A Woman’s Heroism, Battle of Plattsburgh – 1814
While researching the Ticonderoga Historical Society’s library collection for material on the War of 1812 as it relates to Ticonderoga and the Lake Champlain Region, this writer came upon a personal remembrance by a naval officer aboard the “Eagle. “ He speaks about his activities in preparing the ship; and, later his actions during the naval engagement, at the Battle of Plattsburgh, September 11th, 1814. Something unexpected is revealed in this narrative — an incidental bit of history — of a woman’s heroism aboard the ship. Later in life, the narrative’s writer, Admiral Joseph Smith (1790-1877), told his story to Rear Admiral A.S. Barker, (1845-1916) -U.S.N. It was published in “The Navy” in 1914 on the eve of the Battle of Plattsburgh Centennial Celebration. (From THS’s Henry Noble Collection)
Admiral Albert Smith Barker (1845-1916)
“When the Eagle joined the flotilla, near Plattsburg, on Lake Champlain, I was serving on the Saratoga, Commodore Macdonough’s flagship, as a Second Lieutenant. One day the Commodore told me to pack my trunk, as he was going to transfer me to the Eagle, to be her First Lieutenant, Capt. Henley having asked for me. The Commodore took me to her in his own boat.
The Eagle required a good deal of work to get her in good fighting trim, as she was a new vessel, mounting twenty guns. I worked hard fitting rigging and sails, working early and late — frequently with palm and needle myself — until she was tolerably well fitted out. But we were short of men to work the guns. I got Capt. Henley’s permission to urge the Commodore to let us have some of the crew of his flagship, and at last he agreed to give me forty men, twenty to be selected by me from volunteers, and the other twenty to be selected by his First Lieutenant. As almost every one volunteered, I picked out twenty good men; and of course, the First Lieutenant gave me the twenty he considered the least desirable. Still, there were not enough to work the guns properly.
Battle of Plattsburgh, September 11, 1814
A few days before the fight I got permission to go on shore to see if I could get any our soldiers to help us out. The Commodore gave me a note to Gen. Macomb, commanding our army; but Macomb would not let me have any men, saying he had not enough soldiers to defend the place, and he was expecting the British General, with a superior force, to make an attack at almost any time.
” ‘Well, General, ‘ said I, ‘haven’t you a lot of prisoners that you would like to be rid of?”
” ‘Yes, indeed, ” he said; ‘you may have all my prisoneers, if you want them; ” and he gave me a note to the officer in charge.
“These prisoners were soldiers who were undergoing punishment for various offenses. They were all at work with ball and chain, digging trenches in a kind of red loam. They were sent for, and came in with their faces and clothes – what few clothes they had — covered with red dirt — a hard-looking set. I told them I had come to take them to the Eagle to fight.
“The prisoners were delighted at the prospect; so I had their irons knocked off and marched them down to the landing. Although I had a good sized boat, it took two trips to get them aboard the Eagle. I think there were about forty of them. They were then scrubbed, had their hair cut and beards trimmed, and their dirty old clothes exchanged for purser’s clothing.
“I stationed them at the guns, and drilled them morning and night until the fight came off.
“Just before the battle half a dozen musicians belonging to the band on shore came aboard, and with them the wife of one of the musicians. I stationed the woman near the magazine, as far from danger as possible.
Old Song – “Erie and Champlain”
“The Eagle had the head of the line, and was anchored with springs on her cable.
“The British flagship tried to take a position ahead, so as to rake the line, but failed. She then let go an anchor, and veered until she brought up abreast of the Saratoga. Another British vessel, however, succeeded in the same maneuver and raked the Eagle. When the British flagship passed us, we opened fire on her, and kept on firing as long as our guns would bear; then, we gave our attention to the British vessel ahead.
“As our springs had been shot away, we could not use them as we had intended; so I sent a Midshipman in a boat with a kedge and line, hoping to wind the ship. While superintending this work, I was knocked off a gun on which I was standing by a shot that tore my coat badly. My head struck the deck, and I was carried below senseless; but soon as I came to I went on deck again.
“We finally cut our cable and drifted down on our flagship’s quarter, or nearly astern, where we could pay good attention to the British flagship.
“In a little more than two hours of hard fighting, with the sea as smooth as a mill pond, the Brititsh vessels struck.
“Many were killed, but the battle saved our army, and , in other respects, was an important victory.
“During the engagement the woman who had been stationed near the magazine took the place of a powder man who had been killed, and carried cartridges in her arms to the guns. To do this she had to step over the bodies of some of the dead, and among them she recognized her husband.”
NYS Commission, Plattsburgh Centenary Booklet, 1914
The following is Captain Henley’s Letter to Secretary of War Jones regarding the battle:
“We were anchored in the harbor of Plattsburgh in a line north and south, at about the distance of 100 yards, the Eagle north, the Saratoga in the center, and the Ticonderoga south. The enemy approached in a line abreast, having a favorable wind that enabled them to choose their position. The enemy’s brig took a station off the starboard bow of the Eagle at about 1 mile distance, the ship about one point abaft our beam, and the sloop Linnet, of 11 guns, made an effort to obtain a raking position under our stern. Perceiving her intentions, however, I ordered a broadside to be fired into her, which caused her to strike her colors. As soon as the enemy approached within point blank distance, this brig commenced a most destructive fire upon their ship and continued to direct her whole broadside, excluding the 18 pounders forward, which were occasionally fired at the brig, who relieved her position as occasion required, and kept up a raking and most destructive fire upon this vessel.
I was confident that it was of the greatest importance to endeavor first to carry the enemy’s ship to insure us of success. Her great length of time after the action commenced the enemy’s ship leveled her whole force upon the Eagle, dealing out destruction.
After having sustained the severest of the action for the space of one hour, having my springs shot away and many of the starboard guns disabled, it was out of my power to bring a gun to bear upon the ship or brig. Consequently I ordered the cable cut and cast the brig, taking an advantageous position a little south of the Saratoga, bringing my larboard broadside to bear upon the ship which was very shortly obligated to haul down here colors. Our fire was then directed to the brig; under the space of eight minutes she struck and the victory terminated in our favor. We then turned our attention to the galleys, some of which, it is believed, sunk, and the remainder made their escape. The Eagle was in too shattered a condition to pursue them.” (Note: The Eagle was holed 39 times and had 13 men killed and 20 men were wounded.)
If any of our readers have any information regarding the name of this woman, or of the military band members, we would welcome this information.
On Friday, April 25th, 2014, Robert Lamb, THS trustee, will present a “Battle of Plattsburgh, September 1814” program at the Hancock House.
The Ticonderoga Historical Society would welcome volunteer assistance working with our library collection.