Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Grand Theft Brig

A depiction of the USS Caledonia at the Battle of Lake Erie 
I'm currently researching and writing the rough draft of my book, particularly a chapter dedicated to the naval campaign for Lake Erie. One of the most amazing stories that I came across while working on the book was the story of Jesse Elliot's "cutting out" expedition against two British warships anchored off Fort Erie opposite Buffalo. A simple seaborne hijacking quickly turned into a brawl involving heavy artillery and reinforcements from both sides. Here's my narrative, drawn from eyewitness sources:
Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliot was already in charge of the small naval station at Black Rock, near the entrance to the Niagara River. He was trying to scrape up a force with which to oppose the British fleet on Lake Erie by buying up several small trading vessels and arming them. However, the enterprising lieutenant saw an opportunity to increase his little flotilla when the British armed brigs HMS Caledonia (the same ship, formerly of the Northwest Fur Company, that had cornered Daniel Dobbins at Mackinac) and the HMS Detroit (formerly the US Army supply ship Adams, which had been captured at Detroit) arrived from down the lake on October 8. The two vessels anchored under the guns of Fort Erie, on the Canadian shore.
The incomplete stone Fort Erie and several smaller batteries glowered across the waters at Buffalo and Black Rock. Because Lake Erie empties into the Niagara, to spill north down the cataracts of the Horseshoe Falls and into Lake Ontario, the currents were quite strong and any ship wishing to enter Lake Erie from Black Rock had to be towed by teams of oxen, slowly down the shoreline. This would expose them to a brisk fire from the British batteries. Notwithstanding the current and the enemy guns, Lieutenant Elliot saw a chance to use two open boats to row up and board the British ships, and steal them out from under the nose of Fort Erie.
The British ships carried a light crew and armament, although Elliot could not have known this besides what he could glimpse through his spyglass. The Caledonia mounted two 4-pounders and was manned by 12 men, with 10 American prisoners as unwilling passengers.  The more formidable Detroit sported six 6-pounders and was crewed by 56 men, but also carried more prisoners-- 30 Americans. Elliot had two open boats capable of carrying 50 men each, but only 50 warrant officers and sailors to man them with. Worse, his sailors were newly arrived on the station and had only 20 pistols between them, and “neither Cutlasses or Battle Axes.”  He asked the local Army commander, Lt. Colonel Winfield Scott of the 2nd Artillery, for help. Scott and his superior, Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, readily agreed.
Of Colonel Scott's two companies of the 2nd Regiment of Artillery, under Captains Nathan Towson and James Barker, volunteered “to a man”, and the boarding party had to be chosen by lot. Towson led the artillery contingent, armed with muskets. Lieutenant Isaac Roach, a future Mayor of Philadelphia, was his second in command. Some of his Philadelphia recruits begged Roach to join the expedition, saying “can't I go, sir?”, “Don't forget M'Gee,” and “I'm a Philadelphia boy, sir.” General Smyth also sent a secret note to Colonel Winder of the 14th Regiment of Infantry, at Buffalo: “Be pleased to turn out the hardy sailors in your regiment... send also all the pistols, swords and sabres you can borrow at the risk of the lenders, and such public swords as you have.”  The infantrymen were led by Second Lieutenant William Prestman of the 5th Infantry.
Lieutenant Elliot had two large boats fitted out in advance, and hidden during the day up Buffalo Creek, west of the town. He took charge of one, and put the other in charge of Sailing Master George Watts. The sailors and soldiers were about evenly divided between the boats, with Captain Towson and Lieutenant Roach joining Watts' boat. An hour after midnight, the men rowed with muffled oars, out into Lake Erie so as to drift down and surprise the British ships from the opposite direction of the American shore. At 3 am they were alongside. Watts' boat was nearly past the Caledonia, and the sailing master ordered his crew to pass it, thinking they were too far from shore to intercept. Towson disagreed, and ordered the crew to draw near the brig. 
The men had to fight the strong current, and when they threw grappling hooks over the side of the enemy vessel, all but one missed. The boat caught, but fell astern where the British crew began to pour musket fire down from the deck and cabin windows of the brig. Within a few minutes, though, the Americans were able to pull their boat along the side of the vessel and climb aboard, and the small crew quickly surrendered. The raiders lost one man killed and four badly wounded. As the larger crew aboard Detroit were distracted by the staccato reports and fire of muskets on Caledonia, they failed to notice Elliot's boat coming alongside. The brig was captured even more quickly than her consort, with Elliot's crew losing only one enlisted man wounded and a midshipman stabbed through a leg with a bayonet (possibly by one of his boatmates as they scrambled aboard the brig).  The lieutenant ordered his men to fire a single pistol shot, then a crashing musket volley, to signal the American shore than their venture was a success.
“In the space of about ten minutes I had the prisoners all secured, the topsails sheeted home and the vessels under way.”  However, Elliot and the Americans weren't home free. They found the wind too light to make headway against the current, and decided to steer downriver towards Black Rock instead of out into the lake. This brought them past the guns of the British fortifications. Alerted by the commotion just off shore, and the beacon fires and torches now illuminating the Buffalo waterfront by jubilant citizens and soldiers from the garrison, the gunners soon opened up on the two captured ships less than 400 yards away from them.
To the Americans' consternation, both vessels ran aground: the Caledonia onto the American shoreline near a friendly gun battery; the Detroit much closer to the main British guns. As the sun rose, a colossal, three-way shooting match started up between the two shores and the brigs caught between them. Elliot moved the six guns of the Detroit to one side to return fire on the British, but soon he was forced to cut his anchor cable and drift blindly down the Niagara. Soon Detroit ran aground again, this time for good, on Squaw Island in the middle of the river. She was within musket shot of the Canadian shore, which was swarming with enemy troops. Elliot sent his prisoners ashore on his boat, but the current made it difficult for his own men to return, and as he went ashore on a skiff to arrange their return, a boarding party from the British 49th Regiment reached the brig and recaptured her. By this time, the vessel was a shot-up wreck: “she had received twelve shot of large size in her bends, her sails in ribbons and rigging all cut to pieces,” reported Elliot. Colonel Scott and troops from the nearby artillery camp, as well as eager civilian volunteers from Buffalo, swarmed onto the island and peppered the decks of the Detroit with musket fire, while both sides continued to bombard the ship with their heavy guns.
The men of the 49th were forced back over the side after tossing all the cannons overboard. One of their privates who had gotten into the liquor aboard the ship, and an unfortunate American prisoner of war who had been too seriously wounded to remove beforehand, were taken off now as the British prepared to set fire to the ship. Cornet John Pell Major of the Provincial Light Dragoons climbed back aboard to start the fire, only to be hit by a musket ball and stumble back into the boat. This caused its crew to lose hold on the hulk, and they drifted helplessly downriver, leaving behind two privates from the 41st Regiment to be captured.
The Americans burned what was left of the brig. They nearly burned the Caledonia as well, when Captain Towson and his men were called away to prepare for a large-scale British attack. Refusing to give up his prize, the gunner left a trusted sergeant and two men aboard with instructions to fire the ship only if the British actually crossed the river. As a result the prize was saved, as was its cargo of furs valued at 200,000 dollars.  Perhaps a bigger haul had been consigned to the bottom of the Niagara River with Detroit: four 12-pounders, a large shipment of cannon balls, and 200 muskets bound for the British dockyards on Lake Ontario. Incredibly, only one man was killed on either side. As Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander on the Niagara grimly reported, “this event is particularly unfortunate, and may reduce us to incalculable distress.”  Five days later, he would die at the Battle of Queenston Heights, leaving Brigadier General Henry Procter to try to hold back the American advance across land and sea.