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Capture of Fort George (Col. Winfield Scott Leading the Attack)
by Alopage Chappel
Library of Congress
When Barclay arrived, the Royal Navy only had one war vessel under construction, the Detroit, which would not be ready until August. Even if she could have launched earlier, it would have done little good as Barclay lacked the men in general and experienced mariners in particular to man her. He expressed his frustration over this situation in a letter he wrote to Captain Yeo: “[T]here are two Gun boats without a man—Thus you may observe that the state of the Squadron on the lake is by no means so well manned and equipped as you were led to believe and candidly (with the exception of about 10) the Men which I bought with me are but little calculated to make them better.”
To complicate matters, Barclay lacked sufficient supplies. His vessels had inadequate amounts of food for a lengthy cruise. He needed rope, iron, shot, powder, and cannon for the Detroit. He solved the cannon problem by raiding the Amherstburg fort of its armaments, but this left him with a hodgepodge of sizes and a lack of ammunition to fit them. Of the men he recruited, landsman made up the majority. This meant that even if he could get them trained to fire the cannon, he still lacked an adequate number of experienced mariners to do the actual sailing. He also needed a sufficient pool of officers to command.
Perry, too, complained about his men. He wrote to Chauncey grumbling about how he had received men of an unacceptable standard, made worse by the fact that Chauncey had kept the best ones for himself. Frustrated, Perry circumvented his commander’s authority and asked for more men directly from the Secretary of Navy. Chauncey did not take kindly to this breach in the chain of command. He and Perry got into a war of words via letters, and at one point Perry resigned over the matter, which he later withdrew. Chauncey finally relented and sent him more skilled men.
Barclay, meanwhile, made surveys of Presque Island, writing with enthusiasm: “I am told that Presque Isle is a bare harbour [sic] & that there is not above 6 feet of water on it—if it is so, the Vessels must come out off the harbour [sic] to be rigged and armed, & that they shall never accomplish if it is in my power to prevent it.” This same bravado did not infect the rest of the correspondence to his superiors in the Navy as well as to army officers. He pleaded to both for the support of a land force that would launch an attack against the harbor in coordination with his own. No one would give him the troops. Perry’s own intelligence told him he outmanned Barclay significantly. In July the new secretary of the navy, William Jones, reported in a letter to him: “According to their account, the British Naval force in men cannot be above 220 or 30, which would give you, even without any further reinforcement, a decided superiority.”
Perry received his first chance to see combat in May when Chauncey invited him to participate in the upcoming attack on Fort George, a stronghold that stood at the mouth of the Niagara River. The U.S. Navy had a ship building facility at Black Rock farther down but could not launch its vessels into Lake Erie without passing under Fort George’s guns. To free them up and seriously disrupt the British supply lines, General William Henry Harrison planned an amphibious attack against the fort.
Perry headed to Buffalo, New York, via rowboat, and from there made his way to Commodore Chauncey’s flagship, the Madison. Chauncey put Perry in charge of 500 marines and seamen, who would support Colonel Winfield Scott. Shortly after the attack began at 3:00 a.m., Perry learned from an American schooner that the British planned to stand and fight, which American battle planners did not think would occur. Perry rowed to shore, warned Harrison of this, then returned to the lake. Next he ordered the line of boats he commanded to withdraw farther away from the shore to ensure they did not accidentally fire upon American troops. He boarded the nine-gun Hamilton and ordered her to fire canister and grape shot at the enemy. Here he showed that he at least could make clear decisions under fire, an ability only useful for one who also possessed good judgment.