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Community Forum: City played big role in War of 1812

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Posted on September 11, 2014 |
By William Benton



This week’s writer is William Benton, mayor of the city of Vergennes.

Vergennes was settled in 1766 by a Scotsman named Donald MacIntosh. The City of Vergennes was incorporated in 1788 and is the third oldest city in New England.

The Champlain Valley has been an important battleground in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution and the War of 1812 due to Lake Champlain and the transportation advantages that it offers. Vergennes played a key part in the final year of the War of 1812.

On June 18, 1812, the United States government declared war on Great Britain over issues of free trade and the impressment of American sailors. The control of Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes was a key component of U.S. war plans in 1813.

In June 1813, Commodore Thomas Macdonough received permission from Navy Secretary William Jones to purchase the necessary vessels, men and munitions to control Lake Champlain. In December 1813, Macdonough brought his modest fleet up Otter Creek to Vergennes and in February 1814, the Navy Department contracted with brothers Noah and Adam Brown, two of New York’s finest shipwrights, to build Macdonough’s new squadron.

Two hundred years ago, in the spring of 1814, Macdonough and the Browns began building a fleet of ships for the U.S. Navy along the lower Otter Creek Falls river basin.

The Vergennes area offered tall stands of oak and pine lumber. It had an existing shipyard and a waterfall with a 38-foot head that powered eight forges, two iron furnaces, a wire factory, a rolling mill and a sawmill. Iron ore was mined in nearby Monkton. Vergennes offered secure access to the lake and was located on a major Champlain Valley roadway.

At Vergennes in 1814 several hundred shipwrights and men worked tirelessly creating the U.S. Navy fleet that would fight to control Lake Champlain. On March 7, 1814, the keel was laid for the 734-ton, 143-foot-long brig Saratoga. The boat was launched with 26 guns on April 11, 1814, in a mere 40 days. In addition, the brig Eagle, schooner Ticonderoga and six 75-foot, row galley gunboats were built that summer in Vergennes.

The British and American fleets met in Cumberland Bay off Plattsburgh, N.Y., on Sept. 11, 1814. The fleets were nearly matched in firepower and size. Commodore Macdonough’s tactical use of spring lines allowed him to outmaneuver his British counterpart and after two hours and 20 minutes of cannon fire and human devastation, the British surrendered. The battle took 136 lives and wounded 168.

On land, the American militia under Vergennes’ Gen. Samuel Strong were outnumbered two to one but provided a spirited defense for the American lines near Plattsburgh. Shortly thereafter, the British armed forces retreated to Canada.

The Battle of Plattsburgh was considered a turning point in the War of 1812 and helped precipitate the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on Christmas Eve, 1814, thereby ending the War of 1812.

Few people know the details of this remarkable effort that was put forth in Vergennes in 1814 — how hundreds of men worked tirelessly to build a flotilla that would conquer the British on Lake Champlain and end our first military engagement as a sovereign nation.

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