PLATTSBURGH — The true accounts of what happened in and around Plattsburgh on Sept. 11, 1814, are steadily coming to light.
And, those facts have been amplified by the recently published “The Battles at Plattsburgh,” by Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith A. Herkalo.
For years, decades and even centuries, historians and history buffs alike debated over the activities surrounding the battle that saw an inferior American force defeat the mighty British military and, in effect, win the War of 1812 for the fledgling American nation.
Herkalo, who has devoted a great deal of time and energy over the last few decades to researching the records from people who made history on that Sunday morning, uncovered information that had always been available but not always used in recounting the day’s events.
“If you boil it all down, this book puts to bed Allan Everest’s research,” Herkalo said of the famous North Country historian who influenced Herkalo’s efforts more than anyone else. “It proves that he was right (in his accounts and descriptions of the battle).
“I’m tickled pink (about the publication). The Plattsburgh story is out there, but it still doesn’t get any respect. I like to say that we suffer from a lack of ‘megalopolis.’”
National historians still focus on areas like Baltimore and New Orleans as significant battle locations during the closing months of the War of 1812, but those areas were used as diversionary tactics by the British while the empire’s main focus was on securing Lake Champlain.
Herkalo was careful in titling his book “The Battles at Plattsburgh” rather than the common reference “Battle of Plattsburgh” because of the various strategies taking place on land and water.
“One of the items Allen Everett pointed out was that, yes, what happened on the lake was very important,” Herkalo said, noting that the American victory culminated when the British lowered their flag on Cumberland Bay.
“There were two groups of vessels (on the bay) that beat each other up for two hours,” he added. “I liken it to two prize fighters going nine rounds and never touching the mat. Then, one raises his hand and says, ‘I quit.’
“The British were defeated by time. Macdonough beat them into submission.”
But the land battles represented a much different story, and Herkalo wanted to put just as much effort into those accounts as the more famous naval battle.
Gen. Alexander Macomb, commander of about 1,500 American troops on land, faced a British force of more than 10,000, including seasoned veterans who had recently defeated Napoleon in Europe and were discharged to America to end what the British felt was an annoyance.
Herkalo describes in detail the efforts of Macomb and his men to “trick” the British into thinking they faced a much larger force and to lead the British soldiers away from the center of Plattsburgh and the naval encounter.
Herkalo first self-published an account of the battles in 2006 but was recently contacted by History Press in South Carolina, which had an interest in publishing the volume.
He had also been in contact with noted Canadian historian Donald E. Graves, who praised the original manuscript and encouraged Herkalo to move ahead with publication.
“I read the preliminary edition of the book with great interest, and I am glad that, in light of the forthcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, Keith has decided to bring out this revised and upgraded version,” Graves said in the book’s foreword.
Key additions to the book include an account that clearly shows the British had developed a plan to end the War of 1812 in 1812 and the updated evidence that proves the whereabouts of Pike’s Cantonment, where American soldiers wintered during the war.
The book’s front cover depicts an image of the naval battle on Cumberland Bay. Herkalo chose this print by Luther Stevens over the more famous painting by Julian Davidson that has been used in countless publications.
He also picked the Stevens version over a similar rendition by Hugh Reinagle and Benjamin Tanner.
Stevens produced his account in 1815 and was known to have been in Plattsbugh during the battle; Herkalo could find no evidence that Reinagle or Tanner had ever been in Plattsburgh, and they first reproduced their prints in 1816.
Ironically, the Reinagle/Tanner print hangs in the City Hall display with the anchor from the Battle of Plattsburgh American flagship Confiance. In that rendition, soldiers on the shoreline are wearing American uniforms; in Stevens’ account, the soldiers wear British uniforms.
The image of the naval battle is viewed from the shores of Cumberland Head, and the soldiers there at the time could not have been American, Herkalo noted.
With positive sales over the first few weeks of publication, History Press is planning to make the volume available through Kindle in the upcoming weeks.
Email Jeff Meyers: email@example.com
FIND A COPY
“The Battles at Plattsburgh,” by Keith Herkalo, is available at bookstores, independent retailers and online. It is also available directly through the publisher at (866) 457-5971 or historypress.net. ISBN: 978-1-60949-516-9. Paperback, 192 pages. Suggested price: $19.99.