Lake Champlain’s Role in the War of 1812

In the War of 1812, the United States confronted the greatest naval power in the world, Great Britain. Sometimes called the Second War of Independence, the war began because of trade restrictions Britain imposed on America and France during the Napoleonic Wars. The United Kingdom had been capturing U.S. trade ships and impressing them into the British navy against their will. In addition, the United Kingdom had been increasing tensions between Native American tribes and the U.S. government to reduce further western expansion.

American forces launched a three-point invasion into Canada, a British territory, that year but failed miserably. By April 1814, Napoleon’s hold on France waned, which enabled the British to reassign troops to America. In August of that year, the Brits took hold of Washington, D.C., burning the White House as well as the Capitol and other buildings in retaliation for burnings of Canadian buildings by U.S. troops.

Canada’s Commander in Chief, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, was authorized to launch offensives into American territory. Prévost opted to attack via the Richelieu River into Lake Champlain. To spare Vermonters, who often traded with the British, a seat of war, Prévost advanced down the western side of the lake to the American position at Plattsburgh, New York. Despite American attempts to slow the British, the Brits continued to advance and skirmish. The Americans withdrew to Plattsburgh Bay, forcing the British to engage at close range to level the playing field against Britain’s superior navy. Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough prepared the American forces to fight at anchor.

On the morning of September 11, 1814, the British squadron rounded Cumberland Head. Due to the light and variable wind that day, the British could not maneuver where they intended and suffered increasing damages from the American ships. British Captain George Downie led the attack but was killed early on in the battle. After several hours of fighting, the British surrendered. Prévost canceled the land battle, and the British armies retreated to Canada.

This American victory led to the end of the War of 1812. On Christmas Eve, 1814, the British and Americans signed the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, formally ending the war and establishing the boundary between Canada and the United States. Although the treaty did not remark on the two main issues that caused the war (the rights of the U.S. vessels and the impressment of U.S. sailors), it opened the Great Lakes region to American expansion.

You can commemorate this American naval and diplomatic victory with NOAA Nautical Chart 14782, Cumberland Head to Four Brothers Island.

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