Theodore Roosevelt. "Naval Battle at Plattsburgh, 1814." Section in The Naval War of 1812 213-219.
|USA Macdonough's Squadron:|
|6 gun boats||420||246||252|
|4 gun boats||160||104||48|
British Downie's Squadron:
Macdonough saw that the British would be forced to make the attack in order to get the control of the waters. On this long, narrow lake the winds usually blow pretty nearly north or south, and the set of the current is of course northward; all the vessels, being flat and shallow, could not beat to windward well, so there was little chance of the British making the attack when there was a southerly wind blowing. So late in the season there was danger of sudden and furious gales, which would make it risky for Downie to wait outside the bay till the wind suited him; and inside the bay the wind was pretty sure to be light and baffling. Young Macdonough (then but 28 years of age) calculated all these chances very coolly and decided to await the attack at anchor in Plattsburg Bay, with the head of his line so far to the north that it could hardly be turned; and then proceeded to make all the other preparations with the same foresight. Not only were his vessels provided with springs, but also with anchors to be used astern in any emergency. The "Saratoga" was further prepared for a change of wind, or for the necessity of winding ship, by having a kedge planted broad off on each of her bows, with a hawser and preventer hawser (hanging in bights under water) leading from each quarter to the kedge on that side. There had not been time to train the men thoroughly at the guns; and to make these produce their full effect the constant supervision of the officers had to be exerted. The British were laboring under this same disadvantage, but neither side felt the want very much, as the smooth water, stationary position of the ships, and fair range, made the fire of both sides very destructive.
Plattsburgh Bay is deep and opens to the southward; so that a wind which would enable the British to sail up the lake would force them to beat when entering the bay. The east side of the mouth of the bay is formed by Cumberland Head; the entrance is about a mile and a half across, and the other boundary, southwest from the Head, is and extensive shoal, and a small, low island. This is called Crab Island, and on it was a hospital and one six-pounder gun, which was to be manned in case of necessity by the strongest patients. MacDonough had anchored in a north and south line a little to the south of the outlet of the Saranac, and out of range of the shore batteries, being two miles from the western shore. The head of his line was so near Cumberland Head that an attempt to turn it would place the opponent under a very heavy fire, while to the south the shoal prevented a flank attack. The "Eagle"; Capt Henly and his eight 18lb long guns and twelve 32 lb carronades, lay to the north, flanked on each side by a couple of gun-boats, then came the "Saratoga"; carrying eight long 24lbers, six 42 and 12 32lb carronades. with three gun-boats between her and the schooner "Ticonderoga" the next in line; Lt. Comm Cassin with eight 12 lb long guns, four 18 lb long guns and five 32lb carronades, then came three gun-boats and the sloop "Preble"; Lt Budd, mounting seven 9lb long guns. The four large vessels were at anchor; the galleys being under their sweeps and forming a second line about 40 yards back, some of them keeping their places and some not doing so. By this arrangement his line could not be doubled upon, there was not room to anchor on his broadside out of reach of his carronades, and the enemy was forced to attack him by standing in bows on.
The morning of Sept 11th opened with a light breeze from the north east. Downie's fleet weighed anchor at daylight, and came down the lake with the wind nearly aft, the booms of the two sloops swinging out to starboard. At half-past seven, the people in the ships could see their adversaries' upper sails across the narrow strip of land ending in Cumberland Head, before the British doubled the latter. Capt Downie hove to with his four large vessels when he had fairly opened the Bay, and waited for his galleys to overtake him. Then his four vessels filled on the starboard tack and headed for the American line, going abreast, the "Chubb" to the north, heading well to windward of the "Eagle", for whose bows the "Linnet" was headed, while the "Confiance" was to be laid athwart the hawse of the "Saratoga"; the "Finch" was to leeward with the twelve gun-boats, and was to engage the rear of the American Line.
As the English squadron stood bravely in, young Macdonough, who feared his foes not at all, but his God a great deal, knelt for a moment, with his officers, on the quarter-deck, and then ensued a few minutes of perfect quiet, the men willing with grim expectancy for the opening of the fight. The "Eagle" soke first with her long 18's, but to no effect, for the shot fell shore. Then, as the "Linnet" passed the "Saratoga", she fired her broadside of long 12's, but her shot also fell short, except one that struck a hen-coop which happened to be aboard the 'Saratoga". There was a game cock inside, and instead of being frightened at his sudden release, he jumped up on a gun-slide, clapped his wings, and crowed lustily. The men laughed and cheered; and immediately afterward Macdonough himself fired the first shot from one of the long guns. The 24 lb ball struck the "Confiance" near the hawse hole and ranged the length of her deck, killing and wounding several men. All the American long guns now opened and were replied to by the British galleys.
The "Confiance" stood steadily on without replying. But she was baffled by shifting winds, and was soon so cut up, having both her port bow-anchors shot away, and suffering much loss, that she obliged to port her helm and come to while nearly a quarter of a mile distant from the "Saratoga". Capt. Downie came to anchor in grand style, - securing every thing carefully before he fired a gun, and then opening with a terribly destructive broadside. The "Chubb" and "Linnet" stood farther in, and anchored forward the "Eagle's beam. Meanwhile the "Finch" go abreast of the "Ticonderoga", under her sweeps, supported by the gun-boats. The main fighting was thus to take place between the vans, where the "Eagle", "Saratoga", and six or seven gun-boats were engaged with the "Chubb", "Linnet", "Confiance", and two or three gun-boats; while in the rear, the "Ticonderoga", the "Preble", and the other American galleys engaged the "Finch" and the remaining nine or ten English galleys. The battle at the foot of the line was fought on the part of the Americans to prevent their flank being turned, and on the part of the British to effect that object. At first the fighting was at long range, but gradually the British galleys closed up, firing very well. The American galleys at this end of the line were chiefly the small ones, armed with one 12 lber apiece, and they by degrees drew back before the heavy fire of their opponents. About an hour after the discharge of the first gun had been fired the "Finch' closed up toward the "Ticonderoga", and was completely crippled by a couple of broadsides from the latter. She drifted helplessly down the line and grounded near Crab Island, some of the convalescent patients manned the six-pounder and fired a shot or two at her, when she struck, nearly half of her crew being killed or wounded.
About the same time the british gun-boats forced the "Preble" out of line, whereupon she cut her cable and drifted inshore out of the fight. Two or three of the British gun-boats had already been sufficiently damaged by some of the shot from the "Ticonderoga's" long guns to make them wary; and the contest at this part of the line narrowed down to one between the American schooner and the remaining British gun-boats; who combined to make a most determined attack upon her. So hastily had the squadron been fitted out that many of the matches for her guns were at the last moment found to be defective. The captain of one of the divisions was a midshipman, but sixteen years old, Hiram Paulding. When he found the matches to be bad he fired the guns of his section by having pistols flashed at them, and continued this through the whole fight. The "Ticonderoga's" commander, Lt. Cassin, fought his schooner most nobly. He kept waling the taffrail amidst showers of musketry and grape, coolly watching the movements of the galleys and directing the guns to be loaded with canister and bags of bullets, when the enemy tried to board. The British galleys were handled with determined gallantry, under the command of Lt. Bell. had they driven off the "Ticonderoga" they would have won the day for their side, and they pushed up till they were not a boat-hook's length distant, to try to carry her by boarding, but every attempt was repulsed and they were forced to draw off, some of them so crippled by the slaughter they had suffered that they could hardly man the oars.
Meanwhile the fighting at the head of the line had been even fiercer. The first broadside of the "Confiance", fired from 16 long 24's, double shotted, coolly sighted, in smooth water, at point-blank range, produced the most terrible effect on the "Saratoga". Her hull shivered all over with the shock, and when the crash subsided nearly half of her people were seen stretched on the deck, for many had been knocked down who were not seriously hurt. Among the slain was her first Lt. Gamble; he was kneeling down to sight the bow-gun, when a shot entered the port, split the quoin, and drove a portion of it against his side, killing him without breaking the skin. The survivors carried on the fight with undiminished energy. Macdonough himself worked like a common sailor, in pointing and handling a favorite gun. While bending over to sight it a round shot cut in two the spanker boom, which fell on his head and struck him senseless for two or three minutes; he then leaped to his feet and continued as before, when a shot took off the head of the captain of the gun and drove it in his face with such a force as to knock him to the other side of the deck. But after the first broadside not so much injury was done; the guns of the "Confiance" had been levelled to point-blank range, and as the quoins were loosened by the successive discharges they were not properly replaced, so that her broadsides kept going higher and higher and doing less and less damage. Very shortly after the beginning of the action her gallant captain was slain (Downie). He was standing behind one of the long guns when a shot from the "Saratoga" struck it and threw it completely off the carriage against his right groin, killing him almost instantly. His skin was not broken; a black mark, about the size of a small plate, was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with its hands pointing to the very second at which he received the fatal blow. As the contest went on the fire gradually decreased in weight, the guns being disabled. The inexperience of both crews partly caused this. The American sailors overloaded their carronades so as to very much destroy the effect of their fire, when the officers became disabled, the men would cram the guns with shot till the last projected from the muzzle. Of course, this lessened the execution, and also gradually crippled the guns. On board the "Confiance" the confusion was even worse: after the battle the charges of the guns were drawn, and on the side she had fought one was found with a canvas bag containing two round of shot rammed home and wadded without any powder, another with two cartridges and no shot, and a third with a wad below the cartridge.
As the extreme head of the line the advantage had been with the British. The "Chubb" and "Linnet" had begun a brisk engagement with the "Eagle" and American gun-boats. In a short time the "Chubb" had her cable, bowsprit, and main-boom shot away, drifted within the American lines, and was taken possession of by one of the "Saratoga's" midshipmen. The "Linnet" paid no attention to the American gun-boats, directing her whole fire against the "Eagle", and the latter was, in addition, exposed to part of the fire of the "Confiance". After keeping up a heavy fire for a long time her springs were shot away, and she came up into the wind, hanging so that she could not return a shot to the well-directed broadsides of the "Linnet". Henly accordingly cut his cable, started home his top-sails, ran down, and anchored by the stern between and inshore of the "Confiance" and "Ticonderoga", from which position he opened on the "Confiance". The "Linnet" now directed her attention to the American gun-boats, which at this end of the line were very well fought, but she soon drove them off, and then sprung her broadside so as to rake the "Saratoga" on her bows.
MacDonough by this time had his hands full, and his fire was slackening; he was bearing the whole brunt of the action, with the frigate on his beam and the brig raking him. Twice his ship had been set on fire by the hot shot of the "Confiance; one by one his long guns were disabled by shot, and his carronades were either treated the same way or else rendered useless by excessive overcharging. Finally but a single Carronade was left in the starboard batteries, and on firing it the naval bolt broke, the gun flew off the carriage and fell down the main hatch, leaving the Commodore without a single gun to oppose the few the "Confiance" still presented. The battle would have been lost had not Macdonough's foresight provided the means of retrieving it. The anchor suspended astern of the "Saratoga" was let go, and the men hauled in on the hawser that led to the starboard quarter, bringing the ship's stern up over the kedge. The ship now rode by the kedge and by a line that had been bent to a bight in the stream cable, and she was raked badly by the accurate fire of the "Linnet". By rousing on the line the ship was at length got so far round that the aftermost gun of the port broadside bore on the "Confiance". The men had been sent forward to keep as much out of harm's way as possible, and now some were at once called back to man the piece, which then opened with effect. The next gun was treated in the same manner; but the ship now hung and would go no farther round. The hawser leading from the port quarter was then got forward under the bows and passed aft to the starboard quarter, and a minute afterward the ship's whole port battery opened with fatal effect. The "Confiance" meanwhile had also attempted to round. Her springs, like those of the "Linnet", were on the starboard side, and so of course could not be shot away as the "Eagle's" were; but as she had nothing but springs to rely on, her efforts did little beyond forcing her forward, and she hung with her head to the wind. She had lost over half of her crew, most of her guns on the engaged side were dismounted, and her stout masts had been splintered till they looked like bundles of matches, her sails had been torn to rags, and she was forced to strike, about two hours after she had fired the first broadside. Without pausing a minute the "Saratoga" again hauled on her starboard hawser till her broadside was sprung to bear on the "Linnet", and the ship and brig began a brisk fight, which the "Eagle" from her position could take no part in, while the "Ticonderoga" was just finishing up the British galleys. The shattered and disabled state of the "Linnet's" masts, sails, and yards precluded the most distant hope of Capt. Pring's effecting his escape by cutting his cable; but he kept up a most gallant fight with his greatly superior foe, in hopes that some of the gun-boats would come and tow him off, and dispatched a lieutenant to the "Confiance" to ascertain her state. The lieutenant returned with news of Capt. Downie's death, while the British gun-boats had been driven half a mile off; and after having maintained the fight single handed for fifteen minutes, until from the number of shot between wind and water, the water had risen a foot above her lower deck, the plucky little brig hauled down her colors, and the fight ended, a little over two hours and a half after the first gun had been fired.
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