Two hundred years ago this spring in Vermont, there was no busier place than Vergennes, where boatbuilding for the United States Navy was feverishly underway. The U.S. was at war with Great Britain, in what history would record as the War of 1812, and one of the key battlefronts was 120 mile long Lake Champlain.
In the two years previous to 1814, minor clashes had already occurred along the lake as British ships prowled south from the Richelieu River. Thus, in December, 1813, the Navy Department ordered the strengthening of the America’s Champlain fleet.
Commanding that flotilla was Thomas McDonough, at 29 a veteran of Tripoli. McDonough chose Vergennes as the place to do his work. In the surrounding woodlands were trees suitable for masts and planking, and from the hills came iron. Already at Vergennes were forges, furnaces, and sawmills driven by Otter Creek’s mighty falls.
McDonough well knew that north, along the international boundary, the British were strengthening a Champlain fleet. So at Vergennes he ordered that work proceed almost non-stop and among the constructions was a 140 foot vessel. With 26 guns, it was a ship of war christened Saratoga. And also being built were six 75 foot row galleys, each mounting two cannon.
The British spied on all that activity and reports reaching His Majesty’s Champlain forces were troublesome.
So, in early May, ships of war under Captain Daniel Pring sailed south intent on entering Otter Creek to smash the American fleet, or to block the river and pen up McDonough’s ships. It was a move McDonough full well expected.
When, two hundred years ago tomorrow, on May 14, 1814, the British appeared off the mouth of Otter Creek, they faced a hastily-constructed American fortification, with cannon behind earthworks, and riflemen at post. The position was called Fort Cassin, named for one of McDonough’s key subordinates, Lt. Stephen Cassin.
The British opened fire and the Americans replied. The blasts rolled across the historic waters for some two hours, before the British deemed their task hopeless. One British sailor was killed, and an American wounded, before the King’s fleet disengaged and headed back north.
The Battle of Fort Cassin was an American victory that saved McDonough’s fleet. It also caused the British to escalate their own shipbuilding, at Isle Aux Noix in the Richelieu River, including construction of a floating monster mounting 37 guns. The great showdown would come on lake, and land, in September, and its thunder would rock the Champlain Valley, overshadowing the clash at Vergennes.
But Fort Cassin’s importance, its place in history, would not be diminished. There the American fleet had been saved, to fight come autumn’s first colors, at Plattsburg.