The War With the United States: Chapter 6
1814: Lundy's Lane, Plattsburg, and the Great Blockade
In the closing phase of the struggle by land and sea the fortunes of war may, with the single exception of Plattsburg, be most conveniently followed territorially, from one point to the next, along the enormous irregular curve of five thousand miles which was the scene of operations. This curve begins at Prairie du Chien, where the Wisconsin joins the Mississippi, and ends at New Orleans, where the Mississippi is about to join the sea. It runs easterly along the Wisconsin, along to the Fox, into Lake Michigan, across to Mackinaw, eastwards through Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario, down the St Lawrence, round to Halifax, round from there to Maine, and thence along the whole Atlantic coast, south and west-about into the Gulf of Mexico.
The blockade of the Gulf of Mexico was an integral part of the British plan. But the battle of New Orleans, which was a complete disaster for the British arms, stands quite outside the actual war, since it was fought on January 8, 1815, more than two weeks after the terms of peace had been settled by the Treaty of Ghent. This peculiarity about its date, taken in conjunction with its extreme remoteness from the Canadian frontier, puts it beyond the purview of the present chronicle.
All the decisive actions of the campaign proper were fought within two months. They began at Prairie du Chien in July and ended at Plattsburg in September. Plattsburg is the one exception to the order of place. The tide of war and British fortune flowed east and south to reach its height at Washington in August. It turned at Plattsburg in September.
Neither friend nor foe went west in 1813. But in April 1814 Colonel M‘Douall set out with ninety men, mostly of the Newfoundland regiment, to reinforce Mackinaw. He started from the little depot which had been established on the Nottawasaga, a river flowing into the Georgian Bay and accessible by the overland trail from York.
After surmounting the many difficulties of the inland route which he had to take in order to avoid the Americans in the Lake Erie region, and after much hard work against the Lake Huron ice, he at last reached Mackinaw on the 18th of May. Some good fighting Indians joined him there; and towards the end of June had felt strong enough to send Colonel M‘Kay against the American Post at Prairie du Chien. M‘Kay arrived at this post in the middle of July and captured the whole position—fort, guns, garrison, and a vessel on the Mississippi.
Meanwhile seven hundred Americans under Croghan, the American officer who had repulsed Procter at Fort Stephenson the year before, were making for Mackinaw itself. They did some private looting at the Sault, burnt the houses at St Joseph's Island, and landed in full force at Mackinaw on the 4th of August. M‘Douall had less than two hundred men, Indians included. But he at once marched out to the attack and beat the Americans back to their ships, which immediately sailed away. The British thenceforth commanded the whole three western lakes until the war was over.
The Lake Erie region remained quite as decisively commanded by the Americans. They actually occupied only the line of the Detroit. But they had the power to cut any communications which the British might try to establish along the north side of the lake. They had suffered a minor reverse at Chatham in the previous December. But in March they more than turned the tables by defeating Basden's attack in the Longwoods at Delaware, near London; and in October seven hundred of their mounted men raided the line of the Thames and only just stopped short of the Grand River, the western boundary of the Niagara peninsula.
The Niagara frontier, as before, was the scene of desperate strife. The Americans were determined to wrest it from the British, and they carefully trained their best troops for the effort. Their prospects seemed bright, as the whole of Upper Canada was suffering from want of men and means, both civil and military. Drummond, the British commander-in-chief there, felt very anxious not only about the line of the Niagara but even about the neck of the whole peninsula, from Burlington westward to Lake Erie. He had not more than 4400 troops, all told; and he was obliged to place them so as to be ready for an attack either from the Niagara or from Lake Erie, or from both together. Keeping his base at York with a thousand men, he formed his line with its right on Burlington and its left on Fort Niagara. He had 500 men at Burlington, 1000 at Fort George, and 700 at Fort Niagara. The rest were thrown well forward, so as to get into immediate touch with any Americans advancing from the south. There were 300 men at Queenston, 500 at Chippawa, 150 at Fort Erie, and 250 at Long Point on Lake Erie.
Brown, the American general who had beaten Prevost at Sackett's Harbour and who had now superseded Wilkinson, had made his advanced field base at Buffalo. His total force was not much more than Drummond's. But it was all concentrated into a single striking body which possessed the full initiative of manœuvre and attack. On July 3 Brown crossed the Niagara to the Canadian side. The same day he took Fort Erie from its little garrison; and at once began to make it a really formidable work, as the British found out to their cost later on. Next day he advanced down the river road to Street's Creek. On hearing this, General Riall, Drummond's second-in-command, gathered two thousand men and advanced against Brown, who had recommenced his own advance with four thousand. They met on the 5th, between Street's Creek and the Chippawa river. Riall at once sent six hundred men, including all his Indians and militia, against more than twice their number of American militia, who were in a strong position on the island flank. The Canadians went forward in excellent style and the Americans broke and fled in wild confusion. Seizing such an apparently good chance, Riall then attacked the American regulars with his own, though the odds he had to face here were me than three against two. The opposing lines met face to face unflinchingly. The Americans, who had now been trained and disciplined by proper leaders, refused to yield an inch. Their two regular brigadiers, Winfield Scott and Ripley, kept them well in hand, manœuvred their surplus battalions to the best advantage, overlapped the weaker British flank, and won the day. The British loss was five hundred, or one in four: the American four hundred, or only one in ten.
Brown then turned up Riall's flank, by crossing the Chippawa higher up, and prepared for the crowning triumph of crushing Drummond. He proposed a joint attack with Chauncey on Forts Niagara and George. But Chauncey happened to be ill at the time; he had not yet defeated Yeo; and he strongly resented being made apparently subordinate to Brown. So the proposed combination failed at the critical moment. But, for the eighteen days between the battle of Chippawa on the 5th of July and Brown's receipt of Chauncey's refusal on the 23rd, the Americans carried all before them, right up to the British line that ran along the western end of Lake Ontario, from Fort Niagara to Burlington. During this period no great operations took place. But two minor incidents served to exasperate feelings on both sides. Eight Canadian traitors were tried and hanged at Ancaster near Burlington; and Loyalists openly expressed their regret that Willcocks and others had escaped the same fate. Willcocks had been the ringleader of the parliamentary opposition to Brock in 1812; and had afterwards been exceedingly active on the American side, harrying every Loyalist he and his raiders could lay their hands on. He ended by cheating the gallows, after all, as he fell in a skirmish towards the end of the present campaign on the Niagara frontier. The other exasperating incident was the burning of St Davids on July 19th by a Colonel Stone; partly because it was a 'Tory village' and partly because the American militia mistakenly thought that one of their officers, Brigadier-General Swift, had been killed by the prisoner to whom he had given quarter.
When, on the 23rd of July, Brown at last received Chauncey's disappointing answer, he immediately stopped manœuvring along the lower Niagara and prepared to execute an alternative plan of marching diagonally across the Niagara peninsula straight for the British position at Burlington. To do this he concentrated at the Chippawa on the 24th. But by the time he was ready to put his plan into action, on the morning of the 25th, he found himself in close touch with the British in his immediate front. Their advanced guard of a thousand men, under colonel Pearson, had just taken post at Lundy's Lane, near the Falls. Their main body, under Riall, was clearing both banks of the lower Niagara. And Drummond himself had just arrived at Fort Niagara. Neither side knew the intentions of the other. But as the British were clearing the whole country up to the Falls, and as the Americans were bent on striking diagonally inland from a point beside the Falls, it inevitably happened that each met the other at Lundy's Lane, which runs inland from the Canadian side of the Falls, at right angles to the river, and therefore between the two opposing armies.
When Drummond, hurrying across from York, landed at Fort Niagara in the early morning of the fateful 25th, he found that the orders he had sent over on the 23rd were already being carried out, though in a slightly modified form. Colonel Tucker was marching off from Fort Niagara to Lewiston, which he took without opposition. Then, first making sure that the heights beyond were also clear, he crossed over the Niagara to Queenston, where his men had dinner with those who had marched up on the Canadian side from Fort George. Immediately after dinner half the total sixteen hundred present marched back to garrison Forts George and Niagara, while the other half marched forward, up-stream, on the Canadian side, with Drummond, towards Lundy's Lane, whither Riall had preceded them with reinforcements for the advanced guard under Colonel Pearson. In the meantime Brown had heard about the taking of Lewiston, and, fearing that the British might take Fort Schlosser too, had at once given up all idea of his diagonal march on Burlington and had decided to advance straight against Queenston instead. Thus both the American and the British main bodies were marching on Lundy's Lane from opposite sides and in successive detachments throughout that long, intensely hot, midsummer afternoon.
Presently Riall got a report saying that the Americans were advancing in one massed force instead of in successive detachments. He thereupon ordered Pearson to retire from Lundy's Lane to Queenston, sent back orders that Colonel Hercules Scott, who was marching up twelve hundred men from near St Catharine's on Twelve Mile Creek, was also to go to Queenston, and reported both these changes to Drummond, who was hurrying along the Queenston road towards Lundy's Lane as fast as he could. While the orderly officers were galloping back to Drummond and Hercules Scott, and while Pearson was getting his men into their order of march, Winfield Scott's brigade of American regulars suddenly appeared on the Chippawa road, deployed for attack, and halted. There was a pause on both sides. Winfield Scott thought he might have Drummond's whole force in front of him. Riall thought he was faced by the whole of Brown's. But Winfield Scott, presently realizing that Pearson was unsupported, resumed his advance; while Pearson and Riall, not realizing that Winfield Scott was himself unsupported for the time being, immediately began to retire.
At this precise moment Drummond dashed up and drew rein. There was not a minute to lose. The leading Americans were coming on in excellent order, only a musket-shot away; Pearson's thousand were just in the act of giving up the key to the whole position; and Drummond's eight hundred were plodding along a mile or so in rear. But within that fleeting minute Drummond made the plan that brought on the most desperately contested battle of the war. He ordered Pearson's thousand back again. He brought his own eight hundred forward at full speed. He sent post-haste to Colonel Scott to change once more and march on Lundy's Lane. And so, by the time the astonished Americans were about to seize the key themselves, they found him ready to defend it.
Too long for a hillock, too low for a hill, this key to the whole position in that stern fight has never had a special name. But it may well be known as Battle Rise. It stood a mile from the Niagara river, and just a step inland beyond the crossing of two roads. One of these, Lundy's Lane, ran lengthwise over it, at right angles to the Niagara. The other, which did not quite touch it, ran in the same direction as the river, all the way from Fort Erie to Fort George, and, of course, through both Chippawa and Queenston. The crest of Battle Rise was a few yards on the Chippawa side of Lundy's Lane; and there Drummond placed his seven field-guns. Round these guns the thickest of the battle raged, from first to last. The odds were four thousand Americans against three thousand British, altogether. But the British were in superior force at first; and neither side had its full total in action at any one time, as casualties and reinforcements kept the numbers fluctuating.
It was past six in the evening of that stifling 25th of July when Winfield Scott attacked with the utmost steadiness and gallantry. Though the British outnumbered his splendid brigade, and though they had the choice of ground as well, he still succeeded in driving a wedge through their left flank, a move which threatened to break them away from the road along the river. But they retired in good order, re-formed, and then drove out his wedge.
By half-past seven the American army had all come into action, and Drummond was having hard work to hold his own. Brown, like Winfield Scott, at once saw the supreme importance of taking Battle Rise; so he sent two complete battalions against it, one of regulars leading, the other, of militia, in support. At the first salvo from Drummond's seven guns the American militia broke and ran away. But Colonel Miller worked some of the American regulars very cleverly along the far side of a creeper-covered fence, while the rest engaged the battery from a distance. In the heat of action the British artillerymen never saw their real danger till, on a given signal, Miller's advanced party all sprang up and fired a point-blank volley which killed or wounded every man beside the guns. Then Miller charged and took the battery. But he only held it for a moment. The British centre charged up their own side of Battle Rise and drove the intruders back, after a terrific struggle with the bayonet. But again success was only for the moment. The Americans rallied and pressed the British back. The British then rallied and returned. And so the desperate fight swayed back and forth across the coveted position; till finally both sides retired exhausted, and the guns stood dumb between them.
It was now pitch-dark, and the lull that followed seemed almost like the end of the fight. But, after a considerable pause, the Americans—all regulars this time—came on once more. This put the British in the greatest danger. Drummond had lost nearly a third of his men. The effective American regulars were little less than double his present twelve hundred effectives of all kinds and were the fresher army of the two. Miller had taken one of the guns from Battle Rise. The other six could not be served against close-quarter musketry; and the nearest Americans were actually resting between the cross-roads and the deserted Rise. Defeat looked certain for the British. But, just as the attackers and defenders began to stir again, Colonel Hercules Scott's twelve hundred weary reinforcements came plodding along the Queenston road, wheeled round the corner into Lundy's Lane, and stumbled in among these nearest Americans, who, being the more expectant of the two, drove them back in confusion. The officers, however, rallied the men at once. Drummond told off eight hundred of them, including three hundred militia, to the reserve; prolonged his line to the right with the rest; and thus re-established the defence.
Hardly had the new arrivals taken breath before the final assault began. Again the Americans took the silent battery. Again the British drove them back. Again the opposing lines swayed to and fro across the deadly crest of Battle Rise, with nothing else to guide them through the hot, black night but their own flaming musketry. The Americans could not have been more gallant and persistent in attack: the British could not have been more steadfast in defence. Midnight came; but neither side could keep its hold on Battle Rise. By this time Drummond was wounded; and Riall was both wounded and a prisoner. Among the Americans Brown and Winfield Scott were also wounded, while their men were worn out after being under arms for nearly eighteen hours. A pause of sheer exhaustion followed. Then, slowly and sullenly, as if they knew the one more charge they could not make must carry home, the foiled Americans turned back and felt their way to Chippawa.
The British ranks lay down in the same order as that in which they fought; and a deep hush fell over the whole, black-shrouded battlefield. The immemorial voice of those dread Falls to which no combatant gave heed for six long hours of mortal strife was heard once more. But near at hand there was no other sound than that which came from the whispered queries of a few tired officers on duty; from the busy orderlies and surgeons at their work of mercy; and from the wounded moaning in their pain. So passed the quiet half of that short, momentous, summer night. Within four hours the sun shone down on the living and the dead—on that silent battery whose gunners had fallen to a man—on the unconquered Rise.
The tide of war along the Niagara frontier favoured neither side for some time after Lundy's Lane, though the Americans twice appeared to be regaining the initiative. On August 15 there was a well-earned American victory at Fort Erie, where Drummond's assault was beaten off with great loss to the British. A month later an American sortie was repulsed. On September 21 Drummond retired beaten; and on October 13 he found himself again on the defensive at Chippawa, with little more than three thousand men, while Izard, who had come with American reinforcements from Lake Champlain and Sackett's Harbour, was facing him with twice as many. But Yeo's fleet had now come up to the mouth of the Niagara, while Chauncey's had remained at Sackett's Harbour. Thus the British had the priceless advantage of a movable naval base at hand, while the Americans had none at all within supporting distance. Every step towards Lake Ontario hampered Izard more and more, while it added corresponding strength to Drummond. An American attempt to work round Drummond's flank, twelve miles inland, was also foiled by a heavy skirmish on October 19 at Cook's Mills; and Izard's definite abandonment of the invasion was announced on November 5 by his blowing up Fort Erie and retiring into winter quarters. This ended the war along the whole Niagara.
The campaign on Lake Ontario was very different. It opened two months earlier. The naval competition consisted rather in building than in fighting. The British built ships in Kingston, the Americans in Sackett's Harbour; and reports of progress soon travelled across the intervening space of less than forty miles. The initiative of combined operations by land and water was undertaken by the British instead of by the Americans. Yeo and Drummond wished to attack Sackett's Harbour with four thousand men. But Prevost said he could spare them only three thousand; whereupon they changed their objective to Oswego, which they took in excellent style, on May 6. The British suffered a serious reverse, though on a very much smaller scale, on May 30, at Sandy Creek, between Oswego and Sackett's Harbour, when a party of marines and bluejackets, sent to cut out some vessels with naval stores for Chauncey, was completely lost, every man being either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
From Lake Ontario down to the sea the Canadian frontier was never seriously threatened; and the only action of any consequence was fought to the south of Montreal in the early spring. On March 30 the Americans made a last inglorious attempt in this direction. Wilkinson started with four thousand men to follow the line of Lake Champlain and the Richelieu river, the same that was tried by Dearborn in 1812 and by Hampton in 1813. At La Colle, only four miles across the frontier, he attacked Major Handcock's post of two hundred men. The result was like a second Chateauguay. Handcock drew in three hundred reinforcements and two gunboats from Isle-aux-Noix. Wilkinson's advanced guard lost its way overnight. In the morning he lacked the resolution to press on, even with his overwhelming numbers; and so, after a part of his army had executed some disjointed manoeuvres, he withdrew the whole and gave up in despair.
From this point of the Canadian frontier to the very end of the five-thousand-mile loop, that is, from Montreal to Mexico, the theatre of operations was directly based upon the sea, where the British Navy was by this time undisputedly supreme. A very few small American men-of-war were still at large, together with a much greater number of privateers. But they had no power whatever even to mitigate the irresistible blockade of the whole coast-line of the United States. American sea-borne commerce simply died away; for no mercantile marine could have any independent life when its trade had to be carried on by a constantly decreasing tonnage; when, too, it could go to sea at all only by furtive evasion, and when it had to take cargo at risks so great that they could not be covered either by insurance or by any attainable profits. The Atlantic being barred by this Great Blockade, and the Pacific being inaccessible, the only practical way left open to American trade was through the British lines by land or sea. Some American seamen shipped in British vessels. Some American ships sailed under British colours. But the chief external American trade was done illicitly, by 'underground,' with the British West Indies and with Canada itself. This was, of course, in direct defiance of the American government, and to the direct detriment of the United States as a nation. It was equally to the direct benefit of the British colonies in general and of Nova Scotia in particular. American harbours had never been so dull. Quebec and Halifax had never been so prosperous. American money was drained away from the warlike South and West and either concentrated in the Northern States—which were opposed to the war—or paid over into British hands.
Nor was this all. The British Navy harried the coast in every convenient quarter and made effective the work of two most important joint attacks, one on Maine, the other on Washington itself. The attack on Maine covered two months, altogether, from July 11 to September 11. It began with the taking of Moose Island by Sir Thomas Hardy, Nelson's old flag-captain at Trafalgar, and ended with the surrender, at Machias, of 'about 100 miles of sea-coast,' together with 'that intermediate tract of country which separates the province of New Brunswick from Lower Canada.' On September 21 Sir John Sherbrooke proclaimed at Halifax the formal annexation of 'all the eastern side of the Penobscot river and all the country lying between the same river and the boundary of New Brunswick.'
The attack on Maine was meant, in one sense at least, to create a partial counterpoise to the American preponderance on Lake Erie. The attack on Washington was made in retaliation for the burning of the old and new capitals of Upper Canada, Newark and York.
The naval defence of Washington had been committed to Commodore Barney, a most expert and gallant veteran of the Revolution, who handled his wholly inadequate little force with consummate skill and daring, both afloat and ashore. He was not, strictly speaking, a naval officer, but a privateersman who had made the unique record of taking eleven prizes in ten consecutive days with his famous Baltimore schooner Rossie. The military defence was committed to General Winder, one of the two generals captured by Harvey's '704 firelocks' at Stoney Creek the year before. Winder was a good soldier and did his best in the seven weeks at his disposal. But the American government, which had now enjoyed continuous party power for no less than thirteen years, gave him no more than four hundred regulars, backed by Barney's four hundred excellent seamen and the usual array of militia, with whom to defend the capital in the third campaign of a war they had themselves declared. There were 93,500 militiamen within the threatened area. But only fifteen thousand were got under arms; and only five thousand were brought into action.
In the middle of August the British fleet under Admirals Cochrane and Cockburn sailed into Chesapeake Bay with a detachment of four thousand troops commanded by General Ross. Barney had no choice but to retire before this overwhelming force. As the British advanced up the narrowing waters all chance of escape disappeared; so Barney burnt his boats and little vessels and marched his seamen in to join Winder's army. On August 24 Winder's whole six thousand drew up in an exceedingly strong position at Bladensburg, just north of Washington; and the President rode out with his Cabinet to see a battle which is best described by its derisive title of the Bladensburg Races. Ross's four thousand came on and were received by an accurate checking fire from the regular artillery and from Barney's seamen gunners. But a total loss of 8 killed and 11 wounded was more than the 5,000 American militia could stand. All the rest ran for dear life. The deserted handful of regular soldiers and sailors was then overpowered; while Barney was severely wounded and taken prisoner. He and they, however, had saved their honour and won the respect and admiration of both friend and foe. Ross and Cockburn at once congratulated him on the stand he had made against them; and he, with equal magnanimity, reported officially that the British had treated him 'just like a brother.'
That night the little British army of four thousand men burnt governmental Washington, the capital of a country with eight millions of people. Not a man, not a woman, not a child, was in any way molested; nor was one finger laid on any private property. The four thousand then marched back to the fleet, through an area inhabited by 93,500 militiamen on paper, without having so much as a single musket fired at them.
Now, if ever, was Prevost's golden opportunity to end the war with a victory that would turn the scale decisively in favour of the British cause. With the one exception of Lake Erie, the British had the upper hand over the whole five thousand miles of front. A successful British counter-invasion, across the Montreal frontier, would offset the American hold on Lake Erie, ensure the control of Lake Champlain, and thus bring all the scattered parts of the campaign into their proper relation to a central, crowning triumph.
On the other hand, defeat would mean disaster. But the bare possibility of defeat seemed quite absurd when Prevost set out from his field headquarters opposite Montreal, between La Prairie and Chambly, with eleven thousand seasoned veterans, mostly 'Peninsulars,' to attack Plattsburg, which was no more than twenty-five miles across the frontier, very weakly fortified, and garrisoned only by the fifteen hundred regulars whom Izard had 'culled out' when he started for Niagara.
The naval odds were not so favourable. But, as they could be decisively affected by military action, they naturally depended on Prevost, who, with his overwhelming army, could turn them whichever way he chose. It was true that Commodore Macdonough's American flotilla had more trained seamen than Captain Downie's corresponding British force, and that his crews and vessels possessed the further advantage of having worked together for some time. Downie, a brave and skilful young officer, had arrived to take command of his flotilla at the upper end of Lake Champlain only on September 2, that is, exactly a week before Prevost urged him to attack, and nine days before the battle actually did take place. He had a fair proportion of trained seamen; but they consisted of scratch drafts from different men-of-war, chosen in haste and hurried to the front. Most of the men and officers were complete strangers to one another; and they made such short-handed crews that some soldiers had to be wheeled out of the line of march and put on board at the very last minute. There would have been grave difficulties with such a flotilla under any circumstances. But Prevost had increased them tenfold by giving no orders and making no preparations while trying his hand at another abortive armistice—one, moreover, which he had no authority even to propose.
Yet, in spite of all this, Prevost still had the means of making Downie superior to Macdonough. Macdonough's vessels were mostly armed with carronades, Downie's with long guns. Carronades fired masses of small projectiles with great effect at very short ranges. Long guns, on the other hand, fired each a single large projectile up to the farthest ranges known. In fact, it was almost as if the Americans had been armed with shot-guns and the British armed with rifles. Therefore the Americans had an overwhelming advantage at close quarters, while the British had a corresponding advantage at long range. Now, Macdonough had anchored in an ideal position for close action inside Plattsburg Bay. He required only a few men to look after his ground tackle; 1 and his springs 2 were out on the landward side for 'winding ship,' that is, for turning his vessels completely round, so as to bring their fresh broadsides into action. There was no sea-room for manoeuvring round him with any chance of success; so the British would be at a great disadvantage while standing in to the attack, first because they could be raked end-on, next because they could only reply with bow fire—the weakest of all—and, lastly, because their best men would be engaged with the sails and anchors while their ships were taking station.
But Prevost had it fully in his power to prevent Macdonough from fighting in such an ideal position at all. Macdonough's American flotilla was well within range of Macomb's long-range American land batteries; while Prevost's overwhelming British army was easily able to take these land batteries, turn their guns on Macdonough's helpless vessels—whose short-range carronades could not possibly reply—and so either destroy the American flotilla at anchor in the bay or force it out into the open lake, where it would meet Downie's long-range guns at the greatest disadvantage. Prevost, after allowing for all other duties, had at least seven thousand veterans for an assault on Macomb's second-rate regulars and ordinary militia, both of whom together amounted at most to thirty-five hundred, including local militiamen who had come in to reinforce the 'culls' whom Izard had left behind. The Americans, though working with very creditable zeal, determined to do their best, quite expected to be beaten out of their little forts and entrenchments, which were just across the fordable Saranac in front of Prevost's army. They had tried to delay the British advance. But, in the words of Macomb's own official report, 'so undaunted was the enemy that he never deployed in his whole march, always pressing on in column'; that is, the British veterans simply brushed the Americans aside without deigning to change from their column of march into a line of battle. Prevost's duty was therefore perfectly plain. With all the odds in his favour ashore, and with the power of changing the odds in his favour afloat, he ought to have captured Macomb's position in the early morning and turned both his own and Macomb's artillery on Macdonough, who would then have been forced to leave his moorings for the open lake, where Downie would have had eight hours of daylight to fight him at long range.
What Prevost actually did was something disgracefully different. Having first wasted time by his attempted armistice, and so hindered preparations at the base, between La Prairie and Chambly, he next proceeded to cross the frontier too soon. He reported home that Downie could not be ready before September 15. But on August 31 he crossed the line himself, only twenty-five miles from his objective, thus prematurely showing the enemy his hand. Then he began to goad the unhappy Downie to his doom. Downie's flagship, the Confiance, named after a French prize which Yeo had taken, was launched only on August 25, and hauled out into the stream only on September 7. Her scratch crew could not go to battle quarters till the 8th; and the shipwrights were working madly at her up to the very moment that the first shot was fired in her fatal action on the 11th. Yet Prevost tried to force her into action on the 9th, adding, 'I need not dwell with you on the evils resulting to both services from delay,' and warning Downie that he was being watched: 'Captain Watson is directed to remain at Little Chazy until you are preparing to get under way.'
Thus watched and goaded by the governor-general and commander-in-chief, whose own service was the Army, Downie, a comparative junior in the Navy, put forth his utmost efforts, against his better judgment, to sail that very midnight. A baffling head-wind, however, kept him from working out. He immediately reported to Prevost, giving quite satisfactory reasons. But Prevost wrote back impatiently: 'The troops have been held in readiness, since six o'clock this morning [the 10th], to storm the enemy's works at nearly the same time as the naval action begins in the bay. I ascribe the disappointment I have experienced to the unfortunate change of wind, and shall rejoice to learn that my reasonable expectations have been frustrated by no other cause.' 'No other cause.' The innuendo, even if unintentional, was there. Downie, a junior sailor, was perhaps suspected of 'shyness' by a very senior soldier. Prevost's poison worked quickly. 'I will convince him that the Navy won't be backward,' said Downie to his second, Pring, who gave this evidence, under oath, at the subsequent court-martial. Pring, whose evidence was corroborated by that of both the first lieutenant and the master of the Confiance, then urged the extreme risk of engaging Macdonough inside the bay. But Downie allayed their anxiety by telling them that Prevost had promised to storm Macomb's indefensible works simultaneously. This was not nearly so good as if Prevost had promised to defeat Macomb first and then drive Macdonough out to sea. But it was better, far better, than what actually was done.
With Prevost's written promise in his pocket Downie sailed for Plattsburg in the early morning of that fatal 11th of September. Punctually to the minute he fired his preconcerted signal outside Cumberland Head, which separated the bay from the lake. He next waited exactly the prescribed time, during which he reconnoitred Macdonough's position from a boat. Then the hour of battle came. The hammering of the shipwrights stopped at last; and the ill-starred Confiance, that ship which never had a chance to 'find herself,' led the little squadron into Prevost's death-trap in the bay. Every soldier and sailor now realized that the storming of the works on land ought to have been the first move, and that Prevost's idea of simultaneous action was faulty, because it meant two independent fights, with the chance of a naval disaster preceding the military success. However, Prevost was the commander-in-chief; he had promised co-operation in his own way; and Downie was determined to show him that the Navy had stopped for 'no other cause' than the head-wind of the day before.
Did no other cause than mistaken judgment affect Prevost that fatal morning? Did he intend to show Downie that a commander-in-chief could not suffer the 'disappointment' of 'holding troops in readiness' without marking his displeasure by some visible return in kind? Or was he no worse than criminally weak? His motives will never be known. But his actions throw a sinister light upon them. For when Downie sailed in to the attack Prevost did nothing whatever to help him. Betrayed, traduced, and goaded to his ruin, Downie fought a losing battle with the utmost gallantry and skill. The wind flawed and failed inside the bay, so that the Confiance could not reach her proper station. Yet her first broadside struck down forty men aboard the Saratoga. Then the Saratoga fired her carronades, at point-blank range, cut up the cables aboard the Confiance, and did great execution among the crew. In fifteen minutes Downie fell.
The battle raged two full hours longer; while the odds against the British continued to increase. Four of their little gunboats fought as well as gunboats could. But the other seven simply ran away, like their commander afterwards when summoned for a court-martial that would assuredly have sentenced him to death. Two of the larger vessels failed to come into action properly; one went ashore, the other drifted through the American line and then hauled down her colours. Thus the battle was fought to its dire conclusion by the British Confiance and Linnet against the American Saratoga, Eagle, and Ticonderoga. The gunboats had little to do with the result; though the odds of all those actually engaged were greatly in favour of Macdonough. The fourth American vessel of larger size drifted out of action.
Macdonough, an officer of whom any navy in the world might well be proud, then concentrated on the stricken Confiance with his own Saratoga, greatly aided by the Eagle, which swung round so as to rake the Confiance with her fresh broadside. The Linnet now drifted off a little and so could not help the Confiance, both because the American galleys at once engaged her and because her position was bad in any case. Presently both flagships slackened fire; whereupon Macdonough took the opportunity of winding ship. His ground tackle was in perfect order on the far, or landward, side; so the Saratoga swung round quite easily. The Confiance now had both the Eagle's and the Saratoga's fresh carronade broadsides deluging her battered, cannon-armed broadside with showers of deadly grape. Her one last chance of keeping up a little longer was to wind ship herself. Her tackle had all been cut; but her master got out his last spare cables and tried to bring her round, while some of his toiling men fell dead at every haul. She began to wind round very slowly; and, when exactly at right angles to Macdonough, was raked completely, fore and aft. At the same time an ominous list to port, where her side was torn in over a hundred places, showed that she would sink quickly if her guns could not be run across to starboard. But more than half her mixed scratch crew had been already killed or wounded. The most desperate efforts of her few surviving officers could not prevent the confusion that followed the fearful raking she now received from both her superior opponents; and before her fresh broadside could be brought to bear she was forced to strike her flag. Then every American carronade and gun was turned upon Pring's undaunted little Linnet, which kept up the hopeless fight for fifteen minutes longer; so that Prevost might yet have a chance to carry out his own operations without fear of molestation from a hostile bay.
But Prevost was in no danger of molestation. He was in perfect safety. He watched the destruction of his fleet from his secure headquarters, well inland, marched and countermarched his men about, to make a show of action; and then, as the Linnet fired her last, despairing gun, he told all ranks to go to dinner.
That night he broke camp hurriedly, left all his badly wounded men behind him, and went back a great deal faster than he came. His shamed, disgusted veterans deserted in unprecedented numbers. And Macomb's astounded army found themselves the victors of an unfought field.
The American victory at Plattsburg gave the United States the absolute control of Lake Champlain; and this, reinforcing their similar control of Lake Erie, counterbalanced the British military advantages all along the Canadian frontier. The British command of the sea, the destruction of Washington, and the occupation of Maine told heavily on the other side. These three British advantages had been won while the mother country was fighting with her right hand tied behind her back; and in all the elements of warlike strength the British Empire was vastly superior to the United States. Thus there cannot be the slightest doubt that if the British had been free to continue the war they must have triumphed. But they were not free. Europe was seething with the profound unrest that made her statesmen feel the volcano heaving under their every step during the portentous year between Napoleon's abdication and return. The mighty British Navy, the veteran British Army, could not now be sent across the sea in overwhelming force. So American diplomacy eagerly seized this chance of profiting by British needs, and took such good advantage of them that the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war on Christmas Eve, left the two opponents in much the same position towards each other as before. Neither of the main reasons for which the Americans had fought their three campaigns was even mentioned in the articles.
The war had been an unmitigated curse to the motherland herself; and it brought the usual curses in its train all over the scene of action. But some positive good came out of it as well, both in Canada and in the United States.
The benefits conferred on the United States could not be given in apter words than those used by Gallatin, who, as the finance minister during four presidential terms, saw quite enough of the seamy side to sober his opinions, and who, as a prominent member of the war party, shared the disappointed hopes of his colleagues about the conquest of Canada. His opinion is, of course, that of a partisan. But it contains much truth, for all that:
Gallatin did not, of course, foresee that it would take a third conflict to finish what the Revolution had begun. But this sequel only strengthens his argument. For that Union which was born in the throes of the Revolution had to pass through its tumultuous youth in '1812' before reaching full manhood by means of the Civil War.
The war has been productive of evil and of good; but I think the good preponderates. It has laid the foundations of permanent taxes and military establishments, which the Republicans [as the anti-Federalist Democrats were then called] had deemed unfavorable to the happiness and free institutions of the country. Under our former system we were becoming too selfish, too much attached exclusively to the acquisition of wealth, above all, too much confined in our political feelings to local and state objects. The war has renewed the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening. The people are now more American. They feel and act more as a nation. And I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.
The benefits conferred on Canada were equally permanent and even greater. How Gallatin would have rejoiced to see in the United States any approach to such a financial triumph as that which was won by the Army Bills in Canada! No public measure was ever more successful at the time or more full of promise for the future. But mightier problems than even those of national finance were brought nearer to their desirable solution by this propitious war. It made Ontario what Quebec had long since been—historic ground; thus bringing the older and newer provinces together with one exalting touch. It was also the last, as well as the most convincing, defeat of the three American invasions of Canada. The first had been led by Sir William Phips in 1690. This was long before the Revolution. The American Colonies were then still British and Canada still French. But the invasion itself was distinctively American, in men, ships, money, and design. It was undertaken without the consent or knowledge of the home authorities; and its success would probably have destroyed all chance of there being any British Canada to-day. The second American invasion had been that of Montgomery and Arnold in 1775, during the Revolution, when the very diverse elements of a new Canadian life first began to defend their common heritage against a common foe. The third invasion—the War of 1812—united all these elements once more, just when Canada stood most in need of mutual confidence between them. So there could not have been a better bond of union than the blood then shed so willingly by her different races in a single righteous cause.
1 Anchors and cables.
2 Ropes to hold a vessel in position when hauling or swinging in a harbour. Here, ropes from the stern to the anchors on the landward side.
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