Battle of Put-in-Bay: Lake Erie engagement reverses Britain's fortunes.
Tecumseh--principle war chief of the Shawnee Nation, leader of the First Nations Confederacy of the North West, and Major General of the British Army as conferred by Isaac Brock in 1812--stood on the north shore of Lake Erie near Amherstburg, Upper Canada, and listened to the distant roar of gunfire from across the lake. Out on Lake Erie two naval squadrons--one British, the other American--manoeuvred into position. This battle would decide who would have control of the upper Great Lakes, the Ohio shoreline, Michigan, and much of southwestern Upper Canada. Victory for the British would mean the survival and safety of an over-extended supply line while, for the Americans, it would mean their previous losses would be forgotten and the back door to Upper Canada could be ripped open.
Tecumseh waited as the gunfire slowly slackened then ended all together, being replaced by the gentle lapping of the waters of Lake Eric. Now there was nothing left to do but wait.
From the beginning of the War of 1812, both sides realized that control of the Great Lakes would be vital for the movement of armies and supplies. In the early days of the war Britain had the advantage on Lake Erie and the upper lakes. Britain's naval force consisted of several war sloops and brigs including HMS Queen Charlotte, HMS General Hunter, and HMS Lady Provost. Along with the brig HMS Caledonia, which was commandeered from the North West Company, the British had a powerful naval force to protect and control their over-extended supply lines.
The Americans, however, struggled at the beginning of the war to compete with the British war fleet commanding the Great Lakes. When the War of 1812 broke out, the 200-ton American brig USS Adams was ill-prepared for action and was subsequently captured and renamed by the British following the fall of Fort Detroit. In retaliation, on the night of October 9, 1812, an American cutting out party made up of sailors and soldiers under the command of US Navy Lieutenant Jesse Elliot, slipped across the Niagara River and seized the HMS Detroit (formerly the LISS Adams). Although Detroit was grounded and set on fire to prevent her recapture, the Americans successfully captured HMS Caledonia from under the guns of Fort Erie. However, for as long as the British held Fort Erie and other nearby batteries, American vessels were effectively blockaded and unable to sortie into Lake Erie.
Late in 1812 a naval arms race began between the British and American navies as each side poured increasing amounts of manpower and resources into building fleets to gain control of the Great Lakes. The U.S. Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton, on the recommendation of Daniel Dobbins, ordered the establishment of a naval base in Ohio at Presque Isle and appointed Commodore Isaac Chauncey to oversee all command of American naval forces. To counter the American base at Sackets Harbor, the British expanded its naval base at Kingston and placed Commodore James Yeo in command of all naval forces. Commander Robert Barclay commanded the naval forces on Lake Erie for the British while Master Commandant Oliver Perry commanded for American flea.
Both the British and Americans encountered significant construction problems as well as a shortage of trained manpower both as shipwrights and trained sailors. These challenges, coupled with the fact that both bases existed at the end of long supplies lines that could be easily cut by enemy action or the vagaries of the weather, made the race for naval superiority even more difficult.
Yeo's growing fleet in Kingston sucked up an ever-increasing amount of personnel and supplies; Governor General Sir George Prevost kept his far western command on a short shoestring; both General Henry Procter, who commanded the 41st Regiment of Foot at Amherstburg, and Barclay had sent requests for more men and supplies, only to be told there wasn't any and to make do.
By the summer of 1813 each side had a respectable number of ships, however, things began to change for the worse for the British at a strategic level on Lake Erie. With the burning and capture of York in April, the Americans seized cannons and supplies that were intended for Barclay's ships. This forced the British to strip the guns from Fort Detroit and Fort Amherstburg, to equip Barclay's flagship, HMS Detroit, for the needed firepower. With the American capture of the Canadian side of the Niagara River in May 1813 and the abandonment of Fort Eric and batteries covering Black Rock by the British, Perry was able to move his formally blockaded ships into Lake Eric and onto Presque Isle.
Despite suffering from a severe lack of trained men, Barclay made do with the men he had available: 7 Royal Navy seamen, 108 officers and men of the Provincial Marine of dubious quality, 54 men of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles that would act as sailors and marines, and 106 soldiers from the 41st of Regiment Foot, in effect landsmen. Nonetheless, he set sail to reconnoitre the American naval base at Presque Isle and to attempt to intercept the American ships from Black Rock.
From the 20th to the 29th of July the British maintained a blockade of the American naval base at Presque Isle until a shortage of supplies and had weather forced them to return to Amherstburg. At this point Perry warped his ships out of the shallow harbour and spent the next five weeks effectively blockading Barclay, thereby cutting off supplies to both the British squadron and army. While both fleets received reinforcements from their respective commands, supplies were running low for the British as they were also responsible for having to also feed a large number of First Nations warriors and their families.
On the 10th of September Barclay's squadron with battle ensigns flying sailed out to engage Perry and the American squadron at their forward anchorage at Put-in-Bay. Perry raised his famous blue pennant with the motto "Don't Give lip The Ship" on his flagship the USS Lawrence. Both fleets were in line of battle with their heaviest ships in the centre of their respective lines. And at 1145 hrs, in light breezes on a gentle lake, the guns opened fire.
Initially the British did well with fire from Barclay's flagship HMS Detroit and the brig HMS General Hunter pounding the USS Lawrence to a wreck. Once in carronade range Lawrence responded, but it was ineffectual against the British long guns; most of the Lawrence's crew were killed or wounded in the engagement. Perry transferred his flag to the USS Chesapeake, then to the Niagara, and the Lawrence struck her colours to Barclay.
The Niagara, under the command of Captain Jesse Elliot, along with other American ships had been slow to come to action. Elliot later claimed that light winds and his orders to engage the HMS Queen Charlotte prevented his coming to Perry's assistance. This became a bone of contention between the two men for a number of Years and eventually led to a duel.
By this time most of the small British ships were disabled, Barclay was severely wounded (he had already lost an arm in 1809 while leading a boarding attack on a French convoy), his first lieutenant was dead; this left Lieutenant George Inglis in command.
The British had expected the Americans to retreat, but instead Perry ordered his smaller schooners and the Niagara to close for action and gained the weather gage in the strengthening wind. Niagara broke through the British line ahead of Detroit and Queen Charlotte, whose rigging had become entangled, firing broadsides into both ships while Caledonia and American gunboats fired from astern. It was all over and both British ships struck their colours followed by the rest of the squadron as it was overtaken.
Although Perry won the battle aboard the Niagara, he had received the British surrender on the deck of the Lawrence thereby allowing the British to see the price Perry's men had paid with their lives. In the aftermath of this action Perry sent his famous note to U.S. Army General William Henry Harrison, stating: "We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop."
And so control of Lake Eric past to the Americans thereby forcing Major General Procter to retreat back from the Detroit frontier and which eventually saw his army destroyed at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontario in Upper Canada. Also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, it was a decisive victory for the United States in the War of 1812 and resulted in the death of Shawnee chief Tecumseh, and the destruction of the Native American coalition lie had led.
As was customary after a defeat or loss of any ship, Barclay faced a court-martial. He appeared before the court in full uniform with one leg and his surviving arm swathed in bandages. The court found him not guilty and commended him on his "Judgement and Gallantry ... entitled him to the highest Praise."
On September 27, 1813 Perry ferried 2,500 American soldiers under the command of General Harrison to Amherstburg, which was captured without opposition. While 1,000 mounted troops commanded by Richard Johnson recaptured Fort Detroit.
Having seized control of the Great Lakes, Perry sent ships into Lake Huron and tasked them with cutting off the supply routes to the British forces at Fort Michilimackinac and to attack the British naval station at the Nottawasaga River on Georgian Bay.
In 1814 Perry was offered command of the USS Java, a 44-gun frigate that was under construction in Baltimore. 'While overseeing her construction he participated in the defences of Baltimore and Washington. However, this would be the last time he saw combat as the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December of 1814 thereby ending the War of 1812 before Java could put to sea.
Although the Battle of Lake Erie, which is also called the Battle of Put-in-Bay, was one of the biggest naval battles of the War of 1812 and saw nine U.S. Navy vessels defeat and capture six of the Royal Navy's ships on September 10, 1813, it was not the last naval action that would be seen on the Upper Great Lakes. For a time, however, these lakes were very much American territory.