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Battle of Plattsburgh, with Crab Island in the distance

In this contemporary view of the Battle of Plattsburgh, Crab Island can be seen at center left,
with HMS Finch aground off the island's NE shore.

The Secrets of Crab Island: Part VI

War of 1812- The Battle of Plattsburg
The Military Hospital, Battery and Burial Ground

By James P. Millard

Once again the winds of war would blow south over the crucial Richelieu River/Lake Champlain corridor. The region played a key role in what has been referred to as America's second war of independence. Repeated American incursions into Canada had proven disastrous and now the British had decided to bring the war into the United States. In September 1814 the British invasion began, a massive force surged south over  land and water. They would meet their foes at a place named Plattsburg.

The British army and navy were not the only enemies the young American military had to deal with. Disease and desertion were formidable foes for both sides. A pressing need to deal with both brought tiny Crab Island to the attention of the American forces here. Army surgeon James Mann tells us much about the situation in Plattsburg at the time:

Dr. Mann's account of the scene at Crab Island

"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.
"1

Plattsburg was the scene of feverish activity as the British onslaught pushed south from the border. The residents of the town had fled; General Alexander Macomb decided to use the natural barrier of the Saranac River as an aid in his defense against the invaders. A series of fortifications were hastily erected on the south bank of the river, time was of the essence- those unable to work were transported to Crab Island.

On September 3, Dr. Mann wrote his superiors in an earnest plea for assistance:

"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..." 2

By September 10, hundreds had been evacuated south to the hospital at Burlington. However, the engagements at Culver Hill and Halsey's Corners resulted in another 40 or so wounded being shipped to the tents on the island. Mann wrote of the distressing situation on the island. His troubles were nothing compared to what was in store the next morning.

September 11, 1814
The Battle of Plattsburgh

September 11th dawned and two mighty navies clashed just north of Crab Island in Cumberland Bay. The deafening roar of cannon fire was accompanied by clouds of smoke blocking the view of the fearsome conflict. Midway through the action, the invalid crew manning a two-gun battery on the northeast shore was stunned to find the British sloop Finch bearing down upon the island. Soon, the vessel was hopelessly aground upon the reef. Gallant efforts were made to lighten the ship so that it might return to the fight, to no avail. Four 18-pounder carronades were tossed overboard, nothing helped. The battery on Crab opened up on the stranded ship with round and grape shot. The Finch returned fire. According to her Captain, William Hicks, the crew of the Finch "had the pleasure of killing or wounding every man at the guns on shore and silence them."3 The contingent at Crab Island contributed some of their own ranks to the services of the surgeons.

When the terrible battle was over, the hospital on the island received the wounded of both fleets. Dreadful scenes of death and destruction were everywhere as boat after boat arrived with their appalling cargo. The British flagship Confiance alone contributed some 83 wounded, 41 of them listed as "dangerously or seriously wounded." This, on top of 40 killed outright on the ship during the battle.4 Along with the British dead and wounded came the American combatants. Mortal enemies who just hours before had fought furiously with each other now lay side by side in rows in the hospital tents. Outside the tents, rows upon rows of British and American warriors, many not much older than children, together awaited the burial that must come soon.

Other than Dr. James Mann's account of the situation on Crab Island, only one other account has come to light detailing the situation on Crab Island immediately following the battle. Printed in the Plattsburgh Republican of September 22, 1877 it records the recollections of Simeon Doty of Chazy.

Simeon Doty's account

"...Mr. Doty was a member of Captain Hazen's company on Grand Isle and was on that island the day the battle was fought, the troops there being unable to get across to help their comrades. He crossed the next day (Monday, Sept. 12), however, with Capt. Hazen and others in a small boat, and went on board several of the vessels which had been in the battle; and among others the one which Commodore Downie was killed [Confiance], and whose body he saw wrapped up below. He also saw Commodore Macdonough pacing the deck of his own vessel with his colored servant near him and afterwards went ashore on Crab Island where the dead were being taken by jolly boats and buried, the wounded being already there.

The boats landed on the north end of the island next to Cumberland Head and the hospital tents were located just south of the landing in the bushes. These tents were built of boards and canvass and were ranged from east to west. A sentry who wore a red coat and who, Mr. Doty thinks, was a British prisoner, was pacing up and down between the tents and keeping guard. He saw many of the bodies were terribly mutilated as they were brought ashore- in some cases only dismembered limbs and other portions having been found, and he recollects well of seeing human entrails and other parts which, as he supposes, had been thrown overboard from the vessels, floating up to the shore at the landing. Inside tents the scene was a terrible one. Shrieks from the wounded soldiers who were undergoing operations at the hands of the surgeons rent the air; others were crying and begging for relief from their sufferings, while men were constantly carrying out the dead on rude biers made of poles to the burial yard south of the hospital tents.

Here our informant saw trenches dug, ranging from north to south into which the bodies were placed. Some of them were rolled up in blankets and other had only their ordinary clothing on; their heads were placed to the west and their faces downward. The Americans and British were buried indiscriminately together, probably to the number of at least one hundred, and there they lie today, their graves unmarked, save by a number of long rude mounds indicating the site of the ditches in which they were huddled sixty-three years ago. A visit to Crab Island last Saturday disclosed this to us, and also a few decayed scraps of boards which mark the spot where the hospital tents stood." 5

Some time later Caleb Nichols, the owner of the island at the time of its use by the American forces, submitted a bill to the government. This document, on display at the Clinton County Historical Museum in Plattsburgh, is transcribed here with their permission:
 

The Caleb Nichols bill*

The United States

To C. Nichols, Dr.

For rent of and damages done to Crab Island by Commodore Macdonough's Fleet before the 20th October 1814.

1st.  For 50 Cords of Timber taken from or used on the island
2.  For 10 Sticks of Timber for use of the Fleet
3.  For building and occupying on the Island, one Hospital, one Store House and one House, one Kitchen and several Necessaries for the uses of Surgeons and Sick of the Fleet, by which, besides the Rent of the Island, it being proper for Naval purposes, on account of the Size of the Island and its Situation in the Lake to prevent desertion. The following damages were sustained.
  50.00
    5.00
1st.  Three acres of Meadow were so frequently run over by the Sick and dug up to get worms to fish with as to be destroyed so that it could not be mowed this year.
  50.00
2.  Occupying four acres of Garden or possessing them in Such Manner as to render them useless and for want of improvement to permit them to grow up to Canada thistles.
100.00
3.  A Cow running over the whole for a long time.  10.00
4.  Burying 150 men on the Island.150.00
5.  Taking down a log house to use about building the Hospital, Store and houses  50.00

Besides the above damages the Rent of the Island for Naval purposes, rating the rent at the rate the army has paid for land which it used for Military purposes.
 

200.00

 615.00

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Sources/Notes:

*Caleb Nichols bill transcribed from a photocopy of the original in the collections of the Clinton County Historical Museum in Plattsburgh, NY.

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.) 
[Note: Mann's account is discussed and excerpted here- http://www.historiclakes.org/Plattsburg/mann.htm.]
2
Ibid.
3
The Court martial of Captain Daniel Pring and the Officers and Men Employed in the Squadron on Lake Champlain. August 18-21, 1815 on Board H.M.S Gladiator in Portsmouth Harbor. Public Records Office, Kew Gardens, London. Courtesy of James T. Hays and Addie Shields, Clinton County Historian.
4
Ibid.
5
Plattsburgh Republican: Plattsburgh, NY. Sept. 22, 1877.

 

Visiting Crab Island...
Crab Island is publicly owned land- the property of the people of New York. It is also a very special, unique place that merits respect and consideration. Keep in mind the island is covered with Poison Ivy. It is also the home of protected fauna and flora.  Metal detectors and digging are strictly prohibited on the island.

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