Imagining the Common Soldier’s Experience in the Battle of Plattsburgh – Part 1

By Cherilyn Gilligan, Archaeologist

In the fall of 2019, I had the opportunity to present research to the public at the annual Battle of Plattsburgh event at the Kent Delord House Museum in Plattsburgh, New York. Lake Champlain Maritime Museum was contracted by the City of Plattsburgh to help with an American Battlefield Protection Program grant that they won. The research presented here is just a portion of the research conducted for that grant. The 2019 presentation was promoted under the title, “Research Highlights: Imagining the Common Soldier’s Experience,” and today I’ll bring that speech to you under the guise of a blog post. Enjoy!

Image of Deaf Soldier from 1993 City of Plattsburgh Heritage Trail Panels by Lee Hunt

I wanted to start today by reiterating one of the most common sayings repeated in the field of archaeology and anthropology. It’s one of the first things students learn when studying anthropology in school and certainly one that should be remembered when studying history in general – and that is “context is everything.”

Context is everything in regards to artifacts and the information we can gather from the surrounding matrix of an object in-situ – or where it is found. Context is everything in regards to people’s actions through time and in the present. And context is everything in terms of why research is generated and for what purpose. It shapes the researcher’s focus and subsequently the outcome.

I am explaining this before presenting some of the research that I’ve generated because it is important that the underlying mechanism driving this research is identified and understood by the consumer of this information – and apart from our client for this project, the City of Plattsburgh, that is you reading today. This research was driven by an American Battlefield Protection Program grant designed to help inform officials about the conditions of archaeological sites around the area and aid in the city’s efforts to showcase their unique cultural heritage sites. Keep that in mind as you read on.

For more information on the American Battlefield Protection Program and KOCOA Analysis, visit: https://www.nps.gov/orgs/2287/index.htm

Today I’ll focus in on Fort Brown and Crab Island during the Battle of Plattsburgh. The site of Fort Brown was investigated using a non-invasive archaeological assessment called a KOCOA analysis. A KOCOA analysis – as you can see in the table above – is a military terrain analysis based around the idea of imagining yourself as a soldier on the battlefield. This is an important and interesting concept because battlefields are places where people are easily able to connect with historic events and may initially become interested in the history of such a place. It’s about making a personal connection with place, using imagination and observation, and empathizing with people from the past. The themes of KOCOA analysis are extremely useful when interpreting data to the public and investigating archaeological sites.

You find yourself imagining what it would have been like to be there… So we know a battle happened at Plattsburgh but what did this town actually look like 200 years ago? What would I have seen looking out across the Saranac River from Fort Brown in the days leading up to the Battle of Plattsburgh? Who were the people that were there, looking across that river? What did they see and hear as the British were marching by the thousands in formation towards Plattsburgh on the morning of September 6th? And what were their feelings about being there?

Image from Benson J. Lossing’s The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812

I’ll start here with Fort Brown – this image is from Benson Lossing’s Pictoral Field-Book of the War of 1812 published in 1868. Lossing went around interviewing people and making sketches years after the war and popularized the stories he heard – in a rather exaggerated and flowery way in his books. But from his works we can start to gather some imagery from the landscape 50 years or so after the Battle of Plattsburgh. The following is a passage from this book so you can get a sense of Lossing’s storytelling style and also get a feel for what the days leading up to the battle were like:

On the night of the 9th, there was tempestuous weather. There was lightning, and rain, and wind, and thick darkness. The British had been seen at sunset busily engaged in the erection of the rocket battery opposite Fort Brown. Captain M’Glassin, who was described to me as a “little beardless Scotchman” anxious to distinguish himself, asked General Macomb [Alexander Macomb, field commander of American forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh] to allow him to lead 50 men that night to an attack on the builders. Macomb complied, and M’Glassin , who had arisen from a sick-bed, sallied out in the gloom with his men, from whose gun-locks the flints were removed, crossed the Saranac about half way between Fort Brown and the upper bridge, and unobserved, reached the foot of the hill on which the battery was rising. There he divided his men into two parties. One went to the rear of the battery by a circuitous route, and when all was ready he shouted “Charge ! men, charge! Upon the front and rear!” His men rushed forward with frightful yells. The British, believing overwhelming numbers were upon them, fled precipitately to their main body. The work was taken, the guns were spiked, and M’Glassin returned without the loss of a single man. Over 300 veteran troops had been surprised and frightened into flight by only 50 men, and Sir George Prevost [Commander in Chief of British forces in North America] was much mortified.”[1]  

It’s a great rendering of this story. And the caption of this image reads, “This view is from the mounds of Fort Brown, looking up the Saranac. The buildings in the extreme distance are at the upper bridge, where Mooers’ [General Benjamin Mooers of Plattsburgh] militia were stationed. M’Glassin forded the Saranac at the point indicated by the drift-wood lodged in the stream. He crossed the narrow plain where the cattle are seen, and up the slope to the right.”

I love this account because, again, it really illustrates how people connect with storytelling. You come away with a feeling of having been there – you feel the suspense and the victory.

But here’s a caveat: Later in my research I read about how Captain M’Glassin was court-martialed in 1818 for, “unnecessarily and cruelly whipping soldiers of his company.”[2] This starts to give you a different impression of what the common soldiers’ experience under Captain MccGlassin may have been like.

Clippings from Plattsburgh Republican Newspaper from August 27, 1814; August 20, 1814; and August 13, 1814 from left to right.

In the written accounts or the primary sources that we find, we get some ideas and insights into our initial questions – but not a full picture. A lot of the common soldiers were illiterate and wouldn’t have kept a journal but we find accounts from generals about their experience leading and disciplining different groups of people. We see rewards for the return of deserters posted in newspapers like the ones above from the Plattsburgh Republican as well as popularized and exaggerated stories in local newspapers and in collections like Lossing’s books well after the war was over.

We also find accounts from doctors like Dr. James Mann, who was left in charge of the hospital at Plattsburgh after General Izard left for Niagara on August 29th. This passage is from Dr. James Mann’s accounts starting four days after General Izard left Plattsburgh. Mann addressed this letter to Dr. Tilton, the Surgeon General of the Army:

September 3
The sick and convalescents have been ordered to Burlington Vermont; but for want of transportation, are removing to Crabb Island, two miles and a half from the fortifications at Plattsburgh. Such of the convalescents as can perform garrison duty are ordered into the forts. More than 500 have already arrived at Crabb Island, a barren and uninhabitable spot. Hospital tents to cover them have been furnished. Doctor Purcell is now my only assistant and he is sick. Russell is ordered into one of the forts. Doctor Low, assistant to the Apothecary General, has volunteered his services, and is also attached to one of the forts.

Crabb Island, September 10
We have received the wounded of the army, about 40. Four hundred, with the assistance of Commodore MacDonough [Thomas Macdonough, commander of American naval forces at the Battle of Plattsburgh], have been sent to Burlington hospital from this place. I am left destitute of any assistant; except the services of Dr. Brown, and two medical students, who have volunteered themselves, my situation would be most unpleasant and distressing.

Respectfully your humble servant, James Mann, Hospital Surgeon

And then he writes postscript: “On the morning of the 11th of September, the remainder of the sick were all sent to Burlington.”[3]

Dr. Mann’s accounts are brutal and gruesome – and fascinating. When you catch glimpses of the common soldiers’ experiences – like those who served under M’Glassin, or Dr. Man moving hundreds of sick and dying soldiers from the mainland to an island and then to Burlington up to the morning of the battle, or Mann’s reports of cutting off over 30 limbs in the days after the battle was over –  your perspective of the overall affair changes a little bit as you imagine the conditions endured by these people. Your experience is enriched a little more by adding more and more perspectives from people of different backgrounds and you continue to focus your lens of understanding, exploring how so many moving parts were fitting together and interacting.

Left: Image from Benson J. Lossing’s The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812
Right: Photograph taken by the author in 2019

Now let’s jump back to present day… if we look at the two images above side-by-side, you see the shape of the Saranac River through the trees of the present day photo –  and you’re really getting that same perspective that Lossing shows from the 1860s – though there are a lot more trees now, obviously. At the time of the battle, however, this whole area was clear-cut so the American forces could better observe the enemy.

Top: Image from Benson J. Lossing’s The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812
Bottom left and right: Photographs taken by the author, 2019

Above is another image from Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Guide. The present day images aren’t from quite the same perspective due to current conditions but even from the different angles in these two photographs, you can see the shape of the fort is quite similar to the etching that Lossing provides.

I encourage folks to visit the site of Fort Brown in Plattsburgh, New York. Seeing through the trees to the Saranac River might be difficult generally speaking, but the site itself is inspiring to see in person. There are plaques at both the site of Fort Brown, and the general area where Fort Moreau was located.

Research for this project started with feet-on-the-ground evidence: ‘who was where,’ and what kinds of different perspectives could be gathered from that evidence. It is impossible to touch on every single soldier’s personal experience obviously, but some stories and perspectives stood out. For instance, there is evidence that free African American soldiers who enlisted during the war of 1812 were organized into a labor party by General Izard at Plattsburgh and were likely put to work building Forts Brown, Moreau, and Scott.  We know this from a letter written by General Izard to the Secretary at War asking for advice on how to employ these men because his soldiers were refusing to work side by side with the black soldiers.[4]

Excerpt from Thomas Dobson’s Official Correspondence with the Department of War

Again, we are getting another glimpse of some soldiers’ experience in Plattsburgh leading up to the battle. We also know that that African Americans were actively being recruited beginning in 1814. This was the first year that all-black regiments were being formed and when many states were amending their legislation to accept people of color into the military.[5] We also have profiles of some of the local African American men that enlisted from the register.[6]

Title page and image from William Apes’ Autobiography

One account is of a Pequot man, named William Apess (originally Apes), who enlisted on the American side and saw three major battles during the War of 1812 – at Chateauguay in 1813, as well as Odelltown and Plattsburgh in 1814. Apess had quite a unique perspective and experience. He ran away from indentured servitude in New England and enlisted in the American army as a young teenager. Later in life he became a Methodist preacher and published an autobiography and other works in English that defended indigenous rights. There is some evidence suggesting he was mixed race and that his mother was an African American slave or indentured servant, but this is not totally clear.[7] His written works provide a unique and detailed perspective from one of the many varied experiences of indigenous participants in the War of 1812. The following excerpt was quoted from William Apess’ autobiography via Benn Carl’s Native Memoirs From the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess:

The enemy, in all the pomp and pride of war, had sat down before the town [Plattsburgh] and its slender fortifications and commenced a cannonade, which we returned without much ceremony, Congreve rockets, bombshells, and cannonballs poured upon us like a hailstorm. There was scarcely any intermission, and for six days and nights we did not leave our guns, and during that time the work of death paused not, as every day some shot took effect. During the engagement, I had charge of a small magazine. All this time our fleet, under command of the gallant Macdonough, was lying on the peaceful waters of Champlain. But this little fleet was to be taken or destroyed: it was necessary in the accomplishment of their plans. Accordingly the British commander bore down on our vessels in gallant style. As soon as the enemy shoed fight, our men flew to their guns. Then the work of death and carnage commenced. The adjacent shores resounded with the alternate shouts of the sons of liberty and the groans of their parting spirits. A cloud of smoke mantled the heavens, shutting out the light of day, while the continual roar of artillery added to the sublime horrors of the scene. At length, the boasted valor of the haughty Britons failed them. They quailed before the incessant and well-directed fire of our brave and hardy tars and, after a hard-fought battle, surrendered to that foe they had been sent to crush.[8]

Earlier in Apess’ autobiography, he talks about the harsh conditions that the common soldiers were subjected to: the spread of illness, sleeping in open fields, the carnage he saw in the front lines at Odelltown – but you can hear his pride in the account above. In 1815 he wrote that he obtained his release from the army after the war was over and he writes about how hundreds of those released were still waiting on their pay and the land they had been promised. However, the military recorded that Apess deserted the American Army – an interesting discrepancy. We do know that following the war he went to Montreal and spent his time talking to other indigenous people in the British colonies and eventually went on to become a Methodist missionary.

That ends this Part 1 of my research highlights into the common soldiers’ experience during the Battle of Plattsburgh. Tomorrow, in Part Two, we will take a closer look at a variety of maps and letters that explore changes to the physical cantonment and the public memory of the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Below you will find the endnotes from the Part One portion of my research and Part Two will include a full bibliography and conclusion. Before signing off, I’d like to say thank you to some key people who helped with the research of this project: Thanks to Roger Harwood and the staff at the Clinton County Historical Association and Museum, Ed Scollon, Don Wickman, and Keith Herkalo – for fielding many questions, providing hard-to-find source material, facilitating site visits, and for your generosity with your time and knowledge – thank you so much.

If you have any questions or want to know more about any of this, please feel free to contact me! Get in touch by email: CherG@lcmm.org

[1] Benson J. Lossing, The Pictoral Field Book of the War of 1812; Or, Illustrations, by Pen and Pencil, of the History, Biography, Scenery, Relics, and Traditions of the Last War for American Independence (New York: 1869), 865.

[2] Keith A. Herkalo, The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814, (Charleston: The History Press, 2012), 140.

[3] James Mann, Medical Sketches of the Campaigns of 1812, 13, 14, (Dedham, MA: Mann & Co., 1816), 268-269.

[4] Thomas Dobson, Official Correspondence with the Department of War, Relative to the Military Operations of the American Army Under the Command of Major General Izard, on the Northern Frontier of the United States in the Years 1814 and 1815, (Philadelphia, 1816), 46.

[5] Gerard T. Altoff, Amongst My Best Men: African-Americans and The War of 1812 (Put-In-Bay: The Perry Group, 1996), 69-114.

[6] Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America 1775-1973, (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1974), Chapter 2: The War of 1812, 1812-1815.

[7] Carl Benn, Native Memoirs From the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).

[8] Benn, Native Memoirs From the War of 1812.