The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle. . – book review
Dr. Samuel Watson
The Final Invasion: Plattsburgh, the War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle. By David G. Fitz-Enz. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2001. 271 pages. $28.95.
This September 11th, as for more than a hundred years, the inhabitants of Plattsburgh, New York, will commemorate a battle Arthur Thayer Mahan labeled “one of the most decisive in American history.” David Fitz-Enz draws a compelling picture of the British invasion of upstate New York in September 1814, which culminated in their defeat that day. Fitz-Enz provides the first modem history of this campaign, a story not without lessons for today.
Nearly 200 years ago, today’s closest ally threatened to dismember the fledgling American union. Though historians have never been able to conclusively establish British intentions in 1814, it is certain that successful British operations against Plattsburgh (and thence toward Albany) and New Orleans, combined with their occupation of much of Maine and the extensive support for autonomy or disunion by New England Federalists, would have altered the peace terms from those–the status quo antebellum–ultimately embodied in the Peace of Ghent. This could have enabled the British to create the Indian confederacy they sought as a buffer north and west of the Ohio River, curtailing US expansion westward (one of the principal gains enabled by the war). The advance down Lake Champlain, rather than operations near Niagara or along the Atlantic seaboard, was intended as the primary offensive. (Why this was so is less clear, given the wilderness the British would have to advance through.)
The Final Invasion starts with a concise synopsis of the war through mid-1814, weaving together political, social, and economic context at the local, national, and international levels. Fitz-Enz demonstrates the limited national feeling among many Americans in the regions bordering Canada, which enabled the British to rely on American smugglers for the logistical margin necessary to their operations. Commanding an army of 15,000 Napoleonic veterans, the strongest field force concentrated at one point on the American continent since 1776, Sir George Prevost, the British combatant commander for Canada, knew that the public expected him to take the offensive before winter set in. Yet a limited road network and dense wilderness terrain ultimately forced the British to depend on naval transport to supply their advance, making the destruction of the American flotilla under Commodore Thomas Macdonough essential to their success. Prevost’s flotilla was powerfully armed but composed of barely finished ships with poorl y trained crews drawn largely from army units. The naval commander, chosen for his aggressiveness, was new to Lake Champlain, knew nothing of its winds, and failed to reconnoiter the American position. His plan fell apart when the winds calmed, making it impossible for him to maneuver to concentrate his firepower against individual American vessels. (His desire to do so seems to have led him into American gun range, despite having a significant advantage therein.) The Americans also had built their ships quickly and crewed them with a mix of soldiers, sailors, guardhouse prisoners, and bandsmen. Yet Macdonough had prepared for the battle by anchoring his vessels in such a way that when crippled along one broadside they could be pivoted about to employ the other one, something the British found impossible to do.
The battle quickly turned to “battering at close range” (one of the author’s many expressive section titles), with one-sixth of the main American vessel’s crew killed or wounded by the first British salvo. The British lost the wheel of their main vessel, their commander, and a quarter of their force slain. Nearly every man on both sides was wounded, and none of the eight primary vessels remained capable of unaided motion. Yet the Americans scored twice as many hits as they took, largely because their officers (particularly Macdonough) were able to resight their guns, while the British guns fired a little higher with each shot due to the accumulated effects of recoil. When Macdonough turned his undamaged broadside to face his crippled opponent, the British were unable to continue.
Prevost was a cautious commander, used to being on the defensive, whose instructions warned against “being cut off by too extended a line of advance,” as had occurred at Saratoga. Looking ahead to winter, feeling that a ground attack would be fruitless without the naval transport to sustain a further advance, and assuming that he could build another flotilla to resume the offensive in 1815, Prevost ordered his army to withdraw, despite a superiority of at least three to one, odds that would nearly guarantee an attacker’s victory in 1814. There was therefore no true land battle at Plattsburgh, though Fitz-Enz fully describes land operations and the skirmishing that did occur. Prevost was much criticized for his withdrawal, although Fitz-Enz quotes the Duke of Wellington’s praise for Prevost’s humanitarianism and understanding of logistical constraints. Indeed, the many scholars who criticize the American effort in this war would do well to pay more attention to problems of supply, for tactical capability was r arely wanting by 1814. Yet Fitz-Enz does not really address whether the powerful British army might have affected the equation by driving the Americans from Plattsburgh and trapping Macdonough between ship and shore batteries, thus forcing him onto the open lake, where the British could fire from stand-off positions. Pressing his naval commander to attack prematurely, Prevost hazarded the resource he felt most essential to his enterprise, and the one least prepared for combat.
The battle of Plattsburgh coincided with the attack on Fort McHenry and the siege of Fort Erie on the Niagara frontier. Outnumbered and outgunned, determined American forces prevailed every time. Wellington told his superiors that he could do little to remedy the situation, that “the war was practically ended by Prevost’s retreat. What remained was purely episodical in character.” This maybe an exaggerated conclusion, for the British did try again at New Orleans, but the result was the same, again due in large part to the small Regular Army force that formed the core of American defenses in all these campaigns.
Smoothly written, well-researched, and comprehensive in approach and scope, The Final Invasion has much to commend and little to question. The author’s attention to logistics and intelligence, weapon characteristics and effects, and the face of battle is outstanding. Appendixes provide the orders of battle, lists of significant participants and casualties, original documents, and the after-action reviews sent by Macdonough, Army commander Alexander Macomb, and the senior surviving officer of the Royal Navy. Better maps would be helpful, but the illustrations are varied and stirring. (Fitz-Enz also has produced a documentary film with the same title.) The Final Invasion is an intriguing tale of fog, friction, chance, and chaos-of courage, gallantry, leadership, and team-work–reminding readers that, as Army commander Alexander Macomb declared to his troops, “The eyes of America are on us; fortune always follows the brave.”
COPYRIGHT 2002 U.S. Army War College
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group