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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p161  X
The Battle of Lake Erie

Strategic Importance of the Great Lakes

Although the United States did not rouse itself to maintain a navy on the Great Lakes until after hostilities had begun, long before the beginning of the war Great Britain had appreciated their strategic importance. Indeed the British had, ever since the days of the French occupation in Canada, realized the advantage of these inland oceans on the borderland as rapid means of conveying troops, supplies, and communications. The nation in power on these waterways had also the lucrative fur trade, and with it the Indian interests in that section. The woods on both Canadian and American sides were all but impassable. Since Britain's salt water navy could reach with its mighty arm as far as Montreal, control of the lakes would easily give her the upper hand in all the territory bordering on these waterways as far as Mackinac. Kingston, Detroit, and Mackinac were the important links in the chain of communication from the Atlantic to the Northwest. Besides, the fact that two of these places, Detroit and Mackinac, were on narrow bodies of water, furnished an additional element of defense.

It should have been the policy of our Government to take the offensive on the northern border, while it sought to maintain a defensive attitude on the seaboard. Preparations for a control of the lakes should have been made ten years previous to the war, but a parsimonious government, naturally opposed to navies, did not foresee the need of warships at sea, much less on the lakes. It was a similar shortsighted policy that prompted Hull and  p163 Dearborn to concentrate their efforts in the Northwest, rather than at Lake Champlain and against Montreal, the true objective in an offensive war for control of the Northwest. Hull's disastrous campaign in Michigan, and the fall of Detroit and Mackinac in the summer of 1812, spurred our people to efforts which culminated in a partial control of Lake Ontario, and in Perry's victory on Lake Erie. Detroit and Mackinac would never have fallen if we had had control of the Great Lakes. Indeed, shortly after Perry's capture of the British flotilla on Lake Erie, Detroit and the territory of Michigan came back into our possession.
[image ALT: A map showing Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario and the St. Lawrence River to about the longitude of Lake Champlain, also shown. It is a map of the Great Lakes theater of the War of 1812.]

Chauncey and Elliott Sent to the Lakes

On September 3, 1812, Captain Isaac Chauncey was ordered by the Navy Department to take command of Lakes Erie and Ontario with the purpose of building fleets on these waters and wresting the naval supremacy on them from the British. Chauncey took charge of the work on Ontario himself, and on September 7 he dispatched Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliott to Lake Erie to establish a naval base. The latter arrived at Buffalo on September 14, and was busily engaged in equipping at Black Rock, his temporary navy yard, some schooners which he had recently bought, when, on October 8, he was informed that two British armed brigs had come to anchor off Fort Erie. These were the Detroit, formerly the U. S. S. Adams, and the Caledonia.

With the aid of ninety seaman, who had arrived that very day from New York, and with about fifty soldiers, Elliott determined to cut out these brigs. He succeeded in bringing the Caledonia to Black Rock, but the Detroit ran aground off Squaw Island, and, under the fire of both the British and American forts, had to be burned. The  p164 Caledonia had a cargo of furs valued at $200,000, and the Detroit had a quantity of ordnance; four of the latter's 12‑pounders and a quantity of shot were later recovered at night by a party of American seamen.

Lieutenant Elliott had quickly seen his opportunity and grasped it; he had realized that with these two vessels added to his squadron he might wrest the control of the Upper Lakes (i.e., the lakes west of Lake Erie) from Great Britain. But as the Detroit had to be destroyed, the British still proposed a naval force too great for Elliott to encounter. General Brock, commanding the British forces, however, felt the loss of these brigs very much. In a letter to the Governor-General of Canada, he wrote: "This event is particularly unfortunate and may reduce us to incalculable distress. The enemy is making every exertion to gain a naval superiority on both lakes; which if they accomplish, I do not see how we can retain the country. More vessels are fitting for war on the other side of Squaw Island, which I should have attempted to destroy but for your Excellency's repeated instructions to forbear. Now such a force is collected for their protection as will render every operation against them very hazardous."​1 Elliott kept hard at work until the winter closed the lake to navigation, and his labors laid the foundations for Perry's success the following year.

Perry in Command on Lake Erie

[image ALT: A portrait of a rather young man with a gentle and somewhat foppish air, in the uniform of an American naval officer of the early 19c, with prominent epaulets. It is the hero of the American Navy in the War of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry.]

On March 27, 1813, Master-Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry took charge of the work on Lake Erie, and removed the flotilla from Black Rock to Presqu'isle (Erie), where he established his base. A race in shipbuilding now took place between Perry on the American  p165 side and the British naval commander, Barclay, on the Canadian side. Both were young and full of energy. Both had to work under great difficulties. The Canadians gave Barclay little help; the severer winter and less developed country on the north shores made his task harder. Although the salt water navy of Great Britain could reach as far as Montreal to bring men and arms, still the Government was in great straits for sailors for the European war. Captain Sir James Lucas Yeo, the able young British officer on Lake Ontario, could spare his subordinate on Erie but few men, as he needed them too much himself in his struggle for supremacy against Chauncey. On the other hand, Perry had in New York a better developed country to operate in. But he likewise found it difficult to persuade his superior, Chauncey, to spare him men and supplies; he had to bring his mechanics and seamen for the most part from New York City, a distance of 500 miles. The American commander had to depend largely on militia and negroes to defend his shipbuilding operations, as his British rival depended on Canadians and Indians. As many of the Canadians had originally come from New England and New York, they had been from the beginning as much opposed to the war as the people in our northern States, and were not to be relied upon. Roosevelt is of the opinion that the Canadians, being naturally lake sailors, fought better at the battle of Lake Erie than British tars did a year later at the battle of Lake Champlain. Barclay, however, lamented greatly his lack of British officers and seamen.

Taking advantage of a temporary naval control on Lake Ontario, Chauncey, in conjunction with General Dearborn, captured York, now Toronto, in April, 1813. A month later Chauncey assisted in the capture of Fort George, on the Niagara River, an event which compelled the British to abandon their hold on this river. This  p166 made it possible for Perry to tow up the river to Presqu'isle the brig Caledonia, the purchased schooners Somers, Tigress, and Ohio, and the sloop Trippe. The warping of these vessels up against the power­ful current was an arduous task. The rest of Perry's squadron, the two 20‑gun brigs Lawrence and Niagara, and three more schooners, the Ariel, Scorpion, and Porcupine, were being hastily constructed at the navy yard at Presqu'isle.

Barclay, too, was very busy in building and equipping his flotilla, which consisted of the ships Detroit (a new vessel named after the former Detroit) and Queen Charlotte, the brig Hunter, the schooners Lady Prevost and Chippewa, and the sloop Little Belt. As soon as most of his vessels were ready, Barclay put to sea and at once blockaded Perry at Presqu'isle. The American commander was now in difficult straits, because he could not get his brigs, with their guns mounted, across the bar at the mouth of Erie harbor; and to try to get them over with guns unmounted, while Barclay's flotilla was hovering about, would be foolhardy. The British commander maintained a close blockade until August 2, when, for no apparent reason, he disappeared to the westward. Perry now hurried matters, and on the 4th he towed the Lawrence to the deepest part of the bar, hastily took out her guns, and that night got the brig across the bar. The method used by Perry in getting the Lawrence over is thus described by Cooper: "Two large scows, prepared for the purpose, were hauled alongside, and the work of lifting the brig proceeded as fast as possible. Pieces of massive timber had been run through the forward and after ports, and when the scows were sunk to the water's edge, the ends of the timbers were blocked up, supported by these floating foundations. The plugs were now put in the scows, and the water was pumped out of them. By this process the brig was lifted quite two feet, though  p167 when she was got on the bar it was found that she still drew too much water. It became necessary, in consequence, to cover up everything, sink the scows anew, and block up the timbers afresh. This duty occupied the whole night."2

At eight o'clock on the morning of the 5th, just as the Lawrence had been safely got across, Barclay reappeared. But he was too late, and after the exchange of a few shots with the American schooners, Barclay went back to his base at Malden (Amherstburg) to await the completion of his most power­ful ship, the Detroit. Shortly after, Perry brought the Niagara across the bar without trouble. After sailing westward towards Malden, Perry returned to Erie to lay in provisions, and on August 10 took on 102 seamen whom Lieutenant Elliott had just brought as a much-needed reinforcement. Elliott, as second in command, took charge of the Niagara. Perry could now range the lake at will. He made his headquarters at Put‑in‑Bay, a good harbor thirty miles southwest of Malden, where he could watch the movements of Barclay and prevent him from getting to the British source of supplies at Long Point. As the roads were impassable, and as blockade-running was impracticable, Captain Barclay was soon forced to come out for supplies. In his report to Sir James Yeo after the battle, he wrote: "So perfectly destitute of provisions was the port [Malden], that there was not a day's flour in store, and the crews of the squadron under my command were on half allowance of many things, and when that was done there was no more." The Indians had been wantonly killing cattle in this region, and these warriors and their families, in all 14,000, whom the British had to provide for, were becoming restive because of the lack of food.

 p168  The Battle of Lake Erie

At sunrise on September 10, 1813, the lookout at the masthead of the Lawrence saw the British flotilla coming out from Malden. The wind was at first southwest, which gave Barclay the weather-gage. But after Perry had got under way, the wind shifted to the southeast and thus was in his favor. Barclay, in his report of the battle, says: "The weather-gage gave the enemy a prodigious advantage, as it enabled them not only to choose their position, but their distance also, which they did in such a manner, as to prevent the carronades of the Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost from having much effect; while their long guns did great execution, particularly against the Queen Charlotte."

Both commanders formed their vessels in columns, with the most power­ful ships in the centre — a formation which gave the whole line a strong cohesive force. Perry had intended to have each of his stronger vessels keep its position parallel to a correspondingly power­ful opponent. This is proved by the fact that after he noticed the formation of Barclay's centre to be constituted in the following order: Detroit, Hunter, and Queen Charlotte, he rearranged his own centre thus: Lawrence, Caledonia, and Niagara. His first plan had been to have the Niagara ahead of the Lawrence, thinking that the British centre would be led by the Queen Charlotte. This change in formation should be noted carefully, as it has an important bearing on the Perry-Elliott controversy which arose after the battle, and which caused our people to take sides with the two American commanders.

[image ALT: A set of three diagrams of two small naval fleets. It is a schematic view of the battle of Lake Erie, explained in detail in the accompanying text.]

The battle began at 11.45 and continued until three o'clock. Shortly after the British opened fire, Perry determined to abandon his first formation parallel to the enemy's column. He found that the Lawrence with her  p169 carronades was not within effective range. Accordingly, with the schooners Ariel and Scorpion, and the flagship Lawrence in the van, he tried to reform his flotilla in column ahead obliquely, that is, in echelon, or bow and quarter line. At the same time he sent word to the rear ships, which by reason of the lightness of the wind were straggling behind, to close up. For some reason Elliott did not follow his commander's lead; instead, he kept his position behind the slow-sailing Caledonia, and as four‑fifths of the Niagara's guns were carronades, Elliott's vessel fell behind, out of range. Meanwhile, her intended antagonist, the Queen Charlotte, finding that the long guns of the Caledonia were doing great damage, slaughtered ahead to take part in the terrific fire that was already being concentrated on the Lawrence. By reason of Elliott's misunderstanding of orders, or his poor judgment, there was now a considerable gap between the Caledonia and the vessels in the van.

The Lawrence was thus compelled to bear the brunt of the battle from twelve o'clock until half-past two. Both  p170 the British and the American larger ships in the van were suffering terribly. At the end of the first stage of the battle, at two‑thirty, the Lawrence was a wreck. Four‑fifths of her crew were either dead or wounded. Finally, Perry had to call on the surgeons and even on the wounded to lend a hand, and he himself, assisted by the purser and chaplain, fired the last effective gun. But the Detroit was also "a perfect wreck," according to Barclay's report. The Queen Charlotte had lost her able captain, Finnis, early in the action, and was now being badly handled by an inexperienced Canadian officer.

It was at this crucial moment, that Perry, while his ship was drifting helplessly astern out of action, made his famous passage in a boat from the flagship to the Niagara, which was still perfectly fresh. He at once sent Elliott to hurry up the American vessels astern, and he himself in the Niagara stood down for the badly shattered British flagship. On passing, Perry fired his port guns into the smaller vessels of the enemy, and his starboard into the Detroit, the Queen Charlotte, and the Hunter. The Detroit and the Queen Charlotte were at this moment trying to wear, to bring fresh broadsides into action; but as every brace and almost every bowline on both had been shot away, the two vessels fouled each other, and thus gave the Niagara an excellent opportunity to rake within half pistol-shot. The terrific fire of the Niagara, supported by the Caledonia and the schooners now coming up, quickly brought the battle to a close.

Perry then transferred his broad pennant back to the Lawrence, so that he might receive the surrender of the British commanders on the deck of his old flagship. In the smoke and confusion, the Chippewa and the Little Belt had crowded on all sail to escape, but they were soon overhauled by the Trippe and the Scorpion, and were forced to send their officers to the Lawrence to give up  p171 their swords. Immediately after the formalities of surrender, Perry sent to General William Henry Harrison, who had succeeded Hull in the command of the American Army in the Northwest, his famous message, "We have met the enemy and they are ours — two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop."

The forces opposed in the battle were very unequal. The Americans had nine vessels​3 with a total broadside of 896 pounds against Barclay's six vessels and total broadside of 459 pounds. Perry's superiority in long gun metal was as three is to two, and in carronade metal as two is to one. Barclay's gunnery was excellent in spite of the fact that, having no locks, he had to fire his guns by flashing pistols at the touch-holes. The total American crew numbered 532, of whom only 416 were fit for duty; the British crew amounted to 440. In all this comparison, however, it must be borne in mind that the Americans were not able to take advantage of their superiority in ships and equipment until nearly the end of the action, when Elliott finally brought up the Niagara.

Elliott's conduct in the battle is difficult to explain. He seems to have misunderstood his commanding officer's orders. Perry had sent back word by trumpet early in the engagement to close up the line. Whether Elliott ever received this order we cannot now determine, as the charges and counter-charges were never carefully sifted. Lieutenant Elliott had rendered excellent service in his earlier work on Lake Erie, but in this battle he seems to have displayed bad judgment and lack of initiative in not following Perry's lead in getting into close action, and in not engaging the Queen Charlotte according to the original plan. Elliott's pleas were that he understood he  p172 was to maintain his position in the line behind the Caledonia, and that the wind was too light to keep up with the fast sailing Queen Charlotte.

Hitherto American naval officers had had little or no practice in fleet operations, for the sea fights of the early days had been all single-ship actions. The traditions of the middle of the 18th century required that the line must be maintained at all hazards, with the opposing fleets sailing in parallel courses. In the famous Battle of the Saints, fought with De grasse in the West Indies, April 12, 1782, Rodney, at the suggestion of his fleet captain Douglas, introduced a new maneuver, that of breaking the enemy's line. By this means he concentrated the fire of many of his ships upon an inferior number of the enemy, and determinedly clung to them until after a desperate resistance they were worn out and compelled to surrender. These also were Nelson's tactics at Trafalgar, and the remarkable results still more positively demonstrated the soundness of this style of fighting. The principle of concentration, although carried out in a different way, holds as good now as in the time of Rodney and Nelson.

Perry's method of attack seems at first to have followed the older tradition of ships sailing in column abreast the enemy, and Elliott's reluctance to leave his station astern of the Caledonia indicates that this was the style of battle which he, at least, expected. This unwillingness of his to leave his position in column, and the maneuver of the Queen Charlotte in sailing ahead to join the attack on the Lawrence, the Ariel, and the Scorpion, very nearly enabled Barclay to accomplish the feat of destroying in detail a superior enemy. From the moment Perry boarded the Niagara, however, he abandoned all line formation, and, by breaking through his enemy's flotilla, turned defeat into victory.

Captain Barclay, who was thirty‑two years of age, had  p173 an excellent record, and had been in the battle of Trafalgar under Nelson. In the action on Lake Erie he was twice wounded. He refused to leave the deck the first time he was hurt, but the second time he was wounded so terribly that his condition later brought tears to the eyes of the officers who sat on his court-martial. Barclay behaved with splendid courage during the battle; his great mistake was giving up the blockade of Presqu'isle and thus letting Perry go to sea. In his report, the British commander states the number of killed as forty‑one, and wounded ninety-four; Perry gives his losses as twenty-seven killed and ninety‑six wounded.

Although the forces were unequal, this very inequality redounds to the glory of Perry, whose energy created so quickly a superior flotilla. Roosevelt remarks that Perry by reason of his victory over an inferior force does not deserve the high place above such men as Hull and Macdonough that is generally accorded him in American histories. But he goes on to say: "It was greatly to our credit that we had been enterprising enough to fit out such an effective little flotilla on Lake Erie, and for this Perry deserves the highest praise."​4 Further, when we contrast the determined work on Lake Erie with the lack of results on Lake Ontario, we must admit that Perry accomplished wonders. His intense energy got together a fleet which within a few months gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the Upper Lakes, and the adjacent territory. On the other hand, on Lake Ontario, the shipbuilding race between Yeo and Chauncey kept on without result, and ended only with the war. The extravagant praise of Perry in American histories, criticised by Roosevelt, is due to the melodramatic features of the battle, which appealed to the popular imagination:  p174 the heroic resistance of the Lawrence, the passage of Perry in an open boat to the Niagara, and the sudden turning of the tide of victory. His fame should rest, rather, upon the hopeless days when the timbers of his future ships were still growing in the forest. In a word, Perry's work on Lake Erie attests the fact that what counts in an officer's career is not the spectacular event which appeals to the public, but the quiet, yet tireless energy, and sound judgment, and the farsightedness that always precede, and sometimes follow, a success­ful battle.


The results of the battle of Lake Erie were far‑reaching. Detroit and Michigan fell back into our possession. Then followed the victory of the Thames, in which Tecumseh, the great Indian leader, was slain. Thereupon the Indians, leaving the British, ceased to be a terror to the American settlements in the Northwest. The scheme which the British had fostered of creating in this section an independent Indian state, carved out of United States territory — a state which should be under the protection of Great Britain, constituting a buffer against the United States — was ended once and for all.

The Authors' Notes:

1 Quoted in Mahan's War of 1812, I, 356.

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2 J. Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America, II, 389.

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3 The Ohio was not present at the battle; she had some time previously been sent down the lake.

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4 Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812, p278.

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