From Secretary of Navy William Jones on Oct. 3, 1814: “To view it in abstract, it is not surpassed by any naval victory on record. To appreciate its result, it is perhaps one of the most important events in the history of our country.”
According to Penn University historian John B. McMaster, it was “the greatest naval battle of the war,” and Thomas Macdonough was “the ablest sea-captain our country has produced.”
Like McMaster, author and historian Teddy Roosevelt called it “the greatest naval battle of the war,” and praised Commodore Thomas Macdonough thusly: “Down to the time of the Civil War, he is the greatest figure in our naval history. … he was skillful and brave. One of the greatest of our sea captains, he has left a stainless name behind him.” And one more: looking back, Sir Winston Churchill said it “was a decisive battle of the war.”
If you didn’t know it already, the Battle of Plattsburgh (or Plattsburgh Bay, or Lake Champlain) occurred on September 11, 1814. The city is now celebrating the battle’s bicentennial with a wide range of events spanning August 29 through Sunday, September 14.
I was raised just 20 miles from Plattsburgh, but can recall no such celebrations during my childhood, and no mention of the battle in our history schoolbooks or classes. Now that I’m older, it’s interesting to note the genesis of such events and the pattern of popularity they undergo over the course of two centuries.
In 1814 and 1815, the victory at Plattsburgh was spectacularly famous. The young United States had suffered many embarrassing setbacks during the War of 1812, so the win itself was a big deal. Since the American forces were heavy underdogs at Plattsburgh, the feat was that much more impressive.
But closer to home, it was of monumental importance to regional residents from the Canadian border to Albany, and on to New York City. Had the invasion continued south of Plattsburgh, who knew how, or where, or even if the British would be stopped? There was a great sense of fear and panic, followed by widespread joy and relief at the news that the forces at Plattsburgh had prevailed. Year after year, parties and celebrations were held in honor of an important battle won.
To digress briefly … there are many who scoff at the War of 1812 for a variety of reasons, calling it forgettable, a mistake, insignificant, or a poor excuse for a war. Whether those assessments are accurate or not, it should always be remembered that no American military personnel in Afghanistan, Vietnam, Europe, or our own Civil War, were any more at risk than the forces that defended Plattsburgh and the nation. Firsthand accounts of Plattsburgh’s battles confirm this—from skirmishes to facing cannon fire at close quarters, with men killed and limbs severed. It was a hellish experience.
Events like those at Plattsburgh are honored for years to come, at least through the lifetime of surviving participants, and usually well into the lives of their offspring. We see it today, for example, more than a second generation away from World War II. Memorials are still held, but how many of today’s youth have a grasp on the realities of that conflict? How many know what the Holocaust was, and why the motto, “Never Forget,” became so important?
The victory at Plattsburgh, which meant so much to so many people, remained wildly popular for a very long time. A similar land/sea victory occurred at Baltimore in the days immediately following Plattsburgh’s win. It’s notable that two years later, the city of Baltimore hosted a display of paintings depicting the confrontation in Plattsburgh Bay, recognizing its great importance.
In 1840, a quarter century after the war, an estimated 5,000 people gathered in Plattsburgh to remember the victory, including many old local soldiers and a contingent of 500 from Vermont (troops from the Green Mountain State had joined in the 1814 battle). Several dignitaries spoke, including Governor Cornelius Van Ness of Vermont and Senator Silas Wright of New York. In subsequent years, other politicians, colonels, and generals were in attendance.
In 1855, the Washington [D.C.] Daily Union reported on a convention of Veterans of the War of 1812, somehow neglecting to mention any events that occurred on the northern frontier. Subsequently, a two-column article by General St. John B. L. Skinner told Plattsburgh’s story and set the record straight. Skinner knew his stuff as well as anyone. As a young teenager, he fought with the land forces at Plattsburgh under Alexander Macomb as one of Aiken’s Volunteers.
In 1858, events were held in St. Louis on the anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh, described by the Daily Missouri Republican as “a remarkable event in history.” Among the speakers was General Nathan Ranney, who, like Skinner, had fought in the battle as a teenager.
In that same year at Plattsburgh, a crowd estimated at six to ten thousand attended festivities featuring speakers like Major General John Wool and Commodore Hiram Paulding. Both had fought heroically in defense of Plattsburgh forty-four years earlier.
Celebrations of various sizes continued over the years, topped by the 100th anniversary in 1914, when the state provided funding of $125,000 (equal to $3 million in 2014).
And here we are now, two centuries having passed since the War of 1812. In recent decades, the folks of Plattsburgh have done a wonderful job of proudly highlighting the city’s place in history. Despite the lack of state funding in support of the Battle of Plattsburgh’s bicentennial anniversary, a community effort has resulted in a multifaceted program perfect for families and for those wishing to honor and learn more about the city’s important history.
Visit the Battle of Plattsburgh Association website to learn more.
Photos: Above, a Baltimore advertisement for the Battle Of Plattsburgh traveling panarama, an early film-like experience (1816); middle, Commodore Thomas Macdonough; and below, a medal showing Commodore Macdonough and General Macomb, struck to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh in 1914 (from the collection of the Naval History and Heriatge Command.