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A Signal Victory on Lake Champlain

By James P. Millard

Part V- Action on Cumberland Bay 
September 11, 1814

"Seldom has the ocean witnessed a more furious encounter than now took place on the bosom of this transparent and peaceful lake."

Note: The following excerpt is taken from The Battle of Plattsburgh- What Historians Say About It, published in 1914 to commemorate the Centenary of The Battle of Plattsburg. Inexplicably, the booklet does not credit the author of the eloquent words that follow- Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt wrote his remarkable book "The Naval War of 1812; or the history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain" when he was only 24 years old. As we know, he also went on to serve as President of the United States (spelling and italics are from original).

Plattsburgh (or Cumberland) Bay, Crab Island in foreground: Aerial photo by Doug and Mark HarwoodView NNE across Plattsburgh Bay towards Cumberland Head.
Crab Island is in the foreground.

"Plattsburgh Bay is deep and opens to the southward; so that a wind which would enable the British to sail up the lake would force them to beat when entering the bay. The east side of the mouth of the bay is formed by Cumberland Head; the entrance is about a mile and a half across, and the other boundary, southwest from the Head, is an extensive shoal, and a small, low island. This is called Crab Island, and on it was a hospital and one six-pounder gun, which was to be manned in case of necessity by the strongest patients. Macdonough had anchored in a north-south line, a little to the south of the outlet of the Saranac, and out of range of the shore batteries, being two miles from the western shore. The head of this line was so near Cumberland Head that an attempt to turn it would place the opponent under a very heavy fire, while to the south the shoal prevented a flank attack.

The Eagle lay to the north, flanked on each side by a couple of gunboats; then came the Saratoga with three gunboats between her and the Ticonderoga, the next in line; then came three gunboats and the Preble. The four large vessels were at anchor; the galleys being under their sweeps and forming a second line about 40 yards back, some of them keeping their places and some not doing so. By this arrangement his line could not be doubled upon, there was not room to anchor on his broadside out of reach of his carronades, and the enemy was forced to attack him by standing in bows on.

Morning of September 11

The morning of September 11th opened with a light breeze from the northwest. Downie's fleet weighed anchor at daylight, and came up the lake with the wind nearly aft, the booms of the two sloops, swinging out to starboard. At half past seven, the people in the ships could see their adversaries' upper sails across the narrow strip of land ending in Cumberland Head, before the British doubled the latter. Captain Downie hove to with his four large vessels, when he had fairly opened the bay, and waited for his galleys to overtake him. Then his four vessels filled on the starboard tack and headed for the American line, going abreast, the Chub to the north, heading well to windward of the Eagle, for whose bows the Linnet was headed, while the Confiance was to be laid athwart the hawser of the Saratoga; the Finch was to leeward with the twelve gunboats, and was to engage the rear of the American line. 

As the English squadron stood bravely in, young Macdonough, who feared his foes not at all, but his God a great deal, knelt for a moment, with his officers on the quarter-deck; and then ensued a few minutes of perfect quiet, the men waiting with grim expectancy for the opening of the fight. The Eagle spoke first with her long 18's, but to no effect, for the shot fell short. Then, as the Linnet passed the Saratoga, she fired her broadside of long 12's, but her shot also fell short, except one that struck a hencoop that happened to be aboard the Saratoga. There was a gamecock inside, and, instead of being frightened at his sudden release, he jumped up on a gun-slide, clapped his wings, and crowed lustily. The men laughed and cheered, and immediately afterward Macdonough himself fired the first shot from one of the long guns. The 24-pound ball struck the Confiance near the hawse-hole and ranged the length of her deck, killing and wounding several men. All the American long guns now opened and were replied to by the British galleys.

The Confiance stood steadily on without replying. But she was baffled by shifting winds, and was soon so cut up, having both her port bow-anchors shot away, and suffering much loss, that she was obliged to port her helm and come to while still nearly a quarter of a mile distant from the Saratoga. Captain Downie came to anchor in grand style, securing everything carefully before he fired a gun, and then opening with a terribly destructive broadside. The Chub and Linnet stood further in, and anchored forward the Eagle's beam. Meanwhile the Finch got abreast of the Ticonderoga, under her sweeps, supported by the gun boats. The main fighting was thus to take place between the vans, where the Eagle, Saratoga, and six, or seven gun boats were engaged with the Chub, Linnet, Confiance, and two or three gun boats; while in the rear, the Ticonderoga, the Preble, and the other American galleys engaged the Finch and the remaining nine or ten English galleys. The battle at the foot of the line was fought on the part of the Americans to prevent their flank being turned, and on the part of the British to effect that object. At first the fighting was at long range, but gradually the British galleys closed up, firing very well. The American galleys at this end of the line were chiefly the small ones, armed with one 12-pounder apiece, and they by degrees drew back, before the heavy fire of their opponents. About an hour after the discharge of the first gun had been fired, the Finch closed up toward the Ticonderoga, and was completely crippled by a couple of broadsides from the latter. She drifted helplessly down the line and grounded near Crab Island; some of the convalescent patients manned the six-pounder and fired a shot or two at her, when she struck, nearly half of her crew being killed or wounded. About the same time the British gunboats forced the Preble out of line, whereupon she cut her cable and drifted inshore out of the fight. Two or three of the British gunboats, had already been sufficiently damaged by some of the shot from the Ticonderoga's long guns to make them wary; and the contest at this part narrowed down to one between the American schooner and the remaining British gunboats who combined to make a most determined attack upon her. So hastily had the squadron been fitted out that many of the matches for her guns were at the last moment found to be defective. The Captain of one of the divisions was a midshipman, but 16 years old, Hiram Paulding. When he found the matches to be bad he fired the guns of his section by having pistols flashed at them, and continued this through the whole fight. The Ticonderoga's commander, Lieutenant Cassin, fought his schooner most nobly. He kept walking the taffrail amidst showers of musketry and grape, coolly watching the movements of the galleys and directing the guns to be loaded with canister and bags of bullets when the enemy tried to board. The British galleys were handled with determined gallantry, under the command of Lieutenant Bell. Had they driven off the Ticonderoga they would have won the day for their side, and they pushed up till they were not a boathook's length distant, to try to carry her by boarding; but every attempt was repulsed and they were forced to draw off, some of them so crippled by the slaughter they had suffered they could hardly man the oars. 

Meanwhile, the fighting at the head of the line had been even fiercer. The first broadside of the Confiance, fired from 16 long 24's, double-shotted, coolly sighted in smooth water, at point blank range, produced the most terrible effect on the Saratoga. Her hull shivered all over with the shock, and when the crash subsided nearly half her people were  seen stretched on deck, for many had been knocked down, who were not seriously hurt. Among the slain were her first lieutenant, Peter Gamble; he was kneeling down to sight the bow-gun, when a shot entered the port, split the quoin, and drove a portion of it against this side, killing him without breaking the skin. The survivors carried on the fight with undiminished energy. Macdonough himself worked like a common sailor, in pointing and handling a favorite gun. While bending over to sight it, a round shot cut in two the spanker boom which fell on his head and struck him senseless for two or three minutes; he then leaped to his feet and continued as before, when a shot took off the head  of the captain of the gun crew and drove it in his face with such a force as to knock him to the other side of the deck, but after the first broadside not so much injury was done; the guns of the Confiance had been leveled to point blank range, and the quoins were loosened by the success of discharges they were not properly replaced, so that her broadside  kept going higher and higher, and doing less and less damage.

Very shortly after the beginning of the action her gallant captain was slain. He was standing behind one of the long guns, when a shot from the Saratoga struck it, and threw it completely off the carriage against his right groin killing him almost instantly. His skin was not broken, a black mark about the size of a small plate was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with its hands pointing the very second at which he received the fatal blow.

Muzzle of the actual cannon that was struck by an American ball on the muzzle resulting in the death of Capt. Downie. Cannon is on display at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Roger Harwood Photo.



The carronade that struck and killed Capt. Downie, on display at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland.
Photo credit: Roger Harwood

As the contest went on the fire gradually decreased in weight, the guns being disabled. The inexperience of both crews partly caused this. The American sailors overloaded their carronades so as to very much destroy the effect of the fire; when the officers became disabled, the men would cram the guns with shot till the last projected from the muzzle; of course, this lessened the execution, and also gradually crippled the guns. On board the Confiance the confusion was even worse; after the battle the charges of the guns were drawn, and on the side she had fought one was found with a canvas bag containing two round of shot rammed home and wadded without any powder; another with two cartridges and no shot; and a third with a wad below the cartridge.

At the extreme head of the line the advantage had been with the British. The Chub and Linnet had begun a brisk engagement with the Eagle and American gunboats. In a sort time the Chub had her cable, bow-sprit and main-boom shot away, drifted within the American lines, and was taken possession of by one of the Saratoga's midshipman. The Linnet paid no attention to the American gunboats, directing her whole fire against the Eagle, and the latter was, in addition, exposed to part of the fire of the Confiance. After keeping up a heavy fire for a long time here springs were shot away, and she came up into the wind, hanging so that she could not return a shot to the well directed broadsides of the Linnet. Henley accordingly cut his cable, started home his top-sails, ran down, and anchored by the stern between and inshore of the Confiance and Ticonderoga, form which position he opened on the Confiance. The  Linnet now directed her attention to the American gunboats, which at the end of the line were very well fought, but she soon drove them off, and then sprung her broadside so as to rake the Saratoga on her bows.

The Battle of Lake ChamplainMacdonough by this time had his hands full, and his fire was slackening; he was bearing the whole brunt of the action, with the frigate on his beam and the brig raking him. Twice had his ship been set on fire by the hot shot of the Confiance; one by one his long guns were disabled by shot, and his carronades were either treated the same way or else rendered useless by excessive overcharging. Finally but a single carronade was left in the starboard batteries and on manning it the naval-bolt broke, the gun flew off the carriage and fell down the main hatch, leaving the Commodore without a single gun to oppose to the few the Confiance still presented. The battle would have been lost had not Macdonough's foresight provided the means of retrieving it. The anchor suspended astern of the Saratoga was let go, and the men hauled in on the hawser that led to the starboard quarter, bringing the ship's stern up over the kedge. The ship now rode by the kedge and by a line that had been bent to a bight in the stern cable, and she was raked badly by the accurate fire of the Linnet. By rousing on the line the ship was at length got so far round that the aftermost gun of the port broadside bore on the Confiance. The men had been sent forward to keep as much out of harm's way as possible, and now some were at once called back to man the piece, which then opened with effect. The next gun was treated in the same manner; but the ship now hung and would go no further round. The hawser leading from the port quarter was then got forward under the bows and passed aft to the starboard quarter, and a minute afterward the ship's whole port battery opened with fatal effect. The Confiance meanwhile had also attempted  to round. Her springs, like those of the Linnet, were on the starboard side, and so of course, could not be shot away as the Eagle's were; but, as she had nothing but springs to rely on, her efforts did little but beyond forcing her forward and she hung with her head to the wind. She had lost over half her crew, most of her guns on the engaged side were dismounted, and her stout masts had been splintered till they looked like bundles of matches her sails had been torn to rags, and she was forced to strike about two hours after she had fired the first broadside. Without pausing a minute the Saratoga again hauled on her starboard hawser till her broadside was sprung to bear on the Linnet, and the ship and brig began a brisk fight, which the Eagle, from her position could take no part in, while the Ticonderoga was just finishing up the British galleys. The shattered and disabled state of the Linnet's masts, sails, and yards precluded the most distant hope of Captain Pring's effecting his escape by cutting his cable, but he kept up a most gallant fight with his greatly superior foe, in hopes that some of the gunboats would come and tow him off, and dispatched a lieutenant to the Confiance to ascertain her state. The lieutenant returned with news of Captain Downie's death while the British gunboats had been driven half a mile off; and, after having maintained the fight single-handed for fifteen minutes, until the number of shots between wind and water, the water had risen a foot above her lower deck, the plucky little brig hauled down her colors, and the fight ended. A little over two hours and a half after the first gun had been fired not one of the larger vessels had a mast that would bear canvas, and the prizes were in a sinking condition. The British galley's drifted to leeward, none with their colors up, but as the Saratoga's boarding-official passed along the deck of the Confiance he accidently ran against a lock spring on one of her starboard guns, and it went off. This was apparently understood as a signal by the galleys, and they moved slowly off, pulling but a very few sweeps, and not one of them hoisting an ensign. On both sides the ships had been cut up in a most extraordinary manner; the Saratoga had 55 shot holes in her hull, and the Confiance 105 in hers, and the Eagle and Linnet suffered in proportion. The number killed and wounded cannot be exactly stated; it was probably about 200 on the American side, and over 300 on the British..." 2

Get a good understanding of  the horrific conditions experienced during these battles. Watch "A live fire demonstration using a replica of the brig USS Niagara and authentic cannon showing the devastation caused by cannonballs punching into the ship."

Courtesy of YouTube and

At Salmon River, a strange turn of events was occurring.  Inexplicably to the American militia, the mighty force of red-coated soldiers who had been pushing their way south and east with such determination seemed to falter. Few had noticed the lone rider who had appeared a few minutes earlier. Then, suddenly, it became clear what had happened. Word arrived from the forts that Macdonough had prevailed in the Bay. As the welcome news spread through the ranks, loud huzzahs were heard. Unnerved, the British fell back, beginning a retreat to the safety of the occupied village. In the confusion that ensued a company of British regulars was captured by the militia. After becoming lost in the woods, three lieutenants and 27 men were taken prisoner, the rest of the company were killed. The main of the British force regained the north side of the Saranac without much difficulty. 

Meanwhile, at the village, firing continued for a time at the forts. With the setting of the sun, however, an eerie quiet came over the village of Plattsburgh. For the first time in several days, the roar of cannon fire ceased. Prevost was retreating from the village. With the loss of the fleet his position had become untenable at best. At sunrise on the 12th Macomb found the village north of the Saranac abandoned and lifeless. Everywhere was found the cast off detritus of war. In their haste to fall back, the British left behind huge quantities of provisions and war matériel. They also left behind their sick and wounded. The roads north of the Village of Plattsburgh were clogged with the disheartened soldiers of His Majesty's army in Canada. 

The Battle of Plattsburg was over.

Other Battle of Plattsburg links within America's Historic Lakes:

Historic Plattsburg Photo Gallery
The Battle of Plattsburg: Documents and Sources
Naval Forces engaged at The Battle of Plattsburg
Dr. James Mann's account of the Battle of Plattsburg
Commodore Thomas Macdonough- Hero of the Battle of Plattsburg
Silas Duncan-
Wounded Veteran Lake Champlain, War of 1812
Captain Daniel Pring letter
Actual transcript of Letter from George Beale, Jr. Purser of USS Saratoga to Macdonough


1 J. Prentiss. 1838. History of the United States, from their first settlement as colonies, to the close of the war with Great Britain. (Keene, NH: J. Prentiss, George B. Lothian, New York) 276

2 New York State Commission, Plattsburg Centenary. 1914. The Battle of Plattsburgh- What Historians Say About It. (Albany, NY: J. B. Lyon Company.)13-20 quoting from Theodore Roosevelt. 1882. The Naval War of 1812; or the history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain. (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons)

Last modified: 11/10/2012

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