Battle of Lake Erie
by Percy Morgan
Library of Congress
Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, Sept. 10th, 1813
by J.J. Barralet
Engraved by B. Tanner
Library of Congress
At the battle’s successful conclusion, Chauncey ordered Perry to retrieve four vessels at Black Rock to add to his squadron at Erie. With no men to spare, Chauncey asked General Dearborn if his subordinate could borrow 200 infantrymen for the task. Dearborn acquiesced. Because the Niagara River flows away from Lake Erie with a strong current, it took a grueling week of work involving both men and teams of oxen to get the four vessels into the lake proper despite the fact only three miles separated Black Rock from the river’s mouth.
Perry sailed his newly acquired vessels back to Presque Isle Harbor, giving him a total of ten vessels. His newly constructed gunboats launched without trouble, but the larger brigs Lawrence and Niagara could not do so easily as they had to pass over the sandbar. Their drafts of nine feet would not allow them to pass the four feet above it. To make things more complicated, Barclay’s squadron arrived to prevent Perry from getting his unarmed and unrigged brigs out.
Fortunately for him, Barclay up and sailed away one day. One American account claimed that he had left to attend a dinner, but both Barclay’s letters and the transcript of his court martial clearly show otherwise. As a diligent and dedicated British officer, he would have shot his remaining arm off before leaving his post for such an arbitrary reason. His squadron had departed because it had run out of food.
Perry knew how to get the brigs over the sandbar. He had at his disposal camels, water tight wooden boxes equipped with pumps. Constructed on site, they worked as such. A team of men sunk them by flooding their interiors with water. Next they placed one under either side of a vessel’s keel, then connected them with strong beams. Once secured, the pumps removed the water within and the resulting buoyancy lifted the brigs up high enough to float over the sandbar.
Perry moved the Lawrence out first. This took two days of hard work because no one there had ever used camels. With experience gained, it took them much less time to move the Niagara out. Although Barclay returned before Perry could arm and outfit his brigs, the British lieutenant only viewed them from a distance, and in doing so mistakenly believed Perry had them ready for action. Not prepared for a fight, Barclay withdrew.
Perry rigged and armed the brigs by July 23. On July 30, he received a letter from Chauncey telling him to take full command of the squadron and to search out and destroy the British squadron. Chauncey could not come in person after all because he had not yet secured Lake Ontario. On August 3, he sent another master commandant, Jesse Elliott, to take a contingent of eleven officers and ninety-one men to bolster Perry’s crews, who gave Elliott command of the Niagara and made the Lawrence his flagship. Elliott, who had recently distinguished himself by boldly capturing two vessels from Fort Erie, picked his men from those he had brought without consulting Perry. Always one who liked harmony with his subordinates, he said nothing.
The squadron of ten ships left the harbor on August 6, 1813, returned to Erie the next day, then established its home port at Put-In-Bay. From here Perry set out to find Barclay, but he could not find the enemy squadron. He complained his letters about his frustration that it seemed unwilling to engage him. Barclay, however, had no intention of fighting until he had his new ship, the Detroit, ready for action. His men (what few he had) still needed extensive training; he also needed qualified seamen to navigate and do the sailing.
When Perry learned Barclay’s squadron remained in Amherstburg, he sailed up the Detroit River to survey it, although he dared not attack lest he come in range of the fort’s guns. He sailed back to Put-in-Bay with the idea of somehow enticing Barclay to leave his safe harbor, not knowing of Barclay’s manning situation. Major General Henry Procter of the British Army offered to send Barclay “50 seamen with two Lieutts. and one Midshipman,” but only thirty-six men arrived, including two lieutenants, one master’s mate, and two gunners. Barclay tried his best to stay in port, but on September 8, 1813, Procter ordered him to engage Perry with what he had.
Barclay left with fifty experienced seamen, officers included, to distribute among his six vessels. Many of his men spoke only French, making training them all the more difficult. When he left harbor, he had the crew on half-rations as he only possessed a day’s worth of flour and no spirits save for that reserved for times of action—something that could inspire a mutiny in that era. He lacked usable tubes and fuses for his cannon. To fire them, his gunners had to discharge pistols (less the ammunition) into the touchholes. With all these deficiencies, it seemed a foregone conclusion he would lose.
Perry’s squadron first sighted Barclay’s at sunrise on September 10, 1813. At this time Perry had nine vessels under his command because he had sent his tenth to retrieve supplies. In his battle plan, he had assigned each of his craft to engage a specific enemy vessel, simultaneously ordering his commanders to not break the battle line. This created a bit of dilemma. Should they leave the line to engage their assigned adversary, or stay put as ordered?
Perry assigned the Lawrence and Niagara to engage Barclay’s two ships, the Detroit and Queen Charlotte. The Caledonia from Black Rock, a smaller brig, would support the Lawrence with her long guns. Most of Perry’s vessels rated as gunboats, which meant they carried only long guns, cannon designed to damage an enemy vessel from afar. The Lawrence and Niagara carried mostly carronades, close range cannon that fired both solid cannonballs and grapeshot capable of inflicting far more damage on an enemy’s hull and rigging than long guns.