War of 1812: Battle of Plattsburgh

Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough. Photograph Source: PublicDomain

Battle of Plattsburgh - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Plattsburgh was fought September 6-11, 1814, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Forces & Commanders

United States

Great Britain

Battle of Plattsburgh - Background:

With the abdication of Napoleon I and the apparent end of the Napoleonic Wars in April 1814, large numbers of British troops became available for service against the United States in the War of 1812. In an effort to break the deadlock in North America, around 16,000 men were dispatched to Canada to aid in an offensive against American forces. These came under the command of Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost, the Commander-in-Chief in Canada and Governor General of the Canadas. Though London preferred an attack on Lake Ontario, the naval and logistical situation led Prévost to advance up Lake Champlain.

Battle of Plattsburgh - The Naval Situation:

As in previous conflicts such as the French & Indian War and American Revolution, land operations around Lake Champlain required control of the water for success. Having lost control of the lake to Commander Daniel Pring in June 1813, Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough embarked on a naval building program at Otter Creek, VT. This yard produced the corvette USS Saratoga (26 guns), the schooner USS Ticonderoga (14), and several gunboats by late spring 1814. Along with the sloop USS Preble (7), MacDonough used these vessels to reassert American dominance on Lake Champlain.

Battle of Plattsburgh - Preparations:

To counter MacDonough's new vessels, the British began construction of the frigate HMS Confiance (36) at Ile aux Noix. In August, Major General George Izard, the senior American commander in the region, received orders from Washington, DC to take the bulk of his forces to reinforce Sackets Harbor, NY on Lake Ontario. With Izard's departure, the land defense of Lake Champlain fell to Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and a mixed force of around 3,400 regulars and militia. Operating on the west shore of the lake, Macomb's small army occupied a fortified ridge along the Saranac River just south of Plattsburgh, NY.

Battle of Plattsburgh - The British Advance:

Eager to begin the campaign south before the weather turned, Prévost became increasingly frustrated with Pring's replacement, Captain George Downie, over construction issues on Confiance. As Prévost chafed over the delays, MacDonough added the brig USS Eagle (20) to his squadron. On August 31, Prévost's army of around 11,000 men began moving south. To slow the British advance, Macomb sent a small force forward to block roads and destroy bridges. These efforts failed to hinder the British and they arrived in Plattsburgh on September 6. The next day minor British attacks were turned back by Macomb's men.

Despite the massive numerical advantage enjoyed by the British, they were hampered by friction in their command structure as the veterans of the Duke of Wellington's campaigns were frustrated by the cautiousness and unpreparedness of Prévost. Scouting west, the British located a ford across the Saranac that would allow them to assault the left flank of the American line. Intending to attack on September 10, Prévost desired to make a feint against Macomb's front while striking his flank. These efforts were to coincide with Downie attacking MacDonough on the lake.

Battle of Plattsburgh - On the Lake:

Possessing fewer long guns than Downie, MacDonough assumed a position in Plattsburgh Bay where he believed his heavier, but shorter range carronades would be most effective. Supported by ten small gunboats, he anchored Eagle, Saratoga, Ticonderoga, and Preble in a north-south line. In each case, two anchors were used along with spring lines to allow the vessels to turn while at anchor. Delayed by unfavorable winds, Downie was unable to attack on September 10 forcing the entire British operation to be pushed back a day. Nearing Plattsburgh, he scouted the American squadron on the morning of September 11.

Rounding Cumberland Head at 9:00 AM, Downie's fleet consisted of Confiance, the brig HMS Linnet (16), the sloops HMS Chubb (11) and HMS Finch, and twelve gunboats. Entering the bay, Downie initially desired to place Confiance across the head of the American line, but variable winds prevented this and he instead assumed a position opposite Saratoga. As the two flagships began battering each other, Pring succeeded in crossing in front of Eagle with Linnet while Chubb was quickly disabled and captured. Finch attempted to assume a position across the tail of MacDonough's line but drifted south and grounded on Crab Island.

Battle of Plattsburgh - MacDonough's Victory:

While Confiance's initial broadside did heavy damage to Saratoga, the two ships continued to trade blows with Downie being struck down. To the north, Pring began pounding Eagle with the American brig unable to turn to counter. At the opposite end of the line, Preble was forced from the fight by Downie's gunboats. These were finally checked by determined fire from Ticonderoga. Under heavy fire, Eagle cut its anchor lines and began to drift down the American line allowing Linnet to rake Saratoga. With most of his starboard guns out of action, MacDonough used his spring lines to turn his flagship.

Bringing his undamaged portside guns to bear, he opened fire on Confiance. The survivors aboard the British flagship attempted a similar turn but became stuck with the frigate's undefended stern presented to Saratoga. Unable to resist, Confiance struck its colors. Again pivoting, MacDonough brought Saratoga to bear on Linnet. With his ship outmatched and seeing that resistance was futile, Pring also surrendered. As at the Battle of Lake Erie a year before, the US Navy had succeeded in capturing an entire British squadron.

Battle of Plattsburgh - On Land:

Beginning around 10:00 AM, the feint against the Saranac bridges on Macomb's front was easily repulsed by the American defenders. To the west, Major General Frederick Brisbane's brigade missed the ford and was forced to backtrack. Learning of Downie's defeat, Prévost decided that any victory would be meaningless as American control of the lake would prevent him from being able to resupply his army. Though late, Robinson's men went into action and were having success when they received orders from Prévost to fall back. Though his commanders protested the decision, Prévost's army began retreating north to Canada that night.

Battle of Plattsburgh - Aftermath:

In the fighting at Plattsburgh, American forces sustained 104 killed and 116 wounded. British losses totaled 168 killed, 220 wounded, and 317 captured. In addition, MacDonough's squadron captured Confiance, Linnet, Chubb, and Finch. For his failure and due to complaints from his subordinates, Prévost was relieved of command and recalled to Britain. The American victory at Plattsburgh along with the successful Defense of Fort McHenry, aided American peace negotiators at Ghent, Belgium who were attempting to end the war on a favorable note. The two victories helped offset the defeat at Bladensburg and subsequent Burning of Washington the previous month. In recognition of his efforts, MacDonough was promoted to captain and received a Congressional gold medal.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Plattsburgh." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-plattsburgh-2361177. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). War of 1812: Battle of Plattsburgh. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-plattsburgh-2361177 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Plattsburgh." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-of-plattsburgh-2361177 (accessed June 1, 2023).