September 11, 2017, marks the 203rd anniversary of the Battle of Plattsburgh. The official 2017 commemoration of the battle ended Sunday. To mark the event, a quiz appeared here last week, mostly addressing Commodore Thomas Macdonough’s role in the victory on Lake Champlain.
There were two battles at Plattsburgh however, one on the bay and one on land. This week’s quiz covers the land battle and related subjects. See if you can answer a few, and learn a few fun facts in the bargain. » Continue Reading.
In the spirit of the September 10–13 Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration (check out what you missed, and make plans to attend next year), here’s a little Q & A fun from the battle itself, the War of 1812, and Lake Champlain history.
The answers immediately follow each question, so if you enjoy testing yourself and/or others, don’t peek. And if you’re not familiar with the Battle of Plattsburgh, it’s a fantastic story of Americans triumphing against great odds in both a land and water battle. As much as anything else, the victory at Plattsburgh helped end the war. » Continue Reading.
In the past the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration had grown into a two-week celebration. Now, for the first year, the City of Plattsburgh has condensed the commemoration into a tightly packed four-day celebration this weekend, September 10-13.
According to Sandra Geddes, Promotions and Special Events Coordinator for the City of Plattsburgh, the goal for shortening the event was to bring the focus back to the historical aspect of the battle, keep all the elements that brought a variety of people to the area and present it all in a more concise format. » Continue Reading.
As Americans pause today to mark the terrible events of 2001, it would be fitting to also mark a bicentennial of which few Americans are aware, but of which the North Country should be justly proud: the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh.
These two momentous days, from across a span of nearly two centuries, share an importance that will forever be marked by historians.
Both are absolutely critical to the shape of the America we live in today. Both are fulcra, balancing a more innocent and vulnerable America of the past with a changed nation that confronted a vastly different future world. » Continue Reading.
“The naval battle of Lake Champlain was probably the greatest feat of arms that our navy achieved in the War of 1812,” said Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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.” » Continue Reading.
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. » Continue Reading.
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. » Continue Reading.
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. » Continue Reading.
Lake Champlain was a corridor for warfare beginning with Samuel de Champlain’s exploration, but perhaps no moment in the Champlain Valley was as important as the Battle of Plattsburgh, something recognized by both Roosevelt and Churchill. Although other, more famous, engagements of the War of 1812 were ruses meant to divert U.S. troops away from the prize – Plattsburgh. The Chesapeake Campaign for example, which included the British capture of Washington, DC, the bombardment of Fort McHenry captured in the National Anthem, was intended, as Donald Graves notes, “as a large raid to draw off American troops from the northern theatre of the war.”
The northern theatre, which saw the most desperate fighting and bloodiest engagements of the war, was the pathway to cut the colonies in half. Not surprisingly, the battles at Plattsburgh, are considered by historians to have been crucial to securing peace between Great Britain and America in 1814. Author Keith Herkalo retells stories of the battles at Plattsburgh in a concise and readable narrative, The Battles of Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814 (2012, History Press). » Continue Reading.
With the arrival of Memorial Day in this, the year marking the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, there is a North Country native who served with particular distinction in the 96th Infantry. The 96th, often referred to as the Plattsburgh Regiment (and sometimes Macomb’s Regiment), was recruited from villages across the region, spanning from Malone to Plattsburgh in the north, and south to Ticonderoga, Fort Edward, and Warrensburg.
Among those to join at Fort Edward was 23-year-old Lester Archer, a native of nearby Fort Ann. Lester enlisted as a corporal in December, 1861, and for three years served with hundreds of North Country boys and men who saw plenty of combat, primarily in Virginia. In June, 1864, Archer was promoted to sergeant amidst General U. S. Grant’s heated campaign to take Richmond, a critical Confederate site. Guarding Richmond several miles to the south on the James River was Fort Harrison, a strategic rebel stronghold.
To divide Lee’s troops, a surprise attack was launched on Fort Harrison on September 29. The men of the 96th were among those who charged up the hill against withering fire, successfully driving off the fort’s defenders and assuming control. As the fort was being overtaken, a Union flag was planted by Sergeant Lester Archer, emphatically declaring victory.
Until Harrison fell, it was considered the strongest Confederate fort between Richmond and Petersburg, 25 miles south. Lee’s forces regrouped to launch several bloody efforts at recapturing the vital site, but the North stood their ground, protecting the prize.
Union General Burnham was killed in the battle, and in his honor, the site was temporarily renamed Fort Burnham. More than 800 soldiers were buried nearby at what is now known as Fort Harrison National Cemetery.
The 96th remained in the vicinity of Fort Harrison for three weeks, and in late October, an assault was launched against Fort Richmond at Five Oaks. The result was a bloody, hard-fought battle, with both sides claiming victory, but both suffering heavy casualties. Many North Country soldiers were killed or captured. Just three weeks after heroically planting the Union flag atop Fort Harrison, Sergeant Lester Archer was among those who perished at Five Oaks.
On April 6, 1865, Archer’s exceptional efforts were officially acknowledged. The highest US military decoration for valor was conferred upon him with these words: “The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (posthumously) to Sergeant Lester Archer, United States Army, for extraordinary heroism on 29 September 1864, while serving with Company E, 96th New York Infantry, in action at Fort Harrison, Virginia, for gallantry in placing the colors of his regiment on the fort.”
President Lincoln himself would die just nine days later.
Photos: Above, scene at Fort Harrison, Virginia, 1864; below, Lester Archer.
Lawrence Gooley has authored nine books and many articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004. He took over in 2010 and began expanding the company’s publishing services. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.
As the 200th anniversary approaches, there will be a steady stream of new books about the War of 1812. But for readers interested in the effects of the war on the ground in the Champlain Valley, there remains just one foundational text, now available for the first time in paper by Syracuse University Press. Although first issued in 1981, Allan S. Everest’s The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley is still required reading for those hoping to understand the Plattsburgh campaign, considered critical to the war.
The War of 1812, ranks with the often overlooked American conflicts of the 19th century, but unlike the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) or the Spanish-American War (1898-1902), the War of 1812 really was a Second War for Independence. America stood at the other side of Britain’s own Manifest Destiny, the homes, farms, property, and lives of Americans in the Champlain Valley stood in the middle. The first months of 1814 spelled gloom for America, then only 35 years old. The war against England was stalled. The British continued to kidnap and impress American for service on their warships. They supported Native Americans who attacked outposts and settlements on the American frontier. American harbors were blockaded by the British and New England, never sympathetic with the narrow vote of Congress for war, had become openly hostile and was threatening to secede.
Still worse, Napoleon had been defeated in Europe and Britain could now devote more time and effort to America. The British saw an opportunity to split the new American republic and once again take control of sections of the young colonies. The bold plan called for a combined army and naval strike at Plattsburgh, followed by a drive down the lake and through the Hudson Valley to New York City, splitting the colonies in two. The Americans saw that opportunity too.
The Navy Department contracted Noah Brown, one of New York’s finest shipwrights, to build a fleet to protect the way south from Canada along Lake Champlain. In less than two months, Brown constructed, armed, and launched a total of six of war ships: Allen, Borer, Burrows, Centipede, Nettie, and Viper. With the help of the small Vermont town of Vergennes and its iron foundry that could supply spikes, bolts, and shot, and it’s water-powered sawmills, and surrounding forests filled with white oak and pine for ship timber, Brown built the 26-gun flagship Saratoga, in just 40 days, and commandeered the unfinished steamboat and completed it as the 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga.
Vastly out-manned and outgunned on both land and sea, a rag tag inexperienced group of 1,500 Americans commanded by Capt. Thomas Macdonough met the greatest army and naval power on earth. Because of a serious shortage of sailors for his fleet, he drafted U.S. Army soldiers, band musicians, and convicts serving on an army chain gang to man the ships.
Their leader Macdonough had some experience. He had served against the Barbary pirates in North Africa, but two decades of warfare had given the British considerably more experience. It had for instance, led to the promotion of officers by merit, rather than by purchase or birth. As a result the British forces were the best trained and most experienced in the world and they enjoyed the backing of the world’s greatest military power. Sir George Prevost led the large British army and its fleet into New York and down Lake Champlain to meet the Americans. But what happened that September 11th no one could have predicted.
By the end of the day, the U.S. had achieved the complete and unconditional surrender of the entire British fleet and the full retreat of all British land forces. More importantly, the American victory at Plattsburgh helped persuade the British to end the war.
That’s the bigger story, but the local story is the strength of Allan Everest’s history. As a professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh, and the author of Moses Hazen and the Canadian Refugees in the American Revolution, Our North Country Heritage, and the seminal book on the region’s prohibition history drawn from local interviewees, Rum Across the Border, Everest had a grasp of the topography of the region’s political, social, and cultural history.
Over some two and a half years, the region saw armies raised, defeated, and disbanded, including their own militia, which was repeatedly called out to protect the border areas and to serve under regular army units. Everest catalogs the political and military rivalries, and the series of disheartening defeats, loss of life, and destruction of property and markets resiliently borne by local people, who were forced to flee when battle threatened, and returned to rebuild their lives.
2001’s The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Victory painted with a broader brush and suffered criticism for misunderstanding the Plattsburgh campaign. As a result, Everest’s 30-year-old work – despite its age – is still the definitive work on the impact of the War of 1812 on northern New York.
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The Wilmington Historical Society invites you to their program with historian and author Keith Herkalo “September 11th, 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh” to be held on Friday, August 20th at 7 pm at the Wilmington Community Center on Springfield Road in Wilmington, Essex County, NY.
Would the United States exist if our naval and land Battles at Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814 had been lost? For the United States, the War of 1812 is often referred to as “the second war for independence”. We have learned of the battles at Baltimore, Washington and Sacketts Harbor, but what about the Battles at Plattsburgh? Keith Herkalo, using personal journals, military journals, contemporary newspaper accounts, and other original source documents, examines the evidence that leads to the conclusion that the Battles at Plattsburgh on land and on Lake Champlain, were actually the key battles of the War of 1812. He claims that were it not for the exemplary talents and skills of two young military officers, Commodore Thomas McDonough and General Alexander Macomb, a small force of regular army and navy personnel and New York Militia, a few thousand Vermont Militia, a handful of Native Americans and Veteran Exempts (those too old for military service), and a group of boys from a local school, the United States, as we know it today, would not exist.
Plattsburgh City Clerk and a charter member of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association, Keith Herkalo believes that the Battles at Plattsburgh and the individuals who fought in the War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley and surrounding area deserve national recognition. Karen Peters, President of the Wilmington Historical Society, notes that many area residents of that time period participated in the land battle, including Major Reuben Sanford of Wilmington who commanded a regiment of detached militia. Stephen Partridge, also of Jay and Wilmington was one of the first to be killed in action in a skirmish at Culver Hill on September 6, 1814, a few days prior to the main battle.
Having grown up in both Philadelphia and Plattsburgh, and spending more than a decade in military service, Keith Herkalo returned to Plattsburgh developing a keen interest in Plattsburgh’s history with a particular attention to Plattsburgh’s involvement in the War of 1812. He is a builder and member of the boat crew of the award-winning bateau “Rooster” (the 37-foot replica of an 1812 era work boat). As an 1812-era re-enactor and an amateur historian he is the research catalyst behind the archaeological re-discovery and preservation of the 1812 Camp Site known as “Pike’s Cantonment” and the Crab Island Graves location. He is the editor of The Journalof H.K. Averill. Sr.: An Account of the Battle of Plattsburgh and Early North Country Community, and author of September 11th, 1814: the Battles at Plattsburgh which documents Plattsburgh’s importance in the War of 1812.
The “September 11th, 1814: The Battles at Plattsburgh” program on August 20th is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served. For further information, contact Karen Peters at (518) 524-1023 or Merri Peck at (518) 946-7627. Illustration: Naval battle on Lake Champlain. Engraving in 1816 by B. Tanner.
In the past 200 years, a few ships have borne the name Plattsburg. In the War of 1812, there was the unfinished vessel at Sackets Harbor, a project abandoned when the war ended. There was the rechristened troop transport that hauled thousands of troops home from the battlefields of World War I. There was the oil tanker that saw service in the Pacific theater during World War II. And there was the cruise boat that plied the waters of Lake Champlain in 2003–4. One of them played a role in perhaps the most famous maritime disaster of all time. The unfinished ship at Sacket’s Harbor had been designated the USS Plattsburg. The oil tanker was the Plattsburg Socony, which survived a horrific fire in 1944. Thirty-three years later, after two more re-namings, it split in two beneath 30-foot waves and sank off Gloucester. The cruise ship was the short-lived Spirit of Plattsburgh. But it is the USS Plattsburg from the First World War that holds a remarkable place among the best “what if” stories ever.
In early April 1917, just three days after the United States entered World War I, a merchant marine ship, the New York, struck a German mine near Liverpool, England. The damage required extensive repairs. A year later, the ship was chartered by the US Navy, converted into a troop transport, and newly christened the USS Plattsburg.
By the time the armistice was signed, ending the war in November of that same year, the Plattsburg had made four trips to Europe within six months, carrying nearly 9,000 troops of the AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) to battle.
The transport assignment continued, and in the next nine months, the Plattsburg made seven additional trips, bringing more than 24,000 American troops home. A few months later, the ship was returned to her owners, reassuming the name SS New York. After performing commercial work for a few years, the ship was scrapped in 1923.
When the end came, the New York had been in service for 35 years. At its launch in 1888 in Glasgow, Scotland, it was named S.S. City of New York. The S.S. indicated it was a “screw steamer,” a steamship propelled by rotating screw propellers (City of New York was one of the first to feature twin screws). After service under the British merchant flag, the ship was placed under the US registry as the New York, where it served in like manner for five more years.
In 1898, the US Navy chartered the New York, renaming it Harvard for service during the Spanish-American War. It served as a transport in the Caribbean, and once plucked more than 600 Spanish sailors from ships that were destroyed off Santiago, Cuba. When the war ended, the Harvard transported US troops back to the mainland, after which it was decommissioned and returned to her owners as the New York.
A few years later, the ship was rebuilt, and from 1903–1917, it was used for routine commercial activities around the world. In April 1912, the New York was at the crowded inland port of Southampton, England. It wasn’t the largest ship docked there, but at 585 feet long and 63 feet wide, it was substantial.
Towering above it at noon on the 10th of April was the Titanic. At 883 feet long, it was the largest man-made vessel ever built. This was launch day for the great ship, and thousands were on hand to observe history. The show nearly ended before it started.
No one could predict what would happen. After all, nobody on earth was familiar with operating a vessel of that size. Just ahead lay the Oceanic and the New York, and as the Titanic slowly passed them, an unexpected reaction occurred.
The Titanic’s more than 50,000-ton displacement of water caused a suction effect, and the New York, solidly moored, resisted. It rose on the Titanic’s wave, and as it dropped suddenly, the heavy mooring ropes began to snap, one by one, with a sound likened to gunshots. The New York was adrift, inexorably drawn towards the Titanic. A collision seemed inevitable.
Huge ships passing within 50 to 100 feet of each other might be considered a close call. In this case, desperate maneuvers by bridge personnel and tug operators saved the day (unfortunately). The gap between the two ships closed to only a few feet (some said it was two feet, and others said four). Had they collided, the Titanic’s maiden voyage would have been postponed.
No one can say for sure what else might have happened, but a launch delay would have prevented the calamity that occurred a few days later, when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank within hours, claiming more than 1,500 lives.
There you have it. A ship that bore four names—City of New York, Harvard, New York, and Plattsburg—is forever tied to the fascinating, tragic story of the Titanic.
Photo Top: USS Plattsburg at Brest France 1918.
Photo Middle Right: L to R: The Oceanic, New York, and Titanic in Southampton harbor.
Photo Middle Left: The tug Vulcan struggles with the New York to avoid a collision.
Photo Bottom: The New York (right) is drawn ever closer to the Titanic.
Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.