York resolved to build two commercial waterways, the Champlain and Erie Canals, through the interior of upper New York. The Champlain or Northern Canal would extend for 64mi (103.0km) between Whitehall and Waterford, New York, which meant that an artificial channel 46.5 mi (74.8km) long had to be excavated. With tremendous fanfare the Champlain Canal opened in 1823, and its impact on the Champlain Valley’s development and history was profound. The trade that had previously occurred predominately with Canada changed directions almost overnight.