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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)

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

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"