Military Subjects:  War of 1812


 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 3: June 2006

Articles

“To Obtain if Possible Ultimate Security to His Majesty’s Possessions in America:”[1] The Plattsburgh Campaign of 1814

Photographs and Text by John R. Grodzinski

Author’s Note: The Plattsburgh Campaign of 1814 is to this day, one that has been poorly served by the secondary literature discussing it. The intent of this brief essay is not to provide a detailed account of the events of the summer and early fall of 1814, but rather to provide a general introduction in order to provide some context to the images. Readers of this Magazine are invited to share their research and views in order to enhance our understanding of the events of this period in the war.

With the abdication of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, Great Britain found itself freed of the European war and immediately set about to reinforce her army in North America, now in the third year of an unwanted war with the United States. Not only did this signal a significant increase in the garrison, but also a shift of policy, in that after two years of a largely defensive strategy, the British were now going on the offensive. As outlined in Lord Bathurst’s instructions written on 3 June 1814 and received by Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, the Governor in Chief of British North America and commander of the forces there, that July, the new offensive strategy had two objectives:

  • Firstly, to guarantee the safety of Canada during the balance of the war; and
  • Secure the basis of a satisfactory boundary ratification, by enabling British peace commissioners to argue for the retention of certain conquered territory[2]

Accomplishment of the first objective would be through the destruction of the American naval base at Sackets Harbor and the naval establishments on Lake Erie and Champlain; while the second included holding Fort Niagara and territory adjacent to it, and the occupation of Detroit and the Michigan Territory.[3] It should be remembered, that the British occupied Fort Niagara following the unsuccessful American campaign in the Niagara during 1813, while south-western Upper Canada had been occupied by the Americans since their victory at the Thames in October 1813. Both sides were touchy about the integrity of their respective frontiers, particularly as peace negotiations were about to commence in Europe.

Other, vigorous offensive operations were also planned along the Atlantic seaboard and were aimed at Washington, Baltimore and Maine, designed either to aid in securing the frontier or to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favour of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada.”[4]

It is not the intent of the photo essay to enter upon a debate of the British aims, other than to say that this phase of the war has, perhaps not surprisingly, been misunderstood to this day.

Following his instructions, Prevost believed Plattsburgh, along Lake Champlain in Upstate New York, a point that would materially enhance the security of the British provinces to the north. As reinforcements flowed in, there were organized into a three-brigade division under the command of Major-General Francis de Rottenburg. Historians have given far ranging estimates of the size of this force, ranging from 14,000 men to about 8,000. Recent examinations of the appropriate weekly returns, including subtraction of sick, personnel on command and other reasons, place the total effective strength of this division at 7,696 officers and men, of which less than one-third were the much hyped veterans of Wellington’s Peninsular Army.[5]

Prevost’s plan was to employ a newly constructed naval squadron to gain naval supremacy on Lake Champlain, while the land forces would take the town. Opposing him were Brigadier-General Alexander Macomb’s 1,700 soldiers in the town, while Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough commanded the American naval squadron on the lake.

The British forces crossed the frontier on 1 September 1814 and by the evening of the 6th, the first elements were entering Plattsburgh. Macomb had retreated across the Saranac River, which divided the town in two and ordered the planking removed from two bridges. Rather than attack immediately, Prevost chose to wait until the next day in order to reconnoitre the enemy positions and to find suitable fords. He then decided to delay even more to allow the British naval squadron to engage and defeat Macdonough’s, after which they would support the land attack. Prevost knew that the squadron was far from ready, but pressed it into action nonetheless. It was Macdonough who proved victorious and his success had an immediate impact on Prevost, who had already ordered two of his brigades to attack.

As the naval gunfire opened on 11 September 1814, a brigade under Major-General Brisbane, was to create a diversion at the plankless bridges over the Saranac, while Major-General Robinson led a much larger force across a ford three miles up river in order to assault the American forces from the flank and rear. As these attacks were going in, Prevost was watching the naval action and upon realizing the Americans had won the engagement, he ordered the attacks to halt. This came a shock to Robinson, whose men were already across the ford and had pushed back the American defenders, the importance of which apparently eluded Macomb.

The next day, Prevost ordered his army back to Lower Canada, where Prevost became the object of much ridicule,[6] while Macomb and Macdonough were lauded for what was perceived to be a great victory, the news of which enhanced the position of the American delegation, which had earlier suffered a blow upon hearing the news of the British attack on Washington, at the peace talks at Ghent.

A Selection of Photos Dealing with the Plattsburg Campaign Taken in May 2006

Click on the image for a larger version.

The Macdonough Monument

This majestic memorial to the American naval victory at Plattsburgh rises 135 feet above a park opposite Plattsburgh City Hall, from where this photo was taken. Inscribed near the base are the names of Macdonough’s primary vessels, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, Eagle and Preble. It was dedicated in 1926.

The Macdonough Monument
   

Defence of Saranac River

This view is looking east along the British approach to the bridge that formed Macomb’s main defensive position. A plaque appears on the base of the bridge as depicted in the next photo. It was against this position that Prevost launched his diversionary attack on 11 September 1814.

Saranac River Bridge
   

Plaque on the Bridge over the Saranac River

The is plaque reads: “In commemoration of the gallant and successful resistance of the American troops to the repeated attempts of the British Army to cross the bridge over the Saranac river at this point September 5-11 1814. Erected by the faculty and students of the Plattsburgh Normal School January 1895.”

 

 

 

 

Plaque on Saranac River Bridge
   

British Hospital

West of the bridge is an impressive residence that once belonged to Charles Durham, and which during the battle was used as a hospital by the British forces. When the photo was taken, it was up for sale and one hopes developers will not destroy it.

 

British Hospital at Plattsburgh
   

General Macomb’s Headquarters

Just a short way from the bridge shown above, is a how that was once owned by Major-General Benjamin Moors of the New York State Militia and which during September 1814, served as Brigadier-General Macomb’s headquarters. It is still a private residence.

General Macomb’s Headquarters
   

Hubell House, Chazy New York

Chazy is located along Lake Champlain, almost halfway between Plattsburgh and the border with Canada. During the War of 1812, this building housed the legal offices of Julius C. Hubbell. During the advance on Plattsburgh it was used to house a British headquarters, while during the retreat, it fulfilled a similar purpose. It is now the local public library.

Hubell House, Chazy New York
   

Plattsburgh Bay

This view looks eastward across Plattsburgh Bay, site of the American naval victory on 11 September 1814. In the far distance is Cumberland Head.

 

 

Plattsburgh Bay

 

Notes:

[1] Prevost to Bathurst, 3 June 1814, reprinted in J. Mackay Hitsman, “The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History,” Robin Brass Studio, 1999, p. 290.

[2] Ibid and page 214-215.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bathurst to Sherbrooke, c. May 1814, PRO WO 6, vol 2, 1.

[5] Donald E. Graves, “"The Finest Army Britain Ever Sent to North America:" The Composition, Strength, and Losses of British Land Forces During the Plattsburgh Campaign, September 1814,” p. 3. This paper was also published in the “Journal of the War of 1812,” Volume VII, No, 4, Fall/Winter 2003, pp. 6-12.

[6] The decision to withdraw, combined with a vicious campaign to have him relieved led to Prevost’s commission as Governor in Chief being revoked in March 1815 and he was ordered back to England. Prevost demanded a public court martial to clear him name, but died before it could sit.



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