September 2, 2012

Local battle holds special place in history

Colin Read, Everybody's Business

---- — This week marks the beginning, and next weekend the culmination, of a celebration in this region of historic proportion. We once again remember our important role in the creation of our nation, and especially in its defense in the War of 1812.

One does not have to look deeply to see that others recognize the history around us. Books abound about the Battle of Plattsburgh’s pivotal role in the culmination of the war by 1814. A couple of these books are written by local authors. Many more are written by authors from far and wide who realize that Plattsburgh’s stand defined our success in the war.

Some complain that history spends too much time documenting war and not enough time demonstrating the progress of cultures and civilizations in entirely peaceful ways. Perhaps the intensity of war in a nation’s collective consciousness and conscience is often so compelling that battles are easy historic events to research. And, because so much of our human and economic energy is devoted to such a singular purpose in those times, there is so much recorded that historians have an easier time recreating for later generations the mood of a nation at war.

Not all battles are pivotal, even though most significant battles carry with them the dramas of lives lost and individual families torn apart. Certainly not all battles change forever the course of a nation’s history, even if each battle may play a small part.

This battle, though, the Battle of Plattsburgh, did change our nation’s history forever. Its significance is that it left our battle with Canada and England as a stalemate. Borders as defined before the war remained essentially intact as the conclusion of the war was negotiated at the Treaty of Ghent.

The Battle of Plattsburgh, on Sept. 11, 1814, and a smaller battle at about that time in Baltimore that was designed to divert American attention away from the British strategy for Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, was the reason why a stalemate was reached.

By the summer of 1814, the momentum of the war had ebbed, but not in our favor. The British had been better organized and resourced, and divisions within our own country, including talk of secession of the New England states, was taking its toll on the spirit of a ragtag and regional militia-based American force. The British planned the Battle of Plattsburgh as the final blow that would give them the momentum to bisect a fledgling America at its heart. New England could be peeled off at the Hudson River, as might much of the Midwest.

The British strategy for Plattsburgh was central. The recriminations after their failure demonstrate that. And, our leaders did not fully appreciate, or were not fully able to resource, the significant battle that was about to occur.

Nonetheless, an indomitable American spirit emerged, and the British thrust was repulsed. That we now know, even though few appreciate how this nation would be different had Britain succeeded.

The events of this week are designed to demonstrate not only that we can celebrate and enjoy the present, but that an important and somewhat untapped part of our regional psyche is defined by our past. While we don’t have national anthems immortalizing Plattsburgh’s role in the maintenance of borders as we know them, we are at the center of most everything we see today.

Without Plattsburgh, there would likely not have been any great American cities like Boston, Detroit, Buffalo, Chicago and even Burlington. If we had failed in Plattsburgh, and had allowed the British to maintain the upper hand in negotiations in Ghent, our defeat may not have ended with that war. It is even possible that a British consolidation of the north of our nation would have resulted in additional conflicts against a weakened and dis-spirited people.

This week, we should remember that the land of the free and home of the brave began in Plattsburgh. Someday, I hope that every school child knows so. Certainly, Plattsburgh and Clinton County should take heart that this area is special, like perhaps no other region in this nation. When we walk these streets and absorb this week’s upcoming events, let us remember that without Plattsburgh, there would likely be no great nation to the extent we see today.

In this sense, these streets that were once bathed in soldiers’ blood ought to now be paved with gold.

Colin Read is a contributor to and has published eight books with MacMillan Palgrave Press. He chairs the Department of Finance and Economics at SUNY Plattsburgh. Continue the discussion at