(Painting by Julian O. Davidson)
For Americans, September 11 will always be a morbid date. It is a time for mourning. But this was not always so. Once, September 11 represented a glorious triumph for America. Today, Americans should also reflect on a September 11 that occurred before our living memory. For 200 years ago on this date, the United States fought and won the Battle of Plattsburgh--the most decisive battle of the War of 1812.
September 11, 1814 was immediately recognized as a great day to Americans as they were enduring the final months of the War of 1812. Later generations also grasped its significance. In his naval history of that war, Theodore Roosevelt referred to the Battle of Plattsburgh as the “greatest naval battle of the war.” Winston Churchill, in his A History of the English Speaking Peoples, called it the “most decisive engagement of the war.”
The victory secured by America’s fighting men at Plattsburgh was precisely that. More than any other single battle of the war, the outcome of Plattsburgh ensured that the War of 1812 ended in a draw instead of an American defeat.
(Map by P.S. Burton)
As I mentioned in a previous post about the burning of Washington, the British grand strategy designed by the Duke of Wellington was to tie down American forces on the eastern seaboard and at New Orleans while driving the death blow down the Lake Champlain-Hudson River corridor. Wellington realized that the war in North America could not be fought like the war in Europe. Because America lacked an established road network in its interior, the rivers and lakes between Canada and the United States would have to serve as the highways that would carry British armies into the heartland of America.
(Map by Kmusser)
Lake Champlain stretches 125 miles from Quebec into New York State and Vermont. At Ticonderoga, a narrow stream connects Lake Champlain to Lake George. That lake extends south 32 miles to within just a few miles of the Hudson River. And, finally, the Hudson River reaches all the way to New York City, the largest city in the United States. It is down this freshwater road that Britain planned to cut the United States in two.
(Painting of the surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga by John Trumbull)
The British effort in 1814 was not the first attempt to divide America along this path. In 1776, a British fleet defeated an American fleet in Lake Champlain off Valcour Island. The following year, General John Burgoyne landed an army at the southern end of the lake and marched it south with the goal of linking up with British forces then occupying New York City. But surrounded, outnumbered, and cut off from supplies, he surrendered to the Americans near Saratoga. It was a devastating blow to the British war effort.
(Painting of General Sir George Prévost by Jean-Baptiste Roy-Audy)
General Sir George Prévost, the British commander of the 1814 expedition, was mindful not to repeat that disaster. Burgoyne had been cut off from his supply lines leading back to Quebec. Prévost concluded that maintaining that logistical trail was essential. He could not afford to march into central New York State while an American fleet operated on Lake Champlain. So his first order of business was to establish total naval dominance on the lake.
(Map by Kmusser)
The Richelieu River connects Lake Champlain and the St. Lawrence River. But due to rapids at Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, it was impossible at the time to move warships from the Atlantic directly to Lake Champlain. The Royal Navy therefore occupied the river island of Île aux Noix and began building warships on-site for the campaign.
(The modern Île aux Noix)
Captain George Downie, a seasoned Royal Navy officer, led this effort. He built what he hoped would be a game changer in the war: a 37-gun frigate. This ship, named the Confiance, would be the largest warship to ever sail on Lake Champlain. It would carry 24-pound cannons that could fire a mile and a half. It would be more powerful than any other ship on the lake.
(Model of HMS Confiance at the US Naval War College)
Perhaps it's better so say that the Confiance would do that in theory. First, the Royal Navy had to build and man it. The master shipbuilder overseeing the construction said that it could not be done before September. The British would also have to crew the ship. Professional sailors were in short supply in the area, so Prévost assigned infantrymen for that duty.
The Royal Navy’s shipbuilders worked frantically to prepare for the offensive. They built the 16-gun Linnet and crewed two captured American vessels, the 11-gun Chub and the 11-gun Finch. To round out the fleet, the British also readied a dozen small gunboats propelled by oars and sails.
Prévost planned to march his army south along the New York shore of Lake Champlain while the Royal Navy proceeded in a parallel fashion, destroying the American navy in the process. If he did not make it all the way to New York City before winter set in, then his winter quarters would set the new southern border of Canada.
(Painting of Commodore Thomas Macdonough by Gilbert Stuart)
Opposing this force on the water was Commodore Thomas Macdonough, a 30-year old US Navy officer and veteran of the Barbary Wars. Macdonough had commanded the Navy on Lake Champlain since late 1812. Like his British counterparts, he, too, had been rapidly building warships for the anticipated invasion. Macdonough had the 26-gun Saratoga, the 20-gun Eagle, the 17-gun Ticonderoga, and the 7-gun Preble, as well as a few gunboats. None of his cannons had the long range of those on HMS Confiance.
(General Macomb at Plattsburgh)
The US Army commander at Plattsburgh was Major General George Izard. Secretary of War John Armstrong foolishly concluded that the British meant to attack Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario and ordered Izard to march the bulk of his troops there. Izard protested, but dutifully marched 4,000 of the 5,500 American regular troops around Plattsburgh away on August 29. Brigadier General Alexander Macomb remained there with only 1,500 regulars.
But Izard and Macomb had been busy that summer. Their men had labored to build fortifications and had done well. In his youth, Izard had studied at a French military academy and Macomb was one of the first graduates of the new American military academy at West Point. They had professional knowledge of military engineering and had put it to work at Plattsburgh.
Macomb also sent out word that British soldiers would be granted cash and land in exchange for deserting. 500 took him up on the offer. Finally, Macomb called out for militia units from New York and Vermont to join the fight. The militiamen responded just in time to bolster his force to about 5,100 men.
(Battle of Plattsburgh reenactors by Adirondack Tourism Council)
On September 1, Prévost crossed the border into New York with approximately 12,000 men, most of them veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. He met little resistance as he proceeded south for several days, arriving at Plattsburgh on the 7th. Although his force vastly outnumbered the Americans, he did not want to assault well-prepared fortifications without naval artillery to support him.
(Prévost marches south)
That would be problematic because despite the work of the shipbuilders, the Royal Navy fleet was simply not ready. The massive Confiance did not depart Île aux Noix until September 7. Even as Captain Downie piloted that ship south, the shipbuilders were still on board finishing as much of it as possible.
Prévost impatiently waited for Downie to sweep aside the inferior American fleet before attacking the fortified positions at Plattsburgh. On the morning of September 11th, Downie attacked.
(The British fleet enters Cumberland Bay and attacks)
The American force was outnumbered and outgunned. Therefore Macdonough decided to fight from an anchorage. This had been the French strategy at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, which ended in a crushing French defeat. But Macdonough had spent two years on the lake. He knew that the winds of Cumberland Bay shifted often. It was hard to sail into the bay. He counted on this phenomenon working to his advantage.
(The British cannon that killed Captain Downie, now on display at the US Naval Academy. Note the dent in the muzzle delivered by an American cannonball. Photo: Obie1)
The British fleet struggled to reach the Americans, but when it did, they turned and poured broadsides into their anchored foes. Both flagships concentrated on each other, so the two commanders, Macdonough and Downie, were soon locked in battle. Fifteen minutes later, one of the Saratoga’s cannon balls struck the mouth of a cannon on the Confiance. Downie was standing right behind it. The blow threw the cannon onto Downie, killing him. The battle had just begun and the leader of the British fleet was dead.
(The British attack the anchored American fleet)
Like the gallant Downie, Macdonough did not shirk from danger. He worked the guns himself and was twice hit during the action, once by a wooden boom and another by a severed human head. Macdonough still kept fighting.
The savagery of the close-quarters combat was intense. After the battle, British Midshipman Robert Lea wrote:
The havoc on both sides is dreadful. I don't think there are more than five of our men out of 300 but what are killed or wounded. Never was a shower of hail so thick as the shot whistling about our ears. Were you to see my jacket, waistcoat, trousers and hat, you would be astonished how I escaped as I did, for they are literally torn all to rags with shot and splinters . . . There is one of our marines who was in the Trafalgar action with Lord Nelson, who says it was a mere fleabite in comparison with this.
Eventually, the American Ticonderoga and Preble pounded the Finch into striking her colors. The British Linnet and the Chub attacked the Eagle savagely, but had not yet destroyed her. Most of the British gunboats fled the scene or kept their distance.
Macdonough had 13 starboard guns to bear against the massive Confiance. Gradually, the British knocked them out of action, one by one.
It was then that Commodore Thomas Macdonough pulled off what historian Col. David Fitz-Enz calls “his master stroke.” It was at this moment that Macdonough performed a maneuver that won the battle and saved America.
(Kedge anchor from HMS Victory by P.R. Dobson)
Prior to the engagement, Macdonough had planted kedge anchors to his bow and stern. With their lines wrapped around his capstan, Macdonough could turn the Saratoga in place without raising sails. So at this moment, Macdonough and his men winched their ship around, bringing 13 fresh guns to bear against the ravaged Confiance. Then they opened fire.
(Sailors manning a capstan)
The British sailors on the Confiance had had enough. Lt. Robertson, the acting captain, struck his colors. The tide of battle turned against the British. 20 minutes later, Captain Pring on the Linnet struck his colors. With her rigging destroyed, the Chub became uncontrollable and also surrendered. The battle was over. Cumberland Bay belonged to the Americans.
Arguably, though, this was not the decisive moment of the campaign. General Prévost had already ordered an assault when he learned that Downie was dead and the Royal Navy defeated. He outnumbered the Americans and could have stormed Plattsburgh.
But what then? After taking Plattsburgh, should he proceed south with an American fleet at his rear? Then he might well be the successor of Burgoyne.
(Caricature of Prévost)
Despite pleas from his senior officers to press on, Prévost cancelled the assault and ordered a withdrawal back to Canada. The great offensive that should have brought the Americans to their knees was over.
This decision destroyed Prévost’s reputation. The British government recalled him to London to answer for his actions. Wellington defended him, arguing that Prévost’s caution was appropriate. It came to nothing, though, for Prévost died a year later of dropsy.
(Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Major General Alexander Macomb by the US Mint)
General Alexander Macomb and Commodore Thomas Macdonough, however, were lauded in America as the saviors of their nation. Congress awarded them gold medals. Macomb was promoted to Major General and was the senior US Army officer from 1828 to 1841. Macdonough would not live that long, dying in 1825, but he saw the thanks of his nation. Vermont gave him 100 acres of land, New York 1000 acres, Connecticut a pair of gold pistols, and Delaware a gold sword--among numerous other gifts presented by a grateful people.
(Macdonough Monument at Plattsburgh by the War of 1812 Trail)
American popular histories and historical memory of the War of 1812 usually revolve around the battles of the USS Constitution on the high seas, the Battle of Fort McHenry, and the Battle of New Orleans. Though there is a monument in the center of the town, the Battle of Plattsburgh has largely departed from modern Americans’ remembrance of that war.
It is a pity, for the great courage and resilience of American soldiers and sailors on that day 200 years ago saved us from national disaster. Though outnumbered and outgunned, ordinary Americans rose up to successfully defend us from the most powerful nation on earth. Let us be thankful.
Budiansky, Stephen. Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. New York: Knopf, 2010.
Daughan, George C. 1812: The Navy's War. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Fitz-Enz, David. The Final Invasion: Plattsburg, The War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.
Howard, Hugh. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.
Stagg, J.C.A. The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Weber, William. Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013.