THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (September 7-September 13, 1814) PART I
War on Three Fronts.
September 7, 1814
Sir George Prevost, the governor general of Canada has reached the Saranac River in New York State opposite Plattsburgh, N.Y. Prevost is waiting to coordinate with a Royal Navy force that is sailing down Lake Champlain for a combined operation to drive down the long narrow lake between New York and Vermont and then proceed down the Hudson River Valley all the way to New York City.
The idea is to split off the anti-war states of New England from the rest of the United States while another British force sails up from the Caribbean to attack the U.S. Gulf Coast — particularly New Orleans. Two of the three brigades in Prevost’s command are battle-tested troops from the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal.
While he waits for the navy, Prevost’s 10,000 troops have swept aside small American units aiming to delay his southern march at places like Chazy and Beekmantown. The Americans have been felling trees across roads, burning bridges and changing the direction of signposts as part of their delaying tactics. Once at the Saranac, Prevost deploys his men and builds artillery emplacements to attack the town while awaiting Captain George Downie and his fleet of four ships and 12 gunboats. Some tentative attacks across the Saranac are repulsed by U.S. Army regulars under Major John Wool.
Earlier in the summer, then-Secretary of War John Armstrong (the same guy who said the British wouldn’t bother attacking Washington) orders 4,000 regulars at Plattsburgh to march to Sacketts Harbor on Lake Ontario to protect a vital navy yard and supply center. That leaves Brigadier General Alexander Macomb with about 1,500 troops to defend Plattsburgh. Although they are regulars, many of them are green recruits or recovering from wounds or illness. Macomb calls for militiamen from New York and Vermont to reinforce him. About 2,000 come but many of them are equally untrained and nearly useless. Macomb assigns them to dig trenches and fortifications.
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In early September, Major Zachary Taylor (future Mexican War commander and U.S. President) leads an expedition of 350 U.S. Army regulars and Illinois Territory militia up the Mississippi River to recapture Fort Shelby just outside the village of Prairie du Chien (in what is now Wisconsin) which had fallen to a combined force of 650 Native American warriors and a few British and Canadian troops.
On September 4, Taylor’s force is camped on Credit Island in the Mississippi near present day Davenport, Iowa. Indians under the Sauk leader Black Hawk attack, killing two guards. In addition to the Sauk, the Native American force includes warriors from the Fox, Kickapoo, Winnebago and Sioux tribes. The following morning during a series of skirmishes between Taylor’s troops and the Indians, British canon open fire on the U.S. forces, wounding 11 soldiers and forcing Taylor to withdraw downstream to Fort Cap au Gris near St. Louis, Missouri.
On Sept. 7, Taylor sends militia Captain James Callaway, a grandson of Daniel Boone, with a party of troops to build a fort on a bluff overlooking the east side of the Mississippi near present day Warsaw, Illinois. The outpost is named Fort Johnson. Black Hawk makes plans to harass the Americans again.
Credit Island is the fourth time Black Hawk has thwarted American plans to establish a military presence in the Mississippi Valley. The Americans’ plan is to challenge British control of the fur trade with the Indians. Black Hawk’s previous battles with U.S. forces along the Mississippi were at Fort Madison, Fort Shelby and Rock Island Rapids (see map below).
Taylor and Black Hawk will meet again in battle nearly 20 years later in the Black Hawk War of 1832.
Editor’s Note: The U.S. Army’s UH-60 helicopter is named for Black Hawk
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Captain George Downie, Royal Navy, heads south on Lake Champlain with his fleet of four ships: the 37-gun frigate HMS Confiance, the 16-gun brig Linnet, and two 11-gun sloops, the Chubb and Finch. Downie has also assembled 12 gunboats with a total of 17 guns among them.
Waiting for Downie near Plattsburgh is an American squadron of four ships: the 26-gun corvette (light frigate) Saratoga; the 20-gun brig, Eagle; the 17-gun schooner Ticonderoga and the 7-gun sloop Preble. Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough has also assembled 10 gun boats, some of them rowing galleys, with a combined total of 16 guns.
Both the British at their shipyard at Ile aux Noix, Canada and the Americans at Otter Creek on the Vermont shore, have engaged in an arms race all summer trying to build boats as fast as possible to get naval superiority on the lake. The Americans’ Eagle was completed only a few days before the battle. The British were still doing carpentry and rigging work on the just completed Confiance as it sailed into battle with a shortage of sailors. To make up the shortfall, Downie is using British soldiers who are new to navy ways.
On the night of September 9, a raid across the Saranac River by 50 Americans destroys a British Congreve rocket battery just 500 yards from Fort Brown, one of the three main American fortifications (see map above).
Unfavorable winds keep Downie from attacking the American squadron on September 10. McDonough, the American commander, uses the extra time to drill his crews. While the British have a slight edge in the number of guns and boats they possess. Nearly all the U.S. vessels are equipped with carronades, short range canon that fire heavier projectiles while Downie’s ships have mostly long guns that have a longer range but fire a slightly lighter and less damaging shot.
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The Royal Navy with a huge fleet of bomb ships, rocket battery ships and troop ships sails into the Patapsco River in Maryland, about 8 miles from Baltimore. Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane’s plan is to land the 4,000 soldiers that took Washington at North Point and have them attack Baltimore from the land. At about the same time, the British fleet will bombard Fort McHenry, the guardian of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, into surrender and then attack the city from the sea.
What the British don’t know is that the American commander, Brigadier General Samuel Smith, is a very different man from Major General William Winder, the hapless U.S. commander at Bladensburg. They also are unaware that the citizens of Baltimore — military and civilian, black and white, male and female — are not about to roll over and be put to the torch like Washington.
Troops have been pouring into Baltimore and a massive military engineering project is well underway: digging trenches, gun emplacements and just generally beefing up the city’s fortifications.
NEXT: Battle on Lake Champlain, North Point and Fort McHenry
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, Special Operations, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Unconventional Warfare. Tags: amphibious warfare, Army, Battle of Baltimore, Battle of Lake Champlain, Battle of Plattsburgh, congreve rocket, Fort Johnson 1814, Fort McHenry 1814, Marine Corps, Navy, Topics, War of 1812 Chesapeake Campaign, War of 1812 in Illinois, War of 1812 in Maryland, War of 1812 in Missouri, War of 1812 in New York.