Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
They fought like tigers on that deck
Till ship was shatter'd and a wreck;
But as she sank in splendor to her grave
The brave old flag did still wave
From her last boat, speeding well,
'Midst burning shot and shrieking shell,
And fearless sailors pulled at oar
Till flag adorned a ship once more.
Because disagreement broke out between the United States and Great Britain relative to the latter country's right to search American vessels and seize British naval deserters who had voluntarily enlisted in the merchant marine of America, war was declared on the 18th of June, 1812, by the newer country.
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a native of Rhode Island, and twenty-seven years old, had assumed command of Lake Erie and the other upper Great Lakes. In the very beginning this was rather a nominal command, for Lake Erie, the most important waterway of the lot at the time, was in exclusive control of the foe. But the Americans had captured a British brig called the Caledonia, and purchased three schooners which were afterward named the Somers, the Tigress, and the Ohio, also a sloop, the Trippe. For a time these were blockaded in the Niagara River, only to be released after the fall of Fort George and the retreat of the English forces.
Only by the hardest labor was Commodore Perry able to tack these ships up against the current to Presque Isle (now called Erie), where two twenty gun brigs were being constructed under his directions. Three schooners—the Ariel, the Scorpion, and the Porcupine—were also built.
The harbor of Erie was well protected and spacious, and a most excellent place for Perry's indefatigable efforts at building up a small fleet with which to chase the enemy off the waters under his direction. But it possessed one feature which, while an aid in the way of keeping the British from getting in, now turned into a disadvantage to the Americans in the way of keeping them from getting out. This was an extensive sandbar across the harbor's mouth. At times the storms shifted this into such proportions that vessels of deep draught could not pass over it; at other times the waters wore it down so the passage could be made quite readily. Just now it was a dangerous, if not an impossible, obstacle.
While Perry was busy trying to devise some method to circumvent the sandbar, Captain Robert Barclay, commander of the British forces on the lake, appeared off the harbor and proceeded to make matters additionally tight for the Americans by instituting a blockade. This the enemy maintained till August 2nd, 1812, when their ships disappeared.
Anticipating an early return of the foe, Perry made hasty preparations for escape. On the 4th, at two o'clock, one American brig, the Lawrence, was towed to that point of the bar where the water was deepest. Her guns had been dismounted and placed on the beach, to make her as light as possible. It was proposed to get the ship over by what is termed a "camel." This is how Commodore Perry himself, in a report, describes the procedure:
"Two large scows, prepared for the purpose, were hauled alongside, and the work of lifting the brig proceeded as fast as possible. Pieces of massive timber had been run through the forward and after ports, and when the scows were sunk to the water's edge the ends of the timbers were blocked up, supported by these floating foundations. The plugs were now put in the scows, and the water was pumped out of them. By this process the brig was lifted quite two feet, though when she was got on the bar it was found that she still drew too much water. It became necessary, in consequence, to cover up everything, sink the scows anew, and block up the timbers afresh. This duty occupied the whole night."
Barely had the Lawrence passed the bar, at eight o'clock the next morning, than the enemy suddenly appeared. But the British were too late. Captain Barclay exchanged a few shots with the American craft, and then withdrew.
The Niagara was the next ship to cross the bar, then the others followed in succession. There were not enough men to man the vessels at first, but a draft contingent arrived from Ontario, and many frontiersmen volunteered, while soldiers were also sent on board.
On the 18th the squadron sailed in quest of the enemy. After cruising about some time, the Ohio was sent down the lake. The other ships went into Putin Bay.
Captain Barclay, who had been at Amherstburg, found that he was very short of provisions. Up to this time he had not cared to risk an engagement with the Americans, but now he felt compelled to do so. Therefore, he prepared his vessels for action, and put out of Amherstburg on the 9th of September.
It was the next day that his squadron was discovered from the masthead of the Lawrence, just as the first streaks of dawn were appearing. The British were then coming up from the northwest. At once Perry's ships were all hustle and bustle, as it was realized that an engagement with the foe was almost sure to result. The light breeze that was blowing shifted to the northeast, thus giving the Americans the weather-gage.
In the meantime, Captain Barclay lay to in a close column, heading toward the southwest. His ships, six in number, consisted of two men-of-war, two schooners, a brig and a sloop. These were named respectively, and armed, thus: the Detroit, nineteen guns; the Queen Charlotte, seventeen guns; the Lady Prevost, thirteen guns; the Hunter, ten guns; the Chippeway, one gun; the Little Belt, three guns.
The American squadron, consisting of nine vessels, was made up of the brigs Lawrence, Niagara, and Caledonia; the schooners Ariel, Scorpion, Somers, Porcupine, and Tigress; and the sloop Trippe. Their armament stood: Lawrence, twenty guns; Niagara, twenty guns; Caledonia, three guns; Ariel, four guns; Scorpion, two guns; Somers, two guns; Porcupine, Tigress, Trippe, each one gun.
In addition to having more ships than the, enemy, the Americans had close to double armament strength, possessing less guns but guns of greater range. Against this advantage, the British had an excess of perhaps fifty men in fighting trim. Therefore, it will be seen that if Commodore Perry had not come out a victor in the forthcoming battle, it would have been a national disgrace. It is true that his men fought with a wonderful gallantry, but so did the men of Captain Barclay.
As the American squadron approached the foe, Perry's straggling line (the ships did not seem to keep well together) formed an angle of about fifteen degrees with the more compact line of the British.
It was eleven twenty-five when the Detroit opened up the action by a shot from her long twenty-four, which fell short. Ten minutes later she fired a second time. This was better directed, and went crashing through the Lawrence. Almost immediately the Scorpion retaliated with her long thirty-two, but missed. The Lawrence shifted her port bow chaser, and now opened up herself with her long twelves, followed by her carronades, but the shot from the latter all fell short.
The action now became general, although the rearmost American vessels were almost beyond range of their own guns, and quite out of reach of the guns of their antagonists. The ships in the van, however, were enough in numbers to match the enemy and keep him busy.
Meantime the Lawrence, crippled considerably by the shot that had struck her, bore down slowly upon the enemy. It was twenty minutes before she succeeded in getting near enough to use her shorter range guns—the carronades. As she had approached she seemed to be the universal target for the foe, who directed their fire at her with gusto. Suffering a good deal, she was now able to use effectively all of her own armament. Her shots went into the ranks of the British line with telling vigor and accuracy, so much so, in fact, that the British speedily showed more or less distress.
Helping the Lawrence were the Scorpion and the Ariel. These three American ships, throwing a combined weight of one hundred and four pounds, were pitted against the Chippeway and Detroit, throwing one hundred and twenty-three pounds at a broadside. At the same time the Caledonia, the Niagara, and the Somers were engaging at long range the Hunter and the Queen Charlotte, while, also at long range, the remaining American craft were engaging, the Prevost and the Little Belt.
By twelve thirty the Lawrence had worked in to close quarters, and action was going on with the greatest fury between her and her antagonists within canister range. Through ignorance, the raw and inexperienced American gunners committed the same error that the British so often fell into on the ocean during the war—they over loaded their carronades. In consequence, the carronade of the Scorpion kicked from its mountings in the middle of the action, and went tumbling down the hatchway, while its shot scattered harmlessly against the hull of the Detroit. One of the Ariel's long twelves was also put out of commission by bursting.
During this time Captain Barclay's crew on the Detroit fought with excellent skill and bravery. Their aim was good, although the ship's equipment was so deficient that they actually had to discharge their pieces by firing pistols at the touchholes, being without slow matches.
Meanwhile the Caledonia came up into better range; but the Niagara signified no such intention, her commander, Captain Elliott, handling her wretchedly for the good of his compatriots, and keeping at a distance which prevented the effective use of his carronades on either his special antagonist, the Queen Charlotte, or the latter's sister ships. Yet he had managed thus far to use his long guns well enough to cause the Queen Charlotte some damage, among which was the loss of her gallant commander, Captain Finnis, and Mr. Stokes, her first-lieutenant. The command had been taken over by Provincial Lieutenant Irvine who, perceiving that he could accomplish nothing in his present position, left off engagement with the diffident Niagara, passed the Hunter, and joined the attack on the Lawrence at close quarters. Thus was the Niagara, the best manned of the American vessels, kept out of action by her captain's misconduct.
At the end of the line, the fight went on at long range between the Somers, the Tigress, the Porcupine, and the Trippe, on the American side; and the Lady Prevost and the Little Belt, on the British side. Considering her short range equipment the Lady Prevost put up a remarkably stout and admirable defense against the long guns of her American adversaries. Before long she was necessarily greatly shot up; her commander, Lieutenant Buchan, had been dangerously wounded, and her acting first-lieutenant, Mr. Roulette, had also been seriously hurt. She began falling gradually to leeward.
At the head of the line the fighting was fierce and bloody to an extraordinary degree. By now the Lawrence, Scorpion, Ariel, and Caledonia were opposed to the Detroit, the Chippeway, the Queen Charlotte, and the Hunter. Lying at very close quarters, the ships of both sides did great destruction to their opponents, and their crews performed with a rare courage. Altogether it seemed quite an equal contest, the Americans being superior in weight of broadside metal, but inferior in men. However, the Lawrence had received such damage in coming into the fight, that weighing her condition, the odds were somewhat against Commodore Perry.
As the men fought on, the heaviest fire on each side seemed to be concentrated upon the larger opposite vessels. In consequence the Queen Charlotte was now almost disabled, and the Detroit was battered and cut up in a fashion to greatly distress her. Indeed, her first-lieutenant had fallen, mortally stricken, while Captain Barclay was so severely injured that he had to be carried from the deck, leaving the command to Lieutenant Inglis.
But if matters had gone ill with the Detroit, onboard the Lawrence affairs were even worse. Her decks showed evidence of the grimmest sort of carnage. Out of one hundred and three men only nineteen remained unwounded. In her ward-room, used as a cockpit, and mostly above water, many of the wounded, in the hands of surgeons, were killed outright by random shots of the enemy which came hurtling through the thin wooden walls. Her first-lieutenant, Mr. Yarnall, was three times wounded, but kept the deck through all; the only other lieutenant on board, Mr. Brooks, was mortally wounded. Every brace was shot away; only one usable mast remained; her hull was a gaping sieve above the waterline; by degrees her guns on the engaged side had been all dismounted.
Perry, however, kept up the fight with praise worthy zeal and unexampled bravery. As his crew on the Lawrence fell one by one, he called down through the skylight for a surgeon's assistant; and this call was repeated and obeyed till no more assistants were able to answer. Then he shouted into the ward room: "Can any of the wounded pull a rope?" and three or four of them crawled up on deck to lend a feeble hand in placing the last guns.
It was the Commodore himself who, assisted by the purser and chaplain, aimed and fired the final shot. With steady hand and the utmost coolness he sent his charge whistling toward the Detroit, and had the satisfaction of seeing a portion of her rail and foremast go flying into splinters.
Most commanders now would have struck their colors and permitted the enemy to take the crew prisoners. But not so Perry. Instead, the Commodore leaped into a rowboat with his brother and four seamen, taking his flag with him. Whatever happened, he had made up his mind that the British should never have a chance to gloat over this emblem,—to handle its folds, and say when they got back to England, "This is one of the flags we took from the impertinent Americans."
A quarter of a mile to windward Perry's searching eye had already noted the Niagara—the Niagara, fresh, strong, still able to put up a good fight. Now, standing proudly in the stern of the small boat, bareheaded, with the beloved flag flying defiantly from the bow, he ordered his men to pull hard for the Niagara.
It was two thirty when Perry arrived safely on board the Niagara. To this he transferred his flag, took command, and sent its former commander, Elliott, back in the rowboat to order up the three schooners. Within fifteen minutes the latter had come up, and Perry bore down to break Captain Barlay's line.
The British ships had fought themselves to a standstill. The Lady Prevost was crippled and sagged to the leeward, though ahead of the others. The Detroit and the Queen Charlotte were so disabled that they could not offer resistance against fresh combatants.
As the Niagara stood down, firing her port guns into the Chippeway, the Little Belt, the Lady Prevost, and her starboard guns into the Detroit, the Queen Charlotte, and the Hunter, she had everything her own way. Raked terribly by her fire, the Detroit and the Charlotte tried to move off, but ran afoul of one another with their rigging shot to shreds.
Then the Niagara luffed smartly athwart their bows, within half pistol-shot, maintaining a terrific discharge of great guns and musketry. On the other side the British tangled ships were almost as disastrously swept by the Caledonia and the schooners, which were so close that some of their grape-shot, passing over the foe, rattled against Perry's spars and braces.
BATTLE OF ERIE.
Caught as he was between two fires, there was nothing for Captain Barclay to do but strike his colors, which he did at three o'clock. The Chippeway and the Little Belt, seeing the Detroit fall, did their best to escape, but were overtaken and brought to respectively by the Trippe and the Scorpion. The commander of the latter, Captain Stephen Champlin, fired the last shot, as he did the first, of the battle.
In its material results, as well as in its moral effects, Perry's victory on Lake Erie was most important. It gave the Americans complete command of all the upper Great Lakes, and prevented continued fears of invasion from that quarter. It also gave the British a greater respect for American naval ability, and surely did much to increase self-confidence in the nation.