VERGENNES — It’s known as the “Little City.” But Vergennes, unbeknownst to many, played a huge role two centuries ago in a major U.S. Navy victory that protected the Champlain Valley from British invasion and helped end the War of 1812.
The story is succinctly acknowledged on a plaque adorning a stately, stone-pillared monument standing in the city park.
But there’s a lot more to say about how U.S. Navy 1st Lt. Thomas Macdonough hastily organized a modest yet sturdy fleet built in the Vergennes shipyard along the Otter Creek, then sailed it to victory against superior British forces in the Battle of Plattsburgh. The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum (LCMM) will tell that larger story during the coming months in this, the 200th anniversary of the war’s beginning, in part through artifact exhibits and a traveling tour of 40 Vermont, New York and Canadian communities that border the interconnected waterways that were in play during the War of 1812.
Art Cohn, in charge of special projects for the LCMM, will be leading the four-month traveling tour aboard the Canal Schooner Lois McClure. He hopes the many people the crew meets along the way will gain a new understanding of one of least-known periods of American military history.
“The opportunity to take this story on the road to many places that had a direct relationship to the War of 1812 and with whom we share the history … is very exciting,” Cohn said.
“The War of 1812 — people know it happened, but we hear from them that they have no idea what the story line is,” he added. “We see this as an opportunity to continue to meet the museum’s mission and continue to share the history and archaeology of the region.”
Along with the tour, the LCMM will present War of 1812 artifacts carefully culled from Lake Champlain and its tributaries during modern times.
For example, the museum will showcase many items from a collection of more than 4,000 objects from the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay site recovered 40 years ago.
“We have been asked to curate, conserve and interpret the collection, and the highlights of that collection will be on exhibit at the museum this summer, probably for the next three years,” Cohn said.
In addition, the LCMM has documented and studied four War of 1812 vessels reposing in the depths of Lake Champlain. It performed the conservation and study of the anchor from the 36-gun British frigate Confiance that was at the museum 10 years ago.
The Confiance was the centerpiece of a Royal Navy squadron that faced Macdonough and his fleet at the Battle of Plattsburgh on Sept. 11, 1814. Cohn explained that Macdonough had spent the previous several months at the Vergennes shipyard hastily constructing — with Addison County labor and assistance from the Monkton Iron Works — a fleet that included the war schooner Ticonderoga, which was a steamboat converted to accommodate 17 cannons, and six, 75-foot-long gunboats, one of which has been found at bottom of Lake Champlain. His flagship was the Saratoga.
Macdonough also ordered the building of the U.S. Brig Eagle — a 120-foot-long wooden warship designed to carry 20 heavy guns on her deck. With the Eagle, Macdonough hoped to even his force’s odds against the formidable Confiance, which had 36 guns at her disposal, Cohn noted.
“From the time they laid (the Eagle’s) keel to the time she was launched took 19 days,” Cohn said. “That’s just one of the extraordinary story lines of the war.”
Another compelling story line, according to Cohn, involves Macdonough’s strategic placement of cannon along the Otter Creek to ward off British forces that, on occasion, attempted to sail down to Vergennes to destroy the U.S. fleet while it was under construction. That artillery successfully kept the British at bay and allowed Macdonough not only to complete his fleet, but also fight the enemy on his terms.
And when the two navies finally clashed in Plattsburgh Bay, Macdonough had a trick up his sleeve to enhance his chances for victory. Cohn explained that the American boats were rigged with spring lines that, in concert with anchors, allowed the crews to quickly pull the ships around to expose the British fleet to a second broadside of cannon-fire after the initial broadside of weapons had been fired.
It was a maneuver that worked like a charm, as the British warships weren’t able to perform the same, nimble maneuver and were cut to pieces by the second barrage of cannon fire.
“It was a horrific engagement,” Cohn said of the battle, which he has thoroughly studied.
The British fleet quickly surrendered. Without naval support, the British ground troops also capitulated, eventually retreating into Canada. Vermont volunteer forces numbering 2,500 — commanded by Vergennes’ own Samuel Strong — also played a significant role in beating back the British troops. And that was no easy task, as the British regulars had been battle tested during the recently concluded war with France’s Napoleon Bonaparte.
Macdonough was promoted and highly decorated for his leadership. The American victory likely expedited the treaty that led to the end of the war, Cohn said.
“He was an extraordinary individual,” said Cohn, whose research showed Macdonough to have been not only a brilliant military strategist, but also a humane individual and devoted family man.
The LCMM, in collaboration with editor Kevin Crisman, will soon publish a book through Texas A&M University Press titled “Coffins of the Brave.” That book will focus on the nautical archaeology of the Naval War of 1812 waged on the lakes of the U.S.
Meanwhile, plans call for the Lois McClure to set sail later this month for its four-month voyage marking the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812. The tour will begin in Burlington and conclude in Vergennes this fall. Log on to www.lcmm.org for specifics about the voyage, exhibits and more.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]