The Battle of Plattsburg Bay
An Overview of the Battle of Plattsburg Bay
The Battle of Plattsburg was in many ways, the most decisive engagement of the War of 1812. Sir George Prevost's failed invasion of the United States put an end to British plans to seize more American territory. It also had a significant effect on the peace negotiations which were being held in the Belgian town of Ghent. News of the outcome of the battle strengthened the American position at the talks. As a result, any remaining British hopes of creating a homeland in the northwest for its First Nations allies were abandoned.
By the end of the summer of 1814, Prevost had assembled a massive strike force of close to 10,000 soldiers near Montreal. Many of these soldiers were well-trained, battle-hardened regular troops inspired by Wellington's victory over Napoleon in Europe. On September 3, 1814, Prevost's army crossed the border into New York State.
While the British army moved down the western side of Lake Champlain, the American troops fell back to Plattsburg and prepared to make a stand. At the same time, the ships of the British Navy under Captain George Downie, moved slowly down the lake.
The U.S forces at Plattsburg were commanded by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb. The Americans were badly outnumbered but had the support of the US fleet under Thomas Macdonough. Realizing that the British had bigger ships and longer range guns, Macdonough anchored his squadron in Plattsburg Bay and waited for the British Navy to come to him.
Under tremendous pressure from George Prevost, who was waiting outside Plattsburg with his army, the British fleet sailed into battle before it was ready. For two hours the ships pounded each other with equal fury. Fifteen minutes into the battle the British commander, George Downie was killed.
At a critical moment in the engagement, the Americans surprised the British. Macdonough was able to winch around his flagship to bring a fresh broadside against the British fleet. This move made the all difference. The British realized they were beaten and surrendered.
When he learned of the defeat of his navy, the ever-cautious George Prevost called off his land assault and retreated back to Canada. There was much anger and resentment amongst his army and the decision turned out to be politically disastrous. After the war, Prevost's conduct during the campaign was criticized by a naval court martial. He died before he could clear his name.
For the United States, the victory against overwhelming odds at Plattsburg provided an important boost to national morale.