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To rule the waves: compared with saltwater actions, naval battles on the Great Lakes were relatively minor, but the fighting was fierce and the outcome vital to both sides.

While much has been written of the exploits of Brock, Sheaffe, Procter, de Salaberry, and other redoubtable military leaders in the War of 1812, we should not overlook the importance of the naval side.

Roads were few, of poor quality and vulnerable to seizure by the enemy and the blocking of supply routes. Waterways provided vital supply lines for the half-year or so when they were not frozen and both sides sought command of the lakes and rivers.

In the early days, naval warfare was very much a hit and miss affair. The Royal Navy was occupied with its role on the high seas, against both the United States and Napoleon's forces. As a result, it fell upon a somewhat hodgepodge organization, the provincial marine, to counter the United States' vessels on the lakes. While the latter were manned in large part by professional seamen, provincial marine crews were often brought up to strength by draftees and untrained soldiers. Founded over 30 years earlier, the service doubled as a merchant navy since its vessels had the monopoly on transportation on the Great Lakes. As they usually sailed only in daylight and within sight of land, high standards of seamanship were not expected. Some vessels were commanded by Royal Navy officers, who were seconded to the marines as an alternative to layoffs on half pay.

Despite appeals by Sir George Prevost, Canada's commander-in-chief, for support from the Royal Navy, all that he received were a few officers and a handful of ratings. Indeed, the Lords of the Admiralty were so far out of touch that they went to great expense to send over a supply of water barrels, oblivious to the fact that the recipients had an unlimited supply of fresh water all around them.

In contrast, the Americans were well aware of the importance of the lakes. Operational plans for lakes Erie, Ontario and Champlain were prepared, and a group of sailors and craftsmen established a shipyard in Sackets Harbor, New York, in anticipation of hostilities.

First blood fell to the British. On July 2, 1812, a party from HMS Hunter commanded by a Trafalgar veteran, Quebecker Lieutenant Frederic Rolette, boarded and seized the U.S. schooner Cuyahoga Packet in Lake Erie, capturing not only the vessel, its cargo and a body of U.S. soldiers, but also the detailed plans and organization of General William Hull's opposing threes. Surprise was on Rolette's side, as the Americans were unaware that war had been officially declared. U.S. Lieutenant Woolsey seized a trio of Canadian schooners on Lake Ontario under similar circumstances and generated cries of "dirty pool."

This success was quickly followed by one of many combined operations that were to take place in the Great Lakes area. On July 16, army Captain Charles Roberts and a mixed force of about 600 regulars, militia, and Indians embarked in a fleet of canoes, bateaux, and the North West Company's armed schooner Caledonia to capture, without a shot, the strategically important Mackinac Island on the strait between lakes Michigan and Huron.

Soon, a number of new participants arrived to make their mark in the conflict. Sir James Yeo had just been acquitted by a West Indies court-martial (he lost his ship on a reef) and was conveniently on hand to take charge of the naval forces. One notable subordinate was Commander Robert Barclay, a veteran explorer of the Pacific Coast who later lost an arm at Trafalgar. Barclay was despatched to Amherstburg, on Lake Erie, to command a force of five small ships and a larger vessel, HMS Detroit, which was still under construction. (A previous Detroit, the USS Adams captured and renamed, was in turn taken and destroyed in a daring small boat raid under U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jesse Elliott.)

The Americans appointed Captain Isaac Chauncey to the Great Lakes command. A veteran of the Tripoli campaign in 1804, he quickly organized the Sackets Harbor base as a productive shipyard. The gallant Elliott, having fallen afoul of U.S. President James Madison, was superseded in command in Lake Erie by an officer who, like Yeo, had recently been court-martialled and acquitted after running his vessel aground. Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, the new commander, accelerated the construction program at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) in a desperate production race with Barclay's force.

Frantic shipbuilding also took place on Lake Ontario. The Sackets Harbor yard competed with Canadian builders at York and Kingston. Hostilities took the form of sporadic sorties rather than pitched battles, as neither commander was willing to risk his ships in a major action.

Early in the war the whole Canadian fleet attacked Sackets Harbor, but despite weak opposition, quickly withdrew. One account has it that the Americans were short of ammunition, and local farmers gathered up the Canadian cannonballs, which their gunners fired back at the attackers.

Chauncey ventured forth in USS General Pike ill an abortive raid on Burlington, Ontario, which ended in a minor pillaging expedition to York, but generally both commanders were content to live and let live.

When, on August 7, 1813, the two opposing squadrons finally met, the battle went to the British, mainly because two of Chauncey's largest vessels capsized in a sudden squall. Meanwhile, the naval spotlight moved to Commodore Perry on Lake Erie.

Despite a host of logistical difficulties, Perry's workers were able to build two large brigs and seven smaller vessels, with a total of 55 guns. Barclay had only six ships under his command, including Detroit, which was not yet fully equipped. The shallow, waters of Lake Erie provided one advantage to the Canadians: Perry's two major vessels drew too much water to cross the sandbank at the entrance to Presque Isle, and Barclay was able to blockade the port.

For some reason (rumour has it that Barclay had pulled his fleet back to the Canadian side of the lake to visit a young and attractive widow) the Canadian squadron left its post for five days. During that period, Perry was able to float his two largest vessels, USS Lawrence and Niagara over the sandbar and assemble his fleet at Put-in-Bay, to the west. To inspire his crews, his flagship Lawrence flew a pennant inscribed with the last words of its namesake, who had been defeated in Chesapeake earlier: "Don't Give Up The Ship." Urged into action by his military commander, General Henry Procter, Commander Barclay reluctantly sailed to meet the foe. His vessels were outnumbered nine to six, and only a tenth of his crews were experienced seamen while about 60 per cent of Perry's larger complement were old salts. Barclay's only advantage lay in the number of guns, but his 65 pieces had a high proportion of long-range weapons, with lighter projectiles, as opposed to the heavier short-range carronades of the American ships. Worse, his flagship Detroit had been hastily equipped with a mixture of cannon from shore batteries, and he had few trained gunners.

The three-hour battle began at noon on September 10, 1813. First blood went to the British. Before the American vessels were able to close in and make use of their deadly carronades, the long guns from Detroit and Queen Charlotte battered Perry's flagship. Taking his "Don't Give Up The Ship" pennant with him, he transferred his flag to Niagara while Lawrence struck her colours.

The British vessels were also badly damaged and Barclay was severely wounded. As Niagara closed in, the two major British ships collided and were unable to manoeuvre. It was the beginning of the end. A combination of grapeshot from the carronades and hot fire from the Kentucky riflemen who had volunteered to serve as marines soon forced the surrender of the British vessels. None of the six British vessels escaped. Lake Erie belonged to Perry and his fleet. The fledgling U.S. Navy now had a new slogan: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." (To add to his laurels, Perry joined General William Henry Harrison in his foray into Canada and led an infantry charge at the battle of the Thames the following month.)

Meanwhile, on Lake Ontario, Chauncey's fleet met a smaller group of Admiral Yeo's vessels, damaging two of them. Yeo fled for the safety of Burlington harbour, but, surprisingly, Chauncey failed to follow up on his advantage and withdrew, consoling himself with the capture of five small schooners. After the thaw of 1814, Yeo (who had gained a lead in the shipbuilding race and now ruled the lake) attacked Oswego in a combined operation, seizing a quantity of much-needed supplies, and later blockaded Sackers Harbor. From then on the naval commanders appeared content to engage in building bigger and better ships, none of which saw action.

When Admiral Yeo assumed command at Lake Ontario he replaced some of the naval officers already there. One, Captain Daniel Pring, was relegated to the command of a trio of barges, each mounting a single gun at he aux Noix, which guarded the entrance to the Richelieu River from Lake Champlain.

In June 1813, two American warships on Lake Champlain tested the British defences. It was a fatal error. Caught in the Richelieu, the vessels were unable to turn and use their 11-gun broadsides, while the nippy British gunboats battered the enemy hulls at water level. Under fire from the lie aux Noix garrison and Pring's boats, the Americans were forced to surrender. A month later those captured sloops, now flying the British ensign, along with Pring's gunboats, ruled Lake Champlain and removed any threat of U.S. plans to advance on Montreal.

A shipbuilding race had begun and, by September 1814, each side had one major vessel, three smaller warships and about a dozen gunboats (crewed by oarsmen and mounting one or two cannon) on Lake Champlain. The procrastinating Sir George Prevost finally decided that he could no longer put off an invasion through the Lake Champlain-Lake George corridor. This was to be a combined operation.

The beginning was inauspicious. Admiral Yeo sent Captain George Downie to take over command from Pring, now relegated to second-in-command of the naval force. Downie had never seen Lake Champlain before. While the forces were equal, once again the Royal Navy relied on its long guns, the Americans on their carronades. Downie experienced Barclay's problems from the previous year. His flagship Confiance was rushed from the shipyard before completion. Her guns having neither been zeroed nor fired, and with a crew of civilian carpenters still aboard working on final touches, the vessel led the tiny fleet into action.

Battle began at 0800 hrs on September 11. The American vessels, with Commander Thomas MacDonough commanding in USS Saratoga, were anchored in line off Plattsburg Bay. Although Confiance's opening broadside severely damaged Saratoga, two volleys from the American vessel badly disabled the British flagship, killing Downie. A murderous exchange of carronade fire took place between the two major vessels. MacDonough had prudently arranged for his ships to be anchored so that they could be swung around on the cables while the British ships depended on the capricious wind to manoeuvre. This proved to be a decisive factor, for when MacDonough's starboard batteries were disabled, he was able to swing his vessel and bring his port broadside to bear. By noon the battle was over. The last British vessel to strike her flag was the brig Linnet, commanded by the redoubtable Lieutenant Pring, who fought on alone for a quarter hour after the other vessels had surrendered. The gunboats, which had served him so well earlier, lacked his aggressive spirit. Seven of them did not even enter the arena; while the remaining five stayed well clear of the battle, as their commander had left them to take refuge in a hospital vessel.

After MacDonough's victory, Sir George Prevost, unable to control the vital supply route on the lakes, returned to Montreal with his tail between his legs. While he blamed the navy for its failure, Admiral Yeo was even more ready to place the blame on the army, as the American ships were well within range of the land-based artillery, which took no part in the action.

The final significant action on the Great Lakes took place in the Strait of Mackinac, the entrance to Lake Huron. Here two American schooners, which had hitherto enjoyed a free hand on the lake (sinking HMS Nancy, a supply vessel) were captured in a daring small boat operation, leaving the British in command of the lake.

Compared with the saltwater actions, the lake battles were relatively minor. The total guns employed by both sides in the Lake Erie or Lake Champlain battles numbered less than the armament of a single ship of the line. Nevertheless, the fighting was fierce. As one veteran declared, "compared with Lake Champlain, Trafalgar was child's play." Both sides achieved strategic gains, and, by the war's end in 1815, the British owned lakes Huron and Ontario while the United States controlled Erie and Champlain.

Perhaps the unsung heroes of the battle for the lakes were the shipwrights and workers of Presque Isle, Sackers Harbor, Kingston, York and St. Jean who toiled under atrocious conditions, improvised to compensate for the lack of vital materials and were constantly vulnerable to enemy attack. Without their efforts the fighting captains could have done nothing. Theirs is a story in itself.
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Author:Twatio, Bill
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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