Friday, August 29, 2014

A Close Call for the American Fleet on Lake Erie

Map of modern Erie, PA, showing how narrow the harbor opening is behind Presque Isle. 

Most people are familiar with the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, but few know about the close call Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry had in getting his ships out of their base at Erie, Pennsylvania. This is from the recollections of Sailing Master Stephen Champlin, who was in command of the gunboat USS Scorpion during the campaign. It was printed in Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society vol. 8 (1905).

Model of a large warship fitted with camels. When pumped out these acted as gigantic "water wings", lifting the ship enough to get it over shallow sandbars, etc.

I arrived at Erie, Penn., the station of the United States fleet on Lake Erie, July 24th, 1813, with a draft of seventy men and boys of the most ordinary kind and nearly all new hands. By the almost incredible exertions of the few officers and men upon that station, the vessels composing our little fleet were nearly ready for service. Upon my arrival with recruits, Commodore Perry commenced operations for crossing the bar, upon which there were only four feet of water. The enemy's fleet, at this time, lay off the harbor, with the intention to cut off all supplies from our squadron. A small battery with two or three 12-pounders was therefore erected so as to command the entrance of the harbor as well as to give protection to the vessels that should first cross the bar.

At daylight, on the 1st of August, the Scorpion, under my command, with some of the other small vessels, by lightening and warping, were got over. The Niagara and one of the small vessels were then placed as near to the bar as possible, to protect the others while on it. A few guns were also left upon the Lawrence, to enable her to make some defense in case of an attack. With all the exertion we could make we were nearly two days in getting the Lawrence over, and had we been attacked, the issue must have been most disastrous. Indeed, while she was still on the bar, we discovered the enemy standing in with a leading breeze; but, by renewed and most unparalleled exertions, the Lawrence was got into deep water at 9 or 10 am, and at 12 pm her guns were aboard, and she was ready for action. 

To gain time in this emergency, Commodore Perry ordered the Ariel, Lieutenant Packet, and the Scorpion, commanded by myself, to get under weigh and stand out towards the enemy and annoy them at long shot. We dashed directly at them. Upon seeing the boldness with which they were approached, they changed their course and stood towards Long Point. Lake in the afternoon we were recalled. Every officer and man in the squadron was engaged all night in getting the fleet ready for action. At 3 am the signal was made to get under weigh, and at daylight the whole squadron was in motion. Although, for three days, neither officers nor men had had any sleep, except such as could be snatched upon deck, the greatest anxiety was manifested to pursue the enemy. After a cruise of twenty-four hours off Long Point, without getting sight of the enemy, the fleet returned to Erie for the purpose of taking in supplies for the army under Gen. Harrison.

And thus, the hunted became the hunters...