Editor’s note: This is the third and final part in a series looking at the War of 1812, the first foreign attack on U.S. soil.
George Prevost had assembled a strike force of over 10,000 soldiers and was marching around the west side of the lake toward Plattsburgh. The U.S. forces were commanded by Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb. These forces were made up of untrained volunteers and were outclassed, outnumbered and underpowered. The general was aware of this and had set explosives around the town so if, or when, they lost to the British, they could blow up the town leaving nothing for the British to capture.
The stage was set. If the British won, they would be able to push the Canadian border further south, give Ohio to the Native Americans as promised, own the exclusive rights to the Great Lakes, and extend their already superior land and sea power.
Under tremendous pressure from Prevost, the British fleet sailed into battle in Plattsburgh Bay. The sea battle went on for two hours. Within the first 15 minutes, the British commander was killed. In a remarkable move of genius, the American Commander, Macdonough, winched around the flagship and delivered a fresh broadside into the British fleet. The British realized they were beaten and surrendered.
Just before the massive British army was to attack Brig. Gen. Macomb’s extremely weak army, a message was delivered from Prevost telling them to instead retreat. For the U.S., the victory against overwhelming odds at Plattsburgh provided an important boost to national morale and ultimately ended the war of 1812. That did not mean that fighting had ended. In fact, the fighting continued.
From Sept. 13-15, 1814, the British attempted to capture Baltimore. During the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key wrote the words to “The Star Spangled Banner.” The British, in the end, abandoned their attempt to take Baltimore.
On Oct. 21, the British offered peace on the basis of uti possidetis. For the many who do not understand Latin, the legal phrase was meant to indicate that the respective parties can retain possession of the property they have captured. The United States was not about to accept this and the British dropped its request on Nov. 27, 2014.
On Dec. 23, the British landed 1,800 troops below New Orleans. That night in a surprise attack, Gen. Andrew Jackson, with over 2,000 men, attacked the resting British troops. After the initial attack, Jackson pulled back his forces to the Rodriguez Canal. Up until that moment, the British had believed taking New Orleans would be easy. The attack changed everything because the British did not advance for several days, allowing the Americans to fortify the area.
Just days after Christmas, British troops made probing attacks against some of the American earthworks. Jackson had added more men to his army and now had well over 4,000 men. Additionally, he had the support of warships on the Mississippi River, including the USS Louisiana, the USS Carolina, and the Enterprise, along with the pirate Jean Laffitte and his Baratarians.
By Jan. 8, 1815 the British had added 8,000 men to their ranks and early that morning they attacked. By the end of the day, the British had 2,042 casualties: 291 killed (including two generals), 1,267 wounded (including one general), and 484 captured or missing. The Americans had 71 casualties: 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. Three days after the battle, British Gen. Lambert concluded that the Louisiana campaign would be too costly and decided to withdraw. On Feb. 4, 1815, the fleet (the largest since the Spanish Armada), with all the British troops aboard, set sail for the southeast coast of the U.S.
The news of the victory in New Orleans helped to bolster the Nation’s moral and boosted the reputation of Andrew Jackson such that he was able to win the Presidency later on.
The war of 1812 ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. The British were well aware of the end of the war but had decided to attack New Orleans anyway. With a victory they’d have ignored the treaty and taken over the area called the Louisiana Purchase. They were known internationally to do this sort of thing, and the American negotiators were not fooled.
A month before the British had dropped the idea of uti possidetis. The new treaty restored the borders of the two countries as they were before hostilities. However, the British impressments of American sailors and the seizure of cargos were not resolved in the treaty. Because of a lack of telecommunications, it took weeks for the treaty to get to the Congress of the United States. The actual ratification of the treaty was on Feb. 18, 1815.
The war itself turned out to be a draw. Nothing was won except that internationally the United States was no longer regarded as an upstart nation and earned respect from the British. There are few monuments to the war of 1812, the burning of Washington DC, or the battle of New Orleans; but nothing at the level of the 9/11 monument or the Dec. 7, 1941 monument (USS Arizona) in Hawaii. The war and the attacks on this country during that war have generally been forgotten.
If the Battle of New Orleans had been lost, the British were ready to forget the treaty and move up the Mississippi. With a large force just across the Canadian border and the massive fleet blockading the Atlantic Coast, this country could have come to an end. It seems a shame that something of this magnitude has been left in the dusty tombs of historical libraries.
This was not the last time we have quietly forgot an attack that was fought in this country.
In my next article I will review another forgotten war; maybe a little closer to home.
“The Presidents of the United States of America,” by Frank Freidel
“The War of 1812: A forgotten Conflict,” by Donald Hickey
Biography of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh 1768-1813
The Dictionary of Canadian Biography online
History Central, Washington Burned