In the spring of 1814, the war between the young United States of America and Great Britain was reaching a climax. The now celebrated Battle of New Orleans (December 23, 1814 – January 8, 1815) would turn out to be anti-climactic. Both sides knew the war was nearly over and they were fighting mostly for advantage in negotiations. For instance, where would the border be drawn between Canada and the United States? Who would get Lake Champlain, and who would control the Great Lakes? Those questions made the Battle of Plattsburg, New York, of critical importance.
In the spring of 1813, Abel Bingham and his wife Hannah Olmstead Bingham sold their farm in Jay, New York, with the intention of joining Hannah’s father and other friends who had moved to Caledonia. But Bingham’s militia company was called up for duty in Plattsburg. Bingham was an orderly sergeant at the time, and though some militiamen in Bingham’s company paid the allowable bounty for being excused from service, Abel Bingham said, “I will go.” According to his daughter’s memoir, Bingham “wrote his friends at Caledonia that he must first serve his country before he could join them in their new and pleasant home.” Though the tour of duty was supposed to be for three months, Bingham did not return home for a year and a half, and at one point his wife was convinced that he would not return home alive at all.
During the campaign in New York, Bingham’s company made several incursions into Canada, engaging the British and taking prisoners near Lake Champlain. In the spring of 1814, Bingham was promoted to lieutenant, and when the company captain was granted leave, Bingham assumed command. In early September, 1814, the British launched an infantry assault on the American positions across the Saranac River near Plattsburg. On September 11, the naval assault began, and in a fierce two-hour naval battle, the American fleet forced the British to strike their colors, thereby cutting off all support to the British ground troops. General George Prévost, seeing that any further military action would be useless, ordered a British bugler to sound retreat. But the 76th Regiment of Foot, which had been diverted from the main assault force by a fierce skirmish with the New York militia, did not hear the retreat signal. The regiment was surrounded and captured by the militia, one detachment of which was commanded by Lieutenant Abel Bingham.
During the battle Bingham was struck in the forehead by a British musket ball and fell bleeding on the field of battle. As his apparently lifeless body was being carried off the field, a militiaman cried out, “Lieutenant Bingham has been killed!” News of his death spread through the ranks before his real condition could be confirmed. Although the ball had fractured his skull, Bingham showed signs of life and was carried to a nearby farmhouse where his wound was dressed. Soon after regaining consciousness, Bingham returned to the battle!
Hannah, still living in Jay, was near enough to the battle to hear the rumble of cannon shot, so news of her husband’s death arrived quickly. She had hardly begun to grieve when to her joyous shock and elation, Abel showed up at the door!
Abel Bingham was a good story-teller, which undoubtedly contributed to his later success as a missionary. In recounting his near-death experience in the Battle of Plattsburg, he mesmerized audiences to the point that some forgot who was telling the story. On one occasion, when he got to his vivid description of the ball striking his head, one spell-bound listener exclaimed, “Did it kill you?” General Winfield Scott, upon hearing the account on another occasion, remarked, “Well, Mr. Bingham, you had your face the right way.”
The American victories at Plattsburg and Baltimore secured American rights to Lake Champlain and guaranteed shared access to the Great Lakes in the Treaty of Ghent, signed December 24, 1814.
Copyright 2014 by Thomas L. Jones