Last Update April 9, 2012

Suppose the British Had Attempted
an Infantry Assault?

An assault would probably have failed, potentially changing the outcome of one of our presidential elections. Uphill, in the rain and dark, without artillery support and facing an entrenched defense with enough guns to place one every fifty feet, the skilled but outnumbered fortification-busters would have suffered severe losses. Their preferred tactic was to apply intense pressure to one spot in the defense, take the necessary losses, punch through and then stir things up behind the defenders' lines. In the 1940s the Germans called a similar tactic Kesselwehr, for the cauldron they aimed to create behind the lines. John Stricker, commander at North Point, said that an attack on the hilltop would have given the British "a foretaste of New Orleans." I'm no expert on military matters, but think the likelihood of this outcome is in the 75% or 80% range. Colonel Brooke was wise not to risk it.

The defending force would have had to inflict a high casualty rate - a third or half - to repel such a valorous invasion force, just as it did at New Orleans. The defenders would have suffered casualties as well, but not as many. If the attackers penetrated the defense lines, they might still have been defeated, since Smith had prepared additional fortifications all the way back to the sanctuary of the Basilica. But losses on both sides would have been much higher. I would give this outcome about 10%.

But there is still (I think) a 10% possibility that the defense could eventually have been overwhelmed and the city destroyed. (More educated estimates are welcome!) Then, of course, the treaty negotiations would not have been nearly so favorable to the Americans; Plattsburgh would have been seen as a fluke. With the U.S. under Great Britain's thumb, how long would it have been before those of us north of the Potomac became Canadians and the rest seceded? Mexico and Russia would have been much more influential in North America. And, if we had a national anthem at all, it would have been different.

If the defenders were successful, and an assault was repelled, which I believe is (one way or another) the most likely outcome, what would the effect have been? The treaty negotiations would have become even more onesided - in favor of the U.S. More important, what would the invasion force have attempted next? Would they have continued with their plan to attack New Orleans? And if the battle of New Orleans never happened, would Andrew Jackson have become prominent enough to win the presidency in 1828? And if not, how would the absence of Jacksonian democracy have changed the U.S.?

These unanswerable questions are raised to provide context for the significance of Smith's achievement (and those of McDonough and Macomb at Plattsburgh).

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