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Bicentennial Of Battle Of Plattsburgh Celebrated

WAMC/Pat Bradley

Over the weekend, Plattsburgh celebrated the bicentennial of an historic land and naval battle on Lake Champlain — a battle that naval historians say determined the fate of our nation.

In September 1814 the British attempted to invade the fledgling United States on several fronts: Sackets Harbor, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington, D.C. But historian, author and Battle of Plattsburgh Association President Keith Herkalo says those were diversions.  “The orders that were issued by the Secretary of the Navy from Britain, the Secretary of War.  He issued four sets of orders. General Prevost in Canada received a set of orders. That set of orders said: ‘Dear General Prevost, We are attacking the eastern and southern coasts of the United States, creating a diversion.’  Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, both of them called this the most decisive set of battles in the War of 1812.”

The land and naval assault on September 11th, 1814 in Plattsburgh forced an end to the British and American peace negotiations and led to the Ghent Treaty that formally ended the War of 1812.

Military historians have called the battle in Plattsburgh Bay on Lake Champlain one of the most important naval battles waged in this country’s early history. Winston Churchill wrote that it was the “most decisive engagement of the war.” Author Carl Dillenback wrote “The Miracle at Plattsburgh”.  “If you don’t call farmers, blacksmiths, and assorted just people fighting off the army that had defeated Napoleon just months earlier a miracle, I don’t know what is a miracle. That’s not the only one. The fact that we had a pinesap navy. They were outclassed totally in every direction. Now those are miracles.”

To celebrate the bicentennial, reenactors followed the route of the British land forces for a week,  marching from the Canadian border to Plattsburgh, stopping at historic sites along the way. Events culminated in Plattsburgh.

A parade preceded by a land skirmish between British Redcoats and American militia members in the street in front of City Hall.

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial

Despite rain, the city presented its largest-ever parade to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the battle. The floats and marching bands were military or military-themed. 

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial parade

Bicentennial co-organizer Kit Booth.  “Lake Champlain is a waterway going north and south and their point was to capture that and take control of that and then move on down the lake to the Hudson River and down to New York City, thereby segregating all of New England and the northern part of the then colonies. They would then become British territory.”  

A land force of more than 10,000 British soldiers, who had just defeated Napoleon, clashed with about 3,400 American militia on land.  On Plattsburgh Bay, 16 British warships battled four American Navy ships and 10 gunboats for control of the lake.  Over the bicentennial weekend people gathered to watch a re-enactment of the skirmish on the lake. Again, Keith Herkalo.  “This year they could bring several tall ships. We have three of those and a complement of ten bateau who are going to act as gunboats and they’re going to reenact the movements of the British and American fleets.”

Battle of Plattsburgh reenacts part of lake conflict during bicentennial commemoration
Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial

The Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial was not just a commemoration, it was living history. Reenactors in costume mingled with modern visitors throughout the city center when not on duty.

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial reenactors at Kent Delord encampment

A children’s play center with period toys was popular. Within City Hall the anchor of the sunken British flagship was displayed, along with a “Cot to Coffin” quilt display.  “A soldier goes off to battle. The woman in their life would make them a blanket. Thirty inches wide so that they could roll it up and sixty inches so that it would cover the average height of a person.”

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Section of Cot to Coffin quilt display during Battle of Plattsburgh bientennial

Co-organizer Jean Welch explains its use.  “They would sleep under them and regretfully if something happened in battle the quilt, the blanket, would become the shroud for the body. The really important thing about the exhibit is to actually read the story that the quilter created.  They’re very sad. They’re very touching. We have had people leave here in tears.”

The events closed Sunday afternoon with an hour-long appearance by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Credit WAMC/Pat Bradley
Joe Wiegand as Theodore Roosevelt at Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial

Reprisor Joe Wiegand remained in character as he greeted his audience and discussed the historic battle with the media, echoing Roosevelt’s writings that called the Battle of Plattsburgh the “greatest naval battle of the war.”  “Had not the Americans prevailed, well then General George Prevost, the British general leading those 11,000 british troops down from Canada, might have split the states in two. If you were to separate the states of New England, especially the commercial and shipping center of Boston, from the rest of the coastal states we would have been at a terrible disadvantage strategically.”

If the battle was so important, why is it not better known? Bicentennial co-organizer Kit Booth.  “One of the reasons probably is that there was a diversionary battle at Baltimore. And Francis Scott Key decided to write a poem about that which became our national anthem. But this was where the decisive battle was fought and lost by the British.”

Both the American and British forces are buried at the Riverside Cemetery in Plattsburgh and on nearby Crab Island, where a field hospital was located during the battle.

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