Lange: September 1814

Sep 9, 2014

I'd hate to think that with all the attention we're paying this year to Civil War battles of 150 years ago – Cold Harbor, the Wilderness, Atlanta – we might find ourselves giving short shrift to one that took place right around here 200 years ago, pushing Vermont into a strangely ambivalent position.

Following the end of the American Revolutionary War, relations with Great Britain had remained hostile. Gradually escalating tensions and insults led finally to the United States’ first declaration of war against a foreign power, in 1812. Vermonters were not at all enthusiastic about this; they were doing quite well smuggling meat, timber, and other supplies to the British, just down the lake in Canada.

Great Britain still ruled the seas, and as the Napoleonic Wars wound down in Europe, had plenty of spare infantry and artillery to send to North America. This war, called by many the Second Revolution, was fought from the Gulf of Mexico to Chesapeake Bay to the Great Lakes. A British force even burned the White House and many federal buildings in Washington.

It’s difficult today to appreciate the anxiety felt by the residents of the Champlain Valley. The campaigns of the Revolutionary War were still a living memory for many, and the buildup of infantry and warships at the northern end of the lake at the start of 1814 were a clear indication of trouble to come.

The New York shore was chosen for the infantry; the Missisquoi River swamps probably had a lot to do with that. On May 13th the British sailed to the mouth of the Boquet River on the New York shore and rowed upstream to confiscate supplies from the mill in Willsboro, the town where I used to teach. The miller entertained them with hard cider while somebody ran to rally the militia. Warned of its arrival, the British retreated and were peppered as they ran a gauntlet at the mouth of the river. Their mother ship fired at the militiamen, but couldn’t elevate its guns enough.

The next day other British tried to sail up Otter Creek in Vermont to burn the American fleet being built there. But a battery mounted at the mouth of the river held them at bay till they broke off and sailed back north to build more ships. The Lake Champlain campaign was called by some wags the Battle of the Carpenters.

It climaxed September 11th, when Commodore Macdonough’s brand-new American fleet defeated the British at the Battle of Plattsburgh. A coordinated infantry attack retreated to Canada, and there were no further attempts by the British to attack up the Champlain Valley.

The same week, on September 14th, 1814,another British fleet shelled Fort McHenry, guarding Baltimore. All night the bombardment continued, while an American lawyer and poet anxiously watched to see if the fort’s flag still flew. By dawn’s early light he saw that it did, and he began writing. You can visit that star-spangled banner today in the Smithsonian Institution.

This is Willem Lange in Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.