An Underappreciated Victory: Plattsburgh 1814 CE

It might be considered idiosyncratic to claim a battle the importance of which was stressed by Theodore Roosevelt, among others, is underappreciated, but much of the American War of 1812 is neglected and poorly understood.

For many residents of the United States, the War of 1812 appears to have been primarily caused by the English impressment of American sailors into British navy. This elevation of a relatively minor contributor to the outbreak of hostilities to center stage precludes many less flattering reasons from being contemplated as seriously as they deserve to be. Commonly remembered or misremembered events of the conflict include:

• the burning of Washington D.C.

• the bombardment that resulted in Francis Scott Key writing The Star Spangled
Banner

• the heroic fights of the frigate USS Constitution [also known as Old Ironsides],
and

• the overwhelming American victory in the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 CE

Those who retain more of their early lessons may cite Oliver Hazard Perry’s summation of the Battle of Lake Erie: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Far fewer remember the seditious and secessionist activities widespread throughout New England during the war.

The Plattsburgh campaign and its culminating battle on September 11th of 1814 seem to have become largely the reserve of professional historians and local enthusiasts.

The British government provided detailed instructions to Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, the Commander-in-Chief and Governor General of the [French and English speaking] Canadas. Prévost was suspect in English speaking Canada for his ability to communicate with the Francophones of Quebec in their own language.

Prévost’s orders told him to invade the United States. He was expected to maintain a balance between moving quickly enough to increase and exploit secessionist sentiment among disaffected New Englanders and proceeding cautiously enough to avoid being cut off and isolated by hostile American forces. Some of the lessons learned from Burgoyne’s disasters at Bennington and Saratoga in 1777 had not been forgotten.

Prévost started south along the venerable Lake Champlain and Lake George invasion route, head of an army of some 11,000 British regulars, many battle hardened veterans of the Peninsular campaign in the Napoleonic Wars. The British army was supported by a fleet of 16 vessels, including one frigate, one brig, two sloops, and 12 gunboats.

Facing Prévost were around 1,500 American troops under Alexander Macombe, augmented by roughly 1,900 inexperienced militia, and a naval force of 14 vessels, comprised of one corvette, one brig, one schooner, one sloop, and 10 gunboats, under the command of Thomas Macdonough.

Macdonough and naval architect Noah Brown, working at Otter Creek in Vermont, had created the American fleet with nearly miraculous expedition and improvisation, but the British ships had cannons effective at a far greater range than the Americans’ carronades. Macdonough had to plan a battle that would overcome this British advantage, and that was not beyond what his inexperienced crews could handle.

Macdonough anchored his vessels in Plattsburgh Bay, forcing the British to fight at close range in its narrow confines. This neutralized the British advantage in long guns. Knowing the winds to be light and unreliable, Macdonough had his fleet equipped with springs on the anchor lines to enable his ships to rotate to a degree, and deployed extra kedge anchors from his flagship to make it possible to spin the ship completely around. He drilled his men hard as they waited for the English to attack.

Command of the British fleet changed several times in the run-up to the battle. Commander Thomas Everard briefly pulled rank on Daniel Pring in Quebec, after which Captain Peter Fisher took the reins from a reinstated Pring. Fisher was replaced by George Downie in late August. Downie joined the British naval forces on Lake Champlain on September 9. The winds being unfavorable, Downie could not attack the anchored Americans on September 10th, as Prévost urged. That night the winds shifted to the northeast. As dawn broke on September 11, Downie sailed into Plattsburgh Bay.

When he did he found the breezes blocked by the spur of land that formed the bay. Downie lost the ability to maneuver. He anchored under a galling fire, and managed to fire a broadside that killed or wounded roughly 20% of the men on Macdonough’s flagship, briefly stunning Macdonough himself. A counter blast from the Americans killed Downie.

The large ships suffered frightful carnage on both sides, but Macdonough, when his starboard guns were disabled, used his kedge anchors to turn his flagship in place, presenting his undamaged port battery towards the English flagship, which, not able to respond to this new fire, surrendered. Macdonough then used his anchor lines to address the last active big ship in the English force, compelling its surrender in short order.

The Americans captured all four large English vessels: the frigate, the brig, and both sloops.

The American gunboats were interspersed between the larger American boats. Half of the British gunboats attacked the end of the American line of ships until fought off by the American schooner Ticonderoga. The other half played no significant role in the battle, some of their crew claiming they had seen a signal to withdraw at the back of Downie’s flagship. The commander of the British gunships later deserted.

The American naval victory was complete. Although Prévost had an advantage of close to 3 to 1 in manpower, he broke off from battle. Without British control of the lake, there was no way Prévost could support his army in the field. He retreated back to Canada.

American losses, not including the poorly documented militias, were approximately 100 killed and 115 wounded. British losses ran to roughly 170 killed, 220 wounded, 320 captured.

Prévost was relieved of command and returned to England. Although his explanation of events was originally accepted, a report from England’s senior naval officer for Lake Ontario, Commodore Yeo, fixed blame on Prévost for the defeat, arguing Prévost had forced the English fleet into action prematurely. Pring, captain of the British ship that was last to surrender to the Americans, was commended for his actions by the navy.

Despite support for his decision to retreat from Wellington, Prévost was eventually widely held responsible for the failure of the invasion. He died of natural causes before he could clear his name.

Macdonough and several of his officers received commendations and promotions, as did Macomb. In addition to their service awards, they were honored with Congressional medals.

The American victory at Plattsburgh directly influenced peace negotiations, being used to justify American demands for exclusive use of Lake Champlain and to negate British claims to exclusive use of the Great Lakes.

The fame of the American victory at Plattsburgh was in part eclipsed by Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British outside of New Orleans on January 8, 1815. The Treaty of Ghent had ended the war on December 24th 1814, though it was not ratified by Congress until February.

The Battle of Plattsburgh was far more influential in terms of international affairs, though the Battle of New Orleans, propelling Jackson towards the presidency as it did, had major effect on the domestic politics of the United States of America.

President Jackson arranged for the removal by forced marches of several southern tribes east of the Mississippi, preserved in modern memory as the Trail of Tears. The expulsion of the remnants of northern tribes who made up Tecumseh’s Confederacy, whose raiding had been an important cause of the War of 1812, was at least as important and thorough, though generally less well remembered.

Further Reading:

• Theodore Roosevelt wrote The Naval War of 1812 with his customary brio.

• John Elting’s Amateurs to Arms: A Military History of the War of 1812 is a clear
and unsparing account of the American side of the conflict.

• David Fitz-Enz covers the Plattsburgh campaign in detail in The Last Invasion:
Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Victory, with close attention to
Prévost’s role and fate.

• Eliot Cohen’s Conquered into Liberty: Two Centuries of Battles along the Great
Warpath that Made the American Way of War describes 200 years of military history
along the Lake Champlain – Lake George corridor.

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