The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Eight (Sorta): Lake Fight!
(Previously: Day Seven: Tecumseh’s Fall)
In 1812, in the overgrown wilderness around the Great Lakes, there was no such thing as land transport. You moved by water or not at all, at least in the summer—which is when most battles were fought.
Control of the lakes meant the ability to resupply and reinforce. The alternative, which American commanders actually had to resort to, was moving cannon over deer trails by ox train. I can't imagine doing that for even a mile, and they moved some of the cannon used in the Battle of Lake Erie all the way from Maryland, over mud, hills, snow, forests and every other misery you can think of. In a world where land travel, especially with cargo, was a nightmare, the Lakes were like a teleportation machine — suddenly you could shift any weight of cannon and timber anywhere you wanted, with nothing but wind power.
The official hero of the Lakes campaign is the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry was a Rhode Islander, which is why he was way off west, in Lake Erie: Because, like I said in a previous 1812 article, Rhode Island opted completely out of the war, and sort of incorporated itself as a franchise of Black-Market-Supplies-R-Us, serving the British Royal Navy, and making a good living at it.
Perry's experience in Rhode Island waters was unlucky, if not worse. He was in command of the American schooner Revenge off Rhode Island when the ship grounded in fog. The pilot had told Perry there'd be no problems, which is interesting when you consider that RI was unanimously and bitterly anti-war. You have to wonder if he piloted the Revenge right onto the rocks on purpose. Reminds me of those H. P. Lovecraft stories about inbred New England fishing villages, half-fish men in oilskins croaking reassurances at the outsiders they're planning to skin, and not just on the docking fees.
Perry behaved properly. He was the last man off the Revenge, and the pilot got the blame. But Perry seems to have decided that RI was not healthy for naval officers and other living things. In time-honored American tradition, Perry lobbied the Hell out of RI's politicians, who were very good at using the threat of outright treason to get their men appointed to command — another fine tradition.
The trouble was, there wasn't really a fleet to take command of. This was the real miracle of the American lake fleet: getting one together in the first place. The news of war was slow to hit the Lakes, so the British were able to grab an unfinished US Navy Brig, the Adams, when they took Fort Detroit — thanks to the cowardice of its commanding officer, William Hull. As I wrote in Day 7 of my War of 1812 series, Tecumseh had a big part in that “battle," if you could call it that, by parading his warriors around and around, convincing the wuss Hull that there were redskin hordes when Tecumseh really only had about 400 men under his command.
But the British, just like the Americans, were on a learn-as-you-go plan for war in this cold, wet corner of an all but uninhabited continent. They renamed the Adams “HMS Detroit" in honor of their big victory and promptly sailed her onto a sandbank in the Niagara River, where she was boarded and set afire by American sailors under Jesse Elliot, who was soon to be Perry's co-star, but not in pal-sy way, at the battle of Lake Erie. Small Anglo-American population, a few families with Naval tradition, means that you keep running into the same people in this war, just like small-town AA meetings.
With the Adams/Detroit aground and smoking, the American fleet on Lake Erie consisted of one brig, the Caledonia, and two civilian sloops that had to be refitted with guns. The man who really turned these makin's into a serviceable fleet was the engineer, Daniel Dobbins. Dobbins started building ships at Presque Isle, on the NE tip of Pennsylvania, and Perry arranged for cannon to be towed across the hills by ox teams — some of them from the D.C. region, just ahead of Admiral Cockburn's raiding parties.
There's a great site describing Dobbins's incredible job in putting together a fleet out of basically nothing. He and his crew of local shipwrights and DIY carpenters built six ships over the winter of 1813, with no encouragement from the Feds. He couldn't even get his letters answered, and his construction crew had to use wooden pins because they couldn't afford nails.
The smart move for the British would've been to storm the shipbuilding site at Presque Isle during the summer of 1813, but luckily for “our fledgling nation," as they say, the British Army commander on the Northwest frontier was Henry Procter, the guy who betrayed Tecumseh and surrendered after one volley at the Battle of the Thames. Procter could be counted on to wimp out. And he did, even though Tecumseh begged him to attack.
The American base at Presque Isle was defended by about 2000 militia. It's hard to know what that meant, in combat terms. Militia did well in some battles, especially when they played defense behind earthworks, but they were usually scared shitless by artillery, and the British fleet, small as it was, included dozens of good, long-range cannon.
The British fleet couldn't just sail into Presque Isle Bay, thanks to some pesky sandbars. And since Procter couldn't be persuaded to make an infantry attack, the blockade fizzled by the end of July 1813. As soon as the Royal Navy cleared out, Perry started towing his little squadron over the sandbar, out into the lake.
Moving west down the lake, Perry made a feint at Amherstburg, near Detroit, and stopped British resupply of Procter's and Tecumseh's force. And that's how Perry basically guaranteed that the Americans would win the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed. Without naval support, Procter's troops felt real lonely and hungry in the wilds of Southern Ontario and morale went straight to Hell. The Royal Navy commander on the lake, Barclay, had to sail out of Detroit and meet Perry near Put-In Bay.
Unlike most battles, this one really did come down to hardware, especially the difference in cannon and sails. Both fleets were about the same size, with the British holding a small advantage in number of cannon: 63, vs. 54 for the Americans. The US ships were smaller, but there were more of them, nine, vs. six in the British fleet. Pretty much an even match. What mattered more was the variety of cannon each side was using. The Americans had salvaged a set of “carronades," which were basically huge, short, stubby blunderbusses, very lethal at short range but useless unless the ship carrying them sailed right up to its opponent. The British fleet used more conventional naval cannon, with a smaller ball, but better range (up to a mile if you were good).
This made for a classic boxer-vs.-puncher fight: the British would be better off in a standoff fight, while the US squadron had to get in close and dig to the belly to have a chance. Perry gave his orders accordingly, telling his sub-commanders to stay in line and get close, then open up with the carronades.
But that all depended on the wind. Hard to realize now how many naval battles — in fact, whole campaigns — were decided by the wind. A civilian cargo vessel could afford to wait in harbor for a good wind; sailors were cheap, nobody cared if they lost a few days, it wasn't like they could sue for overtime. But in a naval fight, when your only power is the wind, many a commander wished he was on the deck of a good old galley, with slave-power manning the oars for those days when the wind's on the enemy's side.
Perry, commanding aboard his flagship, the Lawrence, sailed toward the British fleet…and hit a calm. You could hear the crickets chirping, because there was no wind. You could probably hear the crew swearing and praying by turns, too, because the Lawrence was becalmed out of carronade range but well within the range of the longer British guns. They couldn't have asked for a better target, and they went to work on it with no delay at all. For 20 minutes they sat there and took it like Jake LaMotta serving as speed bag for Sugar Ray Robinson.
Finally the wind picked up and the Lawrence was within carronade range. But with half of his gun crews dead, hurt or scared, the Lawrence's first volley wasn't as big as Perry had expected. And what was worse was that his other big ship, the Niagara, didn't have his back. The commander of the Niagara was our friend Jesse Elliot, who'd burned the Adams/Detroit earlier in the war. The wind was there, he could and should have moved up to engage, but he hung back. Nobody's sure why. It remained kind of a sore point between him and Perry for the rest of their lives. Because the Lawrence was just sitting out there, getting pounded by two big British ships, the Detroit (a new ship with the old name) and the Queen Charlotte.
These two were so eager to take out the Lawrence that they ran into each other and snagged, making an even better helpless target than the Lawrence had been. Most of the higher British officers were dead or wounded after being hit by the long guns of smaller US ships firing from back in the line, or the giant shotgun-like carronades on the Lawrence.
But the Lawrence was in even worse shape. 80% of the crew were dead or wounded. Perry made the big decision of the battle, taking down his colors and rowing over to the Niagara to make it his new flagship.
Personally, I'm inclined to think that there were harsh words spoken between Perry and Elliot around the time Perry climbed up to the deck of the Niagara. This was a little more serious, even, than leaving your guy open in a playground game, and you know how much screaming that generates.
The British command, what was left of it, expected Perry to sail off in defeat. He, much like Bugs Bunny, had not yet begun to fight. (A little John Paul Jones ref there — ever notice how these early American naval victories usually involve somebody winning on a hulk that's been shot to pieces? Bon Homme Richard, Lawrence — they may have won but they were totaled in the process.)
Perry had that true Bugs spirit that day. He sent Elliot to command the small ships in the back (“And go the long way, motherfucker, by way of Southern Yemen, we won't miss you") and took the Niagara right up to the mess of snagged rigging and screaming cockneys that had once been HMS's Detroit and Queen Charlotte. They finally got untangled, which must've been fun, under carronade fire—“No, YER left, Alfie, no' moine—bluurdy ‘ell, Alfie's dead, ‘Arold, you toike ovuh" but by the time they were untangled the relatively undamaged Niagara was on top of them, firing carronades like Claymore mine broadsides.
The British fleet surrendered at 3:00. The first shots were fired at about 12:15, so the whole thing was less than three hours long—a pretty long time, really, for a close-range naval battle. Perry accepted the British surrender on the Lawrence, which was a bloody mess, to give his first crew—the few still standing—their proper creds.
The casualties don't seem like much by land-war standards, but almost all these casualties were inflicted by large-bore cannon at point-blank range, so they were a little messy. There's a reason all those old salts in the movies walk on wooden legs. Some of the injuries were just plain ridiculous — Barclay, the British commander, who'd already lost an arm in action against the French, lost a leg “and part of a thigh," whatever that means. His one remaining arm was merely paralyzed, so he had that going for him.
And his reward for all this? Court-martial. For losing. The British Navy was less forgiving than the Army, as Admiral Byng had reason to discover. They didn't like you losing; they weren't used to it, and it annoyed them. Barclay was finally acquitted by his court-martial, but it can't have been fun to have yourself wheeled into the dock to answer questions from a bunch of fat REMFs.
This was one battle that really meant something in the larger war. Perry's fleet, with total control of the lake, started ferrying American infantry toward Detroit and Southern Ontario. Detroit fell without a fight—that was kind of a tradition on both sides in this war, surrendering Detroit without a fight. And on September 27, two weeks after Perry's victory, an exhausted and hungry British/Shawnee force, cut off in Southern Ontario, surrendered to W. H. Harrison.
Nothing was left to do except start the endless bitter recriminations that are a tradition of all navies, which have a way of attracting the biggest egos outside pop music. Perry and Elliot devoted themselves to blackening each others' names while the British were torturing poor crippled Barclay. That's navies for ya, even winning ones: not just the “rum, sodomy, the lash" that Churchill mentioned but lots and lots of plenty of backbiting prima donnas.