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Coffin: Vermonters At Plattsburgh

Two hundred years ago this autumn, as chilly winds announced winter’s advance down the Green Mountain's spine, farmers at many Vermont hearth sides were surely telling stories of soldiering along the Saranac River where they defeated the redcoats in what has become known as the Battle of Plattsburgh. To steal a phrase from Winston Churchill, it was one of Vermont’s finest hours.

When thinking of that battle today, I am reminded of  a breezy blue sky day in 1960, while I stood atop the White Cliffs of Dover and gazed at the hazy French coast across the English Channel. I was there with an English lady who told me of watching the great British evacuation of Dunkirk 20 years before.

I’d heard the story of Dunkirk as a child; how Nazi forces trapped 300,000 British and French soldiers around the French seaport of Dunkirk early in World War Two and how the seafaring English reacted en masse. Hundreds of privately-owned vessels made the crossing under fire, to evacuate most of those troops. They went in pleasure craft of all sizes, even tugboats, supplementing British naval vessels in a daring rescue. It now occurs to me that the Battle of Plattsburgh might be thought of as a Dunkirk of sorts, though on a much smaller scale – and in reverse.

In September 1814 a British army of some 9,000 men, veterans of the Napoleonic campaigns, crossed the international border into New York state and headed for the town of Plattsburgh. Also moving into American territory, from the Richelieu River, was a powerful British fleet, including the monster vessel Confiance, with 36 cannon.

Commodore Thomas McDonough waited in Plattsburgh bay with an American fleet, mostly constructed the previous winter at Vergennes. But facing the British infantry, the world’s best, were only 1,500 New York militia. So the word went forth to Vermont: HELP.

As they had thirty seven years before, Vermont militiamen and volunteers heeded the warning that the Redcoats were coming  and headed for Plattsburgh. And Reminiscent of Dunkirk, they crossed Champlain in anything from rowboats to sailboats to scows. When the British attacked, Vermonters well outnumbered New Yorkers in the American land force - now 4000 strong.

The British infantry at morning feigned a frontal attack on the town, while most of their force moved three miles upstream to ford the Saranac. As the thunder of heavy guns sounded from the naval battle underway in the bay, the British regulars were met by brisk American musketry, much from the Vermonter volunteers, and it didn’t last long.

When word reached the British infantry that their fleet had surrendered in Plattsburgh Bay, they broke off the fight. That night they headed back to British territory – taking with them the last British hopes for victory in the War of 1812.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the Civil War.
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