Siege of Plattsburg, The
DESCRIPTION: "Back side of Albany stands Lake Champlain." "On Lake Champlain Uncle Sam set his boats, And Captain McDonough to sail 'em." The British come to attack Plattsburg, but scare off the British governor
EARLIEST DATE: 1845 (Newspaper, "Brother Johnathan")
KEYWORDS: war battle
Aug/Sept 1814 - Plattsburg campaign. As part of a three-pronged attack strategy (the other prongs being at Chesapeake Bay and the lower Mississippi), a British army of 11,000 regulars led by General Sir George Prevost and a naval force under Captain George Downie attack Lake Champlain.
Sept 6, 1814 - The British army reaches Plattsburg and awaits the navy
Sept 11, 1814 - Battle of Plattsburg. An American naval squadron under Captain Thomas Macdonough (1783-1825) defeats the British force in a fierce contest with very high casualties, compelling the British fleet to retreat in disorder. The British army, though under no military compulsion, retreats as well.
FOUND IN: US
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 510-512, "Siege of Plattsburg" (1 text, 1 tune)
ThompsonNewYork, pp. 351-352, "The Siege of Plattsburg" (1 text)
cf. "The Banks of Champlain" (subject)
cf. "Noble Lads of Canada" (subject)
NOTES [1379 words]: In 1814, with Napoleon temporarily under control after the Battle of Leipzig and, later, his abdication, the British decided to finally finish off the War of 1812 with the Americans. They decided on a three-pronged attack -- the northern force starting from the Great Lakes, the center heading for Washington D.C., and the southern attack being made on New Orleans.
Considering that the British would have more force available than ever before (because they could use the ships and men that had been fighting Napoleon), and that they had generally had the best of it to that time even with their minimal forces -- pushing back every American attack on Canada and eventually driving most of the small American fleet off the seas -- the results were disastrously bad.
Only the middle assault had any success, when Robert Ross's men burned many of the government buildings in Washington. Their move toward Baltimore, however, was stopped at the siege of Fort McHenry, commemorated in "The Star Spangled Banner."
The Battle of New Orleans (for which see, e.g., "The Hunters of Kentucky" and "The Battle of New Orleans" [Laws A7]) resulted in the death of the slow-moving British commander Pakenham and the defeat of his force. To be sure, that assault followed the attack on Baltimore -- and the peace treaty.
Plattsburg, though, was the real disaster, because the British had every advantage and managed to lose anyway.
General Sir George Prevost, the British commander-in-chief in Canada (and before that at varuous points around the Caribbean; Heidler/Heidler, p. 428) had done a good job to this point, but he had never actually commanded in the field; Isaac Brock had won the great victories of 1812 (see "The Battle of Queenston Heights" and "Brave General Brock" [Laws A22]), and Gordon Drummond had been field commander at Lundy's Lane in 1814 (see "The Battle of Bridgewater"). With the British finally going on the offensive now that extra troops were available, Prevost himself took charge.
Orders from London told him to advance toward Lake Champlain, which would among other things split Federalist New England (which had opposed the war and was still trying to trade with the British) from the more pro-war West and South (Borneman, pp. 199-200). Prevost had every advantage, too: The Americans, expecting more action on the Niagara front, had sent roughly half of the forces they had had in the Champlain area to Sacket's Harbor to meet a threat which never materialized (Hickey, p. 190; Heidler/Heidler, p. 420).
Prevost was hardly enthusiastic. Even though he had some 10,000 troops at his disposal (Jameson says 14,000), all regulars, meaning that he could sweep aside any force the Americans could put up, he wanted his ships to control the rivers. As a result, he dawdled (Borneman, p. 201). This even though the Americans had left in the Champlain region was a few thousand soldiers under Brigadier General Alexander Macomb (whose wife would eventually be credited with writing another song about this battle, "The Banks of Champlain"), plus the naval forces that 31-year-old Master Commander Thomas Macdonough could scrape up. These were inferior to the British forces (the British had captured two of the stronger American ships in 1813, giving them naval superiority; Hickey, p. 190), but Macdonough was to handle them brilliantly, and Prevost would do the rest.
Each fleet had one big vessel at Lake Champlain: The Americans had a 700-tonner named Saratoga, with 26 guns; the British had the strongest ship on the lake in the 1200-ton, 37-gun Confiance -- which was, however, so new that workmen were still aboard her as she headed up Lake Champlain! (Hickey, p. 190). Confiance was supported by the 16-gun Linnet and the 11-gun sloops Chub and Finch (the ships taken from the Americans the year before).
The American flagship Saratoga's consorts were the 20-gun Eagle, the 17-gun Ticonderoga, the 7-gun Preble, and a bunch of one-gun and two-gun small fry (the British had some of those, too; see Borneman, pp. 205-206). Most of these were slapped together in just two months, using construction shortcuts and unsuitable wood (Delgado, p. 111), although the Ticonderoga had already been under construction; she had been started as a steamship and was hastily converted to a schooner-rigged warship (Delgado, p. 110).
The weight of broadide of the two fleets was about even, but the American ships were short of sailors, they were manned with "soldiers, convicts from an army chain gang[,] and army musicians" (Delgado, p. 110). And the British ships, with more long guns, were much better for an action on open water (Heidler/Heidler, p. 420).
An action on open water was just what they didn't get. When it came time to attack the American position at Plattsburg, Prevost again wanted his navy to go first, even though the man who had built the British fleet and who knew the local waters, Lieutenant Daniel Pring, had been replaced as head of the fleet by Captain George Downie at the last minute (Borneman, pp. 204-205). Downie would play right into Macdonough's hands.
The American general Macomb had set up his lines on the edge of Plattsburg Bay. This let Macdonough put his forces at the head of the bay, making it difficult for the British to attack at long range; they almost had to turn into the bay, exposed to Macdonough's broadsides -- and, because they had to turn, they would lose most of their wind. Plus MacDonough had a trick: He had Saratoga tied to a series of winches so he could turn her around in place should her starboard side (facing the battle) be too damaged (Borneman, pp. 208-211).
The two lead ships, Saratoga and Confiance, were soon locked in battle. Saratoga probably took more damage (the British were firing heated cannonballs, which twice set her afire; Hickey, p. 191), but one of Saratoga's shots killed Downie, and at the key moment Macdonough spun his ship around. Confiance tried the same trick, couldn't manage it -- and took so much damage in the process that she had to strike her colors. Paine, p, 119, estimates that she took 105 hits from round shot, killing 40 of her crew and wounding 83. Saratoga was too damaged to fight an open-water action -- the two sides had roughly equal casualties -- but she had won. And, without Confiance, the rest of the British fleet was doomed. Linnet struck her colors about fifteen minutes later, and the battle was over (Borneman, p. 212).
Prevost still had at least a two to one edge on land, and it was probably closer to three to one (if Jameson's numbers are right, it was four to one) -- but he retreated anyway, without even seriously engaging Macomb (Borneman, pp. 213-214; Hickey, p. 193). The British thrust in the North -- the potential war-winner -- was at an end. Indeed, as it turned out, that was the effective end of the war on the Canadian frontier.
The American victories at Plattsburg and Baltimore, especially the former, were largely responsible for the end of the war; the Duke of Wellington told the British government that they needed naval superiority on the Great Lakes, and Plattsburg proved once and for all that they didn't have it. The Americans and British had been negotiating, but the two defeats caused the British to back off their harsher demands.
Ironically, the final Treaty of Ghent didn't even address the issues over which Madison had gone to war (impressment, etc.), though it did eventually result in some boundary clarifications.
Incidently, Paul Stamler tells me that they now spell the name of the town "Plattsburgh."
Macomb earned a major general's commission for Plattsburg, and eventually became commander-in-chief of the Unites States army from 1835 until 1841 (Jameson, p. 391). MacDonald, however, whose careful planning had been the key to the victory on the lake, soon contracted tuberculosis (if he wasn't suffering from it already), and spent most of the rest of his career ashore. He never rose above the rank of captain, and died in 1825 at the age of 41 (Heidler/Heidler, p. 313).
Archaeologists have now discovered the wrecks of several of the ships at Plattsburg, including Eagle, Ticonderoga, and Linnet. Presumably artifacts will someday show up in museums. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.0
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Delgado: James P. Delgado, Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea, Checkmark, 2001
- Heidler/Heidler: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, 1997 (I use the 2004 Naval Institute Press edition)
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encylopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
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