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Imagining the Common Soldier’s Experience in the Battle of Plattsburgh – Part 2

By Cherilyn Gilligan, Archaeologist

In the fall of 2019, I gave a presentation on my research into the common soldier’s experience during the Battle of Plattsburgh as part of the annual Battle of Plattsburgh event at the Kent Delord House Museum. I’ve converted that presentation into a two-part blog series, and this is the second and final part. If you haven’t read it, take a moment to read through Part 1 first.


After digging into records and first-hand accounts of what happened at the battle and the aftermath (which we explored in Part 1), I got to take a closer look at the reinforcement plans for the forts and shortly afterwards, the deterioration of the cantonment altogether.

Scan of Macomb’s Original “Sketch of the Enemy Positions and Batteries at the Siege of Plattsburgh from 6th sept. 1814 to 11th Inclusive” with Inset Close-up of Writing on the Back

Macomb drew the map shown above and included it with his after-action report to the Secretary at War in the days after the battle. You can see the key on the bottom left and the forts at the top center – the title on the back, inset here for you in the lower right corner, reads, “Sketch of the enimy positions & batteries at the siege of Plattsburgh from 6th sept. 1814 to 11th inclusive.”[i] The misspelling of ‘enemy’ is noted here and in citations but corrected elsewhere for my personal sanity.

Rufus MacIntyre Letter and Map of Plattsburgh Cantonment on Back, 1815

This popular map was drawn by Rufus MacIntyre, an American captain at Sacketts Harbor. It’s drawn on the back of a letter dated January 1, 1815 and it describes the changes made to the Plattsburgh fortifications after the battle in September of 1814. Some of the original text was destroyed but a portion of it reads:

The cantonment is perfectly correct so far as it goes having omitted many buildings in the rear. The forms [BLANK] but Fort Moreau is not rightly located [BLANK] to the west, so as to command the open space between the barracks. The forts are surrounded by deep ditches and pickets – within the ditch. The bastions at the angles give a powerful command of the Ditch which is protected by abattis and like obstructions. To carry the works by escalade would require ladders of twenty feet in length, and should the enemy attempt it they must suffer an irreparable loss. [ii]

Something I encountered a lot during this research was confusion concerning these historic maps and others across various archaeological reports and recently published histories. This has a lot to do with the fact that these two maps were copied over and over by people and those historic copies have since ended up in various historical societies and special collections libraries across the country. The two maps above are photocopies of the originals.

Hand-drawn Copy of Macomb’s ‘Sketch of the Enemy Positions’ Map from SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections with inset close up of writing in the lower right corner

This map above is a hand-drawn copy of Macomb’s ‘Sketch of the Enemy Positions’ map – or I guess a photograph negative of a hand-drawn copy. These photograph negatives were enlarged to show detail and they can be accessed at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Special Collections Library with use of a light table. I enlarged the signature at the bottom right of this image– it is signed ‘copy of original’ and dated 1859. This is a decent copy of that original Macomb map– other copies that I have encountered are not so great.

‘Plan of Forts & Batteries at Plattsburgh’ 1816, from SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections Library

This series of maps was also accessed at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Special Collections Library and they were the same enlarged photograph negatives as the Macomb copy– I very roughly placed this series side-by-side as they would have fit together – the middle two were one sheet originally. These maps are dated March 1866, and the caption on the bottom left of the first map on the left reads:

 “N.B. These Sheets Nos. 1, 2, &3 represent the ground at Plattsburgh Occupied by the American Forts namely Fort Brown, Fort Moreau and Fort Scott. It also shows the positions of the British Batteries. Forts Tompkins and Gaines were erected after the British retired. March 1866. For Report of Inspection of Barracks See (A. 2504).”[iii]

Part of the technical report I wrote for the city of Plattsburgh had to include all past archaeological investigations of the six sites listed in the contract. In one archaeological survey report from 1995, there was an overlay of an historic map over the present day oval parade ground (now called US Oval Park) where a survey had taken place.[iv] The map shown above was the closest I could find to whatever historic map they used as their overlay.

Close up of Fort Moreau from Previous Map, ‘Plan of Forts & Batteries at Plattsburgh’ 1816, from SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections Library

This map is especially interesting because it looks like there are triangulated measurements between features and there are also interior details in each of the forts. The historic overlay map from the 1995 archaeological report seemed to have the same interior lines within the forts. I’m wondering if there are copies of this map out there that the 1995 report used or if there are others out there that I just haven’t seen or couldn’t locate in time. If you know of more maps like this, please let me know! This was a big mystery!

So we know that the cantonment was fortified after the battle between 1814 and 1816 – but by 1819 and through to 1825, more and more troops were moved out of Plattsburgh and the forts were left to fall into disrepair. The grounds weren’t completely abandoned but activity moved away from the old forts. The old storehouses were used as temporary barracks while new barracks were built – probably right over the old ones – and a lot of the surrounding lands and buildings were leased out to farmers and other citizens. [v]

We know from historic documents that there was an ordinance to make people stop removing sand from Fort Brown in 1852.[vi] In 1868 the D&H Railroad came through and Fort Scott was leveled for railroad construction. In the 1890s, Fort Moreau was also leveled for the expansion of barracks and the creation of the oval parade ground. There was documentation of the removal of soldier burials from Forts Scott and Moreau when they were leveled, so it’s very likely that Fort Brown contains burials as well.[vii] There could be remaining burials where Fort Scott and Fort Moreau used to stand, though amazingly, we still don’t know the location or exact footprints of these forts or if they have been completely destroyed. Archaeological surveys in the 1990s didn’t find features associated with either fort but they did discover deep intact strata in areas where features of Fort Moreau may survive – possibly the magazine from the fort because it was noted to be seven feet below the parade ground in historic documents.[viii]

Close-up of ‘Plan of the Siege of Plattsburg and Capture of the British Fleet on Lake Champlain’

We also don’t know the boundaries of the mass grave site on Crab Island from this battle. We have many accounts that describe people being buried there, a handful of which were popularized through the Plattsburgh Republican newspaper. This local paper and others, as well as historical accounts like Lossing’s books were a great tool for creation of public memory and commemoration of events from the war. Simeon Doty had several interviews in the papers and various books about his experience. He was a teenager in the American ranks stationed further north of Plattsburgh during the battle. Here is an excerpt from an 1886 interview:

We went to Crab Island. I helped bury the dead there…We landed on the north part of Crab Island. There were two hospitals there made of plank. The dead were carried off southward and were buried in trenches without coffins, under command of an officer. Redcoats and bluecoats were put in together. [ix]

Shortly after the war, the owner of the island, Caleb Nichols wrote up a bill to the US government for tearing the place up and burying soldiers on his property.[x] Different accounts report different numbers of how many people were buried on Crab Island. Some say 100-200 but there were potentially a lot more people buried there considering the hundreds of sick and dying people moved through the island before the battle took place. We also don’t have data for how many people survived their injuries and surgeries after the battle was over.  I don’t think we know for sure if Nichols ever submitted that bill to the government or if he was reimbursed for anything.

References to the gravesite would still appear in the historic record from time to time but nothing was ever really done to mark the cemetery until 1903, and by that time the exact grave location was lost from public memory.[xi] I recommend the book, The Secrets of Crab Island by James Millard if you want to really dive into Crab Island history. But generally, in 1903, the US government tried to make Crab Island the “Macdonough National Military Park.” They raised a flag and a monument and tried (and failed) to relocate the burials, and shortly afterwards the grounds fell into disrepair. In the 1960s, the island was sold into private hands, being briefly owned by the, “self-described hot dog mogul of Atlantic City” in the 1980s![xii] That episode prompted New York State to take the island back under state control.

Since being under state control again, the island has been cared for by very few people. Mr. Roger Harwood (Plattsburgh Historian) has been clearing the grounds with his own equipment for decades, while people like Harwood and Mr. John Rock (Friends of Crab Island Commodore) have put a lot of time into getting a flag reinstalled and bringing people’s attention to the island as a place of commemoration and a place that needs to be conserved and cared for long-term. In short, Harwood, Rock, and many others are working to rebuild public memory of the Battle of Plattsburgh so that these important stories may be passed on to our future generations.

One last highlight of conducting this research was getting to crowd-source information through public meetings and networking with local experts. I had the opportunity to attend several meetings with the city and town of Plattsburgh and Peru and meet people who wanted to share their knowledge with me and help me locate sources that I was either unaware of or had been unsuccessful in locating.

This was a really rewarding experience both personally and professionally – it was my experience in these meetings that led me to explain a bit more about the mechanism driving the research that I was contracted to do with the city of Plattsburgh. When working on Cultural Resources Management (CRM) projects like these you have limited time to gather as much information as you can and it makes all the difference when you find local experts and an interested public that are willing to spend time sharing their research, their stories, and their resources. As a result, the researcher is able to elevate those important stories and help conserve the local public memory – sometimes through technical reports that may inform future historic trail panels, exhibits, park displays, and more.

Image from Keith A Herkalo’s “The Battles at Plattsburgh”, Poem from “Niles’ Weekly Register,” vol. 9

I think it all boils back down to why people are interested in history at all: we love story-telling. People love a good story. Most often, your research turns into a great story-telling session at the historical society where the hours fly by and you have to run to catch the ferry before rush hour gets really bad. You’re connecting with other interested people about the past and you’re connecting with the past through personal perspectives – collectively imagining and wondering what it was like to be there in Plattsburgh leading up to this battle. And then, like a detective, you try to ask the right questions and search for evidence – and primary accounts – that might tell you where people were, when, and how they felt and what they saw. 

I want to end by saying thanks to a few of those folks who were so helpful to my research: Thanks to Keith Herkalo for providing me with copies of an important CRM report that I hadn’t been able to locate and for fielding some of my questions. Thanks to Don Wickman for fielding tons of questions of mine as well and sending sources and maps my way – your enthusiasm is contagious! And a really big thank you to Roger Harwood and Ed Scollon not only for your expertise on the subject but for spending so much time helping me out with site visits to Valcour Island and Crab Island – it was such a blast going there with both of you – and for diving some of these sites with me as well – you both have such a wealth of knowledge and it was a joy to work with both of you. Thank you so much!

Oh – and this last image is MacDonough pointing the cannon on flagship, Saratoga during the Battle of Plattsburgh. There is a great folk tale about this particular rooster that you can read more about in Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book and elsewhere – this rooster became a sort-of mascot for the American soldiers during the battle. He was a sought-after bird in the cock-fighting ring happening on shore in the days leading up to the battle and the sailors, “by ‘hook or by crook’…obtained possession of him” so that he was caged aboard Saratoga on the morning of the battle. [xiii] As Saratoga took shot from Linnet, the cage was hit and the rooster burst out, “flew upon a gun-slide, and, clapping his wings, crowed lustily and defiantly. The sailors cheered, and the incident, appearing to them as ominous of victory for the Americans, strengthened the courage of all.” [xiv]

I’m happy to field any questions you might have – please get in touch with us! You can reach me at CherG@lcmm.org.

Bibliography

Altoff, Gerard T. Amongst My Best Men: African-Americans and The War of 1812. Put-In-Bay: The Perry Group, 1996.

Brigadier, Sara R. and Adam I. Kane. Historical and Archaeological Narrative of New York Islands in Lake Champlain. Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2003.

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

Dobson, Thomas. 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: William Fry, 1816.

Everest, Allan S. Briefly Told: Plattsburgh, New York, 1784-1984. Plattsburgh: Clinton County Historical Association, 1984.

Everest, Allan S., ed. Recollections of Clinton County and the Battle of Plattsburgh, 1800-1840: Memoirs of Early Residents from the Notebooks of Dr. D. S. Kellogg. Plattsburgh: Clinton County Historical Association, 1964.

Gilligan, Cherilyn A. and Christopher R. Sabick. Document Review and Archaeological Assessment of Selected Areas from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for City of Plattsburgh in Accordance with Requirements of Grant Funding Provided Through American Battlefield Protection Program, 2019.

Greene, Robert Ewell. Black Defenders of America 1775-1973. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc, 1974.

Herkalo, Keith A. The Battles at Plattsburgh: September 11, 1814. Charleston: The History Press, 2012.

Lossing, Benson J. 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: Harper & Brothers, 1869.

Mann, James. Medical Sketches of the Campaigns of 1812, 13, 14. Dedham, MA: H. Mann & Co., 1816.

Macomb, Alexander. Sketch of the Enimy Positions & Batteries at the Siege of Plattsburg from 6th. Sept. 1814 to the 11th. Inclusive. Map. From National Archives and Records Administration, RG 107: Separate Enclosures, M-136 (8), Front and Back. Ink on Parchment. (May 2019).

McIntyre, Rufus. Letter of January 1st 1815 Cantonment, Plattsburgh N. York halfpast twelve on Sunday Morning Jany 1, 1815.. From New York State Library, Letters of Rufus McIntire (1813-1815). Ink on parchment. http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/rufusmcintire/ (2018).

Millard, James P. The Secrets of Crab Island. South Hero: Americas Historic Lakes, 2004.

Morgan, Julie A. Archaeological Survey of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Clinton County, New York. Champaign, IL: Department of the Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories, Corps of Engineers, 1995.

Niles, Hezekiah ed. “Brother Johnathan’s Epistle to John Bull.” Niles’ Weekly Register: Containing Political, Historical, Geographical, Scientifical, Astronomical, Statistical, and Biographical, Documents, Essays, and Facts; Together with Notices of the Arts and Manufactures, and a Record of the Events of the Times 9, (September 1815 to March 1816): 85.

Plan of Forts & Batteries at Plattsburgh 1816. Map. From SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections (Copied from National Archives Record Group no. 77, Civil works. Map file drawer 142), PAM 173/5. 4 Sheets (001-004).

Plan of the siege of Plattsburg and capture of the British fleet on Lake Champlain the 11th Sptr. 1814: to accompany B. Tanner’s print of Macdonough’s victory. Map. S.I: s.n., 1814. From Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division. 1 map: mounted on Linen; 25x 20 cm, https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3804p.ct006648/ (accessed November 20, 2018).

Plattsburgh Republican. “200 dolls REWARD.” Plattsburgh: A.C. Flagg, August 27, 1814. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031979/issues/. (Accessed 2019).

Plattsburgh Republican. “250 D’lls. REWARD.” Plattsburgh: A.C. Flagg, August 20, 1814. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031979/issues/. (Accessed 2019).

Plattsburgh Republican. “300 dolls REWARD.” Plattsburgh: A.C. Flagg, August 13, 1814. https://nyshistoricnewspapers.org/lccn/sn83031979/issues/. (Accessed 2019).

United States Air Force. National Register Evaluation of Archaeological Sites at Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Brooks AFB, TX: Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, 1998.


[i] Macomb, Alexander. Sketch of the Enimy Positions & Batteries at the Seige of Plattsburg from 6th. Sept. 1814 to the 11th. Inclusive. Map. From National Archives and Records Administration, RG 107: Separate Enclosures, M-136 (8), Front and Back. Ink on Parchment. (May 2019).

[ii] McIntyre, Rufus. Letter of January 1st 1815 Cantonment, Plattsburgh N. York halfpast twelve on Sunday Morning Jany 1, 1815.. From New York State Library, Letters of Rufus McIntire (1813-1815). Ink on parchment. http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/mssc/rufusmcintire/ (2018).

[iii] Plan of Forts & Batteries at Plattsburgh 1816. Map. From SUNY Plattsburgh Special Collections (Copied from National Archives Record Group no. 77, Civil works. Map file drawer 142), PAM 173/5. 4 Sheets (001-004).

[iv]Julie A. Morgan, Archaeological Survey of Plattsburgh Air Force Base, Clinton County, New York (Champaign, IL: Department of the Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories, Corps of Engineers, 1995), 103.

[v] United States Air Force, National Register Evaluation of Archaeological Sites at Plattsburgh Air Force Base (Brooks AFB, TX: Air Force Center for Environmental Excellence, 1998), 72-73.

[vi] USAF, National Register Evaluation of Archaeological Sites at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, 73.

[vii] Allan S. Everest, Briefly Told: Plattsburgh, New York, 1784-1984, (Plattsburgh, N.Y. : Clinton County Historical Association, 1984), 40.

[viii] Cherilyn A. Gilligan and Christopher R. Sabick, Document Review and Archaeological Assessment of Selected Areas from the Revolutionary War and War of 1812 (Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum for City of Plattsburgh in Accordance with Requirements of Grant Funding Provided Through American Battlefield Protection Program, 2019), 31-32; USAF, National Register Evaluation of Archaeological Sites at Plattsburgh Air Force Base, 202.

[ix] Allan S. Everest, Recollections of Clinton County and the Battle of Plattsburgh, 1800-1840: Memoirs of Early Residents from the Notebooks of Dr. D. S. Kellogg, (Plattsburgh: Clinton County Historical Association, 1964), 49.

[x] James P. Millard, The Secrets of Crab Island, (South Hero: Americas Historic Lakes, 2004), 42.

[xi] Sara R. Brigadier, and Adam I. Kane, Historical and Archaeological Narrative of New York Islands in Lake Champlain, (Vergennes, VT: Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, 2003), 58-59.

[xii] Brigadier and Kane, Historical and Archaeological Narrative of New York Islands in Lake Champlain, 54.

[xiii] Lossing, The Pictoral Field Book of the War of 1812, 867.

[xiv] Lossing, The Pictoral Field Book of the War of 1812, 867.