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Crab Island Overview
Crab Island is a tree-covered, uninhabited island just north of Valcour Island. Crab Island played an important role in the War of 1812. A small monument to 143 men who died in the Battle of Plattsburgh, and who were buried on the island can be found on the northern end of the island. At one time the island was owned by the Plattsburgh Air Force Base and used as a recreation area. The island supports a large poison ivy cover.
In their book A Kayaker’s Guide to Lake Champlain, Cathy Frank and Margaret Holden comment on the trip from Valcour to Crab Island:
“We head north along the west shore and then across 2 miles (3 kilometers) of open water to Crab Island. The wind and waves increase to a steady 20, gusting to 25 knots mostly from the west as we start across. We go into “watch every wave” mode to anticipate unexpected large waves from hitting us broadside…”
Lakes to Locks Passage has published Waterways of War: The War of 1812, A Traveler’s Guide to the War of 1812 Forts, Battlefields, and Historic Sites along America’s Byways in New York and Pennsylvania. The following description of the Battle of Plattsburgh is an excerpt from the book:
“The Battle of Plattsburgh
From the St. Lawrence River, armies traveled south along Quebec’s Richelieu River to New York’s Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. In 1777, British General John Burgoyne met his own personal Waterloo at Saratoga. His planned invasion of the Hudson Valley was thwarted, and the victorious Americans went on to win their independence. In 1814, Governor- General of Canada Sir George Prevost met a similar fate at Plattsburgh. His planned invasion of New York was thwarted, denying Britain the advantage they had sought at the bargaining table at the peace talks in Ghent. After two-and-a-half years, bitter fighting on the northern frontier had produced nothing but a stalemate and it would remain that way for the rest of the war.
Prevost had assembled the largest force — 10,000 men strong — ever to invade the continental United States. The goal was British occupation of American territory. The plan was for the Lake Champlain armada under the command of Captain George Downie to neutralize the American squadron on the lake, thereby opening supply lines for a push by the army south to Plattsburgh. Standing in the way were 3,500 well-entrenched soldiers, albeit only militia and poorly trained regulars, in Brigadier General Alexander Macomb’s army, and the American squadron on Lake Champlain under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough.
Although Prevost was determined to wait for the British naval attack to begin before committing his ground troops, he did not have the luxury of time on his side. Autumn was fast approaching. Campaigns on the northern frontier had a history of foundering on cold nights and early snowfalls. Provisions were in short supply. Messages from Prevost to Captain Downie urging haste became edgy and then increasingly assumed a peremptory tone. Pushed prematurely into action, Downie’s HMS Confiance, the largest warship on Lake Champlain, was fresh from the shipyard, but unfinished, poorly equipped, and undermanned.
Even so, the two Lake Champlain fleets were relatively evenly matched, each side capable of producing combined broadsides of about a ton of metal. Pressed into service without having the benefit of a shakedown cruise — Downie had taken command only two days earlier — Confiance (37 guns), accompanied by Linnet (16), Chubb (11), Finch (11), and a dozen gunboats carrying 17 more guns, appeared off Cumberland Head outside of Plattsburgh Bay on the morning of September 11, 1814. Lieutenant Macdonough, aboard his flagship, USS Saratoga (26), accompanied by Eagle (20), Ticonderoga (17), Preble (7), and ten gunboats, carried fewer long guns but outweighed the British in carronades. He had established a position for his squadron inside the confines of the bay running northeast from Crab Island with his star-board batteries facing out, intent on avoiding a long-range duel on the open lake. His goal was to force Downie into an exchange where the short-range effectiveness of the American carronades could best be utilized. To increase his mobility, Macdonough had spring-loaded his anchor cables and set out kedge anchors, additional hardware that would enable him to turn his otherwise stationary ships quickly mid-battle should it become necessary.
At 9AM, the British fleet sailed into the bay. A few desultory shots were exchanged before Macdonough personally aimed one of his long 24-pounders at Confiance, the discharged cannonball raking the British flagship’s deck, killing several sailors and taking out Confiance’s wheel. A furious artillery barrage ensued, the next two hours witnessing devastating damage to both fleets.
Chubb, Finch, and Preble were the first vessels to be silenced, leaving the bulk of the fighting to be done by the larger ships.
The carnage was extensive. Blood, bodies, and the wreckage of guns and rigging made for treacherous footing. Fifteen minutes into the battle, Downie himself was crushed by a runaway cannon unleashed by a direct shot from Saratoga, his flattened watch marking the precise minute of his death. Although Macdonough, too, was struck, twice, once by a falling spar and again by the decapitated flying head of his gun captain, he emerged unscathed.
After almost two hours of continuous rolling thunder of blasting cannon, with both sides exhausted, and with his own starboard batteries depleted, Macdonough seized the initiative in the battle as he rotated his ship 180 degrees, capitalizing on his preparatory arrangement of hawsers, cables, and kedge anchors to bring his fresh port-side guns to bear on Confiance. Failing in his efforts to accomplish a similar maneuver, and being hammered by unchallenged and unrelenting broadsides from Saratoga, Lieutenant James Robertson, Downie’s successor, struck his colors. The rest of his remaining squadron inevitably followed suit.
Watching the devastation of the British fleet and its capitulation from shore, Prevost called off his army. Without the support of supply lines via the lake to feed his troops, capture of Plattsburgh would be a meaningless gesture at an unacceptably high cost. Too, the land assault itself, despite the overwhelming numerical advantage enjoyed by the British, had already shown signs of disarray.
Designed to coincide with Downie’s engagement of Macdonough, delays stalled the attack for an hour. When Prevost’s troops finally began to move, American artillery put up unexpectedly stiff resistance. Major General Frederick Robinson at the head of 2,500 men was at the same time losing another precious hour searching for the ford of the Saranac River west of Plattsburgh. His failure blunted a flanking maneuver intended to coordinate with the frontal assault coming from the north. Moreover, Prevost feared being cut off, having come into possession of an intercepted letter, one that later turned out to have been fabricated by Macomb, announcing the approach of 10,000 militia from Vermont and another 9,000 from St. Lawrence County to the west and New York’s Washington County to the south.
Prevost’s order to pull back came just as Robinson positioned his men to launch their strike on Macomb’s left wing and was received with consternation. The retreat was so precipitate that, by the time Macomb realized the British had withdrawn, Prevost’s frustrated and dispirited legions were well on their way back to Canada.
Recriminations surrounded Prevost’s conduct of the campaign, his most vocal critic being Commodore Yeo, who, himself, had failed to provide materials and men to the Lake Champlain fleet when requested. Prevost was eventually called back to London where he demanded a court martial to clear his name. That court martial never convened; Prevost died a week before it was to open. He deserved better. Despite the controversy of the final campaign, Prevost managed during his administration to preserve Canada’s integrity, keeping it intact in the face of American aggression.
Prevost’s withdrawal from Plattsburgh did, however, open the door for Macdonough’s triumphant entrance into the pantheon of American military heroes. In battering Downie’s fleet into submission and preventing it from providing artillery support for Prevost’s invading army, which subsequently turned tail and fled back across the border, Macdonough had humbled the mighty British war machine and accelerated the momentum toward a peace agreement.”
Waterways of War: The War of 1812 – Lakes to Locks Passage Travel Planning Official National Geographic Mapguide
In commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, discover the historic events that helped shape a young American nation during its “Second War of Independence.” This beautifully illustrated guidebook includes an overview of the war as a whole, a more detailed look at the war across the Great Lakes, and a focus on the significant events that occurred along New York’s Scenic Byways. Order the book here.
The Kent-Delord House
In 1797, William Bailey (one of the first judges and assemblymen in the region) built a modest house on this site in Plattsburgh, a settlement founded in 1785. William’s father, Colonel John Bailey, bought the house and later gave it to his daughter Elizabeth, who married James Kent, a local judge. Read the full article here.
In his book, Lake Champlain: The Secrets of Crab Island, James P. Millard describes several sites on Crab Island. The monument is the most prominent as Crab Island is approached by water. Other sites on Crab Island include the flagpole, the caretaker’s cottage and outbuildings, the pump house, the gun battery, and the quarry.
Millard describes each of these sites:
Monument N 44°39.795′ , W 73°25.098′
“In 1908 an impressive obelisk of Barre granite was erected just to the north of the caretaker’s cottage. J.J. Fitzpatrick of Plattsburgh, the contractor, performed the work at a cost of $7,000. The obelisk, some 50′ high, was supported by a granite base 23′ wide. On each of the four faces of the monument was placed a bronze plate “suitably inscribed” as follows:”
Flagpole N 44°39.617′ , W 73°25.129′
“In 1903, a 100′ iron flagstaff was erected on the south end of the island. The flagstaff was very distinctively designed, much like what one would find upon a naval vessel. One of several such masts in the country, it consisted of two main sections joined together about halfway up the mast…
Upon completion, the impressive staff towered above the oaks and white pines surrounding the clearing. The flag of the Republic was raised; at last, there was something to remind those passers-by on the lake and on the shore of the sacrifice of those buried on the island. It was a fitting standard-bearer for Macdonough National Military Park.”
The flagpole fell during a severe wind storm in 1996, but Millard reports that on August 22, 2003:
“100 years after it was first erected, the Crab Island Flagstaff once again hoists the nation’s flag high above the graves of the war dead buried here.”
Caretaker’s Cottage, N 44°39.690′ , W 73°25.068′
Shed, N 44°39.679′ , W 73°25.105′
“By August of 1907, an attractive Caretaker’s Cottage had been built about midway between the north and south ends of the island close to the western shore. It was not a large building, some 28′ by 34′, but contemporary photos show a lovely building with many windows and a small porch facing towards the lake. Several outbuildings were erected, including a storehouse and wood and coal sheds. A large concrete pier was erected on the western shore, within view of the cottage…
The other significant event of 1908 was the arrival of a caretaker and his family. Thomas P. Connolly, a retired post quartermaster sergeant, arrived to take up residence in the new cottage…”
Millard also recognizes the man who has helped care for Crab Island through the years. He writes:
“Roger Harwood, of Plattsburgh, NY, is a retired Industrial Arts teacher. He is a long-time volunteer firefighter, avid boater and an accomplished diver. He is also the latest Caretaker of Crab Island. For some ten years now, Roger has lovingly maintained the area around the monument and the flagstaff. He has mowed the grass and repaired the fence. He has cleared the trees, poison ivy and brush from within the fenced in area. He has cleaned up the blow-down after lake storms. Roger is not an employee of the State of New York. He has done this work, on his own time, at his own expense, because it needed to be done. Roger has a no-nonsense approach to why he comes here. He will tell you “someone needs to do it.…Then again, perhaps Roger is not alone as he works on Crab Island. There are at least 149 men buried in unmarked graves here. They have been ignored, dishonored and forgotten by too many for too long. Roger Harwood remembers them. Perhaps they are working alongside him…”
That just may be one more of the Secrets of Crab Island.
To see the list of individuals presumed buried on Crab Island, go to:
The Secrets of Crab Island: Part X- What will become of Macdonough National Military Park?
Conclusion of Jim Millard’s series about the history of Lake Champlain’s historic Crab Island.
To read more about The Secrets of Crab Island by James P. Millard, visit his website.