University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Battle of Plattsburg

Volume III · Winter 1948 · Number 2
The Battle of Plattsburg

After the abdication of Napoleon in April of 1814, skilled and seasoned veterans from Wellington's army were sent to Canada, preparatory to an invasion of New York. The plan was to separate New England from the rest of the United States by advancing along the west bank of Lake Champlain and down the Hudson, an easy route which offered subsistence along the way. A naval squadron sufficiently strong to support the land movements was necessary to make the operation successful. Accordingly, construction of a frigate was hastily begun to augment the brig, schooner, sloop, and ten gunboats which made up the British fleet on Lake Champlain. In the meantime, the American forces strengthened their defenses across the border at Plattsburg by throwing up breastworks to the south of the town just across the Saranac River. Their position was greatly weakened, when, on August 29, a large detachment of troops under General Izard was removed to the Niagara frontier.

The withdrawal of part of the American forces was an open invitation for the British to advance. On September 1, eleven thousand British officers and men, led by Sir George Prevost, crossed the border at Odelltown. Opposing them were scarcely fifteen hundred American regulars and five hundred militia, of whom many were either convalescent or new recruits, commanded by General Alexander Macomb. An attempt made on the Beekmantown road to halt the invasion failed and the Americans retired across the Saranac River to the heights within the village of Plattsburg which were protected on the east by Plattsburg Bay, patrolled by a small American fleet, and on the west and south by the Saranac River and the three forts: Brown, Moreau and Scott. Prevost spent five days in fruitless skirmishes and unsuccessful shelling of the American positions. Finally he summoned the aid of the still incomplete and miserably weak British fleet in such terms that its commander, George Downie, was goaded into precipitate action.

In order to gain control of Lake Champlain, the British were forced to make the attack. Foreseeing this action, Thomas Macdonough, captain of the American naval squadron, anchored his vessels in a line extending from Cumberland Head across Plattsburg Bay to Crab Island. By this arrangement his line could not be doubled upon and there was not room to anchor on his broadside out of reach of his carronades. The enemy was forced to attack him by "standing in bows on." On the morning of September 11, the British fleet hove into sight beyond Cumberland Head, heading directly for the American line. Simultaneously, Sir George Prevost commenced shelling Macomb's positions in Plattsburg. For two hours and twenty minutes the battle raged. The two fleets were fairly evenly matched; smooth water, stationary ships, and good range made the fire very destructive. The first British broadside inflicted terrible damage on the American flagship, the "Saratoga," but Macdonough finally succeeded in turning her and brought his unused port guns to bear on the British frigate, the "Confiance," which struck her colors less than fifteen minutes later. The remainder of the British fleet soon surrendered except for a few gunboats which used sweeps and managed to escape. Early in the engagement the English captain, George Downie, had been killed.

Meanwhile the British army had failed to take Plattsburg. One company had succeeded in crossing the Saranac, but when Prevost heard the news of the naval defeat, he recalled it and prepared to retreat. Although deprived of naval support, Prevost, by sheer weight of numbers, could have pushed across the Saranac, but with great loss of life and no permanent gain. His line of communications was now open to attack from the lake. American reinforcements were hastily coming to support the besieged village. In a short time the British would have been surrounded and cut off from Canada. Destroying a large part of his baggage, Prevost began to retire that night, harassed part of the way by American militia.

The naval victory at Plattsburg gave spirit to the Americans who had been plunged into gloom by the recent news of the capture and burning of Washington. Macdonough became a hero. It was largely due to his skill and preparations that the British fleet had been destroyed, and with its destruction the British invasion had collapsed. The victory made peace more certain and cut short British hopes of territorial cession and sole control of the Great Lakes. Three months later, on Christmas Eve, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812.

In the manuscript collection of the University Library are thirty-two letters written during the war by John Cornelius and William Beatty Rochester to their father, Nathaniel Rochester, one of the founders of the city bearing his name. They were purchased in 1933 from the late Mrs. Howard L. Osgood, great-granddaughter of Nathaniel Rochester. John Cornelius Rochester was first in the recruiting service. Later he trained recruits near Troy. From there he was moved to the American base at Sackets Harbor; and in August of 1814 he marched with General Izard's army to Plattsburg. Three of his letters are reproduced here, describing events on the northern frontier and giving his own impressions of the Battle of Plattsburg.

Smith Cantont. S[ackets] Harbor 26th May 1814

Dear Father

I pick up my pen to inform you I am still here — notwithstanding the bustle & confusion there has been lately in this quarter with our troops — you no doubt have heard various reports & many false ones relative to the late excursions committed by the enemy in this direction.

They still remain some what troublesome being anchored off about five miles with their fleet & every night or two sending a marauding party ashore to distress & pilfer our citizens—their attack at Oswego was not as successful a one as they expected it would be. A few nights ago they landed about 400 men about 12 miles from here at Sandy Creek — & took two hundred barrels flour — which I believe amounts to double as much as all the rest they have taken this spring — they anchored about five miles from here on the morning of the 19th Inst. This morning they weighed anchor & have come within 3 miles where they are protected from our cannon by a small island — they however do not intend attacking this place — as they well know the situation of our defences & forces to be such as they with the whole of the military force in Canada cannot succeed in injuring this port at this time — Brig. Genl. Gain[e]s commands here at this time. Maj. Genl. Brown left here yesterday for Batavia & about five hundred troops inff. about 800 artillery marches from here tomorrow for Batavia — there are two thousd. Inff. on their way from Washington & N. York to Batavia — the campaign from their moving every thing [in] that direction I judge will again open there — the late news from Europe I fear will prolong our War — that with reducing the establishment of lnff. to 20 thousand will give us but a poor opportunity of conquering Canada — Though I believe it to be a wise plan consolidating part of regiments & disbanding the supernumerary officers — for those twenty well officered with men who entered the army for the public good, will be worth 60 regiments of our Present force out of 3000 inff. at this port. We cannot furnish an officer [of] any kind to the hundred — the whole object of our officers appears to be in endeavouring to procure furloughs or orders to go in the country & Genl. Brown was so very condescending that he never refused a request of the kind — with such officers & such Genls. we shall never have a regiment of disciplined troops in the service. With my love to the family I remain yours affectionately

Jno. C. Rochester

Fort Murroe, Plattsburgh, Sept. 9th 1814

Dear Father

I have just found a moment of leisure which I am happy to employ in giving you a correct account of our situation.

The reports that you have heard must have alarmed you a little.

On the 6th Inst. Maj. Wool with 3 companies of our regt. — mine included — marched from this place to Bee[k]mantown about six miles where we met the enemy & gave fight — but their superior strength compelled us to give them a retreating battle — our force including the Militia amounted to about five hundred the enemy's to four times that number — we retired in excellent order with a loss of about 22 or 3 men & one subaltern killed wounded & missing — the loss of the enemy is reported by deserters & a few prisoners that we have since taken to be near three hundred including 2 field officers & several platoon officers — In fact it could not be otherwise — as we had every opportunity of lying behind stone fences — & secreting in the wood; until they would arrive within gun shot when we would fire & retire about a half mile at the time — in this manner we fought them for six miles when their main force arrived & we were compelled to give up one half the town — on the north side of Saranac river — we are now in our forts almost surrounded by a very large force of the enemy — our force is not far from 3,000 effectives — the enemies sd. to be about 7,000 — we are however in hopes with the assistance of our forts to repulse them should they attempt to storm us — they cannot cut of [f] our communication with the country all around as we have the command of the lake. We are in expectation of receiving the Governor of this state with about 2000 militia tomorrow. Should he arrive before we are attacked we shall endeavour to make a prisoner of Sir Geo. Prevost who commands the British in person — Should he not reinforce us it is highly probable that we shall have a bloody battle — you must excuse this I have but little time to spare to write, — the enemy are at this moment & have been for four days bombarding us — they are erecting batteries on the opposite side of the river & making every other preparation to attack us on all sides. You will shortly hear the results —

I have the separate command of two small pieces of artillery & sixty men in one of the principal bastions of this fort — where I have either [to] distinguish or extinguish myself & party.

The troops here are in high spirits — you would be amused to see me write this. I am now seated on the parapet of the fort with my paper on my knee & within plain sight of the whole British force who are encamped about one & 1/2 miles from us — I am now hearty & fearless of any danger from the enemy — as I was several times on the 6th in the midst of showers of musketry. I have no occasion to fear them longer — I will embrace every opportunity of giving you an account of the movements here — Though you will have the whole in a few days. The fate of this army must be decided in the course of forty eight hours — with love to all the family I remain

Yours &c.

Jno. C. Rochester

Tell Wm. & Sophia, they must excuse my not writing to them — were they to see the conveniences I have with my present situation — they would ask no apology — none of us have wherewith to cover our heads — & about 1500 in a small fort without even a tent — the officers all compelled to lie on the parapet of the fort.

Ft. Moreau, Plattsburgh, Sept. 12th 1814

Dear Father

It is with pleasure I pick up my pen to give you the pleasing intelligence from this place — yesterday morning the British Fleet sailed up with a fine wind, within close gun shot of our fleet — It ended after a very severe action of about two hours in the capture of the whole of the British force except four row Gallies who took to their oars in season & made their escape ...

Just at the commencement of naval engagement the British opened their Batteries from the opposite side river on our forts which occasioned us to lie still except a few artillery who manned our cannon — a constant firing of cannon, shells, bombs & rockets continued all day in which our loss was one man killed & 2 wounded by a rocket — we succeeded in silencing all their Batteries by sun down when we gave them a national salute & three cheers to the tune of Hail Columbia & Yankee Doodle played most elegant by our music — Sir George Prevost fearing his army would share the same fate of their fleet destroyed an immense quantity of their baggage & decamped. They were however annoyed a great deal by our militia who have acted on this occasion like soldiers — we have taken near two hundred prisoners of their land force since the commencement of the seige & killed double that number — they have left a great many of their dead lying in their camp — our whole loss does not exceed one lieut. killed two wounded & about forty privates killed, wounded & missing — which loss was principally recd. the first day by our regt. at the battle of Beekmantown — I wrote you day before yesterday an account of our attack on them at Beekmantown. Our Militia about two thousand number have followed the British army annoying their rear & flanks. I would mention many more of the particulars — but the express will start in a few minutes for Burlington & it is now raining & sprinkling through my tent on the paper, which makes it almost impossible to write. My love to all the family & believe me yours &c. &c.

Jno. C. Rochester

The deserters are coming in, in numbers from the British army.