War of 1812: Yankee Seamen on Fresh Water

John Christian Schetky, H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour (c. 1830). Public domain via Wikipedia

John Christian Schetky, H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour (c. 1830). Public domain via Wikipedia

Part two of a three-part series on the War of 1812, in The Yankee Road, an ongoing project by Jim McNiven.

February 27, 2015 

America did not need control over the lower Great Lakes to access their communities to the extent that the British did, except for two spots. The first was the Niagara area, where inconclusive battles were fought mostly on the British side. The second was the western end of Lake Erie and its feeder, the Detroit River. British control over Lake Erie meant that American troops and supplies could not be brought far enough north on land from Indiana to allow them to support Detroit and control the Upper Lakes. As well, the British Fort Malden at Amherstburg controlled the shipping channel in the Detroit River.

Conversely, the loss of control over the Lakes would mean that the British could not defend Sandwich, now Windsor, Amherstburg or their other scattered western communities. Without control over Lake Ontario, they could not supply their troops on the Niagara peninsula. Back in London, the post-Napoleonic strategy in North America assumed control over the Lakes would be held while a troop build-up could be effected.

The war began with the British dominating the Lakes. Both sides then began an arms race to gain or keep control over the Lakes. Armed ships could attack the merchant vessels used to transport troops and supplies, and could escort invasion forces to take the small communities on either side of the waters. From the first, the British encouraged illegal American cross-border trade. It was said that foodstuffs from western New York kept the British military effort fed throughout the war.

American bases were at Sackets Harbor NY and Black Rock NY and Erie PA. British bases were at Kingston, York (Toronto) Port Dover and Amherstburg. Most of the port of Black Rock, now a part of Buffalo, was in range of British cannon across the Niagara River at Fort Erie and so was of no use unless that fort was in American hands, while Port Dover was a minor fishing port on Lake Erie. None of these places west of Montreal on either side of the water had a thousand inhabitants.

When the War of 1812 broke out, following Congress’ action on June 18, the British had already become active. They assumed that Madison’s war message of June 1 would lead to this result. Eleven days later, on June 29th, the British seized 2 schooners in the St. Lawrence River. Three days later, on July 2, British troops based at Fort Malden at the mouth of the Detroit River boarded an unsuspecting American schooner containing American military sick and the confidential papers of the commanding general, William Hull, who was approaching Detroit by land with a large force. He had either been unaware that war had been declared or had gambled that the British were unaware.

Hull’s tenure in Detroit was short and by mid-August, he had been bluffed into surrendering himself and the the town by the energetic British General Isaac Brock.

All along the border, the British had gained knowledge of the start of the War before American authorities had managed or bothered to send the news west and north to American forces. This American failure to even inform their own forces of the War’s start presaged the incompetence that plagued the American military through much of the next couple of years.

The Incompetent get Somewhat Focused

Daniel Dobbins, an Erie, PA, shipowner, was among the first to raise the alarm at the British control of Lake Erie and their capture of Detroit. His ship was taken by surprise, but he managed to escape from the British at Detroit. He returned to Erie, reporting to General David Mead, head of the local militia, Dobbins was sent on his way to Washington DC, arriving on September 3. Madison and the War Department already had come to realize that the key to regaining the Northwest was control over Lake Erie and Dobbins seemed to offer a place to build the ships to do the job. Only the British had armed ships on Lake Erie, since the only American armed ship had been captured as part of the surrender of Detroit. Dobbins noted the advantages of Erie’s protected harbor and the presence of large oak trees near the water that would be suitable for ship construction The channel at Black Rock, the only other potential site, was within range of the guns of British Fort Erie on the other side of the Niagara River. 

Dobbins soon returned with a Naval commission for himself (he remained in the Navy until 1826.) and an authorization to build a war fleet at Erie. He also had been provided with the plans for a 40-ton gunboat, presumably of the useless type Jefferson had advocated, and allocated $2000 to build 4 of them. How these were to overcome a British fleet that was being constructed as well, is a mystery to me.

When Dobbins returned to Erie, according to one account, he took an axe and cut down the first tree selected as part of the keel of the first ship. Gradually, supplies and funds began to trickle into Erie. He sailed to Black Rock to find a shipbuilder, but the sole result of his search was an old ship’s carpenter, Ebeneezer Crosby, whom he hired for ’20 shillings and a pint of whisky’ per day.

The Great Lakes naval commander, Isaac Chauncey, upgraded Dobbins’ orders to start construction on two 60-ton schooners. At the end of December, 1812, Chauncey visited Erie for a day and was surprised to find four hulls under construction but only five carpenters and Crosby on the job. Two of the gunboats were far enough advanced that they could not be changed, but Chauncey ordered that the other two be extended 10 feet and fitted as schooners and that two larger brigs also be constructed. Once committed to building a real fleet, Chauncey was energetic. He wrote to a renowned New York City ship designer, Noah Brown, and asked him to go to Erie with a team of experienced builders and to take over the job of building the brigs.

With the arrival of Brown and his people in early 1813, and the further recruitment of skilled workers from as far away as Pittsburgh, the construction of the fleet moved forward. Into the spring, metal parts and cannon and other necessities were shipped up by water from Pittsburgh or came by ship from Black Rock, avoiding British patrols. Dobbins found an appropriate outlet for his sailing skills in commanding this latter supply operation. 

Next, Chauncey needed a commanding officer for the Erie fleet. He asked Washington for a 27-year old Commander, Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry went to sea at 13 and had a variety of experiences on Navy ships. Commanding some Rhode Island gunboats was both useless and boring for Perry and he had written to Chauncey, asking for a posting on the Great Lakes. His letter arrived on the 19th of January. Chauncey wrote back on the 20th, officially requesting that Perry and a contingent of Newport RI sailors be sent to the Lakes.

Perry received his orders in Newport on the 17th of February and within the next 5 days, he and150 sailors were on their way west to Black Rock. Perry could not proceed to Erie right away as the British had made a recent raid on Sackets Harbor and Chauncey needed a seasoned commander with him until the threat had passed. Thus, Perry did not arrive in Erie with his contingent until late March, when the ships were nearing completion. 

The British Miss Their Chances 

Meanwhile, General Mead’s militia defending Erie had served their terms and left to go home. From March until the beginning of May, the town and shipyard were effectively undefended, so a British attack then would have reduced the nascent fleet to ashes and delayed the campaign for another year. Bickering between Washington DC and the State authorities in Philadelphia was eventually resolved, with the state militias contributing to a new force, with the first contingent of 500 men arriving in Erie on May 7. This was the first, and perhaps the easiest, opportunity to keep control of Detroit and the Upper Lakes that was missed by the British. Instead, they had focused on futile land attacks on William Harrison’s forces in northern Ohio. As long as the British kept control of Lake Erie, Harrison could not advance in any case.

Through June and July, British Commander Robert Barclay, who had only arrived in Amherstburg on June 5, cruised the Lake trying to halt American shipping traffic and observing American progress in the Erie shipyard. He planned an immediate land and sea attack on the lightly defended port, but army General Procter would not let him have the necessary troops. His life was made more difficult by a successful American attack on Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River near the end of May, which meant that Fort Erie had to be evacuated, cutting the supply line via the Lakes from Kingston through Niagara, thus forcing supplies to Amherstburg to be rerouted with difficulty overland or through Port Dover to the west of Niagara.

Perry had returned to the Niagara area to participate in the assault on Fort George and when he realized that the British had then left Fort Erie as well, immediately went to Black Rock and took the ships bottled up there and sailed them to Erie, arriving on the 18th of June. Barclay anticipated that such a move might be made, but the British missed the weaker American ships in a fog bank. Otherwise, he might have captured or destroyed a part of the forces gathering at Erie and captured or killed Perry himself. A second opportunity missed. 

As the ships at Erie were completed, Perry faced the problem of their being adequately manned. This was intensified when General Dearborn at Niagara ordered the 200 soldiers he lent to Perry to get the ships from Black Rock to Erie to return. Perry was left with 120 healthy sailors to fill as many as 740 slots on 11 ships of various sizes. There were few local people to draw upon and these were untrained in any case. Perry managed to pry another 116 from Chauncey at Sackets Harbor and another 100 local men were recruited by the end of July.

Barclay had the same problem at Amherstburg. His superior, Sir James Yeo at Kingston was engaged in an arms race with Chauncey Both were in overall command and both needed a growing number of sailors to man their Lake Ontario fleets, making them reluctant to part with good personnel for what seemed to be a sideshow on Lake Erie. It should have been clear to the British high command that, with Napoleon on the ropes in Europe, some of the ships’ personnel in their European operations could now be spared for service on the Lakes, since the government’s evolving political strategy encompassing territorial gains around the Great Lakes and into the Midwest would require continued control over Lake Erie. None of these dots were connected in time.

Then came the ultimate miscalculation: on July 31, just as the ships at Erie were completed and ready to sail, Barclay’s fleet, which had been shadowing the mouth of Presque Isle Bay in hopes of catching the American ships whenever they might try to get across the sandbar, had disappeared. Perry could not believe his luck. He had to unload all the armaments from the larger ships and, using large floats, lift them over the sandbar at the mouth of the bay. While this task was going on, they would have been helpless in front of Barclay’s fleet. They would have been sunk in short order. Perry took the chance.

Perry’s men took from August 1 to August 4 to get all the ships across the bar. Just as the ships had all crossed, but were largely unmanned and unarmed, Barclay reappeared with his fleet. He still could have prevailed in battle right then, but he imagined these ships were armed and ready, and so left the area. Later, Barclay faced a court-martial, which examined the particulars of the subsequent battle, where he had fought well, but lost. For whatever reason, the officials never asked why had it even been fought, given the situation at Erie on the first of August. Had Barclay simply maintained his position outside the mouth of the bay until late October, the kind of thing that British ships had been doing for two decades along the coasts of Europe, Perry would have been frozen in until the next spring. Meanwhile, Harrison and his Kentuckians would have been stalled on the Maumee River in Ohio for a second winter, deteriorating into a restive and disintegrating militia force.

 Wellington Renews British Distraction

The result of Perry’s victory off Put-in-Bay reversed the strategic situation. Fort Malden at Amherstburg was untenable, given American control over Lake Erie. The overland track (now the 401 expressway) from York (now Toronto) to Sandwich (now Windsor) could not sustain the amount of traffic that would be required to defend the Detroit River communities. Perry and Harrison cooperated unusually well. Harrison had provided men to fill Perry’s ships before the battle while afterwards, Perry quickly ferried Harrison’s forces, not to Detroit, but over to the Amherstburg area, almost cutting off the retreating British, Near Moraviantown, on the trail to York, a newly-arrived Kentucky cavalry contingent cut the British and Indian forces to pieces.

Tecumseh, the charismatic chief who had tried to unite the tribes from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior into a confederacy that might resist American expansion, was killed at Moraviantown. Michigan was to have been an Indian buffer state between American settlers and British Canada. Now, all that was gone. 

Perry’s victory meant that the British could not re-establish themselves at Detroit and threaten the Ohio and Indiana communities. As well, any hold they had on the Upper Lakes was placed at risk. Though the British politicians continued to fantasize over the establishment of a new territory along the Mississippi, the practicalities were that it could not happen after the Battle of Lake Erie. Meanwhile, Napoleon had re-emerged as the ruler of the French and was preparing to take on Europe once again. British strategy, became one of punishing the America where it could, namely along its coasts.

As a sidelight, the British in 1814 also occupied the lightly settled Maine coast from New Brunswick west to the Penobscot River. Their initial idea was to establish a new boundary there, which would give them a more secure communication route between Halifax and Quebec City, but it would also constitute a symbolic ‘victory’ to end the war. In the end though, the loss of the British fleet on Lake Erie and the repulse at Baltimore, coupled with more instability in the more important European theatre led the politicians to take Wellington’s advice, accept the status quo ante in North America and concentrate on Europe.

The result in the Northwest was that American control became a reality and the northern borderline, except for the Oregon Territory, was settled. The sale of Louisiana by Napoleon was tacitly recognized as valid by the British, regardless of its ally Spain’s feelings about the matter. Conversely, the Americans agreed to the division of the continent with the British, since they had not been able to bring any part of the rest of the border along the Lakes under their control. The Battle of New Orleans, fought as peace was being ratified, meant nothing other than a morale boost to the American side.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

Read Part 1: The Incompetent vs The Distracted 


Jim McNiven

Dr. McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis. 








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