1814

On September 11, 1814, at the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain in New York, during the War of 1812.

Like Hitler, Napoleon saw the hope of a reversal of fortune in the possibility that his enemies, all deeply suspicious of each other, would fall out. Several times before, European coalitions had dissolved before him. If he could persuade his father-in-law, the Austrian emperor, to make a separate peace, he was convinced he could crush the Russians and the Prussians, whose forces were dangerously overextended. On March 13, 1814, Napoleon made his last coup by defeating the Prussians near Rheims in a tactical stroke not unlike Hitler’s Ardennes offensive of 1944. But Napoleon’s success was only temporary. Wellington was advancing on Toulouse, Paris was betrayed to the invaders by a defecting marshal, and Cossacks soon clattered down the Champs-Elysées. The wily Talleyrand, who had already ingratiated himself with Czar Alexander, proclaimed a rump government that declared the emperor dethroned.

Awaiting the end at Fontainebleau, Napoleon attempted to save something from the debacle by vainly trying to pass the throne to his three-year-old son and then abdicated unconditionally. Not long afterward, he swallowed a vial of poison he had carried on his person in Russia in case of capture. It had lost its potency and only made him sick. The allies allowed him to retain his title but his domain was limited to the tiny island of Elba in the Mediterranean. On April 28, 1814, with his personal entourage and an imperial guard of six hundred soldiers, Napoleon sailed for his new realm in the British frigate Undaunted. In Belgium, King Louis XVIII, gross, old, and almost forgotten, awaited the summons to the throne of France. “There is only one step,” Napoleon noted wryly, “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

While all the capitals of Europe were celebrating Napoleon’s fall, some twenty thousand of Wellington’s veterans were crossing the Atlantic to put an end to the annoying American war. With more troops and ships on hand, the British launched a three-pronged assault against the United States: an invasion from Canada, an escalation of the raids on the American coast, and an attack on New Orleans. The major objective of these offensives was to win pawns for use in the peace negotiations already under way in Ghent, Belgium.

Facing no opposition, the British put troops ashore at almost any point on the coast, disrupting trade and preventing American naval vessels and privateers from getting to sea. The Chesapeake Bay area was a major theater for such operations, which were climaxed by an amphibious assault on Washington and Baltimore in the summer of 1814. A flotilla of Yankee gunboats tried to intervene in the attack on Washington, but these craft were brushed aside and then destroyed by their crews to prevent them from failing into enemy hands. An attempt at a stand was made at Bladensburg, outside the capital, but the raw militiamen broke and ran. The only resistance was offered by the sailors and marines from the gunboat flotilla under the command of Joshua Barney, an old Revolutionary War hero. The British put the Capitol and other public buildings to the torch in revenge for the burning of York, the capital of Upper Canada. President Madison and most of the government fled.

The invaders now turned their attention to Baltimore, which, as the home port of 126 privateers, was regarded as “a nest of pirates.” Stalled by the city’s hastily erected defenses, a British army of nearly five thousand men waited for a fleet of frigates and bomb vessels to silence Fort McHenry, at the entrance to the harbor. The night-long bombardment on September 12 inspired Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer who witnessed the bombardment from the British fleet, to write the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The fleet’s guns outranged those of the fort, but the ships were prevented from running past it by a line of sunken hulks that blocked the channel, and the attack failed. A few days later, the troops were reem-barked, neither side having suffered much damage.

The invasion from Canada began in the summer of 1814. Sir George Prevost, the governor-general, followed the route of General John Burgoyne forty years before. He halted at Plattsburgh, on the western shore of Lake Champlain, and waited for the naval commander, Captain George Downie, to deal with a small American squadron under Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. Prevost, with twelve thousand men, could easily have brushed aside the fifteen hundred Americans led by General Alexander Macomb who were defending Plattsburgh, but he insisted that as long as the Americans controlled the lake, his flank and supply lines would be endangered.

With the aid of Noah Brown, the thirty-one-year-old Macdonough, who had been with Decatur at the burning of Philadelphia, built his fleet on the shores of the lake. They worked with such speed that the largest ship, the twenty-six-gun corvette Saratoga, was completed in little more than a month. She was joined by Eagle, a twenty-gun brig delivered just five days before the squadron went into action, two other sailing vessels, and ten oar-propelled gunboats manned mostly by soldiers and a handful of sailors. The British squadron consisted of the powerful frigate Confiance, of thirty-six guns, one brig, two sloops, and ten gunboats. The two squadrons were about equal in firepower.

Macdonough realized that to command Lake Champlain, he needed only to maintain what Mahan called “a fleet in being,” while Downie, to gain control, had to win a decisive victory. Accordingly, Macdonough decided to anchor his vessels in Plattsburgh Bay, a deep inlet on the western side of the lake, and await a British attack, as Benedict Arnold had done at Valcour during the Revolution. Macdonough ordered his vessels drawn up in a line from Cumberland Head to the shallows off Crab Island, close to the shore, so it could not be turned. As an added precaution, he had springs run out of the sterns of his vessels and attached to their anchor cables, which allowed them to be swung so their guns could be brought to bear on the approaching British.

Downie had wanted to delay going into action until he had time to train his crews, which included a number of Canadian militiamen, but he was prodded along by Prevost. As a result, Confiance went into battle with the fitters still on board. The British sailed southward on September 11, propelled along the reed-lined shore by a light breeze. When they were sighted off Cumberland Head, Macdonough, a devout man, called Saratoga’s officers and crew to prayers—and then to quarters. Most of the ranging shots fired by the British fell short, but one splintered a coop that housed a pet gamecock. Unharmed, the bird flew to a nearby gun, where it flapped its wings and crowed defiantly. To Macdonough’s crews, this seemed a good omen, and they cheered lustily. The commodore himself laid one of the first twenty-four-pounders that bore on the approaching British flagship, and the shot struck home.

Sailing into the bay in line abreast, the British came under heavy fire from the Americans. Downie tried to pass down the Yankee line, but in lee of Cumberland Head, the wind fell and he was forced to anchor Confiance only three hundred yards from Macdonough’s flagship. A British broadside smashed into Saratoga, and her deck ran red with blood. Some forty men were killed or wounded. Nevertheless, she kept up a brisk fire. Fifteen minutes later, one of Confiance’s cannon was dismounted and crushed Downie. The death of their commander so early in the battle had a serious effect on British morale. Macdonough himself had several narrow escapes. As he was aiming a gun, he was knocked unconscious by a falling spar. Later, a round shot tore the head off one of the gun’s crew and drove it into Macdonough’s face with such force that he was knocked sprawling.

Fighting spread up and down the line, and two British sloops and a small American vessel were put out of action. Saratoga and Confiance suffered the most, and both were taking on water. Saratoga was hulled 55 times and Confiance 105, Macdonough reported. Within two hours of the start of the battle, every one of Saratoga’s starboard guns had been put out of action. Heaving in on his spring, Macdonough had his ship pulled around so her undamaged port battery faced Confiance. The British tried the same trick but failed—and were caught by Saratoga’s merciless fire. One by one, the British vessels surrendered. Both sides had suffered severely. American casualties totaled more than a hundred killed and wounded, and Macdonough estimated that the British lost double this number.

Macdonough’s victory forced Prevost, whose simultaneous assault on Plattsburgh was repulsed by Macomb, to call off the invasion, and its effects reverberated far beyond the lake frontier. The peace talks at Ghent had stalled over British insistence on retaining all the territory she had conquered during the war, with a view to creating an Indian “buffer state” in the Northwest Territory between Canada and the United States. But the duke of Wellington, who had been offered command of British forces in America, said that unless Britain regained “a naval supremacy on the Lakes” peace should be made at once—and without territorial demands.

And Lord Castlereagh, the foreign secretary, regarded the war as a tiresome distraction while he was fully occupied with the much more pleasant task of reshaping the post-Napoleonic world at a conference in Vienna. On Christmas Eve 1814 Britain and the United States signed a peace treaty that made no mention of impressment, the Orders in Council, or Britain’s violations of neutral rights, the reasons given by Madison for declaring war. The end of the conflict with Napoleon had rendered these issues moot.

Although the war was officially over, the fighting was not. News traveled slowly in those days, so the British continued their preparation for the descent on New Orleans. The expedition appeared off the mouth of the Mississippi on December 8, 1814, but before the British could advance against the city, they had to deal with a scattering of small sailing vessels and gunboats commanded by Master Commandant Daniel T. Patterson. The shortest route to the city led though Lake Borgne, a shallow bayou that opened up to the sea. Patterson stationed five gunboats there under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Forty-two British launches, each armed with a carronade and carrying a total of a thousand men, captured all of Jones’s craft in a short, bloody battle on December 14, but at the cost of about a hundred men killed and wounded—and valuable time, which General Andrew Jackson put to good use in preparing his defense of New Orleans.

By December 23 the British had pushed to within nine miles of the city but were thrown into confusion when the fourteen-gun schooner Carolina bombarded their encampment and Jackson launched a supporting attack. The Americans were driven off, but the final assault on the city had to be delayed until heavy guns could be brought up from the fleet to deal with Carolina. Although the schooner was eventually destroyed, Louisiana, of sixteen guns and the sole survivor of Patterson’s squadron, took part in repulsing the British attack on New Orleans on January 8, 1815. It was the worst British defeat in open battle for many years. Recognizing the important role the navy had played in the fight, a grateful Andrew Jackson told Patterson: “To your well-directed exertions must be ascribed in a great degree that embarrassment of the enemy which led to his ignominious flight.”

Throughout the closing months of the war, American naval captains impatiently awaited opportunities to escape the vigilant British blockading squadrons that lay offshore. Constitution managed to escape from Boston in December 1814, and President slipped to sea from New York in January 1815 during a blinding snowstorm. Decatur’s fabled luck soon ran out, however. President was severely damaged when the pilot ran her aground. Decatur managed to free the frigate and later said he would have returned to port had not the severity of the storm prevented him. The limping President was sighted by a British squadron consisting of Majestic, of fifty-six guns, and three frigates. Decatur tried to escape but was overhauled and forced to surrender. One of the pursuing vessels was knocked about by the Yankee frigate’s guns, and President suffered in the exchange. “With about one-fifth of my crew killed and wounded, my ship crippled, and a more than four-fold force opposed to me, without a chance to escape left, I deemed it my duty to surrender,” Decatur declared.

A month later, Constitution, sought by every ship of the Royal Navy since her escape from Boston, was cruising off Madeira when she encountered two British vessels, the light frigate Cyane, of twenty-two guns, and the sloop-of-war Levant, of twenty. The British captains gallantly if unwisely chose to fight. Within forty minutes, both ships were beaten into submission. Captain Charles Stewart put on one of the most brilliant demonstrations of shiphandling of the war. He attacked Cyane, backed down to engage Levant, then sailed ahead to reengage Cyane, and finally wore around to knock out Levant.

The Yankee sloops-of-war Hornet and Peacock also got to sea, and they took the last prizes of the war. Hornet, under Master Commandant James Biddle, captured the brig Penguin, of eighteen guns, after a twenty-minute fight in which the British vessel was transformed into little more than kindling. Peacock sailed into the Indian Ocean, where she captured four large Indiamen. On June 30, 1815, in Sunda Strait, she sighted a fourteen-gun brig belonging to the East India Company. The merchantman’s skipper informed Master Commandant Lewis Warrington that the war was over. Believing this was a ruse designed to permit his prey to escape, Warrington ordered the brig to strike its flag and send a boat. When the Briton refused, Warrington poured a broadside into his vessel, causing fifteen casualties. The brig’s name was Nautilus—the same as that of the first American vessel to be captured by the British at the beginning of the conflict three years before.

In years to come, Americans would forget the humiliations of the futile and inglorious War of 1812—the military defeats, the burning of the capital, the raids on the defenseless coast, and the blockade. With pride they recalled the exploits of Hull, Decatur, Perry, and Macdonough that had preserved the national honor and established a tradition of victory. By providing such a heritage, the U.S. Navy not only fostered a spirit of nationalism that at least temporarily put an end to narrow sectionalism that had threatened to tear the nation apart, it also gained popularity and acceptance for itself.

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