The War of 1812 on the Inland Seas


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By Captain Walter P. Rybka, administrator for Erie Maritime Museum and senior captain of US Brig Niagara. This article was originally published in the spring 2012 issue of Sea History magazine.

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The War of 1812 on the Inland Seas

  1. 1. The War of 1812 on the Inland SeasT by Captain Walter P. Rybka he War of 1812 is a catalogue of ironies. In the US Congress, the party arguing for a strong defense was shouted down by the party of low taxation, which then voted in large majority forwar. What were they thinking? Declaredlargely over Atlantic trade issues, the warwas fought most intensely on the inland Lake Champlainborder between the United States andBritish Canada, a border that was not incontest and indeed had so many recentimmigrants from the US that the Brit-ish Government had grave doubts aboutbeing able to hang on to Upper Canada(Ontario). The immigrants from the Stateswere generally an apolitical lot who werethere because land was cheap and theywanted only to be left alone to build theirnew lives. These settlers ended up not be-ing trusted by either side—the British sus-picious of their American origins, and the navies soon found out how dangerous the thousands of troops in spring and summerAmericans suspicious of their having left. lakes could be. The most fundamental and the locals would be starved out within The primary military objective of the danger to a sailing ship is the lee shore, a week. From a logistical standpoint, theUS was the conquest of Canada, thought and in the Great Lakes a vessel is never far campaign may as well have been foughtto be “a mere matter of marching.” The from one. Good harbors were few, rocks across a vast desert.British quite agreed with the Americans and shoals abounded, and in 1812 none The natural strategic objective for theand despaired of holding Ontario, until of it was charted. The naval officers found Americans was the capture of Montreal, orcheered by the incompetence of the inva- themselves heavily dependent upon the even better, Quebec. Sever the St. Lawrenceders. Although it was an inland front, naval local masters of small merchant sloops and River supply route from the coast andpower was discovered to be every bit as im- schooners to serve as pilots. What informed everything to the west would fall. Bothportant here as on the high seas. The Great their navigation is a bit of a mystery; in a of those fortified cities, however, were tooLakes were the key to movement through pristine and undeveloped environment, heavily defended for the Americans tothe region. The best way to move anything one heavily wooded stretch of shoreline have any chance of taking them. Built atheavy has always been to float it, especially looks much like the next, and even the the head of navigation (pre-lock systems)when the adjacent land is mostly a roadless, lead line will tell the same story for many on the St. Lawrence, immediately belowheavily wooded wilderness. These woods a mile. Much of the short season was beset the Lachine Rapids, Montreal definedwere full of natives, who correctly viewed by fog, and the rest of the year was plagued the limits of British reach. The Lachinea US victory as their eviction notice, and by snow and ice. Look at the Great Lakes Rapids would prove the salvation of thewho made the land routes perilous for the on a world map or globe and they look United States. The might of the RoyalAmericans even where roads existed. For the miniscule and benign compared to vast Navy could not be brought to bear anyBritish it was a great help that the majority stretches of ocean, but any who under- further into the continent. That both sidesof natives regarded their presence as the estimated the lakes would find them a ter- had to build their naval squadrons on thelesser evil, but this advantage was offset by rifying place to sail a ship, long before an Great Lakes from scratch gave the Amer-the much greater distances supplies had to arrow had been loosed or a shot fired. icans a fighting, all the way from England. The greatest single item of expense for The fulcrum of effort shifted west to Logistics, as is usually the case in war, both sides was freight—getting supplies and Lake Ontario. It was on this lake that bothwas the overriding problem for both sides, munitions to distant places. This applied sides concentrated their efforts for theand both sides underestimated the diffi- to food as well as military equipment. Scar- duration of the war. The British base atculty of trying to move masses of men city of food in the heart of a rich continent Kingston and the American Navy Yard atand heavy equipment in a wilderness. The is counterintuitive. Remember, however, Sackets Harbor were just thirty miles apart.extraordinary levels of difficulty faced on that in 1812 the land was only sparsely The British raided Sackets Harbor once inland made waterborne transport all the settled by agricultural communities. They 1813, and Oswego once in 1814, but themore critical. Once afloat on fresh wa- may have had a marketable surplus after the Americans never deemed it feasible to at-ter, however, salt-water mariners of both fall harvest, but descend upon them with tempt a direct assault on Kingston during22 SEA HISTORY 138, SPRING 2012
  2. 2. courtesy erie maritime museum The campaign on Lake Ontario was called the “Shipwright’s War” because each navy had to build its fleets in situ. In April 1813, the Americans attacked York (above) and set fire to a British frigate (below, right) still under construction at the shipyard. the entire war. Both sides invested massive unmitigated string of losses efforts in shipbuilding, leading to the Lake across the northern borders: Ontario campaign becoming known as Mackinac, Fort Dearborn, “the Shipwright’s War.” As one squadron Detroit, Queenston Heights, courtesy erie maritime museum added a more powerful ship to its fleet, the and the River Raisin. In April other would be on the defensive until its of 1813, as soon as the ice next ship restored the balance or even gave melted, Chauncey launched a perceived edge. The largest fleet actions an amphibious assault on York of the War of 1812 took place on Lake (Toronto). His men burned Ontario, but they are little known today the public buildings and set because they were indecisive draws. Both fire to a frigate on the stocks; commanders, Captain Sir James Yeo for guns and equipment intended for the Lake vantage along the south shore of the lake in the British and Captain Isaac Chauncey Erie squadron were seized. Thus, the seeds hot, light air. They were barely in range of for the United States, were cautious men. of British defeat on Lake Erie were sewn each other; few shots were exchanged. Nev- They were keenly aware that if either suf- early. The American success at York was ertheless, the Americans lost four schooners fered a catastrophic loss of multiple ships, marred by some indiscipline and looting in three days. The schooners Hamilton and either to weather, navigational hazards, or and overshadowed by heavy losses suffered Scourge, caught with all sail set by a severe enemy action, he had probably lost the war when the magazine of the fort exploded just squall in the middle of the night, capsized for his side. as the troops arrived. and sank with the loss of 53 officers and In 1812 both the Americans and the A month later, Chauncey followed up men. Two days later the schooners Growler British were scrambling to buy up the few with an invasion across the Niagara River. It and Julia misread a wind shift, tacked the available merchant vessels on the lakes and was while he was away that the British raid wrong way, and found themselves cut off convert them to warships. As they were on Sackets Harbor was made from Kings- from the fleet and surrounded by the enemy, doing this, the US Army was suffering an ton. The Sackets raid did extensive damage, to whom they surrendered. chiefly by prompting the Americans to burn The squadrons met again a month later their own vessel on the ways and much of in late September, this time in a rising gale the stores to keep them from enemy hands, on a lee shore at the western end of Lake but the defenders rallied and forced the Ontario. With a northeasterly wind, the raiders to retreat. The Niagara invasion was Americans had both the weight of metal initially a great success, forcing the British and the weather gauge. Chauncey likely to abandon Fort George, Fort Erie, and would have achieved a major victory had the the entire Niagara Peninsula. The British weather not been so bad. The British werecourtesy naval history and heritage command fell back in good order and rallied at Stony desperate enough to risk a run towards a Creek, while the American advance halted lee shore off Burlington (Hamilton), to get at what became a line of stalemate over the under the protective guns of shore batter- summer. By year’s end, the Americans were ies. At that time the bar had not yet been back across the Niagara River to the west cut through and the British squadron was and had been defeated at Crysler’s Farm and trapped on a lee shore exposed to the full Chateauguay in the East—but we are getting fetch of the lake. Incredibly, their hemp ahead of ourselves. anchor cables held and not one vessel was Isaac Chauncey In early August 1813, both squadrons lost. Armchair sailors may fault Chauncey were out in force and maneuvering for ad- for failing to seize the opportunity to destroy SEA HISTORY 138, SPRING 2012 23
  3. 3. the enemy, but he had to have felt they would primary cause—it could be argued the first not survive for long, and he had plenty of battle of the War of 1812 had occurred in reason to fear the loss of his own ships if November of 1811 at Tippecanoe. Indiana he did not make ground to windward. The Governor General William Henry Har- Americans clawed their way to anchorage rison had led a pre-emptive strike to burn in the Niagara River. When the weather Prophetstown, an Indian village, and, with cleared, Yeo was the first to get underway. it, its winter food stocks. Tenskwatawa, Chauncey pursued and almost overtook, the “Prophet,” preached separation from capturing four slow straggling gunboats whites and a return to native ways as the just before Yeo reached Kingston. The two key to their survival. His brother Tecum- courtesy erie maritime museum commanders spent the rest of the year refit- seh, most famed of Shawnee chiefs, strove ting their vessels and ordering ever larger for a military alliance of tribes as the only ships. In 1814 there was another round way to hold their ground. General Har- of shipbuilding and maneuvers, but never rison grasped the implications of both of an action. them, and if either one succeeded it would Daniel Lake Erie, to the west and isolated be the end of his real estate business. The Dobbins from Lake Ontario by Niagara Falls, was destruction of Prophetstown, however, had by its geography its own theater of opera- the unintended consequence of pushing to the surrender of Detroit, brought news of tions—but not a separate command. This Tecumseh into seeking a military alliance the debacle to Erie. The militia commander last fact became a sensitive issue between with the British. asked him to go to Washington and give Chauncey and his impetuous subordinate, The catastrophic flaw in the “mere mat- a firsthand account to the president and Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry. ter of marching” theory was that it ignored cabinet. Dobbins did so and made the case Strategically, Lake Erie was a sideshow; the Native Americans’ grievances and com- for a squadron, built in Erie, as essential if the Americans had triumphed on Lake pletely underestimated the capabilities of for regaining the territory. The British had Ontario, the British position on Lake Erie “His Majesty’s Indian allies.” Within weeks a head start on Lake Erie, already having would have collapsed with or without an of the declaration of war in June, 1812, the several armed vessels in the Provincial Ma- American squadron there. If the British had garrison at Fort Dearborn (Chicago) had rine, a transport service for the army. There decisively defeated Chauncey, at best, Perry been massacred, while Mackinac Island any advantage ended. The British base at would have been able to defend the US bloodlessly surrendered and Detroit did so Amherstburg, opposite Detroit, was a good side of the lake. as well. The entire Northwest territory had central location for the fur trade, but it lay The earliest actions of the war had started fallen to a few hundred redcoats, backed up 500 hazardous miles west of Montreal— far to the west, and, from the local point of by several thousand native warriors. itself 3,000 miles west of the foundries and view—one that held that British support Daniel Dobbins, master of a merchant mills of England. Erie was only 120 miles for the Indians retaining their land as a schooner captured at Mackinac and witness north of Pittsburgh. Oliver Hazard Perry The Battle of Lake Erie by Thomas Birch (1779-1851)courtesy naval history and heritage command 24 SEA HISTORY 138, SPRING 2012
  4. 4. Montreal iver eR Lachine Rapids For the Americans laboring under enc Lawrprimitive conditions at Erie, the situation St.was difficult—for the British it was next to r Riveimpossible. Both commanders, Perry andRobert Barclay, were constantly beseeching elieutheir superiors for more men and supplies Richof every kind. By the time they met in 1814 map courtesy david rumsey map collectionbattle on 10 September 1813, Perry had thestronger squadron in numbers and weightof metal. His advantage was dissipated,however, by his smaller vessels which laggedbehind out of range, and by the lack of Plattsburghsupport from Master Commandant JesseD. Elliott, Perry’s second in command.The resulting battle was an extremely hard- Lake Champlainfought and bloody action at close rangeamong the cluster of vessels at the center.(A fuller description of the Battle of Lake himself, but the most important event at being built at the Navy Yard at SacketsErie will be the subject of a subsequent ar- this battle was the death of Tecumseh, after Harbor at the turn of the new year.ticle in Sea History in 2013). The two which the British-Indian alliance fell apart. 1814 was a year of dire peril for thebest-known phrases in US naval history— The Battle of Lake Erie was not the turning United States. The defeat and abdication of“Don’t Give Up The Ship” and “We have point of the war, because the war didn’t re- Napoleon in April 1814 freed up seasonedmet the enemy and they are ours”—are ally have one. The significance of this battle British troops and seamen, who were sentboth associated with this battle. was that the US regained what had been to reinforce their North American coun- The dramatic American victory had bungled away at the beginning of the war. trymen and to finally put paid to theequally dramatic results. Cut off from sup- Had the British and Indian allies been in American nuisance. While the US focusedply by water, the British abandoned Detroit possession of Detroit at the time of the peace its efforts on making one more attemptand Amherstburg. Perry’s vessels executed negotiation, the Canadian border might to take the Niagara Peninsula, two Britisha textbook model of an amphibious land- now run along the Michigan/Indiana line. expeditions sailed to the United States,ing to set General Harrison in hot pursuit In 1814 the Lake Erie squadron made one from across the Atlantic to the Chesa-of the retreating British force, which was a failed attempt to recapture Mackinac, peake, and the other southwards fromovertaken and defeated at Moraviantown. but by then the west had become a back- Canada down the Richelieu-Champlain-Harrison did not pursue the routed rem- water of the war. Lake Ontario proved a Hudson River corridor. The first was annants, being logistically overextended shipbuilding stalemate, while the Niagara extended raid of the Chesapeake Bay peninsula was invaded once again and be- economy. Norfolk was bypassed, having came the scene of the most intense fighting put up a stout defense in 1813; the real of the war: Chippewa, Lundy’s Lane, and target was Baltimore, a rich city for prize Fort Erie. By this time the US Army had money and the nest of American privateer- learned from its early mistakes and was ing. Washington, DC, was attacked only promoting younger, more aggressive gen- when the weakness and incompetence of erals who understood the need for intense its defense was revealed. Ironically, the training. It proved it could stand toe-to- time spent burning Washington ultimately toe against British regulars. Still, it had to saved Baltimore by providing both time withdraw across the Niagara River for the and additional incentive to strengthen third year in a row. In the fall, the British entrenchments and batteries around the could claim to have chased the Americans approaches. The British gave up when back into port with the commissioning of they couldn’t get past Fort McHenry at the St. Lawrence, a 100-gun first rate. To the entrance to Baltimore Harbor. Out of the commander of such a large ship in a the failed British assault, the United States lake that only offered a half-dozen anchor- preserved the city of Baltimore and got its ages, Lake Ontario probably felt about as national anthem. large as a skating rink. Had the war lasted The more dangerous threat was com- into 1815, the Americans would have com- ing from the other expedition, which was missioned two even larger first rates, the twice as large—more than 10,000 men— courtesy library of congress Chippewa and New Orleans, which were and poised to invade from the north via theSEA HISTORY 138, SPRING 2012 25
  5. 5. national gallery of art Thomas Macdonough courtesy library of congress Macdonough’s Victory on Lake Champlain, by Edward Tufnell. (l-r): Macdonough’s flagship USS Saratoga, HMS Confiance, and the US Brig Eagle, off Plattsburgh, New York, 11 September 1814. Richelieu and Hudson Rivers, connected south. To sail down from their base on the Two-and-a-half  hours  after  the  shooting by Lake Champlain between them. This Richelieu River, the British would need a started, it died off. As the powder smoke force was opposed by a mere 2,500 men northerly wind, but, once around the point cleared Prevost looked out over the harbor who were dug in on the south bank of the at Cumberland Head, they would have to to see the Stars and Stripes flying from every Saranac River at the town of Plattsburgh, work to windward to get at the Americans. vessel, not a Royal Navy ensign in sight. With New York, near the US-Canadian border. On Sunday, 11 September 1814, a year no means of protecting his waterborne sup- Lake Champlain, not one of the Great and a day after Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, ply column, Prevost saw no point in risking Lakes, was about to be the scene of a most a combined army-navy attack was made on casualties to make an assault on Plattsburgh crucial battle. the American position at Plattsburgh. The if he could go no further. To the chagrin While the Americans held a strong British army was taking its time, waiting on of his officers and the inestimable relief of position at Plattsburgh, few doubt that the artillery to soften up the American position the Americans, the British invasion turned British could have taken it. Once they were and reduce British casualties in assaulting back, into Canada. National salvation has past this small force, there was no US army the dug-in defenders. On the lake, Downie’s never hung on a more slender thread than within hundreds of miles to stop them. It’s squadron did its best to close the range as the anchor cables of Macdonough’s ships. hard to say how far into the United States rapidly as possible and anchor abeam of its There be the short tour of two-and-a- the British would have penetrated, suffice opponents. As at Lake Erie, the battle was half years of toil and blood on the northern it to say this large a force astride a strategic hard fought and bloody, and at the center was waters of our Inland Seas, whereby the US invasion route would have had very bad another artillery duel at close range between Navy pulled the national fat out of the fire consequences for the US. But there was stationary ships. The Americans, for a time, and preserved us a nation. a catch. Sir George Prevost, the British appeared to be getting the worst of it, but commander, was loath to proceed south Macdonough had prudently rigged mul- Captain Walter Rybka serves as administra- without a protected waterborne supply line. tiple anchors and spring lines to be tor for the combined Erie Maritime Museum To protect this line, another hastily built able to warp his flagship around at the and US Brig Niagara’s operations, a project squadron, under Captain Robert Downie, crucial moment and present a fresh of the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum sailed to confront the just-completed ships of broadside to the enemy. Soon thereafter Commission, and is Niagara’s senior captain. the US Navy commanded by Master Com- the British were compelled to surren- He is an editorial advisor for Sea History mandant Thomas Macdonough. Mac- der in a sinking condition. A few small and a member of the Tall Ships America ad- donough had wisely positioned his ships gunboats managed to escape, but the visory board, and he serves as president of the at anchor in Plattsburgh Bay, open to the victory was complete. Council of American Maritime Museums. 26 SEA HISTORY 138, SPRING 2012