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Chapter 22

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

by
Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 24

Chapter Twenty‑Three

p289 Plattsburg Stands Fast

On the evening of July 14, 1814, little more than a month before the raid on Washington, 100 gentlemen sat down to dinner at Butler's Hotel in Hartford, Connecticut. The toastmaster was the Reverend Timothy Dwight, President of Yale College, and among the toasts proposed and drunk were:

"The minority in Congress. Had they appealed to patriots they would have been heard."

"The Administration — Prodigal enough, but too proud to return."

"The Royal Family of France — Our friends in adversary, we rejoice at their prosperity."

"The Democratic Party of America — If not satisfied with their own country, they may seek an asylum in the island of Elba."

The dinner at Hartford was only one of many celebrations of the fall of Napoleon indulged in by Federalists throughout the country who interpreted it as being as great a defeat for Mr. Madison as for the Emperor, as great a victory for themselves as for the Allies. They did not lower their rejoicing to be dimmed by the fact that the fall of the French Empire was releasing veterans of Wellington's army for service in America and that many regiments were already at Halifax and Bermuda or on the high seas. Many good Federalists believed that the Union was on the eve of dissolution and the sooner it was over the better, so that the states could go their several ways.

Indeed, the situation in the United States was dark and growing darker every day. Almost simultaneous with the dinner in Hartford, Brown's courageous little army was engaging the British at Chippawa p290and American troops were achieving glory that many of their fellow countrymen scorned, yet the conquest of Canada was as remote as ever. A few days later Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan, the young hero of Fort Stephenson, was leading an attack against Mackinac Island in an effort to wrest its control from the British. But Croghan, on this occasion, lacked the fire that distinguished his conduct in the previous year. The attack failed and the expedition returned home with nothing accomplished.

On the other hand the British had taken the initiative and met with startling success. As early as April British seamen marines boldly raided the Connecticut River and destroyed 22 American vessels to the value of $120,000 which had sought refuge there. In June other landing parties from the blockading fleet fell upon Wareham, Massachusetts, and burned $40,000 worth of shipping, while still others committed depredations around the mouth of the Saco River in Maine.

In July Sir Thomas Hardy commanded a squadron which set out from Halifax, entered Passamaquoddy Bay, seized Fort Sullivan at Eastport, met with faint opposition from the militia and declared the town and neighboring villages the permanent possession of His Majesty King George III. Fresh from this triumph Hardy sailed west and threatened Boston where the citizens, at last aroused, threw up fortifications in great haste. But Sir Thomas passed by and, on August 9, appeared off Stonington, Connecticut, ordered the women and children out of the town, and prepared to destroy it. Displaying a zeal in marked contrast to their rulers, who had refused to lend a hand in the war by honoring the President's call for the Connecticut militia, the good people of Stonington dragged guns to the end of the peninsula, trained them on the British fleet and fired with such good effect that they drove the marauders off. The ships returned next day, but after 48 hours' bombardment, abandoned the attack and retired to Fisher's Island.

Late in August General Sir John Sherbrooke, Governor of Nova Scotia, led 4,000 men in transports accompanied by a fleet upon an expedition whose object was the conquest of Maine from Passamaquoddy to the Penobscot River. Learning that the frigate John Adams, 24 guns, had taken refuge in that water, Sherbrooke landed p291600 men to effect her capture. Captain James Morris tried to save his ship by using her guns as a battery manned by the crew and supported by local militia. But, upon the appearance of the British, the militia fled and Morris was forced to burn the ship to prevent her falling into enemy hands.

The people of the Maine coast treated their conquest with surprising indifference. Making little or no resistance they resigned themselves to the inevitable, apparently regarding their United States citizenship as not worth a fight. At least two‑thirds of them took the oath of allegiance to King George and settled back quietly as loyal subjects. For a whole hundred miles the coast of Maine became once more a part of the British Empire. After all, why not? The Boston banks were lending money to the British and the thrifty farmers of New York and Vermont were continuing to supply the British army with beef. General George Izard, who had succeeded Wilkinson in command on the northern front, lamented to the Secretary of War that cattle driven across the border beat paths "like herds of buffalo." And on top of all this the nation's capital itself had been sacked.

In the projected invasion of Canada the right wing of the United States Army based itself on Lake Champlain as the natural gateway to Montreal. But now the tables were turned and the lake served equally well as a gateway into the United States, especially adapted to severing New England from the rest of the country. Burgoyne had attempted it in the Revolution and there was every reason to believe that the same strategy would be pursued again. To meet the threat Izard, in the spring of the year, stood in the way with an army stationed at Plattsburg, supported by Captain Thomas Macdonough with a flotilla at Vergennes, Vermont, at the head of the lake. Izard was ably assisted by a capable staff of officers including Alexander Macomb and Thomas A. Smith as brigade commanders and Major Joseph G. Tottena as Chief Engineer. Izard himself was an engineer and the combination proved to be of supreme importance.

Hardly had spring broken when, on May 9, word reached Izard that a British flotilla under Captain Pring, of the Royal Navy, was passing up the Sorel River toward Lake Champlain. The naval force consisted of the brig Linnet, five armed sloops and 13 row‑galleys. Izard summoned Macdonough to his aid and Pring was driven off. p292Macdonough then sailed back to Plattsburg Bay where he anchored his fleet.

During mid‑May both armies awaited reinforcements and in June Izard moved a large part of his army to the lower end of the lake, within a few miles of the Canadian border. Late in the month a small body of American riflemen crossed into Canada, but they were quickly driven off and their leader killed. Soon after, news reached Izard that Sir George Prevost was planning an invasion by way of Lake Champlain and that he would use some 15,000 regulars, Wellington's veterans, who even then were pouring into Montreal from Halifax. This host was far larger than the army Izard had at his command to oppose them. The situation was critical. Izard and Totten, skilled engineers, set to work converting Plattsburg into a citadel of redoubts, trenches and strong points to offset the inequality in men.

Far off in Washington General Armstrong was busy with his pins and maps and his own peculiar theories of strategy. Unlike the leaders in the field he could see the problem as a whole, or thought he could. Just at the moment General Brown was having all he could do to handle the British on his front on the Niagara. Armstrong, after due consideration, arrived at the conclusion that Brown needed support. So absorbed was he in the grand strategy that he overlooked the storm that was brewing on Lake Champlain and the anxiety with which Izard was awaiting the British attack. Imagine, then, Izard's surprise when word came to him from the Secretary of War to take the major part of his force, march to Sackett's Harbor, create a diversion in the direction of Kingston and cooperate with Brown's army on the Niagara!

Izard protested vigorously against the order. He pointed out that the Army of the North was already outnumbered, that Prevost was on the point of swooping down upon him. He predicted that if he were to move with part of his force to a new front, the remainder would have to retire to Plattsburg and that, within a few hours, the British would be in possession of every post at the mouth of the lake. He might just as well have saved his breath. The Secretary of War had spoken and the Secretary of War declined to change his mind.

Like the good soldier he was Izard prepared to obey the order and take 4,000 men with him. To General Macomb fell the unhappy task of assuming command of what seemed a forlorn hope. Izard's departure p293left him with a force reduced to 3,400 of whom he reported only 1,500 as effectives. His ordnance was in bad shape and the fortifications at Plattsburg were unfinished. Macomb's first move was to recall all detachments from the mouth of the lake and concentrate his whole army at Plattsburg. His next was to appeal to Governor Martin Chittenden of Vermont for the help of his militia. Governor Chittenden was a conscientious man who had brought himself to the belief that he had no right under the constitution and laws of his state to order the militia outside the state borders, even if the might of the British Empire was passing his doors. However, if the Vermont militia cared to go as volunteers he would not forbid it. From the militia officers Macomb received the reassuring news that the Vermonters, 2,500 strong, would be there. To reinforce Macomb came also 800 militia from the New York counties of Clinton and Essex under the command of General Benjamin Mooers, a veteran of the Revolution. Yet what were all these compared to the 15,000 veterans of the Peninsular War now posted all the way from Montreal to Lake Champlain and only awaiting the order to move on Plattsburg and crush the handful of defenders?

Plattsburg stands on high ground overlooking Lake Champlain, at the mouth of the Saranac River. The Americans elected to establish their defenses in the lower end of the town on a peninsula almost square in shape lying between the river and the lake. The river protected their front, the lake the rear and one flank. On the open side Izard and Totten employed their engineering skill in the construction of three formidable redoubts. A ravine cutting through the center of this fortified area from the river almost to the lake contributed another natural obstruction to an attack. This well-selected position was further strengthened by two blockhouses and a stone mill, which served as strong points. Two bridges, leading to roads by which the British would come, spanned the Saranac. The lower bridge was near the mouth of the river, the upper bridge about a mile upstream. There was a ford three miles above the lower bridge, but the river for the most part was deep and, in some sections along the Plattsburg bank, cliffs rose to considerable height. Across Plattsburg Bay lay a long peninsula known as Cumberland Head, and guarding the entrance to the bay was a good-sized piece of land known as Crab Island. (See Maps VII & VIII)

p296 General Macomb distributed his garrison among the redoubts, the blockhouses and the mill and placed the main body of his army between the ravine and the lake. Macdonough's fleet lay at anchor in the bay. With the addition of the New York militia and 2,500 Vermont volunteers, Macomb's troops now reached a total of 4,700 effectives. The convalescents he moved to Crab Island where a battery had been erected. By dividing the fortifications into sections and making individual units responsible for each of them, Macomb aroused a spirit of competition in his men and was relieved when, by this means, the works were completed before they were needed.

On September 5 the British army was reported at Sampson's, five miles north of Plattsburg. At the same time the British fleet, which was to cooperate with it, appeared in the lake. Captain George Downie, an experienced officer of the Royal Navy, had now joined the expedition and assumed command of the ships. Macomb did not wait for the enemy to come to him. Instead he sent forward detachments on both roads leading to the town to harass and delay the attackers. To Dead Creek Bridge on the lake road went Captain Sproull with 200 men and two field pieces. Still farther ahead galloped Lieutenant Colonel Appling with 250 mounted riflemen and New York cavalry. On the Beekmantown road advanced Brigade General Mooers with the Essex and Clinton county militia.

On the morning of the 6th Prevost gave the order to his army to advance in two columns, one by the lake road and the other by the Beekmantown road. The British did not lack impressive leaders. Immediately under Sir George was Major General de Rottenberg while commanding brigades were Major Generals Robinson, Brisbane, Power and Kempt. The last named was held in reserve with several thousand men, so that the force which crossed the border is estimated to have numbered at least 11,000 exclusive of artillery. By the Beekmantown road moved Power's brigade, by the lake road Brisbane and Robinson.

In Plattsburg was Major John E. Wool, the young regular officer who so greatly distinguished himself at Queenston in the first year of the war. Wool was impatient for action and persuaded Macomb to send him out 250 regulars and 30 volunteers to join General Mooers and meet the enemy on the Beekmantown road. Wool and his detachment arrived on one side of Beekmantown as the British p297arrived on the other. The New York militia, inexperienced in battle and frightened by the first exchange of volleys, broke. Wool placed his regulars across the road where they stood firm and poured a volley straight into the British ranks checking the advance and giving the militia time to reorganize. Wool now fought a brilliant retiring action against the advancing column, moving back slowly to a hill where he made a stand which drove the British spearhead back on the main body with the loss of several officers. He pursued the same tactics until he was within half a mile of Plattsburg Bridge where he was joined by Captain Leonard with two pieces of artillery which went into action and helped further to annoy the British. General Power had to order a bayonet charge to drive the Americans off, but Leonard succeeded in escaping with his guns and crossing the Saranac.

Meanwhile Macomb ordered the withdrawal of Appling and Sproull who had been performing a similar task with the second British column on the lake road. Just as the left column came into sight of the town, Appling and Sproull crossed the bridge and destroyed it behind them, while from the bay Macdonough's guns gave the British a warm welcome. Mooers' New Yorkers crossed by the upper bridge and then destroyed it. All the Americans were now on the far side of the river.

This preliminary action had a salutary effect upon Prevost, a timid man at best, who now was brought to the realization that he had a formidable foe in his front. Looking across the Saranac Sir George saw before him the new fortifications bristling with guns and men, obviously too strong to be taken immediately by storm and with no intention of yielding without a struggle. Prevost therefore halted his men and set them to work erecting artillery emplacements on the heights commanding the town from the far side of the river, while he waited for his heavy guns to come up.

For five days the two armies faced each other, separated only by the waters of the Saranac, and idle save for a casual exchange of shots between the batteries. There was one exception. On the night of the 9th Captain McGlassin, a Scotsman in Macomb's army, with 50 men slipped across the river in front of the town and stealthily made his way to the foot of a hill on which a battery was being erected. The first the British knew of the attack was when they p298heard the shouts of McGlassin's men as they clambered up the hill. Taken completely by surprise and assuming that the whole of the American army was upon them, the British departed precipitately leaving the guns behind them. The Americans seized the works, spiked the guns and retired across the river without the loss of a single man. The incident proved highly mortifying to Sir George and his distinguished major generals.

Prevost selected September 11 for his grand assault. According to his plan the land forces and the fleet were to attack simultaneously. The appearance of Captain Downie's squadron as it rounded Cumberland Head was to be the signal for the advance of the army on all fronts. Downie's force consisted of his flagship, the Confiance, a frigate of 38 guns, the brig Linnet, of 16 guns, commanded by Captain Pring, and the sloops Chub and Finch, each mounting 11 guns. In addition he had 12 gunboats or row‑galleys, eight of which mounted two guns, the other four mounting one gun each.

The responsibility for dealing with this enemy rested upon the broad shoulders of Captain Thomas Macdonough, a native of New Castle, Delaware. Macdonough had entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1798, and had taken part in the Tripoli campaign in which he distinguished himself in Decatur's bold entrance into the harbor of Tripoli and in the burning of the Philadelphia. At the outbreak of the War of 1812 he was immediately sent to Lake Champlain and there he had remained. So it was that the war was two years old and Macdonough had so far failed to share in the glory that had come to so many of his contemporaries in the naval service. Thirty‑one years of age, courageous and alert, the responsibility did not weigh heavily upon him. Rather his mind was occupied by the thought that at last his great opportunity had come.

Macdonough's little fleet was composed of the frigate Saratoga, 26 guns, which served as his flagship, the brig Eagle, 26 guns, under the command of Captain Robert Henley, the schooner Ticonderoga, mounting 17 guns and commanded by Lieutenant Stephen Cassin, and the sloop Preble, seven guns, under Lieutenant Charles Budd. He had also 10 gunboats, six mounting two guns each, and the other four a gun apiece. The opposing fleets were manned by about 800 men each. The British had a slightly greater number of p299guns but the Americans threw a greater weight of metal. On the whole, the forces were fairly evenly matched.

Macdonough, however, enjoyed a decided advantage in position. He had anchored his fleet across the mouth of the bay all the way from Cumberland Head to the shoal water off Crab Island. At the head of the line he placed two gunboats. Then came the Eagle, the Saratoga, the Ticonderoga, and the Preble in the order named. In a second line, and filling the gaps between his ships, he placed the remainder of his gunboats which were kept in position with oars. He took the wise precaution of using spring cables which afforded him an opportunity to turn his ships while at anchor and bring their guns to bear. Thus Macdonough stood ready to receive the enemy who had to deploy and form into line before engaging him. (See Map VIII, p295)

The morning of the 11th was clear and calm. It was still forenoon when, from the masthead, a lookout gave the warning and the first enemy vessel rounded the Head and hove into sight. This was a sloop which apparently had come merely to see the fun, for she took no part in the battle. Next to appear was the Finch, which bore down upon the Preble, at the right of the American line. She was quickly followed by the Chub and the Linnet, which sailed to the left of the American line to engage the Eagle; while last to arrive was the Confiance followed by the gunboats, which took station off Crab Island, joining the Finch for an attack on the Ticonderoga and the Preble. When the enemy came into view Macdonough, a devout man, called his officers and crew together and offered up a short prayer for victory before sending the men to their stations. The Eagle had the honor of opening the engagement, Captain Henley firing a broadside with his four long 18‑pounders at long range. As the Linnet passed to engage the Eagle she fired on the Saratoga, but the shot did little damage except to a coop in which the less devout members of the Saratoga's company had housed a champion game cock. The cock was released unharmed and flew to a gun slide where it crowed defiantly. This brought cheers from the sailors and provoked an unanswerable question as to how much they were inspired that day by their commander's prayer and how much by the champion of the cockpit.

p300 The Confiance was now within range and Macdonough with his own hand sighted a long 24‑pounder which sent a shot crashing across the water. It passed through the hawsehole of Downie's flagship, killed several men on her deck and smashed her wheel. Downie tried to close with the Saratoga, but the wind was against him and he was forced to anchor at a distance of 300 yards. He did not answer the Saratoga's fire until his ship was in position. Then from the larboard battery of the Confiance thundered a broadside from 24‑pounders, double-shotted and fired at point-blank range. The guns were well aimed and found their mark. The Saratoga shivered from stem to stern under the impact, her sails and rigging were ripped and torn and her decks were red with the blood of 40 of her complement who were killed or wounded in this first salvo.

Undismayed by the disaster Macdonough rallied and reorganized his men and kept them at the business of serving the guns. Fifteen minutes later a shell from the Saratoga landed squarely on one of the Confiance's guns and sent it hurtling crazily across the deck where Captain Downie was standing. The full weight of the carriage was thrown against the British commander and he was killed instantly. His loss at the crucial moment of the battle had a disastrous effect upon the British morale.

A like fate threatened Macdonough. Three times in the course of the action he was knocked unconscious and three times he revived and returned to duty after his men had supposed him dead. The battle now raged all along the line. A well-directed broadside from the Eagle crippled the Chub which slipped her moorings and drifted helplessly. A shot from the Saratoga finished her and she struck her colors. An hour later, at the far end of the British line, the Finch received such punishment from the Ticonderoga that she was driven from her position and went aground on the shoals off Crab Island. There the convalescents, who were not too ill to man the battery on the island, turned its guns on the Finch with such effect that she, too, struck.

The British gunboats now entered actively into the engagement and pounded the Preble so hard that she had to cut her cables and withdraw inshore. The Preble out of action, the gunboats next gave their undivided attention to the Ticonderoga and attempted to get close enough to board her. But Lieutenant Cassin was equal to the p301occasion. Indifferent to the hail of shot and shell around him he urged on his gunners and the Ticonderoga gave back as good as she received and the attack of the gunboats was repulsed.

At the other end of the line the Eagle was now in distress. In the heat of the conflict she sprang her cables and was exposed to the combined fire of the Linnet and the Confiance. Captain Henley, however, skillfully maneuvered his ship until the Eagle had dropped back between the Saratoga and the Ticonderoga, where he brought his larboard broadside to bear and continued the action.

Both the Saratoga and the Confiance were badly hurt and, in addition, the shift of the Eagle exposed the bow of the Saratoga to a raking fire from the Linnet. In fact Macdonough did not have a single starboard gun that was not disabled. His situation was critical, but here his excellent seamanship came into play. By means of a stream anchor and hawser he managed to wind his ship until her fresh larboard guns bore on the Confiance.

The British flagship attempted the same maneuver, but failed and she quickly found herself at the mercy of the Saratoga, which poured shot into her. In a few minutes her crew gave up hope and surrendered. The Saratoga now turned her attention to the Linnet, which fought on alone for 15 minutes before abandoning the struggle. Seeing that disaster had overtaken the ships, the gunboats followed their example and struck. Thus, after a struggle which lasted two hours and 20 minutes, the whole of the British fleet surrendered. Macdonough's ships, though victorious, had suffered almost as severely as the British, and the crews of the enemy gunboats took advantage of the temporary confusion to bend to their oars and row away from the scene of conflict. They were pursued for a short distance but made good their escape.

Macdonough now received the officers of the captured fleet on the deck of the Saratoga, complimented them on the fight they had put up and refused to accept their swords. After the events of the last two hours he could afford to be magnanimous. Then he dispatched a message to shore addressed to the Secretary of the Navy, which read:

"Sir, — The Almighty has been pleased to grant us a signal victory on Lake Champlain in the capture of one frigate, one brig, and two sloops of war of the enemy."

It was just a simple statement of fact. p302Had Macdonough possessed a gift for phraseology commensurate with his ability as a commander he might have become as immortal as Perry. In a later and more detailed report he stated that his losses were 52 killed and 58 wounded, and attributed to the British a loss of 200.

While the two fleets fought it out on the bay, the opposing armies battled on land. When Prevost learned of the arrival of Downie, according to the prearranged plan, he ordered his batteries to open up on the American position. Under the protection of the bombardment three columns advanced to the attack; one toward the site of the lower bridge, one by the upper bridge and the third by way of the upper ford. The first two columns were met by a fusillade from the defenders and, in spite of determined efforts, were unable to cross the river. The third, at the ford, was more successful. Here the attackers gained a foothold on the opposite shore and forced General Mooers and his New Yorkers to give ground. The retreat of the militia might have developed into a rout if the Vermonters had not arrived at this moment and steadied the nerves of their New York brethren. And then as the two forces faced each other, anticipating a renewal of the attack, a horseman dashed up to the American line to announce to General Mooers that the British fleet had surrendered. Inspired by this news the militiamen steadied themselves for the next onslaught. But it did not come. Instead, to their surprise, the British turned and retired from the front, yielding the ground they had recently gained. Prevost, it seems, upon learning of the defeat on the lake, ordered their recall.

The British attempted no further assault and the rest of the afternoon was spent in an exchange of desultory shots between the opposing batteries. There is a story to the effect that on the day of the battle the American secret service prepared a letter which purported to be addressed by Colonel Fassett of Vermont to General Macomb and in which he bade the latter to be of good cheer as Governor Chittenden was marching to St. Albans with 10,000 men, that 5,000 more were on the march from St. Lawrence county and an additional 4,000 from Washington county. This letter was intrusted to an Irishwoman who lived on Cumberland Head and who presented it to Prevost. Whether the letter was responsible, or whether the operations of the day were sufficient in themselves, Prevost became p303greatly alarmed. In the course of the night he dismounted his guns from the batteries and before dawn the whole of his army was retreating in haste across the border.

And so it came about that the forlorn hope was converted into an overwhelming victory. A British fleet had been captured by an American fleet of its own size while an American army, stiffened by regulars but composed in large part of militia, had successfully resisted a force of veteran British soldiers outnumbering it three to one! The threat of invasion by way of Lake Champlain was definitely ended. And Washington, in part at least, had been avenged.

Years later the aged Duke of Wellington was reviewing the exploits of his men when someone in the company recalled the Battle of Plattsburg and commented upon the strange fact that his veterans of the Spanish Peninsula had received so ignominious a defeat at the hands of an inferior number of Americans, for the most part receiving their baptism of fire.

"They did not turn out quite right," admitted the old warrior. Then, holding up his clenched hand, he added with conviction, "They wanted this iron fist to command them!"


Thayer's Note:

a The text as printed actually reads James A. Totten, a mistake: the Army's Chief Engineer was Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Joseph G. Totten (that link details his career, including this assignment to Gen. Izard's staff).


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