BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE

By John Brinckman 

“I believe that the defence of Canada, and the co-operation of the Indians, depends on the navigation of the Lakes.”

                       The Duke of Wellington, in a letter to Lord Bathurst, secretary for war and the colonies, written at the time of the peace talks 

 

Commodore Perry transfers his command from the Lawrence to the Niagara               

 

Map of the Great Lakes at the Time of the War of 1812

    After the American Revolution the grand strategy of Great Britain was to preserve the peace by establishing an Indian buffer state. This was to be achieved by defending British North America and by encouraging the various Indian nations to form a confederacy in the west. By acting together these two powers could keep the new nation in check and peace would be preserved.

    Two things were required: A powerful charismatic Indian chief to bring about the confederacy, and control of the Great Lakes to enable British North America to arm its ally in the west. In the early nineteenth century such a chief emerged, Tecumseh, of the Shawnee, whose father, Chief Pucksinwah, had sided with the British in the American Revolution. Born in 1768, Tecumseh witnessed the Shawnee’s village being destroyed five times between 1774 and 1882 and his people forced into a nomadic life. The 1774 attack was in violation of a recent treaty and in it his father was murdered by colonials. He devoted his life to war against white settlers encroaching on Indian land and recognized that to succeed he needed the British as allies. Despite this enmity he was respected by Americans as a great chief and today there is a statue honouring him in Washington. In his youth he had an affair with an young white woman who perfected his English and interested him in Shakespeare; his favourite play was Hamlet. His eloquence in that language awed friend and foe alike. His reputation as a warrior, his charisma, and fluency and rhetoric in Indian languages, enabled him, with the help of his brother, a spiritual leader known as The Prophet, to form a confederacy of those Indian nations in the American west who were threatened by American expansion.

    Egerton Ryerson in his classic work, The Loyalists of America and Their Times, argues convincingly and with evidence that the schism between Loyalists and Revolutionaries goes back to 1628 with the arrival of the Puritan Fathers on Massachusetts Bay in the neighbourhood of what is now Boston. The Pilgrim Fathers, who he makes clear had different values, had arrived in 1620 on the Mayflower. From the time of their arrival the Puritans were disloyal to the king, intolerant of the Church of England, and hostile to the Indians. In contrast, the Pilgrims were loyal to the crown, tolerant of other religions, and befriended the Indians.

     The Loyalists, who came to Canada as refugees, their property confiscated by their neighbours, founded the English-speaking nation in Canada. Ryerson himself developed the system of education still in use in Ontario and adopted by other provinces. His family, originally Ryerzoon, a Dutch family who had settled in Manhattan were all Loyalists, their values close to the Pilgrim Fathers. The different attitude toward Indians continued long after the War of 1812. Indians were not recognized as people at all by the United States; they did not acquire citizenship until 1923.  As Major Walsh of the Northwest Mounted Police explained to Sitting Bull at their famous first meeting in 1876, Indians had rights in Canada, blacks, whites, and Indians had equal rights under the law. The Indian chief had arrived in Canada with his band of 5,000 Sioux, following their annihilation of Colonel Custer and the 7th Cavalry. They were escorted to the border by the U.S. Cavalry after Canada had agreed to take them. Sitting Bull was informed that he was now on Canadian soil where the law is enforced uniformly for people of all races. “There is no place here for lawless men who think it fun to shoot and kill Indians,” declared Walsh.

    The War of 1812, with the British and Canadians allied with the Indians on one side and the U.S.A. on the other, commenced in Canada with an unexpected invasion on July 12th and the seizure of Sandwich across the river from Detroit. The invasion had been ordered by President Madison, and was led by General William Hull, Governor of the Territory of Michigan. Hull declared that the Americans would breakfast at Sandwich, lunch at York, and dine in Montreal. But by August 5th Hull was back in Detroit. He had been unnerved by three events: the capture of the American fort to the west on the island of Michilimackinac at the head of Lake Michigan, the departure of their allies, the Wyandot, who lived south of Detroit for the British side of the river, and an Indian ambush led by Tecumseh in Michigan that left seventeen American corpses, mutilated with their scalps on long poles waving in the wind.

    Major- General Isaac Brock, commander of the British and Canadian forces in Upper Canada, who had ordered the capture of Fort Michilimackinac, which controlled the entrance to Lake Michigan, before its commander even knew there was a war on, firmly believed that the best defense was offense, had brought artillery and hidden it behind a stand of trees across the river from Detroit. At dawn on August 12th the trees were cut down and a furious and unexpected artillery bombardment commenced.  Tecumseh and Brock had considerable respect for one another and were in communication. The Indians had been shadowing Hull’s forces for weeks on the Michigan side, waiting for the right moment to attack. And now Tecumseh led the Shawnee and their allies in a circle behind the town, emerging and then re-entering the forest so that there appeared to be many more of them than there were. An American observer was quoted as saying that he thought “he was standing at the entrance to Hell, with the gates thrown open to let the damned out for an hour’s recreation on earth!” The Indians were painted, “some covered with vermilion, others with blue clay, and still others tattooed in black and white from head to foot.” The sound of the cannons was almost drowned out by “the howls of the savages.” Tecumseh had promised Brock there would be no scalping of prisoners but battle was another matter. Hull was terrified and surrendered to Brock not just the town of Detroit but the entire Michigan territory with its extensive coastline on both Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

    The British navy ruled the St. Lawrence River. Lake Ontario was a standoff: the two navies, the British based in Kingston and the American in Sackett’s Harbour, NY, never fought one another; each patrolled its side of the lake. There were occasional raids, notably the American attack on York, now Toronto, which had consequences for the Battle of Lake Erie. The cannon intended for the HMS Detroit, which was being built in Amherstburg, were seized and carried off. The British navy controlled Lake Erie, Lake Huron, Lake Michigan and, with a fort on St. Joseph Island, the entrance to Lake Superior. With the surrender of Michigan and the island of Michilimackinac, the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan and the entire shoreline of Lake Huron were now British. With a fort on St. Joseph Island at the entrance to Lake Superior, they now in Wellington’s words controlled ‘the navigation of the Lakes’.

     All this changed with The Battle of Lake Erie on September 10th 1813.  Before the war a military transport service called Provincial Marine supplied Amherstburg. It had two brigs, the HMS Hunter and the HMS Caledonia, and a sloop, the HMS Queen Charlotte; they were not warships and the crews were small and not trained for battle. The Royal Navy took them over; this small fleet was headquartered at Fort Malden, outside Amherstburg at the west end of the lake. A second brig, HMS Lady Prevost, designed to be a warship, was under construction there when war broke out, and in late 1812 construction began on a new much larger HMS Detroit. Two small vessels, the Chippewa and the Little Belt were under construction at Chatham.

    In January, 1813, this small fleet came under the command of Captain Robert H. Barclay, who had been born in Scotland in 1768. He had fought under Nelson at Trafalgar, where he lost an arm. He was a more than competent officer and by all reports he undertook his new task with energy and determination.

     The only American war ship on Lake Erie at the start of the war, the brig USS Adams, at Detroit, was not ready for service. She was taken by the British with the surrender of Detroit, and renamed the HMS Detroit. She was captured, together with the HMS Caledonia, in a bold raid by American sailors and soldiers on the Niagara River on October 9th, 1812. But the American sailors ran her aground on an island, and rather than let the British get her back, they set her on fire. The Caledonia was taken to the US Navy yard at Black Rock, now part of Buffalo, and joined the schooners Somers and Ohio, and the sloop, Trippe. These ships were unable to enter Lake Erie as long as British guns controlled the Niagara River from Fort Erie, but the British abandoned the fort in May 1813.

     Master Commander Oliver Perry, who was to be Captain Barclay’s opponent, was born in Rhode Island in 1784 and had been at sea since he was eight, serving as a midshipman under his father, a navy captain. He was the older brother of the famous Admiral Perry, who opened up Japan to western trade in 1854.  His father had commanded a frigate, with Oliver on board, in the unofficial naval war with France, 1798 to 1800. He had also had experience working in shipyards. So far in the war he had been in command of a flotilla of gun boats that defended the harbour at Providence, R.I., on Narragansett Bay against much larger British warships.

   He arrived at Black Rock, N.Y. in May 1813 with a seasoned crew from Rhode Island, and was now in command of the US Navy on Lake Erie. He had the American fleet that at that time consisted of five vessels towed by oxen up the river to the lake and they sailed, with himself in command of the prize brig, Caledonia, to Presqu’Isle, now Erie, Pennsylvania, which had been chosen to be the US Navy base on the lake. President Madison had ordered the construction of four schooner rigged gunboats and two brigs. The re-capture of Detroit was a top priority and this required command of Lake Erie. General Harrison was advancing with a large force but it was necessary for the Americans to take control of Lake Erie if Detroit was to be re-captured.

    But they had a problem: there was a sandbar across the entrance to the harbour at Presqu’Isle; the water was five feet at its deepest point. The ships could not cross the bar with the cannons aboard. So what they had to do was float the ships across unarmed and then load and mount the guns, which could take several days. The British were well aware of this and Captain Robert Barclay, British commander of the Lake Erie fleet, kept watch over the harbour and took up his position there on July 20th.  He had with him, the Queen Charlotte, the Hunter, and the newly completed Lady Prevost. Two smaller vessels, the Chippewa, and the Little Belt joined them when they were not transporting supplies from Long Point to Amherstburg.  As long as the British fleet maintained this position, Perry’s fleet was trapped.

      ‘For reasons that have always remained obscure’, to quote from the American History Magazine website Historynet.com, ‘Barclay sailed out of sight on July 29 and did not reappear for two days’. But the reason was known on the Canadian side, as we shall see.

     At this point some observers thought that Barclay should attack but the decision was reached to go to Amherstburg, wait for the HMS Detroit to be completed and arm her with guns from the fort there manned by the fort’s gunners.

     Commodore Perry sailed shortly afterwards for the head of the lake and made an anchorage at Put-in-Bay from where he would make sorties off Amherstburg challenging the Britsh fleet to come out. General Harrison with an army of 8,000 men waited on the Miami River not far from Detroit for Perry to take control of the lake before attacking. General Proctor in Detroit was falling short of supplies for which they depended on the fleet.

    Captain Barclay had no alternative than to risk an engagement. HMS Detroit was fitted with a makeshift assortment of guns from the fort, a far from satisfactory arrangement. With fifty or sixty seamen without battle experience, gunners from the fort, and a detachment from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment aboard as marines, the little fleet of six, two ships, a brig, two schooners, and a sloop, set out on the 10th of September. Perry’s fleet, of ten, three brigs, six schooners, and a sloop, was seen at anchor in Put-in-Bay. It immediately weighed anchor and bore down on the British fleet. As they did so the wind shifted from the southwest to the southeast giving the Americans the weather gage.

 Map 1 Battle of Lake Erie    

 At a quarter before twelve the Detroit with its longer guns commenced firing. This  was ten minutes afterwards returned by the enemy, who bore up for close action. The British concentrated their fire on the Lawrence, hoping to take Commodore Perry out of the action. Perry made their task harder by wearing, not a full dress uniform, but the plain blue jacket of a common sailor. They succeeded in rendering her unmanageable but Perry surprised everyone by turning her over to his first lieutenant and setting out on a rowboat with four men for the Niagara, where he hoisted his pennant. Soon after Commodore Perry had left the Lawrence, her colours were struck, but the British, from weakness of their crews and destruction of their boats, were unable to take possession of her.       Map 2 Battle of Lake Erie

The day seemed to poise in favour of the British and Commodore Perry even despaired of the victory, when a sudden breeze revived his hopes, and turned the scale in his favour. This fortunate commander finding that the Niagara suffered lightly in the engagement, made a desperate effort to retrieve the fortune of the day, and taking advantage of the breeze, shot ahead of the Lady Prevost, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter, raking them with her starboard guns, and engaged the Detroit, which, being raked in all directions, soon became unmanageable. The Niagara then bore around ahead of the Queen Charlotte, and hauling up on starboard tack, engaged that ship, giving at the same time raking fire with her larboard guns to the Chippewa and the Little Belt, while the smaller vessels, closing to grape and canister distance, maintained a most destructive fire. This masterly  manoeuvre decided the contest.

Map 3 Battle of Lake Erie   

    Captain Barclay being severely and dangerously wounded, Captain Finnis, of the Queen Charlotte, killed, and every commander and officer second in command either killed or disabled, the Detroit and Queen Charlotte, perfect wrecks, and after a desperate engagement of upwards of three hours out of ammunition, the British were compelled to surrender. By this decisive action, the whole of the British Squadron on Lake Erie was captured by the enemy, who now became masters of the lake. The enemy lost in this action twenty-seven men killed and ninety-six men wounded. The British lost three officers and thirty-eight men killed, and nine officers and eighty-five men wounded.

The prisoner were taken to Fort Sandusky and treated well.  Perry sent his famous message to General Harrison written on the back of an envelope: “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner and One Sloop. Yours, with greatest respect and esteem O.H.Perry.”

    Oliver Perry became an American hero and had a successful career in the U.S. Navy, although he was sometimes involved in controversy. In 1819 while successfully aiding Simon Bolivar to eliminate piracy on the Orinoco in Venezuela, he contracted a fatal dose of yellow fever and died at the age of thirty-four.

    Robert Barclay was cleared at a court martial for his role in the battle but the people of Upper Canada felt that he was responsible for allowing the American fleet out of Presqu’Ile in the first place. In his account of the affair, Ryerson, who as a boy of ten living on the shore of Lake Erie near Long Point would have heard the guns, wrote, “It was this episode in Captain Barclay's proceedings which resulted in the loss of British supremacy on Lake Erie, the loss of his fleet, his own wounding, the death of most of his officers and sailors, General Proctor's compulsory evacuation of Detroit and the Michigan territory, his retreat into Canada, his defeat on the Thames at the Moravian village, involving the loss of many of his men, with upwards of 100 lndians, including the famous Chief Tecumseh. We do not desire to dwell upon this dark spot in the life of Captain Barclay; but the whole mystery is explained in the Mrs. Amelia Harris's Memoirs of her father and the early settlement of Long Point.”

     She wrote: “When the weather was too rough for the blockading squadron to remain outside the harbour, it was too rough for the American fleet to get over the bar; consequently we felt very safe. This was during the summer of 1813. During this summer Captain Barclay used to have private information – not very reliable, as the result proved – of what progress the ships were making on the stocks. He used occasionally to leave the blockade and go to Amherstburg and come to Ryerse. The Americans took note of this, and made their plans and preparations for his doing so. There was a pretty widow of an officer of some rank in Amherstburg, who was very anxious to go to Toronto. Captain Barclay offered her a passage in his ship and brought her to Ryerse, and then escorted her to Dr. Rolph's, where he and some of his officers remained to dinner the following day. When they came in sight of Erie, they saw all the American fleet riding safely at anchor outside the bar. No one could have fought more bravely than Captain Barclay. At the same time, those who knew of his leaving the blockade could not help feeling that all the disasters of the upper part of the province lay at his door.”  

 The British grand strategy for North America from 1783 until 1815 was for peace to be maintained by a balance of three powers: British North America, the United States, and a confederacy of Indian nations. The Indian chiefs in the west were persuaded of the wisdom of forming a confederacy against American aggression by the charismatic Tecumseh. But with his death outside Moravian Town at the Battle of the Thames  in Upper Canada, the confederacy fell apart, and the United States were able (until the Civil War of 1860-65 the U.S.A. was always referred to in the plural) to pick the tribes off one by one in the course of the 19th century.

Was this all the result of a British naval officer’s infatuation for “a pretty widow”?

    Probably not. Both sides claimed victory in the War of 1812: Canada because the American invasion was successfully repulsed and the U.S.A because of General Jackson’s decisive defeat of a British army in the south, which actually took place, unbeknownst to either side, after the peace treaty had been signed.

    The hand that the British held during the peace treaty negotiations at Ghent in 1814 would have been greatly strengthened had they continued to control Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake Michigan. As it was they conceded Michilimackinac, Fort Niagara, and eastern Maine in exchange for Amherstburg and Sandwich. The Napoleonic wars over, supplies and reinforcements of all kinds, including cannon for the ships, could have been brought to Detroit, to Amherstburg, to the fleet, and to all the settlements on the lakes. More ships could have been built. But one can only suppose that the British would have come to the same conclusion they did.

     When Henry Goulburn, undersecretary for war and the colonies, brought up the subject of an Indian buffer state, John Quincy Adams, the chief American negotiator, who ten years later was to become President of the United States, declared:  “To condemn vast regions of territory to perpetual barrenness and solitude, that a few hundred savages might find wild beasts to hunt upon, was a species of game law that a nation descended from Britons would never endure.”

     Goulburn commented afterwards: “It was opposing a feather to a torrent. I had, till I came here, no idea of the fixed determination which prevails in the breast of every American to extirpate the Indians and appropriate their territory.” The British concluded that their grand strategy of three nations living in peace could not work: There would be no peace unless the British abandoned their Indian allies to American domination and dispossession. But with control of the lakes might they not have been more optimistic?

      Again, probably not. A recent and excellent documentary made for the American Public Broadcasting System, interviews contemporary native scholars, who declare that many of their people today feel betrayed by the British in the peace settlement. The fact is that neither the British and Canadians nor the Americans won the War of 1812; the native peoples lost.

    This was the fate of hunter-gatherers world-wide as Jared Diamond explains in Guns, Germs and Steel, The Fates of Human Societies. But it was not just a case of farmers replacing hunter-gatherers in America. Consider the Nez-Perce: who converted to Christianity, studied the white man’s ways and emulated them. They farmed their rich land in Oregon. But they were ordered off it by the U.S. government, because it was coveted by white settlers, and given a reservation on poor land elsewhere. This was enforced by the United States Cavalry. Many of them accepted; those who chose to fight ended up as refugees in Canada, like the loyalists before them, and after them, escaped slaves, and those who refused to fight in the war in Viet Nam.

 

 

Note to Reader:

 The writer has drawn extensively on the following:

The Invasion of Canada by Pierre Berton, Anchor Canada

Flames Across the Border by Pierre Berton, Anchor Canada

The Loyalists of America and Their Times by Egerton Ryerson, Wm. Brigss

The Civil War of 1812 by Alan Taylor, Knopf

Other works have been consulted

 
   
   

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