|George Downie arrived in Lower
Canada from Lake Ontario only days before he was to play a central role
in one of the most important battles of the war. He took command of the
British squadron at Isle aux Noix on September 3, 1814. It would be his
At Ile aux Noix, Downie found the fleet completely unprepared for the upcoming battle. His flag ship Confiance was just out of the shipyard and not ready to sail, let alone take on the enemy. British Naval Commander James Yeo had transferred Downie to Lake Champlain on the grounds that the British ships needed a more experienced senior officer to support George Prevosts invasion of the United States. Downie took over from Captain Peter Fisher upon his arrival. Fisher was sufficiently incensed by his demotion that he demanded a court martial to justify his actions while in command.
Downie immediately set about readying his flagship but was hampered by a lack of supplies. The locks for his cannon, for example, had not arrived from Quebec City. Eight days later when Downie sailed Confiance into battle in Plattsburg Bay, the locks of his guns were held in place with copper hoops and the carpenters had barely finished decking the vessel.
Meanwhile, Sir George Prevost was waiting outside Plattsburg with a massive land force. Downie was under tremendous pressure from Prevost to attack the American fleet. One of Prevosts letters to Downie even seemed to question the captains desire to take on the enemy. Prevosts remarks stung Downie, although it is hard to determine how much they contributed to his subsequent decisions.
In any event, it is unlikely Downie would have engaged the American fleet at Plattsburg Bay if Prevost had not assured him that the army would attack simultaneously. Downie no doubt reasoned that once the overwhelmingly superior British land forces had taken the shore batteries, they would immediately turn them around to fire on the American fleet.
Downie was killed only fifteen minutes into the battle of Plattsburg Bay. He was standing next to a cannon when a direct hit sent the gun off its mooring. The cannon struck him in the groin area and killed him instantly. When his body was examined after the battle it was found to be unblemished. The only sign of injury was a bruise the size of a dinner plate. His watch was also found to be broken, its hands frozen at the instant he died.
Downie was an experienced commander. Had he lived, he may have been able to influence the outcome of the engagement. As it was, the British defeat was complete and unequivocal. Downie was buried three days later with full military honours in the Plattsburg burial ground. Some years later, a relative erected a brick and marble monument over his grave.