Monday, September 2, 2013

The Battle of Lake Erie Primer

One of the most talked about events this year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 is coming to the Lake Erie islands for the next two weekends. This of course is the Battle of Lake Erie, which was fought 200 years ago near West Sister Island on September 10, 1813. You can see other posts I've made on this battle here.


18 June 1812: The United States Congress declares war on Great Britain.

17 July: Civilian captain Daniel Dobbins is captured with his trading schooner, the Salina, when Fort Mackinac surrenders to British forces after being suprised by the news of war. He is released on parole and allowed to travel to the American town of Detroit.

16 August: Dobbins is again captured, and faces execution for violating his parole by taking up arms against the British forces. He is released with help from a friend in the British service.

24 August: Captain Dobbins reaches Erie, PA and spread news that Detroit had fallen to the British. General Meade of the PA militia sends him to Washington, D.C. to make a report on the situation on Lake Erie. Dobbins convinces President James Madison and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton that a new American squadron must be built on Lake Erie. He argues that Erie is the best place to build it because its sandbar protects the bay, and that it can be supplied from Pittsburgh.

12 September: Captain Isaac Chauncey is ordered from New York City to Sacketts Harbor, NY on Lake Ontario to take command of US Navy forces on the Great Lakes.

15-16 September: Daniel Dobbins is commissioned to build four gunboats at Erie, and is commissioned a Sailing Master in the Navy.

26 September: Dobbins returns to Erie and commences work.

8 October: Lieutenant Jesse Elliott USN and Captain Nathan Towson of the Second United States Regiment of Artillery launch a cutting out attack against the British brigs Caledonia and Adams, then anchored near Buffalo, NY. The attack succeeds, but because of British guns at Fort Erie the Americans are forced to abandon and burn the Adams. The Caledonia is taken into the US service as the USS Caledonia.

31 December: Captain Isaac Chauncey visits the shipyards at Erie. He finds 4 gunboats on the stocks. Thinking them too small, he orders two to be extended another ten feet. He also orders a brig of war constructed.

17 February: Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, in command of the gunboat flotilla at Newport, Rhode Island, receives orders to assume command of the American ships on Lake Erie. 150 of his flotilla volunteer to follow him to the Great Lakes.

26 March: Perry arrives at Erie.

24 April: The British forces at Amherstburg under Brig. General Henry Procter embark on the Lake Erie squadron for the Maumee River, a day's sail away.

5 May 1813: Lieutenant Robert Heriot Barclay, acting Commander, arrives at Kingston to take command of the British squadron on Lake Ontario. He is superseded within days by Captain James Lucas Yeo and is sent to command the Lake Erie squadron.

10 May: The Siege of Fort Meigs is lifted. The British squadron transports Kentucky prisoners to the mouth of the Huron River.

27 May: Perry assists in the American amphibious attack on Fort George on Lake Ontario. The capture of Fort George forces the British to retreat from Fort Erie, which allows Perry to bring out 5 gunboats trapped in the Niagara River.

5 June: Commander Barclay arrives at Amherstburg to take command of the Lake Erie squadron.

14 June: Perry uses teams of oxen to tow the gunboats out of the Niagara River, then sails for Erie.

18 June: Perry arrives at Erie.

25 June: The brig Lawrence is launched.

4 July: The brig Niagara is launched.

mid July: The sloop of war Detroit is launched and begins fitting out.

late July: A reinforcement of sailors, including many African Americans, arrives at Erie. Barclay's fleet maintains a blockade of Lake Erie. His smaller ships transport General Procter's forces to the Maumee River for a second attack on Fort Meigs.

2-3 August: Barclay's smaller ships transport Major General Procter's forces to attack Lower Sandusky and Fort Stephenson. The attack fails.

4-5 August: Lawrence and Niagara are taken over the sandbar at Erie, a risky operation involving removing all their guns and spars to lighten the ships. HMS Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost are in the area but fail to respond.

12 August: With his forces now outnumbering and outgunning the British, Perry sails for Amherstburg where he blockades the British fleet.

Mid August: With the Detroit now fitted out, Barclay has a roughly equal force with the Americans, though undermanned and under-equipped.  General Procter lends him a company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and two companies of the 1st Battalion, 41st Regiment of Foot to help man his ships.

16 August: Perry anchors off Kelly's Island and meets with General Harrison. 130 volunteers from Harrison's army, mostly regular infantrymen armed with muskets, join the fleet.

9 September: British food reserves are down to one day's worth. Commander Barclay sorties from the Detroit River into western Lake Erie. Perry's fleet is anchored at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island.

10 September: The Battle of Lake Erie.

Early Morning: Masthead lookout on the Lawrence sights the British fleet.

6am: Perry's fleet sorties from its anchorage in Put-in-Bay. The wind is out of the southwest and favors the British. Perry tacks in an effort to get upwind but cannot make headway in the light breeze.

10am: The wind shifts to the southeast, now favoring the Americans. Barclay heaves to (stops) to wait for the American attack.

Barclay's fleet is arranged so that the two heaviest ships are near the center of the line, with flagship Detroit followed by the light brig General Hunter, then the second heaviest ship Queen Charlotte. Perry matches this formation so that Lawrence will duel Detroit, Caledonia will fight Hunter and Niagara will fight Queen Charlotte.

11:45am: A bugle sounds on Detroit, and the ship's band plays Rule Britannia before firing a ranging shot with a long 24-pounder to open the battle. The British squadron, armed with 35 long guns of various calibres, begin firing at the Americans. The Americans have only 15 long guns in the fleet, and are only able to respond with the few that can bear from Scorpion, Lawrence and Caledonia. Scorpion opens the battle on the American side from her massive 32-pounder long gun, and continues to "snipe" throughout the battle.

12:15pm: Lawrence sails into carronade range and opens fire with her starboard battery of 32-pounders.  Caledonia stands off to avoid the Queen Charlotte, which outclasses her. However, Niagara, which is matched to Charlotte, holds position in line behind the Caledonia and fails to close. For her commander, Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, this will become a source of enmity between him and Perry for years. The Lawrence fights mostly alone against Detroit, General Hunter and Queen Charlotte for the next two hours.

2:30pm: All of the starboard battery of the Lawrence is knocked out, her rigging is in tatters, and 4 out of 5 crew are killed or wounded. Perry decides to shift his flag to Niagara, now over half a mile distant, and boards his cutter. The remaining crew of the Lawrence strike their colors to avoid further bloodshed, but the British are not able to take possession of the ship.

Perry and a small crew row over to the Niagara, dodging near misses from the British fleet which is targeting him specifically. He relieves Elliott of command and orders him to bring up the rest of the gunboats.

Detroit and Queen Charlotte are severely damaged from their duel with Niagara and the sniping fire of Scorpion, Ariel and Caledonia's long guns. Their experienced officers are all killed or incapacitated. The acting commanders of both ships decided to wear (turn away from the wind) in order to bring their undamaged starboard broadsides to bear. Queen Charlotte's bowsprit runs afoul of Detroit, bringing down her mizzen topmast and entangling the two principal ships of the British fleet.

Perry takes advantage of the British confusion by cutting between the Lady Prevost and the two entangled ships, firing both broadsides of nine double shotted 32-pounder carronades at the extremely close range of half a pistol shot. His gunboats surround and add to the carnage on the British ships. By 3pm, the Detroit and Queen Charlotte have struck their colors.

The last shots of the battle are fired by Trippe and Scorpion, in pursuit of the fleeing Chippeway and Little Belt, which are overtaken and surrender.

Perry brought his ships and their prizes to anchor near West Sister Island, near the site of the Battle, where he wrote to General Harrison:
Dear General:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
O.H. Perry

(Based on Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie by Gerard T. Altoff, the Battle of Lake Erie on Wikipedia, and the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.)

The Ships
United States Navy Lake Erie Squadron

A brig.

Name:USS Lawrence (flagship)
Position in Line:3rd
Rate/Class: 20-gun sloop of war
Rig: brig or snow
Armament: 18x 32-pounder carronades, 2x 12-pounder guns (bow chasers).
Crew: 134
Notes: The Lawrence and Niagara were identical in design and armament. Since iron was scarce, the vessels were pegged together with wood. Oakum was not available for caulking so molten lead was used with superior effect. Construction was supervised by Adam and Noah Brown (mostly the latter), shipbuilders from New York City who later built the first steam frigate Demologos for the US Navy.
Fate: Sunk (a form of mothballing on the Great Lakes) in Misery Bay, near Erie, PA after the war ended in 1815. Sold off in 1825. Examined in 1836, raised 1875 and shipped to Philadelphia for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. She was destroyed when the exhibit hall burned down.
Name:USS Niagara
Position in Line:5th
Rate/Class:20-gun sloop of war
Rig: brig or snow
Armament: 18x 32-pounder carronades, 2x 12-pounder guns (bow chasers).
Notes: Identical to the USS Lawrence, her sister ship, Niagara was Perry's second flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie, and suffered much less damage than the former vessel. She was able to support amphibious operations against Amherstburg late in 1813 and continued to cruise the lakes in 1814, capturing several small British vessels.
Fate: After 1814 she served as a receiving ship (floating barracks) in Erie until sunk near her sister in Misery Bay for preservation in 1820. She was sold off to successive owners in the 19th century, but was found to be in too poor repair for commercial work when raised for inspection. In 1913 the ship was raised and restored, and laid up in dry dock until a second restoration in 1929. The restoration efforts ran out of money in 1934, and were not completed until 1963, when she was left on land as a static display. Finally, from 1986 to 1988 the original hull was dismantled, and a replica was built using parts of the original for nonstructural components. The thrice-rebuilt Niagara is participating in the 200 anniversary reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Name:USS Caledonia
Position in Line:4th
Armament: 2x 24-pounders, 1 32-pounder carronade
Crew: 53
Notes: Built in 1807 for the British Northwest Company at Amherstburg, Caledonia was taken into the Provincial Marine (the "militia" version of the Royal Navy operating on the Great Lakes) at the beginning of the war in 1812. Caledonia transported troops and ordnance which played a key role in the British capture of Mackinac Island. The brig, armed at the time only with two 4-pounder guns and manned by 12 men, was boarded and captured while at anchor off Fort Erie on 8 October 1812 by sailors under Jesse Elliot and artillerymen under Nathan Towson (see above). Caledonia's two 24-pounder long guns were key to keeping up the fight after USS Lawrence was knocked out of the Battle of Lake Erie.
Fate: Participated in the Mackinac Expedition in 1814. Sold May, 1815. Renamed the General Wayne, she cruised the lakes as a merchant vessel once more before reportedly being sunk in the 1830s near Buffalo.
A topsail schooner.

Name:USS Scorpion
Position in Line:1st
Rate/Class: Schooner
Rig: Topsail Schooner
Armament: 1x 32-pounder gun (on pivot) 1x 32-pounder carronade (on pivot)
Crew: 36
Notes: Built by Noah Brown at Erie, commissioned April 1813. In the van of the American line, she had one of the largest and longest-range guns in the fleet, and fired the first American shot of the battle. She also fired the last shot of the battle, which forced the fleeing British schooner Chippeway and the sloop Little Belt to surrender. In between, her long gun played an important role by "sniping" at the larger British ships while USS Lawrence absorbed most of their return fire.
Fate: Whilst on blockade duty on Lake Huron in 1814, she was captured by the previously captured schooner Tigress, and both schooners entered the British service. As HMS Confiance, she cruised the lakes until possibly sinking in Georgian Bay.

Name:USS Ariel
Position in Line:2nd
Rig:Topsail Schooner
Armament: 4x long 12-pounder guns (x2 on pivot mounts)
Crew: 36
Notes: Built by Noah Brown at Erie, commissioned April 1813. One of her 12-pounders was overcharged and burst during the engagement. Later in the campaign she seems to have functioned as a scout and command-and-control ship for Perry and General Harrison.
Fate: Unknown. Either burned by the British in 1814 or sold off with other ships of the squadron in 1815.

Name: USS Somers
Position in Line: 6th
Rate/Class: Schooner
Rig: topsail schooner
Armament: 1x 24-pounder long gun, 1x 32-pounder carronade
Crew: 30
Notes: The merchant schooner Catherine was purchased by the United States Navy in 1812. Commissioned as the Somers, she was one of the five gunboats trapped in the Niagara River until the British retreated from Fort Erie.
Fate: On 12 August 1814, during the siege of American-held Fort Erie, she was surprised by British boats pretending to by American provision boats. Somers served out the rest of the war under British colors.

Name: USS Porcupine
Position in Line: 7th
Rate/Class: Schooner
Rig: topsail schooner
Armament: 1x 32-pounder on pivot.
Crew: 25
Notes: A gunboat schooner built by Adam and Noah Brown at Erie in 1813. Moored near Fort Erie on 12 August 1814, she escaped the cutting out parties that captured Somers and Ohio and continued to serve in the United States Navy.
Fate: Laid up at Erie until 1819, she saw service as a Revenue Cutter at Detroit until 1821, when she was returned to ordinary. Sold off in 1825, the Porcupine cruised as a cargo vessel until 1873, when she was beached near Grand Haven, Michigan.

Name: USS Tigress
Position in Line: 8th
Rate/Class: Schooner
Rig: topsail schooner
Armament: 1x 32-pounder gun on pivot.
Crew: 27
Notes: A gunboat schooner built by Adam and Noah Brown, she was launched in the spring of 1813. After the Battle of Lake Erie, under the command of Master Commandant Jesse Elliott she ascended the Thames River along with Scorpion and Porcupine to provide support for General Harrison's army. The gunboats were forced to halt when it seemed that the river banks would be too high for the crew to defend itself against an ambush.
Fate: Blockading the British town of Machilimackinaw on Lake Huron with Scorpion in 1814, she was surprised by a British boarding party and captured. She was taken into the British service on Lake Huron as HMS Suprise, and laid up in ordinary following the war before being dismantled. In 1933 the remains of the vessel were raised and put on display on a dock in Penetanguishene, Ontario.

Name: USS Trippe
Position in Line:9th
Rate/Class: Gunboat
Rig: Sloop
Armament: 1x 32-pounder or 24-pounder gun on pivot
Crew: 35
Notes: Trippe started life as the merchant sloop Contractor before being purchased by the Navy on the Niagara River in 1812. A disproportionate number of the Army volunteers who joined Perry's fleet in September were placed aboard this ship (perhaps where they could do the least damage!). Despite the number of landsmen aboard, she was able to outstrip and force the fleeing gunboats HMS Chippeway and HMS Little Belt to surrender.
Fate: Running supplies from Buffalo to the Northwest Army's outposts at Detroit and Amherstburg, Trippe ran aground sometime late in 1813. When a British column raided and burned Buffalo on December 30, Trippe was captured and burned along with several other transports.

Name:USS Ohio
Position in Line: Not Present (sailing to Erie for provisions)
Rate/Class: schooner
Rig: topsail schooner
Armament:1x 24-pounder
Crew: 35
Notes: Converted from a merchant schooner by Henry Eckford, Ohio was under the command of Sailing Master Daniel Dobbins during the Lake Erie campaign.
Fate: In service on the lakes until she was captured along with Somers during the siege of Fort Erie on 12 August 1814 while supporting the American garrison there.

Name:USS Amelia
Position in Line: Not Present (Erie)
Rate/Class: Schooner
Rig: Topsail Schooner
Armament: 1x 12-pounder
Crew: ?
Notes: Amelia was a merchant vessel purchased at Erie in December 1812. She was found to be unfit for service and never saw action (not to be confused with the Noah Brown-built schooner Amelia, renamed Tigress).
Fate: Sold in May 1815.

Royal Navy/ Provincial Marine Squadron

Name: HMS Detroit (flagship)
Position in Line:2nd
Rate/Class: 19-gun Sloop of War
Rig: Ship
Armament: 1x 18-pounder gun (on a raised bow pivot), 2 x 24-pounder guns, 6x 12-pounder guns, 8x 9-pounder guns, 1x 24-pounder carronade, 1x 18-pounder carronade
Notes: Detroit carried two Indians as passengers, who hid in the hold during the battle. She also carried the pet bear of an Amherstburg surgeon, which acted as the British mascot and survived the battle despite being tied up on the gun deck.

Detroit had a number of problems, beginning when the undermanned British shipyard at Amherstburg was ordered to build two small gunboats, the Eliza and Meyers, for General Procter, delaying work on the larger ship. The twenty 24-pounder carronades earmarked for her fell into American hands when the dockyard at York (modern Toronto) was captured on 27 April 1813. Barclay was forced to strip guns from the fort at Amherstburg to arm her. Gun locks and port fires were also scarce, requiring some of her motley set of guns to be set off by pistols. Short on able seamen, the crew was filled out with soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (generally experienced sailors and boatmen) and the 41st Regiment of Foot (generally not).
Fate: After being captured at the Battle of Lake Erie, Detroit was taken into the US Navy as USS Detroit, but was so badly damaged that she never sailed again. She was sold off in 1825.

Name:HMS Queen Charlotte
Position in Line: 4th
Rate/Class: Sloop of War
Rig: Ship
Armament:14x 24-pounder carronades, 2x 9-pounder guns
Notes: Built in 1807 at Amherstburg for the Provincial Marine, the Queen Charlotte played an important role in the first stages of the war by effectively interdicting and bombarding American supply and troop movements along General William Hull's road from the Ohio settlements to Detroit. She was named after the wife of King George III, the reigning monarch of England. Until the commissioning of Detroit, she was the flagship of the Royal Navy on the Upper Great Lakes and took part in most of the operations on western Lake Erie, including the blockade of Erie, PA.
Fate: Badly damaged during the Battle of Lake Erie, she was taken into the US Navy under her original name, but was laid up at Put-in-Bay until she was sold off in 1825, and refitted as a merchant ship.

Name: HMS General Hunter
Position in Line:3rd
Armament:4x 6-pounder guns, 2x 4-pounder guns, 2x 2-pounder guns, 2x 12-pounder carronades (possibly gunades?)
Notes: Built in 1806 for the Provincial Marine, she was commissioned into the British service in 1812. She is notable for her extremely light armament.
Fate: Serving the rest of the war as the USS Hunter, she was sold off sometime after 1815. Her wreck was discovered in 2001 on the beach at Southampton, Ontario.

Name:HMS Chippeway
Position in Line: 1st
Rate/Class: schooner
Rig: topsail schooner
Armament: 1x 9-pounder gun
Notes: A small trading schooner built in 1810, and brought into the Provincial Marine when war broke out in 1812. She ferried British General Isaac Brock from Amherstburg to the Niagara River after the surrender of Detroit.
Fate: On 12 October 1813, she was forced aground by a storm at Buffalo. Several days later, Little Belt, Trippe, and possibly Ariel were also forced aground. Efforts to float them failed, and all four vessels were captured and burned during the Battle of Buffalo on 30 December 1813.

Name:HMS Lady Prevost
Position in Line:5th
Rate/Class: 13-gun Schooner
Rig:topsail schooner
Armament: 1x 9-pounder, 2x 6-pounders, 10x 12-pounder carronades.
Crew: 86
Notes: Built in 1810 for the Provincial Marine, she was named for the wife of the British Governor General of Canada, Sir George Prevost. She is noteble for the heavy armament she carried, large for a schooner-rigged vessel and larger than that of the brig Hunter.
Fate: Lady Prevost was taken into the US Navy under the same name, and served against her namesake's husband until 1815. She was burned and sunk, but subsequently raised and converted into a merchantman, and sold off later the same year.

Name:HMS Little Belt
Position in Line:6th
Rate/Class: gunboat
Rig: Bermuda Sloop
Armament:1x 9-pounder gun on pivot, 2x 6-pounder guns.
Notes: Built in 1811 as the merchantman Good Friends Good Will, she was captured by the British at the beginning of the War of 1812.
Fate: Ran aground in October 1813, she was burned during the British attack on Buffalo on 30 December 1813.

The Weapons


Original 6-pounder long gun at the Perry's Monument Visitor Center.
The cannon used during the Battle of Lake Erie can be divided into two basic groups: the long-barreled guns and short-barreled carronades. Guns, the more traditional form of naval artillery, were full-length artillery tubes with trunnions, mounted on truck carriages. Both sides possessed long guns, predominantly 24-pounders.
An original 24-pounder cast for naval service,  Savannah GA.

Reproduction casting of a long 24-pounder.
Carronades were lighter castings than their long gun equivalents, with a shorter barrel. Because of these characteristics they were popular in the late Napoleonic period for arming smaller warships, since they allowed a ship to pack the punch of a much larger class. However, the weight of shot they could throw in broadside was paid for by the smaller powder charge and much shorter range of these weapons. Carronades were designed to be fired at high elevation, so that their heavy rounds would come crashing through the target's deck-- a precursor of the "plunging fire" that destroyed so many warships during the two World Wars. However, there seem to be very few cases where this feature was used. At the Battle of Lake Erie, the carronades on both sides were fired at a level elevation, like long guns. Carronades were also popular on larger ships such as Nelson's HMS Victory, which sported two 68-pounder carronades on the forecastle. These were packed with kegs of musket balls and used to sweep the decks of opposing vessels.

An original carronade on display in Alexandria, VA.
37 of the 39 carronades mounted on Perry's ships were cast by a foundry in Washington, D.C. They had to be hauled on wagons over the mountains to Pittsburgh, and then over worse roads north to Erie. The foundry owner, pleased at the victory won by his carronades, built a church in Washington to commemorate the battle.

Both carronades and long guns were loaded with similar projectiles. The primary projectile was a cannonball, more properly called a round shot. Essentially, it was a sphere cast out of iron, and cannons were designated by the weight of round shot they could throw, not their caliber in inches. Two or even three shot could be loaded at once for a more powerful salvo (usually the first broadside of an engagement). In order to do this, the powder charge had to be reduced in order to prevent the gun from exploding. As a rule of thumb, though, the powder charge was equal to a third of the projectile: thus, a 24-pounder would need a charge of eight pounds of gunpowder. Carronades reduced this charge, requiring less weight of metal in the breech and a shorter chase, or barrel.

Small Arms:

The People