In the grand sweep of American history, the “War of 1812” seems to rank near the bottom of the list of events of possible importance. Just the name given to war seems to reflect this – naming nothing in particular to associate with that war, other than the year in which it began.
However, the “War of 1812” (which actually stretched on until the end of 1814) was anything but trivial. Circumstances concatenated to a fever pitch in the later part of 1814, as the fledgling United States of America frantically fought off a three-pronged British attack of continental scope.
And while today we mark more recent events, we should also note that perhaps the most crucial of those moments occurred on this date in 1814 – in the waters near (of all places) Plattsburgh, New York.
The tale is told – in words and pictures – below the fold.
The “War of 1812” had begun mostly due to American consternation with British belligerence toward American merchant shipping. British navy vessels had begun to stop American merchant ships on the high seas without justification – and were also in the habit of taking away sailors they liked for forced service in the British Navy.
During the first two-or-so years of the war, most of the action had been at sea – where the new-and-inexperienced United States Navy distinguished itself; to the surprise of the more-experienced British, American ships out-maneuvered and out-fought their British opponents in engagement after engagement. It was during these battles that the U.S.S. Constitution accumulated a legendary battle record – and became known, due to her resilience against British cannon shot, as “Old Ironsides.”
On land, hardly anything happened. The “United States” were, to a large degree, “united” only in name; most of the possibly-available land forces consisted of state militias – which were under the control not of the federal government in Washington, but of the various governors of the individual states.
The only notable action was a tragicomic attempt by some units of the New York state militia to capture Canada – which resulted in the burning of York (Toronto) and an embarrassing rout at the hands of the British.
For two years, the British showed little interest in this little North American war – largely because they had the proverbial bigger fish to fry.
For some twenty years, Britain had been engaged in a large and far-ranging war against Napoleon and revolutionary France. This war had been fought on land and sea, and over nearly all of Europe – and even in the Middle East.
But in 1814, Britain and her allies finally managed to defeat France; the situation on the continent was settled, and Napoleon abdicated and was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. (He, of course, escaped from Elba in 1815 and returned to France for a brief revival of his fortunes – but that is another story.)
With Napoleon defeated, the British could now turn their attention (and considerable resources) to putting an end to the nagging conflict that had been dragging on – in desultory fashion – in North America.
The British plans for inflicting a catastrophic defeat on the United States – one that would allow the British to impose a favorable peace settlement – were quite simple.
The British planned a three-pronged attack for the latter part of 1814; the three prongs would come at the United States from its three geographic extremes – the south, the east, and the north.
The southern prong would attack and capture the critical American port of New Orleans – critical because it was the port for the (lucrative) export of American agricultural products from the middle of the continent. New Orleans would provide a valuable negotiating bargaining chip – or a prize that Britain would happily retain.
The eastern prong would attack Washington DC and the surrounding areas – perhaps as much as anything, this would provide a diversion that might serve to draw resources away from the defenses under attack by the more-crucial southern and northern prongs.
The goal of the northern prong had been subject to some debate. Given the position of British Canada, it would have made considerable strategic sense to attack along the line of the Great Lakes – to secure British use of the Great Lakes for its Canadian territories.
However, the objective of the British strategy was not to secure its position in Canada. The objective was to inflict a stinging defeat on the United States – both to be able to force a favorable (to the British) peace settlement, and to teach the United States a lesson.
Thus, the northern prong revived a strategic line-of-attack that the British has used previously – in 1776 and 1777. From their bases in Québec, a combined land-and-naval force would move down the Lake Champlain valley – following the natural Champlain-Hudson corridor, perhaps as far (if circumstances permitted) as Albany, New York.
To facilitate this attack, some 15,000 British troops – mostly regulars, veterans of the campaigns against Napoleon – were sent to Canada to form the core of the land force. At the same time, the British set up a ship-building operation on the Richelieu River (into which Lake Champlain drains), just north of the U.S. border.
The circumstances that flowed from the southern and eastern prongs of the British attack are now fairly well-known. These attacks had crucial objectives, and were occurring in heavily-populated “core” regions of the United States.
In contrast, the northern prong was moving into what was even then considered a remote part of the United States.
However, the northern prong may have been the most dangerous of the three for one critical reason.
In sharp contrast to the southern and eastern prongs, the British could launch the northern prong from British territory (rather than having to support the effort entirely from the sea). Bases could be established, materials stockpiled, and troops and support-staff assembled – all on British territory.
In Washington, American war planners knew that a big British attack was coming – and they knew that they could expect a major British attack from Canada. They thus sent two commanders – and what troops they could scrape together – to Plattsburgh, New York. Plattsburgh was the closest town of any size to British Canada, and provided a reasonable location to keep watch on British intentions.
In the meantime, the two American commanders arrived in the Lake Champlain basin and began to do what they could. The land commander was General Alexander Macomb – a 32-year-old general who proved to be very talented. The sea commander was the 30-year-old Commodore Thomas MacDonough; by a wonderful stroke of luck, MacDonough turned out to be a naval commander of exception insight and ability.
While Macomb assembled his small corps of some 5,500 troops at Plattsburgh, MacDonough set up a ship-building operation at Skenesborough, New York. During the summer of 1814, MacDonough oversaw a frantic operation that cobbled together a small fleet for operations on Lake Champlain. As summer began to wane, MacDonough’s shipwrights had assembled several gunboats, and four sail-worthy vessels – the brig Eagle, the sloop Preble, and schooner Ticonderoga, and the small frigate Saratoga – which, being the largest vessel, MacDonough made his flagship.
During the summer of 1814, the British had also been busy – around their main base at St. Jean-sur-Richelieu. The British commanders, Governor-General (of Canada) George Prevost and Admiral George Downie, had collected shipwrights from both Canada and Britain – but had also taken advantage of the ability to bring in large pre-fabricated parts of naval vessels that had been manufactured back in Britain. This allowed the British to build up a small but formidable fleet – the sloops Chubb and Finch, the brig Linnet, and the centerpiece (and flagship), the full-sized frigate Confiance.
By late August, the British were ready to move. Likewise, MacDonough had completed his flotilla at Skenesborough, and moved it north to Plattsburgh.
But in Washington, there was consternation. Would the British attack into the Great Lakes – or down Lake Champlain?
Trying to figure out British intentions was a murky business – be it from scraps of gathered information, or trying to make educated guesses from the circumstances.
But in August, a decision was made – that the main British thrust in the north would likely move along the line of the Great Lakes. While MacDonough’s ships could not be moved, most (some 4,000) of Macomb’s troops were sent west to defend the Great Lakes.
Left with barely 1,000 troops, Macomb was frantic. He put out a call to the governors of New York and Vermont for militia reinforcements, and also recruited any volunteers he could find.
Surprisingly, Macomb’s call was answered –as some 2,000 New York and Vermont militia troops were mustered and arrived at Plattsburgh
In the most prominent example, the Vermont state militia had mustered some 1,000 men; however, their governor had ordered them to remain in the state to guard Vermont’s own border with Canada.
But they went anyway – crossing the lake to Plattsburgh and joining Macomb’s army.
On August 31st, 1814, the British moved south – with the land force moving along the western shore of Lake Champlain toward Plattsburgh, and the naval force, led by the Confiance, moving along the lake as the north wind would permit.
Macomb and MacDonough got word of these moves; the game was on.
The northern part of Lake Champlain; the horizontal line across the top is the U.S.-Canadian border, while the wavy line down the lake is the New York / Vermont border. Lake Champlain drains into the Richelieu River at the top left of the lake in the photo; it was down this line that the British – in 1814 as in 1776 – advanced from their bases in Canada. In addition to this starting point, the New York / Vermont border provides what is essentially the main north/south channel of the lake; the channel to the east of the Lake Champlain islands (which are part of Vermont) is more difficult – and at the time, the channel was blocked by a sandbar that is clearly visible today as a causeway connecting South Hero island with the Vermont “mainland.” (Photo from Microsoft Virtual Earth.)
To the inexperienced eye, Lake Champlain doesn’t look like much. It is a big, long lake that occupies a north-south valley; while 12 miles wide at its widest point, its length – from the opening-up of the Poultney River in the south to its closing-in to its drainage into the Richelieu River in the north – is greater than 100 miles.
But to a mariner with some experience, Lake Champlain is a uniquely-treacherous body of water.
Much of the shoreline of Lake Champlain is crooked and rocky, and the lake is infested with dangerous shoals and jetties – many of which project out far from the visible pieces of land to which they are attached.
The lake is also notorious for its short-period waves – waves that in height alone seem unimposing, but which come at a frighteningly-high frequency.
But perhaps the most maddening aspect of Lake Champlain is its winds. Channeled by the valley, Lake Champlain’s winds are constrained – and thus blow almost exclusively from either the north, or from the south.
When the winds are light, the lake takes on a small chop – and is a delight. But when the winds kick up, the open lake is worked up into a froth and takes on the appearance of a boiling cauldron.
These eccentricities of Lake Champlain were to play a crucial role in the upcoming battle.
Commodore MacDonough had had the summer of 1814 to familiarize himself with the peculiarities of Lake Champlain – and in this, he “did his homework” and showed a surprising ability to quickly grasp those peculiarities.
One peculiarity he clearly noted was how the rocky shoreline – and its numerous rocky headlands – caused conditions to vary radically between those found in-shore and those encountered on the open lake. In particular, he noted how even in-shore, the wind conditions – and water conditions – were frequently very different on the windward and leeward sides of the various headlands.
A quick study, MacDonough formed plans in his mind to take advantage of those peculiarities, if and when the time came.
During the first days of September, the British infantry had no difficulty moving across the border and down along the New York shoreline of Lake Champlain.
However, Lake Champlain’s fickle winds were causing problems for the British fleet. With the wind regularly channeling from the south (rather than the north), the British fleet made slow southward progress – and fell well behind the British land force.
With overwhelming numerical superiority, the British land force kept moving. General Prevost’s first objective had been the capture of Plattsburgh – and he moved on to that non-nautical task.
Approaching Plattsburgh on September 6th, Prevost sought out a ford on the Saranac River – so as to come around and attack Plattsburgh from the west.
Unknown to the British, Macomb had sensibly chosen the Saranac River as his main defensive line – and that crucial ford was closely guarded by the men of the Vermont state militia.
Despite their dolorous experiences in both the French-and-Indian War and the Revolutionary War, the British still had not bothered to grasp the notion that marching and battle dress were very different matters for open European battlefields vs. the dense forests of eastern North America. The core of the British land force that was approaching Plattsburgh was excellent – being composed of veteran troops from Wellington’s “Peninsular Campaign” against Napoleon in Spain. But as in the past, the British were dressed in bright red jackets, and marched in good order through the American forests.
Finding the ford, the British troops approached in those bright red jackets. Hidden in the underbrush on the south side of the river – dressed more appropriately in dark greens and tawny browns, and with pine boughs stuck into their hats to provide extra cover – was the Vermont militia.
As the first British troops splashed into the Saranac River, the Vermont troops opened fire. Taken by surprise, and unable to spot their well-covered and well-camouflaged adversaries, the British quickly took heavy loses and, unable to respond, beat a hasty retreat.
Prevost then decided that a combined land-and-water attack would be a better option for capturing Plattsburgh. He kicked back and waited for Downie’s fleet to make its way down the lake to join him.
With the action on land having started, MacDonough knew that the British fleet couldn’t be far behind. He needed to come up with a strategy – and he knew that he faced three particular tactical problems.
The first was that he knew that he would be outgunned; with their pre-fabricating methods and long experience of ship-building, the British fleet would be carrying more guns than MacDonough’s fleet.
The second factor was that MacDonough doubtless knew that he faced a crew-quality disparity; the British crews consisted of veteran officers and sailors – many of whom had served as far back as Trafalgar, nine years earlier – while his own crews had been assembled hastily and were inexperienced.
The third factor was the lake itself. MacDonough had quickly figured out that the numerous shoals, fickle winds, and land-effects on those winds, made it undesirable to fight a conventional sea battle – of maneuver – on Lake Champlain. Besides those factors themselves, as per the prior paragraph MacDonough must have understood that an engagement in tricky waters might turn the British crew-experience to decisive advantage.
MacDonough needed to find a unique strategy – one crafted to neutralize British advantages, while taking advantage of his knowledge of the temperament of Lake Champlain.
The legendary German general Erwin Rommel was once asked how it was that he was able to come to Africa and lead the thrown-together “Afrika Corps” to victory after spectacular victory over the British.
Rommel replied that he quickly learned that since he had a mechanized army in the open Sahara desert, he had to think about his tactical problems in a completely different manner. He quickly learned to think of the open desert as the sea, and his mechanized vehicles as ships on that sea. Operating in that tactical manner, he ran rings around his conventionally-minded British opponents for a year.
Rommel, in his own words, had found a way to convert a land battle into a sea battle.
MacDonough faced a similar tactical problem, as denoted above. He was also doubtless mindful of the strategy that had been adopted – under similar circumstances – in 1776 by Benedict Arnold, at nearby Valcour Island.
Arnold had taken advantage of the winds of Lake Champlain in a carefully-considered fashion. Knowing that the British would only be able to ride down the lake on a northerly wind, he carefully positioned his small fleet of gunboats in the channel behind Valcour Island – forcing the British to reverse course and come upwind if they wanted to engage.
MacDonough adopted a similar strategy – and, doing the opposite of Rommel, he chose a way of (more-or-less) converting a sea battle into a land battle.
A detailed view of Cumberland Bay in front of Plattsburgh, New York; the large peninsula of Cumberland Head protects the bay from the north, while little Crab Island is clearly visible near the south end of the bay. MacDonough formed his anchored battle line along a south-southwest to north-northeast line running from Crab Island north to near the shoreline of Cumberland Head just on the inside of the bay. (Photo from Microsoft Virtual Earth.)
MacDonough had his four main ships form a defensive line, pointing north, in Cumberland Bay in front of Plattsburgh. As in 1776, the British would only be able to run southward on the lake on a good north wind – and would have to reverse course and move upwind if they wanted to engage his ships. In addition, MacDonough had been careful to observe the details of Lake Champlain. He had noted that while a strong north wind might be blowing out in the open waters of Lake Champlain, once a ship had rounded rocky Cumberland Head and entered Cumberland Bay, the terrain of Cumberland Head provided excellent cover from the north wind – often leaving Cumberland Bay calm even as whitecaps surged southward along the water outside of the bay.
Thus, MacDonough anchored his ships in line – from north to south were the Eagle, the Saratoga, the Ticonderoga, and the Preble.
The Americans then waited for the British fleet to arrive.
The view southward down the main channel of Lake Champlain, with the northern side of the peninsula of Cumberland Head visible on the right. This is the view that the British would have had as they arrived on the evening of September 10th, 1814. (Photo by the author.)
Finally receiving a favorable north wind to move them down the lake, Downie and the British fleet arrived just north of Cumberland Head late on the afternoon of September 10th. Some of the British officers wanted to race immediately to the attack, but Downie demurred; in the shortening days of September the light was fast fading. In addition, Downie wanted to reconnoiter the American position in the bay – and he also wanted to make arrangements with Prevost for a combined land-and-lake attack.
With these preparations complete, Downie returned to the Confiance for the night. He would move against MacDonough’s fleet if-and-when a favorable north wind was available.
Sunday, September 11th, 1814 dawned clear and fresh – and a light northerly wind was stirring down the valley of Lake Champlain. Downie had what he wanted; the British ships weighed anchor, raised their sails, and moved to the attack.
The rocky and heavily-treed tip of Cumberland Head. This is the view that the British would have had as they approached Cumberland Head and prepared to round it – to enter Cumberland Bay and engage the American fleet. (Photo by the author.)
The British fleet fell into a line of the Finch, the Confiance, the Linnet, and the Chubb – which they intended to reverse-in-position upon entering Cumberland Bay. In short order, the British fleet rounded Cumberland Head, and moved into Cumberland Bay – where MacDonough and the Americans were waiting for them.
As the British ships entered Plattsburgh Bay, Downie and his men – many of whom had indeed served with Nelson – must have had in mind a great British triumph of a few years earlier under similar circumstances.
On August 1st, 1798, a British fleet, commanded by the legendary Horatio Nelson, had found Napoleon’s French invasion fleet in an excellent protective anchorage on the Egyptian coast, at Aboukir Bay.
In the narrow and dangerous bay – protected by a headland and studded with numerous dangerous in-shore shoals – the French fleet (its commander knowing of the superiority of the British sailors he faced) sat at anchor in a defensive battle line.
In one of the most astounding achievements of the age of sail, Nelson split his fleet into two columns, and had the ships of one column – the ships commanded by his very best captains – maneuver in close to shore, past the front of the French line, and in-shore of the French line. The French had figured that it would be impossible to get in-shore of their line and into the bay – but the British ships managed this. Attacked from both sides, the French fleet was completely destroyed – with all of its ships being either destroyed or captured.
Downie may have wished to repeat this triumph.
As the British ships came into Plattsburgh Bay, Downie tried to form them into a line – with a turned-around line-order of the Chubb, the Linnet, the Confiance, and the Finch – and sail in order past the head of the American line. This would have been the classic naval maneuver of “capping the T,” in which the attacking vessels can unleash full broadsides while their opponents can only return fire from the very limited number of guns on their bows. The British ships would then have been able to circle behind MacDonough’s line and – as at Aboukir Bay – attack from both sides.
But Lake Champlain is not the Mediterranean – and Cumberland Bay is not Aboukir Bay.
As Downie’s ships tried to make the desired maneuver, MacDonough’s homework on Lake Champlain’s unique conditions began to pay off. As MacDonough had foreseen, the rocky profile of Cumberland Head blocked the north wind so effectively that conditions in Plattsburgh Bay were nearly calm.
The view into Cumberland Bay upon rounding Cumberland Head. Readers are encouraged to click on this photo for a full-size version – since in the larger version, the “calm line” that begins from the very point of Cumberland Head (and which extends south) is clearly visible; this clearly shows how Cumberland Head blocks a north wind and produces much calmer conditions inside Cumberland Bay. (Photo by the author.)
Looking eastward out of Cumberland Bay into the broad lake; in the first photo, the tip of Cumberland Head is visible on the left. These are the views that MacDonough and his men would have had of the British ships entering Cumberland Bay. (Photos by the author.)
The lead British vessel (the Chubb) was unable to make any progress toward the front of the American line; in the meantime, the starboard guns of the American ships were able to open fire while the British ships were still trying to maneuver and had their under-gunned bows pointed at the Americans. Due to MacDonough’s tactical foresight, for the moment it was actually the Americans who were able to bring more firepower to bear.
In the nearly calm water, things went further wrong for the British.
As the Chubb tried to lead the British line around the front of the American line, it got ahead of its companions; in addition, in the unexpected (to the British) calm of Cumberland Bay, the Chubb was unable to maneuver – and began to drift.
Thus exposed, the Chubb became a magnet for the American gunners. Heavily hit and already uncontrollable due to the calm, the Chubb drifted right on in to the American line – where its captain sensibly surrendered to the Americans.
At the south end of Cumberland Bay, the British suffered a further debilitating embarrassment.
Near the south end of Cumberland Bay sits small and rather unimposing Crab Island.
As was all-too-common in army camps of the era, Macomb’s army had a fair number of men who had taken ill and were too sick to serve in the defensive positions along the Saranac River. As was also the usual case at the time, Macomb set up a sick ward camp for this ill and invalided soldiers; rather than put this camp somewhere in the forests south of his defensive position, something possessed Macomb to instead place the sick camp on Crab Island. This was not a random choice; Macomb also saw to it that a few cannon and some ammunition were deployed to Crab Island and made available at the northern end of the island – on the odd chance that they might be able to do some good during the naval battle.
This seemingly-trivial set-up ended up paying off handsomely for the Americans.
Crab Island doesn’t look like much – the northern end of the island is rather drab-looking, with a simple rounded rocky shore coming down to meet the lake.
Crab Island, near the south end of Cumberland Bay. This is the view from the north that anyone in Cumberland Bay would have of the island. (Photo by the author.)
However, Crab Island – in typical Lake Champlain fashion – is more than meets the eye. Modern nautical charts clearly show that a long, rocky jetty juts out from the northern end of Crab Island – extending out some 1,500 feet from the island’s shore and pointing roughly to the north-northeast. This jetty lurks invisibly below the surface, but for most of its length – although narrow – it sits only some two to four feet below the surface of the lake.
Having led the British line downwind on the ride toward Cumberland Bay, the Finch was the farthest down the bay when the order came to turn and run into the bay to engage the Americans. Unfortunately for the Finch, the ship was caught by the calm zone – and started drifting sideways toward Crab Island.
To the British sailors on the Finch, this didn’t seem to be a problem – they were well north of Crab Island, and had plenty of room to maneuver.
However, the crewmen on the Finch were unaware of the narrow jetty that lurked just below the surface. As the Finch tried to turn itself around and move into the bay, it suddenly ran aground on the narrow jetty.
Under normal circumstances, this would not have been a problem – it would not have been terribly difficult (with some effort) to free the Finch and resume battle maneuvers.
But here, Macomb’s little ploy paid off in a big way. Seeing the Finch run aground, enough of Macomb’s sick troops were able to rush down to man the provided cannon. Hard aground, an easy fixed target for the gunners on Crab Island, and unable to quickly free itself, the Finch was forced to surrender.
By simply understanding the unique conditions of Lake Champlain and Cumberland Bay and planning strategy accordingly – and with a little luck – MacDonough and Macomb had taken two of the four large British ships out of the battle before the battle had really begun.
With the British ships nearly becalmed, Downie was making no headway in his attempted maneuvers. Seeing that the Confiance was starting to drift – and was beginning to suffer from the outgoing American fire – Downie decided to drop anchor and maneuver the Confiance with anchor lines.
It took some time in the calm water, but Downie eventually managed to maneuver the Confiance into position. Belatedly, he was able to fire off a broadside at the Saratoga.
The heavy British guns staggered and hurt the Saratoga – killing or seriously wounding a fifth of her crewmen with that first broadside. As the exchanges of fire continued, the Americans fought back furiously – and in a hail of cannon fire, Downie was killed and all of his senior officers were either killed or wounded.
By this point, the Confiance had been hit hard; her senior officers were dead, and many of her cannon had been knocked out, reducing her rate of fire.
But the heavier gunnery of the Confiance was beginning to tell. The Saratoga was in even worse shape; her starboard side was wrecked, and hardly any of her starboard cannon were still serviceable.
In addition to the usual bow and stern anchors, MacDonough had also (prior to the battle) ordered that several other anchors be deployed from the Saratoga. Foreseeing the possible extrema that he now faced, these anchors were intended to serve as kedging lines – to allow MacDonough to (in a pinch) maneuver the Saratoga in the nearly-calm waters.
That moment had arrived.
MacDonough gave a seemingly strange order to the crew of the Saratoga. He ordered them to cut the line of the bow anchor, and to kedge-in the lines running to the stern anchor and the constellation of kedge-anchors,
Slowly, majestically, and in almost total silence in the nearly-calm water, the Saratoga began to pivot and turn about herself. For several tens-of-seconds, she turned in place – the silence punctuated only by the occasional creaking of her timbers.
During this interval, MacDonough’s surviving gunners scrambled over to the port side of the Saratoga, and frantically prepared the port-side cannon for action.
At first, the surviving British officers on the Confiance looked on in puzzlement at the Saratoga’s strange maneuver. Too late – and to their horror – they realized what was happening.
As the Saratoga came about, the anchor crews stopped turning the capstans, and the Saratoga settled to a stop in the water – her undamaged port side now facing the Confiance.
Suddenly, the Confiance was a sitting duck – and MacDonough wasted no time in taking advantage of the situation his maneuver had created.
The Saratoga unleashed a devastating broadside that shattered, splintered, and wrecked the Confiance.
The junior officer now in command of the Confiance tried – belatedly – to execute a similar maneuver. However, all this managed to achieve was the turning of the completely-vulnerable stern of the Confiance directly at the now-restored Saratoga.
Sensing that a decisive advantage was at hand, the guns crews of the Saratoga poured it on with everything they had. The crippled Confiance was faced completely the wrong way and was helpless; several more broadsides from the Saratoga turned her into a floating wreck.
Faced with reality, the British commander struck colors and surrendered the Confiance.
Not wasting any time on enjoying his triumph, MacDonough quickly gave orders to pivot the Saratoga once again – this time to point its port cannon at the last surviving British ship, the suddenly-outgunned Linnet.
The Saratoga quickly raked the Linnet with heavy fire, forcing its rapid surrender.
All four large British ships had been wrecked and forced to surrender. In contrast, the Eagle and the Preble were significantly damaged but still serviceable, the Ticonderoga – which had spent most of the battle fighting off a rather half-hearted attack by the small auxiliary group of British gunboats – was largely unscathed, and the Saratoga was damaged but triumphant.
The Battle of Plattsburgh was over. Due to MacDonough’s tactical brilliance – both before and during the battle – and the doggedness of his sailors, the Americans had won a stunning and decisive victory.
Once the firing had stopped, the surviving British officers came to MacDonough and offered him their swords in the traditional gesture of surrender. MacDonough refused the offer – telling them that he could not possibly accept the swords of such brave and valiant men.
In the meantime, the land part of the British attack had embarrassingly achieved precisely nothing. Trying to find the American positions, Prevost’s army had quite literally become lost in the woods to the west of Plattsburgh. Eventually noting a ridge that was sufficiently clear of trees to allow sighting, Prevost climbed to the top to get his bearings. Reaching the top, he was rewarded with the sight of the shattered, burning Confiance striking her colors and surrendering while the stars-and-stripes still flew above the Saratoga.
Despite seeing the effective end of the naval battle, Prevost now had his bearings and finally moved in the right direction. His vanguard troops began to come into contact with Macomb’s troops, and the volume of fire began to increase.
However, word soon arrived of the extent of the disaster that had befallen the British in the lake battle. Realizing that trying to continue the advance without a supporting fleet – with the Americans in command of the lake – and with the season already being quite late, Prevost reluctantly gave the order for his army to disengage and begin a retreat back to its bases in Canada.
As the British troops (and a few surviving gunboats on the lake) retreated northward, there was a final epilogue to the battle.
During the War of 1812, there had been a publicly-stated American policy that any British soldier or sailor who deserted and “came over” would be given amnesty and (more importantly) a grant of land sufficient for a farmstead.
The ability to own land was something that continued to be greatly circumscribed in Europe, but was of course a common feature of the United States – thus, this offer was tempting indeed.
As a result, during the retreat north to Canada, several hundred British troops and sailors (including the commander of the British gunboats) slipped away and deserted – and “came over” to receive their amnesty and their land grant.
A few days after the Battle of Plattsburgh, the British army crossed back into Canada. It would be the last time that foreign troops set foot on American soil.
Two days after the Battle of Plattsburgh, the eastern British attack prong captured and burned Washington DC – but was then memorably repulsed in a night naval battle near the entrance to the harbor of Baltimore.
In addition, the British also built a fleet on Lake Erie and tried to take naval control there; however, they were also defeated there, by an American fleet commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry – whose victory report consisted entirely of the laconic (but memorable), “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
With the northern and eastern prongs having been repulsed, the British turned to Lord Wellington – already famous, but soon to become legendary with his victory over Napoleon at Waterloo – for strategic advice. His take was that if Britain wanted to pursue the war in North American, it would require massive reinforcements on both land and water. The choice was either to make that massive effort – or to make peace.
The British choice the latter course – one that proved serendipitously-wise when 1815 unexpectedly found the British facing the sudden threat of the returned-to-France Napoleon.
Peace negotiations at Ghent (in Belgium) basically concluded a status quo agreement – one that basically left affairs in North America as they had been, while setting in final detail the arrangements between the United States and British Canada.
Perhaps the main factor was that Britain now recognized the existence of the United States of America – with its borders of the time – as permanent.
In one of history’s period-specific ironies, news of the peace treaty that had been signed at Ghent in the latter part of 1814 took weeks to actually reach the combatants in North America. Thus, the southern prong of the British attack proceeded in its plans – and on New Year’s Eve famously attacked the American defenders (commanded by the soon-to-be-famous Andrew Jackson) of New Orleans. Completing the sweep, the Americans routed the British and saved New Orleans.
The Treaty of Ghent had left New Orleans in American hands – so, had the British captured the city, the treaty would have required them to return it to the Americans. However, it is entirely possible that with such a prize in hand, the British would have retained the city. By winning the battle, the retention of New Orleans as an American city was absolutely assured.
The main outcome of the War of 1812 was that it really didn’t have one. The boundaries in North America remained unchanged. However, keeping those boundaries unchanged clearly represented an American victory. In addition, the Treaty of Ghent amounted to a British recognition that the United States of America was not a temporary entity – but was rather a now-permanent feature of the international landscape.
Thus, for the fledgling United States, the end of the War of 1812 represented a “settling” with Europe. With this “settling” along the eastern part of the continent, westward expansion could begin in earnest.
Today, we mark more recent (and searing) events.
But we should also pause to remember our own history.
And we should also remember that while the defeat of the British southern and eastern prongs are celebrated in song (the latter giving us our national anthem), there was a third prong in the north that was also defeated – a victory which does not seem to get the recognition that it truly deserves.
So today we should pause to remember the stunning victory that was won by the tactical genius of Commodore Thomas MacDonough and the doggedness of his sailors – on an inland sea in the far north, on September 11th, 1814.
(References: With a little digging, information on the Battle of Plattsburgh is surprisingly ubiquitous. Of particular note, the Wikipedia entry isn’t half bad. The Battle of Plattsburgh Association has for years done a marvelous job of educating the public about the events of September 11th, 1814 – and holds a commemorative weekend every year to mark the event. Cannonade Filmworks of Plattsburgh, New York produced a relatively-good 56-minute-long documentary (“The Final Invasion”) on the battle back in 1999; copies of this documentary can actually be found in many public libraries nationwide. Of course, as the photos show, there’s no substitute for choosing a day when the wind and water conditions are similar to those of September 11th, 1814, and getting out there to examine the site.)