LCMM schooner to breathe life into Battle of Plattsburgh

FERRISBURGH — When the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum launched the replica canal schooner Lois McClure back in 2004, then-LCMM Director Art Cohn anticipated the majestic vessel might complete a single, triumphant sailing tour and then serve as a very important exhibit on how maritime commerce was conducted in the region during the mid- to late 1800s.
A decade later, the Lois McClure is readying for its 10th voyage, and it figures to be a blockbuster. With its permanent crew of 10 aided by scores of volunteers, the Lois McClure on June 27 will set sail for a three-month voyage that will include multiple ports of call in Vermont, New York and Quebec to mark the bicentennial of the end of the War of 1812 and specifically the pivotal Battle of Plattsburgh. The crew will take on visitors at each stop to explain the battle and how Addison County-based ship builders and militiamen played a critical role in defeating a superior British force that saw control of Lake Champlain as its ticket to bringing the fledgling United States to its knees.
“It’s an incredible history that we share,” said Cohn, now a senior historian and director of the LCMM’s schooner outreach program. “It’s a history that is little remembered, and we think it’s worthy of recognition.”
This will actually be the third and final leg of the Lois McClure’s tour to bring attention to the War of 1812. The vessel made similar jaunts in 2012 and 2013 to publicize the previous stages of the three-year conflict that jeopardized U.S. sovereignty. The ship will stop locally in Vergennes (July 11-13) and Shoreham (July 23), after having been docked at the LCMM in Ferrisburgh from May 27 to June 26.
The trip is being underwritten by a variety of sponsors — such as Lake Champlain Transportation, Champlain Chocolates and Cabot — as well as through appropriations from the governments of Vermont ($25,000), New York ($50,000) and Canada ($25,000). Cohn credited, among others, Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes; Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison; and Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Colchester, for supporting Vermont’s contribution to the upcoming voyage.
Understandably, many of the stops on the Lois McClure’s itinerary are locations that played a central role in the War of 1812. U.S. Navy 1st Lt. Thomas Macdonough, who famously led the U.S. fleet to victory in the Battle of Plattsburgh, ordered construction of several of his naval vessels — including the 26-gun corvette Saratoga, the sloop Eagle and various gunboats — at the Otter Creek shipyard in Vergennes. Cohn explained that 200 shipwrights from New York City — where the Lois McClure will dock from Aug. 23 to 25 — rushed to Vergennes to assist with design and construction of the fleet.
“I would say that building the fleet in Vergennes is one of the great efforts and sagas of the war,” Cohn said. “The effort these people made in support of the war effort to build this fleet, in partnership with the Addison County farmers and foresters that were gathering the wood, along with the Addison County militia that was guarding the shipyard, is a shared accomplishment that we need to acknowledge.”
The two navies clashed in Plattsburgh Bay on Sept. 11, 1814. The British Army contingent was led by Lt. Gen. Sir George Prevost, while Capt. George Downie commanded the king’s fleet, which featured the 36-gun frigate Confiance.
Macdonough won acclaim for his tactics in winning the naval battle. The American boats were rigged with spring lines that, in concert with anchors, allowed the crews to quickly pull the ships around to expose the British fleet to a second broadside of cannon-fire after the initial broadside of weapons had been destroyed. The British warships weren’t able to perform the same, nimble maneuver and were cut to pieces by the second barrage of cannon fire. Downie perished during the battle. Historians believe Prevost had ordered the ships into battle too hastily.
“The victory was two-fold,” Cohn said. “It was a victory of Macdonough’s naval fleet, in part due to his skill and strategy as a naval commander, but it was a land battle as well. The land battle was critical to the outcome.”
Cohn explained that the British Army was able to transfer around 10,000 battle-tested troops who had been fighting in the recently concluded Napoleonic War. They began massing at the U.S./Canadian border during late spring of 1814. By contrast, the U.S. had 5,000 troops in the Champlain Valley, and military leaders decided to dispatch most of them to points west, from where they expected British invasion to originate.
“They got it wrong,” Cohn said of the U.S. strategy. “They left 1,500 sick and perhaps least effective of their troops here.”
When it became clear the attack would come via the Champlain Valley, Macdonough put out a call for militia that drew roughly 3,500 men — approximately 2,500 of whom were Vermont volunteers, under Gen. Samuel Strong of Vergennes.
British troops arrived at the north side of the Saranac River, where they faced approximately 5,000 hastily mustered U.S. men. The British had them out-numbered two to one.
But numbers didn’t tell the story on this day. The outcome was one on which even the most optimistic odds-makers would not have placed money.
“In history, militias either perform terribly, or OK,” Cohn said. “They usually don’t perform at a great, high level, because they are not professional soldiers. But in this case, those 5,000 men stood on their side of the Saranac and turned back the British Army.”
The surviving British forces went back home. The outcome of the battle denied British claims to U.S. territory as part of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
“(The British) lost their will and lost their ability to continue,” Cohn said.
This history will be available in detail aboard the Lois McClure this summer, as the crew speaks with citizens, students, historical societies and tourists. Available information will include various flyers and publications like “Coffins of the Brave: Lake Shipwrecks of the War of 1812,” a new book penned by archaeologist Kevin J. Crisman and several contributors — including Cohn. The LCMM conducted a multi-year inventory of shipwrecks in Lake Champlain, yielding a treasure trove of more than 4,000 artifacts recovered from the Battle of Plattsburgh site. The LCMM has documented and studied four War of 1812 vessels reposing in the depths of Lake Champlain. It performed the conservation and study of the anchor from the Confiance anchor that was at the museum 12 years ago.
Anyone seeking more information about the LCMM and the upcoming Lois McClure voyage can log unto www.lcmm.org.
“We are honored to be bringing this story to the public,” Cohn said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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