Saturday, September 22, 2012

Battle of Plattsburgh: Alexander Macomb

Last week I wrote about the significance of September 11th, being a date that illustrates the surprising, narrow and often untold margins by which history unfolds.  I wrote of two fateful events that occurred on that date: the terrorist attacks of eleven years ago and the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1814.  I left that tale unfinished.

When last we left the story the fate of the nation lay in the hands of a passel of barely trained regulars, invalids, soldiers unfit due to dysentery and typhoid, teenagers and sporadic militia, many of whom didn’t arrive in time for the battle and many of whom changed their minds as things got dicey.  This less-than-glamorous force faced upwards of ten-thousand battle-hardened British troops poised to invade from Canada.  It should have been hopeless for the Americans: there was not a chance that the British force could have been defeated had Sir George Prevost, the Military Commander for North America, prosecuted his invasion without letup or hesitation.

Fortunately the Americans had two things going for them.  One thing (about which I will not write in detail as this story is reasonably well-known and has been told in many books and articles) was that the American Naval forces available for war on Lake Champlain were superior to the British resources.  Prevost was concerned about sustaining an invasion and occupation of the Champlain Valley without control over Lake Champlain.  The British were hurriedly constructing a new flagship and assembling a fleet.  This flagship, the Confiance, was destined to be the largest vessel on the lake, having 37 guns; at a minimum it would have evened the strength of the two opposing fleets.  But as Prevost crossed from Canada with his invasion force on August 31st, the Confiance was not yet finished and Prevost, much to his frustration, had to delay his attack upon Plattsburgh as the British carpenters rushed to complete her.   This gave the outnumbered Americans precious time with which to prepare a defense.

Still, whenever Prevost chose to launch the attack, the American forces should easily have been routed.  But there was a second advantage our young nation had going for it: the brilliant young American Commander, Brigadier General Alexander Macomb.  One of the first graduates of the new training academy established along with the Army Corps of Engineers, which we now know as West Point, Macomb was an expert at fortifications and an extremely bright, resourceful thinker.  He also had that rare personal touch, always striving to speak face-to-face with all arriving militia and giving motivating speeches and affirming orders and tasks.

The British force took a week to get to Plattsburgh, arriving on September 6th and immediately occupying Plattsburgh south all the way to the Saranac River on the other side of which lay the American defenses. The British made camp in a huge arc extending north and west of the town.  The Americans had harassed the British invaders with raids, skirmishes and snipers most of the way from Canada but once the advance got as far as Plattsburgh, American forces retreated over the bridges spanning the Saranac, tearing up the planks and making breastworks.

Macomb had earlier called out the militias of New York and Vermont and some men began filtering into Plattsburgh.  It was unknown how many would respond from Vermont; many Vermont farmers were on friendly terms with the British, engaging with them in clandestine trade to supply them with staples.  But news of the invasion of Plattsburgh on the 6th brought Vermonters’ patriotism to the fore and militiamen started reporting by the hundreds.

Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough had brought the American fleet into Plattsburgh Bay on September 1st.  He had them anchor there because he knew prevailing winds and currents would make it hard for the British ships to maneuver in the bay and the closer quarters would support the American fleet’s advantage in short-range guns.   His navy was ready, his largest ships rigged with spring lines to allow them to be turned 180 degrees with rapidity so as to present fresh cannon to the enemy.  Macomb aided the naval cause by stationing some of his invalid soldiers on Crab Island and equipping them with cannon.  Everything was as ready as it could be in the bay.

But on land there was much to be done.  Macomb, being accomplished in the making of fortifications, pressed the completion of three earthen forts lined between the Saranac River and Plattsburgh Bay.  Their fronts made for a formidable approach but their back sides were vulnerable to a flanking attack.   Two outbuildings were also built and the roads and bridges were manned to defend against a crossing of the river.

Yet these preparations were not a match for the cause to which they were about to be put.  Macomb knew he was vastly outnumbered.  But with Prevost delaying as he waited for the Confiance, Macomb had time to use his smarts… and use them he did.

Macomb knew that he had to mislead his enemy into thinking the opposition was greater than it actually was, so he engaged in a variety of clever deceptions to give Prevost doubt about the risks, costs and chances of ultimate success in taking Plattsburgh.  First a fake letter was allowed to fall into British hands.  This letter “revealed” that Governor Chittenden himself was on the march to Plattsburgh with thousands of militia, along with several thousand additional militia coming from other directions.  Then the night before the invasion suspected British spies were allowed to overhear that General Izard, who had left days before for Sackett’s Harbour, was in fact hidden nearby with a force of ten-thousand men.

To support these ruses and mask his dearth of healthy troops Macomb hit upon a particularly clever idea.  At night he paraded the same set of healthy troops over and over again, seeming to take defensive positions along the bank of the Saranac River.  To allow British spotters to see this “accumulation” of troops in the darkness, Macomb had his little passion play illuminated by burning barracks and storehouses that lay near the river.

On the eve of the invasion, seeing that the spies who had overheard the lies about Izard’s presence were safely across the river and among their British brethren, Macomb had his men hastily replant shrubs, bushes and even entire trees so as to reroute roads away from town.  One false road was setup to lead into a pincer trap consisting of soldiers with cannon hidden in the woods who could lay down a withering volley of fire.

On the morning of September 11th, 1814 Prevost began the attack.   At 9 AM the British fleet, including the just-arrived Confiance, her varnish still wet, opened fire on the Americans.  Simultaneously British batteries began bombarding American defenses across the Saranac River and British troops began to move against the bridges.

I will cover the outcome of this attack in a third and final installment next week, when we shall see how the plans of that Champion of Plattsburgh, Alexander Macomb, fared.  But you may wonder how it is that a story-teller like me who is no war historian has come to be writing of this most critical battle, an essential event in American history that has quite frankly been overlooked.  That involves another Champion of Plattsburgh, this one a man of the present-day.

Some years ago, having been fascinated for more than a decade with the McIntyre Iron Works and the Ghost town of Adirondac, I began research on a work of historical fiction that would involve the story of that rugged settlement.  Inspired by Adirondac’s feeling of forgotten loneliness and unknown, I resolved to write my novel around a mystery.  For a while I toyed with one mystery conceit or another, unsatisfied with any of them.  But then in my research I stumbled upon a completely surprising connection between the development of the McIntyre mines and the Battle of Plattsburgh two decades before.  Turning my investigations towards that battle I began to learn of its importance, something about which I’d had no idea before.  I discovered that there was a Battle of Plattsburgh Association and that led me to a fellow named Keith Herkalo.

Allow me write in praise of the amateur historian.  While I have nothing but admiration for professional historians, the evolving narrative of human presence on this Earth demonstrates time and time again the value of the contributions made by amateurs who dig deeply into their subject-matter for nothing other than the love of the stories.  No wonder: in a real sense history belongs intrinsically to all of us; every one of us has something to contribute to the narrative cloth, some part that we or our family has played.  I can think of no other subject where amateurs have made more important contributions.  Not all historical research stands the tests of time or scrutiny and the lazy contributions of dilettantes have too often cheapened their subjects.  But an amateur historian can be as serious as any academic professional.

Such an historian is Keith Herkalo.  Having become intimately interested in Plattsburgh’s role in the War of 1812 he became a champion and principal advocate of the story.  He is a founder and current President of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association; he has written and lectured extensively; he recently published a book, The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814, which I have not yet read but which I have no doubt is definitive; he has spearheaded the effort to discover the true location of Pike’s Cantonment and recent archaeology has proved his theories about its location to be correct.

I met Keith Herkalo during my research and was generously given a tour of the not-yet-open War of 1812 Museum.  He even had people in period dress to help me visualize what I would be writing about.  It was obvious that in his wealth of knowledge, his integrity and commitment, Mr. Herkalo was doing an important service: building and spreading the story of a crucial turning point in American History that had been neglected, misunderstood or outright forgotten, a turning point replete with surprises and drama and miraculously narrow in its outcome.  Like other amateur historians before him, Herkalo was – and is- doing great work on the fabric of our American story.  That is worth something.

Next week we shall see how this crucial morning of September 11th turned out, the story courtesy of our two Champions of Plattsburgh.  Alexander Macomb may yet take his rightful place alongside Washington, Grant, Patton and other American military giants.  Thanks, Keith, for helping to bring to light his importance.

Photo: Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, Champion of Plattsburgh.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

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