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The War of 1812 - Part 1; The Northern and Western Theater

As we have discussed in previous posts, the real origins of the War of 1812 were in the conflict that raged in Europe for two decades following Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power. For some 20 years, the Americans had grappled with the problems of being a neutral nation in the great European war. Tensions mounted as the British began stopping American ships from trading in Europe, searching American vessels for "contraband" (defined by the British as goods that they declared illegal), and searching them for deserters who had fled the harsh conditions of the Royal Navy. Many of these deserters had taken jobs on American ships and American certificates of citizenship made no impression on the British. The last straw came when British captains began to impress (seize) native-born Americans and put them into service on British ships.

These maritime tensions exploded in 1807 off the Virginia capes, just outside the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay, with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. The actions of the British ship HMS Guerriere, on 1 May 1811, impressing an American sailor from a coastal vessel caused further tension. Attempts to solve these maritime issues without war, such as the Embargo Act and its successors, further damaged the US economy and created more tension between the US and Great Britain.

Another cause was the conflict with Native Americans, supported by the British, that resulted from American expansionism across the Appalachian Mountains and into the areas known as the Northwest and Southwest Territory (Kentucky and Tennessee). Finally, there was a suspicion by many Americans that England’s acceptance of United States independence was grudging, at best. Many Americans were convinced that England would take the first opportunity that came along to try to reconquer their American colonies.

Henry Clay
Henry Clay

In the political realm, the "War Hawks," a group of Anglophobic and nationalistic congressional representatives from the south and west, were loudly demanding war. Henry Clay of Kentucky, the new Speaker of the House, and Representative John C. Calhoun of South Carolina led this group. In addition, newly elected President Madison was intrigued by Major General Dearborn’s (mistaken) claim that in case of war, Canada would be easy pickings; that, in fact, the Canadians would welcome an invasion. Therefore, on 1 June 1812, President Madison sent Congress a request for an immediate declaration of war and the Congress quickly obliged.

The War

Although years of provocations and diplomatic disputes preceded the outbreak of war, neither side was ready when it came. Britain was heavily involved in the Napoleonic Wars with most of the British Army fighting in Portugal and Spain, and the Royal Navy blockading most of the coast of Europe. At the outbreak of the war, there were only about 7,000 British and Canadian regulars in Upper and Lower Canada (now the provinces of Ontario and Quebec), supported by Canadian militia and Native American allies.

The United States was also not ready to prosecute a war. President Madison had assumed that the state militias would easily seize Canada and that negotiations would follow. In 1812, the regular army consisted of fewer than 12,000 men. Congress authorized expansion of the army to 35,000 men, but the service was voluntary and unpopular; it offered poor pay, and there were few trained and experienced officers. The militia objected to serving outside their home states, was not open to discipline, and performed poorly against British forces when outside their home states.

The Northwest, Canadian Border, and Great Lakes Theatre

On July 12, 1812, General William Hull led an invading American force of about 1,000 untrained, poorly equipped militia across the Detroit River and occupied the Canadian town of Sandwich (now a neighborhood of Windsor, Ontario). In other parts of the Northwest, news of war reached the British before the Americans. In response, on July 17, 50 British regulars, 180 local fur traders, and 400 Ottawa, Ojibwe, Menominee, Sioux, and Ho-Chunk warriors under the command of John Askin, Jr., a British North American Indian Department officer, and fur trader Robert Dickson, landed on Mackinac Island in Michigan Territory. Surrounding the fort, they trained their cannon on the fort from the heights above. Surprised, outnumbered, and fearing attack by members of the indigenous nations if they resisted, the Americans surrendered without firing a shot. The loss of this fort to the British with such ease encouraged many indigenous people to join the British in the war.

General William Hull
General William Hull

By August, Hull and his troops, numbering 2,500 with the addition of five hundred Canadians, had retreated to Detroit. There they surrendered to British Major General Isaac Brock who commanded a much smaller force of British regulars and Canadian militia, numbering 750, and a Native American force of about six hundred from the Wyandot, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Ojibwe, Shawnee, Ho-Chunk, Sauk, Menominee, and Grand River Iroquois nations, led by Shawnee leader Tecumseh. The surrender cost the United States the village of Detroit as well as control over most of the Michigan Territory.

Several months later, the U.S. launched a second invasion aiming to secure a foothold in Canada before the onset of winter. U.S. forces crossed the Niagara River, this time on the Niagara peninsula, to seize Queenston Heights. The Americans began crossing the river in thirteen boats at 4 a.m. on 13 October. Three boats were swept downstream by the current. One landed lower down and the other two returned to the American side of the river. Ten minutes after they began the crossing, the remaining ten boats under Colonel van Rensselaer began landing at the village of Queenston. A British sentry noticed them and, rather than fire his musket to raise the alarm and thus warn the American troops that they had been spotted, ran to headquarters to alert the officers. After waiting and watching the enemy landing build up for several minutes, the British troops began firing low (to inflict debilitating injuries), rolling, accurate volleys into the Americans while they were coming ashore.

At the same time, the British artillery opened fire in the direction of the site where the Americans were staging for their departure in the boats, and the American guns (two 18-pounders, two 6-pounder field guns and two 5.5-inch (140 mm) mortars) opened fire on Queenston village. The British troops were driven back into the village but kept firing from the shelter of the houses. As it became light, the British guns became more accurate. As a second wave of six American boats began to cross the river, the crews of three of them, including their two largest, panicked as they came under fire and turned back to the American side. One of the four remaining boats was sunk by fire from a 3-pound Grasshopper and a trio of other guns. In late morning, British General Brock was killed during an attempt to retake a British artillery emplacement from the Americans.

Battle of Queenston Heights
Battle of Queenston Heights

Around noon, British reinforcements began arriving from Fort George. By 1 PM more British artillery arrived and opened fire once again on the boats, as well as on the American artillery across the river. At the same time, three hundred Mohawk warriors under Captains John Norton a

d John Brant climbed up to the top of the heights and suddenly fell on the American outposts. None of the Americans were killed, and the Mohawk force was driven back into some woods, but the Americans' spirits were dampened by their fear of the natives, whose war cries could be clearly heard across the river in Lewiston. As a result, militia waiting there to cross the river refused to do so.

Around 2 PM, Major General Sheaffe arrived from Fort George and took command of the British regulars, Canadian Militia, and Mohawk warriors. After spending time organizing his attack force, he began an assault on the American positions at Queenston Heights around 4 PM. Sheaffe ordered a general advance, and the entire British line fired a volley, raised the Indian war-whoop, and charged. The American militia, hearing the Mohawk war-cries and believing themselves doomed, retreated in mass and without orders. Cursing the men who would not cross the river, American General Wadsworth surrendered at the edge of the precipice with three hundred men. Others scrambled down the steep bank to the edge of the river. However, with no boats arriving to evacuate his men and the Mohawk warriors furious over the deaths of two chiefs, the Americans feared a massacre and surrendered to the British. The first two officers who tried to surrender were killed by Native Americans. Even after Lt. Col. Winfield Scott had personally waved a white flag, excited Natives on the heights continued for several minutes to fire at the crowd of Americans assembled on the riverbank below. Once the surrender was made, Scott was shocked to see five hundred militiamen, who had been hiding around the heights, coming out to surrender also.

Wishing to obtain a foothold in Canada before the onset of winter, in November the Americans attempted another attack on Canada aimed at the capture of Montreal. The American invasion force totaling about 2,000 regulars and 3,000 militia was assembled and led by Major General Henry Dearborn. The delay of several months after the American declaration of war meant that the advance would only begin with the onset of winter. Moreover, since about half of the American militia refused to advance into Lower Canada, Dearborn was hamstrung from the outset from utilizing all his forces.

Zebulon Pike
Zebulon Pike

With his forces still far outnumbering the Crown allies on the other side of the border, American Colonel Zebulon Pike crossed into Lower Canada with an advance party of about 650 regulars and a party of Native warriors. These were to be followed by more American forces. The advance party were initially met by only a small force of 25 Canadian militiamen and fifteen native warriors at Lacolle Mills. Clearly outnumbered, the Crown forces withdrew, allowing the Americans to advance on the guardhouse and several buildings. In the dark, Pike's forces became engaged with a second group of New York militia, both sides mistaking each other for the British. The result was a fierce firefight between two groups of American forces at the guardhouse. In the aftermath of this confusion, and amidst war cries from reinforcing Crown-allied Mohawk warriors, the shaken American forces retreated to Champlain and then from Lower Canada completely.

The American invasion, directed at Montreal in 1812, suffered from poor preparation and coordination. The logistical challenges involved in moving a large force toward Montreal at the start of the winter were significant. After the attack, the British evacuated the Lacolle area and destroyed farms and houses which the Americans had planned to use, since they lacked tents for shelter against the winter weather. This ended major American operations in the Northwest Territories and Upper Canada for the year 1812.

The 1813 Campaign

More battles were fought in 1813 than any other year of the war. American losses in men, money, and equipment were steep, and although no one realized it at the time, 1813 was the high watermark of American attempts to conquer Canada. In January, after defeating a small British force at Frenchtown on the River Raisin in Michigan Territory, U.S. forces were overwhelmed by an army of six hundred British soldiers and 600-800 warriors from the Wyandot, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Ojibwe, Ottawa, Lenape, Sauk, and Muscogee nations four days later.

Further east, the American strategy in early 1813 was centered on Lake Ontario and the Niagara Frontier. The American plan was to concentrate soldiers at New York’s Sackett’s Harbor and then use that force to capture Kingston, a hub for British naval vessels. After Kingston, the Americans would then move on to Fort York to secure control of the lakes and rivers, cutting off transportation routes between Upper and Lower Canada. However, the plan was executed in reverse, due to intelligence the American commanders received regarding superior numbers of British troops at Kingston.

Attack on Fort York (Toronto)
Attack on Fort York (Toronto)

In late April, an American force of 2,700, supported by naval gunboats on the lake, stormed Fort York (present day Toronto) defeating a force of 750 British and Ojibwe natives. As the attack progressed, British General Sheaffe soon realized that his men were outnumbered and overwhelmed by land and water. The only answer was death, surrender, or retreat. Sheaffe ordered his men to retreat East and left local militia to figure out the conditions for surrender. As Sheaffe’s men left Fort York, they lit their abandoned supplies on fire to keep valuable gunpowder out of the hands of the invading Americans.

When the fire reached a magazine holding hundreds of barrels of gunpowder, it set off a devastating explosion. US troops rounding up prisoners near the fort were devastated by the explosion, which pelted debris through the air, wounding or killing over two hundred Americans, including General Pike. As a result, vengeful Americans ransacked the town of York, burning public buildings and businesses. This aggressive act would later be repaid when the British burned Washington D.C. in 1814. The battle did little to advance either side’s dominant control of Canada or the Great Lakes, but the easy victory boosted American morale, fueling the fire for continued attempts at expansion into Canada.

While the attack on York was going on, the British and Indians were attacking American fortifications in the Ohio country. Working from February through April, American forces under William Henry Harrison had constructed Fort Meigs on a bluff overlooking the Maumee River near Present day Perrysburg, OH. The walls were fifteen feet thick, partially sunken, and the strong earthen work sloping away from the walls, gave the appearance of impregnability. Once completed, it was the largest wooden fortification erected on the continent. Despite horribly cold weather, one American sentry froze to death at his post in a two-hour watch, the Americans, sometimes working in deep mud, completed the strong fortifications just before the British, under General Henry Procter, arrived and began the first of two sieges to break the American hold in the old northwest territory.

Fort Meigs Battle Map
Fort Meigs Battle Map

Arriving on April 29, the British pounded the American fortification with artillery starting on May 1, 1813. Morale might have slipped for the 1,100 men in the Fort however, their spirits were bolstered when 1,200 Kentucky militiamen arrived at the fort via the Maumee River having fought two land battles in the process of making their way into the American position. Their arrival on May 5, resulted in the single largest fight of the siege.

As the Kentuckians arrived, they attacked the British forces encamped on the west bank of the Maumee. Simultaneously, Harrison led an American sortie out of the defenses and attacked the British on the east bank of the river. After initial success, the Kentuckians pressed their attack too far and the men became highly disorganized. Taking advantage of an opportunity the British, Canadian militia, and their Indian allies, led by the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, counterattacked. More than 600 Kentuckians were either killed, wounded, or captured. In what became known as Dudley’s Massacre, the Indians began killing their captives much to the horror of the British. When it was finished forty Americans lay dead. Only after pleas by Tecumseh to the other Indians did the carnage stop. At the end of the day the Americans still controlled the fort and the British called off their attack as their Indian Allies, frustrated at the results, melted back into the wilderness.

In July, the British, Canadians, and Indians once more attacked the American stronghold. This time Tecumseh convinced the British and Canadians to contrive a ruse to draw the Americans outside of their palisade. Pretending to be engaged in combat in the wilderness beyond the view of the Americans a fake battle was held. Unfortunately, solid intelligence on the part of the Americans indicated that there were no other American troops in the vicinity. The Americans, now under the command of General Clay, did not fall for it, and remained inside the walls. Once again, the British lifted their attack and under the advice of Tecumseh decided to attack the American position at Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River. After failing to take Fort Stephenson, the British withdrew to Canada. At this point, both the British and Tecumseh were growing increasingly aware of Procter's shortcomings as a field commander.

Sacket's Harbor Battle Map

Elsewhere, in late May the British struck back against the American forces by attacking Sacket’s Harbor – the main American shipyard on Lake Ontario. At the time of the raid, the Americans were building a sloop-of-war named General Pike that could have tipped the balance in their favor on the Great Lakes. When the British received news that many of the American ships and soldiers had left port to attack a British fort, leaving Sackets Harbor vulnerable, they seized the chance to strike.

Gen. Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, assembled a half-dozen ships, nine hundred British and Canadian soldiers, and a small party of Native American warriors at Kingston. On May 29, 1813, Prevost began landing soldiers for the attack. The Americans had long expected a British attack and had fortified the town with earthworks, artillery, and blockhouses. The American forces present came to about 1500 soldiers, two-thirds militia, and the rest US Regulars. The British landed on Horse Island, just west of town. Although the Americans attempted to stop them, they were ineffective and had to fall back in the face of the growing numbers of British and Canadian infantry.

The Americans were fortunate that contrary winds prevented most of the British squadron from joining the fight and without their heavy guns to weaken the American defenses, the outnumbered British were unable to move the American Regulars. Fearing being flanked and cut off, General Prevost called off the attack and ordered his men back to the boats. Despite his defeat, however, Prevost’s attack panicked Americans in the shipyard, who set fire to their naval stores and ships so the British could not capture them. The fires aboard the General Pike were put out before much damage was done, but the loss of naval stores was very costly to the American shipbuilding and naval effort on the Great Lakes. At the end of the day, the Americans had defeated the British but, because of their panic, helped the British to achieve a large part of their goal.

The Battle of Lake Erie

In September 1813, the Americans won control of Lake Erie in the Battle of Lake Erie. As a result of British Naval superiority on Lake Erie in 1812 which allowed the British to capture Detroit, the Americans built shipyards at Erie, Pennsylvania. By mid-July of 1813, the new squadron of ships, under the command of Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, were almost complete. At the end of July 1813, the British abandoned their blockade due to the poor weather and looming shortage of supplies. As the British Royal Navy withdrew, the newly constructed American squadron slowly traversed the sandbar and eventually organized in Put-In-Bay for the upcoming battle.

Battle of Lake Erie
Battle of Lake Erie

On September 10, 1813, the American squadron spotted the British vessels and departed Put-In-Bay to meet them. Although the British ships were equipped with longer range cannon, they lacked the firepower of the American vessels. To compensate for the lack of range, Master Commandant Perry ordered his two largest ships the Niagara and the Lawrence, to set full sail, and go directly towards the British line. Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, was conspicuous as it raced to close the distance between the British ships and its cannons. However, the captain of the Niagara was less keen on charging into the British ships under a flurry of cannon fire and froze leaving Lawrence and Master Commandant Perry to charge into the British line alone.

With the aid of the smaller American gunboats, Perry was able to close the gap between his vessel and the already engaged British line. Despite Perry’s maneuver, the cannons aboard the Lawrence did not have the destructive effect that Perry had anticipated and, as a result, the Lawrence came under direct fire from two British vessels who made quick work of Perry’s ship. It was only after the last cannon was made unusable that Perry departed the destroyed Lawrence on a small rowboat and transferred his flag onto the Niagara. Perry was able to escape the wreck of the Lawrence unscathed with the help of his personal assistant Cyrus Tiffany, a free African American, who physically shielded Perry from debris and gunfire during their escape to the Niagara.

Perry Shifting His Flag to the Niagra
Perry Shifting His Flag to the Niagra

The British vessels, believed that Perry fled to the Niagara to lead the American squadron in retreat however, Perry, now in command of the Niagara, intended to continue the fight. The Americans, now with a favorable wind, sailed the Niagara as well as the smaller gunboats and schooners towards the British line and opened fire with huge effect. Two of the British vessels that had previously entangled their rigging during the engagement with the Lawrence only managed to break free after the American squadron decimated the British flotilla. As a result, the British lost their fighting ability and surrendered at 3:00pm.

The American victory on Lake Erie secured even more naval vessels, as the spoils of battle included the battered British naval vessels which, after repair, expanded Perry’s fleet in Lake Erie and placed the lake under American control. This naval supremacy forced the British to withdraw from Fort Detroit and cut off British and Native American forces in the west from their supply bases. Additionally, since the lake remained in American hands for the remainder of the war, this prevented any possible British invasion of Ohio or Pennsylvania from Canada.

The Battle of the Thames

The British retreat from Fort Detroit across Burlington Heights and into Ontario was poorly organized and much equipment was simply left behind for the Americans to capture. Furthermore, the British soldiers were given only half of their food rations which decreased the overall morale of the British soldier. This loss of morale only angered Tecumseh and his Native American allies as they began to distrust their allies who did not wish to stand and fight. Eventually, the cycle of poor morale and anger was halted by the presence of an American raiding party that captured the last supply boat of ammunition and food rations. The next day, on October 5th, the Americans finally met the British and their Native American allies along the Thames River.

Map of the Battle of the Thames
Map of the Battle of the Thames

Fighting began in the morning while the British soldiers were making breakfast. The harried British soldiers created a hasty line of artillery that was meant to ambush General Harrison and his men. However, these positions were neither entrenched or protected from small arms fire and cavalry. Thus, when the first shot rang out, General Harrison ordered his mounted rifles to charge the cannons, which had a devastating effect. The British cannons were only able to fire one shot before the American mounted rifles overran the starved British artillerymen. Upon witnessing the destruction of their artillery, the rest of the demoralized British soldiers began to flee the field of battle. This rout inspired other tired and weak units to simply flee or surrender. General Proctor and approximately 250 of his men fled the battlefield while the rest of his men simply surrendered.

This left Tecumseh and his warriors alone to face the Americans. Tecumseh, upon seeing the routing British, joined his warriors in a swamp on the flank of the American forces to make a final stand against General Harrison’s army. Initially, the American cavalry charged Tecumseh’s position to hold the Native American threat while the rest of the army dealt with the surrendering British and those elements of the British army that were still engaged in fighting. The cavalry charge was halted by an initial volley of musket fire along with the muddy swamp that bogged down the horses, however, elements of the main American force began to enter the swamp as Tecumseh’s warriors were reloading after the initial cavalry charge. The fighting inside the swamp area was close quarters and bloody as increasing numbers of American reinforcements began to enter the swamp and converge on the enemy. Eventually, Tecumseh was killed in the fighting and the Native American fighters began to flee once word spread of Tecumseh’s death. General Harrison could not pursue the exhausted, routing, British, as many of his soldiers’ enlistments were about to expire. So, Harrison withdrew from Ontario to Detroit, to garrison the fort, as time ran out on the soldier’s enlistments.

When news of the British betrayal of Tecumseh became known to other Native American tribes, many began to revoke their treaties and disassociate from British allegiance, thereby ending British influence over these tribes and reducing the possibility of future Native American attacks on American positions.

The 1814 Campaign

In July of 1814, the United States again tried to invade Canada. This time they launched an attack across the Niagara River, at the small neck between Lakes Ontario and Erie. While Major General Brown camped his American forces along the river at Queenstown, the British were able to reinforce their position. On July 24, Brown chose to withdraw to the Chippawa River to regroup his forces and secure his supply lines before striking towards Burlington. When he did so, British troops under Major General Phineas Riall advanced to Lundy’s Lane with a force of light infantry and militia to keep contact with the Americans. Lundy’s Lane was an excellent military position, slightly elevated from the surrounding area, with one flank anchored in the river, and along major roads. He British massed their artillery atop the rise and settled in to watch the Americans.

Fighting at Lundy's Lane
Fighting at Lundy's Lane

Early the next day, the British Lieutenant Governor, Gordon Drummond, arrived in the area to take command of the British forces. He ordered British reinforcements towards the encamped Americans, with the goal of driving them from the west bank of the Niagara. Brown broke camp on July 25, and began to move north, and Riall at once ordered a withdrawal when he discovered the Americans on the move. Drummond countermanded this order and had his troops reoccupy Lundy’s Lane, which they were still doing when the Americans arrived around 6 pm. In a classic meeting engagement, United States regulars under the command of Brigadier General Winfield Scott appeared from a forest into the mouths of the British artillery. After initially taking a beating, Scott ordered one of his regiments to flank the British left, which they did, engaging and routing two surprised battalions while he engaged the center. This flanking movement also managed to capture Major General Riall, who had been wounded and was riding to the rear.

Drummond, seeing his left flank under threat, realigned his troops to secure his flank. However, in doing so, he left his artillery dangerously exposed and forward of his position. With night falling and Scott’s brigade mauled, many commanders would have retired, but General Brown, who had recently arrived with the American main body, decided to press the attack. Brown positioned two fresh brigades for an attack and ordered the commander of the 21st Infantry to capture the British artillery. With the British distracted, Miller advanced to within yards of the British guns and fired a devastating volley, followed by a bayonet charge. This action captured the British cannon, killed or wounded many of the gunners, and drove the British off the hill. Farther down the line, British troops stumbled headlong into the fresh American brigades and were also forced back.

Close Quarters Fighting at Lundy's Lane
Close Quarters Fighting at Lundy's Lane

While the Americans regrouped atop the hill and brought up their own artillery, the British, who were determined to recapture their cannon, launched a frontal assault against their old position and were beaten back with heavy casualties on both sides. They then launched a second assault which was also repelled. In the darkness and confusion, Winfield Scott led an unordered charge against the British center that ended up in a rout after taking heavy fire from both British and American troops. The British then launched a third attack, which became a point-blank melee of musketry and bayonets in the darkness, before being repelled once again. By midnight, both sides were so badly mauled that the fighting ceased.

With Scott and Brown both wounded, and ammunition and water were running low, Brown ordered a retreat, which was uncontested by the exhausted British. While the battle had been inconclusive, and particularly bloody for the artillery, the British had achieved the strategic victory of halting the American advance. Due to the high casualties, the Americans were forced to abandon the campaign, and withdrew back into the United States. Although a stalemate, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane was the bloodiest battle of the war, with over 1,730 casualties from both sides.

After Napoleon abdicated on April 6, 1814, British public opinion demanded major gains in the war against the United States. The senior American representative in London told Secretary of State James Monroe:

"There are so many who delight in War that I have less hope than ever of our being able to make peace. You will perceive by the newspapers that a very great force is to be sent from Bordeaux to the United States; and the order of the day is division of the States and conquest. The more moderate think that when our Seaboard is laid waste and we are made to agree to a line which shall exclude us from the lake; to give up a part of our claim on Louisiana and the privilege of fishing on the banks, etc. peace may be made with us.”

In response to public opinion, the British sent veterans of the Peninsular and other campaigns to North America. 16,000 arrived in Quebec in August and by September the number had risen to nearly 30,000 effectives. Several experienced Major-Generals were also detached from the Duke of Wellington's army to command them. By then however, the American army had had learned how to maneuver and fight.

General Prévost
General Prévost

In September, the British, under General Prévost, launched a major invasion of Upstate New York with these veteran soldiers. The attack was launched up the Richelieu River toward Lake Champlain. (Since the Richelieu was the only waterway connecting Lake Champlain to the ocean, trade on the lake normally went through Canada.) Upon reaching Lake Champlain, the British choice of route was influenced by the attitude of the American state of Vermont, on the eastern side of the lake. The state had shown itself to be less than wholeheartedly behind the war and its inhabitants readily traded with the British, supplying them with all the cattle consumed by the British army, and even military stores such as masts and spars for the British warships on Lake Champlain. To spare Vermont from the depredations of war, Prévost decided to advance through New York along the western side of the lake. The main American position on this side was at Plattsburgh.

Prévost organized the troops which were to carry out the invasion into a division commanded by Major General Sir Francis de Rottenburg, the Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada. The invading troops were organized into a division of three brigades. The 1st Brigade was made up of veterans of the Peninsular War from the 3/27th, 39th, 76th and 88th Regiments of Foot. The 2nd Brigade was made up of troops already serving in Canada from the 2/8th, 13th, and 49th Regiments of Foot, the Regiment de Meuron, the Canadian Voltigeurs, and the Canadian Chasseurs. The 3rd Brigade of troops, made up of veterans of the Peninsular War and various other garrisons, consisted of the 3rd, 5th, 1/27th, and 58th Regiments of Foot. Each brigade was supported by a battery of five 6-pounders and one 5.5-inch howitzer of the Royal Artillery. A squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons was also attached to the force. There was also a small "siege train" of artillery, consisting of two 24-pounder brass field guns, an 8-inch brass howitzer, three 24-pounder naval carronades mounted on field carriages, and a Congreve rocket detachment. The force numbered 11,000 in total. However, at the time of the invasion, some units were detached, and some sick men did not take part, so the actual number of troops present at Plattsburgh was just over 8,000.

Within the British leadership there was tension between the brigade and regimental commanders who were veterans of the Peninsular War or of earlier fighting in Upper Canada, and Prévost and his staff. Prévost had not endeared himself to his brigade and regimental commanders by complaining about the standards of dress of the veterans from the Peninsular Army, where the Duke of Wellington had emphasized musketry and efficiency above appearance. Furthermore, neither Prévost, de Rottenburg, nor Prévost's Adjutant General had the extensive experience of battle gained by their brigade commanders. Finally, Prévost and his staff had already gained a reputation for caution and hesitancy. Prévost's Quartermaster General was a veteran of the early part of the Peninsular campaign and of operations in Chesapeake Bay in 1813, but even he was criticized for failures in intelligence.

General Alexander Macomb
General Alexander Macomb

On the American side, things did not look good. In late August, Secretary of War John Armstrong ordered General Izard, commander of the American Northern Army, to take most of his force, about 4,000 troops, to reinforce Sackett's Harbor. Izard's force departed on 23 August, leaving Brigadier General Alexander Macomb in command at Plattsburgh with only 1,500 American regulars; many of which were recruits, and invalids. Macomb ordered the call-out of the New York militia and appealed to the governor of Vermont for militia volunteers. 2,000 troops eventually reported to Plattsburgh and Macomb put these recent volunteers to work digging trenches and building fortifications. The American main position was a ridge on the south bank of the Saranac River and consisted of three redoubts and two blockhouses, linked by other fieldworks. Macomb continued to improve his defenses, creating an invalid battery on Crab Island, where his hospital was sited. This was to be manned by sick or wounded soldiers who were at least fit to fire the cannon. The townspeople of Plattsburgh had so little faith in Macomb's efforts to repulse the invasion that by September nearly all 3,000 inhabitants had fled the city leaving Plattsburgh occupied mostly by the American army.

The British had gained naval superiority on Lake Champlain on 1 June 1813, when two American sloops pursued British gunboats into the Richelieu River and, when the wind dropped, they were trapped by British artillery on the banks of the river and were forced to surrender. They were taken into the British naval establishment at Ile aux Noix, under Commander Daniel Pring. In response, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, commanding the American naval forces on the Lake, established a secure base at Otter Creek (Vermont), and constructed several gunboats. Naval architect Noah Brown was sent to Otter Creek to superintend construction.

USS Saratoga
USS Saratoga

In April 1814, the Americans launched the corvette USS Saratoga of 26 guns and the schooner USS Ticonderoga of 14 guns. Together with the existing sloop-rigged USS Preble of 7 guns, they gave the Americans naval superiority, and this allowed them to establish and supply a substantial base at Plattsburgh. Only a few days before the Battle of Plattsburgh, the Americans also completed the 20-gun brig USS Eagle.

The loss of their former supremacy on Lake Champlain prompted the British to construct the 36-gun frigate HMS Confiance at Ile aux Noix. Captain George Downie was appointed to command soon after the frigate was launched on 25 August. Due to shortages of naval stores, Downie could not promise to complete Confiance before 15 September, and even then, the frigate's crew would not have been exercised.

HMS Confiance
HMS Confiance

Prévost, anxious to begin his campaign as early as possible, to avoid the harsh weather of late autumn and winter, continually pressed Downie to prepare Confiance for battle more quickly. When Confiance appeared for battle on 11 September, she did so without a finished magazine. Small boats, laden with her ordnance, had to follow in her wake. The gunlocks were ill-fitting fastenings hastily improvised by the crew. Her crew, embarked as late as 5 September—6 days before battle—was newly assembled and had trouble working together; they were, according to a British post-action report, “totally unknown either to the Officers or to each other." Confiance was hardly what one could call finished.

Tending toward caution, Prevost decided that his troops would not attack without a concurrent naval battle on Lake Champlain, near the town of Plattsburgh. The Royal Navy would guard Prevost’s left flank and secure supply lines as British troops occupied the area. Despite this caution, Prevost, Downie, their officers, their men, and their government believed that a decisive British victory was at hand.

American Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough decided he would fight a stationary battle against the British and therefore waited for the enemy squadron to come within range. He instructed his four ships (reinforced by ten gunboats) to anchor in Cumberland Bay at even distances in a line from north to south: the brig Eagle, the 26-gun corvette Saratoga, and then Preble and Ticonderoga, both sloops. This choice gave the Americans several advantages.

  • A Stationary battle meant that sailors could focus almost entirely on gunnery.

  • The shoals in and around Cumberland Bay created natural traps for the British that they could not see.

  • The winds in this part of the lake were subject to distortion by the proximity of the coast and therefore unpredictable.

Macdonough used the time before Downie arrived to drill his sailors and make preparations to fight at anchor. All his ships had both bow and stern anchors, with "springs" attached to the anchor cables to allow the ships to be slewed through a wide arc. Macdonough also laid out extra kedge anchors from the quarters of his flagship Saratoga, which would allow him to spin the ship completely around.

Thomas Macdonough
Thomas Macdonough

As the sun rose on September 11, the British squadron weighed anchor and within an hour sighted the American ships moored in a line with five gunboats on each flank. The battle began around 9:45 and quickly all ships became engaged and were firing at each other from very close range. As Convince suffered increasing damage from the American ships, she was forced to drop anchor between 300 and 500 yards from Macdonough's flagship, Saratoga. Downie proceeding deliberately, secured 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, crushed by a cannon flung from its carriage by a shot from Saratoga.

Both flagships fought each other to a standstill. After Downie and several of the other officers had been killed or injured, Confiance's fire had become less effective. Aboard 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 “wind the ship” (to spin the ship around in place). This allowed Saratoga to bring its undamaged port battery into action. The frigate's surviving Lieutenant, James Robertson, saw what was about to happen and tried to haul in on the springs to his only anchor to make a similar maneuver. Unfortunately, he succeeded only in presenting his vulnerable stern to the American fire. Helpless, and being smashed to pieces, Confiance could only surrender.

Map of Naval Battle at Plattsburgh
Map of Naval Battle at Plattsburgh

Macdonough hauled in further on his kedge anchors to bring his broadside to bear on Linnet. Seeking orders, the Linnet’s Captain, Lieutenant Pring, sent a boat to Confiance, to find that Downie was dead and Confiance had struck its colors. Linnet also could only surrender, after being battered almost into sinking. The British sloop Chub, after losing her anchor cables, bowsprit, and main boom, had drifted into the American line, and was forced to surrender. The British Sloop Finch had run aground and, under fire from the Invalid Battery on Crab Island had also surrendered.

Spectators at Cumberland Head cheered, banged pans, rang bells, and blew horns as the British gunboats sped past heading for Canada. To the naked eye, it might have been hard to tell who had won, so wrecked were both sides’ ships. However, the principal indication of an American victory, at least to those on shore, was the flight of the Royal Navy’s gunboats.

Although Prévost's attack was supposed to coincide with the naval engagement, it was slow to get under way. Orders to move were not issued until 10 AM, when the battle on the lake had been under way for over an hour. The American and British batteries settled down to a duel in which the Americans gained a slight advantage, while a feint attack by the British, aimed at the bridges, was easily repulsed. When a messenger arrived and notified Prévost that Downie's ship had been defeated on the lake he realized that without the navy to supply and support his further advance, any military advantage gained by storming Plattsburgh would have been worthless. Prévost decided he had no option but to retreat and called off the assault. Bugle calls ordering the retreat sounded out along the British lines. The British began their retreat to Canada after dark. Although the British soldiers were ordered to destroy ammunition and stores they could not easily take with them, massive quantities of these were left intact for the Americans to seize. Although there had been little or no desertion from the British army during the advance and the skirmishing along the Saranac, during the retreat at least 234 soldiers deserted.

The failure at Plattsburgh, combined 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, Commander 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 honorably acquitted all of those charged. At about this time, the dispatches of Sir James Yeo were published and emphatically placed the blame for the defeat on Prévost for forcing the British squadron into action prematurely. Prévost demanded a court martial to clear his name but died in 1816 before it could be held.

Lt Stephen Cassin's Congressional Medal
Lt Stephen Cassin's Congressional Medal

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 honor 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, Alexander Macomb, and Lieutenant Stephen Cassin, son of Commodore John Cassin who led the defense of the Gosport Navy Yard during the Battle of Craney Island.

We hope you found Part 1 of our examination of the War of 1812 to be interesting and informative. In Part 2 of our series on the War of 1812, we will begin looking at the Chesapeake Bay “theatre of operations.” Please join us again in two-weeks for this next chapter and while you are at it, please take a moment to join the conversation and let us know what you think about the subject by putting your comments in the box at the bottom of this page. We would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow you to suggest new subjects for future articles as well as allowing us to inform you when we post new articles. Additionally, please return to our blog home page and sample some of our earlier articles on a variety of subjects.

Finally, if you live in Virginia or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


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