The Military Career of White Youngs
Local history buffs know that troops of the Fifteenth Regiment of U.S. Infantry spent a good deal of time at Plattsburgh during the War of 1812. This respected unit was known as “Pike’s Regiment” or the “New Jersey Regiment” because a majority of its officers and soldiers were indeed from that state, including its first colonel, Zebulon M. Pike. Nevertheless, New Yorkers have reason to boast the unit as well, for one of its most distinguished officers was a young lawyer from New York City named White Youngs.
Mr. Youngs seems to have begun his military career around 1810 as officer in the New York County militia. Then, in preparation for the coming war with Great Britain, Congress passed a bill to raise an additional military force in January of 1812. Youngs received a captain’s commission for the regular army and was assigned to the Fifteenth Regiment, which arrived at Plattsburgh in September that same year.
Captain Youngs quickly gained the confidence of Colonel Pike and was entrusted with some important missions. In October, Pike ordered Youngs to Burlington, to apprehend five army deserters. A few months later, he was sent on a tour to gather intelligence about the enemy’s troops, and to survey the condition of the roads and rivers along the Canadian border. This information was needed for the intended invasion of Canada, but when the War Department’s plan to attack Montreal was shelved, most of the troops at Plattsburgh were ordered to the naval base at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario in preparation for a secret mission. At this early stage in the war, Americans were in desperate need of a victory due to a string of discouraging military embarrassments.
The Fifteenth Regiment was one of three infantry regiments chosen by Zebulon Pike to lead the attack on York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, located on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. (By this time Pike had been promoted to the rank of brigadier-general.) York had a fortified garrison, a large gunpowder magazine and was an important link in the Canadian supply chain to the west. Commodore Chauncey’s fleet sailed the American troops from Sackets Harbor across the lake and on the morning of April 27th Pike’s forces debarked the ships in rowboats and headed for the Canadian shoreline. Captain Youngs and his men were some of the first to make landfall there despite the hot reception they received from the enemy’s muskets. Although the American army claimed victory at York after the British commander decided to abandon the garrison rather than dig in and fight, this “victory” had come at a terrible price: General Pike was mortally wounded by the explosion of the gunpowder magazine. The Fifteenth Regiment alone lost one captain and one lieutenant to enemy fire and dozens of soldiers to ball or explosion. Many of the surviving wounded were probably maimed for life. Considering the dangers of the amphibious landing under fire and the devastating gunpowder explosion at York, Captain Youngs was lucky to escape with his life.
Later in the war, Youngs bravely distinguished himself during the legendary clash of navies on Plattsburgh Bay, September 11, 1814. On that day he commanded a detachment of “marines” from aboard Commodore Macdonough’s flagship Saratoga. These makeshift “marines” were actually infantry soldiers lent by the army to aid Macdonough who did not have enough sailors to man the ships. One can hardly read the contemporary accounts of this violent battle without concluding that only a string of miracles could have spared the lives of the survivors. Saratoga was twice set on fire from hot shot and sustained the force of 55 round shot in her hull alone. Out of two hundred and ten men on Saratoga, approximately twenty-six were killed and thirty were wounded in about 2 ½ hours. Once again, Captain Youngs escaped the violent fate that claimed so many of his comrades. After the battle, Commodore Macdonough wrote to General Macomb, commander of the land forces, in praise of Captain Youngs:
After that monumental victory on Plattsburgh Bay, Captain Youngs was given the responsibility of transporting a few hundred British captives down Lake Champlain to the garrison near Albany. He was also in charge of receiving and disbursing the shares of prize money to the marines as their reward for the capture of the British ships. As compensation for his valiant service at Plattsburgh, White Youngs was awarded the rank of brevet major.
His last recorded act in the service of his country occurred in 1818 when, as commander of Fort Crawford, Alabama, he headed a force that captured a band of Seminole Indians that were murdering and terrorizing local settlers. Sadly, his military career ended the following year when he was convicted by a military court for drunkenness and behavior unbecoming an officer. He resigned from the army and died in Baltimore in 1822.
Note: A version of this piece appeared in the Plattsburgh Press – Republican.