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Dr. James Mann's Account of
The Battle of Plattsburg

By James P. Millard

Dr. James Mann was the Army physician attached to the hospital at Crab Island immediately preceding and during the Battle of Plattsburg. As such, he was an eyewitness to the dramatic events that took place there- a primary source. Shortly after the war (1816) he wrote a treatise detailing his experiences treating soldiers during wartime. These quotes are taken directly from that 184 year old document- Mann's
 

 "MEDICAL SKETCHES OF THE CAMPAIGNS OF 1812,13,14,  TO WHICH ARE ADDED, SURGICAL CASES; OBSERVATIONS OF MILITARY HOSPITALS; AND FLYING HOSPITALS ATTACHED TO A MOVING ARMY." 

Few individuals were more qualified to write of the events surrounding the Battle of Plattsburg, especially what transpired on Crab Island. Mann here describes the events that took place on land as the British army drove south and attempted to cross the Saranac River, and on the lake; as the British fleet met that of Macdonough in the bay: (spelling and formatting are Mann's)

"While the army under the command of General IZARD retrograded from Champlain to Plattsburgh, the last week in August, and continued its route to Sackett's Harbour, the sick of that division were left at Plattsburgh, under my direction, with only one assistant capable of duty. Upon the 1st of September, the returns of the sick, including the regimental and hospitals reports, were 921.

  
The British army followed General IZARD'S retrograde march. Upon the 6th of September, Plattsburgh was invested with an army of between 14 and 15,000 men; when the sick unable to perform garrison duty were ordered to be transported to Crab Island, about two miles from the fortifications; as they could not be covered within the lines of defence. At this time the general hospital reports alone counted 720 men.

  
General M'COMB, learning that General Prevost, Commander in Chief of the British forces, was in full march over the line, had no doubt this powerful army, with the cooperation of the fleet, was destined to take possession of the post at Plattsburgh; which, at that time, was the depot of the munitions of war, for an army of ten thousand men, and which no time was had to remove, after General IZARD marched to the west.

  
The day previous to the investment of the post, General M'COMB ordered a detachment of 300 men under the command of Major WOOLS, to cross the Sarenac, and advance upon the enemy, who were met at Beeckman's town, distant eight miles. Major WOOLS, fell back, skirmishing, until he arrived at the lower bridge over the Sarenac, where its passage was disputed from ten o'clock in the morning until evening. Here Lieutenant RUNT, received a mortal wound while employed in taking up the planks of the bridge; which he survived two days; the only officer of the army killed during the investment.

   Between the 6th and 10th, feints were made by the British to cross the river at the several fording places; in consequence repeated skirmishings took place between the light troops. 

   On the 10th, the enemy fell back from the river, and firing ceased between the advanced piquets of the hostile armies preparatory to the ensuing attack.

On the 11th, the British fleet under the command of Commodore Downie, bore down upon Commodore Macdonough. At the same time the enemy, with a division of 2000 men, evinced his determination to cross the river, five miles south of the fortifications. He gained the southern bank without much opposition. The enemy, having advanced its columns about one mile from the river, was met by the volunteers from Vermont, under General Strong, and the drafted militia if the northern counties of New York, under the command of General Moeres. The enemy retreated with  considerable loss in killed, wounded, and prisoners; and recrossed the river with precipitation.

   During this gallant resistance made by the volunteers and militia, a heavy fire was opened from seven batteries upon the fortifications, some of which within the distance of 400 yards. These movements and operations on land were simultaneous with the attack of the British Commodore, upon the fleet under the command of Commodore Macdonough.

  
These combined assaults exhibited one vast military effort of the British general to gain the ascendency of the waters, and the borders of Lake Champlain.

   The fire, which was unceasingly vomited from the mouths of two hundred pieces of cannon, was terrible. The whole exhibition on water and land, in addition to the uninterrupted cracks of musketry, in the forests south of the fortifications, to a spectator in full view of the fleets and batteries, was awfully grand.

   The army of General M'comb seemed regardless of the cannonade against themselves; but were interested spectators of the conflict on the lake, looking forward to the event with extreme anxiety, well-knowing, that the security of this important post much depended on the success of the fleet. Two full hours victory was held in suspense; when an huzza on board the ship Saratoga announced its victory over its antagonist the British Commodore's ship, the Confiance. The brilliancy of this action was never surpassed, especially as the event was of highest importance to the nation.

   It belongs to the historian to do ample justice to the commanders of the land and navy forces; who directed, under Providence, the destinies of that day...1

To learn more about Crab Island and the Battle of Plattsburgh,
we recommend:
The Secrets of Crab Island

This writer believes Mann himself did indeed "do ample justice to the commanders of the land and navy forces... of that day." Fortunately for us, we have this record of the events that transpired that fateful September. Mann's work on Crab Island was itself nothing short of heroic. The scenes of misery that he and his sole medical assistant faced still bring pause to us today. 

Mann continues with details of what it was like on Crab Island following the battle:
 

"... this memorable action gave full employment to the surgeons of the army and navy. The wounded of both fleets, as well as the army, were ordered to Crab Island encampment, under my immediate charge. Within four day more than thirty amputations were performed on the United States' troops and seaman, and the British prisoners of war...1"
 

Quoting in his account a report "made by Hospital Surgeon's mate, Purcell," of the evacuation made to Burlington Hospital on the day of the battle, Mann continues:

 

"In consequence of the precipitate removal of the sick to Crab Island, in conformity to the orders of General Mc'comb of the 5th of September, the day previous to the investment of Plattsburgh by the British army; no straw was procured for their accommodation. The sick were consequently lodged under tents upon wet ground, during two or three days of wet weather, when straw was furnished from Grand Island in Lake Champlain....Many of the troops were labouring, at this time, under fevers of different forms; and diarrhoeas. The bad state of the sick, with their wretched accommodations, made it an object of high importance to remove them to a situation more comfortable. As the larger transports on the lake were employed in transporting warlike stores, no means were provided to convey the sick to Burlington Hospital, a distance of 25 miles, across the lake. Apprehensive that the sick would fall into the hands of the enemy, exposed as they were; and which must have been the case, had he gained the ascendency on the lake; it was suggested to transport  as many as were able to be moved in open batteaus to Burlington. The weather had been boisterous, and passage unsafe in small boats; but providentially, the winds subsided, and the waters became smooth; so that they arrived on the opposite shore without any unpleasant accident in small detachments; the last, on the day of the memorable action, between the fleets.

   The patients, at Burlington, found comfortable accommodations; their number, at this time, amounted to 815; 50 of whom were wounded. The evils arising from crowded wards were soon perceived; but could not, under existing circumstances, be remedied... the sick were slow in their recovery; while the diseases of some became worse... The men had been so reduced by long sickness, repeated removals, and exposures for eight or ten days, that evacuations could not be employed. 1"

 

And again returning to the situation on the Island:

"...After the battle of Lake Champlain, two cases of this discription, (a limb carried away by a ball) fell under my observation. A simple dressing was applied to the ragged stump. In this situation they were brought to the hospital. The wounds, having the appearance of being dressed, did not call our first attention when many presented, which required an immediate operation; and not being painful, were neglected on the day of the action. The following morning one was found dead, and the second having been exhausted by loss of blood, survived amputation only a few hours...

   At the engagement of Plattsburgh, Lieutenant Duncan of the navy, was wounded by a cannon ball... Lieutenant Duncan objected to amputation, saying he would rather lose his life than his arm; the loss of which he did not wish to survive... Two wounds of a similar description were received from cannon balls by two seamen of Commodore Macdonough's fleet, on the eleventh of September, 1814, in Plattsburgh Bay.1"

 

Dr. Mann, in this treatise, reproduces several letters he wrote during the most trying of times, explaining the deplorable conditions at the hospital and pleading for help. Some excerpts follow:
 

General Hospital, Plattsburgh, August 17, 1814    

SIR- There are in the general hospital at this cantonment, more than one hundred men, who require medical aid. These are under my sole care. In addition, Doctor WHeaton takes charge of the hospital in the village, in which are thirty patients. The several surgeons in this cantonment have each in their respective hospitals from fifty to ninety sick. Doctor WHeaton and myself are the only surgeons of the hospital department present, capable of duty; hospital surgeon's mate purcell being confined with an intermittent fever. In addition to my duty of prescribing, of making up my prescriptions, attending to the police of the hospitals, I have yet to provide for the accommodation of one hundred more recently sent up from the lines of the army at Chazy, without any hospital assistants; having no steward, no ward-master, no orderly, capable of making out provisions returns, (Steward and Ward-master being sick) nor even an attendant capable of preparing the diet in a suitable manner...1


Such was the situation in Mid-August, by September 1st, Mann writes:

On the 1st of September following, the hospital returns counted more than seven hundred, with one assistant only.

General Hospital, Plattsburgh, September 2, 1814   

Respected Sir- You will at one view perceive this division of the army, is not sufficiently furnished with medical aid. I have only one assistant, on whom much dependence can be placed, this is surgeon's mate Russell; Purcell is out of health...you will perceive there is placed on me, more duty than it is possible for me to perform.

September 3, 1814   

The sick and convalescents have been ordered to Burlington Vermont; but for want of transportation, are removing to Crabb Island, two miles and a half from the fortifications at Plattsburgh. Such of the convalescents as can perform garrison duty are ordered into the forts. More than five hundred have already arrived at Crabb Island, a barren uninhabited spot. Hospital tents to cover them have been furnished. Doctor Purcell is now my only assistant, and he is sick, Russell is ordered into one of the forts...

Crabb Island, September 10   

   We have received the wounded of the army, about forty. Four hundred, with the assistance of Commodore Macdonough, have been sent to Burlington Hospital from this place. I am left destitute of any assistant; except the services of Doctor Brown, and two medical students, who have volunteered themselves, my situation would be most unpleasant and distressing.

                                Respectfully your humble servant
                                James Mann, Hospital Surgeon1

 

Despite his earnest entreaties for assistance, Dr. Mann did not receive the assistance he felt so strongly was required. As boatload after boatload of the horribly sick, maimed and wounded arrived at Crab, Mann and his ailing assistant did everything they could to care for those poor souls in their care.

In a truly magnanimous gesture, Dr. Mann wrote of the dangers his colleagues endured in the forts, while minimizing his own situation on the island:
 

   During the investment of Plattsburgh by the enemy, the surgeons were constantly passing from fort to fort, or block-houses, to dress the wounded, exposed to a cross fire of round and grape shot; while the greater part of the army were covered by fortifications. The cool bravery of the surgeons were, in private conversation, noticed by the Commander in Chief; had half as much been reported to the War Department respecting them, they would have felt themselves amply compensated. While making this observation, I do not include myself; because I was snug on duty at Crabb Island, out of much danger, while our fleet continued master of the lake...1

 

Crab Island today betrays nothing of the scenes of death and horror that Dr. James Mann and so many other brave soldiers endured there. Other than the slowly decaying obelisk erected in the first part of the last century to their memory, nothing is left to tell the tale. Even the location of the mass graves, where it is said 149 seamen- British and American- are buried together in rows, is unknown and unmarked to this day.

It seems somehow fitting to conclude this brief narrative with the stirring words of Benjamin Silliman, who wrote while traveling aboard the steamboat Congress in 1819:


"...We passed close to the small island, called Crab-Island, to which the dead and wounded of both fleets were carried, and which was the common grave of hundreds of friends and foes. The particular details of the scenes of horror which attended and succeeded the battle--of the shocking mutilations of the human form, in every imaginable mode and degree, and of the appalling display on the beach, of so many bodies, dead and wounded, preparatory to their conveyance either to the hospital or the grave, I shall, for very obvious reasons, omit. Even now, their bones, slightly buried on a rocky island, are partly exposed to view, or being occasionally turned up by the roots of trees, blown down by the wind, shock the beholder, and their buttons, and other parts of their clothes, (for the military dresses in which they were slain, were also their winding sheets,) are often seen above ground. Long may it be, e'er the waters of this now peaceful lake are again crimsoned with human blood.2"

View of Crab Island from the west, approaching monument  The northernmost point of Crab Island, Plattsburgh in distance Photos: Left, the western shore of Crab Island, showing the monument. Right, the northern shore of Crab, probably the location where the sick and wounded were received. This is also the location of the two-gun battery manned by invalids at the hospital. It was off the northern shore that the British warship Finch foundered. (click on the thumbnails to see a full-size image)

For a listing of other Crab Island and Battle of Plattsburgh related pages on the Site, including Jim Millard's Secrets of Crab Island, click HERE.


Sources/Notes:

1 James Mann,  "MEDICAL SKETCHES OF THE CAMPAIGNS OF 1812, 13, 14. TO WHICH ARE ADDED, SURGICAL CASES; OBSERVATIONS ON MILITARY HOSPITALS; AND FLYING HOSPITALS ATTACHED TO A MOVING ARMY." 1816  (DEDHAM: Printed by H. Mann and Co.) 

2 Benjamin Silliman,  "Remarks Made on a Short Tour Between Hartford and Quebec in the Autumn of 1819." (New Haven, CT. 1820. S. Converse) 375

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