October 21, 2012

War of 1812 historian to visit Plattsburgh


---- — PLATTSBURGH — Nationally renowned historian Dr. David C. Skaggs will visit Plattsburgh this week to share his perspective on the significance of the Sept. 11, 1814, Battle of Plattsburgh.

Skaggs, a retired professor of history at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, has specialized in examining the nation’s early military conflicts, including the War of 1812.

He has been a longtime proponent of the importance of the Battle of Lake Erie and its commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, but he also places a major significance on the American victory at Plattsburgh, under the naval leadership of Commodore Thomas Macdonough.


“Macdonough’s victory was far more important tactically, strategically and diplomatically,” Skaggs said from his home in northern Michigan recently. “The Battle of Plattsburgh was one of three victories that caused his majesty’s government to reconsider the War of 1812.”

The defense of Baltimore and the defense of Fort Erie on the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence River near Niagara Falls were the other key conflicts that influenced the British to end its assault on the fledgling American nation.

“The conflict (in America) was costing the British dearly in men and money following 23 years of war with the French,” Skaggs said. “These three conflicts really changed the British mindset (toward war in America).”

During the waning months of 1814, the British leadership was concentrating much of its energies on establishing control of at least the harbor in Plattsburgh, if not the entire Lake Champlain.

The naval victory on Plattsburgh Bay defeated that strategy and ultimately led to the British concession to end the War of 1812.

Still, the significance of Macdonough’s victory has remained a mystery to most of America, despite the local emphasis on how important the American stand at Plattsburgh turned out to be.

“There isn’t that much knowledge (nationally) about the battle on Plattsburgh Bay,” Skaggs said. “People tend to focus more on New Orleans, Baltimore and Lake Erie than they do on Lake Champlain.”


Skaggs was one of those historians who initially did not recognize the role Macdonough played in ending the War of 1812. But as he began to do research on a series he was working on about naval conflicts in the early history of America, he uncovered the significance of Macdonough’s accomplishments.

“Once I started to understand Macdonough’s life after the battle, I realized that I wanted to do something to raise awareness of the role he played.”

Among his many published works on early naval engagements, Skaggs published in 2003 “Thomas Macdonough, Master of Command,” a book that clearly praises Macdonough’s efforts, including his relations with the U.S. military leader in Plattsburgh, Commander Alexander Macomb.

He also published, three years later, a book focusing on Lake Erie Commander Perry, which offers an equally impressive look at his contribution to the American victory.


Ironically, Skaggs will travel to western New York for a lecture before coming to Plattsburgh to speak on the significance of the battles on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.

Just as residents of the North Country will defend the Battle of Plattsburgh as the most significant event in the War of 1812, locals from the Lake Erie region proudly support Perry’s victory as key.

Knowing that he will not have as amiable an audience in western New York, Skaggs said he will still present his argument for Macdonough’s accomplishments, just as he will when moving on to Plattsburgh a week later.

Skaggs, who retired from Bowling Green in 2001, was born and raised in Kansas and enlisted in the U.S. Army following his graduation from the University of Kansas.

He and his wife, Margo, now live on Burt Lake in northern Michigan.

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IF YOU GO Dr. David C. Skaggs will discuss the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay at noon Wednesday, Oct. 24, at the Stafford Theater at Clinton Community College. The discussion is free and open to the public. He will also be available for a book signing from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. at the Kent-Delord House Museum in Plattsburgh.