The War of 1812 has sometimes been treated as unimportant and forgotten. The farther removed in time from an event, the less the consciousness. If we approach the subject in the context of its importance at the time, we can begin to understand its impact upon our then, young nation, and its significance in our history.
Recent media docu-drama offerings have gone a long way to address the gap in national visibility of the War of 1812: they have covered the attacks on Washington and Baltimore by a British force of approximately 4,500, and the fateful attack on New Orleans.
It is widely known, however, that these attacks were only diversions executed at the Prince Regent’s direction. The well documented June 1814 “secret order” from Bathurst, Britain’s Secretary of War (made public shortly after the Treaty at Ghent) is a key document which exposes British planning for the end of the war. Plattsburgh, the focus of the British plan as ordered by Secretary of War Bathurst, was to see the War’s largest concentration of British troops. Just across the border north of Plattsburgh some 14,000 British troops were gathered for the invasion of the United States. The British invasion force, part of the finest army in the world at the time, included a large number of seasoned veterans from the Napoleonic conflict.
While individual battles and skirmishes were dramatically covered in the recent videos, the British plan of diverting American attention away from the Lake Champlain region to attack Plattsburgh, the single most strategically-crafted event of the British War plan was not addressed. It included a feint at Sackets Harbor, attacks upon the eastern coastal villages of the United States, the ‘‘invasion’’ of Maine, the attacks on Baltimore and New Orleans. Often overlooked by scholars, Bathurst’s plan, the gist of which was first proposed in 1812 by Sir John Borlase Warren, Commander in Chief of the North American Station in letters to Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, is perhaps the most significant and interesting facet of the War. The daunting British force crossed the border and advanced on the small land force of regulars and militia left to defend Plattsburgh while the British naval fleet prepared to attack the American naval fleet in Plattsburgh’s Cumberland Bay.
On September 11th, 1814 the two forces engaged. The thundering naval exchange lasted over two and one half hours. While none of the eight major vessels sank, the destruction was devastating. The British fleet, rendered silent by American Commodore Thomas Macdonough’s naval force, struck their flags in surrender.
On land, the enormous British force’s flanking efforts were frustrated by American General Macomb’s carefully planned deception. Without naval support, and fearing his troops to be surrounded by the phantom force that Macomb conjured up in the wooded plains beyond the American fortifications, British General Prevost issued an immediate order to retreat.
The American victory at Plattsburgh stunned the British government, changing the course of the peace negotiations and the terms of the Treaty at Ghent. Imagine the result if the British had succeeded at Plattsburgh!
Curiously, the Battles at Plattsburgh occurred on September 11th of 1814, sharing the infamous date with the tragic destruction of New York City’s World Trade Towers which occurred on September 11, 2001. Two significant dates in our memory: both were invasions on our soil.
Keith Herkalo is the current president of the Battle of Plattsburgh Association which operates the War of 1812 Museum in Plattsburgh, NY. He is the author of The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814 published by The History Press, the editor of The Journal of H.K. Averill, Sr published by the Battle of Plattsburgh Association, and the author of numerous historical articles in regional historical publications. His research was instrumental in the location and subsequent positive archaeological investigation of “Pike’s Cantonment”, the winter-1812 hut site of the American forces at Plattsburgh. Visit the War of 1812 Museum at http://www.battleofplattsburgh.org