The Battle of Plattsburgh

1937 2¢ Decatur & MacDonough
US #791 pictures Macdonough and honors his ship, the Saratoga.

On September 11, 1814, American forces won an important victory at the Battle of Plattsburgh (also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain).

By September 1814, peace talks were being held in the Netherlands in the hopes of bringing an end to the War of 1812.  Yet at the same time, the British were forging plans to push into American territory.

Britain’s secretary of State for war and the colonies ordered George Prévost, commander in chief in Canada, to launch an offensive into American territory.  But he also warned him to not travel so far that he would risk being cut off from supply lines.  Prévost decided to launch his attack on Lake Champlain.  The land attack would be on the nearest large American position at Plattsburgh, New York.

The majority of American troops at Plattsburgh were removed in late August to reinforce Sackett’s Harbor, leaving the fort defended by only about 1,500 men, most of whom were recruits or injured.  Eventually, about 2,000 New York and Vermont militiamen arrived to help defend Plattsburgh, though they were largely untrained.

1984 Thomas MacDonough Commemorative Cover
Item #20031 – Commemorative cover honoring MacDonough

The British began marching to Plattsburgh on August 31.  The American commander at Plattsburgh, Alexander Macomb, sent out over 1,000 troops for a delaying action, but they were slowly pushed back to the fort.  Though the Americans burnt bridges and mislabeled signs along the way, the British reached Plattsburgh on September 6.

The fighting began on September 7, but the Americans managed to fend off each British attack.  They continued to skirmish for a couple of days before the naval battle began on September 11.  During those few days, American naval commander Thomas Macdonough set up his ships in Plattsburgh Bay, which would force the British to fight them at close range, so they would be more evenly matched.

The naval battle began at about 9 am on September 11.  The British navy’s newly built Confiance was badly damaged early on and its commander was killed early in the fighting.  Both sides suffered significant damage in the ensuing fight.  This included Macdonough’s flagship, the USS Saratoga.  Nearly all of the Saratoga’s starboard-side guns were taken out of action, but Macdonough turned the ship so he could use the guns from the other side.

Macdonough rained fire on the Confiance, and eventually, the vessel’s last surviving lieutenant had no choice but to surrender.  When the British commanders boarded the Saratoga to surrender, they offered their swords to Macdonough, but he replied, “Gentlemen, return your swords to your scabbards, you are worthy of them.”

2012-15 The War of 1812, set of 4 stamps
US #4703/4952 – Get a complete set of four US War of 1812 Bicentennial stamps (mint sheets also available).

The land battle had still been going on during the naval engagement.  But when Prévost received word of the loss, he realized that without control of the lake, he couldn’t resupply his men if they managed to take Plattsburgh, so he ordered a retreat.

In the end, the American forces, which were outnumbered on land and sea, earned an important victory.  This success, as well as the American defense of Baltimore the following day, took away the leverage that the British negotiators wanted to try to claim territory at the end of the war.

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2 responses to "The Battle of Plattsburgh"

2 thoughts on “The Battle of Plattsburgh”

  1. I wish I could leave a “10” response for this article. I had no knowledge about this piece of history. I vaguely remember learning about the War of 1812, but nothing more. Now I will certainly do more research into it. Very rewarding piece of history.

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  2. Excellent article. The British were trying to leverageNew England and upstate New York. The American fleet was smaller and had much shorter range on it’s guns, but MacDonough strategically took Ada vantage of the wind and tactics to defeat the superior British fleet.

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