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Battle of Plattsburgh

The Battle of Plattsburgh, also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain, ended the final invasion of the northern states during the War of 1812. Fought shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the American victory denied the British leverage to demand exclusive control over the Great Lakes and any territorial gains against the New England states. Contrary to some beliefs, the battle was decided by the naval engagement. The American victory on the lake forced Prevost to turn his army around, and return to Canada.

Background

British plans

In 1814, Napoleon I had abdicated the throne of France. This provided Great Britain the opportunity to send 16,000 veteran troops to North America. The British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, the Earl of Bathurst, sent instructions to the Commander-in-Chief and Governor General of Lower Canada, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, authorising him to launch offensives into American territory, but cautioning him against risking being cut off by advancing too far.

Bathurst suggested that Prevost's should give first priority to attacking Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, where the America fleet on the lake was based, but Prevost lacked the means to transport the necessary troops and the supplies for them up the St. Lawrence River. Furthermore, until the British had launched a battleship (HMS St. Lawrence) on the lake, the American ships controlled it and there was no means of carrying out an attack on Sackett's Harbor. Bathurst had recommended seizing control of Lake Champlain as a secondary objective. Since the Richelieu River (also known as the Rich) was the only waterway connecting Lake Champlain to the ocean, trade on that lake naturally had to be through Canada.

Prevost's choice of route was influenced by the attitude of the American state of Vermont. The state had shown itself to be less than wholeheartedly behind the War; and its inhabitants readily traded with the British, supplying them with all the cattle consumed by the British army, and even military stores such as masts and spars for British warships on Lake Champlain. Prevost therefore determined to advance down the western, New York State, side of the lake. The main American position on this side was at Plattsburgh.

Prevost organised most of his troops into a division numbering 11,000 under Major General Sir Francis de Rottenburg, the Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada. The division consisted of the 1st Brigade of Peninsular veterans under Major General Frederick Philipse Robinson (3/27th, 39th, 76th and 88th Regiments of Foot), the 2nd Brigade of troops already serving in Canada under Major General Thomas Brisbane (2/8th, 13th and 49th Regiments of Foot, De Meuron's Regiment, the Canadian Voltigeurs and the Canadian Chasseurs) and the 3rd Brigade of troops from the Peninsula and various garrisons under Major General Manley Power (3rd, 5th, 1/27th and 58th Regiments of Foot). Each brigade was supported by a battery of five 6-pounder guns and one 5.5-inch howitzer of the Royal Artillery. A squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons was attached to the force.

There was some tension within the force between the brigade and regimental commanders who were veterans of the Peninsular War or of earlier fighting in Upper Canada, and Prevost and his staff. Prevost had not endeared himself by complaining about the standards of dress of the troops from the Peninsular Army, where the Duke of Wellington had emphasised musketry and efficiency above turnout. Furthermore, neither Prevost, nor de Rottenburg, nor Prevost's Adjutant General (Major General Edward Baynes) had the extensive experience of battle gained by the brigade commanders. All three officers were best known for their caution and hesitancy.

American defences

On the American side of the frontier, Major General George Izard was the American commander along the Northeast frontier. In late August, Secretary of War John Armstrong ordered Izard to take the majority of his force, about 4,000 troops, to reinforce Sackett's Harbor, New York. Izard's force departed on August 23, leaving Brigadier General Alexander Macomb in command at Plattsburgh with only 1,500 American regulars. Most of these troops were recruits, invalids or detachments of odds and ends. Macomb ordered General Benjamin Mooers to call out the New York militia and appealed to the governor of Vermont for militia volunteers. Up to 2,000 militia eventually reported to Plattsburgh. However, the militia units were mostly untrained, and hundreds more were unfit for duty. Macomb put the militiamen to use digging trenches and building fortifications.

Macomb's main position was a ridge on the south bank of the Saranac River. Its fortifications had been laid out by Major Joseph Gilbert Totten, Izard's senior Engineer officer, and consisted of three redoubts and two blockhouses, linked by other fieldworks. The position was reckoned to be well enough supplied and fortified to withstand a siege for three weeks, even if MacDonough were defeated. After Izard's division departed, Macomb continued to improve his defences. He even created an invalid battery on Crab Island, where his hospital was sited, that was to be manned by sick or wounded soldiers who were at least fit to fire the cannon. The townspeople of Plattsburgh had so little faith in Macomb's efforts to repulse the invasion that by September nearly all 3,000 inhabitants had fled the city. Plattsburgh was left occupied only by the American army.

Naval Background

The British had gained naval superiority on Lake Champlain on June 1, 1813, when two American sloops pursued British gunboats into the Sorel River, and became trapped by British artillery on the banks of the river when the wind dropped. This gave the British three sloops, with several gunboats, under Commander Daniel Pring. Their crews were reinforced by seamen drafted from ships of war lying at Quebec under Commander Thomas Everard who, being senior to Pring, took temporary command. Together with 946 troops under Lieutenant Colonel John Murray, they raided several settlements on both the New York and Vermont shores of Lake Champlain during the summer and autumn of 1813. The losses they inflicted and the restriction they imposed on the movement of men and supplies to Plattsburgh contributed to the defeat of Major General Wade Hampton's advance against Montreal, which finally ended with the Battle of Chateauguay.

Lieutenant Thomas MacDonough, commanding the American naval forces on the Lake, established a secure base at Otter Creek (Vermont). He had to compete with Commodore Isaac Chauncey, commanding on Lake Ontario, for seamen, shipwrights and supplies, and was not able to begin constructing large fighting vessels until his second-in-command went to Washington to argue his case to Secretary of the Navy William Jones. Naval architect Noah Brown was sent to Otter Creek to superintend construction. In April, 1814, the Americans launched the corvette Saratoga of 26 guns and the schooner Ticonderoga of 14 guns (originally a part-completed steam vessel). Together with the existing sloop-rigged Preble of 7 guns, they gave the Americans naval superiority, and this allowed them to establish and supply a substantial base at Plattsburgh. Only a few days before the Battle of Plattsburgh, the Americans also completed the 20-gun brig Eagle. The loss of their former supremacy on Lake Champlain prompted the British to construct the 36-gun frigate HMS Confiance at Ile aux Noix. Captain George Downie was appointed to command soon after the frigate was launched on August 25, replacing Captain Peter Fisher, who in turn had superseded Pring. Like MacDonough, Downie had difficulty obtaining men and materials from Commodore James Lucas Yeo on Lake Ontario, and MacDonough had intercepted several spars and other materials sold to Britain by unpatriotic Vermonters.. Downie could promise to complete Confiance only on September 15 and even then, her crew would not have been exercised.

Prevost was anxious to begin his campaign as early as possible, to avoid the bad weather of late autumn and winter, and continually pressed Downie to prepare Confiance for battle more quickly.

Invasion

On August 31, Prevost began marching south. Macomb sent forward 250 regulars under Major John Ellis Wool and 700 New York militia under Major General Benjamin Mooers to fight a delaying action. At Chazy, New York, they first made contact with the British. Slowly falling back, the Americans set up road blocks, burned bridges and mislabelled streets to slow down the British. The British nevertheless advanced steadily, not even deploying out of column of march or returning fire. As Prevost reached Plattsburgh on September 6, the American rearguards retired across the Saranac, tearing up the planks from the bridges. Prevost did not immediately attack. On September 7, he ordered Major General Robinson to cross the Saranac, but to Robinson's annoyance, Prevost had no intelligence on the American defences or even the local geography. Some tentative attacks across the bridges were repulsed by Wool's regulars.

Prevost abandoned his efforts to cross the river for the time being and instead began constructing batteries. The Americans responded with 'hot-shot', an artillery tactic in which the cannon balls were heated red-hot and quickly fired with the intention to set fire to the target. Macomb succeeded in setting fire to several buildings the British were using as cover and forcing them to withdraw further away. However, in the process, he did destroy about 16 buildings of Plattsburgh. On September 9, a night raid across the Saranac River by 50 Americans led by Captain George McGlassin succeeded in destroying a British Congreve Rocket battery only 500 yards from Fort Brown, one of the three main American fortifications.

While skirmishing and artillery fire continued, the British located a ford (Pike's Ford) across the Saranac three miles above Macomb's defences. Prevost planned that, once Downie's ships arrived, they would attack the American ships in Plattsburgh Bay. Simultaneously, Major General Brisbane would make a feint attack across the bridges while Major General Robinson's brigade would cross the ford to make the main attack against the American left flank. Once the American ships had been defeated, Brisbane would make his feint attack into a real one, supported by Major General Power's brigade.

Naval battle

Prelude

MacDonough had sent some of his gunboats to harass Prevost's advance, but he knew that his fleet was outgunned, particularly in long guns. He therefore withdrew into Plattsburgh Bay, where the British would be forced to engage at close range, at which the American and British squadrons would be roughly even in numbers and weight of short-range carronades. He used the time to drill his sailors, and make preparations to fight at anchor. The ships were anchored in line from north to south in the order Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga and Preble. They all had both bow and stern anchors, with "springs" attached to the anchor cables to allow the ships to be slewed through a wide arc. MacDonough also laid out extra kedge anchors from his flagship Saratoga, which would allow him to spin the ship completely around. The ten American gunboats were anchored in the intervals between the larger vessels.

Although the British sloops and gunboats under Commander Pring were already on the Lake and at anchor near Chazy, and had set up a battery on Isle La Motte, Vermont, it took two days to tow the frigate Confiance up the Sorel River from Ile aux Noix, against both wind and current. Downie finally joined the squadron on September 9. Carpenters and riggers were still at work on the frigate, and the incomplete crew was augmented by a company of the 39th Foot. To Prevost's fury, Downie was unable to attack on September 10 because the wind was unfavourable. During the night the wind shifted to the north-east, making an attack feasible. The British squadron sailed in the early hours of September 11, and announced their presence to Prevost's army by "scaling" the guns i.e. firing them without shot. Shortly after dawn on September 11 Downie reconnoitred the American dispositions from a rowing boat, before ordering the British squadron to attack. Addressing his crew, he told them that the British Army would storm Plattsburgh as soon as the ships engaged, "and mind don't let us be behind".

Battle

At about 9 am, the British squadron rounded Cumberland Head close-hauled in line abreast, with the large ships to the north initially in the order Chubb, Linnet, Confiance and Finch, and the gunboats to the south. The wind was light, and Downie was unable to manoeuvre Confiance to the place he intended, across the head of MacDonough's line. As Confiance suffered increasing damage from the American ships, he was forced to drop anchor between 300 and 500 yards from MacDonough's flagship, the USS Saratoga. He then proceeded deliberately, securing everything before firing a broadside which killed or wounded one fifth of Saratoga's crew. MacDonough was stunned but quickly recovered; and a few minutes later, Downie was killed.

Elsewhere along the line, the British sloop Chubb was badly damaged and drifted into the American line, where her commander surrendered. The Linnet, commanded by Pring, reached the head of the American line and opened a raking fire against the USS Eagle. At the tail of the line, the sloop Finch failed to reach station and anchor, and although hardly hit at all, Finch drifted aground on Crab Island, and surrendered under fire from the two 6-pounders of the battery manned by the invalids from Macomb's hospital. Half the British gunboats were also hotly engaged at this end of the line. Their fire forced the weakest American vessel, USS Preble to cut its anchors and drift out of the fight, but the USS Ticonderoga was able to fight them off. The rest of the British gunboats apparently held back from action, and their commander later deserted.

After about an hour, the USS Eagle had the springs to one of her anchor cables shot away, and was unable to bear to reply to HMS Linnet's raking fire. Eagle's commander cut the remaining anchor cable and dropped down towards the tail of the line, before anchoring again astern of the USS Saratoga and engaging HMS Confiance, but allowing Linnet to rake Saratoga. Both flagships had fought each other to a standstill. After Downie and several of the other officers had been killed or injured, Confiance's fire had become steadily less effective, but aboard USS Saratoga, almost all the starboard-side guns were dismounted or put out of action.

MacDonough ordered the bow anchor cut, and hauled in the kedge anchors he had laid out earlier to spin Saratoga around. This allowed Saratoga to bring its undamaged port battery into action. Confiance was unable to return the fire. Her surviving Lieutenant tried to haul in on the springs to his only anchor to make a similar manoeuvre, but succeeded only in presenting the vulnerable stern to the American fire. Helpless, Confiance could only surrender. MacDonough hauled in further on his kedge anchors to bring his broadside to bear on HMS Linnet, which also could only surrender, after being battered almost into sinking. The British gunboats withdrew, unmolested.

The surviving British officers boarded Saratoga to offer their swords (of surrender) to MacDonough. When he saw the officers, MacDonough replied, "Gentlemen, return your swords to your scabbards, you are worthy of them". Commander Pring and the other surviving British officers later testified that MacDonough showed every consideration to the British wounded and prisoners.

Land battle

Prevost's attack, although supposed to coincide with the naval engagement, was slow to get under way. Orders to move were not apparently issued until 10 a.m, when the battle on the lake had been under way for over an hour. The American and British batteries settled down to a duel in which the Americans gained a slight advantage, while Brisbane's feint attack at the bridges was easily repulsed.

When a messenger arrived and notified Prevost that his navy had been defeated on the lake he realised that without the navy to supply and support his advance into Vermont, any military advantage gained would have been worthless. Prevost therefore had no option but to retreat and called off the assault. Bugle calls ordering the retreat sounded out along the British lines.

Robinson's brigade had been misdirected by some British staff officers and missed the ford which was their objective. Once they had retraced their steps, Robinson's light infantry soon drove the defenders back, and the British had crossed the ford and were preparing to advance, when orders arrived from Prevost to call off the attack. The light company of the British 76th Regiment of Foot had been skirmishing in advance of the main body. When the bugle calls to retire were heard it was too late and they were surrounded and cut off by overwhelming numbers of American militia. Captain John Purchas, commanding the company, was killed in the act of waving a flag of truce (his white waistcoat). Three officers and 31 other ranks of the 76th were made prisoner, casualties of the 76th were listed as one dead and three wounded.

Major General Brisbane protested the order to retreat but complied. The British began their retreat to Canada after dark. Although ordered to destroy ammunition and stores they could not easily remove, large quantities of these were left intact. There had been little or no desertion during the British advance and the skirmishing along the Saranac, but during the retreat at least 234 (probably many more) soldiers deserted.

Results

MacDonough's victory had stopped the British offensive in its tracks. Also, Prevost had achieved what the U.S. government had been unable to do for the entire war up to that point: to bring the state of Vermont into the war. Alexander Macomb was promoted to Major General and became commanding general of the United States Army in 1828. Thomas MacDonough was promoted to Commodore and is remembered as the "Hero of Lake Champlain",

The British had used their victories at the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington to counter any U.S. demands during the peace negotiations up to this point. The Americans were able to use the repulse at Plattsburgh to demand exclusive rights to Lake Champlain and deny the British exclusive rights to the Great Lakes. The victory at Plattsburgh and the British failure at the Siege of Baltimore, which came a few days later, denied the British any advantage they could use to make demands for territorial gains in the Treaty of Ghent.

The failure at Plattsburgh, with other complaints about his conduct of active operations, resulted in Sir George Prevost being relieved of command in Canada. When he returned to Britain his version of events was accepted at first, but the courts martial of the surviving British naval officers and the dispatches of Sir James Yeo emphatically placed the blame for the defeat on Prevost for forcing the British squadron into action prematurely. Prevost in turn demanded a court martial to clear his name, but died before it could be held.

Theodore Roosevelt stated that Plattsburgh was the "greatest naval battle of the war; Winston Churchill said it was a "decisive battle of the war."

Following the Battle of Plattsburg and the end of the War of 1812, a Congressional Gold Medal honoring Alexander Macomb and his men was struck by Act of Congress (3 Stat. 247), and they were formally given the thanks of Congress. See, Alexander Macomb for the text of the resolution.

Memorials

Three US naval ships have been named for this battle:

  1. USS Lake Champlain (1917), a cargo ship during WWII. Later sold
  2. USS Lake Champlain (CV-39)
  3. USS Lake Champlain (CG-57)

See also

Printed Sources

References

External links

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