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Hero of the Battle of Plattsburg

Wounded Veteran
Lake Champlain, War of 1812

23d Congress No. 555. (1st Session.)
Communicated to the house of Representative June 3, 1834

On the claim of Captain Silas Duncan for arrears of naval pension on account of the extraordinary character of his wound and long suffering under it.

Mr. Campbell P. White, from the Committee on Naval Affairs, to whom was referred the memorial of Silas Duncan, late lieutenant and now a master commandant in the navy of the United States, reported:

That in the month of September, 1814, Sir George Prevost, the Governor general of Canada and the commander in chief of the British forces in America, invaded the United States with a well appointed and highly disciplined army of almost fourteen thousand men, and was advancing rapidly to the attack of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain which was at that time the principal military and naval depot of the United States upon the northern frontier.

That for the purpose of impeding the progress, and of changing the course of the advancing column of the enemy, Commodore McDonough detached a portion of the light vessels of his squadron to a point on the lake called Dead creek, around which the enemy was expected to pass. These vessels, after having commenced the attack on the British forces, were supposed by Commodore McDonough to be in danger of capture, when he ordered the Memorialist (then LT. Duncan) who was at that time an acting lieutenant of the Saratoga, (the flagship of the commodore) to proceed forthwith and take command of these vessels, with instruction so to manoeuvre as to extricate them from the dangers in which they were involved, and Lieut. Duncan proceeded to the scene of action, and assumed the command of the attacking squadron, and so manoeuvered and directed its operation as to extricate the vessels from the danger which impended over them, and to accomplish the object for which the attack had been ordered, by which the principal division of the British army was compelled to change its position, and pursue a different route with considerable loss.

 The memorialist states that, while engaged in this perilous and important service he was in passing from vessel to vessel, personally exposed to an incessant fire from the enemy and it was remarked that this person was a principal object of their aim, under and impression (as was subsequently confessed by the enemy) that it was the person of the commander-in-chief of the fleet on Lake Champlain.

Lieutenant Duncan was finally struck by a cannon ball, which inflicted upon him one of the most desperate and terrible wounds from the effects of which life has ever been preserved. The whole of his right shoulder, including the join and all the bones and muscles about the shoulder, were carried away, and his shoulder blade and collarbone were also fractured, besides extensive contusions. At first, the wound was supposed mortal, and no hope was entertained of his recovery.

The character of this wound is set forth in the certificate of Dr. Henry Huntt, then hospital surgeon of the army of The United States, and now an able practitioner in the city of Washington, and who attended Lieutenant Duncan.

It appears, from the certificate of Dr. Huntt, that the wound was lightly dressed, and that Lt. Duncan was sent to the hospital on Crab Island, when it was proposed by the surgeon to amputate at the shoulder joint, which was prevented by the unyielding opposition of Lieutenant Duncan. He remained on Crab Island until the 11th of September, without receiving any other than simple dressing. During the battle of the 11th of September, he was removed for safety, to Peru, a few miles distant, where he remained several days, and a great part of the time in a state of delirium, without seeing a surgeon, having been either forgotten, or the surgeons being too much engaged to attend him.

Dr. Brown, of the Navy, at length visited him, and found him in the most deplorable condition. On removing the former dressing, the wound sloughed extensively, and left the head of the shoulder bone bare and detached; it was then dissected out, and the wound again dressed, and Lieutenant Duncan was removed across the lake to Burlington, in Vermont, and placed in the general hospital, which at the time was in charge of Dr. Huntt. Dr. Huntt further states that he again examined the wound, and found fragments of the head of the shoulder blade and collar bone considerably detached, which he dissected out. The superior end of the shoulder bone projected two or three inches, which Dr. Huntt removed, and the arm was ultimately saved, but so shattered and weakened, by the loss of some of its essential parts, as to be of but little use to this unfortunate and gallant officer.

The committee have been thus particular in describing the nature and extent of the wound received by Lieutenant Duncan, and which they have extracted from the certificate of the surgeon, because they have learned that, from its extraordinary character, it has been made the subject of observation and remark, by many eminent surgeons in Europe and America, and that Barron Larrey, the surgeon general of the French armies under Napoleon, never knew an instance of recovery from a wound of similar character. The recovery of Lieutenant Duncan must therefore reflect high credit upon the professional skill of the gentle- man who had charge of him.

On the 20th of October 1814, Congress voted the thanks of the nation, and medals and swords, to the officers engaged in the battle of the 11th September 1814, for gallantry and good conduct in the capture of the British fleet on Lake Champlain.

As Lieutenant Duncan was on that day and during that battle lying in a hospital, and suffering everything that humanity is capable of enduring, from the effects of a wound received five days previously in the gallant discharge of a most perilous duty, he was not of course engaged in battle on that day, and it was adjudged that he was not included among officers who were to share the honors and benefits of the resolution of Congress.

Lieutenant Duncan, as was his duty in such a case, appealed to Congress, who unanimously passed a resolution extending to him the provisions of the resolutions of the 20th October, 1814, "as a testimony of the sense entertained by both houses of Congress of the distinguished gallantry and good conduct of said Lieutenant Duncan, in an action with the enemies forces on the 6th of September, 1814." To this resolution, and to the report of the Committee on Naval Affairs, the committee now respectfully refers, and begs leave to make part of this report.

Lieutenant Duncan was sixteen months before he recovered from this wound. In the year 1817, he applied to the commissioners of the navy pension fund, for the pension to which he conceived himself entitled. The precise date of this application is not known, because of the loss, at the Navy office, of the application and the vouchers that accompanied it; but there is among the papers in the present application a letter from the secretary of the Navy pension fund, dated on the 12th September, 1817, acknowledging the receipt of the application.

It may very well be supposed that, from the nature of a naval officer's life, he has not the opportunity at all times of being pertinacious in his applications for his rights, and, with the modesty which is ever the accompaniment of a gallant spirit, Lieutenant Duncan availed himself only of such occasions as fairly presented themselves in bringing his application before the commissioners of the navy pension fund. This application was not granted until the 1st of March 1833. And it is for the arrears of pension, from the date of his application to the period at which it was granted, that Captain Duncan makes the present appeal to Congress.

The principles involved in granting of this application are similar, in their essentials, to those involved in the case of Captain Thomas Ap. Catesby Jones, which was long pending before Congress, and which underwent much scrutiny and deliberation, and for whose relief an act has been finally passed. The only difference between the two cases is, that the wound of Captain Duncan was much more dangerous and severe, his sufferings greater and of longer continuance, and his disability also more extensive.

It is with pleasure, therefore, that the committee are enable, without setting a new or dangerous precedent, to decide in favor of the present application on the part of this gallant and suffering officer. They therefore report a bill, and they also take leave to express the hope that the House may find it convenient to act upon it at the present session.

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