On June 30, Governor General of Canada George Prevost receives orders to establish a foothold on Lake Champlain. At this point, the Ghent peace negotiations are going nowhere. The talks have moved beyond the issue of the impressment of American sailors by the British Navy, one of the major reasons the Americans declared war in the first place. The U.S. seems perfectly willing to remove impressment from the agenda altogether. On the British side, the strategy appears to be to drag the negotiations out as long as possible.
What the British really want is exclusive navigation rights on the Great Lakes as well as possession of the territory they have already conquered. The British also expect Prevost’s troops will soon seize Sackett’s Harbor and Plattsburg. The British prime minister, Lord Liverpool, believes Plattsburg and Sacket’s Harbour, along with British-controlled Fort Niagara and Michilimackinac, will be useful bargaining chips at the Ghent talks. Liverpool has good reason to be optimistic.
Wellington’s troops, inspired by their defeat of Napoleon, are pouring into North America by the thousands. They are reputedly the best fighting men in the world. Liverpool thinks they will have no difficulty making mincemeat out of the upstart Americans and their largely undisciplined militia forces. In the period leading up to the battle, it appears the British squadron on Lake Champlain has the upper hand. The British have scored a string of victories, the most successful occurring on July 3, 1813. On this occasion 2 American sloops venture north of the border in an effort to blockade the British fleet. British gunboats soon capture the ships. They are renamed HMS Chubb and HMS Finch and are used the following summer by the British, at the Battle of Plattsburg Bay.
Both sides embark on a shipbuilding race in the months preceding the main battle. US Commander Thomas Macdonough forms a successful association with New York shipbuilder Noah Brown. In the spring they launch the 120-foot USS Saratoga at the Vergennes shipyard and manage to build the 20-gun brig USS Eagle in a record seventeen days. Not to be outdone, the British counter with a building program of their own that results in the launch of Downie’s flagship, the 146-foot HMS Confiance, at Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River.
The Battle of Plattsburgh, also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain, ended the final invasion of the Northern states during the War of 1812. Fought just prior to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the American victory denied the British any leverage to demand exclusive control over the Great Lakes and any territorial gains against the New England states.
1814 Emperor Napoleon had abdicated the throne of France. This provided England the opportunity to send veteran troops to North America. Governor-Gen. Sir George Prevost now had enough troops to launch an offensive into the U.S. Prevost had about 11,000 regulars with the support of a British fleet under George Downie. In the midst of the peace negotiations between the U.S. and Britain, Prevost wished to gain a significant victory in order to give Britain bargaining power to demand control of the Great Lakes waterway. Prevost chose to move down the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain. Since the Richelieu River was at the time the only waterway connecting Lake Champlain to the ocean, trade on that lake naturally had to be through Canada.
Gen. George Izard was the American commander along the Northeast frontier. Just prior to Prevot's invasion, Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. ordered Izard to take the majority of his force, about 4,000 troops, to reinforce Sacket's Harbor. Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb was left in command with only 1,500 American regulars at Plattsburg, New York. Thomas Macdonough, who commanded the naval forces on Lake Champlain, had been ordered by Secretary of the Navy William Jones to build a fleet earlier that summer. By the fall of 1814, Macdonough had about 10 gunboats ready for action on the lake. Macomb ordered Gen. Benjamin Mooers to call out the New York militia and appealed to the governor of Vermont for militia. Soon his force numbered over 3,000 regulars and militia.
However the militia units were mostly untrained and hundreds more were unfit for duty. Macomb put the militia troops to use digging trenches and building fortifications. He even created an invalid battery on Crab Island that was to be manned by sick or wounded soldiers who were at least fit to fire the cannon. The towns people of Plattsburgh had so little faith in Macomb's efforts to repulse the invasion that by September nearly all 3,000 inhabitants had fled the city. Plattsburgh was left occupied only by the American army.
On September 4, Prevost began marching south. Macomb sent forward advance units to fight a delaying action to buy time for the Plattsburgh defenses. At Chazy, the advance units first made contact with the British. Slowly falling back, the Americans set up road blocks, burned bridges and mislabeled streets to slow down the British. Meanwhile Macomb's forces worked feverishly to complete a series of forts and blockhouses circling Plattsburgh which were essential to his defensive strategy. Prevost reached Plattsburgh on September 6 but he did not attack. Instead he waited for Captain Downie's fleet to reach Plattsburgh Bay. Several gunboats preceded Downie's main fleet into the lake. Capt. Daniel Pring, the commander of the gunboats, set up a battery on Isle le Motte which was Vermont territory. This was the first time a British force had stepped foot onto Vermont soil and now the Vermonters whole heartedly swarmed across the lake to Plattsburg's defenses.
Macdonough knew his fleet was outmanned and out gunned. He therefore withdrew into Plattsburgh Bay and used the time waiting to drill his sailors. Finally, on September 11, Downie's fleet reached Plattsburgh Bay and at about 9 o'clock in the morning opened fire on Macdonough's fleet. At the same time British land batteries opened fire but Prevost held off the attack. In short time every vessel was engaged in the battle. Shortly after the battle began, Downie was killed and Macdonough knocked unconscious but only for a short while. Manned by inexperienced crews, the British fleet had trouble dealing with the winds in the bay.
After 2 hours, nearly every vessel had sustained serious damage including both Macdonough's flagship USS Saratoga and the British flagship HMS Confiance. At this time Macdonough managed to spin USS Saratoga around and personally taking command of one of the cannon he ordered the unused and undamaged portside guns to open fire. The renewed fire was so devastating that HMS Confiance was unable to return the fire and soon lowered its colors. With most of the British fleet disabled or sinking, the British officers boarded USS Saratoga to offer their swords to Macdonough. When he saw the officers, Macdonough replied "Gentlemen return your swords to your scabbards, you are worthy of them".
When Prevost had reached Plattsburgh on the September 6, he attempted to cross the Saranac River and move in close to the city's defenses. Holding the bridge across the river was a small force of regulars under Maj. John E. Wool. Wool's regulars repulsed each British attempt to cross the river, inflicting heavy losses.
On September 7 Prevost abandoned his efforts to cross the river for the time being and instead began constructing batteries. The Americans responded with 'hot-shot', an artillery tactic in which the cannon balls were heated red-hot and quickly fired with the intention to set fire to the target. Macomb succeeded in setting fire to several buildings the British were using as cover and forcing them to withdraw further away. However in the process he did destroy about 16 buildings of Plattsburg.
On September 9, a night raid succeeded in destroying a British battery only 500 yards from one of the American fortifications. On September 11, Prevost planned to overrun the city and trap the American fleet between the land batteries and Downie's navy. At 9 o'clock when the naval battle begun, Prevost held back his attack on the city. He didn't order his men forward until 11 o'clock when the naval battle was nearly over and Macdonough was ensured of victory. Prevost decided against a frontal assault and instead attempted to cross the Saranac River and flank the city. Again at the Saranc crossing the British were repulsed several times with heavy losses. To the west another British flanking attack made some headway against the American militia. The militia retreated and the British regulars pushed them back so far that the rear of the American lines became threatened. Macomb sent in reinforcements of Vermont militia which helped to stop the British at the Salmon River. At this time, with the land attacks repulsed a messenger arriver and notified Prevost that his navy had been defeated on the lake. Prevost decided to call off any further attacks and ordered a retreat.
The Battle of Plattsburgh proved that under capable leadership raw militia units could stand their own against seasoned regulars. Also Prevost had achieved what the U.S. government had been unable to do for the entire war up to that point, and that was to bring the state of Vermont into the war. Alexander Macomb was promoted to major general and became commanding general of the U.S. army in 1828. Thomas Macdonough was promoted to Commodore and would be remembered as the "Hero of Lake Champlain",
The British had used their victories at the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington, D.C. to counter any U.S. demands during the peace negotiations up to this point. Now the Americans were able to use the repulse at Plattsburgh to demand exclusive rights to Lake Champlain and deny the British exclusive rights to the Great Lakes. The victory at Plattsburgh and the victory at the Battle of Baltimore which was to come just a few days later would deny the British any advantage for territorial gains in the Treaty of Ghent.
At dawn on September 11, Maj. Gen. Frederick P. Robinson is eager to proceed to the ford of the Saranac River. Robinson commands the bulk of the British troops. They have been camped outside Plattsburg for five days awaiting the arrival of the British naval squadron.
The naval battle has finally gotten under way. According to the plan, Robinson is to simultaneously cross the river and attack the American redoubts around Plattsburg. His superior, Sir George Prevost, is in no hurry, though. Prevost reviews his strategy and finally tells Robinson to advance on Plattsburg at ten o’clock. Robinson loses more time trying to find the ford to the river when his guides get lost. Once at the Saranac, Robinson’s troops quickly overcome the American defenders and are soon formed in battle order on the far side. Just as Robinson is about to order an all-out attack, a messenger arrives; the British fleet has been defeated and Prevost has ordered a general retreat. Robinson can’t believe it. His crack regular troops outnumber the American defenders three-to-one. Major General Thomas Brisbane tells Prevost the forts can be taken in twenty minutes. Prevost won’t allow it. The invading army retreats. The withdrawal is so quick that the British Army is half way to the Canadian border before it dawns on the American commander, General Macomb, that the enemy is gone.
The British officers return to England to face a court martial. Most of them are exonerated and the defeat is blamed on George Prevost.
Carpenters and riggers spend the week preceding the battle frantically working to finish the British flagship Confiance. There is so much work to be done that the craftsmen leave the vessel only minutes before the start of the engagement. The British naval commander, George Downie, has been under tremendous pressure from Governor General George Prevost. Prevost is waiting outside of Plattsburg with his army and does not want to attack until the British fleet arrives.
Prevost has sent a series of urgent messages to Downie. At one point, he even questions Downie’s willingness to fight. These letters goad the naval commander into attacking, though he knows his fleet is not ready. Perhaps even more dangerous is the fact that Downie decides to engage the Americans on their terms: U.S. commander Thomas Macdonough has been allowed to dictated the location and strategy of the battle. The British fleet consists of the Confiance, Linnet, Chubb, Finch and 12 gunboats. George Downie sails his vessels into Plattsburg Bay on the morning of September 11, 1814. Hampered by unfavourable winds and under heavy fire, the Confiance anchors prematurely and fouls some of its anchors. Captain George Downie is killed only fifteen minutes into the action and is replaced by Lieutenant James Robertson on the Confiance, overall command goes to Captain Daniel Pring. After knocking the Preble and the Eagle out of action, it looks like the British fleet is poised to win. Macdonough, then makes a surprise move. He winches his flagship Saratoga around to bring a new broadside to bear on the battered Confiance. The British flagship, with its fouled anchors, is unable to copy the maneuver.
The British gunboats flee. Robertson realizes he is beaten and the Confiance strikes her colours. The British squadron surrenders.
The American commander at Plattsburg, Major General George Izard, has recently moved the bulk of his troops over to Sacket’s Harbour. Izard leaves behind Major General Alexander Macomb to head a combination of 3,500 invalid regulars and raw militia. The leading citizens of Plattsburg have so little faith in Macomb’s capacity to repel the British that they want him to withdraw. Macomb however, has already made plans to blow up the town rather than let the enemy have it.
Upon hearing of the British invasion, Macomb calls for volunteers. Vermonters stream in to help defend Plattsburg. Prevost’s invasion has accomplished what the U.S. government has been unable to. Until now, Vermonters cared so little for the war that they have been the British Army’s main supplier of beef. Not only that, but most of the timbers and rigging of the British flagship, Confiance, have been purchased from Vermont smugglers.
Macomb knows his volunteers are no match for the British regulars. He also knows that he doesn’t have the time to train them, but there are plenty of useful things the volunteers can do: dig trenches, put up fortifications, demolish buildings to improve lines of fire, and plant trees on roads to mislead the invaders. Macomb puts them to work.
On September 1, the very day George Downie arrives at Isle aux Noix to take charge of the British squadron, U.S. Commander Thomas Macdonough moves his ships into Plattsburg Bay. Macdonough is aware that the enemy outgun him, especially at long range. Instead of meeting the British on the open lake, he chooses to anchor his squadron inside Plattsburg Bay
Macdonough resolves to wait for the enemy to come to him; once the British sail into the bay they will be forced to engage him at close quarters. The naval commander disposes his ships in a north-south line, extending from near Crab Island to within a mile of Cumberland Head. As an added precaution, Macdonough has his vessels set special anchors which will allow the ships to come about a full 180 degrees without using sail. At approximately 9 am on September 11, the British fleet attacks. The British commander George Downie has been pressured into attacking prematurely by his superior, George Prevost. Downie’s flagship, the newly-built Confiance is not yet ready for battle and is crewed with inexperienced men. The prevailing northerly winds prove advantageous for the Americans. The British are forced to tack toward the U.S. ships. Soon, all the vessels are engaged in furious battle. Shortly into the engagement Macdonough is knocked down for several minutes. He has sighted one of the Saratoga’s cannons (one of his new 26 gun ships), when a cannonball cuts the spanker boom in two, and the heavy spar falls on him. As he regains his bearings, he is again knocked to the deck by the flying head of his gun captain, who has received a direct hit by a cannonball. The captain’s severed head hits Macdonough with such force that he is knocked to the other side of his vessel. By 11 am, both flagships, as well as most of the other vessels are so battered that it is hard to tell who has the upper hand. Macdonough still has a major trump to play: by having his crew haul on some of the Saratoga’s hawsers while letting go of others, he successfully turns his ship around. His fresh port side guns fire renewed broadsides at the Confiance. The British flagship can’t duplicate the maneuver and is quickly forced to strike its colours.
Macdonough then turns his guns on the rest of the British ships. The British gunboats flee and the remaining warships are forced to surrender. The American naval victory is unequivocal and complete.