By Rosalyn Graham
History buffs filled Shelburne Town Hall Monday evening to hear prodigious researcher, award-winning writer and master storyteller Willard Sterne Randall retrace 50 years of early American history up to the battle on Lake Champlain that established the still-powerful alliance of the United States, Britain and Canada.
The event was organized by the Shelburne Historical Society. Many attendees had read Randall’s new book “Unshackling America – How the War of 1812 Truly Ended the American Revolution.”
Randall explained the 30 years of rivalry, hostility and economic ambiguity between the official end of the Revolutionary War in 1783 and the declaration of war in 1812. The fledgling United States and Britain clashed over the British seizing crewmen on American ships (many of them immigrants to the U.S. from Ireland), Britain blockading merchant ships in American harbors or seizing them on the open seas, American merchant marine ignoring British trade restrictions and even Vermonters smuggling in potash, lumber, wheat and cattle to Canada to feed the British Army.
He asserted that the War of 1812 was truly the culmination of the war for independence in America. Following a slew of bloody skirmishes in the Great Lakes region, by late 1813 British troops and ships were preparing the largest invasion since 1776 in the Champlain Valley and Vermonters and New Yorkers were preparing to fight back.
U.S. Lt. James Macdonough, wisely taking the advice of 18-year-old Lake Champlain pilot Joseph Barron Jr. anchored his ships inside the bay between Plattsburgh and Cumberland Head. The restricted space and clever handling of his ships as the larger and more heavily gunned British ships attacked gave the victory to the Americans, effectively ending the war.
Randall dove into some historical footnotes including one example of the military and the local people working together. He told of how Macdonough established a shipbuilding operation on the Otter Creek at the base of the falls in Vergennes. With the help of local labor, the shipyard built the corvette Saratoga, converted the ferry Ticonderoga to a schooner, built a fleet of five ships and six gunboats, put in service to resist the British navy, Randall said.
This war laid the foundation of America’s place in the world and established it as a maritime power, Randall said. But while the battles in the Champlain Valley led to both sides declaring victory and making peace, they have not been adequately recognized for their importance in ending the war, he added.
The presentation was co-sponsored by Pierson Library and Shelburne Charlotte Hinesburg Rotary; Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne has signed copies of Randall’s book available.