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November 14, 2019

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Short Rounds

The Short and Curious History of "Fort Blunder"

For nearly two centuries, major wars in North America tended to unfold along the “Hudson River-Lake Champlain-Richelieu River” corridor, a watery “highway” that essentially linked New York City to Montreal. It provides the “traditional” invasion route from Canada into New York, or vice versa, and places along the corridor are famous in American military history in colonial times and during the early years of the Republic; Ticonderoga, Valcour Island, Crown Point, Fort William Henry, West Point, Saratoga, Stony Point, as are the names of numerous warriors who made or lost their reputations along it, Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Baron Dieskou, Benedict Arnold, Jeffrey Amherst, John Burgoyne, Richard Montgomery, Horatio Gates, Anthony Wayne, Henry Dearborn, Guy Carleton.

The final great military clash along this corridor took place between September 6th and 11th, 1814, near Plattsburgh, a small town on Lake Champlain, on the northernmost edge of New York State. There, a British army and lake squadron under George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, was halted by the action of an American naval squadron under Master Commandant [lieutenant-commander] Thomas MacDonough on Lake Champlain, in coordination with a small army under Maj. Gen. Alexander Macomb. The Battle of Plattsburgh effectively ended British attempts to invade New Yorek, and was the final battle of the War of 1812, though New Orleans, which was fought after peace was concluded and thus decided nothing, is more widely celebrated.

Given the military geography of the region, shortly after the war ended, the United States decided to fortify the upper reaches of Lake Champlain, to block a potential British movement down the Richelieu River into the lake. For maximum effectiveness, the fort was sited just south of the accepted border between the U.S. and Canada, along the 45th Parallel, near Rouse’s Point.

Designed by Joseph Totten (USMA 1805), who had earned a brevet promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Battle of Plattsburgh and would later go on to design some of America’s greatest fortifications, such as Fort Adams in Rhode Island, the fort was to be an octagonal structure with 30-foot walls. But the contractors hired to build the place, a consortium of three thrifty Scots, Malcomb McMartin, James Macintire, and John Stewart, proved a little too thrifty, and cut a lot of corners. For example, since the ground was irregular, rather than excavate a proper foundation, they merely leveled the site using rubble and debris from the earthworks that had been hastily erected around Plattsburgh during the war. So the walls began to sag even as the fort was being built. Construction proceeded apace, however, mostly during the warmer months. The fort was so important, that on July 27, 1817, President James Monroe actually visited the site, by then nearing completion, with some $113,000 having been spent, easily $20 million today.

Meanwhile, in London, British and American commissioners were putting the finishing touches on what became the Anglo-American Convention of 1818, intended to settle some unresolved disputes between the two countries, such as the border between the U.S. and Canada. Now for the northern end of Lake Champlain, the commissioners agreed that the pre-war boundary along the 45th Parallel would remain unchanged. As part of the settlement, however, the convention called for a formal delineation of the boundary. So in January of 1819, a team of surveyors arrived to determine the exact location of the 45th Parallel. And it turned out that the boundary locally accepted by both sides was wrong; due to an old surveying error, the 45th Parallel was actually about three-quarters of a mile south of where everyone thought it was, and thus the fort was some hundreds of yards inside British territory!

Naturally, the U.S. ceased work immediately. Since the British decided the fort wasn’t worth completing, it began to deteriorate. Soon local farmers and townsfolk from both sides of the border began “mining” what has come to be known as “Fort Blunder,” taking away cut stone for use in the construction of all sorts of buildings across the region.

To replace the abandoned installation, the U.S. shortly began building a new fort, on a small island in the midst of the lake just a few score yards south of the correct border. Dubbed Fort Montgomery, the installation underwent several design changes. Despite the expenditure of over a million dollars, by the time it was completed, in 1871, it was already obsolete.

 

The Commander-in-Chief's Reading List

In recent years it’s become common for the senior officers of each of the armed forces to issue a “reading list” for the professional development of the officers and enlisted personnel under their command.

Now while some crusty old NCOs may think this is some sort of trendy “touchy feely” New Age nonsense, it actually has a very old history. In fact, it can be traced back to 1775 and George Washington himself. Upon arriving at Cambridge to assume command of the troops besieging the British in Boston, Washington realized that he had an army of amateurs. Save for a handful of men who were former British soldiers or who, like himself, were veterans of the French and Indian War, the troops had little formal military training. Washington was particularly concerned about the officers, many of whom had been elected by their troops.

So on November 10, 1775, in a letter to Col. William Woodford of the 2nd Virginia Regiment, he proposed a number of books that all officers should read to further their military education, several of which were in his private library.

In order, the books Washington recommended were:

  • Humphrey Bland, Treatise of Military Discipline: In Which Is Laid Down the Duties of the Officer and the Soldier (London: 1727)

  • Turpin de Crisse, An Essay on the Art of War (English edition, London: 1755)

  • Roger Stevenson, Military Instructions for Officers Detached in the Field (London: 1770/Philadelphia, 1775)

  • Louis de Jeney, The Partisan: or, The Art of Making War in Detachment (First English edition, London: 1760)

  • William Young, Essays on the Command of Small Detachments (London: 1771).

These were standard handbooks of military practice, widely used by British officers. In fact, they constituted some of the basic reading that formed the foundation of any good officer’s military education. Although today the idea that an officer could learn enough about military matters just from reading a bunch of books may seem ludicrous, back in the eighteenth century this was by no means the case. Formal military education was only just beginning to be developed, as academies were established to train engineers. The normal way for officers to learn their trade was on the job. The more dedicated among them learned by reading, and the books Washington recommended were highly prized by British officers.

 

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