Thursday, September 11, 2014

This Day in Naval History (British Invasion Stymied at Plattsburgh)

September 11, 1814—In a war partly caused by British seizure of personnel aboard U.S. vessels, one such victim made good on his vow to “make England remember the day she impressed an American sailor.” 

Outnumbered in ships and men, Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough not only stopped what could have been a ruinous invasion of New York State via Lake Chaplain at the Battle of Plattsburgh, but through his victory gave American negotiators in Belgium a better position to achieve more favorable terms in ending the War of 1812.

Approximately 11,000 of the best, battle-hardened troops from Britain’s Napoleonic Wars had been dispatched to move down from Upper Canada into the Empire State. The movement was both a retaliatory measure (against an American republic that, by the British way of thinking, should have joined them against Napoleon, a dictator who posed a clear and present danger to European security) and a necessity (two-thirds of the British army in Canada were fed by American contractors—mostly Vermonters and New Yorkers who showed no scruple about trading with the enemy during war).

The American flotilla had been so hastily cobbled together that many matches for its guns were discovered to be defective, and the captain of one of its divisions was a mere 16-year-old midshipman. In fact, the makeshift navy possessed “a decided advantage only in their commander,” Henry Adams observed admiringly in his History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison. Still only 30 years old, Macdonough had already lived up to the military and naval legacy of his Delaware family. He had won wide plaudits for his bravery while serving under Stephen Decatur in the expedition against Tripoli’s pirates (the American republic’s first military encounter with the Moslem world).

But his truly formative pre-war experience was in 1810, when he was captured by a British “press gang” and taken aboard a frigate. That night, after securing the clothes of a British seaman, he requested and was granted permission to “overhaul a cutter carrying rum.” Once in the water, instead of going to the cutter, he made for the vessel from which he’d been seized, dodging constant fire sent his way after his ruse had been discovered.

Macdonough’s cunning, daring escape was one of the few acts of American defiance against Britain’s odious impressment policy. Particularly during the all-consuming struggle against Napoleon, the low pay, poor conditions, and near certainty of deadly action led to a severe manpower shortage aboard British vessels. So from 1793 to 1812, British “press gangs” had stopped American ships at sea, taking with them approximately 15,000 sailors. The British government might have been desperate, but even the pretext of plausibility they might have had (e.g., taking men who had deserted the Royal Navy for the American merchant marine) vanished in the case of Macdonough, a native-born American.

As the 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt described it in his pioneering account, The Naval War of 1812, MacDonough had achieved his victory at Plattsburgh by leaving virtually nothing to chance:

“Not only were his vessels provided with springs, but also with anchors to be used astern in any emergency. The Saratoga was further prepared for a change of wind, or for the necessity of winding ship, by having a kedge planted broad off on each of her bows, with a hawser and preventer hawser (hanging in bights under water) leading from each quarter to the kedge on that side. There had not been time to train the men thoroughly at the guns; and to make these produce their full effect the constant supervision of the officers had to be exerted.”

Having taken all human precautions, he then turned his attention to an otherworldly source. On the morning of battle, he knelt on his ship, the Saratoga, and led his men in prayer.

The battle, completed in under three hours that afternoon, was decisive. The name “Saratoga” proved a good omen, as Plattsburgh, like that earlier American Revolution battle, marked the end of further British designs on the American interior. Sir George Prevost, governor-general of Canada, beat a hasty retreat back to his homebase.

Revenge was doubly sweet for this commander, then. It also represented a stinging comeuppance to British political and military authorities who had expected a cakewalk down Lake Champlain into the Empire State. 

When the news was received in London in mid-October, it arrived at the same time as the British failure to take Baltimore and their defeat at Fort Erie. This “lamentable event to the civilized world,” in the words of the Times of London, undercut the British stance of holding out for status uti possidetis (state of possession) at the bargaining table in Ghent. The American delegation (which included future Secretary of State and President John Quincy Adams) could not move the impressment issue that had been one of the causes of the conflict, but it avoided losing half of Maine, one of the British delegation's demands only a couple of weeks before they heard the news about the military reverses.

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