History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 33
An Expedition formed in Lower Canada for the Invasion of Plattsburg—Arrival of the British Squadron at the Harbor of Plattsburgh—Naval Engagement, and loss of the British Squadron—Retreat of the British Troops—British Expedition formed against the Shores of the United States bordering on the Mexican Gulph—Result of that Expedition—Expedition against New Orleans—Partial Encounter between General Jackson's Army and a Body of British Troops under Colonel Thornton—The British under General Packenham advance towards New Orleans—Reinforcements arrive for both Armies—Unsuccessful Attack on the Enemy's Entrenchments—Second Attack on Fort Bowyer—Surrender of that Fort—Action between the British Frigate Endymion and the American Frigate President—Surrender of the latter—Concluding Remarks—Summary of the Treaty of Peace.
During the period in which the operations against Washington and Baltimore were in progress, British troops were pouring into Lower Canada from France, in consequence of the Peace of Paris having been concluded, until the army under Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost actually amounted to fourteen thousand effective men, which were immediately formed into brigades; and an expedition fitted out for the invasion of the enemy's territory.
On the 2d of September, the British army commanded by Sir George Prevost in person, approached the line of demarkation between Lower Canada and the United States. On their advance, the American forces stationed on the lines fled from their entrenchments, panic struck, towards Plattsburgh, destroying all the bridges and falling trees across the road in their route thither, in order to impede the advance of the British; but, in apposition to all these obstructions, the army appeared before Plattsburgh on the sixth.
General Moers of the New-York militia, Colonel Appling, Major Wood and Captain Sprout, of the American army, were sent out from Plattsburgh at the head of columns of both regulars and militia, to oppose the British in their advance; but the utmost united exertions of the general and every officer under his command were found insufficient to prevail on the American troops for a moment to maintain their ground before the advance of the British.
On the approach of the British to Plattsburgh, it was discovered that the bridge across the River Saranac had been stripped of its planks, to the south side of which river the whole of the American force had retired and taken up a position on an elevated piece of ground, fortified by three redoubts and a number of breastworks and batteries, and commanded by General Mc. Comb in person. The planks which had been taken from the bridge crossing the Saranac were piled in the form of a breast work at the south end, to cover the American troops intended to dispute the passage with the British advance.
The time which intervened between the 6th and 11th was chiefly employed by Sir George Prevost in raising his works and bringing up his ordnance and mounting it for the purpose of bombarding the town and out works of the enemy. At 7 o'clock on the morning of the last mentioned day, the British squadron on Lake Champlain, under Captain Downie, was discovered over the isthmus formed by the union of the River Saranac and Cumberland Bay, nearing the harbor of Plattsburgh to attack the American squadron under Commodore Mc. Donough, and to co-operate with the forces on land. The British squadron consisted of the Confiance of Thirty-nine guns, the brig Linnet of sixteen guns, the Chub of eleven guns, the sloop Finch of eleven guns, and thirteen gun-boats, five of which carried two guns each and eight one gun each—total ninety-four guns. The American squadron consisted of the Saratoga of twenty-six guns, the Eagle of twenty guns, the Ticonderoga of seventeen guns, the Treble of seven guns, and ten gun-boats, six of which carrying two guns each and four one gun each—total eighty-six guns. The American squadron was moored in line, within the harbor of Plattsburgh, supported by the gun-boats on the flank, awaiting the approach of the British.
About 8 o'clock, A. M., Captain Downie bore into the harbor, and formed his line directly in front of the enemy, each vessel selecting her antagonist according to its strength and agreeable to previous arrangements, within two or three cables length distance. The action between the two hostile fleets commenced with cheers from the crews on both sides; and in consequence of the very light winds which prevailed during the action, the lake was quite smooth, by means of which the fire on both sides had the most destructive effect.
The battle raged for nearly two hours, in the early part of which Captain Downie was killed and the confiance so completely disabled that she was compelled to surrender, a destiny which awaited the other vessels of the British squadron. Three of the British gun-boats had been sunk in an early stage of the action, which considerably weakened their force; but in consequence of the shattered state of the enemy's ships, the remaining gun-boats were enabled to escape.
The British lost in killed and wounded, in this action, one hundred & seventy-four, eighty-four of whom were killed, including the gallant Downie who commanded the British squadron. The American loss amounted to one hundred and ten, in killed and wounded, fifty-two of whom were of the former number.
During this naval engagement, the efforts of the land forces had been in some measure successful. The brigades under Generals Robinson and Power had succeeded in forcing a passage across the Saranec; but on the first shouts of victory from the enemy's works, in consequence of the surrender of the British squadron, Sir George Prevost, in the most unaccountable manner, peremptorily commanded them to retreat; and the same evening the guns were all dismounted from the British works; and two hours before day on the following morning, the army retreated once more to Canada, leaving a number of the wounded in the hands of the enemy.
The loss sustained by the British land forces, in killed and wounded, from the 6th to the 14th September, amounted to about two hundred and forty*, but the number was supposed to have been augmented by desertions.
During the time of the expedition to Plattsburgh, and while negotiations for peace were in progress at Ghent, an expedition was undertaken by the British government for the invasion of the shores of the Gulph of Mexico. On the 15th day of September, a squadron under the command of the honorable Captain Wm. Henry Percy of the Royal Navy, consisting of two frigates and two gun brigs, appeared off Mobile. A force was immediately landed under the directions of Colonel Nicholls and Captain Woodbine, for the purpose of attacking Fort Bowyer; (situated on Mobile Point;) but the American commandant, Major Lawrence, withstood the attack with such determined bravery that the force was compelled to retire; and the fire from the fort was so ably directed against the shipping that before they could withdraw themselves without the reach of the cannonade, the Hermes, flag-ship to the squadron, caught fire and exploded.
As soon as the severity of the winter had suspended the military operations on the frontier of Upper and Lower Canada, a force was collected in the neighborhood of the Bermudas under the command of Major General Keane. This force was embarked on board the fleet under Vice-admiral the Honorable Sir Alexander Cochrane. The armament, on the 12th of December, made its appearance in the bay of St. Louis. The American flotilla of gun-boats under Lieutenant Jones, then lying at Cat's Island, took shelter further up the bay, where they were attacked by the British gun-boats under Captain Lockyer, with great bravery and skill; and after an animated engagement, the American gun-boats were compelled to surrender.
General Jackson, who commanded the United States forces in this region, had been for some time employed in making the most formidable preparations for defending New Orleans. He had proclaimed the country as far as his command extended under martial law; he personally superintended the erection of such works of defence as time would permit, and he reviewed the whole of the militia and volunteers in the vicinity of New Orleans, preparatory to their being engaged. No possible exertion that could be made was neglected: General Carrol was called from Tennessee with about five or six thousand troops, who arrived at New Orleans on the 21st December. A host, too, of Baritarian pirates offered themselves to General Jackson as a reinforcement, on condition of a free pardon, whose services were accepted of.
On the 23d, the British army landed, and, making their way through a swamp which lay between the place of landing and the main position of the enemy, captured a strong piquet stationed at the entrance of a canal called bayou Bien-venu, for the purpose of checking the advance.
General Jackson no sooner heard of the approach of the British column, than placing himself at the head of two regiments of regular troops, the militia and volunteers of Tennessee and New Orleans and a regiment of colored troops, moved a few miles down the river where he awaited the arrival of General Coffie with the force under his command, to whom orders had been previously transmitted to join General Jackson at that place; after which he prosecuted his march down the river, until about dark he found himself coming in contact with the British advance under Colonel Thornton. A heavy fire was immediately commenced on both sides; and an American schooner which had dropped down the river for that purpose, kept up a galling fire upon the British. But Colonel Thornton, perceiving the awkward predicament into which he had fallen, immediately ordered his troops to charge; which compelled the enemy to retreat, and a body of the American riflemen fell into the hands of the victors.
On the morning of the 25th December, Major General Sir Edward Packenham accompanied by MajorGeneral Gibbs, arrived in the British camp and assumed the command of the army. Early on the morning of the 27th, the British forces moved forward in two divisions, driving in the enemy's advanced columns to a position about three miles distant from New Orleans; where his main body was discovered strongly posted in rear of a breast work raised in some places with bales of cotton and covered in front with a very wide ditch; and in consequence of a recent swell in the river, the American general was enabled to inundate the ground in front of his position, which, when the water receded, left a sufficient quantity in the ditch to render it impassable without the aid of temporary bridges or fascines to fill it up.
The Vangeur with a convoy of transports arrived in the bay on the 1st of January, 1815, with a reinforcement of British troops under Major General Sir John Lambert, who arrived in the British lines on the 6th; and on the 4th, a reinforcement of three thousand Kentucky militia arrived in the American camp under Generals Thomas and Adair.
From the time of the arrival of General Lambert until daylight on the morning of the 8th was incessantly employed by the British in preparations for a general assault upon the enemy's entrenchments. Colonel Thornton was ordered to the right bank of the Mississippi with a detachment under his command, to seize a battery erected by the enemy for the purpose of enfilading the British columns in their advance to the attack.
At break of day on the morning of the 8th, the British columns being under arms, and all things being prepared for the onset, a volley of bombs and Congrieve rockets were thrown into the American lines; and at the same moment the army commenced its movement upon the enemy's works. General Packenham, after giving the word of command to advance, galloped in front of the advancing columns and continued to animate his men with his hat waving in the air, until he arrived in front of the enemy's position; where reckless of his own invaluable life, he would present himself at all times in the fury of the conflict, in the same animating manner; but such heroic conduct could not escape the observation of the enemy, especially in close quarters; for almost in the same moment of time he received a wound in the knee and another in the body, upon which he fell into the arms of his aid de camp. Major Mc. Dougal, and immediately expired. Generals Keane and Gibbs were also wounded, the latter of whom died next day.
The circumstance of the fascines and other apparatus for crossing the trenches not having been such, as was now discovered, entirely to answer the purpose for which they were intended—and the troops perceiving all their leaders, as it were, either killed or carried off, the field wounded, (as General Lambert expresses in his despatches)—caused a wavering in the ranks, which, in such a situation became irreparable; and as I advanced, continues the general, at about two hundred and fifty yards from the line, I had the mortification to observe the whole falling back upon me in the greatest confusion. The disorder into which the British columns had been thrown at this juncture rendered it impossible, notwithstanding the utmost exertions of General Lambert and the officers under his command, to restore any kind of order in the lines; a short consultation was therefore held, in which it was conceived advisable to withdraw the troops and abandon the enterprise.
On the opposite side of the Mississippi matters wore a more brilliant aspect. Colonel Thornton advanced his detachment to the attack simultaneously with main body on the other side of the river. The forts against which Colonel Thornton's brigade was opposed were defended by a body of Kentucky volunteers and the Louisiana militia under the command of General Morgan, who, after the first fire, retreated in disorder, leaving the British in possession of their entrenchments.
The loss sustained by the British, on both sides of the river, amounted to not less than two thousand and forty in killed, wounded and missing, a great number of whom were of the latter and were afterwards found to be prisoners of war. The loss of the enemy, according to the despatches of his adjutant general, was very trifling, not exceeding twenty killed and fifty-one wounded.
It was concluded in a council of war held by General Lambert and the heads of departments assisted by Vice-admiral the Honorable Sir Alexander Cochrane, that, from the unsuccessful result of the attack already made upon the enemy, and the heavy loss sustained, to renew the assault was utterly hopeless; it was therefore given up and the army retired from before New Orleans.
Before re-embarking the troops, a second attack was made upon Fort Bowyer on Mobile Point. On the 7th of February, the Vangeur, commanded by Captain Rickets, was brought up in front of the fort, while the land forces closely invested on the other side: and so closely was the seige pushed that in a few days Major Lawrence found it necessary to accept terms of capitulation, and surrender himself with a garrison of three hundred and sixty-six men, prisoners of war.
On the 15th of January, as a British squadron blockaded the port of New- York, the President frigate, Commodore Decatur, was discovered leaving the harbor; a chase immediately commenced which lasted eighteen hours, when the Endymion came up with and laying herself alongside her antagonist, a spirited action commenced, which was maintained on both sides with equal courage and heroism during a period of two hours and a half, the result of which was the surrender of the President. This was the last naval engagement fought between the two nations, and may be said, together with the most of the campaign in the neighborhood of New Orleans, to have transpired after the plenipotentiaries of the two powers had finished their labors at Ghent.
Thus terminated a second war between Great Britain and America—a contest from the narrative of which, detailed in the preceding pages, may be seen was evidently commenced by the government of the United States, from the most unworthy motives that possibly could have actuated the councils of a nation. They attempted to practise a scheme of policy, in all their intercourse with Great Britain and France, which was obviously intended to paralyze the whole energies of the British empire, and give loose reins to the high towering ambition of the French usurper; to defeat the means employed by Great Britain in resisting the arrogant and aspiring pretensions of that despot, in the magnanimous stand she had taken in defence of the independence of nations.
It cannot surely be denied by any person having the exercise of reason, that the very first principle in prosecuting a war is to inflict the greatest possible injury upon the enemy, at the least possible risk or expense. Then, precisely so did the case stand with Great Britain: no circumstance ever shone on any page of the annals of the world could have rested more fully and fairly upon this basis. The cause in which England was engaged was the most interesting and the most calculated to draw forth the sympathies of the world at large. To see, as it were, all Europe (Great Britain alone excepted,) groaning under the iron yoke of a haughty, arrogant tyrant, equally reckless of justice or humanity—actually visiting those nations he had already subdued into a state of the most degraded vassalage, with the most unparalleled treachery and the most atrocious violence that ever stained the ambition of despotic power. To redress those wrongs and to emancipate European nations from the galling chains of that despot—in fine, to break the bewildering spell which appeared to hang over the surrounding continent, at his growing power—Great Britain, with a promptitude and generosity confessedly peculiar to herself as a nation, had stepped forward; and to see the councils of America, (let it again be reiterated,) the only republican nation then in existence, willingly enlist the energies of that country into the service of the French ruler, to oppose the grand struggle for freedom, is a problem, to the solution of which the historian is complied humbly to acknowledge himself incompetent.
But, however the warlike resources of Great Britain were absorbed in the peninsular war, the celebrity of her arms was gallantly sustained (as is seen in the foregoing review of the operations of the war,) by the brave militia and fencible corps of Canada, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick; to whom, with the few regular troops then in the country, was entrusted the defence of the whole of that part of the British empire; and to the small naval force which could be spared on that service, whose gallant conduct stands forth eminently conspicuous, when it is considered the prodigious disadvantages under which they had at at all times to engage an American.
On the 8th of August, the day on which the plenipotentiaries of Great Britain and the United States held their first conference at Ghent, the English ministers submitted to the American commissioners the following projet, explanatory of the subjects to be brought under discussion*:
1st. The forcible seizure of mariners on board of merchant vessels and, in connection with it, the claims of his Britannic Majesty to the allegiance of all his native subjects.
2d. The Indian allies of Great Britain to be included in the pacifications, and a definite boundary to be settled for their territory. The British commissioners stated that an arrangement upon this subject was a sine qua non.
3d. A review of the boundary line between the United States and the adjacent British colonies. With respect to this point, the British commissioners disclaimed any intention, on the part of their government, to acquire any increase of territory.
4th. The fisheries, respecting which the British government will not allow the people of the United States the privilege of landing and drying fish, within the territorial jurisdiction of Great Britain, without an equivalent.
The American ministers, at the second meeting, which was held the following day, stated that, upon the first and third points proposed by the British commissioners, they were prepared with no instructions from their government; but that on the second and fourth of these points, there not having existed, hitherto, any difference between the two governments, they had not been anticipated by the United States, and were therefore not provided for in their instructions: that, in relation to an Indian pacification, they knew that the government of the United States had appointed commissioners to treat for peace with the Indians; and that it was not improbable that peace had already been made with them. At the same time, the American commissioners presented, as further subjects considered by the government of the United States as suitable for discussion, the following:
1st. A definition of blockade, and, as far as may be agreed, of other neutral and belligerent rights.
3d. They further stated, that there were various other points to which their instructions extend, which might with propriety be the subjects of discussion, either in he negotiation of the peace or in that of a treaty of commerce; which, in case of a propitious termination of the conferences, they were likewise authorised to conclude. That for the purpose of facilitating the first and most essential object of peace, they had discarded every subject which was not considered so peculiarly connected with that, and presented only those points which appeared to be immediately relevant to the negotiation.
At a subsequent meeting held on the 10th, the British commissioners endeavored to impress the American ministers with the propriety of giving up certain places ceded to the United States by the memorable treaty of 1783, for the purpose of rendering the limits of Canada more precise and secure; but upon this point the Americans were immovable.
The most important, as well as the most difficult subjects in dispute between the two countries, were undoubtedly those relating to the impressment of seamen from American ships, and the limits of blockade. The peace in Europe had, however, reduced these questions to mere abstract principles, regarding the future rather than the present; and both parties, aware of the difficulty, agreed to wave discussions upon which it seemed impossible to arrive at any amicable conclusion. The other subjects of importance were the admission of the Indians to the treaty and the establishment of a new Canadian frontier. On the former of these points, it was agreed that the Indian allies of both parties should be left in the same situation in which they were found in 1812; and on the latter, that any ambiguity regarding the territorial limits between Canada and the United States should be removed by commissioners appointed on both sides for that purpose; but that the line of demarkation, as drawn by the treaty of 1783, should form the standard of their decisions*.
The foregoing formed the basis of an amicable arrangement of the differences between the two countries, and was concluded by the signature of a treaty of peace to that effect, at Ghent, on the 24th December, 1814.
* Sir George Prevost's Despatches to Earl Bathurst.
*Draft of the original Protocol, made by the American ministers at the two first conferences held with the British commissioners.
*For the foregoing summary, see Baines' Wars of the French Revolution.