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.