Battle of Plattsburgh Historic Sites

Photo by Michael Kleen

This decisive naval battle on Lake Champlain is celebrated as a pivotal moment in the War of 1812. A large monument towers over Plattsburgh, New York, where you can look out over the water and imagine the old wooden sailing ships locked in deadly combat.

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The Battle of Plattsburgh was fought from September 6 to Sept. 11, 1814 between British forces commanded by Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost and Captain George Downie and American forces commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb and Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough on Lake Champlain and Plattsburgh, New York during the War of 1812. The battle was a major American victory. It stopped the British invasion of New York and led to denial of British territorial demands in the Treaty of Ghent.

In late summer 1814, the British planned to conduct a combined land and naval campaign down Lake Champlain, which had it succeeded, would have drastically altered the balance of power in the region. They gathered approximately 11,000 men and a fleet of four ships and 12 gunboats for the expedition. Opposing them were approximately 6,000 American regulars and militia and four ships and ten gunboats.

Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb decided to make his stand at Plattsburgh, and sent troops north to harass the British as they advanced. Plattsburgh Bay allowed Commandant Macdonough’s ships to engage the British at close range, where the British would lose the advantage of their long-range guns. On the morning of September 11, the British ships HMS Chubb, HMS Linnet, HMS Confiance, and HMS Finch engaged the American ships USS Eagle, USS Saratoga, USS Ticonderoga, and USS Preble.

Captain George Downie was killed shortly after the fight started, and from there the naval battle went poorly for the British. All four of their large ships surrendered after a brutal slugfest. The battle didn’t go well on land either. The British infantry advanced but retreated after a brief fight, realizing the naval battle was lost. Thirty-seven British soldiers were killed, 150 wounded, and 57 missing in the ground fight, for a total of 168 killed, 220 wounded, and 317 captured. The Americans lost approximately 115 killed and 130 wounded. The British invasion force slinked back to Canada.

The War of 1812, fought between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1815, arose from a dispute over maritime trade and U.S. territorial ambitions on British Canada. The war went badly for the U.S., with British troops burning Washington, DC in August 1814. A late victory by Andrew Jackson at New Orleans led to the perception the U.S won the war, despite the Treaty of Ghent establishing peace without any territory changing hands.

A 135-foot tall obelisk topped by a bronze eagle was erected in 1926 on the western shore of the Saranac River in honor of Thomas Macdonough. It is made from Indiana limestone, and the names of Macdonough’s four main ships are carved into each side of its base. The Terry Gordon Bike Path runs along the shore of Lake Champlain, and a Champlain Valley National Heritage Partnership interpretive sign describing the battle has been installed along the path at the intersection of Jay and Hamilton streets.

The War of 1812 Museum, at 31 Washington Road in Plattsburgh, New York, is open Wednesday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. It is closed on legal holidays. Admission is free and the museum is staffed by volunteers, so donations are appreciated. Call (518) 566-1814 for more information. The MacDonough Monument is located at 42 City Hall Place in MacDonough Park. You can climb stairs inside to get a scenic view of Plattsburgh and Lake Champlain.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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