The War of 1812-Era Shipwrecks of Lake Champlain

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slide 01.JPG (92186 bytes) 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. Navy’s shipyard in Vergennes, Vermont and the Royal Navy’s 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 lake’s waters.
The U.S. Navy’s 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. slide 02.JPG (147089 bytes)
slide 03.JPG (101341 bytes) During the first two years of the war, 1812 and 1813, Macdonough’s ‘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. slide 04.JPG (186054 bytes)
slide 05.JPG (121326 bytes) During the late winter and spring of 1814 Noah Brown built this vessel, Macdnough’s 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. slide 06.JPG (83629 bytes)
slide 07.JPG (74269 bytes) 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. slide 08.JPG (98476 bytes)
slide 09.JPG (151975 bytes) 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 Macdonough’s squadron just as British military and naval forces in Canada began a major offensive into the Champlain Valley. slide 10.JPG (90119 bytes)
slide 11.JPG (109661 bytes) 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. slide 12.JPG (210511 bytes)
whitehall.JPG (85248 bytes) 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 Champlain’s 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. slide 13.JPG (179814 bytes)
slide 14.JPG (141902 bytes) 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 Champlain’s War of 1812 ships began in 1981 under the direction of Kevin Crisman and Arthur Cohn. The hull of the Ticonderoga was recorded in detail. slide 15.JPG (186289 bytes)
slide 16.JPG (195742 bytes) 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. slide 17.JPG (42913 bytes)
slide 18.JPG (188507 bytes) 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. slide 19.JPG (86272 bytes)
slide 20.JPG (95638 bytes) Evidence from the surviving wreck permitted us to reconstruct the hull's construction and appearance.
The excellent state of preservation on Eagle's port side also allowed reconstruction of the brig's lines. slide 21.JPG (104986 bytes)
slide 22.JPG (79202 bytes) 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 the lake. slide 23.JPG (63904 bytes)
slide 24.JPG (199668 bytes) 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 master’s thesis on the Linnet, entitled Linnet: The History and Archaeology of a Brig from the War of 1812 was completed in May, 1998. linnet.JPG (106098 bytes)
slide 25.JPG (187220 bytes) 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. slide 26.JPG (205241 bytes)
gunboat.JPG (74938 bytes) 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 Champlain’s War of 1812 shipwrecks? See:

eagle.JPG (45993 bytes) 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, 1987).

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 Champlain’s 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.

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