Saturday, September 29, 2012

Battle of Plattsburgh: Victory in the North Country

This week we finish the tale started two weeks ago, the story of when the North Country saved the Republic.  Like all great stories of war this one has its heroes.  The naval exploits of one of them, Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, are fairly well known, credited among students of war if not the general public.

The story of another, Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, is all but unknown.  In this final installment I will introduce you to a third gentleman, a lesser player in the story to be sure, but one who happens to be one of the most iconic characters in Adirondack lore and who represents the gallantry of all the militia, the citizen-soldiers who helped turn the tide.

At 9 AM on September 11th, 1814 the Battle of Plattsburgh, the most fearsome attack on American soil in history, began simultaneously on land and sea.  The Americans held the advantage on the water: though they were outgunned by the arriving British fleet and its brand new flagship, the Confiance, Macdonough held the high ground as it were, with his fleet anchored advantageously in Plattsburgh Bay.  As Macdonough had anticipated, when Captain George Downie brought his ships into the bay the prevailing winds and currents presented considerable difficulties in executing maneuvers .  It has been suggested that Downie erred in confronting Macdonough under those conditions when he had superior long-range firepower and could have bombarded him into submission from a distance.  But no matter, for the fleets engaged at close range and had at it.

I will not relate the details of the naval engagement here.   For those wishing to read more about it I would suggest the superb book by Allan S. Everest, The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley.  It contains an excellent account of the contest, complete with maps.  The short version of the story is that after a fierce, battering two-hour confrontation Macdonough’s fleet prevailed.  First they caught a break when Downie was killed in the first five minutes.  Later, when the Confiance and the American flagship Saratoga had pummeled each-other with broadsides to the point where each ship’s facing cannon were almost entirely out of commission, the Saratoga was able to wheel around 180 degrees using the spring lines Macdonough had rigged and present fresh cannon while the British effort to do the same stalled partway through the rotation.  Raked by massive volleys and unable to respond, the Confiance surrendered and the contest was over.

Meanwhile at 9 AM British batteries opened up with everything they had on the Americans forts across the Saranac River.  But despite the intensity of the bombardment and some testing of the bridges by British troops, there were no massed attempts to cross the Saranac.   That’s because Prevost had another plan.  Three miles or so to the west, a huge force under Major General Frederick Robinson waited to cross the Saranac at a ford near the site of an abandoned cantonment established two years before by Colonel Zebulon Pike of Pike’s Peak fame (Pike’s Cantonment was a wintering site for American troops over the winter of 1812-1813, under conditions that made Valley Forge look like a spring picnic; I direct readers to the project of Keith Herkalo, the dedicated amateur historian to whom I referred last week, for the fascinating story) . This plan by Prevost was a massive flanking attack that promised to encircle the American forces and allow attack of the forts from the rear.  Major General Robinson was a highly lauded veteran of the Napoleonic Wars under Wellington and he had four-thousand experienced troops under his command.

Macomb had anticipated Prevost’s flanking strategy and had a defensive force in place under one of his top lieutenants, Major General Benjamin Mooers.  Mooers was a veteran of the Revolutionary War and a resident and leading citizen of Plattsburgh.  To him fell the command of the New York Militia.  At the ford by Pike’s Cantonment he had a contingent of several hundred arranged in defensive positions.  Mooers’ own report gives the number as seven hundred men; Everest says that it was four hundred. Either way the Americans were outnumbered at least six-to-one.  Furthermore they were militiamen whereas Robinson’s army consisted of regulars with extensive combat experience.

American hopes rested upon slowing the invasion and giving Prevost reason to doubt his chances for long-term success.  These hopes in turn rested in part upon the success of Macomb’s various diversions and deceptions which I outlined last week.   But none of them were going to work if the New York militia under Mooers did not do their part and hold fast as best they could, which in the face of such an attacking army was going to require exemplary bravery.

History records that after Macdonough’s victory in Plattsburgh Bay which occurred around eleven AM, Prevost ordered a halt to the land attack followed by a hasty retreat back to Canada. The usual reason given for this order is that Prevost did not believe that the land campaign could hold for long without naval support.  Robinson felt otherwise and was angry over the order, but he followed Prevost’s command.  In any case, this sequence accounts for Macdonough’s fame and Macomb’s obscurity, giving as it does all the credit to Macdonough.

But consider another scenario for a moment.   Without Macomb’s brilliant preparations and deceptions Prevost knows that his land forces are overwhelming.  Realizing that he can take control of all of Plattsburgh at will from the ragtag collection of Yankee troops who oppose him, he orders Robinson on a full-on flanking assault before the naval battle commences.  Robinson marches into Plattsburgh and takes the forts in hardly two hours’ time.  Macdonough is now caught in Plattsburgh Bay between Downie’s fleet and the British occupiers who can turn their armaments on the American ships.  Having no alternative, Macdonough surrenders and the British have complete control of the Champlain corridor.

This is all speculation, of course.  No one knows for certain how well Macomb’s various ruses worked to give Prevost pause or influence his later retreat order.  But pause he did, in fact early in the day: Robinson did not receive the order to go until an hour after the naval battle had commenced.  Then the Americans caught another break as the scouts leading Robinson to the ford got lost, wasting more time.

Despite these problems the speculative scenario nearly came to pass.  Robinson’s army eventually made it two miles towards Plattsburgh on the other side of the Saranac and within site of the forts before the retreat order came on horseback.  Had the lost hours due to Prevost’s delay and the scouts’ mistakes not occurred Robinson would have almost certainly taken the village before the naval engagement was over.  He might have anyhow, but Robinson did not have a clear march, and this is key.

Macomb’s plans and the opposing New York militia both lived up to their potential, tasking the British at every step.  The rerouted roads and pincer strategy worked, cutting off an entire British company who were killed or captured.  As the bulk of the British force advanced the militia stoutly resisted, repeatedly retreating, regrouping and firing in organized fashion.  By the time Robinson got close to the forts the British fleet had surrendered and Prevost , left with uncertainty on land, defeat on water and the American defenders still in command of the forts, saw no point in pressing the invasion further.   The retreat was ordered, Robinson’s army dejectedly turned back and the United States was secure.

As had been the case in the Revolutionary War, the citizen militia had come through.  While some had fled early on when the British advance to Plattsburgh was being harassed by skirmishes, most performed admirably.  Vermont’s militia, whose participation had been in doubt, showed up to the tune of more than two-thousand men.  But it was the New York militia, holding strong against Robinson’s forces, that distinguished itself in particular. Even though in 1814 the Adirondacks were largely unsettled and unexplored, the New York militia had a strong Adirondack connection.  In Mooers’ written report after the battle he singled out two militia leaders for praise, saying they were “entitled to notice for their gallantry and good conduct…”  Both men were early settlers in the Adirondacks: Major Luman Wadhams of Lewis (and later Wadhams, which is named after him) and the final subject of our little story: one Reuben Sanford, Major of the Militia and Commander of Sanford’s Battalion.

Reuben Sanford’s imprint is all over Adirondack history.  He was a true pioneer, one of the very first settlers, coming from the Connecticut in 1803 and settling in the Jay area in present-day Wilmington.  Evidently he was physically imposing and powerful, “known for his feats of horsemanship and chopping wood,” according to the current town historian of Wilmington.  As a Captain in the New York militia he had seen service on the Canadian frontier but he eventually returned to the Wilmington area where he organized and drilled several companies into his own battalion on the East bank of the AuSable River.  It was this independent or unregimented battalion which distinguished itself at Plattsburgh.  Major Sanford went on to a noted career of service to his nation, being a member of the New York State Assembly from 1814 to 1817, a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention of 1821 and a member of the New York State Senate from 1828 to 1831.

While he was busy with all that, Reuben Sanford basically built Wilmington, which was split off from Jay.  Soon after settling in the area he started a potashery, opened a hotel and began a long string of activities, engaging in just about every enterprise you could think of.  Sometime shortly after the war he established a forge, the Sanford Iron Works and a saw mill.  He opened a store and a tavern.  He built not one but two distilleries (!) and built the first church in Wilmington, brick by brick, almost entirely by himself.   Imagine that juxtaposition in today’s world.  He also became Wilmington’s first Postmaster as well as a town clerk and supervisor.

This information and numerous other bits of information about “Reubie” come from a half-dozen reference sources that I have used for my novel’s research.  Taken together they paint a most compelling picture. One of my favorite quotes, from a history of Essex County, is this one: “The most prominent manufacturer of whisky in the county was unquestionably Reuben Sanford, of Wilmington.”  I tell you, this guy was something else.

On top of all that I know something more about Reuben Sanford, a skill that was apparently not considered important enough to be mentioned in any of these sources, but which is in fact quite an accomplishment: he was an expert surveyor.  Sanford partnered with another prominent Adirondack pioneer and surveyor, Judge John Richards (of Richards’ Old Military Tract fame) and together they made numerous important and noteworthy surveys in the area of the Champlain Valley and the High Peaks.

As for Sanford’s exploits during the Battle of Plattsburgh, they have passed into legend if not public fame.  It is clear he was a very brave man.  He and his battalion took part in the harassment of the approaching British troops on September 6th at Culver’s Hill under General Mooers.  History places him at one of the bridges that the Americans tore up as they retreated across the Saranac.  Numerous accounts have him single-handedly cutting the stringers on a bridge to prevent the British advance as bullets whistled past him.  An account from the book Three Centuries in Champlain valley; a Collection of Historical Facts and Incidents, published 1909 by the Daughters of the American Revolution gives the account thusly:

 After the retreat from Culver’s Hill and Halsey’s Corners on Sept. 6, while engaged in cutting the stringers to destroy the upper  bridge over the Saranac, his axe was hit by a bullet and stuck in the “Scarf” of the wood he was chopping, but the Major kept on, only remarking, “It’s too bad to spoil such a good ax.”

However it was his command of his well-drilled and disciplined militia at the very point of the British assault that distinguished him the most.  If not for his leadership on that morning things may have turned out quite differently.

Being a lover of Adirondack history it has been a fascinating experience to learn about the importance of the Battle of Plattsburgh; as a writer plotting a novel it has been inspiring to understand its dramatic details.  My book has lain dormant for a while now, about a third complete, as I have been focused on this wonderful project of these weekly Dispatches.  But after writing all of this I feel motivated to return to it.

That reminds me: a few of you more hard-core Adirondack history buffs may wonder from last week’s Dispatch what the connection could possibly be between the McIntyre mining story and the Battle of Plattsburgh.   I will not be revealing the details here, however I can say this: like all remote mining operations of the time the McIntyre works depended upon water to power machinery and provide transport of ore out to civilization; fortunately there was plenty of water available, as anyone can see from a map of the area…

Illustration: A period pen and ink drawing of the Saranac River at the ford near Pike’s Cantonment.

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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.




4 Responses

  1. Glenn L. Pearsall says:

    Great series on the battle of Plattsburgh and battle hero General Alexander Macomb. Folks who relish Adirondack History, as I do, might be interested to learn that the General’s father, of the same name, was the Adirondack spculator who in 1791 purchased almost 4 million acres (about 1/6 of NYS and most of the North Country). Failure to keep up with his mortgage payments and the financial planic of 1792 landed him in debtor’s prison.

  2. Pete Nelson says:

    Thanks Glenn.

    Now the big question on Glenn’s comment: is Macomb in the Dix range named after the father or the son? no one seems to know for sure that I have read. Do any of you faithful readers know?

  3. Frank Owen says:

    A great piece, Pete. Thanks. As a guy from the West (although my ancestor was an early settler in Jay/Wilmington) I know too little about the War of 1812 in general and specifically about what took place up here. You might wish to know that Martha Lee’s great-great…grandfather, William Edmonds, served in the Continental Line from Rhode Island throughout the Revolution (he was at Monmouth, Valley Forge and saw the surrender at Yorktown) and marched with the militia to Plattsburg for the fight.

    I wish you good progress with your novel. Frank

  4. As Frank mentioned, this is a fine article about an important moment of North Country History. What Frank didn’t know when he wrote the comment above is that the Revolutionary War William was in Sanford’s Battalion. So was his son and my direct ancestor, Nehemiah Edmonds. They both “walked” from Keene Valley to Plattsburgh to fight in the battle.