History Of The Battle Of Plattsburgh

The Battle Of Plattsburgh

Feature Photo by Brian Kachejian © 2024

For those who visit the popular New York City called Plattsburgh, located in Clinton County off the shores of Lake Champlain, they may stumble upon the tall, standing Macdonough Monument, which pays tribute to Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. The monument pays homage to Macdonough and the Battle Of Plattsburgh, also known as the Battle Of Lake Champlain. Sir Winston Churchill has been quoted as saying the Battle Of Plattsburgh was the most significant victory of the War of 1812. However, it should be noted that the Battle of Plattsburgh was the result of lessons learned in previous US Naval victories in the War of 1812, such as the sinking of British ships off the coast of Nova Scotia by the US Constitution, and the 1813 battle at Lake Erie won by Captain Oliver Hazard Perry who proudly hailed about the British that his U.S. Naval forces had “met the enemy and they are ours.”

Before looking at the Battle Of Plattsburgh, it is essential to understand that a shipbuilding race between the British and the Americans began in early 1814. This race between the British and Americans would have had a significant impact on the Battle that occurred on Lake Champlain in 1814. The Americans had built a fleet of ships that included the 143-foot 26-gun Saratoga, as well as the 120-foot 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga, the 117-foot 20-gun big Eagle, as well as many other smaller gunboats and galleries. The Americans were preparing for the coming naval British invasion from the Canadian side.

The invasion did indeed come. In late August, during the summer of 1814, the British began their march towards Plattsburgh. The city of Plattsburgh is not far from the Canadian border. If you visit the city of Plattsburgh in 2024, you will see both the United States and Canadian flags flying in many parking lots. It is indeed a modern international city, although an old one at that. It’s about a twenty-minute drive from the center of Plattsburgh to the US-Canadian border. So, it must have been at least a day’s march from the Canadian border for the British soldiers when they targeted the city for attack.

The British easily took the town of Plattsburgh under the command of General Sir George Prevost. The plan was to take control of the city and wait for the mighty British Fleet to arrive before initiating an all-out assault on the American Naval yard and Forts in the area. That proved a mistake, as the British could have never imagined what awaited them on Lake Champlain. 

Interestingly, the date the naval battle of Plattsburgh began is the same September day of the month when the United States was attacked by terrorists in the year 2001. On a warm late summer morning on September 11, 1814, British Captain George Downie led the British fleet, consisting of the flagship Confiance, along with Linnet, Chub, Finch, and 12 gunboats, into Plattsburgh Bay. After losing two anchors to enemy fire, Downie prematurely anchored the Confiance at a distance from the American ship Saratoga and began firing. He picked a fight with the wrong ship that morning. Just fifteen minutes into the engagement, Captain Downie was fatally injured when a cannonball from the Saratoga hit a cannon aboard the Confiance, knocking it off its carriage and directly striking him, resulting in his immediate death.

As the battle progressed, nearly all of Macdonough’s starboard cannons on the Saratoga were rendered inoperative. Implementing a pre-planned strategy, the crew released the ship’s stern anchor and cut the bow cable, which enabled the flagship to rotate and bring its undamaged guns to bear. By this stage, the Confiance had suffered extensive damage. When the British flagship tried to perform a similar maneuver, it ended up stranded, facing the Saratoga. Subsequently, the officer commanding the Confiance surrendered. At 11:20 AM, Captain Daniel Pring of the Linnet also surrendered.

In the thick of a fierce naval clash, American Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and his significantly outnumbered troops mounted a valiant defense of three strategic forts on the southern banks of the Saranac River. As cannon fire roared across the waters, British General Prevost unleashed a massive artillery onslaught on the forts, timing it with the naval skirmish to maximize impact. Some British troops managed to infiltrate the Saranac, positioning themselves for a potential strike against Forts Scott, Brown, and Moreau. However, the tide of battle turned swiftly—the British fleet, battered and overwhelmed, surrendered before the assault on the forts could commence.

The moment news of the fleet’s surrender reached Prevost, he immediately ceased the artillery barrage. With the naval support lost and the momentum of battle shifted, Prevost had no choice but to retreat. He ordered his troops to withdraw, leading them back to Canada, leaving behind a battlefield where American resilience had once again proven decisive.

A few months later, on December 24, 1814, the war ended with the signing of the Treaty Of Ghent. It would be the final war between the British and the Americans, who woudl eventually become fierce allies almost one hundred years later in the first of two World Wars.

Sources:

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

My visit to the War Of 1812 Muesum In Plattsburgh: 31 Washington Rd, Plattsburgh, NY 12903

Newman, John J, and John M Schmalbach. United States History : Preparing for the Advanced Placement Examination. New York, N.Y, Amsco School Publications, 2020. p 130

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