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The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; online

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Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; → online text (page 19 of 42)
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were overtaken, and, after making a fruitless
effort to run the gauntlet through the enemy's
squadron by putting before the wind, were cap-
tured. Yeo's account is simple: "Came within
gunshot of Pike and Madison, when they imme-
diately bore up, fired their stem-chase guns, and
made all sail for Niagara, leaving two of their
schooners astern, which we captured." ^ The
British had acted faultlessly, and the honor and
profit gained by the encounter rested entirely

' Letter of Commodore Isaac Chauncy, August 13, 181 3.
^ Letter of Sir James Lucas Yeo, August 10, 1813.

292 Naval War of 181 2

with them. On the contrary, neither Chauncy
nor his subordinates showed to advantage.

Cooper says that the hne of battle was "singu-
larly well adapted to draw the enemy down," and
"admirable for its advantages and ingenuity."
In the first place, it is an open question whether
the enemy needed drawing down ; on this occasion
he advanced boldly enough. The formation may
have been ingenious, but it was the reverse of
advantageous. It would have been far better to
have had the strongest vessels to windward, and
the schooners, with their long guns, to leeward,
where they would not be exposed to capture by
any accident happening to them. Moreover, it
does not speak well for the discipline of the fleet
that two commanders should have directly dis-
obeyed orders. And when the two schooners did
tack, and it was evident that Sir James would cut
them off, it was an extraordinary proceeding for
Chauncy to "edge away two points ... to
lead the enemy from the Growler and Julian It
is certainly a novel principle, that if part of a
force is surrounded, the true way to rescue it is to
run away with the balance, in hopes that the
enemy will follow. Had Chauncy tacked at once,
Sir James would have been placed between two
fires, and it would have been impossible for him
to capture the schooners. As it was, the British
commander had attacked a superior force in

Naval War of 1812 293

weather that just suited it, and yet had cap-
tured two of its vessels without suffering any in-
jury beyond a few shot holes in the sails. The
action, however, was in no way decisive. All next
day, the nth, the fleets were in sight of one
another, the British to windward, but neither
attempted to renew the engagement. The wind
grew heavier, and the villainous little American
schooners showed such strong tendencies to upset,
that two had to run into Niagara Bay to anchor.
With the rest, Chauncy ran down the lake to Sack-
ett's Harbor, which he reached on the 13th, pro-
visioned his squadron for five weeks, and that
same evening proceeded up the lake again.

The advantage in this action had been entirely
with the British, but it is simply nonsense to say,
as one British historian does, that "on Lake On-
tario, therefore, we at last secured a decisive pre-
dominance, which we maintained until the end
of the war."' This "decisive" battle left the
Americans just as much in command of the lake
as the British; and even this very questionable
" predominance" lasted but six weeks, after which
the British squadron was blockaded in port most

' History of the British Navy, by Charles Duke Yonge (Lon-
don, 1866), iii., p. 24. It is apparently not a work of any
authority, but I quote it as showing probably the general feel-
ing of British writers about the action and its results, which
can only proceed from extreme partisanship and ignorance of
the subject.

294 Naval War of 1812

of the time. The action has a parallel in that
fought on the 2 2d of July, 1805, by Sir Robert
Calder's fleet of fifteen sa^ of the line against the
Franco-Spanish fleet of twenty sail of the line,
under M. Villeneuve.' The two fleets engaged in a
fog, and the English captured two ships, when both
sides drew off, and remained in sight of each other
the next day without either renewing the action.
"A victory, therefore, it was that Sir Robert Cal-
der had gained, but not a 'decisive' nor a 'bril-
liant' victory." ' This is exactly the criticism
that should be passed on Sir James Lucas Yeo's
action of the loth of August.

From the 13th of August to the loth of Septem-
ber both fleets were on the lake most of the time,
each commodore stoutly maintaining that he was
chasing the other; and each expressing in his
letters his surprise and disgust that his opponent
should be afraid of meeting him, " though so much
superior in force." The facts are, of course, diffi-
cult to get at, but it seems pretty evident that
Yeo was determined to engage in heavy, and
Chauncy in light, weather ; and that the party to

' Batailles Navales de la France, par O. Troude, iii., 352. It
seems rather ridiculous to compare these lake actions, fought
between small flotillas, with the gigantic contests which the
huge fleets of Europe waged in contending for the supremacy
of the ocean; but the difference is one of degree and not of
kind, and they serve well enough for purposes of illustration
or comparison. ' James's Naval History, iv., 14.

Naval War of 1812 295

leeward generally made off. The Americans had
been reinforced by the Sylph schooner, of 300 tons
and 70 men, carrying four long 32's on pivots, and
six long 6's. Theoretically, her armament would
make her formidable; but practically, her guns
were so crowded as to be of little use, and the next
year she was converted into a brig, mounting 24-
pound carronades.

On the I ith of September, a partial engagement,
at very long range in light weather, occurred near
the mouth of the Genesee River; the Americans
suffered no loss whatever, while the British had
one midshipman and three seamen killed and
seven wounded, and afterward ran into Amherst
Bay. One of their brigs, the Melville, received a
shot so far under water that to get at and plug it,
the guns had to be run in on one side and out on
the other. Chauncy describes it as a running
fight of three and a half hours, the enemy then
escaping into Amherst Bay.' James (p. 38) says
that " at sunset a breeze sprang up from the west-
ward, when Sir James steered for the American
fleet; but the American commodore avoided a
close action, and thus the affair ended." This is
a good sample of James's trustworthiness; his
account is supposed to be taken from Commodore
Yeo's letter,^ which says: "At sunset a breeze

' Letter to the Secretary of the Navy, September 13, 1813.
' Letter to Admiral Warren, September 12, 1813.

296 Naval War of 181 2

sprang up from the westward, when I steered for
the False Duck Islands, under which the enemy-
could not keep the weather-gage, but be obliged
to meet us on equal terms. This, however, he
carefully avoided doing." In other words, Yeo
did not steer for, but away from Chauncy. Both
sides admit that Yeo got the worst of it and ran
away, and it is only a question as to whether
Chauncy followed him or not. Of course, in such
light weather, Chauncy' s long guns gave him a
great advantage. He had present ten vessels, the
Pike, Madison, Oneida, Sylph, Tompkins, Con-
quest, Ontario, Pert, American, and Asp, throwing
1 288 lbs. of shot, with a total of 98 guns. Yeo had
92 guns, throwing at a broadside 1374 lbs. Never-
theless, Chauncy told but part of the truth in writ-
ing as he did: "I was much disappointed at Sir
James refusing to fight me, as he was so much
superior in point of force, both in guns and men,
having upward of 20 guns more than we have, and
heaves a greater weight of shot." His inferiority
in long guns placed Yeo at a great disadvantage in
such a very light wind ; but in his letter he makes
a marvellous admission of how little able he was
to make good use of even what he had. He says:
" I found it impossible to bring them to close ac-
tion. We remained in this mortifying situation
five hours, having only six guns in all the squad-
ron that would reach the enemy (not a carronade

Naval War of 1 812 297

being fired)." Now, according to James himself
(Naval Occurrences, p. 297), he had in his squad-
ron two long 24's, thirteen long i8's, two long 12's,
and three long 9's, and, in a fight of five hours, at
very long range, in smooth water, it was a proof
of culpable incompetency on his part that he did
not think of doing what Elliott and Perry did in
similar circumstances on Lake Erie — substitute
all his long guns for some of the carronades on
the engaged side. Chauncy could place in broad-
side seven long 32's, eighteen long 24's, four long
12's, eight long 6's; so he could oppose 37 long
guns, throwing 752 lbs. of shot, to Yeo's 20
long guns, throwing ^^^ lbs. of shot. The odds
were thus more than two to one against the Brit-
ish in any case; and their commander's lack of
resource made them still greater. But it proved
a mere skirmish, with no decisive results.

The two squadrons did not come in contact
again till on the 28th, in York Bay. The Ameri-
cans had the weather-gage, the wind being fresh
from the east. Yeo tacked and stretched far out
into the lake, while Chauncy steered directly for
his centre. When the squadrons were still a
league apart, the British formed on the port tack,
with their heavy vessels ahead; the Americans
got on the same tack and edged down toward
them, the Pike ahead, towing the Asp; the Tomp-
kins, under Lieutenant Bolton Finch, next; the

298 Naval War of 181 2

Madison next, being much retarded by having a
schooner in tow; then the Sylph, with another
schooner in tow, the Oneida, and the two other
schooners. The British, fearing their sternmost
vessels would be cut off, at 12.10 came round on


TJlMPKiKS jCx ^^Sr-

^ ^ PIK€




the starboard tack, beginning with the Wolfe,
Commodore Yeo, and Royal George, Captain Wil-
liam Howe Mulcaster, which composed the van of
the line. They opened with their starboard guns
as soon as they came round. When the Pike was
a-beam of the Wolfe, which was past the centre of

Naval War of 1 812 299

the British Hne, the Americans bore up in succes-
sion for their centre.

The Madison was far back, and so was the Sylph,
neither having cast off their tows; so the whole
brunt of the action fell on the Pike, Asp, and
Tompkins. The latter kept up a most gallant and
spirited fire till her foremast was shot away. But
already the Pike had shot away the Wolfe's main-
topmast and main-yard, and inflicted so heavy a
loss upon her that Commodore Yeo, not very
heroically, put dead before the wind, crowding all
the canvas he could on her forward spars, and she
ran completely past all her own vessels, who, of
course, crowded sail after her. The retreat of the
commodore was most ably covered by the Royal
George, under Captain Mulcaster, who was un-
questionably the best British officer on the lake.
He luffed up across the commodore's stern, and
delivered broadsides in a manner that won the
admiration even of his foes. The Madison and
Sylph, having the schooners in tow, could not
overtake the British ships, though the Sylph
opened a distant fire ; the Pike kept on after them,
but did not cast off the Asp, and so did not gain ;
and at 3.15 the pursuit was relinquished,' when
the enemy were running into the entirely unde-
fended port of Burlington Bay, whence escape
would have been impossible. The Tompkins had

^ Letter of Commodore Chauncy, September 28, 1813.

3O0 Naval War of 1812

lost her foremast, and the Pike her fore-topgallant-
mast, with her bowsprit and mainmast wounded ;
and of her crew five men were killed or wounded,
almost all by the guns of the Royal George. These
were the only injuries occasioned by the enemy's
fire, but the Pike's starboard bow-chaser burst,
killing or wounding twenty-two men, besides
blowing up the topgallant forecastle, so that the
bow pivot-gun could not be used. Among the
British ships, the Wolfe lost her main-topmast,
mizzen-topmast, and main-yard; and the Royal
George her fore-topmast; both suffered a heavy
loss in killed and wounded, according to the report
of the British officers captured in the transports
a few days afterward.

As already mentioned, the British authorities
no longer published accounts of their defeats, so
Commodore Yeo's report on the action was not
made public. Brenton merely alludes to it as
follows (vol. ii., p. 503): "The action of the 28th
of September, 18 13, in which Sir James Yeo in the
Wolfe had his 'main- and mizzen-topmasts shot
away, and was obliged to put before the wind,
gave Mulcaster an opportunity of displaying a
trait of valor and seamanship which elicited the
admiration of friends and foes, when he gallantly
placed himself between his disabled commo-
dore and a superior enemy." James speaks in
the vaguest terms. He first says: "Commodore

Naval War of 1 812 301

Chauncy, having the weather-gage, kept his fav-
orite distance," which he did because Commodore
Yeo fled so fast that he could not be overtaken;
then James mentions the injuries the Wolfe re-
ceived, and says that "it was these and not, as
Mr. Clark says, ' a manoeuvre of the commodore's'
that threw the British in confusion." In other
words, it was the commodore's shot and not his
manoeuvring that threw the British into confu-
sion — a very futile distinction. Next he says that
"Commodore Chauncy would not venture within
carronade range," whereas he was within carro-
nade range of the Wolfe and Royal George, but the
latter did not wait for the Madison and Oneida to
get within range with tJicir carronades. The rest
of his article is taken up with exposing the ab-
surdities of some of the American writings, mis-
called histories, which appeared at the close of the
war. His criticisms on these are very just, but
afford a funny instance of the pot calling the
kettle black. This much is clear, that the British
were beaten and forced to flee, when but part of
the American force was engaged. But in good
weather the American force was so superior that
being beaten would have been no disgrace to Yeo,
had it not been for the claims advanced both by
himself and his friends, that on the whole he was
victorious over Chauncy. The Wolfe made any-
thing but an obstinate fight, leaving almost all the

302 Naval War of 1812

work to the gallant Mulcaster, in the Royal George,
who shares with Lieutenant Finch of the Tomp-
kins most of the glory of the day. The battle, if
such it may be called, completely established
Chauncy's supremacy, Yeo spending most of the
remainder of the season blockaded in Kingston.
So Chauncy gained a victory which established
his control over the lakes; and, moreover, he
gained it by fighting in succession, almost single-
handed, the two heaviest ships of the enemy. But
gaining the victory was only what should have
been expected from a superior force. The ques-
tion is, Did Chauncy use his force to the best
advantage? And it cannot be said that he did.
When the enemy bore up it was a great mistake
not to cast off the schooners which were being
towed. They were small craft, not of much use
in the fight, and they entirely prevented the
Madison from taking any part in the contest, and
kept the Sylph at a great distance ; and, by keep-
ing the Asp in tow, the Pike, which sailed faster
than any of Yeo's ships, was distanced by them.
Had she left the Asp behind and run in to engage
the Royal George, she could have mastered, or, at
any rate disabled, her; and had the swift Madison
cast off her tow she could also have taken an
effective part in the engagement. If the Pike
could put the British to flight almost single-
handed, how much more could she not have done

Naval War of 1 812 303

when assisted by the Madison and Oneida ? The
cardinal error, however, was made in discontinu-
ing the chase. The British were in an almost
open roadstead, from which they could not pos-
sibly escape. Commodore Chauncy was afraid
that the wind would come up to blow a gale, and
both fleets would be thrown ashore; and, more-
over, he expected to be able to keep a watch over
the enemy, and to attack him at a more suitable
time. But he utterly failed in this last ; and had
the American squadron cast off their tows and
gone boldly in, they certainly ought to have been
able to destroy or capture the entire British force
before a gale could blow up. Chauncy would have
done well to keep in mind the old adage, so pe-
culiarly applicable to naval affairs, "L'audace!
tou jours l'audace! et encore l'audace!" Whether
the fault was his or that of his subordinates, it is
certain that while the victory of the 28th of Sep-
tember definitely settled the supremacy of the
lake in favor of the Americans, yet this victory
was by no means so decided as it should have
been, taking into account his superiority in force
and advantage in position, and the somewhat
spiritless conduct of his foe.

Next day a gale came on to blow, which lasted
till the evening of the 31st. There was no longer
any apprehension of molestation from the British,
so the troop transports were sent down the lake

304 Naval War of 1812

by themselves, while the squadron remained to
watch Yeo. On October 2d he was chased, but
escaped by his better sailing; and next day false
information induced Chauncy to think Yeo had
eluded him and passed down the lake, and he
accordingly made sail in the direction of his sup-
posed flight. On the 5th, at 3 p.m., while near the
False Ducks, seven vessels were made out ahead,
which proved to be British gunboats, engaged
in transporting troops. All sail was made after
them; one was burned, another escaped, and five
were captured, the Mary, Drummond, Lady Gore,
Confiance, and Hamilton,'' — the two latter being
the rechristened Julia and Growler. Each gun
vessel had from one to three guns, and they had
aboard in all 264 men, including seven naval
(three royal and four provincial) and ten military
officers. These prisoners stated that in the action
of the 28th the Wolfe and Royal George had lost
very heavily.

After this, Yeo remained in Kingston, blockaded
there by Chauncy for most of the time; on No-
vember loth he came out and was at once chased
back into port by Chauncy, leaving the latter for
the rest of the season entirely undisturbed. Ac-
cordingly, Chauncy was able to convert his small
schooners into transports. On the 17th, these
transports were used to convey iioo men of the

' Letter of Commodore Chauncy, October 8, 1813.

Naval War of 1 812 305

army of General Harrison from the mouth of
the Genesee to Sackett's Harbor, while Chauncy
blockaded Yeo in Kingston. The duty of trans-
porting troops and stores went on until the 27th,
when everything had been accomplished; and a
day or two afterward navigation closed.

As between the Americans and British, the suc-
cess of the season was greatly in favor of the
former. They had uncontested control over the
lake from April 19th to June 3d, and from Sep-
tember 28th to November 29th, in all, 107 days;
while their foes only held it from June 3d to July
2ist, or for 48 days; and from that date to Sep-
tember 28th, for 69 days, the two sides were con-
tending for the mastery. York and Fort George
had been taken, while the attack on Sackett's
Harbor was repulsed. The Americans lost but
two schooners, both of which were recaptured;
while the British had one 24-gun ship, nearly
ready for launching, destroyed, and one lo-gun
brig taken, and the loss inflicted upon each other
in transports, gunboats, store-houses, stores, etc.,
was greatly in favor of the former. Chauncy.' s
fleet, moreover, was able to co-operate with the
army for over twice the length of time Yeo's could
(107 days to 48).

It is more difficult to decide between the respec-
tive merits of the two commanders. We had
shown so much more energy than the Anglo-

VOL. I. — 20

3o6 Naval War of 1812

Canadians, that at the beginning of the year we
had overtaken them in the building race, and the
two fleets were about equally formidable. The
Madison and Oneida were not quite a match for
the Royal George and Sydney Sinith (opposing
twelve 3 2 -pound and eight 24-pound carronades
to two long i8's, one long 12, one 68-pound and
thirteen 3 2 -pound carronades); and our ten gun
schooners would hardly be considered very much
of an overmatch for the Melville, Moira, and
Beresford. Had Sir James Yeo been as bold and
energetic as Barclay or Mulcaster he would cer-
tainly not have permitted the Americans, when
the forces were so equal, to hold uncontested sway
over the lake, and, by reducing Fort George, to
cause disaster to the British land forces. It would
certainly have been better to risk a battle with
equal forces than to wait till each fleet received
an additional ship, which rendered Chauncy's
squadron the superior by just about the superi-
ority of the Pike to the Wolfe. Again, Yeo did
not do particularly well in the repulse before
Sackett's Harbor; in the skirmish off Genesee
River, he showed a marked lack of resource ; and
in the action of the 28th of September (popularly
called the "Burlington Races," from the celerity
of his retreat), he evinced an amount of caution
that verged toward timidity, in allowing the en-
tire brunt of the fighting to fall on Mulcaster in

Naval War of 1812 307

the Royal George, a weaker ship than the Wolfe.
On the other hand, he gave able co-operation to
the army while he possessed control of the lake;
he made a most gallant and successful attack on a
superior force on the loth of August; and for six
weeks subsequently, by skilful manoeuvring, he
prevented this same superior force from acquiring
the uncontested mastery. It was no disgrace to
be subsequently blockaded; but it is very ludi-
crous in his admirers to think that he came out
first best.

Chauncy rendered able and invaluable assist-
ance to the army all the while that he had control
of the water; his attacks on York and Fort
George were managed with consummate skill and
success, and on the 28th of September he practi-
cally defeated the opposing force with his own ship
alone. Nevertheless, he can by no means be said
to have done the best he could with the materials
he had. His stronger fleet was kept two months
in check by a weaker British fleet. When he first
encountered the foe, on August loth, he ought to
have inflicted such a check upon him as would at
least have confined him to port and given the
Americans immediate superiority on the lake;
instead of which he suffered a mortifying, although
not at all disastrous, defeat, which allowed the
British to contest the supremacy with him for
six weeks longer. On the 28th of September,

3o8 Naval War of 1812

when he only gained a rather barren victory, it
was nothing but excessive caution that prevented
him from utterly destroying his foe. Had Perry
on that day commanded the American fleet, there
would have been hardly a British ship left on
Ontario. Chauncy was an average commander;
and the balance of success inclined to the side of
the Americans only because they showed greater
energy and skill in ship-building, the crews and
commanders on both sides being very nearly


Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had assumed com-
mand of Erie and the upper lakes, acting under
Commodore Chauncy. With intense energy, he at
once began creating a naval force which should be
able to contend successfully with the foe. As
already said, the latter in the beginning had ex-
clusive control of Lake Erie; but the Americans
had captured the Caledonia, brig, and purchased
three schooners, afterward named the Somers,
Tigress, and Ohio; and a sloop, the Trippe.
These at first were blockaded in the Niagara, but
after the fall of Fort George and retreat of the
British forces. Captain Perry was enabled to get
them out, tracking them up against the current
by the most arduous labor. They ran up to
Presque Isle (now called Erie), where two 20-gun

Naval War of 1 8 1 2 309

brigs were being constructed under the directions
of the indefatigable captain. Three other schoon-
ers, the Ariel, Scorpion, and Porcupine, were also

The harbor of Erie was good and spacious, but
had a bar on which there was less than seven feet
of water. Hitherto this had prevented the enemy
from getting in; now it prevented the two brigs
from getting out. Captain Robert Heriot Barclay-
had been appointed commander of the British
forces on Lake Erie; and he was having built at
Amherstburg a 20-gun ship. Meanwhile, he block-
aded Perry's force, and as the brigs could not
cross the bar with their guns in, or except in
smooth water, they of course could not do so in

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