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 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 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.
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.
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 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 in Plattsburgh Bay, forcing the enemy to sail north into the wind to engage the Americans.
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.
The British ground forces then 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 already begun in Belgium. In early 1815, the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the conflict and leaving America’s pre-war northeastern border intact.