ALBANY, N.Y. — Two centuries ago, the British made what would be their last invasion of the United States from Canada. Advancing south into New York, the redcoats met the Americans at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain's upper western shore halfway through the War of 1812.
When Sept. 11, 1814, drew to a close, the Brits were forced to retreat north of the border after their naval force was defeated by an American fleet hastily built by shipwrights from New York City and commanded by Thomas Macdonough Jr., a pious U.S. Navy officer from Delaware. If not for the 30-year-old master commandant's skilled leadership of his outgunned vessels, northern New York and parts of New England likely would have become part of Canada, according to Michael Crawford, senior historian at the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C.
"The northern border would be much farther south," he said.
Plattsburgh, 140 miles north of Albany, is wrapping up more than two weeks of battle bicentennial events with re-enactments and other activities Thursday and continuing into the weekend. Christopher "Kit" Booth, co-chairman of the Battle of Plattsburgh Commemoration Committee, said organizers expect about 200 re-enactors and more than 20,000 spectators to show up for Saturday and Sunday's battle re-enactments being staged on land and on water.
Two years into the war, with Napoleon Bonaparte's French empire collapsing, England sent more troops and ships to North America, where the redcoats burned the White House, the Capitol and other buildings in Washington in August 1814. The next month, a Quebec-based force invaded northern New York while a British fleet sailed south on Lake Champlain toward Plattsburgh, a town on the lake's western shore 20 miles south of the Canadian border.
As the redcoats skirmished with regulars and New York and Vermont militia on land, a Royal Navy squadron took on a smaller U.S. fleet under the command of Macdonough, who had positioned his warships in Plattsburgh Bay, forcing the enemy to sail north into the wind to engage the Americans. He had his crews anchor the vessels in a manner that allowed them to be turned around quickly to fire broadsides should all the guns on one side of a ship be knocked out, Crawford said.
It proved to be the deciding tactic in the battle. When fire from the British ships severely damaged Macdonough's vessels, his crews winched the ships around and fired their undamaged guns, killing the British commander aboard his flagship and forcing it and others to surrender.
Seeing their counterparts defeated on the lake, the British ground forces beat a hasty retreat back to Canada. Word of the American victory at Plattsburgh gave U.S. negotiators added leverage at peace talks that had alreadly begun in Belgium. In early 1815, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the conflict and leaving America's pre-war northeastern border intact.
The forgotten heroes of the Battle of Plattsburgh are the shipwrights from Manhattan who traveled to Vergennes, on the lake's Vermont side, to construct Macdonough's fleet, according to Arthur Cohn, co-founder of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum in Vergennes. More than 200 carpenters worked feverishly to build several warships, including the 20-gun brig Eagle, launched just five days before the battle.
"That turned the tide," Cohn said. "These guys are the unsung heroes of the War of 1812."