The War of
1812-Era Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain
(click on images for full-size picture)
||Despite its relatively small size, 120 miles (193 km) in length by no
more than 12 miles (19.3 km) in breadth, Lake Champlain was destined to play a pivotal
role in the final year of the Anglo-American War of 1812. From the U.S.
Navys shipyard in Vergennes, Vermont and the Royal Navys yard at Isle aux
Noix, Lower Canada (now Quebec), squadrons of heavily-armed warships sailed forth in the
spring of 1814 to win command of the lakes waters.
|The U.S. Navys commander on Lake Champlain was this man, Lieutenant (later
Master Commandant) Thomas Macdonough. A native of Delaware, Macdonough had joined the Navy
as a young man and served in the campaigns against the Barbary states of North Africa.
Shortly after the War of 1812 began he was ordered to the lake, where he was to create and
command a naval squadron.
||During the first two years of the war, 1812 and 1813, Macdonoughs
warships consisted of merchant sloops that were strengthened and armed. Two of
them, Growler and Eagle, were captured in early 1813 when they incautiously
ventured into the British-controlled Richelieu River. The British used them to raid ports
and shipping on the lake in late July.
|During the winter of 1813-1814, Macdonough began the construction of a bigger squadron
here at Vergennes, Vermont, several miles up the Otter Creek from Lake Champlain.
Vergennes had an iron foundry that could supply spikes, bolts, and shot, water-powered
sawmills, and the surrounding forests were filled with white oak and pine for ship timber.
The Navy Department hired New York shipwright Noah Brown to direct the building.
||During the late winter and spring of 1814 Noah Brown built this vessel,
Macdnoughs 26-gun flagship Saratoga, in just 40 days.
|Brown and Macdonough also commandeered an unfinished steamboat and completed it as the
17-gun schooner Ticonderoga.
||Finally, Brown built six 75-foot-long (22.86 m) row galleys or gunboats, each rigged
with two lateen sails and armed with two cannon.
|Macdonough commanded the lake through the summer of 1814, but word that the British
were building a frigate at Isle aux Noix led to the construction of one additional warship
for the U.S. Navy squadron. On July 23 two hundred shipwrights under the direction of Adam
Brown (brother of Noah) laid the keel for a 20-gun brig at Vergennes.
||The new brig was launched on August 11, just 19 days after the laying of the keel. The
vessel measured 117 feet, 3 inches (35.74 m) in length and 34 feet (10.36 m) in beam.
Armament consisted of twelve 32-pounder carronades and eight 18-pounder long guns. The
crew numbered about 150, and due to a serious shortage of sailors on Lake Champlain part
of this number was made up with U.S. Army soldiers and band musicians, and convicts
serving on an army chain gang.
|The Secretary of the Navy sent this officer, Master Commandant Robert Henley, to
command the new brig. Relations between Henley and Macdonough got off to a bad start when
the former named his command Surprise, unaware that Macdonough had already chosen
the name Eagle. The new brig joined Macdonoughs squadron just as British
military and naval forces in Canada began a major offensive into the Champlain Valley.
||On August 31 the U.S. Navy squadron withdrew from the Canadian border to Plattsburgh,
New York, where the ships anchored inside the bay and prepared a series of spring lines
that enabled them to turn their broadsides to face attack from any direction. There,
alongside a small U.S. Army contingent hastily fortifying positions south of Plattsburgh,
the American warships awaited the appearance of the British.
|On the morning of September 11, 1814, the Royal Navy squadron on Lake Champlain,
consisting of the 36-gun frigate Confiance, the 16-gun brig Linnet, two
armed sloops and thirteen gunboats, entered the bay and attacked the anchored American
ships. After a bloody, point-blank engagement lasting two and one-half hours, the British
squadron surrendered (with the exception of the gunboats, which escaped to Canada). The
punitive expedition into the United States collapsed as the invading British land forces
beat a retreat back to Canada. This disastrous naval defeat at Plattsburgh undoubtedly
influenced the decision of the British Government to conclude a treaty of peace with the
United States on Christmas Eve, 1814.
||The battered American ships and their equally battered prizes were taken to the
southernmost port on Lake Champlain, Whitehall, New York, and laid up. When the war ended
they were stripped of guns, rigging, and equipment, their decks were housed over to
protect them from the elements, and the ships were anchored in a line below town. This
contemporary watercolor, from the collections of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, shows
the ships in 1816. Rot quickly spread through the green-timbered ships, and in 1820 they
were towed into the nearby Poultney River and allowed to sink. The Navy sold them to
salvagers in 1825.
|The remains of Lake Champlains War of 1812 squadrons were gone but not
forgotten. In 1949 residents of Fair Haven, Vermont temporarily pulled the hull of the
former Royal Navy brig Linnet out of the Poultney and salvaged souvenirs to sell to
tourists. Photo courtesy of the New York State Archives.
||In 1958 the Town of Whitehall salvaged the hull of the U.S. Navy schooner Ticonderoga and placed it on display behind the "Skenesboro Museum" in downtown Whitehall.
Photo courtesy of Carol Manell Senecal.
|Research on Lake Champlains War of 1812 ships began in 1981 under the direction
of Kevin Crisman and Arthur Cohn. The hull of the Ticonderoga was recorded in
||During the summer of 1981 a survey by Crisman and Cohn of the murky Poultney River
turned up the remains of three more 1812-era warship wrecks: the brig Eagle, the
brig Linnet, and a U.S. Navy row galley (tentatively identified as the Allen).
Information on the design and construction of all three vessels was nearly non-existent in
historical sources, and the archaeological potential of the wrecks was therefore immense.
|The Eagle was the best preserved of the three wrecks. The brig had fallen over
on its port side when it sank, and was preserved up to the level of the portside gun
ports. This is a midship section of the Eagle on the bottom of the river. The keel
and keelson may be seen in section on the left, while the diver is measuring the clamp and
waterway timbers on the right.
||Archaeological recording of the Eagle was undertaken by the Champlain Maritime
Society in 1982 and 1983 with aid of a federal survey grant administered by the Vermont
Division for Historic Preservation as well as a grant from the Cecil Howard Charitable
Trust. The white buoy on the right marks the bow of the Eagle.
|The thousands of measurements and sketches of the Eagle's hull were used to
prepare these views of the wreck as it appeared in 1982-1983.
||Evidence from the surviving wreck permitted us to reconstruct the hull's construction
|The excellent state of preservation on Eagle's port side also allowed
reconstruction of the brig's lines.
||This is a section of Eagle's midship frame (the widest frame on the hull). The
vessel was somewhat rough in its assembly (it was built in 19 days!), incorporated
a peculiar variety of woods in its frames (some of the futtocks and floors were of white
pine and spruce), and the deck structure was built without any reinforcing knees (this
would have been a fatal omission in a seagoing ship). Compared to most warships of its day Eagle was very crude, but it did win the battle.
|When the midship section of the Eagle (below) is compared with that of a
sea-going 20-gun vessel (the U.S. Navy's Peacock, built in 1813, above), the
difference between lake and ocean vessels is apparent. Peacock had to carry a
several-month supply of provisions and fresh water in its hold, while Eagle had
ready access to both; Eagle did require a shallow draft to navigate shoal areas of
||We returned to the Poultney River in 1995 to complete the study of the brig Linnet and the row galley Allen. This project was undertaken as a field school sponsored
by the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Texas A&M University, the Lake Champlain
Maritime Museum, and the University of Vermont. Here Rob Wilcynski, Kevin Crisman, and
Erich Heinold excavate and record the wreck of the Linnet. Extremely low water
levels in 1995 meant that in certain cases we were working in a few inches of water.
|A conjectural profile of the brig Linnet. The study of Linnet was directed by
Texas A&M Nautical Graduate Program student Erika Washburn. Her masters thesis
on the Linnet, entitled Linnet: The History and Archaeology of a Brig
from the War of 1812 was completed in May, 1998.
||Archaeologists Eric Emery, Scott Padeni and Stephen Bilicki lower a grid over the
wreck of the row galley Allen in July of 1995.
|The wreck of the Allen yielded a number of artifacts, including these bars of
cast iron or kentledge used for ballasting the gunboat.
||Plans for a U.S. Navy 1812-era row galley similar to Allen. The study of Allen has been directed by Texas A&M Nautical Graduate Program student Eric Emery, and the
results will be presented in his doctoral dissertation.
Want to read more about Lake Champlains War of 1812
||Kevin J. Crisman. The Eagle: An American Brig on Lake Champlain During the War of
1812 (Shelburne, Vt. And Annapolis, Md.: New England Press and Naval Institute Press,
Kenneth Cassavoy and Kevin Crisman, "The War of 1812: Battle for the Great
Lakes," in George F. Bass, Editor, Ships and Shipwrecks of the Americas (London and New York: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., 1988).
Kevin J. Crisman. ""Coffins of the Brave": A Return to Lake
Champlains War of 1812 Ship Graveyard," The INA
Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1995.
Eric Emery. "Whitehall Project 1995: A Preliminary Report on the Excavation and
Study of the U.S.N. Row Galley Allen," The INA
Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1995.
Erika Washburn. "Linnet: A Brig from the War of 1812," The INA Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1, Spring, 1996.
Texas A&M University |
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