Defensive Frontier

Settlers flowed into the valleys after the Revolution, eager to farm the fertile land, harvest the timber, mine the iron deposits, and export the riches of the country.  But international affairs soon interfered. Jay’s Treaty had opened trade with Canada, but  both France and England challenged United States’ neutrality during the Napoleonic Wars. After several confrontations, President Jefferson levied the Embargo Act of 1807, preventing the export of American products.  North Country producers could no longer legally sell their goods in Canada. 

Heated protests got nowhere, so people found inventive ways to carry on their business.   One New Yorker fitted out a tiny privateer, “seized” cargo from willing shippers, and sold it for them in Canada. At Rouses Point a wharf was built straddling the border so that goods could be unloaded from an American boat and shifted directly onto a Canadian vessel. North Country beef, pork, wheat, potatoes, cheese and butter continued to flow into Canada, as northbound trade escalated with the population.

The United States brought the trade conflict to a head by declaring war on Britain in 1812.  British forces stationed in Canada targeted Lake Champlain as an invasion route. Both sides knew that whoever controlled Lake Champlain determined the outcome of the war. But control of the waterway required success both on land and water.  Two failed American attempts to invade Canada, in the fall of 1812 and again a year later, punctuated by Col John Murray’s raid in the summer of 1813 sent civilians fleeing out of harm’s way.  Both sides invested their energies in building warships. 

Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough commanded the American fleet on Lake Champlain, keeping the British confined to the Richelieu River in Quebec throughout the summer of 1813. Both the British and Americans expanded their naval fleets during the following winter.  Macdonough commissioned five ships, including the 26-gun ship Saratoga and several gunboats, and refitted the steamboat Ticonderoga as a sloop-of-war. On land, Brigadier General Alexander Macomb amassed a force of 4,700 American troops. 

In the summer of 1814, 15,000 British troops arrived in Canada, fresh from their defeat of Napoleon and ready to propel the invasion. British General Prevost sent troops west towards Kingston, Ontario to create a diversionary feint with an attack on Sackett’s Harbor.  In response, the United States War Department ordered that Gen Izard move all available troops from Plattsburgh towards Sackett’s Harbor.  With Izard’s best troops gone, Prevost struck quickly, leading his force of 11,000 men across the border at Champlain on September 1. They reached Beekmantown five days later and clashed with a small detachment of US regulars and militia, driving them back to Plattsburgh and across the Saranac River.

Prevost had his troops in position and ready to attack, but the British flagship was still under construction.  Macdonough had moved his small fleet into position in Plattsburgh Bay when Prevost crossed the border.  There they waited until the British fleet arrived on the 11th of September.  The American warship Saratoga faced off against the British Confiance.  Saratoga’s first shot raked Confiance’s deck, killing Captain Downie, the newly-appointed fleet commander.  MacDonough fought “from anchor” with his ships in a defensive line formation running northeast between Crab Island and Cumberland Head.  He had them fitted with spring lines, placed underwater in such a way that the ships could swing themselves completely around to deliver a fresh broadside facing the enemy.  This maneuver sank the Confiance and prompted the Linnet to surrender.

The American naval victory helped to frustrate the British assault on land.  American General Alexander Macomb made such deceptive use of his small force that Prevost, deprived of support, decided to call off the attack and retreat to Canada. The U.S. victory at Plattsburgh brought the war to a close and proved once again that naval command of Lake Champlain was the key to control of the entire region.

Macdonough became the hero of the decade, praised in popular songs and commemorative memorabilia.  A century later, the city built a 135-foot-tall obelisk of Indiana limestone in his honor, capped with a proud eagle and surrounded with bas-reliefs and the names of the four principal ships of  Macdonough’s fleet.  On request, the City Historian will open the monument so visitors can climb the iron staircase for a fine view of the bay.  Inside City Hall, just across Margaret Street from the monument, murals illustrate the battle action alongside the anchor of the British battleship Confiance, recovered from the lake bottom on September 11, 1998, now conserved for permanent display.

To get MacDonough’s perspective on the naval battle, visit the Plattsburgh City Beach or the New York State Campground and the wayside parks along the north shore of Cumberland Bay.  For Downie’s fleeting view, follow the bicycle path along the shore south of the city.  The Kent-Delord House, occupied by British artillery officers, survives as a museum on the bluff overlooking the mouth of the Saranac River.  Visitors can learn about the wartime trials faced by the local residents and see the tea chest left behind by a departing artilleryman.  The more difficult maneuvers of the land battle, and the greater context of the conflict, are laid out in a diorama and exhibits at the Battle of Plattsburgh Association in the Museum Campus on the ”Old Base.”  Nearby, the Clinton County Historical Association exhibits uniforms, weapons and historical artifacts collected over many generations. 

The war of 1812 ended before many of the enlistments did, so the army put men to work.  Some New Englanders got their first glimpse of the North Country as they dismantled cantonments along the western shore of the lake.  Others built forty log barracks in Plattsburgh.  The Fenian revolt in Canada prompted construction of stone barracks in 1838  The sole surviving example stands proudly at the center of the “Old Base” campus.  Troops trained in Plattsburgh for the Mexican and Spanish American Wars and for both World Wars. Dozens of regiments marched off to the Civil War from this hotbed of Abolitionism, the reform movement determined to end slavery in the United States, if not throughout the world. 

Although never again at center stage after the War of 1812, the Champlain Valley continued to play a strategic role in America’s defenses.  In 1816 construction began on a fort at Rouses Point, but within the year, surveyors discovered that it was located nearly a mile north of the U.S.-Canadian border. Construction stopped, and the unnamed citadel took the nickname “Fort Blunder.”  Residents salvaged stone from it to construct buildings in the village.  After the respective governments adjusted the international boundary by the Webster Treaty of 1842, work began on Island Point, safely within United States territory.  Fort Montgomery, completed in 1871, was initially armed with 32-pound cannons, 10” Rodmans and 24-pound flank howitzers but never garrisoned.   In 1926 the U.S. Government sold the fort at public auction. The contractor at work on the bridge between Rouses Point and Vermont took down most of the fort in 1936-37, using the stone for fill. The ruins, visible from the Champlain Bridge, remain in private hands, although the Rouses Point Historical Society offers occasional tours.

In 1915, Major General Leonard Wood introduced a civilian preparedness training camp program at the Barracks.  The “Plattsburgh Idea,” reflected Wood’s philosophy that, in a democracy, every citizen had a duty to prepare to defend his country.  The first class of recruits paid their own way and bought their own uniforms.  Although the program was controversial at first, it led to the National Defense Act of 1916 which included the formation of the ROTC program consisting of six months of Universal Military Training (UMT) for college students, business and professional men. 

At the end of World War II, the U.S. Army Air Forces took over the Plattsburgh Barracks for a convalescent hospital, which soon came under U.S. Navy control.  From 1948-54, State University of New York for used the entire base for Champlain College classes, primarily intended for returning veterans. Meanwhile, Cold War concern for air defense of the Northeast prompted construction of an Air Force base on the site. In 1956 Plattsburgh became a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber base, home to the 380th Bombardment Wing.  The Air Force placed the first operational inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) fitted with nuclear warheads at the base in 1961, and built twelve 174-foot-deep missile silos within a 50-mile radius of Plattsburgh. They stepped down from alert in 1965 and began flying SAC polar routes the following year.

Eventually, the silos were sold to private individuals or town governments. One has been converted to a residence by an Australian calling himself “Silo Boy.”  In 1991 the base was reassigned to the 380th Air Refueling Wing.  Two years later, the U.S. Base Realignment and Closure Commission voted to close the base, sending a shudder of dismay through the region.  However, smart strategic planning by City and County officials has turned the “New Base” into an industrial park and the “Old Base” into diversified housing. 

the best travel advice comes from the people who live here
Andrew Alberti

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