Peterson, Charles J. "Alexander Macomb (1782-1841)." Chap. in Military Heroes of the War of 1812: with a Narrative of the War, 185-90. Philadelphia : James B. Smith & Co., 1852. HTML & Ed. Marshall Davies Lloyd (October 12, 1999).
BY CHARLES J. PETERSON.
PUBLISHED BY JAMES B. SMITH & CO.,
No. 27 SOUTH SEVENTH STREET.
Peterson, Charles J. "Alexander Macomb (1782-1841)." Chap. in Military Heroes of the War or 1812: with a Narrative of the War, 185-90. Philadelphia: James B. Smith & Co., 1852.
N the struggle for Independence the west was a wilderness, and consequently could furnish no heroes for the war. But since that period, it has supplied, perhaps, more soldiers and Generals than any other section. Alexander Macomb was the first military commander born in the west who rose to distinction. His birth occurred at Detroit, in the present state of Michigan, on the 3d of April, 1782. While still a child, however, the family removed to New York, and young Macomb was placed at a celebrated school in Newark, N. J., to be educated. Here he remained several years.
In 1798, the difficulties with France became so serious as to threaten hostilities, and preparations were made actively throughout the Union for a war with that republic. Among others, young Macomb tendered his sword to his country, and was enrolled in a company called the "New York Rangers," whose services had been offered and accepted by the President. The ambition of the young volunteer soon aspired to a commission in the regular army, and, in 1799, he succeeded in obtaining the appointment of a Cornet. The difficulties between the United States and France being amicably adjusted, most of those who had enlisted for the war, retired to more peaceful avocations. Macomb, however, had a, strong military bent, and was eager to continue in the service. Accordingly, on the subsequent formation of a corps of engineers, he was appointed to a lieutenancy in it, and stationed, for a time, at West Point. In 1805, he rose to the rank of Captain, and in 1808, to that of Major. During all this time he remained in the engineers. When, however, the war of 1812 broke out, he asked to be transferred to the artillery, because there would be little opportunity of distinguishing himself in his old corps. He had, during his comparatively long service earned a reputation for substantial merit, and, in consequence his request was granted. He was appointed a Colonel, and given the command of the third regiment. This regiment had yet to be raised, but the ranks were not long in filling up; for in November, 1812, Macomb was able to join the army on the northern frontier, with his new command. Here he distinguished himself at Niagara and Fort George. In January, 1814, he was raised to the rank of Brigadier. The charge of the country bordering on Lake Champlain, was now entrusted to him, and it was here that he won the battle of Plattsburgh, one of the most gallant victories of the war.
The summer of 1814 was a gloomy one for the United States. The war in Europe had just been brought to a close by the abdication of Napoleon, and the British veterans, thus disengaged, were sent, at once, across the Atlantic. During the month of July, transports continually arrived in the St. Lawrence, crowded with the troops of Wellington. By the first of August, fifteen thousand men had been added to the British disposable force in the Canadas. Nor were these reinforcements composed of ordinary soldiers. On the contrary, they were culled from the flower of the English army--from the conquerors of Badajoz, San Sebastian, and Bayonne. The battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane assisted, in a measure, to remove the public despondency, by proving that, against equal numbers, our regular troops, when ably commanded, had little to
fear. But the peril consisted in the overwhelming forces of the enemy. Not a week passed in the month of August, which did not bring more transports from Europe, with fresh additions of veteran soldiers to increase the already overflowing army in the Canadas. After numerous additions had been made to the force on the Niagara, there remained fourteen thousand men on the lower St. Lawrence; and these, organized under Sir George Prescott, were destined, it was secretly whispered, to move down Lake Champlain, seize the line of the Hudson, and cutting off New England from the rest of the confederation, finish by capturing the city of New York.
When this bold design became first known to the Americans, they had no army on Champlain competent for resistance, for General Izard had just marched towards Niagara with all his disposable strength, in order to relieve Fort Erie. Macomb, who now found himself the senior officer, had no organized battalions, if we except four companies of the sixth regiment. The remainder of his force, which amounted only to about fifteen hundred effective men, was composed of convalescents and recruits of the new regiments. His works were weak; the stores were in confusion; the ordnance out of order; and, in short, everything in the worst possible condition to face an active, enterprising and veteran foe. Every day intelligence was brought in that the enemy had approached nearer. His proclamations soon revealed that his design was to attack Plattsburgh. At this the inhabitants fled in alarm. Macomb was quickly left with no assistance beyond his regulars, except what was derived from a few men and boys, who, ashamed to desert their homes like others, formed themselves into a company, received rifles, and went zealously to work.
But the emergency found the American General with a mind equal to its demands. A different spirit pervaded him from that which had led to disgrace under Hull and Wilkinson. In 1813, perhaps, the Americans would have abandoned Plattsburgh without a blow; but a new race of men had risen to be leaders, and the people, who always catch more or less of the feelings of their Generals were now as confident as they would then have been desponding. Macomb did all he could to increase that confidence. He reminded his men of what their fellow-soldiers had achieved at Chippewa and Lundy's Lane; and assured them, that if possessed of a like resolution, they could as nobly sustain the honor of their flag. He divided his little force into detachments, and assigned them stations near the several forts, declaring, in his general orders, that each detachment was the garrison of its own work, and must rely
entirely on itself. He lost no time in rallying the country people to his assistance. He urged General Mooers, of the militia, to make a levy en masse. When the troops began to come in he sent them forward to break up the roads and destroy the bridges. In a word, the same system which had been tried with such success to defeat Burgoyne, was now vigorously applied to check the advance of Prevost. Yet, for awhile, every effort to arrest the progress of the British proved abortive. The detachments sent out to meet the van of the enemy, fell back in confusion. With the proud step of assured conquerors, the English advanced against Plattsburgh, and on the 6th of September, made their appearance before that place, driving in impetuously, the parties of militia that attempted to skirmish on their front. Even a body of riflemen that met the enemy debouching from a wood, failed to arrest him. A battery of field pieces, that next opened on him, had no better success. Undaunted, those scarred and sun-burnt veterans, the heroes of a hundred conflicts on the hills of Spain, pressed shouting on, never deploying in their whole march, but advancing vauntingly in columns.
The village of Plattsburgh is situated on the north-west side of a stream called the Saranac, which, at no great distance, empties into Lake Champlain. The American works were placed on the other side of the river, opposite the town. Consequently, when the enemy had driven in the skirmishing parties of our little army, no resource remained but to abandon the village and retreat to the shelter of the works. In order to cover this movement, the field-pieces were hurried across the bridge, and hastily thrown into battery, when a furious and incessant fire was opened on the advancing masses of the British. The troops, as they retired, moreover, kept up a running discharge of volleys on the foe. By this means every corps succeeded in effecting its escape. The enemy maintained the pursuit, however, with the utmost gallantry, and, on reaching the bridge, threw parties of sharp-shooters into the neighboring houses, from the windows and balconies of which a continual fire was kept up on the Americans. Several desperate but unavailing attempts were made by the enemy to drive the guards from the bridge. The Americans, annoyed by the sharp-shooters, now opened with hot shot on the houses where these men had stationed themselves. Soon the fiery missives took effect, Speedily several dwellings were in a blaze. Driven from their foothold here, the British fell back. Thus the afternoon wore away. As the dusk began to fall, the Americans retiring wholly across the bridge, tore up its planks, and formed breast works with them. Night settled down, but the battle raged.
The roar of the artillery, the rattle of musketry, the whistling of the balls, and the occasional cheers of the combatants, rose up in awful discord, while the lurid appearance of the hot shot, and the conflagration that lit up the sky when some fresh house took fire, added to the horrors of the scene. At last, the British drew off, and abandoned all attempts to force a passage. Not only at the main bridge, .but at one higher up, defended by militia, the foe had been repulsed, with heavy loss.
When morning dawned, it was discovered that the enemy were throwing up
intrenchments entrenchments, and the spies soon brought in intelligence of the approach of his battering train. There was no fear, consequently, of an assault that day. Macomb employed the respite in sending off new couriers to raise the neighboring country-people. To his troops he spoke in grateful terms for the bravery they had shown, with the exception of some of the militia, on the preceding day, and on these latter, he said he was assured he should, on the next occasion, have nothing but praises to bestow. The volunteers from New York and Vermont, as well as the regular drafts of militia, came pouring into the camp. Macomb immediately disposed them along the shores of the Saranac. Continual skirmishes occurred for the next four days, and more than once the British resumed their attempts to cross the bridges. As he had expected, Macomb now found the militia behaving with the utmost spirit. Every day increased their confidence in themselves, while it diminished their dread of the enemy. The American General, as soon as his reinforcements would permit, despatched dispatched a strong body in the rear of the British army, with orders to harass it day and night. Meantime, the regulars were kept assiduously at work on the intrenchments entrenchments. The final trial of strength Macomb knew could not be very distant, for the enemy's fleet was hourly advancing, and every moment a naval engagement might be expected, which would, necessarily, lead to an attack on land.
The expected battle occurred on the 11th. Early on the morning of that day, the British squadron appeared in sight, and about nine o'clock, anchored within three hundred yards of the American fleet under McDonough, and commenced a brisk cannonade. Simultaneously, the batteries of the enemy opened against Macomb's
defences defenses. The anxious eyes of his army were now called away from the naval contest, to watch the demonstrations of their more immediate enemy on land. Three several times the British attempted to carry the American works. On the first occasion the assault was made at the village bridge, where it was promptly
repulsed by the regulars. Amid a tempest of balls and bombs, the soldiers of the enemy were seen rushing to the attack, bearing innumerable scaling ladders, and cheering as they came on. But, unappalled by the spectacle, the regulars stood firm, and delivered such well-aimed volleys, that the storming party fell back. A second attempt, made at the upper bridge, was also repulsed. The enemy now turned his attention towards a ford, about three miles from the works, hoping to find it unguarded, but here the militia lined the wooded shore of the stream, and under cover of the trees, poured in a destructive fire. Nevertheless, one company of the English army, stung with shame at being thus held in check by this irregular force, after the most desperate efforts, succeeded in crossing the stream. But the rest of their companions, failing to follow, they were killed or taken prisoners, to a man.
Throughout the whole day, the British maintained their cannonade on the American works. From nine o'clock until sunset, a continual roar of artillery, intermingled with the sharper reports of musketry, stunned the ears, and shook the solid ramparts. Round shot bounded around the works, rockets hissed through the sky, and bombs tore up the ground where the Americans stood; while, for a part of the day, the sounds of the naval conflict boomed louder and louder across the water. At one point of the battle, it was thought that McDonough had surrendered. But when the smoke blew away, the American stars and stripes were still seen floating. At last the British struck. At this sight, a wild huzza rose up spontaneously, from the troops on shore. At dusk the enemy ceased his cannonade, destroyed his batteries, and secretly made preparations for removing his baggage, a course rendered absolutely necessary by the unexpected destruction of his fleet. In the dead of the night, abandoning his sick and wounded, he began a precipitate retreat. The spoils of the Americans were immense. The English had retired eight miles before their flight was discovered. The pursuit was then immediately begun, but a heavy storm prevented any fruits, except a few prisoners, who were cut off from the rear guard.
For his conduct in this
defence defense, Macomb was brevetted a Major-General. On the conclusion of peace, he remained in the army, and was appointed to the command of the north-western frontier. In 1821, he removed to Washington, as chief of the corps of engineers. On the death of General Brown, Macomb became commander-in-chief of the army. His decease occurred at the, capitol, June 25th, 1841.
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