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Historian Discusses Battleship Saratoga Physician’s Role During Battle of Plattsburgh

Dr. John Briggs grave in Portland, Maine, image provided
Ron Romano/Rebecca Conley
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Photo provided
Dr. John Briggs grave in Portland, Maine

While there were clashes both on land and on Lake Champlain during the September 11, 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh the one that is best remembered is the marine battle in Plattsburgh Bay between the British and American fleets. Many of the casualties from that conflict are buried in local cemeteries and on Crab Island. But some of the survivors made their way home and over time were forgotten. Maine historian and author Ron Romano became intrigued with the battle after he was contacted by a member of the U.S. Daughters of 1812 about placing a medallion on the grave of Dr. John Briggs in Portland, Maine. Romano says Briggs was the physician on Commodore Thomas Macdonough’s battleship Saratoga and despite being injured, he still tended to wounded soldiers on the top deck.

"I'm part of a friends group for Portland, Maine's oldest cemetery called Eastern Cemetery. We have a 350 year history so we go back to 1668. And my role is to be the cemetery's historian. So this started as a very routine kind of question. I got an email from a woman asking if we knew about Dr. John Briggs, if there was a stone for him at Eastern Cemetery and wondering if she were to provide us with a War of 1812 medallion would we be able to place it on his grave? I started to research him and along the way uncovered a great image of him and I reached out to the person who posted it. And it turned out that I was talking to the fourth great grandson of Dr. John Briggs. As soon as I reached out to Steve Strout, who is the descendant, he said, 'Yeah and I have other documents that have survived.' And he has a really rich collection of information about Dr. Briggs and his family."

Romano continues, "Not only do we have the image of Dr. Briggs, we have a letter from his wife that was written two days after the Battle of Plattsburgh where she's in effect begging him to please come home. I mean he was only 23. She was only 23. They had two kids at that point. She's in Maine trying to take care of these two toddlers. And he's off to war for months. And she was kind of desperate for him to come home. And you can just read the letter and hear in her voice that she just is worried so much about his safety and wants him to come home. And that's just one letter."

Pat Bradley asks, "In the documents does it describe what he went through on the Saratoga during the Battle of Plattsburgh or did you have to get that material from other sources?"

"Yeah he mentions a little bit but not much," Ron Romano responds. "And I think that he was trying to spare her details of what he had been through along the way. I haven't seen anything that he wrote where he's telling her, you know, I had to attend to 30 wounded soldiers. I had to attend to 30 who ended up dying on this battle. So most of that comes from other sources. And many of those sources are many, many, many years after the battle itself. He failed to list himself among the wounded even though he had received a really bad wound to his leg and ankle. And when he applied for a war pension years later it was denied because they looked at the rolls and said, well, you're not on the wounded list. He's the one that wrote the wounded list. So there are letters of support of him in the appeal to Congress which document what he actually went through and what he did."

"So Ron Romano what did he do on the Saratoga during the Battle of Plattsburgh?"

"Again he's a 23 year old man. He, a year earlier, had been an assistant surgeon and now he was the surgeon and the doctor aboard the largest of the naval fleet on the bay at the time," Romano says. "The Saratoga was the largest of the ships. Normally the ship's surgeon would have been located in the cockpit below deck. Didn't happen for him. He was on the top deck in the open and attending to all of these men that were getting shot at and cannon balls hitting them and hitting the ship. So all of this was happening around him. He's trying to help men live while the cannons and the bullets are coming at him. And in fact he and his assistant were lifting a wounded man up onto their table to do some work on him when a cannon came across and killed the assistant instantly. And that's when he received the splinter wound to his leg and ankle. And I don't mean splinter like you get in your thumb. This was a large piece of wood that jabbed into his lower leg and basically created problems for him for the rest of his life.

Pat Bradley asks, "Do we know how critical his actions were on the Saratoga as this battle was going on?"

Romano replies, "Generally when you read the historical accounts of these battles you don't hear about the surgeon on the ship. You hear about the commander of the fleet who won the battle. The spotlight is usually not on the ship's doctor. And we now have this treasure of documentation from the family and he's gotten the spotlight that he really deserves."

Descendants of Dr. John Briggs and officials at the Eastern Cemetery in Portland, Maine placed a War of 1812 veteran’s medallion on Dr. Briggs’ grave during a ceremony in July. The four-day annual Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration begins on September 9th.

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