Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Battle of Plattsburgh

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. A British army under Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost and a naval squadron under Captain George Downie converged on the lakeside town of Plattsburgh, which was defended by American troops under Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and ships commanded by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. Downie's squadron attacked shortly after dawn on 11 September 1814, but was defeated after a hard fight in which Downie was killed. Prévost then abandoned the attack by land against Macomb's defences and retreated to Canada, stating that even if Plattsburgh was captured, it could not be supplied without control of the lake.

The battle took place shortly before the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the war. The American victory denied the British negotiators at Ghent leverage to demand any territorial claims against the United States on the basis of Uti possidetis i.e. retaining territory they held at the end of hostilities

At about 9 am, the British squadron rounded Cumberland Head close-hauled in line abreast, with the large ships to the north initially in the order Chubb, Linnet, Confiance and Finch, and the gunboats to the south. It was a fine autumn day, but the wind was light and variable, and Downie was unable to manoeuvre Confiance to the place he intended, across the head of Macdonough's line. As Confiance suffered increasing damage from the American ships, he was forced to drop anchor between 300 and 500 yards from Macdonough's flagship, the Saratoga. He then proceeded deliberately, securing everything before firing a broadside which killed or wounded one fifth of Saratoga's crew. Macdonough was stunned but quickly recovered; and a few minutes later, Downie was killed.
Macomb watches the Naval Battle. Note that this painting is horizontally reversed; as shown it would mean that the American land forces were on the North side of the Saranac river, but were in fact on the South.

Elsewhere along the British line, the sloop Chubb was badly damaged and drifted into the American line, where her commander surrendered. The brig Linnet, commanded by Pring, reached the head of the American line and opened a raking fire against the USS Eagle. At the tail of the line, the sloop Finch failed to reach station and anchor, and although hardly hit at all, Finch drifted aground on Crab Island, and surrendered under fire from the 6-pounder gun of the battery manned by the invalids from Macomb's hospital. Half the British gunboats were also hotly engaged at this end of the line. Their fire forced the weakest American vessel, the Preble to cut its anchors and drift out of the fight. The Ticonderoga was able to fight them off, although it was engaged too hotly to support Macdonough's flagship. The rest of the British gunboats apparently held back from action, and their commander later deserted.

After about an hour, the USS Eagle had the springs to one of her anchor cables shot away, and was unable to bear to reply to HMS Linnet's raking fire. Eagle's commander cut the remaining anchor cable and drifted down towards the tail of the line, before anchoring again astern of the USS Saratoga and engaging HMS Confiance, but allowing Linnet to rake Saratoga. Both flagships had fought each other to a standstill. After Downie and several of the other officers had been killed or injured, Confiance's fire had become steadily less effective, but aboard USS Saratoga, almost all the starboard-side guns were dismounted or put out of action.

Macdonough ordered the bow anchor cut, and hauled in the kedge anchors he had laid out earlier to spin Saratoga around. This allowed Saratoga to bring its undamaged port battery into action. Confiance was unable to return the fire. The frigate's surviving Lieutenant tried to haul in on the springs to his only anchor to make a similar manoeuvre, but succeeded only in presenting the vulnerable stern to the American fire. Helpless, Confiance could only surrender. Macdonough hauled in further on his kedge anchors to bring his broadside to bear on HMS Linnet. Pring sent a boat to Confiance, to find that Downie was dead and the Confiance had struck its colours. The Linnet also could only surrender, after being battered almost into sinking. The British gunboats withdrew, unmolested.

The surviving British officers boarded Saratoga to offer their swords (of surrender) to Macdonough. When he saw the officers, Macdonough replied, "Gentlemen, return your swords to your scabbards, you are worthy of them". Commander Pring and the other surviving British officers later testified that Macdonough showed every consideration to the British wounded and prisoners. Many of the British dead, not including the officers, were buried in an unmarked mass grave on nearby Crab Island, which was the site of the military hospital during the battle, where they remain today.

Both commanders would have seen the parallels of Macdonough's anchorage on Lake Champlain to that of the French under Vice Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys, opposing British Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, at the Battle of the Nile in Aboukir Bay on 1 August 1798. A study of Nelson's battles was part of the professional knowledge expected of naval commanders. But Macdonough did all that Brueys did not. He expected to take advantage of the prevailing winds on Lake Champlain that constrained Downie's axis of approach. "Because nearly every circumstance that worked to Nelson's advantage proved disadvantageous to Downie, the Battle of Lake Champlain is sometimes called the False Nile" by the English. The British naval historian William Laird Clowes regarded Macdonough's False Nile victory as "a most notable feat, one which, on the whole, surpassed that of any other captain of either navy in this war."

Macdonough's victory had stopped the British offensive in its tracks. Also, Prévost had achieved what the U.S. government had been unable to do for the entire war up to that point: to bring the state of Vermont into the war.[citation needed]

The British had used their victories at the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington to counter any U.S. demands during the peace negotiations up to this point. 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 American victory at Plattsburgh and the British failure at the Siege of Baltimore, which came a few days later, denied the British any advantage they could use to make demands for territorial gains in the Treaty of Ghent.

The failure at Plattsburgh, with other complaints about his conduct of active operations, resulted in Sir George Prévost being relieved of command in Canada. When he returned to Britain his version of events was accepted at first. As was customary after the loss of a ship or a defeat, Captain Pring and the surviving officers and men of the squadron faced a court martial, which was held aboard HMS Gladiator at Portsmouth, between 18 and 21 August 1815. The court commended Pring and honourably acquitted all of those charged. The dispatches of Sir James Yeo were published about the same time, and emphatically placed the blame for the defeat on Prévost for forcing the British squadron into action prematurely. Prévost in turn demanded a court martial to clear his name, but died in 1816 before it could be held.

Alexander Macomb was promoted to Major General and became commanding general of the United States Army in 1828. Thomas Macdonough was promoted to Captain (and given the honorary rank of Commodore for his command of multiple ships in the battle) and is remembered as the "Hero of Lake Champlain". To honour the American commanders, Congress struck four Congressional Gold Medals, a record number for the time. These were awarded to Captain Thomas Macdonough, Captain Robert Henley, and Lieutenant Stephen Cassin of the U.S. Navy, and to Alexander Macomb (20 October 1814 3 Stat. 245–247). Macomb and his men were also formally given the thanks of Congress.

Seven currently active regular battalions of the United States Army (4-1 FA, 1-2 Inf, 2-2 Inf, 1-5 Inf, 2-5 Inf, 1-6 Inf and 2-6 Inf) perpetuate the lineages of American units that were present at the battle (Brooks's Company, Corps of Artillery, and the 6th, 13th and 29th Infantry Regiments).

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