Shipwrights

Once again: the shipwrights of Vergennes were the key to a critical battle of 1814

British and American ships fire on each other in this depiction by painter Ernest Haas of the Battle of Plattsburgh, which took place on September 11, 1814. Courtesy of Ernest Haas

Before the turn of the 21st century, 9/11 was a day to celebrate, not commemorate. It was the date of a great American victory that secured, once and for all, our country’s independence from Great Britain.

The War of 1812, which resolved the issues left by the Revolutionary War, was not an easy victory. The British won major battles and even burned down the White House before losing momentum and ultimately the war.

Things might have gone better for the British if it hadn’t been for the prodigious work being done in a shipyard on the shores of Otter Creek. The dockyard, which built the ships that helped repel a British invasion, proved to be a vitally important site in the struggle with Britain.

Little is thought of war today, but it has determined the fate of nations. The hostile actions of the two countries triggered the conflict. The British seized American sailors from merchant ships and forced them to serve in the Royal Navy and also forcefully restricted American foreign trade to prevent supplies from reaching the French, with whom they were at war.

Meanwhile, the territorial ambitions of the United States were also raising tensions. The Americans were expanding into the Northwest Territories (present-day Upper Midwest), where they faced stiff opposition from a confederation of Native American tribes; and they also had designs on Canada. America declares war on Great Britain in June 1812.

As during the Revolution, Lake Champlain played a vital role in military strategy. American commanders knew that the British would likely invade the United States from Canada and use the lake to do so.

Twenty-eight-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough was given an insignificant force to stop the British Empire. Under his command were six sloops and two 40-ton galleys. The small fleet was further diminished in July 1813, when two of these sloops ventured too far up the Richelieu River at the north end of the lake and were seized by the British, who repaired the damage inflicted upon their capture and began to use them against the Americans.

Thomas Macdonough, in a painting by famed portrait painter Gilbert Stuart, was just 28 when he commanded US naval forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh. This victory makes him a national hero. Wikimedia Commons

Subtracting two sloops from the American side of the equation and adding them to the British was a major blow, essentially giving Britain control of the lake.

The United States Navy authorized Macdonough to spend the necessary money to reinforce its Lake Champlain fleet. When winter came in 1813, he moved his ships about 6 miles up Otter Creek from his delta on Lake Champlain, where they would be safer from naval attack. There, below Vergennes Falls, Macdonough took over and expanded an existing commercial shipyard.

The location was ideal: it was close to forests that could provide plenty of timber, and to furnaces and forges that produced iron. The Navy hired shipbuilder Noah Brown of New York to manage the yard. The work accomplished in a few months by Brown and the more than 100 shipwrights he brought with him is astounding.

In just 40 days, for example, they built a 143-foot-long, 26-gun frigate, the Saratoga, to serve as Macdonough’s flagship.

To give Brown and his men a head start on a second ship, Macdonough purchased the completed hull of a merchant steamer under construction at the yard. Macdonough decided to convert her to a sailboat rather than steam-power her. It was the safest route; steam was notoriously unreliable and had never been used in combat.

Macdonough asked Brown to use the hull of the steamer as part of a 120-foot sailing schooner, which was armed with 17 guns and named Ticonderoga.

The shipbuilders also built six 70-ton row galleys, each measuring about 75 feet in length. They each equipped them with two big guns. The galleys were called Viper, Nettle, Allen, Borer, Burrow, and Centipede (the latter presumably for its formerly oar-equipped appearance).

Their work completed, Brown and the shipbuilders returned to New York.

This painting by contemporary artist Ernest Haas shows what the Vergennes Dockyard might have looked like during the War of 1812. The dockyard played a vital role in the American victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh, which helped win the war. Courtesy of Ernest Haas

The British learned from spies of the position of the Macdonough shipyard. Alarmed by the scale of the American naval construction efforts, they sent a small fleet in May 1814 to land a detachment of over 150 soldiers. The British ships intended to block the river, to prevent Macdonough’s fleet from leaving, while the soldiers would march to the falls and burn the American fleet.

But Macdonough had anticipated such a threat and had built an earthen fort, named Fort Cassin, at the mouth of Otter Creek. For an hour and a half, the fort exchanged cannon fire with the British ships. American militiamen position themselves on the shore to ward off any attempt to land troops. The British commander called off the attack and withdrew his forces north.

Not wanting to be outgunned, the British set to work on a large warship at their shipyard at Ile Aux Noix on the Richelieu. The ship, the Confiance, was designed to carry 37 guns and remains the largest warship ever in service on Lake Champlain.

Learning of this new threat, Macdonough pleaded with the Navy for permission to build another large warship in response. Navy Secretary William Jones denied the request, saying the Navy could not afford the cost. But President Madison intervened.

This time, the Navy hired Adam Brown, Noah’s brother, who brought about 200 shipbuilders with him. In just 19 days, they built the Eagle, a 120-foot, 20-gun brig, and launched her on August 11, two weeks before the launch of the Confiance.

The Browns and their gangs of shipbuilders were invaluable to the American cause, as proved on September 11, 1814. The British, invading south along the New York side of Lake Champlain, had many troops in the Plattsburgh area. The British commander, however, wanted to wait until the Royal Navy had defeated Macdonough’s fleet before storming Plattsburgh. (Plattsburgh with an H, because that’s the most common way to describe the Battle of Plattsburgh.)

When the United States and British navies met in Plattsburgh Bay (also known as Cumberland Bay), the British had a slight advantage in terms of the number of ships and guns on board, but the work done at the yard Otter Creek Navy made it a fair fight. .

British shipbuilders had to rush their work to prepare for this battle. In fact, work was still in progress aboard the Confiance when it was launched. According to one account, the battleship stopped at Cumberland Head in Plattsburgh Bay to lay down the last of the carpenters before the battle.

During the battle, the massive flanks of the marines could be heard as far as Highgate on the Vermont-Canadian border. Macdonough’s superior tactics won out. He anchored his ships in a way that allowed him to quickly swing his ships to fire a second broadside at the British line.

The tactic had a devastating effect. In a battle lasting barely two hours, Macdonough’s fleet captured the entire British fleet except for his fast gunboats, which managed to flee.

The American victory marks a turning point in the war. Having lost its naval support, the British Army saw that its supply lines were threatened and retreated to Canada. The war in North America officially ended on December 24, 1814, with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent.

Naval historian and future British Prime Minister Winston Churchill later called the Battle of Plattsburgh, sometimes referred to as the Battle of Lake Champlain, “the most decisive engagement of the war”. Without the work of the shipwrights of Vergennes, the result of this crucial engagement could have been decidedly different.

An 1816 engraving shows an artist’s rendering of the Battle of Plattsburgh. Wikimedia Commons/Lake Champlain Maritime Museum Collection