Saturday, September 15, 2012

Battle of Plattsburgh:
When the North Country Saved the Republic

This week is the anniversary of a horrible attack upon the United States.  At the time it occurred I was working in a field related to policing and intelligence.  As I watched the agonizing drama unfold along with so many riveted Americans I could not have foreseen how much my world, how much everyone’s world, would change, how much was truly at stake.  I have many ties to New York City and at the time almost all of my closest family lived in Manhattan.   In November of that year I went to the city and was pulled to the raw, still-smoldering ruins of ground zero.  I’ll never forget it.

In the months that followed September 11th business took me to back Washington DC repeatedly.  Military, intelligence and border security agencies were in a tizzy.  A lot of things were put on hold as the question of how the government would reorganize itself around the concept of Homeland Security, a new artifact of our national security language, hung in the air.

At some point in the late fall my company attended a private Defense Department briefing for vendors, one purpose of which was to review the plans to rebuild the Pentagon.  The Bush Administration had decided that as a symbol of American will and resilience the exterior of the building was to be completely reconstructed and rededicated within a calendar year of the attacks, by September 11th 2002.   This was a tremendously aggressive plan requiring vendors to work literally around the clock.

At that briefing I learned something which at the time was not publicly known. It gave me a lesson in how what we think we know about war is all too often not the truth, or at least not the real story.  The information we heard that afternoon was frightening: fate spared the nation from a disaster of far greater proportions.  The story (which is public knowledge now, though still little known) is that the Pentagon could easily have been destroyed that morning.

The Pentagon was originally constructed during World War II.  The design used almost no structural steel at all, as steel was needed for the war effort (ironically the ground breaking was actually held on September 11th, 1941).  That meant it was extremely vulnerable to attack.   For decades this uncomfortable fact was whispered in the defense community but the cost of a retrofit was prohibitive.  The 1993 truck bombing at the World Trade Center followed by the 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City finally spurred action and a project was begun to harden the massive structure.  Of course the details were secret but the project involved state-of-the-art techniques and materials.  It was a huge undertaking, scheduled to take more than a decade.

On the morning of September 1th, 2001 the reconstruction project had been underway for three years.  Only one side of the five-sided building had been rebuilt and even there the work was not entirely complete.

When the plane slammed into its side the lives of 125 Pentagon workers were taken along with all the passengers on the aircraft.  Being the world’s largest office building the Pentagon had a daily population on the order of a small city, roughly 24,000 people.  The media reported that the death toll was not higher because many offices were vacant due to the construction.  This is true as far as it goes, but it is not the main reason.  As we learned at the briefing that day the real reason that there were not more casualties was that the plane was flown into the one part of the building that had been rebuilt and the reinforcements worked fabulously well, saving untold lives.  The chances were one in five that morning.  One in five.

As awful as the tragedy was, the long odds prevailed in favor of the Pentagon.  Briefers explained that had the plane gone into any other side it would likely have gone all the way through that side, through the central courtyard and into the opposite corner with casualties approaching as many as ten thousand people.  Not only that, but our defense nerve center would have been completely crippled.  The ramifications of something like that are mind-boggling.  By uncomfortably slim luck a terrible terrorist attack was kept from being an unimaginable national security nightmare with thousands more victims.

It is said that history turns on the narrowest of margins and I have always believed it.  The story of the Pentagon on September 11th 2001 is one of those examples and I think about it often, having sat with stunned amazement in that briefing.

There is another wartime example of fate, luck, narrow turnings and untold stories that I learned about some years ago.  It is even more dramatic.  And it has the same date.

I have noticed that even on its bicentennial the War of 1812 doesn’t get much respect.  It is dismissed by most analysts and media as a folly, a war that was declared unwisely, prosecuted incompetently, fought by the British indifferently and ultimately drawn to a stalemate.  Writers even gleefully point out that The Battle of New Orleans, which made the reputation of future President Andrew Jackson, was fought mistakenly after the war had ended, because word had not reached the combatants that the Treaty of Ghent had already been signed.  I have lost count of the number of times in the last two months I have read that there are only three facts anyone knows about the War of 1812: that Dolly Madison saved Washington’s portrait by removing it from the White House before the British burned it to the ground; that our National Anthem came from Francis Scott Key’s observations during the Battle of Baltimore; and that the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, repeatedly humbled the superior British Navy.

What apparently remains unknown is another fact about the War of 1812: it is the closest that America as we know it ever came to destruction, and it was incredibly close.  The turning point for an entire continent occurred on September 11th, right here in the North Country.  That it went our way is practically a miracle and the events of that fateful day deserve the utmost respect and honor.

Whatever the course of the War of 1812 during its first two years – and indeed that course was characterized by a marked degree of incompetence on our part and disinterest on the part of an otherwise-engaged Great Britain – in the spring of 1814 things got serious.  The British had been fully absorbed for years by the Napoleonic Wars but in April the French Emperor had finally been defeated and exiled to Elba (the surprising intertwining of Napoleon’s life with the Adirondacks makes for a good story).   Britain was now able to turn its attention to the upstart Americans and their threats against the Canadas.  It was decided to prepare a crushing blow.

History seems to offer some dispute about the nature of this blow.  The man to whom the responsibility of attacking America fell was Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada and Military Commander for North America.  His orders (mistakenly referred to by some as “secret” orders) were to mount a decisive invasion from Canada south into New York.   Many historians describe this invasion as an attempt to secure and hold a position in New York for the purpose of negotiating a peace with more favorable terms.  The orders, which I have read, seem to reflect this modest objective.  However the situation was more complicated than that.  As had been the case in the French-Indian and Revolutionary Wars the Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River corridor held the key to mastery of the continent.  Control of the St. Lawrence, Mohawk and Hudson waterways would dictate control of all the lands to the west.  Securing the corridor would mean that the New England states would be severed from the rest of the country.  This was a critical fact because there was a strong secessionist movement in New England which had largely been opposed to war from the start.  There was even talk that members of the Essex Junto, a secessionist group active for several years in Massachusetts and adjoining states, had held clandestine talks with Great Britain about rejoining His Majesty’s empire should the British invasion succeed.  Once beyond the northern frontier the British would have found few remaining American forces.  Should Albany have fallen a march south to New York City would have been all but unstoppable, leaving it at the mercy of a pincer strategy from land and water.  In short, had this invasion been seen through to its ultimate possible conclusion the United States as we know it today would not exist.

Lest this seem like fantastic conjecture, let me share a few facts that illustrate how serious this invasion plan was.  First of all, beginning in the spring of 1814 British military commanders began sending thousands of battle-hardened veterans of the struggle against Napoleon to Canada.  By the time Prevost began his invasion he had on the order of ten-thousand experienced soldiers under his command.  This was by far the largest invasion force the United States has ever faced and it dwarfed the American resistance, as we shall see.

Next, to further divide American resources and priorities a second and simultaneous invasion was designed.   Many people know about the British landing in  the Chesapeake, the march into Washington DC and the burning of the Capitol, White House and other public buildings, followed by the attack on Baltimore where American forces finally prevailed.  But not many people know that all of that was conceived as a diversion to distract our military from the real attack by Prevost.  In fact the commander of the Chesapeake invasion, Major General Robert Ross, had these instructions from British Secretary of State for War, the Earl of Bathurst: to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor of the army employed in the defense of Upper and Lower Canada.”  The Battle of Baltimore was not the seminal event in the War of 1812, our National Anthem notwithstanding: the Battle of Plattsburgh was.

Prevost had a number of potential targets for his invasion, including Sackett’s Harbour, the heart of America’s naval forces on Lake Ontario, which had been the site of two previous battles.  But he intended all along to attack the little town of Plattsburgh, gateway to the Champlain Valley and thus the key to control of the strategic Champlain corridor.  Prevost deliberately spread misinformation about his plans so as to confuse his American opponents.  This strategy worked all too well, resulting in American Secretary of War John Armstrong ordering his military commander on the northern frontier, Major General George Izard, to move the bulk of his forces from Plattsburgh to Sackett’s Harbour.  Izard knew it was a mistake, declaring in a letter that “everything in this vicinity… will in less than three days after my departure be in the possession of the enemy.”  But he was a loyal officer and left Plattsburgh with his troops, leaving its defense to fifteen-hundred regulars under the command of a young West Point graduate who had been recently promoted to Brigadier General.  Many of these regulars were inexperienced and hundreds were sick or were invalids.   Even supplemented by the New York and Vermont militia who answered the call to muster the tattered American forces were outnumbered by the invading veteran British army four-to-one.

And so it was on the morning of September 11th, 1814 that Sir George Prevost commenced the assault on Plattsburgh with an overwhelming force, even as his naval counterpart, Captain George Downie, attacked with the British fleet.  The fate of the Republic and of North America as a whole rested upon long odds indeed.   Fortunately they also rested upon the shoulders of two remarkable young men:  Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, whose exploits in the naval battle are fairly well known, and the young Brigadier General in charge of the meager land forces: Alexander Macomb.

Next week I will finish this tale by relating the story of two little-known champions of Plattsburgh, one from history and one from the present: Macomb, who helped to save the Republic through his brilliance, and the dedicated historian who has done so much to bring Macomb’s exploits to light.

Photo: The Battle 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.

5 Responses

  1. Bill Joplin says:

    Pete, I don’t usually need a comparison with a modern-day situation to get my attention for a history lesson. But only now do I “get it” about the Battle of Plattsburgh. Even more, I’m riveted and can’t wait for your next installment.

  2. Please send me a notice so that I don’t miss the follow-up.

  3. Living on the doorstep of Antietam, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary on Sept. 17, the War of 1812 tends to get short shrift in my neck of the woods. Thanks for giving me some extra grist as I attempt to do historical missionary work among the blue and gray re-enactors.

  4. Paul says:

    Interesting post.

    I highly recommend a visit to Fort McHenry in Baltimore if you want to learn about the war of 1812.

    Two fixes for the editor:

    “business took me to back Washington DC”


    “On the morning of September 1th, 2001”

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