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Spoiling the Spoils of War: The Strange Plundering of Chazy, New York, 1813
By Robert Henderson

Royal Navy Sailors celebrating, 1801 (Thomas Rowlandson)

    It is human nature to try to categorize the sides of a war as “us” and “them”.  Those on “our side” are glorified, while participants on the other side are vilified.  In reality, conflict is often made up of different shades of grey.  Take for instance the strange events of August 1, 1813 at the mouth of the Chazy River in New York State along with western shores of Lake Champlain.

A British expedition under Lt. Col. John Murray set sail from Isle aux Noix, Lower Canada in late July to destroy American military infrastructure in Plattsburgh, NY and possibly entice the depleted U.S. Naval force on the lake into battle.   Components of this force spread out to seize schooners that could be converted to vessels of war and to strip lakeshore communities of military material.

When the British arrived at the mouth of the Chazy River, Murray issued a proclamation stating that if the population along the lake remained peaceful, their private property would be respected.   After this the British force continued on to capture and occupy Plattsburgh, destroying the various military installations there.  The following day, a British schooner, carrying the British baggage, and a Gunboat appeared back at Chazy River. 

Without ceremony, Royal Navy sailors entered the store of Matthew Sax and seized his inventory as the rightful prizes of war.  Over the next hour potash, bars of iron, ropes, etc. were loaded onto the schooner, packing it beyond capacity, and causing the vessel to take on water.  Soon after another British schooner appeared on the scene under the command of Lieutenant Criswick.  Taking stock of the situation, Criswick ordered goods to be unloaded from the leaking schooner and placed on his vessel, then all set sail for home.

Furious that he had lost $2500.00 in inventory to the British even though Murray had promised the protection of private property, Matthew Sax wrote British officials to complain.   One would expect such a plea would fall on deaf ears, however Sax had an Ace up his sleeve. He had married a Canadian girl and his father-in-law, William Johnson Holt, was the chief beef supplier to the British Army.  Situated in Missisquoi Bay, Holt traded in smuggled cattle from Vermont and carried great influence over the military officials in Lower Canada.

 An inquiry was immediately launched, and the goods seized from Sax were located at Isle aux Noix.  Unwilling to part with their prizes, the navy put up a fuzz about the release the goods without compensation.  To settle the matter the Government acquired the disputed booty, and compensated Sax for his loss, bringing the embarrassingly awkward situation to a close.  In this case, a straight forward act of plunder in a time of war, was anything but.

1814 Plan of Naval and Military Base at Isle aux Noix (LAC)



Library and Archives Canada, Record Group 8, Series I, vol. 680, p. 10-20.

Further Reading

For more on Murray’s Raid see here.   

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