On 11 September 1814, the U.S. Navy squadron on Lake Champlain won the most decisive naval engagement of the War of 1812. The U.S. squadron completely defeated its British counterpart and denied the English naval mastery of Lake Champlain. The failure of the British squadron to gain naval supremacy, in turn, forced the commander of an eight-thousand-strong British invasion force to break off a land assault in mid-battle and withdraw his army to Canada.
Credit for this victory rightly belongs to Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, USN, as it was secured because of his strategic placement of the ships under his command, his prudent preparation and wise execution, and the example he set of courageous perseverance during one of the deadliest naval battles of the entire war. But credit also belongs to the sailors who stood to their guns alongside their commander on that fateful and bloody day, and particularly to Sailing Master Philip Brum, whose practical skills solved a baffling tactical problem at a crucial moment in the battle.
Macdonough realized that the strategic situation gave him the opportunity to maximize the U.S. squadron’s tactical advantages. The British squadron commander would be obliged to attack in order to prevent the U.S. squadron from supporting the U.S. land troops when the British army launched its assault. Macdonough, on the other hand, was under no necessity of sailing out to engage the British squadron on the lake, where the British preponderance of long guns would tip the odds in their favor. Macdonough therefore decided to fight at anchor. He placed his ships in a defensive formation far enough from the town of Plattsburgh to prevent British ships from supporting the British land assault. The position was also close enough to Cumberland Head, which forms the eastern shore of Plattsburgh Bay, to force the British squadron to fight within range of carronades. A battle fought at short range favored American victory, since in short guns the U.S. squadron heavily outgunned the British.
Macdonough took another precaution, a precaution that won the battle for him. He had each of his four anchored vessels equipped with springs, or hawsers, attached to their anchors in such a way as to allow the vessel to be turned 180 degrees and bring a fresh broadside battery against the enemy. Bights, or loops of rope, held the springs under water, protected from gunshot damage.
At 3:30 AM on 11 September, the winds having shifted, the British naval commander, Captain George Downie, RN, weighed anchor. Downie’s intent was to concentrate the squadron’s fire on Saratoga, for if the Americans’ principal ship were disabled, the smaller warships could not withstand Confiance’s gunfire.
Inconstant and shifting winds and heavy damage received in approaching the American line, including the loss of both of Confiance’s bow anchors, frustrated Downie’s plan. Unable to reach the head of the American line without taking unacceptable losses, Downie ordered Confiance to drop anchor when it came opposite Saratoga.
Confiance’s first broadside, from sixteen 24s, double shotted, carefully aimed, and deliberately fired, had devastating effect, killing and wounding forty of Saratoga’s crew. The two flagships settled down to a slugfest and the carnage on both ships was horrific. About fifteen minutes after Confiance opened fire, a shot from Saratoga knocked one of Confiance’s guns off its carriage and into Downie’s groin, killing him. Macdonough was knocked unconscious twice, but came to and resumed command each time. One by one, the guns on both ships were disabled. The last gun in action on board Saratoga broke off its carriage and fell down a hatch. On board Confiance, the four guns that had not been disabled were too encumbered with wreckage to be worked.
Now Macdonough ordered Saratoga to be winded round. Before the turn was sufficiently completed, the ship could be brought no further round, as it was end on to the wind. At this critical moment, Sailing Master Brum thought of the port kedge anchor cable, which ran forward, then under the bow, and then to an anchor stationed to the starboard of the ship. Brum realized that by transferring the cable to the starboard quarter the crew would be able to heave the ship into firing position. This maneuver quickly executed brought the fresh port battery into play. Lacking Saratoga’s carefully planned anchor placement, Confiance was unable to respond in kind. Confiance hung up when under Saratoga’s raking fire. Sinking, water above the gun-deck, the wounded in danger of drowning, and the crew refusing to stand to quarters, Confiance struck its colors. After two hours and twenty minutes of slaughter, the battle was over.
Without naval mastery of Lake Champlain a British victory on land would not have any permanence. The British general was unwilling to sacrifice men for the glory of a meaningless victory. During the night of 11-12 September, therefore, the invaders’ army withdrew and started back to Canada.