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During the War of 1812, the United States and Britain desperately dueled for control of the Great Lakes. Since Canada was the princi­pal land base for British forces in North America, and virtu­ally all of the north country was covered with vast tracts of virgin forest and intermittently submerged bottom lands, Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron and the rivers that connected them – the St. Lawrence, the Niagara and the Detroit – were of critical importance. It was only by these waterways that significant numbers of men or quantities of supplies could be transported to wage campaigns to determine which side would hold this territory and use it as an invasion route to threaten the other.

By the summer of 1812, both the British and Ameri­cans had improvised naval squadrons on Lakes Erie and Ontario. They consisted of several small schooners aver­aging sixty feet in length, carrying thirty or forty men and armed with one or two heavy cannon, often mounted on a swivel placed in the mid­dle of the main deck which allowed the gun to fire on either broadside. During the early campaigns on the lakes some useful work had been accomplished with these ves­sels, particularly when Lieut. Jesse Duncan Elliott led an amphibious expedition against Fort Erie, resulting in the cap­ture of the British vessels De­troit and Caledonia on October 7, 1812. Although a serious setback for the British cause, American strategists realized that the American position was the weakest on Lake Erie. The British possessed strong fortifications guarding the Niagara River at the eastern end, while another force un­der Henry Proctor was firmly ensconced at Amherstburg and Fort Malden, controlling the entrance to the Detroit River and threatening the Michigan Territory. The British could only be dislodged from these positions by an armed expedi­tion supplemented by power­ful naval forces dominating the central portion of the lake and interdicting the supply route between Long Point and Amherstburg. This endeavor would require more than a few small schooners.

When the coming of winter halted navigation, the com­mander of the American forces on the Northern Lakes, Com­modore Isaac Chauncey, began the construction of two twenty-gun brigs at Presque Isle. Given the prevailing primitive conditions, the building of sizable vessels on Lake Erie was a challenge of some magnitude. There were no supplies of seasoned tim­ber, no forges to produce iron­work or cannon, no ropewalks or sail lofts, no experienced shipcarpenters and little in the way of provisions to feed the workers. With Commodore Chauncey headquartered hundreds of miles east at Sack­et’s Harbor on Lake Ontario, little headway was realized until February 1813, when Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry arrived to take command of the American naval forces on Lake Erie. Commodore Perry was sup­ported on February 24 by the arrival of Noah Brown, a New York shipbuilder, who had been contracted, with his brother Adam, to expedite the construction of the brigs and other small vessels as could be managed. Working closely together, Perry and Brown set out to build the ships. Adam Brown dispatched gangs of carpenters from the family’s shipyard in New York, which Noah put to work cutting timber and framing from the nearby forests. A British schooner that had been frozen in the ice the previous fall was raided and stripped of provi­sions, rigging, cables and ironwork. Nearby settlements were scoured for additional iron and provisions, while a slow trickle of oakum, cannon and other naval stores arrived from time to time as U.S. Navy Department teamsters mastered the difficult winter roads.

By summer, Brown and Perry had completed two brigs, which the commodore christened Lawrence and Niag­ara, as well as four schooners, a blockhouse, a guardhouse, a mess hall and sail loft, a black­smith shop, a barracks for fifty men, four camel lighters, four­teen small boats and approxi­mately fifty gun carriages. This was accomplished by two hundred carpenters supple­mented by the efforts of naval personnel which Perry brought with him from his previous command, a gunboat squadron stationed at New­port, Rhode Island.

The two most impressive products of the labor were the brigs which would constitute the core of Perry’s Lake Erie Squadron and be the keys to ultimate victory. The Lawrence and Niagara seem not to have been built to any detailed plans worked out in advance by the Navy Department; they were broader and shallower than ocean-going vessels. Hold space was sacrificed because lake vessels were not obliged to carry casks of water and there was no need to stow provisions in great quantity as fresh-water voyages were normally brief. One dimension was dictated by sheer circum­stance: the bar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay normally shoaled to a depth of nine feet during the summer months so the Lawrence and Niagara each had a depth of hold of exactly nine feet. Armed with eight­een thirty-two-pounder car­ronades and two twelve-­pounder long guns, the brigs were plainly finished with only rudimentary accommoda­tions for the officers and men. They measured one hundred and ten feet long with a beam of twenty-nine feet.

While the American ships were being built and outfitted at Presque Isle, Capt. Robert Barclay, the British com­mander on Lake Erie, labored under similar hardships to construct a suitable squadron at Amherstburg. Although he eventually succeeded in pro­ducing fewer and slightly smaller ships than their Amer­ican counterparts, he was the first to complete his task. Im­mediately he began cruising the lake convoying supplies and threatening the American bases at Black Rock and Pre­sque Isle. During the summer of 1813, while the Lawrence and Niagara were being outfitted, Perry contrived to elude Bar­clay and concentrate all his ships and men, including contingents from Black Rock and reinforcements sent from Gen. William H. Harrison’s army, at Presque Isle. Among them were local militiamen and a few blacks who were promised freedom if they would volunteer for duty on the brigs.

As the last days of July brought the two brigs to com­pletion, Perry was faced with a vexing dilemma. Drought conditions prevailed on the lake and the depth of water over the Presque Isle Bar was only six feet. Barclay’s ships had been sighted from time to time throughout the summer and it was believed that they might again appear without warning. Perry wanted his ships to enter Lake Erie fully armed and readied for battle. To do this, he had to lighter them over the bar with the camels that Brown had built that winter. It had originally been assumed that the camels would lift the Lawrence and Niagara just two feet so that they could clear the bar in a fully loaded condition, draw­ing little more than seven feet. It was imperative that the hulls be lifted at least three feet, and it was by no means guaranteed that this could be done with the ships armed and equipped for action.

Early in August, a westerly wind pushed the waters of the lake to its eastern end and Perry attempted to lift the Lawrence over the bar. The lighters were lashed alongside and pumped out but, after two days of frantic work, and plagued by fears of the British squadron – known for making sudden appearances – dis­turbing everyone, it was evi­dent that the risk of stripping the ships had to be taken. The Lawrence was taken in hand first. While the Niagara pa­trolled inside the bar with her carronades loaded and men at their stations, guns and ballast were removed – along with everything else that was porta­ble. This was sufficient, and the Niagara was also stripped. Immediately all hands worked day and night to lift the ship over the bar and restore it to fighting trim.

By August 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet was ready. With crews augmented by a contingent of sailors from Commodore Chauncey’s command led by Jesse Duncan Elliott, who had recently been promoted to the rank of master commandant, Perry’s vessels were fully manned. Elliott took over as captain of the Niagara and second-in-command to Perry. The following weeks were spent in drilling the ships and crews and working out battle tactics. The squadron shifted toward the western end of the lake, a vital necessity as the ships were woefully short of trained seamen. The Niagara had about one hundred and forty men on board, including a few sailors from the Lake Ontario Squadron, regular army soldiers, militiamen and several blacks. By the time they arrived at Perry’s new base, established at Put-in-Bay in the Bass Islands, the men had been transformed into an effective fighting force.

Meanwhile, Captain Bar­clay had concentrated his command at Amherstburg and had taken delivery of his larg­est ship, the nineteen gun brig Detroit. After manning her with the usual motley collec­tion of seamen and soldiers, Barclay set sail on September 9 to seek out the Americans and give battle. Because of the presence of an American spy at Amherstburg, Perry knew a great deal about Barclay’s preparations and had even been supplied with his plan of battle. The Americans believed that the British would form a battle line with their flagship in the center position. They also realized that the British had to act quickly to neutralize the American squadron or suffer Colonel Proctor’s army to be cut off from its base of supplies and reinforcements at the worst possible time, the onset of winter.

Shortly after dawn on the following day, the topsails of the British squadron were spotted by American lookouts, prompting Commodore Perry to order his fleet to weigh anchor. It was a fine, clear morning with a light breeze from the southwest. As the British were approaching from the northwest, this gave them the wind on their starboard quarter, while obliging the American ships to beat out of Put-in-Bay and approach the British with the wind on their port bow. The British had the weather gauge which would allow them to control the ini­tial stages of the action and place the Americans at a dis­advantage. Perry chose to ignore this circumstance and stood out to meet the British with the Niagara at the head of his battle line and the flagship Lawrence occupying the center so that she could be opposite Barclay’s flagship when the fleets closed with each other.

In the prevailing light winds, progress was slow, but by ten o’clock the British were close enough for the Ameri­cans to identify individual ships and determine that Commodore Barclay’s flag­ship, the Detroit, was in the vanguard or leading position and not in the center of the British line as they had ex­pected. Steering out of line and cracking on sail, Perry came alongside the Niagara and ordered Elliott to fall back and take station astern of the Caledonia, which would put him at the center of the Ameri­can line and give Perry the honor of leading the fleet and engaging the enemy flagship. By now the wind was begin­ning to shift to the southeast, giving Perry the weather gauge and obliging the British to beat towards the Americans.

Nearly two hours were consumed in the effort to close the range but shortly before noon, the British line turned southwest and began to fire ranging shots. It was quickly noted that at least one item of American intelligence had been accurate; the British squadron was armed mostly with long guns of various sizes which had a useful range of a mile or more. The American side had only a few long twelve pounders and some of the schooners mounted even larger pieces, but their main armament were the carronades of the Lawrence and Niagara, devastating when fired within musket shot of the enemy but useless at any distance. Nevertheless, Perry ordered his flagship to reply to the British fire at exactly 11:55 and turned to close with the enemy on a converging course tending generally to the southwest. The Niagara fired a broadside which, to nobody’s surprise, fell far short of the British line.

Perry intended to endure the fire of the British long guns – which were much lighter than the American carronades – while closing the range as rapidly as possible. He knew that once he was fairly at grips with the British fleet his weap­onry would offer him a deci­sive advantage. He would simply have to gamble that the British would not be able to do any real damage during the inevitable interval in which the Americans were outranged.

Oliver Hazard Perry’s gam­ble nearly failed and the cir­cumstances under which this part of the battle was fought have been controversial ever since. Together with two small schooners at the head of the American line, Perry’s Lawrence managed to close with the British fleet in just forty-five minutes and by one o’clock he was lying broadside to broad­side with the three heaviest ships in the British squadron. The Caledonia and the Niagara required more than two hours to cover the same distance and did not really join the fight until 2:30 P.M., by which time the Lawrence had been reduced to a shattered hulk with all her guns silenced and all of her officers, with the exception of Perry himself, wounded or dead. This dilatoriness has never been satisfactorily ex­plained. Captain Elliott was never formally accused of failure to do all in his power to support his commanding officer, but his behavior was noticed and discussed until eventually he requested an official Court of Inquiry to dispel rumors that his conduct had been cowardly or even dishonorable.

According to testimony given at the Court of Inquiry, held on board the sloop-of-war Ontario at New York on April 24, 1815, the movements of the Niagara were questionable when viewed from the deck of the Lawrence. Two of the Flag­ship’s officers, James J. Yarnell and French Forrest, stated that they observed the Niagara standing aloof from the battle and mentioned their observa­tions to Perry. Both lieutenants noted that the Niagara did not have all possible sail set and Yarnell even indicated that he thought that at times her yards were backed. She seemed to hover consistently on the Law­rence‘s weather bow some one-half to three-quarters of a mile distant and certainly well out of range. The winds, still light but freshening, made possible a speed of at least two knots. Positioned upwind of the Law­rence, the Niagara should have been able to close with her easily just by running down­wind to her for about thirty minutes.

Pitted against the testimony of the two Lawrence officers were the stories of Captain Elliott and five officers of the Niagara. They claimed, with remarkable consistency, that they had done everything possible to bring their ship to battle. The Niagara had tried ranging shots ten minutes after the flagship opened fire. She had turned with the Law­rence to converge on the en­emy line but found herself hampered by the slow sailing of the Caledonia to such an extent that, after almost run­ning his bowsprit over the schooner’s taffrail, Elliott ordered her to sheer out of line and take station astern of him. During the long interval of time that the Lawrence was fighting for her life against the Detroit and her consorts, the Niagara entered into a gunnery duel with the Queen Charlotte, ultimately forcing her to break off the action and try to escape downwind. Sailing Master Newton Webster of the Niag­ara, under questioning by his former commanding officer, listed the damage done to the ship by the Queen Charlotte in an effort to show that they had been in a hot engagement. He claimed that the mainstay, fore topmast backstay, “a great deal of running rigging” and two foremast shrouds were shot away while some of the spars were “wounded.” At least two members of the crew were killed and several hurt in the action. Elliott capped this account by claiming that when the Queen Charlotte broke off the action and put down her helm to run away, she fouled her squadronmate Detroit and the two Britishers became entangled and unmanageable, contributing to their capture by the Americans.

The officers of the Niagara corroborated the accounts given by the Lawrence‘s lieuten­ants regarding the relative bearing from their ship to the flagship, stating that for most of the action the Lawrence was on their lee quarter. There was, however, a great discrepancy concerning the distance be­tween them. Where Yarnell and Forrest claimed the dis­tance was quite great, the Niagara officers gave the inter­val as very close, ranging from twenty-five yards to a quarter mile away. They maintained that, when Perry resolved to leave the Lawrence and transfer his flag to the Niagara, she was in close support and the com­modore made no reproach or criticism against Elliott when he climbed on board.

The Court of Inquiry was greatly hampered in its sifting of the conflicting claims of the two sets of officers because Perry was not present to tes­tify. He was, in fact, only a few hundred miles away in New­port, Rhode Island, outfitting the new frigate Java. To this day it remains a great mystery why he did not participate in the inquiry since only he could, with total assurance, establish the distance in ques­tion. He had, after all, traversed it under fire in a ship’s boat and could better estimate it than anyone else.

Nevertheless, when he did gain the deck of the Niagara there was a dramatic improve­ment in the way the ship per­formed from that moment on. Elliott greeted Perry with the suggestion that the commo­dore take personal command of the Niagara while he took over Perry’s launch to rally and bring into action the small schooners Porcupine, Tigress and Trippe, which had lagged far behind the battle. Perry agreed and Elliott quickly departed on his new mission. With sails full and drawing, apparently for the first time since the commencement of the action, the Niagara surged ahead of the crippled Lawrence and into the thick of the battle. Seeing a gap between the British Lady Prevost and her entangled squadronmates Detroit and Queen Charlotte, Perry steered to break the enemy line. This was handily accomplished and the Niagara poured several broadsides into her adversaries. Commodore Barclay fell with a severe wound and his ships – already considerably shattered by their encounter with the Lawrence – proved unable to withstand the Niagara‘s thun­dering cannonade. By then all of the American schooners had joined the fight. Under a withering fire, the Detroit hauled down her colors, followed by the rest of the British squadron, with the exception of the Chippeway and Little Belt, which unsuccessfully at­tempted to escape.

Through sheer daring and tenacity, Oliver Hazard Perry had accomplished a victory of epic significance. No American commander before – or since – had ever success­fully shifted his flag in the midst of a fierce engagement. None had ever forced the surrender of an entire enemy squadron and brought back every ship to his base as a prize of war. In strategic terms, Commodore Perry’s feat of arms was even more reward­ing: British naval power west of the Niagara gateway had vanished. The formidable force commanded by Colonel Proctor at Amherstburg was cut off from its supply base at Long Point. Even the British forts at St. Joseph’s Island and the Straits of Mackinac, hun­dreds of miles to the north, were in jeopardy.

After the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry concentrated his fleet and its prizes at Put-in­Bay. The heavily damaged vessels, including the Law­rence, were sent to Black Rock or Presque Isle for repairs. The Niagara, then serving as flagship, and her less damaged consorts were pressed into service as troop transports. Gen. William Henry Harrison, with forty-five hundred regu­lars, militia and Indian auxil­iaries, was taken from Port Clinton to Middle Sister Island on September 20. After a reconnaissance of the British base carried out by Perry and Harri­son aboard the schooner Ariel, the force was landed seven days later. The Niagara had been detailed to engage Fort Malden and to support the troops ashore with her artil­lery, but it quickly became evident that the British had fled inland after burning their principal buildings and what­ever supplies they could not carry. The American force, with Perry serving ashore as an aide to General Harrison, pursued the British to Sand­wich and up the Thames River as Proctor’s force attempted to march to York and Kinston. Several of Perry’s smaller ships ferried supplies up the Thames until British sharp­shooters made this too danger­ous. The Niagara remained behind, supporting American garrisons at Malden, Amherst­burg and Detroit. Eventually, the navigation season on the lake began to wane, and in early November the American squadron took to winter lay­over at Presque Isle, during which repairs were made to the vessels that had taken part in the Battle of Lake Erie.

The following spring, Mas­ter Commandant Arthur Sin­clair assumed command of the American naval forces on Lake Erie. The Niagara sailed in June in an effort to capture Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan. The Battle of Mackinac Island, clearly a victory for the British, forced Sinclair to take the Niagara, Tigress and Scorpion to the lower Georgian Bay to interdict the British supply route. The American side successfully captured the British supply ships. While the Tigress and Scorpion patrolled the bay to maintain a block­ade, the Niagara set out for Lake Erie – with the captured enemy craft in tow. While she was on passage to Detroit, a storm severed the towline and the captured vessels were lost. Although the Niagara‘s cam­paign on Lake Huron was completed, she still had some service to perform on Lake Erie.

American attempts to dis­lodge the British from their forts at Niagara had resulted in defeat, and July and August of 1814 were spent in a series of engagements in the vicinity of Fort Erie, which was ultimately besieged by British and Cana­dian troops. Sinclair’s squad­ron, then supporting the American forces, suffered heavy losses with vessels being captured or sunk. Upon hearing of these disasters, Sinclair left Detroit for the eastern end of Lake Erie with the Niagara and the Lawrence. He arrived in mid-September.

Turbulent weather and early autumn gales made it impossible for the two brigs to effectively support the garri­son at Fort Erie. The danger of being pinned on a lee shore made it a distinct possibility that the ships might be lost if they tried to maintain such a station. In one last attempt to provide additional service before the winter season, Sinclair sailed for Detroit with reinforcements for the garri­son. A heavy gale drove him to Buffalo, where he spent two days, lying precariously at anchor under a dangerous lee shore throughout a storm. After the storm, Sinclair rallied his troops and departed for his base at Presque Isle, marking the end of a busy season for the Lake Erie Squadron and the final cruise of both the Niagara and the Lawrence.

The two brigs slumbered through the winter at Erie. On Christmas Eve 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the hostilities on the Great Lakes terminated officially the fol­lowing February. Both the Niagara and the Lawrence were stripped of all gear and arma­ment and deliberately sunk at Misery Bay to preserve the hulls in 1820. They remained undisturbed for a century, until the centennial of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1913. The Niagara was raised from its watery grave and restored, toured the Great Lakes and remained a visitors, attraction for decades. In honor of the one hundred and seventy-fifth anniversary of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s brave and victorious Battle of Lake Erie, the Niagara is once again undergoing great restoration. Ultimately, she will again ply the waters of Lake Erie, as weU as the Great Lakes, recalling not onJy that momentous battle, but the fierce determi­nation of Americans and Penn­sylvanians whose valiant efforts helped make – and keep – this great nation free.

 

For Further Reading

Beirne, Francis F. The War of 1812. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1949.

Dobbins, W.W. History of the Battle of Lake Erie. Erie, Pa.: Ashby and Vincent, 1876.

Dutton, Charles J. Oliver Haz­ard Perry. New York: Longmans, Green, 1935.

Gilpin, Alec R. The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1959.

Knoll, Denys W. Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. Erie, Pa.: Erie County Historical Society, 1980.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. Sea Power and its Relation to the War of 1812. New York: Green­wood Press, 1968.

Rosenberg, Max. The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812-1813. Harrisburg: Pennsyl­vania Historical and Museum Commission, 1987.

 

James E. Valle, born and raised in Oakland, California, received his bachelor of arts degree from San Francisco State University in 1965, and his master of arts de­gree from the University of Cali­fornia at Los Angeles. In 1977, he was awarded his doctorate by the University of Delaware. He cur­rently is a professor of history at Delaware State College, Dover. The author’s primary academic interest is maritime and naval history, subjects of his books and articles.