Guest post by Carl Benn
We normally think of native people in the War of 1812 participating in traditional war parties, which is accurate for the vast majority of the Iroquoian, Algonquian, Siouan, and Muskogean peoples of eastern North America who took up arms between 1812 and 1815. A small number, however, served within Euro-American militaries, or at the intersections between native and newcomer formations, such as in the British Indian Department (which had a number of officers who were native). One aboriginal man who served in the United States Army was William Apess (or Apes). He saw action along the border between New York and today’s Quebec in 1813 and 1814, including the Battle of Plattsburgh in September 1814. Now, 200 years later, as people in northern New York commemorate that event, it is worth recalling Apess’s participation, especially because he published his memories of the battle.
William Apess came from the Pequot nation, one of the Algonkian-speaking peoples of New England. Originally from Connecticut, he found himself down on his luck in New York City in 1813 and, like many young men of any origin, became easy prey for a recruiting party. He joined an artillery regiment, trained at fortifications around New York harbor, then fought at Châteauguay and Odelltown late in 1813 and early in 1814 when the British defended Canada successfully against American invasion. Later in 1814, the British took the offensive when large numbers of reinforcements arrived in North America following the (temporary) end of the great war in Europe against Napoleon Bonaparte. Part of that deployment saw the British march into northern New York in September in anticipation of seizing Plattsburgh to secure the border area against further American attempts to invade Canada and to give the United Kingdom additional advantages in negotiating peace with the United States.
The British army entered the north side of Plattsburgh on September 6 with 8,100 men, and the opposing armies exchanged artillery and infantry fire for the next several days. On September 11, the Royal Navy squadron near the town suffered defeat at the hands of the U.S. Navy on Lake Champlain. That was an important victory for the Americans because the overall British commander, Sir George Prevost, decided against continuing his attack on Plattsburgh. He thought the American naval force could support the town’s defenders, threaten his communications lines, and even nullify the strategic value of a land victory in the negotiations to end the war. Therefore, rather than risk high causalities in an assault that might be of limited value, Prevost withdrew north to Canada.
In 1831, William Apess published a revised version of his 1829 memoir, A Son of the Forest – an important and early indigenous autobiography that has been receiving increased scholarly attention in recent years. One part of it recalled the Battle of Plattsburgh:
“… the enemy made his appearance on Lake Champlain with his vessels of war. It was a fine thing to see their noble vessels moving like things of life upon this mimic sea, with their streamers floating in the wind. This armament was intended to cooperate with the army … and at that very time in view of our troops. They presented a very imposing aspect. Their red uniforms and the instruments of death, which they bore in their hands, glittered in the sunbeams of heaven like so many sparkling diamonds. … The enemy, in all the pomp and pride of war, had sat down before the town and its slender fortifications and commenced a cannonade, which we returned without much ceremony. Congreve rockets, bombshells, and cannonballs poured upon us like a hailstorm. There was scarcely any intermission, and for six days and nights we did not leave our guns, and during that time the work of death paused not, as every day some shot took effect. During the engagement, I had charge of a small [ammunition] magazine … The British [naval] commander bore down on our vessels [on Lake Champlain] in gallant style. As soon as the enemy showed fight, our men flew to their guns. Then the work of death and carnage commenced. The adjacent shores resounded with the alternate shouts of the sons of liberty and the groans of their parting spirits. A cloud of smoke mantled the heavens, shutting out the light of day, while the continued roar of artillery added to the sublime horrors of the scene. At last, the boasted valor of the Britons failed them. They quailed before the incessant and well-directed fire of our brave and hardy tars and, after a hard-fought battle, surrendered to the foe they had been sent to crush. On land the battle raged pretty fiercely. … As soon as the British commander had seen the fleet fall into the hands of the Americans, his boasted courage forsook him, and he ordered his army of heroes … to retreat … This was indeed a proud day for our country.”
Apess’s description of the battle is fascinating partly because he embraced the common American patriotism of the period. Yet, it also is curious because so much of his autobiography consists of a thorough condemnation of the United States and its citizens for the way they treated aboriginal peoples by taking their land and by otherwise exploiting them, as he experienced himself during his life. At one point for instance, he reflected on his enlistment, writing, “I could not think why I should risk my life and limbs in fighting for the white man who had cheated my forefathers out of their land.” In balancing the two aspects of his memoirs, we are reminded of the ambiguity and ambivalence that marked so much of the native experience, particularly in those regions where indigenous people lived surrounded by the Euro-American world, as in much of New England, in contrast to more westerly regions of the Republic where natives continued to exercise considerable independence. William Apess’s autobiography also allows us to see how diverse the aboriginal world was in the period, and warns us not to homogenize or simplify what is, in effect, a very complex – but most fascinating – story.
For more on the Battle of Plattsburgh bicentennial events this weekend, visit the website of the War of 1812 Council – Lake Champlain Region.
Carl Benn is the author of numerous works on the War of 1812 and First Nations history, including Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto.