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.
- At the age of sixteen, which future commander became a member of the elite military group known as the New York Rangers? He was also one of the first officers to train at West Point, commanded the troops in Burlington, Vermont, and then assumed control of the meager army at Plattsburgh. Brigadier General Alexander Macomb.
- How many troops did Macomb initially have for the defense of Plattsburgh? He had about 2,500, but only 1,500 were fit for duty. The other 1,000 were either new recruits, or were ill with dysentery or typhus.
- General Macomb made use of several redoubts in defending Plattsburgh. What’s a redoubt? A defensive, protected position, usually expected to be temporary. It’s pronounced rih-DOWT.
- Three redoubts that were built between the lakeshore and the Saranac River under the orders of General George Izard were improved and armed by Macomb. Historical roadside markers can be found at those sites today. What were they named? Forts Brown, Moreau, and Scott, named for military officers Jacob Jennings Brown, Jean Victor Marie Moreau, and Winfield Scott.
- What engineer guided the engineering and construction of those three fortifications? Major Joseph Gilbert Totten, who had a wide-ranging, successful career. He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel for gallant conduct at the Battle of Plattsburgh; was an innovator in coastal defenses; built forts; as Chief Engineer, he commanded the Army Corps of Engineers for 25 years; directed the siege of Vera Cruz in the Mexican-American War; was a general in the Union Army during the Civil War; and was a founder of the National Academy of Sciences. There’s plenty more at the link above.
- Abatis were among the defenses used to protect the redoubts. Can you describe abatis? In basic form, it usually refers to thick piles of tangled branches, often with sharpened points outward to slow or thwart attackers trying to climb over them.
- Macomb, severely undermanned compared to the enemy, sought help from Vermont. Who was Vermont’s governor at the time, and did he send help? Martin Chittenden, and no. He disagreed with the federal government about how state militias were to be used. Chittenden saw the militia as a state body that should only fight within the home state. He did, however, urge Vermonters to volunteer.
- Did Vermonters volunteer? Yes. About 2,500 of Vermont’s finest joined the fight. If for no other reason, they knew that British actions, like seizing control of Isle la Motte (which they had done) in Lake Champlain proved no Vermonter’s property was safe. In those days, Vermonters were nothing if not independent.
- Who was Governor General of Canada, Commander in Chief of the British troops based in North America, and leader of the huge ground army against Plattsburgh? Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost.
- Against Macomb’s few thousand soldiers at Plattsburgh, how many men served under Prevost? Prevost had about 16,000 men. He left 2,000 near the Canadian border, and took the remaining 14,000 south to attack Plattsburgh. Some were left to man strategic locations on the way to Plattsburgh.
- Among the many tools used by General Macomb, a military genius, was deception. Can you identify one of three ways in which deception played a role in successfully defending Plattsburgh? 1) He kept a constant parade of troops active in full view of the enemy, both day and night, to deceive the British into thinking he had a far larger force than he actually had. 2) He masked some roads, and built fake roads to mislead the enemy. 3) Knowing there were spies among his men, Macomb planted false information that could be taken back to the Brits. Among those was a story that General Izard awaited in the woods with 10,000 militia, and that 20,000 more would arrive soon. Three excellent deceptions.
- What were Macomb’s orders for the Green Mountain Boys and the men of the New York Militia? To conduct guerilla warfare against Prevost’s huge army and thus slow his advance on Plattsburgh, buying the American forces more time to prepare. To accomplish this, they divided into small groups, chose leaders, and harassed the enemy by repeatedly striking and retreating.
- In preparation for the main land assault, the British were busy constructing a battery on the north side of the Saranac River, across from Fort Brown. Which American soldier led the daring attack on this battery? Captain George McGlassin. On the night of September 9, he took fifty men, forded the river, attacked about 300 workers and support soldiers, drove the enemy off, and completely destroyed the works.
- McGlassin’s raid was planned by Macomb, who had intended to use Congreve rockets to light the sky and help the soldiers find their way back. What is a Congreve rocket?Also known as a “stick rocket,” it averaged thirty-two pounds and was mounted on a fifteen-foot stick. Sometimes they were used to start fires on selected targets, and were often used for illumination, a great aid in night fighting. Congreve rockets were inexpensive to produce and could travel several thousand yards, but they were often inaccurate. They were named after their inventor, William Congreve.
- Since 1931, every American has made reference to Congreve rockets many times, yet virtually no Americans know what a Congreve rocket is. How can that be? In 1931, an act of congress made “The Star-Spangled Banner” our national anthem. “And the rockets’ red glare” refers to Congreve rockets exploding above Fort McHenry.
- If not for William Beanes, we wouldn’t be talking about Congreve rockets. Why is that? Dr. William Beanes was an elderly physician who was taken prisoner by the British near Baltimore during the war. One of the lawyers hired to secure his release, which was finalized on September 14, 1814, was Francis Scott Key. Once an agreement was reached, they were forced to wait out the battle on their boat. At around 1 am, Mr. Key saw “the [Congreve] rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,” and wrote a certain poem you may be familiar with.
- Just before Congreve became famous, which military inventor was the first to load his rockets with metal pieces for use in combat? Henry Shrapnel
- Did Macomb’s deception with the fake road successfully detour the enemy? Yes. British records indicate that the troops became lost trying to find the crossing, confirming that they followed his fake road on a five-mile detour. Macomb had assigned Lieutenant Sumter and his men along the road, where they cut loose on the British.
- When did the land battle at Plattsburgh end? Macdonough defeated the British fleet before noon on September 11, at which point Prevost ordered his large army to retreat. There was some pursuit of the retreating troops on land, where firing continued intermittently until sundown that same day.
- What were the casualties among Macomb’s men? He reported 37 dead, 62 wounded, and 21 missing. The British dead and wounded, he said, totaled 250. The enemy, far superior in numbers, fled north in disarray. What happened to the wounded British soldiers? Prevost left them behind in the hospital. He left a note with the surgeon, asking that they be treated mercifully. It sounds callous, but many were badly wounded and couldn’t have been moved anyway. He entrusted them to the care of enemy (American) doctors.
- In the aftermath at Plattsburgh, did the Vermont volunteers receive thanks for their part in the victory? Yes — official thanks from the US government, and each man was gifted with forty acres of land.
- Besides their great number, about 14,000, what else was significant about the troops led by Prevost against Macomb? They came from the most successful army in the world. They had finally defeated Napoleon’s generals, most recently in Spain, and Napoleon had been exiled. With his defeat, British troops were sent to the American front by the thousands.
- Did Macomb defeat the troops who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Is that correct? No. Some of the troops at Plattsburgh had fought under Wellington and defeated Napoleon’s generals in Spain. However, Wellington and Napoleon only met in battle once, and that was at Waterloo, a little more than nine months after the Battle of Plattsburgh. Remember — Napoleon finally lost, but then made an improbable comeback. The Battle of Waterloo came after Napoleon’s exile and his historic return.
- Did General Alexander Macomb reap the rewards of his amazing accomplishments? Yes. In November 1814, he was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal. He was also promoted to Major General. In 1828, when Macomb was serving as Commander of the Army Corps of Engineers, he was selected by President John Quincy Adams as the new Commanding General of the United States Army, a position he held until his death in 1841.
Photo: General Alexander Macomb; abatis defending Washington during the Civil War (National Park Service); Congreve rockets
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.