THE FIGHT FOR A FREE SEA
A CHRONICLE OF THE WAR OF 1812
BY RALPH D. PAINE
VOLUME 17 THE CHRONICLES OF AMERICA SERIES ALLEN JOHNSON, EDITOR
I. "ON TO CANADA!" II. LOST GROUND REGAINED III. PERRY AND LAKE ERIE IV. EBB AND FLOW ON THE NORTHERN FRONT V. THE NAVY ON BLUE WATER VI. MATCHLESS FRIGATES AND THEIR DUELS VII. "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP!" VIII. THE LAST CRUISE OF THE ESSEX IX. VICTORY ON LAKE CHAMPLAIN X. PEACE WITH HONOR
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE INDEX
The old frigate Constitution as she appears today in her snug berth at the Boston Navy Yard where she is preserved as an historical relic. Photograph by N. L. Stebbins, Boston.
THE THEATRE OF OPERATIONS IN THE WAR OF 1812
Map by W. L. G. Joerg, American Geographical Society.
OLIVER HAZARD PERRY AT THE BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE
Painting by J. W. Jarvis. In the City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation. Reproduced by courtesy of the Municipal Art Commission of the City of New York.
Painting in the Comptroller's Office, City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation. Reproduced by courtesy of the Municipal Art Commission of the City of New York.
COMMODORE STEPHEN DECATUR
Painting by Thomas Sully, 1811. In the Comptroller's Office, owned by the City of New York. Reproduced by courtesy of the Art Commission of the City of New York.
CONSTITUTION AND GUERRIERE
An old print, illustrating the moment in the action at which the mainmast of the Guerriere, shattered by the terrific fire of the American frigate, fell overside, transforming the former vessel into a floating wreck and terminating the action. The picture represents accurately the surprisingly slight damage done the Constitution: note the broken spanker gaff and the shot holes in her topsails.
Painting by J. W. Jarvis. In the City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation.
Painting by J. W. Jarvis. In the City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation. Reproduced by courtesy of the Municipal Art Commission of the City of New York.
A FRIGATE OF 1812 UNDER SAIL
The Constellation, of which this is a photograph, is somewhat smaller than the Constitution, being rated at 38 guns as against 44 for the latter. In general appearance, however, and particularly in rig, the two types are very similar. Although the Constellation did not herself see action in the War of 1812, she is a good example of the heavily armed American frigate of that day—and the only one of them still to be seen at sea under sail within recent years. At the present time the Constellation lies moored at the pier of the Naval Training Station, Newport, R. I. Photograph by E. Mueller, Jr., Inc., New York.
Painting by J. W. Jarvis. In the City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation.
Painting by J. W. Jarvis. In the City Hall, New York, owned by the Corporation.
"ON TO CANADA!"
The American people of today, weighed in the balances of the greatest armed conflict of all time and found not wanting, can afford to survey, in a spirit of candid scrutiny and without reviving an ancient grudge, that turbulent episode in the welding of their nation which is called the War of 1812. In spite of defeats and disappointments this war was, in the large, enduring sense, a victory. It was in this renewed defiance of England that the dream of the founders of the Republic and the ideals of the embattled farmers of Bunker Hill and Saratoga achieved their goal. Henceforth the world was to respect these States, not as so many colonies bitterly wrangling among themselves, but as a sovereign and independent nation.
The War of 1812, like the American Revolution, was a valiant contest for survival on the part of the spirit of freedom. It was essentially akin to the world-wide struggle of a century later, when sons of the old foemen of 1812—sons of the painted Indians and of the Kentucky pioneers in fringed buckskins, sons of the New Hampshire ploughboys clad in homespun, sons of the Canadian militia and the red-coated regulars of the British line, sons of the tarry seamen of the Constitution and the Guerriere—stood side by side as brothers in arms to save from brutal obliteration the same spirit of freedom. And so it is that in Flanders fields today the poppies blow above the graves of the sons of the men who fought each other a century ago in the Michigan wilderness and at Lundy's Lane.
The causes and the background of the War of 1812 are presented elsewhere in this series of Chronicles. Great Britain, at death grips with Napoleon, paid small heed to the rights and dignities of neutral nations. The harsh and selfish maritime policy of the age, expressed in the British Navigation Acts and intensified by the struggle with Napoleon, led the Mistress of the Seas to perpetrate indignity after indignity on the ships and sailors which were carrying American commerce around the world. The United States demanded a free sea, which Great Britain would not grant. Of necessity, then, such futile weapons as embargoes and non-intercourse acts had to give place to the musket, the bayonet, and the carronade. There could be no compromise between the clash of doctrines. It was for the United States to assert herself, regardless of the odds, or sink into a position of supine dependency upon the will of Great Britain and the wooden walls of her invincible navy.
[Footnote 1: See Jefferson and His Colleagues, by Allen Johnson (in The Chronicles of America).]
"Free Trade and Sailors' Rights!" was the American war cry. It expressed the two grievances which outweighed all others—the interference with American shipping and the ruthless impressment of seamen from beneath the Stars and Stripes. No less high-handed than Great Britain's were Napoleon's offenses against American commerce, and there was just cause for war with France. Yet Americans felt the greater enmity toward England, partly as an inheritance from the Revolution, but chiefly because of the greater injury which England had wrought, owing to her superior strength on the sea.
There were, to be sure, other motives in the conflict. It is not to be supposed that the frontiersmen of the Northwest and Southwest, who hailed the war with enthusiasm, were ardently aroused to redress wrongs inflicted upon their seafaring countrymen. Their enmity towards Great Britain was compounded of quite different grievances. Behind the recent Indian wars on the frontier they saw, or thought they saw, British paymasters. The red trappers and hunters of the forest were bloodily defending their lands; and there was a long-standing bond of interest between them and the British in Canada. The British were known to the tribes generally as fur traders, not "land stealers"; and the great traffic carried on by the merchants of Montreal, not only in the Canadian wilderness but also in the American Northwest, naturally drew Canadians and Indians into the same camp. "On to Canada!" was the slogan of the frontiersmen. It expressed at once their desire to punish the hereditary foe and to rid themselves of an unfriendly power to the north.
The United States was poorly prepared and equipped for military and naval campaigns when, in June, 1812, Congress declared war on Great Britain. Nothing had been learned from the costly blunders of the Revolution, and the delusion that readiness for war was a menace to democracy had influenced the Government to absurd extremes. The regular army comprised only sixty-seven hundred men, scattered over an enormous country and on garrison service from which they could not be safely withdrawn. They were without traditions and without experience in actual warfare. Winfield Scott, at that time a young officer in the regular army, wrote:
The old officers had very generally sunk into either sloth, ignorance, or habits of intemperate drinking.... Many of the appointments were positively bad, and a majority of the remainder indifferent. Party spirit of that day knew no bounds, and was of course blind to policy. Federalists were almost entirely excluded from selection, though great numbers were eager for the field.... Where there was no lack of educated men in the dominant party, the appointments consisted generally of swaggerers, dependents, decayed gentlemen, and others "fit for nothing else," which always turned out utterly unfit for any military purpose whatever.
The main reliance was to be on militia and volunteers, an army of the free people rushing to arms in defense of their liberties, as voiced by Jefferson and echoed more than a century later by another spokesman of democracy. There was the stuff for splendid soldiers in these farmers and woodsmen, but in many lamentable instances their regiments were no more than irresponsible armed mobs. Until as recently as the War with Spain, the perilous fallacy persisted that the States should retain control of their several militia forces in time of war and deny final authority to the Federal Government. It was this doctrine which so nearly wrecked the cause of the Revolution. George Washington had learned the lesson through painful experience, but his counsel was wholly disregarded; and, because it serves as a text and an interpretation for much of the humiliating history which we are about to follow, that counsel is here quoted in part. Washington wrote in retrospect:
Had we formed a permanent army in the beginning, which by the continuance of the same men in service had been capable of discipline, we never should have had to retreat with a handful of men across the Delaware in 1776, trembling for the fate of America, which nothing but the infatuation of the enemy could have saved; we should not have remained all the succeeding winter at their mercy, with sometimes scarcely a sufficient body of men to mount the ordinary guards, liable at every moment to be dissipated if they had only thought proper to march against us; we should not have been under the necessity of fighting Brandywine with an unequal number of raw troops, and afterwards of seeing Philadelphia fall a prey to a victorious army; we should not have been at Valley Forge with less than half the force of the enemy, destitute of everything, in a situation neither to resist or to retire; we should not have seen New York left with a handful of men, yet an overmatch for the main army of these States, while the principal part of their force was detached for the reduction of two of them; we should not have found ourselves this spring so weak as to be insulted by 5000 men, unable to protect our baggage and magazines, their security depending on a good countenance and a want of enterprise in the enemy; we should not have been, the greatest part of the war, inferior to the enemy, indebted for our safety to their inactivity, enduring frequently the mortification of seeing inviting opportunities to ruin them pass unimproved for want of a force which the country was completely able to afford, and of seeing the country ravaged, our towns burnt, the inhabitants plundered, abused, murdered, with impunity from the same cause.
The War of 1812, besides being hampered by short enlistments, confused authority, and incompetent officers, was fought by a country and an army divided against itself. When Congress authorized the enrollment of one hundred thousand militia, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut refused to furnish their quotas, objecting to the command of United States officers and to the sending of men beyond the borders of their own States. This attitude fairly indicated the feeling of New England, which was opposed to the war and openly spoke of secession. Moreover, the wealthy merchants and bankers of New England declined to subscribe to the national loans when the Treasury at Washington was bankrupt, and vast quantities of supplies were shipped from New England seaports to the enemy in Canada. It was an extraordinary paradox that those States which had seen their sailors impressed by thousands and which had suffered most heavily from England's attacks on neutral commerce should have arrayed themselves in bitter opposition to the cause and the Government. It was "Mr. Madison's War," they said, and he could win or lose it—and pay the bills, for that matter.
The American navy was in little better plight than the army. England flew the royal ensign over six hundred ships of war and was the undisputed sovereign of the seas. Opposed to this mighty armada were five frigates, three ships, and seven brigs, which Monroe recommended should be "kept in a body in a safe port." Not worth mention were the two hundred ridiculous little gunboats which had to stow the one cannon below to prevent capsizing when they ventured out of harbor. These craft were a pet notion of Jefferson. "Believing, myself," he said of them, "that gunboats are the only water defense which can be useful to us and protect us from the ruinous folly of a navy, I am pleased with everything which promises to improve them."
A nation of eight million people, unready, blundering, rent by internal dissension, had resolved to challenge an England hardened by war and tremendously superior in military resources. It was not all madness, however, for the vast empire of Canada lay exposed to invasion, and in this quarter the enemy was singularly vulnerable. Henry Clay spoke for most of his countrymen beyond the boundaries of New England when he announced to Congress: "The conquest of Canada is in your power. I trust that I shall not be deemed presumptuous when I state that I verily believe that the militia of Kentucky are alone competent to place Montreal and Upper Canada at your feet. Is it nothing to the British nation; is it nothing to the pride of her monarch to have the last immense North American possession held by him in the commencement of his reign wrested from his dominions?" Even Jefferson was deluded into predicting that the capture of Canada as far as Quebec would be a mere matter of marching through the country and would give the troops experience for the attack on Halifax and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.
The British Provinces, extending twelve hundred miles westward to Lake Superior, had a population of less than five hundred thousand; but a third of these were English immigrants or American Loyalists and their descendants, types of folk who would hardly sit idly and await invasion. That they should resist or strike back seems not to have been expected in the war councils of the amiable Mr. Madison. Nor were other and manifold dangers taken into account by those who counseled war. The Great Lakes were defenseless, the warlike Indians of the Northwest were in arms and awaiting the British summons, while the whole country beyond the Wabash and the Maumee was almost unguarded. Isolated here and there were stockades containing a few dozen men beyond hope of rescue, frontier posts of what is now the Middle West. Plans of campaign were prepared without thought of the insuperable difficulties of transport through regions in which there were neither roads, provisions, towns, nor navigable rivers. Armies were maneuvered and victories won upon the maps in the office of the Secretary of War. Generals were selected by some inscrutable process which decreed that dull-witted, pompous incapables should bungle campaigns and waste lives.
It was wisely agreed that of all the strategic points along this far-flung and thinly held frontier, Detroit should receive the earliest attention. At all costs this point was to be safeguarded as a base for the advance into Canada from the west. A remote trading post within gunshot of the enemy across the river and menaced by tribes of hostile Indians, Detroit then numbered eight hundred inhabitants and was protected only by a stout enclosure of logs. For two hundred miles to the nearest friendly settlements in Ohio, the line of communications was a forest trail which skirted Lake Erie for some distance and could easily be cut by the enemy. From Detroit it was the intention of the Americans to strike the first blow at the Canadian post of Amherstburg near by.
The stage was now set for the entrance of General William Hull as one of the luckless, unheroic figures upon whom the presidential power of appointment bestowed the trappings of high military command. He was by no means the worst of these. In fact, the choice seemed auspicious. Hull had seen honorable service in the Revolution and had won the esteem of George Washington. He was now Governor of Michigan Territory. At sixty years of age he had no desire to gird on the sword. He was persuaded by Madison, however, to accept a brigadier general's commission and to lead the force ordered to Detroit. His instructions were vague, but in June, 1812, shortly before the declaration of war, he took command of two thousand regulars and militia at Dayton, Ohio, and began the arduous advance through the wilderness towards Detroit. The adventure was launched with energy. These hardy, reliant men knew how to cut roads, to bridge streams, and to exist on scanty rations. Until sickness began to decimate their ranks, they advanced at an encouraging rate and were almost halfway to Detroit when the tidings of the outbreak of hostilities overtook them. General Hull forthwith hurried his troops to the Maumee River, leaving their camp equipment and heavy stores behind. He now committed his first crass blunder. Though the British controlled the waters of Lake Erie, yet he sent a schooner ahead with all his hospital supplies, intrenching tools, official papers, and muster rolls. The little vessel was captured within sight of Detroit and the documents proved invaluable to the British commander of Upper Canada, Major General Isaac Brock, who gained thereby a complete idea of the American plans and proceeded to act accordingly. Brock was a soldier of uncommon intelligence and resolution, acquitting himself with distinction, and contrasting with his American adversaries in a manner rather painful to contemplate.
At length Hull reached Detroit and crossed the river to assume the offensive. He was strongly hopeful of success. The Canadians appeared friendly and several hundred sought his protection. Even the enemy's militia were deserting to his colors. In a proclamation Hull looked forward to a bloodless conquest, informing the Canadians that they were to be emancipated from tyranny and oppression and restored to the dignified station of freemen. "I have a force which will break down all opposition," said he, "and that force is but the vanguard of a much greater."
He soundly reasoned that unless a movement could be launched against Niagara, at the other end of Lake Erie, the whole strength of the British might be thrown against him and that he was likely to be trapped in Detroit. There was a general plan of campaign, submitted by Major General Henry Dearborn before the war began, which provided for a threefold invasion—from Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, from Niagara, and from Detroit—in support of a grand attack along the route leading past Lake Champlain to Montreal. Theoretically, it was good enough strategy, but no attempt had been made to prepare the execution, and there was no leader competent to direct it.
In response to Hull's urgent appeal, Dearborn, who was puttering about between Boston and Albany, confessed that he knew nothing about what was going on at Niagara. He ranked as the commander-in-chief of the American forces and he awoke from his habitual stupor to ask himself this amazing question: "Who is to have the command of the operations in Upper Canada? I take it for granted that my command does not extend to that distant quarter." If Dearborn did not know who was in control of the operations at Niagara, it was safe to say that nobody else did, and Hull was left to deal with the increasing forces in front of him and the hordes of Indians in the rear, to garrison Detroit, to assault the fort at Amherstburg, to overcome the British naval forces on Lake Erie—and all without the slightest help or cooperation from his Government.
Meanwhile Brock had ascertained that the American force at Niagara consisted of a few hundred militia with no responsible officer in command, who were making a pretense of patrolling thirty-six miles of frontier. They were undisciplined, ragged, without tents, shoes, money, or munitions, and ready to fall back if attacked or to go home unless soon relieved. Having nothing to fear in that quarter, Brock gathered up a small body of regulars as he marched and proceeded to Amherstburg to finish the business of the unfortunate Hull.
That Hull deserves some pity as well as the disgrace which overwhelmed him is quite apparent. Most of his troops were ill-equipped, unreliable, and insubordinate. Even during the march to Detroit he had to use a regular regiment to compel the obedience of twelve hundred mutinous militiamen who refused to advance. Their own officer could do nothing with them. At Detroit two hundred of them refused to cross the river, on the ground that they were not obliged to serve outside the United States. Granted such extenuation as this, however, Hull showed himself so weak and contemptible in the face of danger that he could not expect his fighting men to maintain any respect for him.
His fatal flaw was lack of courage and promptitude. He did not know how to play a poor hand well. In the emergency which confronted him he was like a dull sword in a rusty scabbard. While the enemy waited for reinforcements, he might have captured Amherstburg. He had the superior force, and yet he delayed and lost heart while his regiments dwindled because of sickness and desertion and jeered at his leadership. The watchful Indians, led by the renowned Tecumseh, learned to despise the Americans instead of fearing them, and were eager to take the warpath against so easy a prey. Already other bands of braves were hastening from Lake Huron and from Mackinac, whose American garrison had been wiped out.
Brooding and shaken, like an old man utterly undone, Hull abandoned his pretentious invasion of Canada and retreated across the river to shelter his troops behind the log barricades of Detroit. He sent six hundred men to try to open a line to Ohio, but, after a sharp encounter with a British force, Hull was obliged to admit that they "could only open communication as far as the points of their bayonets extended." His only thought was to extricate himself, not to stand and fight a winning battle without counting the cost. His officers felt only contempt for his cowardice. They were convinced that the tide could be turned in their favor. There were steadfast men in the ranks who were eager to take the measure of the redcoats. The colonels were in open mutiny and, determined to set General Hull aside, they offered the command to Colonel Miller of the regulars, who declined to accept it. When Hull proposed a general retreat, he was informed that every man of the Ohio militia would refuse to obey the order. These troops who had been so fickle and jealous of their rights were unwilling to share the leader's disgrace.
Two days after his arrival at Amherstburg, General Brock sent to the Americans a summons to surrender, adding with a crafty discernment of the effect of the threat upon the mind of the man with whom he was dealing: "You must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences." Hull could see only the horrid picture of a massacre of the women and children within the stockades of Detroit. He failed to realize that his thousand effective infantrymen could hold out for weeks behind those log ramparts against Brock's few hundred regulars and volunteers. Two and a half years later, Andrew Jackson and his militia emblazoned a very different story behind the cypress breastworks of New Orleans. Besides the thousand men in the fort, Hull had detached five hundred under Colonels McArthur and Cass to attempt to break through the Indian cordon in his rear and obtain supplies. These he now vainly endeavored to recall while he delayed a final reply to Brock's mandate.
Indecision had doomed the garrison which was now besieged. Tecumseh's warriors had crossed the river and were between the fort and McArthur's column. Brock boldly decided to assault, a desperate venture, but he must have known that Hull's will had crumbled. No more than seven hundred strong, the little British force crossed the river just before daybreak on the 16th of August and was permitted to select its positions without the slightest molestation. A few small field pieces, posted on the Canadian side of the river, hurled shot into the fort, killing four of Hull's men, and two British armed schooners lay within range.
Brock advanced, expecting to suffer large losses from the heavy guns which were posted to cover the main approach to the fort, but his men passed through the zone of danger and found cover in which they made ready to storm the defenses of Detroit. As Brock himself walked forward to take note of the situation before giving the final commands, a white flag fluttered from the battery in front of him. Without firing a shot, Hull had surrendered Detroit and with it the great territory of Michigan, the most grievous loss of domain that the United States has ever suffered in war or peace. On the same day Fort Dearborn (Chicago), which had been forgotten by the Government, was burned by Indians after all its defenders had been slain. These two disasters with the earlier fall of Mackinac practically erased American dominion from the western empire of the Great Lakes. Visions of the conquest of Canada were thus rudely dimmed in the opening actions of the war.
General Hull was tried by court-martial on charges of treason, cowardice, and neglect of duty. He was convicted on the last two charges and sentenced to be shot, with a recommendation to the mercy of the President. The verdict was approved by Madison, but he remitted the execution of the sentence because of the old man's services in the Revolution. Guilty though he was, an angry and humiliated people also made him the scapegoat for the sins of neglect and omission of which their Government stood convicted. In the testimony offered at his trial there was a touch, rude, vivid, and very human, to portray him in the final hours of the tragic episode at Detroit. Spurned by his officers, he sat on the ground with his back against the rampart while "he apparently unconsciously filled his mouth with tobacco, putting in quid after quid more than he generally did; the spittle colored with tobacco juice ran from his mouth on his neckcloth, beard, cravat, and vest."
Later events in the Northwest Territory showed that the British successes in that region were gained chiefly because of an unworthy alliance with the Indian tribes, whose barbarous methods of warfare stained the records of those who employed them. "Not more than seven or eight hundred British soldiers ever crossed the Detroit River," says Henry Adams, "but the United States raised fully twenty thousand men and spent at least five million dollars and many lives in expelling them. The Indians alone made this outlay necessary. The campaign of Tippecanoe, the surrender of Detroit and Mackinaw, the massacres at Fort Dearborn, the river Raisin, and Fort Meigs, the murders along the frontier, and the campaign of 1813 were the prices paid for the Indian lands in the Wabash Valley."
Before the story shifts to the other fields of the war, it seems logical to follow to its finally successful result the bloody, wasteful struggle for the recovery of the lost territory. This operation required large armies and long campaigns, together with the naval supremacy of Lake Erie, won in the next year by Oliver Hazard Perry, before the fugitive British forces fell back from the charred ruins of Detroit and Amherstburg and were soundly beaten at the battle of the Thames—the one decisive, clean-cut American victory of the war on the Canadian frontier. These events showed that far too much had been expected of General William Hull, who comprehended his difficulties but made no attempt to batter a way through them, forgetting that to die and win is always better than to live and fail.
LOST GROUND REGAINED
General William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe and the Governor of Indiana Territory, whose capital was at Vincennes on the Wabash, possessed the experience and the instincts of a soldier. He had foreseen that Hull, unless he received support, must either abandon Detroit or be hopelessly hemmed in. The task of defending the western border was ardently undertaken by the States of Kentucky and Ohio. They believed in the war and were ready to aid it with the men and resources of a vigorous population of almost a million. When the word came that Hull was in desperate straits, Harrison hastened to organize a relief expedition. Before he could move, Detroit had fallen. But a high tide of enthusiasm swept him on toward an attempt to recover the lost empire. The Federal Government approved his plans and commissioned him as commander of the Northwestern army of ten thousand men.
In the early autumn of 1812, General Harrison launched his ambitious and imposing campaign, by which three separate bodies of troops were to advance and converge within striking distance of Detroit, while a fourth was to invade and destroy the nests of Indians on the Wabash and Illinois rivers. An active British force might have attacked and defeated these isolated columns one by one, for they were beyond supporting distance of each other; but Brock now needed his regulars for the defense of the Niagara frontier. The scattered American army, including brigades from Virginia and Pennsylvania, was too strong to be checked by Indian forays, but it had not reckoned with the obstacles of an unfriendly wilderness and climate. In October, no more than a month after the bugles had sounded the advance, the campaign was halted, demoralized and darkly uncertain. A vast swamp stretched as a barrier across the route and heavy rains made it impassable.
Hull had crossed the same swamp with his small force in the favorable summer season, but Harrison was unable to transport the food and war material needed by his ten thousand men. A million rations were required at the goal of the Maumee Rapids, and yet after two months of heartbreaking endeavor not a pound of provisions had been carried within fifty miles of this place. Wagons and pack-trains floundered in the mud and were abandoned. The rivers froze and thwarted the use of flotillas of scows. Winter closed down, and the American army was forlornly mired and blockaded along two hundred miles of front. The troops at Fort Defiance ate roots and bark. Typhus broke out among them, and they died like flies. For the failure to supply the army, the War Department was largely responsible, and Secretary Eustis very properly resigned in December. This removed one glaring incompetent from the list but it failed to improve Harrison's situation.
It was not until the severe frosts of January, 1813, fettered the swamps that Harrison was able to extricate his troops and forward supplies to the shore of Lake Erie for an offensive against Amherstburg. First in motion was the left wing of thirteen hundred Kentucky militia and regulars under General Winchester. This officer was an elderly planter who, like Hull, had worn a uniform in the Revolution. He had no great aptitude for war and was held in low esteem by the Kentuckians of his command—hungry, mutinous, and disgusted men, who were counting the days before their enlistments should expire. The commonplace Winchester was no leader to hold them in hand and spur their jaded determination.
While they were building storehouses and log defenses, within dangerously easy distance of the British post at Amherstburg, the tempting message came that the settlement of Frenchtown, on the Raisin, thirty miles away and within the British lines, was held by only two companies of Canadian militia. Here was an opportunity for a dashing adventure, and Winchester ordered half his total force to march and destroy this detachment of the enemy. The troops accordingly set out, drove home a brisk assault, cleared Frenchtown of its defenders, and held their ground awaiting orders.
Winchester then realized that he had leaped before he looked. He had seriously weakened his own force while the column at Frenchtown was in peril from two thousand hostile troops and Indians only eighteen miles beyond the river Raisin. The Kentuckians left with him decided matters for themselves. They insisted on marching to the support of their comrades at Frenchtown. Meanwhile General Harrison had learned of this fatuous division of strength and was hastening to the base at the falls of the Maumee. There he found only three hundred men. All the others had gone with Winchester to reinforce the men at Frenchtown. It was too late to summon troops from other points, and Harrison waited with forebodings of disaster.
News reached him after two days. The Americans at the Raisin had suffered not only a defeat but a massacre. Nearly four hundred were killed in battle or in flight. Those who survived were prisoners. No more than thirty had escaped of a force one thousand strong. The enemy had won this extraordinary success with five hundred white troops and about the same number of Indians, led by Colonel Procter, whom Brock had placed in command of the fort at Amherstburg. Procter's name is infamous in the annals of the war. The worst traditions of Indian atrocity, uncontrolled and even encouraged, cluster about his memory. He was later promoted in rank instead of being degraded, a costly blunder which England came to regret and at last redeemed. A notoriously incompetent officer, on this one occasion of the battle of the Raisin he acted with decision and took advantage of the American blunder.
The conduct of General Winchester after his arrival at Frenchtown is inexplicable. He did nothing to prepare his force for action even on learning that the British were advancing from Amherstburg. A report of the disaster, after recording that no patrols or pickets were ordered out during the night, goes on:
The troops were permitted to select, each for himself, such quarters on the west side of the river as might please him best, whilst the general took his quarters on the east side—not the least regard being paid to defense, order, regularity, or system in the posting of the different corps.... Destitute of artillery, or engineers, of men who had ever heard or seen the least of an enemy; and with but a very inadequate supply of ammunition—how he ever could have entertained the most distant hope of success, or what right he had to presume to claim it, is to me one of the strangest things in the world.
At dawn, on the 21st of January, the British and Indians, having crossed the frozen Detroit River the day before, formed within musket shot of the American lines and opened the attack with a battery of three-pounders. They might have rushed the camp with bayonet and tomahawk and killed most of the defenders asleep, but the cannonade alarmed the Kentuckians and they took cover behind a picket fence, using their long rifles so expertly that they killed or wounded a hundred and eighty-five of the British regulars, who thereupon had to abandon their artillery. Meanwhile, the American regular force, caught on open ground, was flanked and driven toward the river, carrying a militia regiment with it. Panic spread among these unfortunate men and they fled through the deep snow, Winchester among them, while six hundred whooping Indians slew and scalped them without mercy as they ran.
But behind the picket fence the Kentuckians still squinted along the barrels of their rifles and hammered home more bullets and patches. Three hundred and eighty-four of them, they showed a spirit that made their conduct the bright, heroic episode of that black day. Forgotten are their mutinies, their profane disregard of the Articles of War, their jeers at generals and such. They finished in style and covered the multitude of their sins. Unclothed, unfed, uncared for, dirty, and wretched, they proved themselves worthy to be called American soldiers. They fought until there was no more ammunition, until they were surrounded by a thousand of the enemy, and then they honorably surrendered.
The brutal Procter, aware that the Indians would commit hideous outrages if left unrestrained, nevertheless returned to Amherstburg with his troops and his prisoners, leaving the American wounded to their fate. That night the savages came back to Frenchtown and massacred those hurt and helpless men, thirty in number.
This unhappy incident of the campaign, not so much a battle as a catastrophe, delayed Harrison's operations. His failures had shaken popular confidence, and at the end of this dismal winter, after six months of disappointments in which ten thousand men had accomplished nothing, he was compelled to report to the Secretary of War:
Amongst the reasons which make it necessary to employ a large force, I am sorry to mention the dismay and disinclination to the service which appears to prevail in the western country; numbers must give that confidence which ought to be produced by conscious valor and intrepidity, which never existed in any army in a superior degree than amongst the greater part of the militia which were with me through the winter. The new drafts from this State [Ohio] are entirely of another character and are not to be depended upon. I have no doubt, however, that a sufficient number of good men can be procured, and should they be allowed to serve on horseback, Kentucky would furnish some regiments that would not be inferior to those that fought at the river Raisin; and these were, in my opinion, superior to any militia that ever took the field in modern times.
There was to be no immediate renewal of action between Procter and Harrison. Each seemed to have conceived so much respect for the forces of the other that they proceeded to increase the distance between them as rapidly as possible. Fearing to be overtaken and greatly outnumbered, the British leader retreated to Canada while the American leader was in a state of mind no less uneasy. Harrison promptly set fire to his storehouses and supplies at the Maumee Rapids, his advanced base near Lake Erie. Thus all this labor and exertion and expense vanished in smoke while, in the set diction of war, he retired some fifteen miles. In such a vast hurry were the adversaries to be quit of each other that a day and a half after the fight at Frenchtown they were sixty miles apart. Harrison remained a fortnight on this back trail and collected two thousand of his troops, with whom he returned to the ruins of his foremost post and undertook the task all over again.
The defensive works which he now built were called Fort Meigs. For the time there was no more talk of invading Canada. The service of the Kentucky and Ohio militia was expiring, and these seasoned regiments were melting away like snow. Presently Fort Meigs was left with no more than five hundred war-worn men to hold out against British operations afloat and ashore. Luckily Procter had expended his energies at Frenchtown and seemed inclined to repose, for he made no effort to attack the few weak garrisons which guarded the American territory near at hand. From January until April he neglected his opportunities while more American militia marched homeward, while Harrison was absent, while Fort Meigs was unfinished.
At length the British offensive was organized, and a thousand white soldiers and as many Indians, led by Tecumseh, sallied out of Amherstburg with a naval force of two gunboats. Heavy guns were dragged from Detroit to batter down the log walls, for it was the intention to surround and besiege Fort Meigs in the manner taught by the military science of Europe. Meanwhile Harrison had come back from a recruiting mission; and a new brigade of Kentucky militia, twelve hundred strong, under Brigadier General Green Clay, was to follow in boats down the Auglaize and Maumee rivers. Procter's guns were already pounding the walls of Fort Meigs on the 5th of May when eight hundred troops of this fresh American force arrived within striking distance. They dashed upon the British batteries and took them with the bayonet in a wild, impetuous charge. It was then their business promptly to reform and protect themselves, but through lack of training they failed to obey orders and were off hunting the enemy, every man for himself. In the meantime three companies of British regulars and some volunteers took advantage of the confusion, summoned the Indians, and let loose a vicious counter-attack.
Within sight of General Harrison and the garrison of Fort Meigs, these bold Kentuckians were presently driven from the captured guns, scattered, and shot down or taken prisoner. Only a hundred and seventy of them got away, and they lost even their boats and supplies. The British loss was no more than fifty in killed and wounded. Again Procter inflamed the hatred and contempt of his American foes because forty of his prisoners were tomahawked while guarded by British soldiers. He made no effort to save them and it was the intervention of Tecumseh, the Indian leader, which averted the massacre of the whole body of five hundred prisoners.
Across the river, Colonel John Miller, of the American regular infantry, had attempted a gallant sortie from the fort and had taken a battery but this sally had no great effect on the issue of the engagement. Harrison had lost almost a thousand men, half his fighting force, and was again shut up within the barricades and blockhouses of Fort Meigs. Procter continued the siege only four days longer, for his Indian allies then grew tired of it and faded into the forest. He was not reluctant to accept this excuse for withdrawing. His own militia were drifting away, his regulars were suffering from illness and exposure, and Fort Meigs itself was a harder nut to crack than he had anticipated. Procter therefore withdrew to Amherstburg and made no more trouble until June, when he sent raiding parties into Ohio and created panic among the isolated settlements.
Harrison had become convinced that his campaign must be a defensive one only, until a strong American naval force could be mustered on Lake Erie. He moved his headquarters to Upper Sandusky and Cleveland and concluded to mark time while Perry's fleet was building. The outlook was somber, however, for his thin line of garrisons and his supply bases. They were threatened in all directions, but he was most concerned for the important depot which he had established at Upper Sandusky, no more than thirty miles from any British landing force which should decide to cross Lake Erie. The place had no fortifications; it was held by a few hundred green recruits; and the only obstacle to a hostile ascent of the Sandusky River was a little stockade near its mouth, called Fort Stephenson.
For the Americans to lose the accumulation of stores and munitions which was almost the only result of a year's campaign would have been a fatal blow. Harrison was greatly disturbed to hear that Tecumseh had gathered his warriors and was following the trail that led to Upper Sandusky and that Procter was moving coastwise with his troops in a flotilla under oars and sail. Harrison was, or believed himself to be, in grave danger of confronting a plight similar to that of William Hull, beset in front, in flank, in rear. His first thought was to evacuate the stockade of Fort Stephenson and to concentrate his force, although this would leave the Sandusky River open for a British advance from the shore of Lake Erie.
An order was sent to young Major Croghan, who held Fort Stephenson with one hundred and sixty men, to burn the buildings and retreat as fast as possible up the river or along the shore of Lake Erie. This officer, a Kentuckian not yet twenty-one years old, who honored the regiment to which he belonged, deliberately disobeyed his commander. By so doing he sounded a ringing note which was like the call of trumpets amidst the failures, the cloudy uncertainties, the lack of virile leadership, that had strewn the path of the war. In writing he sent this reply back to General William Henry Harrison: "We have determined to maintain this place, and by Heaven, we will."
It was a turning point, in a way, presaging more hopeful events, a warning that youth must be served and that the doddering oldsters were to give place to those who could stand up under the stern and exacting tests of warfare. Such rash ardor was not according to precedent. Harrison promptly relieved the impetuous Croghan of his command and sent a colonel to replace him. But Croghan argued the point so eloquently that the stockade was restored to him next day and he won his chance to do or die. Harrison consolingly informed him that he was to retreat if attacked by British troops "but that to attempt to retire in the face of an Indian force would be vain."
Major Croghan blithely prepared to do anything else than retreat, while General Harrison stayed ten miles away to plan a battle against Tecumseh's Indians if they should happen to come in his direction. On the 1st of August, Croghan's scouts informed him that the woods swarmed with Indians and that British boats were pushing up the river. Procter was on the scene again, and no sooner had his four hundred regulars found a landing place than a curt demand for surrender came to Major Croghan. The British howitzers peppered the stockade as soon as the refusal was delivered, but they failed to shake the spirit of the dauntless hundred and sixty American defenders. On the following day, the 2d of August, Procter stupidly repeated his error of a direct assault upon sheltered riflemen, which had cost him heavily at the Raisin and at Fort Meigs. He ordered his redcoats to carry Fort Stephenson. Again and again they marched forward until all the officers had been shot down and a fifth of the force was dead or wounded. American valor and marksmanship had proved themselves in the face of heavy odds. At sunset the beaten British were flocking into their boats, and Procter was again on his way to Amherstburg. His excuse for the trouncing laid the blame on the Indians:
The troops, after the artillery had been used for some hours, attacked two faces and, impossibilities being attempted, failed. The fort, from which the severest fire I ever saw was maintained during the attack, was well defended. The troops displayed the greatest bravery, the much greater part of whom reached the fort and made every effort to enter; but the Indians who had proposed the assault and, had it not been assented to, would have ever stigmatized the British character, scarcely came into fire before they ran out of its reach. A more than adequate sacrifice having been made to Indian opinion, I drew off the brave assailants.
The sound of Croghan's guns was heard in General Harrison's camp at Seneca, ten miles up the river. Harrison had nothing to say but this: "The blood be upon his own head. I wash my hands of it." This was a misguided speech which the country received with marked disfavor while it acclaimed young Croghan as the sterling hero of the western campaign. He could be also a loyal as well as a successful subordinate, for he ably defended Harrison against the indignation which menaced his station as commander of the army. The new Secretary of War, John Armstrong, ironically referred to Procter and Harrison as being always in terror of each other, the one actually flying from his supposed pursuer after his fiasco at Fort Stephenson, the other waiting only for the arrival of Croghan at Seneca to begin a camp conflagration and flight to Upper Sandusky.
The reconquest of Michigan and the Northwest depended now on the American navy. Harrison wisely halted his inglorious operations by land until the ships and sailors were ready to cooperate. Because the British sway on the Great Lakes was unchallenged, the general situation of the enemy was immensely better than it had been at the beginning of the campaign. During a year of war the United States had steadily lost in men, in territory, in prestige, and this in spite of the fact that the opposing forces across the Canadian border were much smaller.
That the men of the American navy would be prompt to maintain the traditions of the service was indicated in a small way by an incident of the previous year on Lake Erie. In September, 1812, Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliott had been sent to Buffalo to find a site for building naval vessels. A few weeks later he was fitting out several purchased schooners behind Squaw Island. Suddenly there came sailing in from Amherstburg and anchored off Fort Erie two British armed brigs, the Detroit which had been surrendered by Hull, and the Caledonia which had helped to subdue the American garrison at Mackinac. Elliott had no ships ready for action, but he was not to be daunted by such an obstacle. It so happened that ninety Yankee seamen had been sent across country from New York by Captain Isaac Chauncey. These worthy tars had trudged the distance on foot, a matter of five hundred miles, with their canvas bags on their backs, and they rolled into port at noon, in the nick of time to serve Elliott's purpose. They were indubitably tired, but he gave them not a moment for rest. A ration of meat and bread and a stiff tot of grog, and they turned to and manned the boats which were to cut out the two British brigs when darkness fell.
Elliott scraped together fifty soldiers and, filling two cutters with his amphibious company, he stole out of Buffalo and pulled toward Fort Erie. At one o'clock in the morning of the 9th of October they were alongside the pair of enemy brigs and together the bluejackets and the infantry tumbled over the bulwarks with cutlass, pistols, and boarding pike. In ten minutes both vessels were captured and under sail for the American shore. The Caledonia was safely beached at Black Rock, where Elliott was building his little navy yard. The wind, however, was so light that the Detroit was swept downward by the river current and had to anchor under the fire of British batteries. These she fought with her guns until all her powder was shot away. Then she cut her cable, hoisted sail again, and took the bottom on Squaw Island, where both British and American guns had the range of her. Elliott had to abandon her and set fire to the hull, but he afterward recovered her ordnance.
What Elliott had in mind shows the temper of this ready naval officer. "A strong inducement," he wrote, "was that with these two vessels and those I have purchased, I should be able to meet the remainder of the British force on the Upper Lakes." The loss of the Detroit somewhat disappointed this ambitious scheme but the success of the audacious adventure foreshadowed later and larger exploits with far-reaching results. Isaac Brock, the British general in Canada, had the genius to comprehend the meaning of this naval exploit. "This event is particularly unfortunate," he wrote, "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." And to Procter, his commander at Detroit, he disclosed the meaning of the naval loss as it affected the fortunes of the western campaign: "This will reduce us to great distress. You will have the goodness to state the expedients you possess to enable us to replace, as far as possible, the heavy loss we have suffered in the Detroit."
But another year was required to teach the American Government the lesson that a few small vessels roughly pegged together of planks sawn from the forest, with a few hundred seamen and guns, might be far more decisive than the random operations of fifty thousand troops. This lesson, however, was at last learnt; and so, in the summer of 1813, General William Henry Harrison waited at Seneca on the Sandusky River until he received, on the 10th of September, the deathless despatch of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." The navy had at last cleared the way for the army.
Expeditiously forty-five hundred infantry were embarked and set ashore only three miles from the coveted fort at Amherstburg. A mounted regiment of a thousand Kentuckians, raised for frontier defense by Richard M. Johnson, moved along the road to Detroit. Harrison was about to square accounts with Procter, who had no stomach for a stubborn defense. Tecumseh, still loyal to the British cause, summoned thirty-five hundred of his warriors to the royal standard to stem this American invasion. They expected that Procter would offer a courageous resistance, for he had also almost a thousand hard-bitted British troops, seasoned by a year's fighting. But Procter's sun had set and disgrace was about to overtake him. To Tecumseh, a chieftain who had waged war because of the wrongs suffered by his own people, the thought of flight in this crisis was cowardly and intolerable. When Procter announced that he proposed to seek refuge in retreat, Tecumseh told him to his face that he was like a fat dog which had carried its tail erect and now that it was frightened dropped its tail between its legs and ran. The English might scamper as far as they liked but the Indians would remain to meet the American invaders.
It was a helter-skelter exodus from Amherstburg and Detroit. All property that could not be moved was burned or destroyed, and Procter set out for Moraviantown, on the Thames River, seventy miles along the road to Lake Ontario. Harrison, amazed at this behavior, reported: "Nothing but infatuation could have governed General Proctor's conduct. The day I landed below Malden [Amherstburg] he had at his disposal upward of three thousand Indian warriors; his regular force reinforced by the militia of the district would have made his number nearly equal to my aggregate, which on the day of landing did not exceed forty-five hundred.... His inferior officers say that his conduct has been a series of continued blunders."
Procter had put a week behind him before Harrison set out from Amherstburg in pursuit, but the British column was hampered in flight by the women and children of the deserted posts, the sick and wounded, the wagon trains, the stores, and baggage. The organization had gone to pieces because of the demoralizing example set by its leader. A hundred miles of wilderness lay between the fugitives and a place of refuge. Overtaken on the Thames River, they were given no choice. It was fight or surrender. Ahead of the American infantry brigades moved Johnson's mounted Kentuckians, armed with muskets, rifles, knives, and tomahawks, and led by a resourceful and enterprising soldier. Procter was compelled to form his lines of battle across the road on the north bank of the Thames or permit this formidable American cavalry to trample his straggling ranks under hoof. Tecumseh's Indians, stationed in a swamp, covered his right flank and the river covered his left. Harrison came upon the enemy early in the afternoon of the 5th of October and formed his line of battle. The action was carried on in a manner "not sanctioned by anything that I had seen or heard of," said Harrison afterwards. This first American victory of the war on land was, indeed, quite irregular and unconventional. It was won by Johnson's mounted riflemen, who divided and charged both the redcoats in front and the Indians in the swamp. One detachment galloped through the first and second lines of the British infantry while the other drove the Indians into the American left wing and smashed them utterly. Tecumseh was among the slain. It was all over in one hour and twenty minutes. Harrison's foot soldiers had no chance to close with the enemy. The Americans lost only fifteen killed and thirty wounded, and they took about five hundred prisoners and all Procter's artillery, muskets, baggage, and stores.
Not only was the Northwest Territory thus regained for the United States but the power of the Indian alliance was broken. Most of the hostile tribes now abandoned the British cause. Tecumseh's confederacy of Indian nations fell to pieces with the death of its leader. The British army of Upper Canada, shattered and unable to receive reinforcements from overseas, no longer menaced Michigan and the western front of the American line. General Harrison returned to Detroit at his leisure, and the volunteers and militia marched homeward, for no more than two regular brigades were needed to protect all this vast area. The struggle for its possession was a closed episode. In this quarter, however, the war cry "On to Canada!" was no longer heard. The United States was satisfied to recover what it had lost with Hull's surrender and to rid itself of the peril of invasion and the horrors of Indian massacres along its wilderness frontiers. Of the men prominent in the struggle, Procter suffered official disgrace at the hands of his own Government and William Henry Harrison became a President of the United States.
PERRY AND LAKE ERIE
Amid the prolonged vicissitudes of these western campaigns, two subordinate officers, the boyish Major Croghan at Fort Stephenson and the dashing Colonel Johnson with his Kentucky mounted infantry, displayed qualities which accord with the best traditions of American arms. Of kindred spirit and far more illustrious was Captain Oliver Hazard Perry of the United States Navy. Perry dealt with and overcame, on a much larger scale, similar obstacles and discouragements—untrained men, lack of material, faulty support—but was ready and eager to meet the enemy in the hour of need. If it is a sound axiom never to despise the enemy, it is nevertheless true that excessive prudence has lost many an action. Farragut's motto has been the keynote of the success of all the great sea-captains, "L'audace, et encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace."
It was not until the lesson of Hull's surrender had aroused the civil authorities that Captain Chauncey of the navy yard at New York received orders in September, 1812, "to assume command of the naval force on Lakes Erie and Ontario and to use every exertion to obtain control of them this fall." Chauncey was an experienced officer, forty years old, who had not rusted from inactivity like the elderly generals who had been given command of armies. He knew what he needed and how to get it. Having to begin with almost nothing, he busied himself to such excellent purpose that he was able to report within three weeks that he had forwarded to Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, "one hundred and forty ship carpenters, seven hundred seamen and marines, more than one hundred pieces of cannon, the greater part of large caliber, with musket, shot, carriages, etc. The carriages have nearly all been made and the shot cast in that time. Nay, I may say that nearly every article that has been forwarded has been made."
It was found impossible to divert part of this ordnance to Buffalo because of the excessively bad roads, which were passable for heavy traffic only by means of sleds during the snows of winter. This obstacle spoiled the hope of putting a fighting force afloat on Lake Erie during the latter part of 1812. Chauncey consequently established his main base at Sackett's Harbor and lost no time in building and buying vessels. In forty-five days from laying the keel he launched a ship of the corvette class, a third larger than the ocean cruisers Wasp and Hornet, "and nine weeks ago," said he, "the timber that she is composed of was growing in the forest."
Lieutenant Elliott at the same time had not been idle in his little navy yard at Black Rock near Buffalo, where he had assembled a small brig and several schooners. In December Chauncey inspected the work and decided to shift it to Presqu' Isle, now the city of Erie, which was much less exposed to interference by the enemy. Here he got together the material for two brigs of three hundred tons each, which were to be the main strength of Perry's squadron nine months later. Impatient to return to Lake Ontario, where a fleet in being was even more urgently needed, Chauncey was glad to receive from Commander Oliver Hazard Perry an application to serve under him. To Perry was promptly turned over the burden and the responsibility of smashing the British naval power on Lake Erie. Events were soon to display the notable differences in temperament and capabilities between these two men. Though he had greater opportunities on Lake Ontario, Chauncey was too cautious and held the enemy in too much respect; wherefore he dodged and parried and fought inconclusive engagements with the fleet of Sir James Yeo until destiny had passed him by. He lives in history as a competent and enterprising chief of dockyards and supplies but not as a victorious seaman.
To Perry, in the flush of his youth at twenty-eight years, was granted the immortal spark of greatness to do and dare and the personality which impelled men gladly to serve him and to die for him. His difficulties were huge, but he attacked them with a confidence which nothing could dismay. First he had to concentrate his divided force. Lieutenant Elliott's flotilla of schooners at that time lay at Black Rock. It was necessary to move them to Erie at great risk of capture by the enemy, but vigilance and seamanship accomplished this feat. It then remained to finish and equip the larger vessels which were being built. Two of these were the brigs ordered laid down by Chauncey, the Lawrence and the Niagara. Apart from these, the battle squadron consisted of seven small schooners and the captured British brig, the Caledonia. In size and armament they were absurd cockleshells even when compared with a modern destroyer, but they were to make themselves superbly memorable. Perry's flagship was no larger than the ancient coasting schooners which ply today between Bangor and Boston with cargoes of lumber and coal.
Through the winter and spring of 1813, the carpenters, calkers, and smiths were fitting the new vessels together from the green timber and planking which the choppers and sawyers wrought out of the forest. The iron, the canvas, and all the other material had to be hauled by horses and oxen from places several hundred miles distant. Late in July the squadron was ready for active service but was dangerously short of men. This, however, was the least of Perry's concerns. He had reckoned that seven hundred and forty officers and sailors were required to handle and fight his ships, but he did not hesitate to put to sea with a total force of four hundred and ninety.
Of these a hundred were soldiers sent him only nine days before he sailed, and most of them trod a deck for the first time. Chauncey was so absorbed in his own affairs and hazards on Lake Ontario that he was not likely to give Perry any more men than could be spared. This reluctance caused Perry to send a spirited protest in which he said: "The men that came by Mr. Champlin are a motley set, blacks, soldiers, and boys. I cannot think you saw them after they were selected."
As the superior officer, Chauncey resented the criticism and replied with this warning reproof: "As you have assured the Secretary that you should conceive yourself equal or superior to the enemy, with a force of men so much less than I had deemed necessary, there will be a great deal expected from you by your country, and I trust they will not be disappointed in the high expectations formed of your gallantry and judgment."
The quick temper of Perry flared at this. He was about to sail in search of the British fleet with what men he had because he was unable to obtain more, and he had rightly looked to Chauncey to supply the deficiency. Impulsively he asked to be relieved of his command and gave expression to his sense of grievance in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy in which he said, among other things: "I cannot serve under an officer who has been so totally regardless of my feelings.... The critical state of General Harrison was such that I took upon myself the responsibility of going out with the few young officers you had been pleased to send me, with the few seamen I had, and as many volunteers as I could muster from the militia. I did not shrink from this responsibility but, Sir, at that very moment I surely did not anticipate the receipt of a letter in every line of which is an insult." Most fortunately Perry's request for transfer could not be granted until after the battle of Lake Erie had been fought and won. The Secretary answered in tones of mild rebuke: "A change of commander under existing circumstances, is equally inadmissible as it respects the interest of the service and your own reputation. It is right that you should reap the harvest which you have sown."
Perry's indignation seems excusable. He had shown a cheerful willingness to shoulder the whole load and his anxieties had been greater than his superiors appeared to realize. Captain Barclay, who commanded the British naval force on Lake Erie and who had been hovering off Erie while the American ships were waiting for men, might readily have sent his boats in at night and destroyed the entire squadron. Perry had not enough sailors to defend his ships, and the regiment of Pennsylvania militia stationed at Erie to guard the naval base refused to do duty on shipboard after dark. "I told the boys to go, Captain Perry," explained their worthless colonel, "but the boys won't go."
Perry's lucky star saved him from disaster, however, and on the 2d of August he undertook the perilous and awkward labor of floating his larger vessels over the shallow bar of the harbor at Erie. Barclay's blockading force had vanished. For Perry it was then or never. At any moment the enemy's topsails might reappear, and the American ships would be caught in a situation wholly defenseless. Perry first disposed his light-draft schooners to cover his channel, and then hoisted out the guns of the Lawrence brig and lowered them into boats. Scows, or "camels," as they were called, were lashed alongside the vessel to lift her when the water was pumped out of them. There was no more than four feet of water on the bar, and the brig-of-war bumped and stranded repeatedly even when lightened and assisted in every possible manner. After a night and a day of unflagging exertion she was hauled across into deep water and the guns were quickly slung aboard. The Niagara was coaxed out of harbor in the same ingenious fashion, and on the 4th of August Perry was able to report that all his vessels were over the bar, although Barclay had returned by now and "the enemy had been in sight all day."
Perry endeavored to force an engagement without delay, but the British fleet retired to Amherstburg because Barclay was waiting for a new and powerful ship, the Detroit, and he preferred to spar for time. The American vessels thereupon anchored off Erie and took on stores. They had fewer than three hundred men aboard, and it was bracing news for Perry to receive word that a hundred officers and men under Commander Jesse D. Elliott were hastening to join him. Elliott became second in command to Perry and assumed charge of the Niagara.
For almost a month the Stars and Stripes flew unchallenged from the masts of the American ships. Perry made his base at Put-in Bay, thirty miles southeast of Amherstburg, where he could intercept the enemy passing eastward. The British commander, Barclay, had also been troubled by lack of seamen and was inclined to postpone action. He was nevertheless urged on by Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, who told him that "he had only to dare and he would be successful." A more urgent call on Barclay to fight was due to the lack of food in the Amherstburg region, where the water route was now blockaded by the American ships. The British were feeding fourteen thousand Indians, including warriors and their families, and if provisions failed the red men would be likely to vanish.
At sunrise of the 10th of September, a sailor at the masthead of the Lawrence sighted the British squadron steering across the lake with a fair wind and ready to give battle. Perry instantly sent his crews to quarters and trimmed sail to quit the bay and form his line in open water. He was eager to take the initiative, and it may be assumed that he had forgotten Chauncey's prudent admonition: "The first object will be to destroy or cripple the enemy's fleet; but in all attempts upon the fleet you ought to use great caution, for the loss of a single vessel may decide the fate of a campaign."
Small, crude, and hastily manned as were the ships engaged in this famous fresh-water battle, it should be borne in mind that the proven principles of naval strategy and tactics used were as sound and true as when Nelson and Rodney had demonstrated them in mighty fleet actions at sea. In the final council in his cabin, Perry echoed Nelson's words in saying that no captain could go very far wrong who placed his vessel close alongside those of the enemy. Chauncey's counsel, on the other hand, would have lost the battle. Perry's decision to give and take punishment, no matter if it should cost him a ship or two, won him the victory.
The British force was inferior, both in the number of vessels and the weight of broadsides, but this inferiority was somewhat balanced by the greater range and hitting power of Barclay's longer guns. Each had what might be called two heavy ships of the line: the British, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte, and the Americans, the Lawrence and the Niagara. Next in importance and fairly well matched were the Lady Prevost under Barclay's flag and the Caledonia under Perry's. There remained the light schooner craft of which the American squadron had six and the British only three. Perry realized that if he could put ship against ship the odds would be largely in his favor, for, with his batteries of carronades which threw their shot but a short distance, he would be unwise to maneuver for position and let the enemy pound him to pieces at long range. His plan of battle was therefore governed entirely by his knowledge of Barclay's strength and of the possibilities of his own forces.
With a light breeze and working to windward, Perry's ship moved to intercept the British squadron which lay in column, topsails aback and waiting. The American brigs were fanned ahead by the air which breathed in their lofty canvas, but the schooners were almost becalmed and four of them straggled in the rear, their crews tugging at the long sweeps or oars. Two of the faster of these, the Scorpion and the Ariel, were slipping along in the van where they supported the American flagship Lawrence, and Perry had no intention of delaying for the others to come up. Shortly before noon Barclay opened the engagement with the long guns of the Detroit, but as yet Perry was unable to reach his opponent and made more sail on the Lawrence in order to get close.
The British gunners of the Detroit were already finding the target, and Perry discovered that the Lawrence was difficult to handle with much of her rigging shot away. He ranged ahead until his ship was no more than two hundred and fifty yards from the Detroit. Even then the distance was greater than desirable for the main battery of carronades. A good golfer can drive his tee shot as far as the space of water which separated these two indomitable flagships as they fought. It was a different kind of naval warfare from that of today in which superdreadnaughts score hits at battle ranges of twelve and fourteen miles.
Perry's plans were now endangered by the failure of his other heavy ship, the Niagara, to take care of her own adversary, the Queen Charlotte, which forged ahead and took a station where her broadsides helped to reduce the Lawrence to a mass of wreckage. A bitter dispute which challenged the courage and judgment of Commander Elliott of the Niagara was the aftermath of this flaw in the conduct of the battle. It was charged that he failed to go to the support of his commander-in-chief when the flagship was being destroyed under his eyes. The facts admit of no doubt: he dropped astern and for two hours remained scarcely more than a spectator of a desperate action in which his ship was sorely needed, whereas if he had followed the order to close up, the Lawrence need never have struck to the enemy.
In his defense he stated that lack of wind had prevented him from drawing ahead to engage and divert the Queen Charlotte and that he had been instructed to hold a certain position in line. At the time Perry found no fault with him, merely setting down in his report that "at half-past two, the wind springing up, Captain Elliott was enabled to bring his vessel, the Niagara, gallantly into close action." Later Perry formulated charges against his second in command, accusing him of having kept on a course "which would in a few minutes have carried said vessel entirely out of action." These documents were pigeonholed and a Court of Inquiry commended Elliott as a brave and skillful officer who had gained laurels in that "splendid victory."
The issue was threshed out by naval experts who violently disagreed, but there was glory enough for all and the flag had suffered no stain. Certain it is that the battle would have lacked its most brilliantly dramatic episode if Perry had not been compelled to shift his pennant from the blazing hulk of the Lawrence and, from the quarter-deck of the Niagara, to renew the conflict, rally his vessels, and snatch a triumph from the shadow of disaster. It was one of the great moments in the storied annals of the American navy, comparable with a John Paul Jones shouting "We have not yet begun to fight!" from the deck of the shattered, water-logged Bon Homme Richard, or a Farragut lashed in the rigging and roaring "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"
Because of the failure of Elliott to bring the Niagara into action at once, as had been laid down in the plan of battle, Perry found himself in desperate straits aboard the beaten Lawrence. Her colors still flew but she could fire only one gun of her whole battery, and more than half the ship's company had been killed or wounded—eighty-three men out of one hundred and forty-two. It was impossible to steer or handle her and she drifted helpless. Then it was that Perry, seeing the laggard Niagara close at hand, ordered a boat away and was transferred to a ship which was still fit and ready to continue the action. As soon as he had left them, the survivors of the Lawrence hauled down their flag in token of surrender, for there was nothing else for them to do.
As soon as he jumped on deck, Perry took command of the Niagara, sending Elliott off to bring up the rearmost schooners. There was no lagging or hesitation now. With topgallant sails sheeted home, the Niagara bore down upon the Detroit, driven by a freshening breeze. Barclay's crippled flagship tried to avoid being raked and so fouled her consort, the Queen Charlotte. The two British ships lay locked together while the American guns pounded them with terrific fire. Presently they got clear of each other and pluckily attempted to carry on the fight. But the odds were hopeless. The officer whose painful duty it was to signal the surrender of the Detroit said of this British flagship: "The ship lying completely unmanageable, every brace cut away, the mizzen-topmast and gaff down, all the other masts badly wounded, not a stay left forward, hull shattered very much, a number of guns disabled, and the enemy's squadron raking both ships ahead and astern, none of our own in a position to support us, I was under the painful necessity of answering the enemy to say we had struck, the Queen Charlotte having previously done so."
It was later reported of the Detroit that it was "impossible to place a hand upon that broadside which had been exposed to the enemy's fire without covering some portion of a wound, either from grape, round, canister, or chain shot." The crew had suffered as severely as the vessel. The valiant commander of the squadron, Captain Barclay, was a fighting sailor who had lost an arm at Trafalgar. In the battle of Lake Erie he was twice wounded and had to be carried below. His first lieutenant was mortally hurt and in the critical moments the ship was left in charge of the second lieutenant. In this gallant manner did Perry and Barclay, both heirs of the bulldog Anglo-Saxon strain, wage their bloody duel without faltering and thus did the British sailor keep his honor bright in defeat.
The little American schooners played a part in smashing the enemy. The Ariel and Scorpion held their positions in the van and their long guns helped deal the finishing blows to the Detroit, while the others came up when the breeze grew stronger and engaged their several opponents. The Caledonia was effective in putting the Queen Charlotte out of action. When the larger British ships surrendered, the smaller craft were compelled to follow the example, and the squadron yielded to Perry after three hours of battle. It was in no boastful strain but as the laconic fact that he sent his famous message to the nation. He had met the enemy and they were all his. It was leadership—brilliant and tenacious—which had employed makeshift vessels, odd lots of guns, and crews which included militia, sick men, and "a motley set of blacks and boys." Barclay had labored under handicaps no less heavy, but it was his destiny to match himself against a superior force and a man of unquestioned naval genius. Oliver Hazard Perry would have made a name for himself, no doubt, if his career had led him to blue water and the command of stately frigates.
On Lake Ontario, Chauncey dragged his naval campaign through two seasons and then left the enemy in control. Perry, by opening the way for Harrison, rewon the Northwest for the United States because he sagaciously upheld the doctrine of Napoleon that "war cannot be waged without running risks." Behind his daring, however, lay tireless, painstaking preparation and a thorough knowledge of his trade.
EBB AND FLOW ON THE NORTHERN FRONT
The events of the war by land are apt to be as confusing in narration as they were in fact. The many forays, skirmishes, and retreats along the Canadian frontier were campaigns in name only, ambitiously conceived but most haltingly executed. Major General Dearborn, senior officer of the American army, had failed to begin operations in the center and on the eastern flank in time to divert the enemy from Detroit; but in the autumn of 1812 he was ready to attempt an invasion of Canada by way of Niagara. The direct command was given to Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer of the New York State militia, who was to advance as soon as six thousand troops were assembled. At first Dearborn seemed hopeful of success. He predicted that "with the militia and other troops there or on the march, they will be able, I presume, to cross over into Canada, carry all the works in Niagara, and proceed to the other posts in that province in triumph."
The fair prospect soon clouded, however, and Dearborn, who was of a doubtful, easily discouraged temperament, partly due to age and infirmities, discovered that "a strange fatality seemed to have pervaded the whole arrangements." Yet this was when the movement of troops and supplies was far brisker and better organized than could have been expected and when the armed strength was thrice that of Brock, the British general, who was guarding forty miles of front along the Niagara River with less than two thousand men. At Queenston which was the objective of the first American attack there were no more than two companies of British regulars and a few militia, in all about three hundred troops. The rest of Brock's forces were at Chippawa and Fort Erie, where the heavy assaults were expected.
An American regular brigade was on the march to Buffalo, but its commander, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, was not subordinate to Van Rensselaer, and the two had quarreled. Smyth paid no attention to a request for a council of war and went his own way. On the night of the 10th of October Van Rensselaer attempted to cross the Niagara River, but there was some blunder about the boats and the disgruntled troops returned to camp. Two nights later they made another attempt but found the British on the alert and failed to dislodge them from the heights of Queenston. A small body of American regulars, led by gallant young Captain Wool, managed to clamber up a path hitherto regarded as impassable. There they held a precarious position and waited for help. Brock, who was commanding the British in person, was instantly killed while storming this hillside at the head of reinforcements. In him the enemy lost its ablest and most intrepid leader.
The forenoon wore on and Captain Wool, painfully wounded, still clung to the heights with his two hundred and fifty men. A relief column which crossed the river found itself helpless for lack of artillery and intrenching tools and was compelled to fall back. Van Rensselaer forgot his bickering with General Smyth and sent him urgent word to hasten to the rescue. Winfield Scott, then a lieutenant colonel, came forward as a volunteer and took command of young Captain Wool's forlorn hope. Gradually more men trickled up the heights until the ground was defended by three hundred and fifty regulars and two hundred and fifty militia.
Meanwhile the British troops were mustering up the river at Chippawa, and the red lines of their veterans were descried advancing from Fort George below. Bands of Indians raced by field and forest to screen the British movements and to harass the American lines. The tragic turn of events appears to have dazed General Van Rensselaer. The failure to save the beleaguered and outnumbered Americans on the heights he blamed upon his troops, reporting next day that his reinforcements embarked very slowly. "I passed immediately over to accelerate them," said he, "but to my utter astonishment I found that at the very moment when complete victory was in our hands the ardor of the unengaged troops had entirely subsided. I rode in all directions, urged the men by every consideration to pass over; but in vain."
The candid fact seems to be that this general of militia had made a sorry mess of the whole affair, and his men had lost all faith in his ability to turn the adverse tide. He stood and watched six hundred valiant American soldiers make their last stand on the rocky eminence while the British hurled more and more men up the slope. One concerted attack by the idle American army would have swept them away like chaff. But there was only one Winfield Scott in the field, and his lot was cast with those who fought to the bitter end as a sacrifice to stupidity. The six hundred were surrounded. They were pushed back by weight of opposing numbers. Still they died in their tracks, until the survivors were actually pushed over a cliff and down to the bank of the river.