Path Through Maritime History: Waterways of War
Mohawk Valley Connecting the Waterways of War
Flanked by the Adirondacks to the north, and the Allegheny plateau to the south, the Mohawk River Valley slashes through the Appalachian Mountain Chain affording access to the Great Lakes and beyond making it a natural waterway of war. During the French & Indian War, the Mohawk Valley was of central strategic importance. For the British, it provided a direct water-based route to the Great Lakes from which they could threaten New France. For the French, it provided a corridor to the Hudson Valley, and further in to the heart of British North America. Many settlements of the Mohawk were located in or near the valley, and as such they were Britain’s primary ally during that conflict.
Sir William Johnson: Diplomat of the Mohawk Valley
William Johnson came to the Mohawk Valley in 1738, and soon thereafter began engaging in trade with neighboring Mohawks. He learned the Mohawk language, took part in their rituals, and was adopted into their family and given the name Warraghiyagey – or “doer of great things,” among other translations. His fortified homestead, Old Fort Johnson, later became the central meeting place for Iroquois-British conferences where allegiances were formed in defense of the Valley during the French & Indian War. The Cohoes Falls necessitated a portage route known as the Schenectady Trail located between Schenectady and Albany, NY to bypass the rapids of the lower Mohawk River. - Courtesy of the Library of Congress
Sir William Johnson: Diplomat of the Mohawk Valley
With the Richelieu River to the north and Lake George to the south, Lake Champlain served as one of the most important waterways of war throughout colonial and early American history. As part of a chain of north-south waterways that connects New York City to the St. Lawrence River, and thus Quebec, fortifications and fleets were constructed along its shores to contest its control.
The Battle of Valcour Island
The naval Battle of Valcour Island took place on October 11, 1776 on Lake Champlain. A superior British Royal Navy led by Guy Carleton and under the command of Thomas Pringle sailed south in search of the out-gunned American fleet under the command of Benedict Arnold. Recognizing the disadvantage, Arnold positioned his fleet to limit the advantages of the superior force. Much of the American fleet was damaged or destroyed that day, and under the cover of darkness the remainder of Arnold’s forces made way toward Fort Ticonderoga. Despite the defeat, American resistance stalled British advances into the Hudson River Valley.
Philadelphia, a gunboat that sank at roughly 6:30 pm during the Battle of Valcour Island, was constructed primarily of oak, she was 53 ft. 2 in. long and carried one 12-pounder facing forward and two 9-pounders facing port and starboard. This square rigged single-masted vessel is one of the few Revolutionary War vessels to have been raised. She is a National Historic Landmark and is part of the National Museum of American History’s permanent collection.
Ticonderoga Connecting the Waterways of War
The passage between Lake George and Lake Champlain was a crucial waterway of war. Fortification where the La Chute River empties into Lake Champlain guarded the necessary portage between the two waterways, and frequently changed hands during the period of warfare.
Between the Two Waters
Originally named Fort Carillon during the French & Indian War, Fort Ticonderoga was renamed by British General Amherst from the Mohawk word Tekontaró:ken.
During the American Revolution, Fort Ticonderoga was captured in May 1775 by the Green Mountain Boys and a contingent of the Massachusetts militia led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold. Artillery seized through that victory was used to recapture Boston. The fort at Ticonderoga alone was not enough to maintain control over that crucial waterway. Fort Ticonderoga was built by the French to guard against an attack from the south, and was thus vulnerable from the north. Two years later, a superior force of the British army forced the evacuation of Fort Ticonderoga by occupying a hilltop to the south, but after their defeat at Saratoga the British evacuated Ticonderoga destroying its fortifications and structures in the process.
The Hilltops Around Ticonderoga:
Given its lack of strategic advantage during the American Revolution, the hilltops surrounding Fort Ticonderoga were of utmost importance to protect the waterway. Mount Independence, constructed in 1776 by Major General Philip Schuyler, was better situated to command the approach to the north. A hilltop south of Fort Ticonderoga, known as Sugarloaf Hill (later renamed Mt. Defiance), was later occupied by the British forcing the eventual American evacuation of Ticonderoga. Fort Ticonderoga (left) and Mt. Independence (right) in the summer of 1776 as seen from the brow of Sugarloaf Hill (Mt. Defiance). A floating “bridge of boats” connects the two. - Painting by Ernie Haas, courtesy of the Mount Independence Coalition.
Hudson Valley Connecting the Waterways of War
The Hudson River Valley, via the waterways of New York State, connects New York City to the interior of the North American continent making it one of the most strategically important waterways of war. It should be no surprise that New York City became the first capital of the young American nation.
The Saratogs Campaign - 1777
From the onset of war, British and American forces realized the importance of the Hudson River Valley. In 1777, British high command devised a three-pronged invasion to retake the valley, highlighting the importance of all of New York’s waterways. This plan intended for Lt. Gen. John Burgoyne and the British main force to head south from Canada via Lakes Champlain and George. Lt. Col. Barry St. Ledger traveled the St. Lawrence to Lake Ontario at Oswego intending to push east through the Mohawk Valley. Sir William Howe was to head north from New York City up the Hudson to assist Burgoyne. The goal was to sever New England from the rest of the colonies.
The Turning Point:
The British plan failed to reach fruition as Burgoyne’s forces were stalled south of Lake Champlain and later defeated, without reinforcements from Howe’s southern army, at the second Battle of Saratoga, and St. Ledger was forced to retreat back to Canada in the wake of a failed siege of Fort Stanwix. Burgoyne’s surrender convinced the French to join the American cause, making the Saratoga Campaign, via the waterways of New York, the turning point of the war.
"The Great Chain"
In order to prevent the British Navy from sailing up the Hudson River during the American Revolution, American forces stretched a heavy chain supported by logs across the Hudson from West Point to Constitution Island. Artillery batteries were located on each side of the crossing to attack the impeded ships. To learn more about the role of the Hudson River to Lake Champlain north-south route as a waterway of war scan here with your smart device. Surrender of General Burgoyne, by John Trumbull - 1821
Path Through our Maritime History: Waterways of War
“Whenever war existed between Great Britain and France, the province of New York was the principal theater of colonial contest…We need only cast an eye upon our geographical position, and read the affecting details of the formidable expeditions, and the frightful incursions which laid waste our northern and western frontiers…to be deeply impressed with a sense of the difficulties which this colony had to encounter and of the fortitude and perseverance with which they were overcome.” James Kent - December 6, 1828 Chancellor of the State of New York Anniversary Address before the New York Historical Society
Waterways of War:
The waterway of war exhibit chronicle’s the role New York State’s interconnected waterways as a major unifying characteristic of three early American conflicts.
With Support Of:
Lake Erie Connecting the Waterways of War
At the eastern end of Lake Erie, the water of the Great Lakes flows into the Niagara River and then joins Lake Ontario. The Niagara River drops four hundred feet in elevation including the drop over Niagara Falls. The restriction to maritime traffic along this route made the Niagara River region a crucial waterway of war between nations attempting to control North America.
“Don’t give up the ship”
The words of Naval Commander Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag flown during the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie aboard his flagship USS Lawrence. They were the dying words of his friend, Captain James Lawrence who the USS Lawrence was named after.
The Battle of Lake Erie
The victory was significant as it provided American forces with control of Lake Erie, thereby cutting off the supply routes to British forces at Detroit and prevented them from seizing control of the Northwest Territories. “We have met the enemy, and they are ours” - Oliver Hazard Perry
The Life of USS Niagara
The two-masted brigs of war Niagara and Lawrence were completed in 1813, and won control of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. In 1820, Niagara was sunk in shallow water at Presque Isle in order to preserve her for possible future warfare. Raised in 1913 and reconstructed several times since, she resides at the Erie Maritime Museum, in Erie PA.
Due to its logistical importance, Lake Ontario was a hotly contested waterway of war throughout its early history. The St. Lawrence River to the east and the Niagara portage to the west provided access to the entire North American continent. At the center of it all is Oswego which is the western end of the only east-west water route through the Appalachian Mountains.
The Arms Race of Lake Ontario
Powerful navies were crucial to controlling the Great Lakes during the War of 1812 and thereby the interior of North America. On Lake Ontario, British Commodore Sir James Yeo and American Commodore Isaac Chauncey each refused to engage the other without the clear advantage of firepower. By 1814, an arms race was in full swing. At Kingston, the British constructed the 104 gun St. Lawrence giving Yeo control of the Lake. In response, Henry Eckford and Noah Brown began construction of the 120 gun New Orleans and Chippewa that would have swung the balance of power in favor of American forces had it been completed before the War’s end in March, 1815.
The Battle of Oswego May 6, 1814
During the War of 1812, Oswego served as a natural distribution hub for the military supply route to Lake Ontario that extended from New York City via the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers to Oneida Lake and downstream to Oswego. While Commodore Yeo had the advantage during the spring of 1814, his forces landed at Fort Ontario to intercept critical shipbuilding stores bound for Sackets Harbor.
Sandy Creek and the Great Rope
In the wake of a successful ambush on British forces at Sandy Creek on May 30, 1814, American forces were tasked with delivering the USS Superior’s 5 ton cable, on foot, the remaining 20 miles to Sackets Harbor.
The Oneida Carry Connecting the Waterways of War
The east-west route from Albany and the Hudson River to the Great Lakes was used in every early American conflict as a necessary waterway of war. It facilitated the early fur trade, and transported the men and materials in both offensive and defensive military actions on notable locations throughout the theater of conflict.
"The Great Carrying Place"
Located between the eastward flowing Mohawk River and the westward flowing Wood Creek the Oneida Carry, or “The Great Carrying Place,” was a stretch of land varying seasonally between one and six miles. Control of this portage meant control of the entire Albany- Lake Ontario waterway. British fortifications located along the portage were of primary concern. The British needed to keep the portage open to facilitate east-west travel to and from Oswego and the Great Lake’s theater of conflict during the French and Indian War. The portage was vulnerable to French attack and Fort’s Williams and Bull were constructed at each end of the portage in its defense. Fort Bull was destroyed in 1756 and replaced by Fort Wood Creek, and Fort Williams was replaced with the stronger Fort Craven. The British investment in men, money, and materials in this location was significant, and later Fort Stanwix was constructed in its defense.
The bateau, a shallow flat-bottomed double sided boat, was used extensively throughout North America, especially during the colonial and fur trading period. Derived from French for boat, its plural form is bateaux. These watercraft were used heavily in the Mohawk Valley region as they afforded a more effective method of travel and could carry vast quantities of goods in relatively shallow water.
St. Lawrence River Connecting the Waterways of War
As the highway of British North America, the St. Lawrence River was a crucial waterway of war as it was the life blood of the growing British naval force at Kingston, ON and points west. Only once seriously contested during the War of 1812 at Crysler’s Farm at Massena, the St. Lawrence was firmly British controlled waters.
The Gunboat Along the St. Lawrence
The Gunboat played a critical role in the course of war on the St. Lawrence River, and small skirmishes were frequent. Gunboats were versatile craft, but a likely misery for crews as their quarters were cramped and exposed to enemy fire.
The Battle of Cranberry Creek
At 4 AM on July 18, 1813 at Cranberry Creek near present day Alexan-dria Bay, American forces spotted a British supply convoy lead by the gunboat Spitfire. They captured the supplies and men, which were dis-patched by land to Sackets Harbor. On the 21st, the British with a force of four gunboats, transports and 250 soldiers attempted to recapture their supplies. Their attempted landing was assaulted by the small force of roughly 30 Americans. After an hours long cannonade, at 6 AM the British forces began their retreat. Two days later, the small American flotilla set sail for Sackets Harbor, and while passing Tibbets Point they met the British Earl of Moira, and barely out maneuvered the seemingly slower craft under fire. This small American victory is reminiscent of the contested nature of the St. Lawrence River during this conflict. To learn more about the role of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence route as a waterway of war scan here with your smart device.