As the enemy fleet wore around Cumberland Head that bright September morning in the final year of the War of 1812, the American commander had a pointed message for the British invaders.
Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough ordered a pennant raised aboard his flagship. It read: “Impressed seamen call on every man to do his duty.”
It was a twist on Admiral Horatio Nelson’s signal at Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” Nelson’s famous signal inspired the most important naval victory in British history. It’s unlikely any sailor in either fleet at Plattsburgh would have missed the insult MacDonough was sending the attackers.
Just three weeks earlier, a different British invasion force had launched a lightning raid against Washington, D.C., and burned the Capitol, the White House and other public buildings.
But the British returned to their ships the next day. The real threat was coming from Canada down the western shore of Lake Champlain. Governor-General George Prevost invaded with an 11,000-man army, mostly made up of veterans newly arrived from their victory over Napoleon. Accompanying this force was a squadron of four vessels on the lake, commanded by Capt. George Downie.
At Plattsburgh, Gen. Alexander Macomb prepared to stop the invasion with a force of only 3,000 — half of whom were unfit for battle. And in Plattsburgh Bay, Macdonough was anchored with his four vessels. By anchoring in the bay, Macdonough was forcing the British to come to him.
The naval battle was short, bloody and a complete rout of the British. Downie was crushed to death when an American broadside dislodged one of his cannon.
At a critical moment in the battle, MacDonough’s starboard-side cannon could no longer fire. He ordered one anchor cable cut, and the ship spun around so the port side could continue firing.
According to Theodore Roosevelt, “MacDonough in this battle won a higher fame than any other commander of the war, British or American.”
While the naval battle raged, Prevost’s land attack was delayed. By the time his troops were in position, the fight on the lake was over. Unable to continue, Prevost retreated, and any thoughts of further invasion ended.
During the battle, MacDonough was twice knocked unconscious by flying objects. Both times he came to, got back up and continued his command. His personal heroism was befitting a battle that was decisive in bringing the war to a close.
When news of the burning of Washington reached the peace negotiators in Ghent, the British made outrageous demands — complete control of territory surrounding the Great Lakes and an Indian homeland to prevent further U.S. expansion westward, were among them.
When reports arrived of their loss at Plattsburgh and their inability, three days later, to take Fort McHenry and the city of Baltimore, it forced British negotiators to drop their demands and agree to peace with conditions as they were before the war. Neither side gained anything, but neither lost anything.
So what makes Plattsburgh more decisive, than, say, Fort McHenry — the battle commemorated in our national anthem?
Plattsburgh halted a full-scale invasion, designed to divide the nation and perhaps even convince war-weary New Englanders to secede. Fort McHenry merely stopped one in a series of shore raids, designed to damage and harass the residents, but not to take and hold territory.
The upstart Americans — not even a nation just 38 years earlier — had taken on the most powerful military force in the world and fought it to a draw. It was from that point on, that America gained the respect among the other nations of the world, which guarantees independence.
A mere eight years later, President Monroe issued his famous doctrine — warning Europe to stay out of this hemisphere’s affairs. And they did. What made that warning credible was the War of 1812.
The date of Sept. 11 is forever etched in American memory. That’s as it should be, especially in New York.
But we should also remember that date for another important reason: the Battle of Plattsburgh.
Tom Shanahan is a lecturer in the New York Council for the Humanities Speakers Program on the topic: “1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War.”