Home Commentary State of Mind: Battle of Plattsburgh Version 09.2022

State of Mind: Battle of Plattsburgh Version 09.2022

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Rumors of war had been circulating for months – on posters, in TV spot ads, and through news releases. In mid-September, the British would once again attempt to take Plattsburgh, New York, just as they had tried to do on Sept. 11, 1814.

My grandson is into military history, and I thought the reenactment would be a great opportunity for him to see two fleets of tall ships under the command of experienced sailors smartly maneuvering for advantage in Cumberland Bay. About 30 warships were involved in the original battle, fairly equally divided between the two forces. This included the 26-gun frigate U.S.S. Saratoga and the 36-gun frigate H.M.S. Confiance, along with brigs, schooners, sloops of war, and gunboats.

As we all remember from fourth grade history class, the Battle of Plattsburgh, along with the successful defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore, were two victories by the United States in the War of 1812. It mattered not that, as part of the campaign to take Baltimore, the British had captured Washington D.C. and burned the White House and the Capitol building. (Lately we prefer to keep destruction of our hallowed seats of government “in house” – no British help necessary.)

We arrived at the reenactment site about 45 minutes early to find it eerily quiet. Unlike 208 years ago, the British were already there. A single “warship,” a wooden surf rescue boat during its former life in New Jersey, was tied up at the dock, a British Union Jack hanging limply from a staff at the stern. This gunboat, named “Insolent,” was about 20 feet in length. A brass “swivel gun,” which is a small-bore cannon attached to a post, was mounted toward the bow. The captain at that moment had a crew of . . .  one. Both were dressed in modern garb and moped around the dock awaiting the arrival of other crew members. 

With 30 minutes to go before the reenactment, there were no American warships in sight. We scanned the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of a proud American tall ship beating its way across the bay. 

As our concerns began to rise that perhaps our forces had capitulated without a shot being fired and New York would fall back into British hands, a white Toyota Highlander towing a trailer approached the boat ramp. Dressed in period uniforms, the crew jumped out and prepared to launch the wooden boat on the trailer. 

They smartly deployed the bow and stern lines off the starboard side, and the driver of the Highlander, who was the captain, backed the trailer down the launch ramp. Just before the trailer entered the water, however, the captain’s wife pointed out to him that the crew members holding the lines seemed to be on the wrong side of the boat. 

Exasperated, the captain slammed the Highlander into drive and screeched back up the ramp, barking orders to his crew to throw the lines over to the port side and reposition themselves so that when the boat floated free of the trailer, they would be standing on the dock rather than chest deep in the lake.

After more general confusion, the “de Sager,” as it was named, finally reached the water and floated along the dock. The de Sager was a gunboat roughly the same length as the Insolent. The captain placed a flag on a staff at the port gunwale that had the words “Free Trade and Sailors Rights,” which as we all remember were the two major issues that led to the War of 1812. I guess in 1814 those were inspirational “fightin’ words.”

Now the de Sager was ready for battle — except that the captain had forgotten the key to the “powder magazine,” which was a World War II steel ammunition box sitting under a thwart seat. A crew member had to be dispatched back to the captain’s tent to retrieve it. 

With key in hand, the battle was joined, and consisted of the captains of the two gunboats competing to see who was faster at bailing the water that was seeping into the boats as they sat at the dock. 

The crew of the Insolent futilely fiddled with the wiring of an electric sump pump covertly placed under a seat, with the captain telling onlookers that if a boat didn’t leak, it wasn’t a wooden boat. He ignored any questions about electric pumps being available in 1814.

The captain of the de Sager had a modern, manually operated suction bailer and, given his age and weight, probably risked heart failure as he rapidly pumped the water out of his bilge. He then turned his attention to a demonstration of his swivel gun, describing all the steps required to fire such a weapon in a battle. 

The report of the first shot startled an osprey from its perch in a cottonwood tree nearby as gray gunsmoke drifted slowly across the bay toward condominiums on the far shore. Some residents of the condos no doubt were just as startled, as 1814 intruded on their quiet Saturday morning.

By the time a third gunboat boat arrived, also American, and could be launched, it was time for the parade downtown, so we, like the rest of the onlookers, wandered away, leaving the sailors alone to continue preparing their boats. 

We returned to the reenactment site that afternoon, when another attempt at battle was scheduled. The three gunboats were still listlessly floating at the dock while, in the fog of war, the crews discussed whether they would row out and “shoot” at each other or join forces to “bombard” American infantry positions on a low bluff above the bay.

We headed back to the safety of Vermont before any decision was made.

As Gen. William T. Sherman pointed out, “War is Hell.” So too, apparently, is reenacting war.