The British Occupation of the Kent-Delord House
Henry and Betsey Delord, who bought this house in 1810, finished remodeling and enlarging their imposing new home on Bellevue Avenue (now Cumberland Avenue) by 1814, just at the time Plattsburgh was entering a most unsettled period of its history. The lakeside village became a key strategic area in the War of 1812 and the deciding conflict of that war – the Battle of Plattsburgh on September 11, 1814.
The residents of Plattsburgh experienced a situation that is virtually unimaginable to us today – the invasion of their peaceful village by a major enemy force. Foreign troops moved into their homes, and a devastating battle engulfed the familiar streets and waterways of the community.
Because of its location at the juncture of the Saranac River and Lake Champlain, the Delords’ new home was in a strategic location. It was one of the homes occupied by the British invaders, in this case a group of junior artillery officers. (Senior officers set up their quarters in safer locations further west in the village, well behind the battle lines.) Although the identity of the officers who occupied the Delord House is not known for certain, military historians have surmised that they were members of the British artillery rather than the regular army.
In the five days prior to the Battle of Plattsburgh, the British frantically constructed artillery batteries along the west bank of the Saranac and the shore of Lake Champlain just north of the river mouth. One cannon battery was actually built in front of the Delords’ property. A hundred yards to the east on the mouth of the Saranac, the British also set up a Congreve rocket battery. It is notable that the Delord house survived the battle since artillery placements usually draw considerable fire from opposing artillery.
The Americans located their artillery across the Saranac, in and around three earthen forts they had built during the summer. They also placed heavy cannon and mortars along the lake shore. All of these served to augment shipboard weapons during the battle and to damage massed troops and fortifications.
The British forces included two companies of Royal Artillery – 536 men – and a rocket battery of 35 men. These were not the typical “Red Coats” that most people think of in connection with the British Army of the period. Artillery troops wore jackets of dark blue wool with red cuffs and collar, and sometimes front facings, trimmed with gold braid.
The Delords and many other Plattsburgh residents had fled from their village to safer locations, such as the village of Peru to the south. The less fortunate stayed in Plattsburgh to suffer the consequences.
The British officers who took over the Delords’ home probably had no time to enjoy the luxury of their temporary quarters. Their job was to build emplacements for the artillery. With only five days to get their task done, they had to work around the clock. The officers and their men dug, hewed, lifted and moved timber, hardware and guns day and night and sometimes in the rain that fell prior to the battle. When they returned to the Delords’ house, there was barely time to grab a quick meal and a few hours of sleep before returning to the construction sites. It is not certain that they had the comfort of beds or even camp cots. With a large number of men crammed into the house, many of them had to make do with straw beds on the floor.
They also carried few personal possessions. These men had been shipped to America straight from the hard-fought campaign against Napoleon in the Spanish peninsula. They were given no time to replace their battle-damaged uniforms and equipment. In North America, their base camp was at Chambly, Quebec, 30 miles north of the border. Non-essential gear would have been left there because the British forces suffered from a shortage of horses to pull the supply wagons.
What each officer carried probably fitted into a woodenchest and perhaps saddlebags. They would have had their personal weapons: swords and pistols, while enlisted ranks were armed with the Brown Bess muskets and bayonets. Officers might also have had spyglasses, compasses, military engineering manuals, charts and diagrams of fortifications. They would have brought along woolen army-issue blankets, but left the bed linens at base camp. They carried small personal items such as combs, toothbrushes, pocket knives, shaving kits, pipes, tobacco boxes, fire-starting kits, candle holders and maybe a deck of cards. The famous wooden chest left behind in the Delord house indicates that one officer or more considered it essential to bring along a set of dinnerware.
On September 11, the day of the battle, the British occupants of the Delord House would have been very busy. At the start of the naval battle in Plattsburgh Bay, about 7:30 in the morning, the American and British artillery opened up on each other. Heavy firing continued until 3 p.m., even after the American naval victory in the late morning. The British commander, General Sir George Prevost, ordered a retreat, and by 10 in the evening the British forces were on their way back to Canada.
Henry and Betsey Delord, along with the rest of the Plattsburgh citizenry who had fled, returned to their homes. There was damage from the military occupation, but it could have been worse. American hot shot fired at British snipers had burned 15 buildings in the village. The Delords had several small buildings on their property destroyed by the American forces, but the interior of their new home was in relatively good condition. They found saber marks on the handrail of their staircase and a badly damaged door on their mahogany sideboard. Otherwise, the British officers had treated their temporary quarters relatively well.