History of the Battle
In September of 1814, fifteen thousand British regulars fresh from victories in the Napoleonic Wars invaded New York from Canada, along with a flotilla of Royal Navy ships on Lake Champlain. Their intent was to reach New York City and divide our infant nation in two. Twenty five miles south lay the village of Plattsburgh and Cumberland Bay defended by 32 year old General Macomb’s 1500 regulars and a small hastily built fleet of out-gunned vessels commanded by Commodore Thomas Macdonough, only 30 years old himself.
On the morning of September 11th the armies clashed in tiny Plattsburgh with Sir George Prevost in command of the redcoats. At the same hour the British fleet rounded Cumberland Head where they met the anchored Americans poised and ready. A fierce battle ensued on land and water devastating both sides. A dying wind left the British unable to maneuver giving the Americans the advantage. Within three hours the British colors were struck and their commander Captain Downie lay dead. Seeing his fleet defeated, General Prevost withdrew his troops back to Canada.
The totally unexpected American victory thwarted the British plans to control Lake Champlain and led to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve, 1814.
The Battle of Plattsburgh Chronology
During the spring and summer of 1814, military activities increased on Lake Champlain. On the American side, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough and a work crew were building a naval fleet on Otter Creek in Vergennes, Vermont. An army of 5000 American soldiers gathered in Plattsburgh under the command of General George Izard. Starting in May, the Americans began building fortifications on Cumberland Head and on the peninsula between Lake Champlain and the Saranac River south of Plattsburgh. These fortifications consisted of two blockhouses and three forts: Fort Scott on the lake shore, Fort Moreau (the principal fort) in the center, and Fort Brown on the river.
The British meanwhile began gathering a large army at Chambly, Quebec, just north of the border. This buildup, under the command of General Sir George Prevost, was made possible by the British victory over Napoleon in the Spanish peninsula. Wellington's veterans were shipped directly to Canada. By August 1814, approximately 16,000 had been landed. The British also began building ships in the Richelieu River.
The American cause very nearly suffered a disastrous blow at the end of August, when the War Department in Washington ordered General Izard and the major part of his army to Sacketts Harbor on Lake Ontario to meet what officials in Washington felt would be the main British attack. Brigadier General Alexander Macomb took command of the troops remaining in Plattsburgh.
At the time of all this activity, Plattsburgh was a community with 78 houses, a court house, four taverns, 13 stores, and 11 shops and offices, including two newspapers. Its industry consisted of a tannery, two saw mills, a grist mill and a fulling mill which produced woolen fabric. Militarily, Plattsburgh was the gateway to the Champlain Valley, and it contained large quantities of military supplies.
General Macomb developed a strategy to make the best use of his limited resources. He converged his whole command into a tight defense force around the village. To accomplish this, he abandoned the defenses on Cumberland Head and concentrated efforts on the three forts and two blockhouses south of the village. They had been placed to form an impregnable barrier across the narrow peninsula between the lake and the river. After manning the forts and blockhouses, Macomb divided up the remainder of the small army into two groups of 100 and 300 men. Their mission was to spy on the British and to harass the British advance by obstructing roads, destroying bridges and abatising the woods. (Abatis were barriers of felled trees.)
The following is a day-by-day chronology of the actions leading to the Battle of Plattsburgh:
- August 29
General Izard departed for Sacketts Harbor with 4000 of his best men. He left 3400 soldiers in Plattsburgh under the command of Macomb. Only 1500 were effective fighting men; the remainder were the remnants of departing units, the sick, and infantrymen serving as marines.
- August 30
British advance units crossed the border to Champlain, NY. Macomb urged Major General Benjamin Mooers to call out the militia. Initially Clinton and Essex Counties were ordered to report, with orders later extended to Warren, Washington and Saratoga Counties. Macomb also appealed to Vermont for militia.
- September 1
The British army began massing at Champlain. In subsequent days, the British commandeered local teams and wagons and loaded them with heavy baggage and supplies for the march to Plattsburgh.
- September 2
The civilian exodus from Plattsburgh began. Many residents, including Henry Delord, went to the Union, the Quaker settlement in Peru. Betsey Delord and their infant daughter Frances Henrietta had left Plattsburgh earlier to stay with relatives in Albany and Waterford.
- September 3
General Prevost and more than 11,000 men gathered in Champlain. Orders went out to all American forces to delay the British advance as much as possible in order to provide time for completing fortifications in Plattsburgh.
- September 4
Leaving a reserve and the heavy artillery in Champlain, General Prevost and an army of 8200 marched to Chazy. A group of 110 riflemen stationed in the Chazy area under Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Appling fell back, destroying bridges and abatising the route of march. They joined a group of 200 infantrymen under Captain John Sproull and created a fortified position at Dead Creek in the vicinity of what is now Plattsburgh municipal beach.
- September 5
The right wing of the British army marched on a route through West Chazy to an encampment about two miles north of Beekmantown Corners. The left wing took the State Road (today's Route 9 North). The American forces on the Beekmantown Road were increased to 700 militia (from Clinton and Essex Counties) and 250 regulars under Major John Wool.
- September 6: Beekmantown Road
A first skirmish occurred at dawn when the British right column met Wool's detachment and the militia just north of Beekmantown Corners. Most of the militia fell back in great disorder and left the scene, but a portion stayed with Major Wool and contested the British advance.
The next engagement took place at Culver Hill, where Major Wool and some of the militia took a stand in short but severe fighting. At Culver Hill, Lieutenant Colonel James Wellington (no relation of the famous Duke) was killed in the fighting.
Major Wool's regulars and militia retreated to Halsey's Corners, contesting the advance. There another stand was made by a force of 250 men behind a stone wall south of Boynton Road. About 8 a.m., as the British column advanced, the Americans fired their cannon and rifles, inflicting heavy damage on the head of the column. A second and third volley brought the British on the double with bayonets, causing the Americans to retreat hastily with their artillery. They headed to town on the main road, closely followed by the British. When the British army finally crossed Dead Creek, it was heavily pounded by American gunboats as it followed the beach road.
- September 6: State Road (Route 9 North)
The advance of the British left column along the State Road was slower than that of the right column, owing to the swampy ground, the forests, delaying tactics of the American forces and the removal of the Dead Creek bridge. Because of the rapid advance of the right column, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Appling's American forces withdrew from their position at the Dead Creek bridge. They arrived in Plattsburgh just ahead of the British, who emerged from the woods at what is now the intersection of Cumberland and Boynton Avenues. From this position, Appling's forces fired on the British flanks. They then joined Major Wool's forces and drew back through Plattsburgh.
As the American forces retreated, they crossed the Saranac River and formed their artillery into a battery to cover the retreat of the infantry. After all troops had crossed the river, General Macomb ordered the planks removed from the bridge (at today's Bridge St. crossing) and formed into a breastwork to defend the crossing. The lower bridge was defended from the stone gristmill near its southern approach.
The British occupied houses near the lower bridge and fired on the Americans who were building fortifications. The Americans responded with hot shot, which set the houses on fire and forced the sharpshooters to retreat. As the British relocated in other buildings, the Americans continued firing hot shot. This process resulted in the destruction of about 15 buildings, including homes, stores, the courthouse and the jail.
The British light artillery and baggage arrived at nightfall. The army camped on high ground west of the village, in an area that included the grounds now occupied by the CVPH Medical Center. The officers moved into the homes of Plattsburgh's prominent citizens. Prevost made his headquarters in Edward Allen's home on the hill west of the village (at the juncture of Broad and Cornelia Streets).
The losses on this day were the heaviest of the siege – about 45 Americans and between 200 and 300 British were killed or wounded.
- September 7
The British artillery companies began building four large batteries and three small batteries within range of the American forts. Shipbuilding crews continued to work on finishing the Confiance, the flagship of the British naval fleet on Lake Champlain. British soldiers built scaling ladders from horse racks they had gathered around the countryside.
The Americans continued working on their fortifications. Volunteers began crossing the lake from Vermont, reaching a total of 2500 by the day of the battle. They joined 700 New York militia who arrived to help defend Plattsburgh. Lieutenant Macdonough began perfecting his battle strategy, choosing a site in Cumberland Bay that would allow the Americans to anchor where they could use their short-range cannons to best advantage.
- September 8
British gun crews had their first practice on the Confiance. General Macomb began visiting the various groups of volunteers and militia arriving in Plattsburgh and issuing his battle strategy: the forces were to form in small separate bands rather than large groups; they were to constantly harass the enemy and allow him no rest; they were to pick up stragglers to get information about the enemy plans; and they were never to oppose a regular attack, but retreat as the enemy advanced and advance as he retreated; and especially they were to prevent crossings at the upper fords of the river.
- September 9
Americans and British continued building fortifications. Captain George McGlassin left his sick bed and led a group of 50 Americans on a daring middle-of-the-night raid on a rocket battery that the British were building at the bend of the Saranac River just 500 yards from Fort Brown. The noisy charge frightened off the work crew of 300 British soldiers, and the Americans spiked the British rockets and retired without the loss of a man.
- September 10
As battle preparations continued on both sides, General Macomb's spies informed him of the impending attack.
- September 11
At dawn, the British fleet set sail from its anchorage off Chazy and arrived at Cumberland Head by 7:30 a.m. The fleet commander, Captain George Downie, and his officers expected General Prevost to launch his land attack at the first sight of the British ships. By capturing the American forts, the British planned to force the American fleet in between the British army and navy. A dying wind made it impossible for the British ships to get into the position they had intended. As they approached the Americans, about 8:00 a.m., they received heavy fire without being able to reply. At this point the British and American artillery began firing at each other as well. After approximately two hours of a pitched naval battle, the American forces emerged victorious.
On land, British troops, rather than attacking the American forts frontally, made their assaults at the two bridges, where they were repulsed by a determined American stand. More than half the British force forded the river a mile and a half above the upper bridge, at Pike's Cantonment. The American militia was unable to hold back this massive assault. Instead, they withdrew and attacked the British with snipers on all sides.
At this point, in the late morning, the British army commander learned of the victory of the American naval fleet (the Confiance had surrendered at 11 a.m.), and General Prevost gave an order to retreat. Although the artillery bombardments continued, the British forces began heading north.
- September 12
By 2 a.m., the entire British army was in full retreat to Canada. The totally unexpected American victory had thwarted British attempts for controlling Lake Champlain and annexing portions of the northeastern United States. This victory led to the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium, by the United States and Great Britain, which ended the War of 1812 on Christmas Eve, 1814.
Based on material from The Military Career of Alexander Macomb and Alexander Macomb at Plattsburgh, by Alan S. Everest Prepared by the Kent-Delord House Museum