Exciting Adventures in the Champlain Valley in 1814, or, The Perils of Extending Credit to the Federal Army
Lake Champlain served as a military corridor of considerable importance during the War of 1812. This was especially true in 1814 when Thomas Macdonough’s victory at Plattsburgh Bay helped repel the final British attempt to win the war by striking south from Canada through the Champlain Valley. Macdonough’s victory might not have been possible without the patriotic support provided by Plattsburgh merchants Henry Delord and William Bailey, an effort that resulted in Delord’s bankruptcy and premature death.
Henry Delord, a native of Nismes, France, arrived in Peru, New York in 1797 by way of Martinique and St. Lucia. He soon made himself at home in his new community, becoming postmaster, county supervisor, judge and successful merchant. In 1810 Delord and his young wife Betsey purchased a small house in Plattsburgh overlooking the mouth of the Saranac River and Lake Champlain. They enlarged and remodeled it into the Federal-style structure that still exists today at 17 Cumberland Avenue.
In 1812 Delord and his friend William Bailey formed the firm of Bailey & Delord. Operating from one of Delord’s outbuildings, the two partners sold a wide range of goods, including vegetables grown on the property. The men started construction on a permanent headquarters in 1813 – a substantial two-story frame building known as the Red Store that soon propelled them into the ranks of Plattsburgh’s leading merchants.
Meanwhile, on September 28, 1812, the Secretary of the Navy ordered Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough to leave his recently assigned station at the Portland Maine Navy Yard to take command on Lake Champlain. Arriving at Burlington, Vermont, Macdonough set about repairing some derelict gunboats and securing crews and supplies. Before winter set in, he was ready to patrol the lake with his small fleet.
The first skirmishes took place in June of 1813 when, against Macdonough’s advice, Plattsburgh native Lieutenant Sidney Smith chased three British gunboats down the Richelieu River, losing two American sloops, the Growler and the Eagle, in the process. British forces under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Murray crossed the border at the end of July and destroyed public and private buildings at Plattsburgh, Chazy, and Swanton. Although the Red Store sustained losses of more than $1,000 in Murray’s raid, it failed to stop Bailey and Delord who were soon back in business.
With the approach of cold weather, Macdonough’s squadron sailed south to take refuge below the falls at Vergennes, seven miles up the winding Otter Creek. While this position was less vulnerable to surprise attacks over the frozen lake than the previous winter’s quarters at Shelburne Bay, Macdonough had a more important reason for selecting an anchorage near Vergennes. The young lieutenant was preparing to build a squadron of warships and Vergennes, safely removed from the lake and possessing abundant resources, was the logical place to establish a shipyard. Lake Champlain, virtually ignored by both sides during the first two years of the war, was about to become the scene of the most decisive naval campaign of the War of 1812.
Napoleon’s abdication in April of 1814 finally enabled Great Britain to concentrate its resources on the war in North America. During the summer of 1814 some 14,000 British regulars, veterans of the army Wellington had led to drive the French out of Portugal and Spain, crossed the Atlantic to America. About 25,000 people lived in the Champlain Valley in 1814, including 3,000 in Plattsburgh and 2,000 in Burlington. The British directed their offensive down the west side of Lake Champlain.
Portions of the British army crossed the border on August 31, followed on the next day by the bulk of the force, 10,000 veteran troops under the command of General Sir George Prevost. The general began a cautious advance without the benefit of naval support, counting on the Royal Navy to catch up with the land forces at Plattsburgh. British redcoats drove the Americans back to a heavily-defended position south of the Saranac River. Prevost halted his men on September 6, north of the river, where he waited for the arrival of the British fleet in Cumberland Bay.
Although Britain had gained control of the lake the previous summer, both sides had been building ships, and the two fleets were closely matched. The British squadron commanded by Captain George Downie consisted of four warships: the frigate Confiance, the brig Linnet, and the sloops Chubb (the former Growler) and Finch (the former Eagle) and twelve gunboats. The 37-gun Confiance, the largest warship ever constructed on the lake, was not quite ready for action. Downie commanded 937 men and 95 guns.
General Alexander Macomb commanded a mixed force at Plattsburgh, consisting of 4,700 American regulars and militia. On the lake, Macdonough had at his disposal a fleet of four warships and ten gunboats, including the steamboat-turned schooner Ticonderoga and his flagship, the 26-gun sloop Saratoga. The other American warships were the brig Eagle and the sloop Preble. Macdonough commanded 882 men and 86 guns.
Once again, as in 1776, a strong British army with a great fleet descended out of Canada to invade the Champlain Valley. And once again, effective naval strategy appeared to Thomas Macdonough, as it had appeared to Benedict Arnold when he anchored his fleet behind Valcour Island – the attacking British ships, riding on a strong north wind, would be forced to give up the advantageous weather in order to come up to the Americans sheltered behind a land feature.
Accordingly, Macdonough anchored his fleet in the channel between Crab Island and Cumberland Head where the enemy would be obliged to enter a narrow stretch of water under a raking fire and engage the Americans at close range. A favorite British naval tactic was the long-range gun duel. Macdonough’s ships were armed with short, heavy carronades for the battering, close-in fight favored by the Americans. Macdonough gained a strategic advantage by forcing the enemy to come up-wind for a slugging match in his anchorage in Plattsburgh Bay.
The British fleet rounded Cumberland Head on the morning of Sunday, September 11 and deployed within 300 yards of the American fleet. Two hours and twenty minutes of point-blank broadsides inflicted terrible casualties on both sides. Macdonough finally won the day by hauling about his flagship, the Saratoga, and bringing her fresh port battery to bear on the British flagship, the Confiance, which struck her colors. The Battle of Plattsburgh Bay resulted in the seizure or destruction of the entire British fleet excepting the gunboats. Macdonough’s signal victory preserved the northern frontier from British conquest, gave the Americans uncontested control of Lake Champlain, and left Prevost stranded on the banks of the Saranac River.
That fall, Macdonough sailed his fleet south to an anchorage at Whitehall’s East Bay. When the Saratoga and the Confiance fired their guns in a salute to the citizens of Burlington as the fleet passed by on October 2, it was the last time big guns ever fired on Lake Champlain. The winds of war had blown clear.
Henry Delord’s troubles had begun several weeks before the British invasion. Regulars in the American army, unpaid for months, were on the verge of mutiny. General Macomb pleaded with Bailey and Delord to extend credit to officers and soldiers, assuring the merchants that they would be repaid as soon as the men were paid, an event which he expected daily. The partners faced a dilemma. While other merchants in town refused Macomb’s requests, patriotism moved Delord and Bailey. As Henry later wrote his sister Julia: “I believed it my duty under the quite urgent circumstances to help them by furnishing necessities to the troops.” Delord and Bailey began granting credit to American soldiers and sailors in August.
Before the Battle of Plattsburgh, Henry and his family fled their house, which was then occupied by British officers from an artillery corps. When the artillery officers departed, one of them forgot his tea chest (it is still there), and also left Delord with some damaged property for which he submitted a relatively modest claim of $900. His claim was referred to the Committee on Claims of the House of Representatives, where it lay dormant. Periodically, he tried without success to get action.
The American troops in Plattsburgh had still not been paid by February 1815. Delord and Bailey had nearly exhausted their resources and notified Macomb of their inability to continue to extend credit to military personnel. The general again applied pressure. With Macomb’s guarantees of repayment, the partners went into debt in order to continue to sell to the troops on credit. Macomb was ordered to Washington in March to assist with the organization of a peacetime army. Soldiers either were discharged and sent home or reassigned to military posts all over the country. The dispersal of the troops presented the owners of the Red Store with a daunting problem: how to collect the $20,000 of unpaid bills.
Bailey and Delord’s creditors began to sue the partners. Delord became seriously ill, leaving the main burden of collecting to Bailey, who collected very little. At a sheriff’s sale in October 1815, Delord’s three-acre estate, including the homestead, was sold for $2,950. (The Delords were allowed to continue living in the house). The Bailey and Delord partnership dissolved in 1816. Delord never recovered his spirit after the devastating loss of his home. These financial difficulties convinced Betsey that the experience permanently undermined her husband’s health. Eventually recovering from his long illness, Delord took to the road in an unsuccessful effort to make collections.
Discouraged by his failure to collect from individual servicemen, Henry sought help from Washington. In 1819 he complained, “The war found me in comfortable independence but left me ruined….in rendering assistance to the troops of my country at the request of the Commanding General when they much needed it, when they were destitute of pay & supplies, & in a state of Mutiny for the want of them, I suffered immense losses.”
Thomas Macdonough returned to Plattsburgh for a visit in the fall of 1822. During this visit he presented Henry and Betsey Delord with a portrait painted by George Freeman. This miniature still hangs in the Delord house today. Inside the house, visitors also can see portraits of Henry and Betsey, a case clock and other furniture belonging to the Delords, and a silver tea service which the family claimed Betsey buried in the garden before the British arrived and recovered following their retreat.
When Henry Delord died on March 29, 1825 at the age of 61, his claims against the government had not been resolved. Thomas Macdonough died on November 10, 1825 at the age of 41. Alexander Macomb served as commanding general of the United States Army from 1828 until his death on June 25, 1841. Betsey Delord married Plattsburgh lawyer William Swetland in the summer of 1829. As Elizabeth Swetland, Betsey continued to live in the Delord home until her death on May 23, 1870. Despite continuing efforts by Betsey and William Bailey, the debt was never repaid.
Written by John Krueger, amended by Don Wickman