Resource for Historians, Educators, Students and Visitors since 1997
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)
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.
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...
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
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:
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.
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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