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The Battle of Lake Champlain
[a.k.a. Battle of Plattsburgh]
The Story of an Eye-Witness, Retold by J.E. Tuttle
Reproduced from The Outlook, November 2, 1901
 

Benajah Phelps, 101 years old in November 1901, eye-witness to the Battle of Plattsburgh


N a typical New England March day, seven months more than one hundred and one years ago, in an island on Lake Champlain, Benajah Phelps first opened his eyes on scenes of earth. It seems as if there entered his physical constitution that day something of the ruggedness of the New England winter and of the strength of his native hills, for still he abides among us. Perhaps when in accord with the pious custom of New England, he was named Benajah, after him of Kabzeel, the captain of David’s guard, there came upon him something of the superb physical endowment of this son of Jehoiada, who slew a lion in the pit in time of snow and laid low “an Egyptian, a man of great stature, five cubits high; and in the Egyptian’s hand was a spear like a weaver’s beam; and he went down to him with a staff, and plucked the spare of the Egyptian’s hand, and slew him with his own spear.” However this may be, Mr. Phelps is not only living but very much alive.

 

Photograph taken on his last birthday, March 24, 1901,
at the age of 101 years.
 



His general health is, he says, “toler’ble, toler’ble. I don’t eat much meat. I’m gettin’ old. My teeth ain’t as good as they was.” His face is fresh-colored, smooth, and fair. His white beard and snowy hair give him a patriarchal air in keeping with the simple dignity of his character. Lacking in muscular strength, as is his right, and unable to walk alone with safety and comfort, yet with his nervous system in perfect condition with hearing but slightly impaired, and with eyes which, if they do not readily see the large type of his Bible, are bright and clear, his mental power is unabated. He is a very observant, intelligent man, a type of the best in the New England life of the past. It was not only a physical feat of which he was proud, but, with an his vital interest in National affairs, an act of citizenship in which he particularly rejoiced, that the last Presidential election he was able to go to the polls, so far as is known the oldest man voting that day in the United States, and cast his vote in company with his fellow-citizens in the woman-suffrage State of Colorado, where, in the shadow of the snow-covered Rockies, so far away from the blue waters of Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains that look down upon them, he is serenely waiting the coming of eternal youth. This venerable man, is no doubt, the only surviving eye-witness  of the battle of Lake Champlain, which was fought within sight of his father’s island farm eighty-seven years ago. His recollections of that historic event are written here as they were taken from his lips a few days since, when, seated in his armchair and twirling his thumbs in old-time fashion, this remarkable man, with hardly an effort of memory and with the spirit of battle growing strong upon him as the talked, told his story of the great fight.

 

“Remember the battle of Lake Champlain? Well, I guess I do! Just the same as if it was yesterday. It was the eleventh of September, 1814. You see, I was raised right there. Yes, I was quite a boy then. Let’s see - I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. Yes, yes, that was a good while ago; but, somehow, it don’t seem so very long ago, either. I was born March 24, 1800, on South Island. That’s one of the islands in Lake Champlain. There are forty islands there in one county—Grand Isle County. I guess it’s the only county in this country that’s made up of islands. There was North Island, South Island, North Hero, South Hero, La Motte, and a lot more. Then there was Colchester Point and Click the thumbnail photo to see a larger image of Alburg Tongue on Lake ChamplainAlburg. I used to own a farm on Alburg. That is a point of land, we called it  ‘The Tongue,’ about six mile long and half a mile wide. It runs straight out to a sharp point in the lake. I settled there after I was married. I used to run a ferry, a scow, from Alburg over to South Island, about half a mile. There’s a bridge there now, they say. Never been there have ye? I tell you it’s a sightly place! The prettiest place in all the world! That lake is very crooked around the shore. There are lots of bays and coves. The water is clear and deep. There used to be great fishin’ there when I was a boy. Lots of fish. You don’t get such fishin’ these days. There wasn’t many people there then to bother the fish. And the mountains! You ought to see them mountains! All covered with trees and sloping Click the thumbnail to see a larger photo of the Green Mountains from North Hero, Vermontdown to the lake. Different from these mountains out here. The Green Mountains was on one side and the Adirondacks on the other. Oh, it was a handsome place!
 

Here the old gentleman paused as the memory of boyhood days swept over him. He seemed to be once more, in imagination, floating and fishing on the blue waters which to him were the most beautiful in the world, and now, in the setting of the years, are more beautiful still. His eyes were looking far away, as though,
through open windows, he was gazing on hills and fields fairer to him than all others save where

           Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
                        Stand dressed in living green.

            It was quiet in the room, as though he

                        heard the calm

            Old homestead’s evening psalm.

After a little a question brought him back. “The battle? Oh, yes. You see, when I get talkin’ about them days I forget everything else. Father was a farmer. He had a farm of one hundred and sixty acres on South Island. It was the old Jerry Green Sawyer place. Colonel Tim Allen was our next neighbor, and Tim Porter was another. That was a nice farm, too, slopin’ from the hills to the water. We were all home on the farm that fall. Of course we knew there was goin’ to be a battle. The Yankees knew all about it, I tell ye! They was expectin’ on ‘em. Catch ‘em not knowing’! They knew it two or three days beforehand. Father was orderly sergeant in the milishy, and I used to hear him talkin’ it over with mother. Well, we knew the British was comin’ that day, and of course, father had to be with his company. He was stationed at Plattsburg, right across from South Island. That was a nice place, too. I wanted to go with him the worst kind when I knew there was goin’ to be a fight, but father wouldn’t let me. He said I must stay at home and look after the women folks and other things. There was all the chores to do, and I was the only one to do it. Of course there was a lot of cows and such. So I had to stay. It made me feel pretty bad, too. We knew the battle would be up in the bay, because they wanted to take Plattsburg. You know General Prevost started from Montreal with thirty thousand soldiers. He calc’lated to go straight to Washington and burn every town and city he came to. That’s what he was calc’latin’: but “—here Mr. Phelps indulged in a chuckle of intense satisfaction-” he didn’t even git through the first county! No sir! He didn’t. Lost five hundred men, too, and all his shippin’. The British wanted the lake the worst kind. If they could git control of it, it would be very handy for transportin’ men and supplies. But they didn’t git it.” The satisfaction with which this was spoken was ample evidence that the snows of years had not chilled the patriotic fervor of this sturdy old Vermonter, and that he had not yet ceased to marvel at the presumption of the British commander.

 

“Well, we was watchin’, and father had gone, when, about sunrise, we saw the masts of the British ships down at the outlet. I tell yer, it didn’t take me long to git the team to the door! I had had the horses all hitched up long before sunrise. There wasn’t any need for the women to say, “Hurry up, Benajah!” Benajah was my name. I got mother and Click the thumbnail to see a larger photo of Sawyer Bay in South Hero, Vermontmy two sisters in the team and put for Sawyer’s Hill, two miles away, as fast as I could make the horses go. That was right opposite Plattsburg, and the fight was in the bay, right close down opposite the hill. The hill was called after Uncle Jerry Green Sawyer. When we got there, I hitched the horses to a tree, and we went where we could see everything. There wasn’t much wind, and the British was comin’ up very slowly. There was one big sailin’ ship. Cap’n Downie was the cap’n of the British. They they had two sloops, more than one hundred feet long, built in St. John. The Eagle and the Growler were the two sloops. They had been Yankee sloops, but they had been captured from us a while before. I guess it was about a year before.” (The historic accounts of the battle substantiate this “guess”. ) These sloops had been chasin’ the British one day and got too far below the forts and was taken, because the British owned down the river. About three miles down they had built a fort on the Isle of Eloix-nois. So,” with a sigh of regret, “they got them sloops. They looked very fine comin’ up the river. They had about a dozen row-galleys with a cannon in each end, and twelve men to each, six on a side. They were towin’ the ships, which had the sails up, because there was so little wind. They didn’t hurry any, for they calc’lated the land army to reach Plattsburg about the time they got into the bay, and to begin the battle over the town at the same time they begun the fight on the water. There was about one thousand of our soldiers in Plattsburg, and General Prevost thought it wouldn’t be anything for his big army to take’em. That’s where he made a pooty big mistake! I forgot to say the British brought their boats up the night before, opposite North Island, in the gut between North and South Island. It’s about half a mile wide there and very deep water. Our folks stepped around pooty lively when they see the British comin’. Our biggest ship was the Saratoga. Cap’n McDonough was the cap’n. He wasn’t exactly Cap’n though, just then. He was a leftenant, a leftenant commander. He was promoted to cap’n after he beat the British. The Government gave him a lot of land on what they call Cumberland Head, a sightly spot, where you can look right down on the place where the battle was fought. They gave him a gold medal too. All the American ships was anchored in Plattsburg Bay. Our folks was all ready. Every cannon was placed just right and loaded, and all the ammunition was put handy. I could see everything from the hill. The British kept comin’ on, but the Yankee vessels did not heave anchor. I guess it was about ten o’clock in the forenoon when the first gun was fired, and it made a racket, I tell ye. You see, our vessels was placed so the British had to go right in between ‘em. They took ‘em both ways. I never heard such a noise in all my born days! Why, it was tremenjus! It beat all. Seemed as if thunder wasn’t anything. I don’t see how they stood it. Sometimes I thought one or two of our vessels was on fire, they fired so fast. They seemed to be just covered with flame. One of our schooners was manned by British sailors who had deserted from the British. I tell ye, if they didn’t fight! It was life or death with ‘em. I certainly thought she was on fire a number of times. I wasn’t a mile from the ships. The way the cannon-balls skipped on the water was wonderful. No, they didn’t come our way, but I guess I wouldn’t noticed if they had. The noise kept gittin’ worse and worse all the time. It was enough to deefen a body. I didn’t know for a spell which would lick; but our folks was too spry for the Britishers. Cap’n McDonough was a very smart man. He had anchored all our vessels on spring cables. They could fire one broadside and while they was loadin’ that side again, could swing on them spring cables and let go the other side. That’s what fixed the British. They didn’t know we had them springs, and they couldn’t have helped it if they had. They had to go right between our vessels, anyhow, and, I tell you, they got a terrible raking. Yes, it was them spring cables that fixed things.” (In this explanation of McDonough’s victory writers on the battle confirm Mr. Phelps’s statement.) “You would have laughed if you could have seen our row galleys! They pitched right into the big British ship! They didn’t seem to be a bit afraid. What with the broadsides fired so quick and these galleys pesterin’ of her, it was awful. She stood it about two hours and then hauled down her colors. When she surrendered, they all hauled down their colors except the British row-galleys. They took to their heels and got away, everybody was so busy. Holler? Well, I guess I did! Fact is, I don’t know what I did do. “Well, that was about twelve o’clock. Pretty soon I saw two or three men pushin’ out a boat down in Rockwell’s Click here to see a photo of Rockwell Bay, South Hero, Vermont.Bay. That was close by, down on the shore near the hill. I was bound to go on board the ships, so I run down and jumped in. It was a four-oared boat, and we rowed out to the big British ship. She was a fine ship, I tell ye. She was made of solid oak timber, sawed with a handsaw. You could see the way it was sawed. The plankin’ was white oak six inches thick. The small balls did not go through these planks. They were just stuck solid full of balls. They looked just like some of these new fashioned plastered houses, plastered on the outside, where they throw gravel into the soft plaster. It seemed as if you couldn’t git any more balls in. The grape-shot and rifle-balls pooty nearly covered the plankin’ all over. The riggin’ was cut all to pieces. There wasn’t any of it left. Our folks used chain-shot. That is, they bored holes in the cannon-balls and took two balls and fastened them together with a big chain. They cut the shrouds and everything right off. The decks was the most awful sight I ever saw. It was—it was awful!”

The old gentleman shut his eyes and shuddered, as if, even after the lapse of eighty-seven years, the scene of carnage was as vivid as on that September day of long ago.

            Red, from mainmast to bitts!
                        Red, on bulwark and wale,
            Red, by combing and hatch,
                        Red, o’er netting and vail!

The Battle of Lake Champlain
The Battle of Lake Champlain (Plattsburgh). Reproduced from the Vergennes, Vermont
Macdonough Centennial
Program (1914). Courtesy of the Floyd Harwood Collection

“Blood, blood was everywhere! The decks was covered with arms and legs and heads, and pieces of hands and bodies all torn to pieces! I never see anything in this world like it! Seemed as if everybody had been killed. They must have fought terribly before they hauled down the flag. It ‘most made me sick! The Yankee ships was badly damaged, too, and lots of folks was killed; especially them British deserters. They fought worse than anybody. The prisoners? They was all put down in the hold.

 

“Long in the afternoon I went ashore and got the folks, and we went home, for I had to do the chores about sundown. The women was consid’ble scared, but they didn’t mind after we beat.

The girls? Oh, yes, they died long ago, long ago.I’m the only one left now of all the folks. My boy, out here, is goin’ on seventy.” There was a gentle, indescribable pathos in his voice as the thought of long-made graves, afar in the shadow of his boyhood hills, beside the shining lake, for a moment banished in its tenderness the soldier sternness aroused by the memory of battle and blood.

 

“Well, when we got home, I put up the horses. We felt worried about father. I told you he was orderly sergeant. We knew he had been in the fight somewhere on shore, but not just where nor what had happened to him. While the British vessels was comin’ up the lake to the bay, the British army was marchin’ along the western shore towards Plattsburg. They got there just about the time the vessels got into the bay. General Macomb commanded the troops. As we had only about a thousand men, it looked as if the British would have a pooty easy time of it. They seemed to think so, anyway. The trouble was, the river run right through Plattsburg. Our folks fortified the further side, and the British knew a lot of them would be killed if they tried to git across. Of course they had to git across somehow and take our forts. So they pretended to be makin’ an attack in front along the river. But that was just a blind. While they was pretendin’ to get ready for battle in the town, they sent a lot of soldiers, out of sight in the woods, up stream to cross the river at the bridge or at the ford in the woods and come down on our side and surprise the Yankees. But our folks was watchin’ on ‘em. Father told us about it in a day or two, when he came home to see how things was gittin’ on. His company was sent up the river, Au Sable, to guard the bridge and the ford. They took every single plank over the bridge. Of course, the British column had to go higher up stream, then, to the ford. That was about three mile up the Au Sable. There was about a foot of water at the ford. Father’s company guarded the ford all day. The British did not know they was there, but they did pooty quick when they tried to cross. The woods were thick and the big trees and bushes came right down to the water’s edge, and father’s men hid in them. When the British stepped into the water on the other side, they shot them right down. Some of them dropped in the stream and was carried away by the current. Not one of our men was killed. Two or three was hit. Cap’n Dixon, he was the cap’n of the company, was hit right on the brass plate on his sword-belt where it cross his breast. It made a big dent. I used to see it myself. Finally the British had to go back to Plattsburg, but father’s company stayed on guard until the battle was over. The British tried hard to get across the river in Plattsburg, but they couldn’t. Why, you see, all the Vermont milishy was there! It was impossible to git across that river. I remember Uncle Colonel Tim Allen set in the grist-mill winder. He had a long rifle. The barrel was five feet long. The river was about eighty rods wide there. There he set in that winder and killed every soldier that come down for water. That was in the morning, when they was gittin’ breakfast. Colonel Tim stayed right there until he killed nine or ten of them before they stopped comin’ down. Well, they finally give up all idea of takin’ Plattsburg when they see the fleet taken and found they couldn’t take the forts either. They stayed in the town all night, on their side of the river.”

 

The British probably left during the latter part of the night. It is recorded that they retreated in the night, and in a storm, leaving behind their sick, wounded, and stores. This seems confirmed by Mr. Phelps in his next remark.

 

“They got away as fast as they could. Our milishy was scattered along in the woods all along the road, and killed a good many on the retreat. They left behind most everything they had. That General Prevost thought he was goin’ clear to Washington and came all prepared for it. Why, the British had a whole wagon-load of specie! They didn’t dare leave it ‘round durin’ the battle, so they put it down in Mr. Lowell’s cellar. ‘Course he knew what it was. There was a well down cellar. When the battle was goin’ on and everybody was busy, Lowell slipped down cellar and dropped two of them kegs of specie in the well. After the battle was over, he was a rich man. Yes, that was pooty good. After the battle we had a big celebration in Plattsburg. It was a regular Fourth of July. I tell you, we had a great time!”

 

“Well, that’s about all I remember. You see, I haven’t had time to think things over. If I had known you was comin’, I could have been thinkin’, and like’s not would have recalled other things. Somehow, my memory don’t seem quite’s good’s it used to be.”

 

Benajah Phelps in earlier days. Photo courtesy of James N. Phelps

Benajah Phelps in earlier days. Photo courtesy of James N. Phelps

Looking at the indomitable man in the failing body of this old man, erect under the burden of more than a century of years, one could understand why the armies of England could not overcome the farmers of Lexington and the “milishy” of Lake Champlain. In him live again the men whom our Lowell honors in his song:
 


In raiment tanned by years of sun and storm,
Of every shape that was not uniform,

Dotted with regimentals here and there;
An army all of captains, used to pray,

And stiff in fight, but serious drill’s despair,
Skilled to debate their orders, not obey:

Deacons were there, selectmen, men of note
In half-tamed hamlets ambushed round with woods,

Ready to settle Freewill by a vote,
But largely liberal to its private moods:

Prompt to assert by manners, voice, or pen,
Or ruder arms, their rights as Englishmen,

Nor much fastidious as to how and when:
Yet seasoned stuff and fittest to create
A thought-staid army or a lasting state.

 

 

 

Above and left: Benajah Phelps in earlier days.
Photos courtesy of James N. Phelps, great-great grandson of Benajah.*

As I thought of this, and was preparing to depart, a chuckle from the armchair indicated that Mr. Phelps’s mind had been following other paths.

“I was just thinkin’, said he, “about a song I used to sing. You see, Prevost not only thought he was goin’ straight to Washington, but he calc’lated that a lot of the Federals would join him. Join him? I guess not! No sir! Not one of ‘em did! After the fight some of our folks wrote a song about it. It was sung by all the Yankees all over Vermont and ‘most everywhere, I guess. It was pooty long. There was forty-three, forty-three—no, there was forty-five verses. I used to sing it a good deal. There was an old Roman Catholic priest in Plattsburgh would always make me sing it to him. Made no difference where he met me, he would have me sing that song. The old British soldiers used to like it, too. I’ve sung it to ‘em many a time. I’m kind of afraid I can’t sing it very well now. They say I used to be a good singer. Let me see! How did that go?”

There was a moment of meditation, his white beard deep-sunk in his breast, a few preliminary hums and haws, and then, in a voice weak and tremulous with great age, but which could be felt the strength of undying patriotism, he sang, in a kind of monotone, these snatches of this song of long ago, that once, by dauntless men and as dauntless women, was sung on lake and land, by camp-fire and hearthstone, as they struggled for God’s heritage of liberty:

            “Come, all ye noble Englishmen,
            We’re goin’ to fight the Yankees
            By water and by land;
            And we never shall return
            Till their cities we do burn.

            We’ll subdue the Yankee Democrats,
            Their Washington is gone,…

“Oh, dear, dear, I can’t get it back! It’s gone, I’m afraid! Yes, it’s gone!” He spoke like one who had lost a string of pearls that had been brought almost to the surface but had slipped back forever just as they seemed to be within his reach. “ I remember the last two lines, though. We used to make them ring out good, I tell ye!

            “The eleventh of September
            Let us all remember!

“I don’t know when I’ve thought of that song before. If only I could go up home, I could git all the words. There would be folks up there who would remember it, I know. Oh, no, there isn’t anybody livin’ that saw the battle or sung the song; but the folks who used to know it told it to their children, and there’s somebody there that would have it.” There was a moment of pause and then he said, with the emphasis of one who was speaking of a great treasure, “I declare for it! I would act’ally give a hunderd dollars for that song!”

“What! Goin’? Well, good day. Come again. I like company, and I don’t see as many folks as I would like.”

Transcribed from The Outlook. Published Weekly, New York.
November 2, 1901 Volume 69, No. 9

Provided by Gregory T. Furness
Original located in University of Vermont, Research Annex, Periodicals
Benajah Phelps portrait photographs courtesy of James N. Phelps, direct descendant.

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