“The Siege of Plattsburg”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1845 (Newspaper, "Brother Johnathan")
Keywords: war battle
Found in: US

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

Notes

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. 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 every before, 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 manged to lose anyway.

General Sir George Prevost, the British commander-in-chief in Canada, 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 (see Walter R. Borneman, _1812: The War that Forged a Nation_, pp. 199-200). He 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 the Niagara (see Donald R. Hickey, _The War of 1812_, p. 190).

Prevost was hardly enthusiastic. Even though he had some 10,000 troops at his disposal, 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 sent most of their available forces to Sackets Harbor to defend against a British thrust that never materialize. All 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). _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). The weight of broadide was about even, but the British ships, with more long guns, were much better for an action on open water.

An action on open water was just what they didn't get. When it came time to attack the American position at Plattsburg, Prevost 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 at the last minute by Captain George Downie (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 her 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. _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 -- but he proceeded to retreat 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." - RBW

Historical references

Cross references

References

  1. Lomax-ABFS, pp. 510-512, "Siege of Plattsburg" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Roud #15541
  3. BI, LxA510