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CAMPAIGN OF 1813 ON THE LAKE FRONTIER, TO THE BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE

In April, 1813, on the land frontier of the north and west, no substantial change had taken place in the conditions which gave to the United States the power of the offensive. Such modification as Chauncey’s energy had effected was to strengthen superiority, by promising ultimate control of the upper and lower lakes. The British had not been idle; but the greater natural difficulties under which they labored, from less numerous population and less advanced development of the country and its communications, together with a greater severity of climate, had not been compensated by a naval direction similar to that exercised by the American commodore and his efficient second, Perry. Sir John Warren had been ordered to pay attention to the lakes, the naval service of which was placed under his charge. This added to his responsibilities, and to the drain upon his resources of men and materials; but, with an oversight already extending from Halifax to Jamaica and Barbados, he could do little for the lakes, beyond meeting requisitions of the local authorities and furnishing a draft of officers. Among those sent from his fleet was Captain Barclay, who commanded the British squadron in Perry’s action.

The Admiralty, meantime, had awaked to the necessity of placing preparations and operations under competent naval guidance, if command of the water was to be secured. For that purpose they selected Captain Sir James Lucas Yeo, a young officer of much distinction, just turned thirty, who was appointed to the general charge of the lake service, under Warren. Leaving England in March, accompanied by a body of officers and seamen, Yeo did not reach Kingston until May 15, 1813, when the campaign was already well under way; having been begun by Dearborn and Chauncey April 24. His impressions on arrival were discouraging. He found the squadron in a weak state, and the enemy superior in fact and in promise. They had just succeeded in burning at York a British vessel intended for thirty guns, and they had, besides, vessels building at Sackett’s Harbor. He had set to work, however, getting his force ready for action, and would go out as soon as possible to contest the control of Ontario; for upon that depended the tenure of Upper Canada. Barclay, upon the arrival of his superior, was sent on to Amherstburg, to fulfil upon Erie the same relation to Yeo that Perry did to Chauncey.

It had been clearly recognized by the American authorities that any further movement for the recapture of Detroit and invasion of Canada would depend upon the command of Lake Erie; and that that in turn would depend largely upon mastery of Ontario. In fact, the nearer the sea control over the water communications could be established, the more radical and far-reaching the effect produced. For this reason, Montreal was the true objective of American effort, but the Government’s attention from the first had centred upon the northwestern territory; upon the extremity of the enemy’s power, instead of upon its heart. Under this prepossession, despite adequate warning, it had persisted in the course of which Hull’s disaster was the outcome; and now, though aroused by this stunning humiliation, its understanding embraced nothing beyond the Great Lakes. Clear indication of this narrow outlook is to be found in the conditions on Lake Champlain, the natural highway to Canada. Only the scantiest mention is to be found of naval preparation there, because actually little was being done; and although the American force was momentarily superior, it was so simply because the British, being in Canada wholly on the defensive, and therefore obliged to conform to American initiative, contemplated no use of this lake, the mastery of which, nevertheless, was soon afterward thrown into their hands by a singularly unfortunate occurrence.

Dearborn, who still remained in chief command of the armies on the New York frontier, was therefore directed to concentrate his effort upon Ontario, starting from Sackett’s Harbor as a base. Chauncey, whose charge extended no farther than the upper rapids of the St. Lawrence, had of course no other interest. His first plan, transmitted to the Navy Department January 21, 1813, had been to proceed immediately upon the opening of navigation, with the fleet and a land force of a thousand picked troops, against Kingston, the capture of which, if effected, would solve at a single stroke every difficulty in the upper territory. No other harbor was tenable as a naval station; with its fall, and the destruction of shipping and forts, would go the control of the lake, even if the place itself were not permanently held. Deprived thus of the water communications, the enemy could retain no position to the westward, because neither re-enforcements nor supplies could reach them. To quote Chauncey’s own words, “I have no doubt we should succeed in taking or destroying their ships and forts, and, of course, preserve our ascendency on this lake.”

This remark, though sound, was narrow in scope; for it failed to recognize, what was perfectly knowable, that the British support of the Lake Erie stations and the upper country depended on their power to control, or at worst to contest, Ontario. Of this they themselves were conscious, as the words of Yeo and Brock alike testify. The new American Secretary of War, Armstrong, who was a man of correct strategical judgment and considerable military information, entered heartily into this view; and in a letter dated February 10 communicated to Dearborn the orders of the President for his operations, based upon the Secretary’s recommendation. Four thousand men were to be assembled at Sackett’s, and three thousand at Buffalo. The former, under convoy of the fleet, was to proceed first against Kingston, then against York (Toronto). After this the two corps should co-operate in an attack to be made upon the British Niagara frontier, which rested upon Fort George on the Ontario shore, and Fort Erie upon Lake Erie. This plan was adopted upon the assumption, which was probably correct, that the enemy’s entire military force upon Ontario did not exceed twenty-one hundred regular troops, of whom six hundred were at Kingston and twelve hundred at Niagara. Armstrong, who recognized the paramount importance of Montreal, had received the exaggerated impression that there might be in that neighborhood eight to ten thousand regulars. There were not yet nearly that number in all Canada; but he was perhaps correct in thinking that the provision for the offensive, which he had found upon taking office a few weeks before, was insufficient for an advance in that quarter.

Dearborn very soon discovered objections to proceeding against Kingston, in his own estimates of the enemy’s numbers, based upon remarkable reports received from sources “entitled to full credit.” On March 3 he was satisfied that from six to eight thousand men had been assembled there from Quebec, Montreal, and Upper Canada; while the presence of Sir George Prevost, the Governor General, and commander-in-chief in Canada, who had seized an opportunity to make a hurried visit to Kingston to assure himself as to the progress of the ships building, convinced the American general that an attack upon Sackett’s was contemplated. From that time forward Dearborn realized in his own person the process of making pictures to one’s self concerning a military situation, against which Napoleon uttered a warning. Chauncey was more sceptical, although he could not very well avoid attention to the reports brought in. He expresses himself as believing that a considerable number of men had been assembled in Kingston, but that their real object was to proceed against Harrison in the Far West.

There seems to have been no foundation for any of these alarms. Prevost was a soldier of good reputation, but wanting in initiative, audacity, and resolution, as the current war was to prove. His presence at Kingston at this moment was simply one incident in a rapid official visit to the upper military posts, extending as far as Niagara, and accomplished in four weeks; for, leaving Quebec February 17, he was again writing from there on the 17th of March. As far as can be deduced from his correspondence, four companies of regulars had preceded him from Montreal to Kingston, and there may very well have been a gathering of local forces for inspection or otherwise; but no re-enforcements of regulars, other than that just mentioned, reached Kingston from down the river before May. Dearborn never renounced his belief in the meditated attack, though finally satisfied that it was abandoned; and his positive reports as to the enemy’s numbers wrung from Armstrong acquiescence in a change of plan, by which York, and not Kingston, should be the first object of the campaign.

Chauncey, who had some sound military ideas, as his first plan showed, was also brought round to this conclusion by a process of reasoning which he developed in a second plan of operations, submitted March 18, but evidently long since matured. It apparently antedates Dearborn’s apprehensions, and is not affected by them, though the two worked together to a common mistaken decision. The commodore’s letter presents an interesting study, in its demonstration of how an erroneous first conception works out to false conclusions, and in the particular instance to ultimate military disaster. The capture of Kingston, his first plan, and its retention, which Armstrong purposed, would have settled the whole campaign and affected decisively the issue of the war. Chauncey’s new project is dominated throughout by the view, which was that of the Government, that the great object of the war was to control the northwestern territory by local operations, instead of striking at the source of British power in its communication with the sea. At this moment, the end of March, the British naval force on Ontario was divided between York and Kingston; in each were vessels afloat and vessels building. An attack upon Kingston, Chauncey said, no doubt would be finally successful an initial admission which gave away his case; but as the opposing force would be considerable, it would protract the general operations of the campaign the reduction of the northwest longer than would be advisable, particularly as large re-enforcements would probably arrive at Quebec in the course of two months. On the other hand, to proceed against York, which probably could be carried immediately, would result in destroying at once a large fraction of the British fleet, greatly weakening the whole body. Thence the combined Americans would turn against Fort George and the Niagara line. If successful here, the abandonment of Fort Erie by the British would release the American vessels which by its guns were confined at Black Rock. They would sail forth and join their consorts at Erie; which done, Chauncey, leaving his Ontario fleet to blockade Yeo at Kingston, would go to the upper lake and carry against the British the squadron thus concentrated there, would co-operate with the army under General Harrison, recover Detroit, and capture Malden. Lake Erie and its surroundings would thus become an American holding. After this, it would be but a step to reconquer Michilimackinac, thereby acquiring an influence over the Indians which, in conjunction with military and naval preponderance, would compel the enemy to forsake the upper country altogether, and concentrate his forces about Kingston and Montreal.

It is interesting to see an elaborate piece of serious reasoning gradually culminate in a reductio ad absurdum; and Chauncey’s reasoning ends in a military absurdity. The importance of Kingston is conceded by him, and the probability of capturing it at the first is admitted. Thereupon follows a long project of operation, which ends in compelling the enemy to concentrate all his strength at the very points Kingston and Montreal which it is most important for the Americans to gain; away from which, therefore, they should seek to keep the enemy, and not to drive him in upon them. This comes from the bias of the Government, and of the particular officer, regarding the Northwestern territory as the means whereby success was to be accomplished instead of merely the end to be attained. To make the Western territory and control of the Indians the objects of the campaign was a political and military motive perfectly allowable, and probably, in view of recent history, extremely necessary; but to make these things the objective of operations was to invert the order of proceedings, as one who, desiring to fell a tree, should procure a ladder and begin cutting off the outermost branches, instead of striking at the trunk by the ground.

Eighteen months later Chauncey wrote some very wise words in this spirit. “It has always been my opinion that the best means to conquer Canada was to cut off supplies from Lower to Upper by taking and maintaining some position on the St. Lawrence. That would be killing the tree by girdling; the branches, dependent on ordinary supplies, die of necessity. But it is now attempted to kill the tree by lopping off branches” [he is speaking of the Niagara campaign of 1814]; “the body becomes invigorated by reducing the demands on its resources." By this time Chauncey had been chastened by experience. He had seen his anticipated glory reaped on Lake Erie by his junior. He had seen the control of Ontario contested, and finally wrung from him, by vessels built at Kingston, the place which he had failed to take when he thought it possible. He had been blockaded during critical months by a superior squadron; and at the moment of writing, November 5, 1814, Sir James Yeo was moving, irresistible, back and forth over the waters of Ontario, with his flag flying in a ship of 102 guns, built at Kingston. In short, the Canadian tree was rooted in the ocean, where it was nourished by the sea power of Great Britain. To destroy it, failing the ocean navy which the United States had not, the trunk must be severed; the nearer the root the better.

Demonstration of these truths was not long in coming, and will be supplied by the narrative of events. When Chauncey penned the plan of operations just analyzed, there were in York two vessels, the “Prince Regent” of twenty guns, the “Duke of Gloucester,” sixteen, and two by his information on the stocks. On April 14 the ice in Sackett’s Harbor broke up, though large floes still remained in the lake. On the 19th these also had disappeared. Eighteen hundred troops were embarked by the squadron, and on the 24th the expedition started, but was driven back by heavy weather. The next day it got away finally, and on the early morning of the 27th appeared off York. The troops were landed westward of the town, and proceeded to attack, supported by the shipping. The enemy, inferior in number, retired; the small regular force making its escape, with the exception of fifty who surrendered with the militia present. The American loss, army and navy, was a little over three hundred; among whom was General Pike, an excellent soldier, who commanded the landing and was mortally wounded by the explosion of a magazine. The “Duke of Gloucester” schooner was taken, but the “Prince Regent” had gone to Kingston three days before; the weather which drove Chauncey back had enabled her to join her fleet as soon as released by the ice. By her escape the blow lost most of its effect; for York itself was indefensible, and was taken again without difficulty in the following July. A 30-gun vessel approaching completion was found on the stocks and burned, and a large quantity of military and naval stores were either destroyed or brought away by the victorious squadron. These losses were among the news that greeted Yeo’s arrival; but, though severe, they were not irreparable, as Chauncey for the moment imagined. He wrote: “I believe that the enemy has received a blow that he cannot recover, and if we succeed in our next enterprise, which I see no reason to doubt, we may consider the upper province as conquered." The mistake here was soon to be evident.

No time was wasted at York. The work of destruction, and of loading what was to be carried away, was completed in three days, and on May 1 the troops were re-embarked, to sail for Fort George on the morrow. The wind, which for some days had been fair and moderate from the eastward, then came on to blow a gale which would make landing impossible off Niagara, and even navigation dangerous for the small vessels. This lasted through the 7th, Chauncey writing on that day that they were still riding with two anchors ahead and lower yards down. So crowded were the ships that only half the soldiers could be below at one time; hence they were exposed to the rain, and also to the fresh-water waves, which made a clean breach over the schooners. Under such circumstances both troops and seamen sickened fast. On the 8th, the weather moderating, the squadron stood over to Fort Niagara, landed the troops for refreshment, and then returned to Sackett’s; it being thought that the opportunity for surprise had been lost, and that no harm could come of a short further delay, during which also re-enforcements might be expected.

Soon after his return Chauncey sent a flag of truce to Kingston. This made observations as to the condition of the enemy which began to dispel his fair illusions. His purpose to go in person to Niagara was postponed; and despatching thither the squadron with troops, he remained at Sackett’s to protect the yard and the ships building, in co-operation with the garrison. His solicitude was not misplaced. Niagara being a hundred and fifty miles from Sackett’s, the fleet and army had been committed to a relatively distant operation, depending upon a main line of communication, the lake, on the flank and rear of which, and close to their own inadequately protected base, was a hostile arsenal, Kingston, harboring a naval force quite able to compete with their own. The danger of such a situation is obvious to any military man, and even to a layman needs only to be indicated. Nevertheless the enterprise was launched, and there was nothing for it now but to proceed on the lines laid down.

Chauncey accordingly sailed May 22, re-enforcements of troops for the defence of Sackett’s having meantime arrived. He did not reach Niagara until the 25th. The next day was spent in reconnoissances, and other preparations for a landing on the lake shore, a short mile west of Fort George. On the 27th, at 9 A.M., the attack began, covered by the squadron. General Vincent, in command of the British Niagara frontier, moved out to meet his enemy with the entire force near Fort George, leaving only a small garrison of one hundred and thirty men to hold the post itself. There was sharp fighting at the coast-line; but Vincent’s numbers were much inferior, and he was compelled steadily to give ground, until finally, seeing that the only alternatives were the destruction of his force or the abandonment of the position, he sent word to the garrison to spike the guns, destroy the ammunition, and to join his column as it withdrew. He retreated along the Niagara River toward Queenston, and thence west to Beaver Dam, about sixteen miles from Fort George. At the same time word was sent to the officers commanding at Fort Erie, and the intermediate post of Chippewa, to retire upon the same place, which had already been prepared in anticipation of such an emergency. The three divisions were thus in simultaneous movement, converging upon a common point of concentration, where they all assembled during the night; the whole, as reported by Vincent to his superior, now not exceeding sixteen hundred. The casualties during the day’s fighting had been heavy, over four hundred killed and wounded; but in the retreat no prisoners were lost except the garrison of the fort, which was intercepted. Dearborn, as before at York, had not landed with his troops; prevented, doubtless, by the infirmities of age increasing upon him. Two days later he wrote to the Department, “I had presumed that the enemy would confide in the strength of his position and venture an action, by which an opportunity would be afforded to cut off his retreat." This guileless expectation, that the net may be spread not in vain before the eyes of any bird, provoked beyond control such measure of equanimity as Armstrong possessed. Probably suspecting already that his correct design upon Kingston had been thwarted by false information, he retorted: “I cannot disguise from you the surprise occasioned by the two escapes of a beaten enemy; first on May 27, and again on June 1. Battles are not gained, when an inferior and broken enemy is not destroyed. Nothing is done, while anything that might have been done is omitted." Vincent was unkind enough to disappoint his opponent. The morning after the engagement he retired toward a position at the head of the lake, known then as Burlington Heights, where the town of Hamilton now stands. Upon his tenure here the course of operations turned twice in the course of the next six months.

While Vincent was in retreat upon Burlington, Captain Barclay arrived at his headquarters, on the way to take charge of the Lake Erie squadron; having had to coast the north shore of Ontario, on account of the American control of the water. The inopportuneness of the moment was prophetic of the numberless disappointments with which the naval officer would have to contend during the brief three months preceding his defeat by Perry. “The ordnance, ammunition, and other stores for the service on Lake Erie,” wrote Prevost on July 20, with reference to Barclay’s deficiencies, “had been deposited at York for the purpose of being transported to Amherstburg, but unfortunately were either destroyed or fell into the enemy’s hands when York was taken by them; and the subsequent interruption to the communication, by their occupation of Fort George, has rendered it extremely difficult to afford the supplies Captain Barclay requires, which, however, are in readiness to forward whenever circumstances will permit it to be done with safety." The road from Queenston to Fort Erie, around Niagara Falls, was the most used and the best line of transportation, because the shortest. To be thrown off it to that from Burlington to Long Point was a serious mishap for a force requiring much of heavy and bulky supplies. To add to these more vital embarrassments, the principal ship, the “Queen Charlotte,” which had been lying at Fort Erie, had been ordered by Vincent to leave there when the place was evacuated, and to go to Amherstburg, thus giving Barclay the prospect of a land journey of two hundred miles through the wilderness to his destination. Fortunately for him, a vessel turned up at Long Point, enabling him to reach Amherstburg about June 7.

The second step in Chauncey’s programme had now been successfully taken, and the vessels at Black Rock were free to move. With an energy and foresight which in administration seldom forsook him, he had prepared beforehand to seize even a fleeting opportunity to get them out. Immediately upon the fall of York, “to put nothing to hazard, I directed Mr. Eckford to take thirty carpenters to Black Rock, where he has gone to put the vessels lying there in a perfect state of repair, ready to leave the river for Presqu’ Isle the moment we are in possession of the opposite shore.” Perry also was on hand, being actively engaged in the landing at Fort George; and the same evening, May 27, he left for Black Rock to hasten the departure. The process involved great physical labor, the several vessels having to be dragged by oxen against the current of the Niagara, here setting heavily toward the falls. It was not until June 12 that they were all above the rapids, and even this could not have been accomplished but for soldiers furnished by Dearborn. The circumstance shows how hopeless the undertaking would have been if the enemy had remained in Fort Erie. Nor was this the only peril in their path. Barclay, with commendable promptitude, had taken the lake in superior force very shortly after his arrival at Amherstburg, and about June 15 appeared off Erie [Presqu’ Isle]. Having reconnoitred the place, he cruised between it and Black Rock, to intercept the expected division; but the small vessels, coasting the beach, passed their adversary unseen in a fog, and on June 18 reached the port. As Chauncey had reported on May 29 that the two brigs building there were launched, affairs on that lake began to wear a promising aspect. The Lakes station as a whole, however, was still very short of men; and the commodore added that if none arrived before his approaching return to Sackett’s, he would have to lay up the Ontario fleet to man that upon Erie.

To do this would have been to abandon to the enemy the very important link in the communications, upon which chiefly depended the re-enforcement and supplies for both armies on the Niagara peninsula. The inherent viciousness of the plan upon which the American operations were proceeding was now quickly evident. At the very moment of the attack upon Fort George, a threatening but irresolute movement against Sackett’s was undertaken by Prevost, with the co-operation of Yeo, by whom the attempt is described as a diversion, in consequence of the enemy’s attack upon Fort George. Had the place fallen, Chauncey would have lost the ship then building, on which he was counting to control the water; he would have had nowhere to rest his foot except his own quarter-deck, and no means to repair his fleet or build the new vessels continually needed to maintain superiority. The case of Yeo dispossessed of Kingston would have been similar, but worse; for land transport in the United States was much better than in Canada. The issue of the war, as regarded the lakes and the Northwestern territory, lay in those two places. Upon them depended offensive and defensive action.

At the time of the attack upon Sackett’s only two vessels of the squadron were there, the senior officer of which, Lieutenant Chauncey, was in momentary command of the navy yard as well. The garrison consisted of four hundred regular troops, the coming of whom a week before had enabled Chauncey to leave for Niagara. Dearborn had already written to Major-General Jacob Brown, of the New York militia, asking him to take command of the station; for which his local knowledge particularly fitted him, as he was a resident of some years’ standing. He had moreover manifested marked military capacity on the St. Lawrence line, which was under his charge. Brown, whose instincts were soldierly, was reluctant to supersede Colonel Backus, the officer of regulars in command; but a letter from the latter received on the 27th, asking him to take charge, determined his compliance. When he arrived five hundred militia had assembled.

The British expedition left Kingston with a fine fair wind on the early morning of May 27 the same day that the Americans were landing at Fort George. The whole fleet accompanied the movement, having embarked troops numbering over seven hundred; chiefly regulars. At noon they were off Sackett’s Harbor. Prevost and Yeo stood in to reconnoitre; but in the course of an hour the troops, who were already in the boats, ready to pull to the beach, were ordered to re-embark, and the squadron stood out into the lake. The only result so far was the capture of twelve out of nineteen American barges, on their way from Oswego to the Harbor. The other seven gained the port.

During the next thirty-six hours militia kept coming in, and Brown took command. Sackett’s Harbor is an indentation on the south side of a broad bay, called Black River Bay, into which the Black River empties. The harbor opens eastward; that is, its back is toward the lake, from which it is distant a little over a mile; and its north side is formed by a long narrow point, called Navy Point, on which was the naval establishment. Where Black River Bay meets the lake, its south shore is prolonged to the west by a projection called Horse Island, connected with the land by a fordable neck. Brown expected the landing to be made upon this, and he decided to meet the attack at the water’s edge of the mainland, as the enemy crossed the neck. There he disposed his five hundred militia, placing the regulars under Backus in a second line; a steadying point in case the first line of untrained men failed to stand firm. It was arranged that, if the enemy could not be resisted, Lieutenant Chauncey was to set fire to the naval stores and shipping, and cross with his crews to the south side of the harbor, east of a work called Fort Volunteer, where Brown proposed to make his final stand. From there, although an enemy at the yard could be molested, he could not certainly be prevented from carrying off stores or ships; hence the necessity for destruction.

The British landed upon Horse Island soon after daylight of May 29, and from there advanced. The militia met them with a volley, but then broke and fled, as had been foreseen by Brown, himself yet a militia officer. Their colonel behaved gallantly, and was killed in trying to rally his men; while Brown in person, collecting a hundred of the fugitives, worked round with them to the left flank of the approaching British. These, moving through the woods, now encountered Backus and his regulars, who made upon them an impression of overwhelming numbers, to which the British official report bears a vivid testimony. The failure to carry the place is laid by this paper upon the light and adverse winds, which prevented the co-operation of the squadron’s heavy guns, to reduce the batteries and blockhouse. Without this assistance, it was impracticable to carry by assault the works in which the Americans had taken refuge. The gunboats alone could get within range, and their small carronades were totally inadequate to make any impression on the forts and blockhouses. “The troops were reluctantly ordered to leave a beaten enemy.” Brown makes no mention of this retreat into the works, though it appears clear that the Americans fell gradually back to their support; but he justifies Prevost’s withdrawal, bitterly criticised by writers of his own nation, in the words, “Had not General Prevost retreated most rapidly under the guns of his vessels, he would never have returned to Kingston."

In the midst of the action word was brought to Lieutenant Chauncey that the battle was lost, and that the yard must be fired. Brown, in his official report, expressly acquitted him of blame, with words of personal commendation. The two schooners in commission had retreated up Black River; but the prize “Duke of Gloucester,” and the ship approaching completion, were fired. Fortunately, the flames were extinguished before serious damage was done; but when Commodore Chauncey returned on June 1, he found that among a large quantity of materials consumed were the stores and sails of the new ship. The loss of these he thought would delay the movements of the squadron three weeks; for without her Yeo’s force was now superior.

The defence of Sackett’s Harbor obtained immediately for Brown, who was just thirty-eight, the commission of brigadier general in the army; for the new Secretary, Armstrong, was looking round anxiously for men to put in command, and was quick to seize upon one when he found him. To Chauncey, on the other hand, the affair in its consequences and demonstration of actualities was a rude awakening, to which his correspondence during the succeeding six weeks bears witness by an evident waning of confidence, not before to be noted. On June 4 he tells the Secretary of the Navy that he has on Ontario, exclusive of the new ship not yet ready, fourteen vessels of every description, mounting sixty-two guns; whereas Yeo has seven, which, with six gunboats, carry one hundred and six. “If he leave Kingston, I shall meet him. The result may be doubtful, but worth the trial.” This resolution is not maintained. June 11 he hears, with truth, that Yeo was seen at the head of the lake on the 7th, and that the Americans at Fort George had taken his squadron to be Chauncey’s. By the same channel he learns of a disastrous engagement of the army there, which was likewise true. His impulse is to go out to meet the British squadron; but he reflects that the enemy may then again find an opportunity to descend upon Sackett’s, and perhaps succeed in burning the new ship. Her size and armament will, he thinks, give him the decisive superiority. He therefore resolves to put nothing to hazard till she is finished.

The impression produced by the late attack is obvious, and this decision was probably correct; but Yeo too is building, and meantime he has possession of the lake. On June 3 he left Kingston with a squadron, two ships and four schooners, carrying some three hundred troops for Vincent. On the evening of the 7th, about six o’clock, he was sighted by the American army, which was then at Forty Mile Creek on the Ontario shore; a position to which it had retired after a severe reverse inflicted by the enemy thirty-six hours before. Vincent’s retreat had been followed as far as Stony Creek, ten miles west of Forty Mile Creek, and somewhat less distant from Burlington Heights, where the British lay. The situation of the latter was extremely perilous; for, though strongly placed, they were greatly outnumbered. In case of being driven from their lines, they must retreat on York by a long and difficult road; and upon the same poor communications they were dependent for supplies, unless their squadron kept control of the lake. Recognizing that desperate conditions call for desperate remedies, Vincent resolved to risk an attack with seven hundred men under Colonel Harvey, in whose suggestion the movement originated. These fell upon the American advance corps at two o’clock in the morning of June 6. An hour of fighting ensued, with severe loss on both sides; then Harvey, considering sufficient effect produced, drew off his men before daylight revealed the smallness of their numbers.

There was in this affair nothing intrinsically decisive, scarcely more than a business of outposts; but by a singular coincidence both American generals present were captured in the confusion. The officer who succeeded to the command, a colonel of cavalry, modestly distrustful of his own powers, could think of nothing more proper than to return to Forty Mile Creek, sending word to Fort George. Dearborn, still too weak to go to the front, despatched thither General Morgan Lewis. On his way Lewis was overtaken by two brief messages from the commander-in-chief announcing the appearance of Yeo’s fleet, and indicating apprehension that by means of it Vincent might come upon Fort George before the main army could fall back there. It was most improbable that the British general, with the command of the lake in doubt would thus place himself again in the position from which he had with difficulty escaped ten days before; but Dearborn’s fears for the safety of the forts prevailed, and he ordered a retreat. The movement began by noon of June 8, and in a few days the army was back at Niagara River, having lost or abandoned a quantity of stores. The British followed to within ten miles of the fort, where they took up a position. They also reoccupied Beaver Dam; and a force of six hundred Americans sent to dislodge them, under Colonel Boerstler, was compelled to surrender on June 24. Dearborn, who had already reported to the Department that he personally was “so reduced in strength as to be incapable of any command,” attributed his embarrassments “to the temporary loss of command of the lake. The enemy has availed himself of the advantage and forwarded re-enforcements and supplies.” The effect of controlling the water cannot be contested; but the conditions at Stony Creek were such that it should have been possible to drive Vincent away from any hold on the south shore of Ontario. Creditable as had been the enterprise of Colonel Harvey, it had accomplished no change in material conditions. Dearborn was soon afterward relieved. His officers, including Scott, joined in a letter of regret and esteem, prompted doubtless by sympathy for the sufferings and miscarriage of an aged officer who had served gallantly in his youth during the War of Independence.

To Colonel Harvey’s attack, on the morning of June 6, a British military critic has with justice assigned the turning of the tide in the affairs of Upper Canada. It is perfectly true that that well-judged movement, admirable in conception and execution, checked the progress of the American arms at a moment most favorable to them, and put an end to conditions of advantage which never there recurred. That this effect was produced, however, is attributable to the inefficiency of the American officers in command. If Harvey had divined this, from the previous operations, and made it a part of his calculations, it is so much more to his credit; the competency of the opponent is a chief factor to be considered in a military enterprise. It detracts nothing from Harvey’s merit to say that there was no occasion for the American retreat, nor for the subsequent paralysis of effort, which ended in expulsion from the Niagara peninsula at the end of the year. “For some two months after this,” wrote a very competent eye-witness, afterward General Scott, “the army of Niagara, never less than four thousand strong, stood fixed in a state of ignominy, under Boyd, within five miles of an unintrenched enemy, with never more than three thousand five hundred men." Scott seems not to have known that this inactivity was enjoined by the War Department till Chauncey could resume control of the lake. From this time, in fact, the Niagara army and its plans disappear from the active operations.

Yeo remained in undisputed mastery of the water. That the British at this time felt themselves the stronger in effective force, may be reasonably inferred from their continuing to keep the lake after Chauncey’s new ship was out. She was launched June 12, and named the “General Pike,” in honor of the officer killed at the taking of York. Her armament was to be twenty-six long 24-pounders, which under some circumstances would make her superior, not only to any single vessel, but to any combination of vessels then under the British flag. If it was still possible, by use of favoring conditions, to contend with the American fleet after the addition to it of this ship, by so much more was Yeo able to deal successfully with it before her coming. A comparison of the armaments of the opposing forces also demonstrates that, whatever Chauncey’s duty might have been without such prospect, he was justified, having this decisive advantage within reach, in keeping his fleet housed waiting for its realization. The British new vessel, the “Wolfe,” with the “Royal George" and the “Melville,” together threw a broadside weight of nine hundred and twenty pounds, to which the “Madison” and “Oneida” could oppose only six hundred; and the batteries of all five being mainly carronades, there are no qualifications to be made on the score of differing ranges. The American schooners, though much more numerous than the British, in no way compensated for this disparity, for reasons which will be given when the narrative of operations begins. Unknown to Chauncey, the vindication of his delay was to be found in Yeo’s writing to the Admiralty, that he was trying to induce the enemy to come out before his new ship was ready.

Disappointed in this endeavor, the British commodore meantime employed his vessels in maintaining the communications of the British and harassing those of the Americans, thus observing the true relation of the lake to the hostilities. Mention has been made of the effect upon Dearborn; morally, in the apprehension created, actually, in the strength contributed to Vincent’s army. “The enemy’s fleet is constantly hovering on the coast and interrupting our supplies,” wrote General Lewis, during Dearborn’s incapacity. Besides incidental mentions by American officers, Yeo himself reports the capture of two schooners and boats loaded with stores June 13; and between that date and the 19th he landed parties at the Genesee River and Great Sodus, capturing or destroying a quantity of provisions. Transit between Oswego and Sackett’s was also in constant danger of an unexpected interference by the British squadron. On June 20 it appeared off Oswego, with apparent disposition to attack; but Yeo, who in his exercise of chief command displayed a degree of caution remarkable in view of his deservedly high reputation for dash acquired in less responsible positions, did not pass beyond threat. All the same, the mere uncertainty exercised a powerful influence on the maintenance of intercourse. “If the schooners ‘Lark’ and ‘Fly’ are not now in Sackett’s,” wrote Lieutenant Woolsey from Oswego, “they must have been taken yesterday by the British boats. They were loaded with powder, shot, and hospital stores for the army.” He has also cordage, powder, guns, cables, to send, and boats in which to ship them; but “under existing circumstances I dare not take upon myself to send them farther than to Sandy Creek, under strong guard. I think it would be unsafe to venture round Stony Point [a projecting headland twelve miles from Sackett’s] without convoy or a good guard."

On July 2, having ranged the lake at will since June 1, Yeo returned to Kingston, and Chauncey again began to hear rumors. “The fleet has taken on board two thousand men, and two thousand more are to embark in boats; an attack upon this place is the object. The plan is to make a desperate push at our fleet before the ‘General Pike’ can be got ready.... His real object may be to land re-enforcements near Fort George, to act with General Vincent against Dearborn. If this be his object, he will succeed in obliging our army to recross the Niagara River;" a damaging commentary on the American plan of campaign. This fear, however, was excessive, for the reason that an effective American army on the Niagara had a land line of communication, bad but possible, alternative to the lake. The British had not. Moreover, the Niagara peninsula had for them a value, as a land link between Ontario and Erie, to which nothing corresponded on the United States side. Had Vincent been driven from Burlington Heights, not only would he have lost touch with the lake, and been forced back on York, but Ontario would for the British have been entirely cut off from Erie.

The “General Pike” was ready for service on July 20, and the following evening Chauncey sailed. With this begins a period, extending over ten or twelve weeks, which has no parallel in the naval lake history of the war. It was unproductive of decisive results, and especially of the one particular result which is the object of all naval action the destruction of the enemy’s organized force, and the establishment of one’s own control of the water; nevertheless, the ensuing movements of Yeo and Chauncey constituted a naval campaign of considerable interest. Nothing resembling it occurred on either Lake Champlain or Erie, and no similar condition recurred on Ontario. The fleets were frequently in presence of each other, and three times came to blows. On Erie and on Champlain the opposing forces met but once, and then without any prolonged previous attempts at manoeuvring. They fought immediately; the result in each case being an American victory, not only complete but decisive, which has kept their remembrance alive to this day in the national memory. On Ontario, after the close of the season of 1813, the struggle resolved itself into a race of ship-building; both parties endeavoring to maintain superiority by the creation of ever-increasing numbers, instead of by crushing the enemy. Such a contest sufficiently befits a period of peace; it is, for instance, at this moment the condition of the great naval nations of the world, each of which is endeavoring to maintain its place in the naval scale by the constant production and development of material. In war, however, the object is to put an end to a period of national tension and expense by destroying the enemy; and the failure of the commanders to effect this object calls for examination.

The indecisive result on Ontario was due to the particular composition of the two squadrons; to the absence of strong compelling conditions, such as made fighting imperative on Barclay upon Erie, and perhaps also on Downie upon Champlain; and finally, to the extreme wariness of the commanders, each of whom was deeply impressed with the importance of preserving his own fleet, in order not to sacrifice control of the lake. Chauncey has depicted for us his frame of mind in instructions issued at this very moment July 14 to his subordinate, Perry. “The first object will be to destroy or cripple the enemy’s fleet; but in all attempts upon the fleet you ought to use great caution, for the loss of a single vessel may decide the fate of the campaign." A practical commentary of singular irony was passed upon this utterance within two months; for by sacrificing a single ship Perry decided his own campaign in his own favor. Given the spirit of Chauncey’s warning, and also two opponents with fleets so different in constitution that one is strong where the other is weak, and vice versa, and there is found the elements of wary and protracted fighting, with a strong chance that neither will be badly hurt; but also that neither will accomplish much. This is what happened on Ontario.

The relative powers of the two fleets need to be briefly explained; for they constituted, so to say, the hands in the game which each commander had to play. The British had six vessels, of varying sizes and rigs, but all built for war, and sailing fairly well together. They formed therefore a good manoeuvring squadron. The Americans had three vessels built for war, and at the beginning ten schooners also, not so designed, and not sailing well with the armaments they bore. Whatever the merits of this or that vessel, the squadron as a whole manoeuvred badly, and its movements were impeded by the poorer sailors. The contrast in armaments likewise had a very decisive effect. There were in those days two principal classes of naval cannon, long guns, often called simply “guns,” and carronades. The guns had long range with light weight of shot fired; the carronades had short range and heavy shot. Now in long guns the Americans were four times as strong as the British, while in carronades the British were twice as strong as the Americans. It follows that the American commodore should prefer long range to begin with; whereas the British would be careful not to approach within long range, unless with such a breeze as would carry him rapidly down to where his carronades would come into play.

There was another controlling reason why short range favored the British against the Americans. The schooners of the latter, not being built for war, carried their guns on a deck unprotected by bulwarks. The men, being exposed from the feet up, could be swept away by canister, which is a quantity of small iron balls packed in a case and fired from a cannon. When discharged, these separate and spread like buckshot, striking many in a group. They can maim or kill a man, but their range is short and penetrative power small. A bulwarked vessel was, so to say, armored against canister; for it makes no difference whether the protection is six inches of wood or ten of iron, provided it keeps out the projectile. The American schooners were in this respect wholly vulnerable.

Over-insistence upon details of advantage or disadvantage is often wearisome, and may be pushed to pettifogging; but these quoted are general and fundamental. To mention them is not to chaffer over details, but to state principles. There is one other which should be noted, although its value may be differently estimated. Of the great long-gun superiority of the Americans more than one half was in the unprotected schooners; distributed, that is, among several vessels not built for war, and not capable of acting well together, so as to concentrate their fire. There is no equality between ten guns in five such vessels and the same ten concentrated on one deck, under one captain. That this is not special pleading, to contravene the assertion advanced by James of great American superiority on Ontario, I may quote words of my own, written years ago with reference to a British officer: “An attempt was made to disparage Howe’s conduct (in 1778), and to prove that his force was even superior to that of the French, by adding together the guns in all his ships, disregarding their classes, or by combining groups of his small vessels against D’Estaing’s larger units. For this kind of professional arithmetic Howe felt and expressed just and utter contempt." So Nelson wrote to the commander of a British cruising squadron, “Your intentions of attacking the ‘Aigle’” a seventy-four “with your three frigates are certainly very laudable, but I do not consider your force by any means equal to it.” The new American ship, the “General Pike,” possessed this advantage of the seventy-four. One discharge of her broadside was substantially equal to that of the ten schooners, and all her guns were long; entirely out-ranging the batteries of her antagonists. Under some circumstances a good breeze and the windward position she was doubtless able to encounter and beat the whole British squadron on Ontario. But the American schooners were mere gunboats, called to act in conditions unfavorable to that class of vessel, the record of which for efficiency is under no circumstances satisfactory.

After leaving Sackett’s, Chauncey showed himself off Kingston and then went up the lake, arriving off Niagara on the evening of July 27. An abortive attempt, in conjunction with the army, was made upon a position of the enemy at Burlington Heights, then far in rear of his main line; but it being found too strong, the fleet, with the troops still on board, bore over to York and there retaliated the injury done by Yeo at Genesee and Sodus. There was no opposition; many stores were destroyed or brought away, some military buildings burned, and the vessels then returned to Niagara. They were lying there at daybreak of August 7 when the British appeared: two ships, two brigs, and two large schooners. Chauncey had substantially his whole force: two ships, the “Pike” and “Madison,” the brig “Oneida,” and ten schooners. He got under way shortly and put out into the lake. Various manoeuvres followed, his principal object being to get to windward of the enemy; or, when the wind failed, to sweep the schooners close enough for their long guns to reach; the only useful function they possessed. These efforts were unsuccessful, and night shut in with the two opponents sailing in parallel lines, heading north, with the wind at west; the Americans to leeward and in rear of the British. At two in the morning, in a heavy squall, two schooners upset, with the loss of all on board save sixteen souls. Chauncey reckoned these to be among his best, and, as they together mounted nineteen guns, he considered that “this accident gave the enemy decidedly the superiority”; another instance of faulty professional arithmetic, omitting from the account the concentration of power in the “General Pike.”

Yeo did not estimate conditions in the same way, and persisted warily in keeping the weather gage, watching for a chance to cut off schooners, or for other favoring opportunity; while Chauncey as diligently sought to gain the advantage of the wind, to force action with his heavy ships. Manoeuvring continued all day of the 8th, 9th, and 10th. The winds, being light and shifting, favored now one, now the other; but in no case for long enough to insure a meeting which the American with good reason desired, and his antagonist with equal propriety would accept only under conditions that suited him. At nine in the evening of August 10 the American squadron was standing northwest, with the wind at southwest, when the British, which was then following to windward, wore and stood south. Chauncey made no change in direction, but kept his vessels in two lines; this being the order of battle by which, not being able to attack himself, he hoped to induce Yeo to engage incautiously. The six smallest schooners, of the eight now left to him, were put in the weather line; therefore toward the enemy, if he persisted in keeping to windward. The lee line, abreast of the other, and six hundred yards from it, was composed of the “Pike,” “Madison,” and “Oneida,” astern of which were the two heaviest schooners. The smaller vessels were displayed as a tempting bait, disposed, as it were, in such manner that the opponent might hope to lay hands on one or more, without coming too much under the “Pike’s” heavy guns; for her two larger consorts, carrying carronades chiefly, might be neglected at the distance named. If such an attempt were made, the schooners’ orders were to edge imperceptibly to leeward, enticing the enemy to follow in his eagerness; and when he was near enough they were to slip cleverly through the intervals in the lee line, leaving it to finish the business. The lure was perhaps a little too obvious, the enemy’s innocent forgetfulness of the dangers to leeward too easily presumed; for a ship does not get out of the hold of a clear-headed captain as a mob of troops in hot pursuit may at times escape the control of their officers. In view, however, of Yeo’s evident determination to keep his “fleet in being,” by avoiding action except on his own terms, nothing better was open to Chauncey, unless fortune should favor him.

At half-past ten the British again wore, now standing northwest after the American squadron, the rear vessels of which opened fire at eleven (A). At quarter-past eleven the cannonade became general between the enemy and the weather line (B). Fifteen minutes later, the four rear schooners of the latter, which were overmatched when once within carronade range, bore up and ran to leeward; two taking position on the other side of the main division, and two astern of it (c, c). So far all went according to plan; but unhappily the leading two American schooners, instead of keeping away in obedience to orders, tacked went about towards the enemy keeping to windward (d). Chauncey, seeing the risk involved for them, but prepossessed with the idea of luring Yeo down by the appearance of flight set by the schooners, made what can scarcely be considered other than the mistake of keeping away himself, with the heavy ships; “filled the maintopsail, and edged away two points, to lead the enemy down, not only to engage him to more advantage, but to lead him away from the ‘Growler’ and ‘Julia’” (C). Yeo, equally dominated by a preconceived purpose not to bring his ships under the guns of the “Pike,” acted much as a squirrel would do with two nuts in sight; he went for the one safely distant from suspected danger. “He kept his wind,” reported Chauncey, “until he had completely separated those two vessels from the rest of the squadron, exchanged a few shot with the ‘Pike,’ as he passed, without injury to us, and made sail after the two schooners” (e). Some time after midnight these surrendered to odds plainly irresistible.

The tacking of the two schooners was an act as ill-judged as it was insubordinate, for which Chauncey was in no wise responsible. His bearing up was certainly an error, which unfortunately lent itself to the statement, contemporaneously made by an American paper, that he retreated, leaving the two vessels to their fate. It was possible, therefore, for Sir James to word the transaction as he airily did: “At eleven we came within gunshot of their line of schooners, which opened a heavy fire, their ships keeping off the wind to prevent our closing. At half-past twelve this ship came within gunshot of the ‘Pike’ and ‘Madison,’ when they immediately bore up, fired their stern chase-guns, and made sail for Niagara, leaving two of their schooners astern, which we captured." This gives a more victorious and dashing air to the success than it quite deserves. As it stood, it was real enough, though trivial. To take two vessels from a superior fleet, within range of its commander-in-chief, is a handsome business, which should not need to be embellished by the implication that a greatly desired fight could not be had. To quote Marryat, “It is very hard to come at the real truth of this sort of thing, as I found out during the time that I was in his Majesty’s service.” Chauncey’s version is perfectly probable. Seeing that the enemy would not follow, “tacked and stood after him. At twelve (midnight), finding that I must either separate from the rest of the squadron, or relinquish the hope of saving the two which had separated, I reluctantly gave up the pursuit.” His reading of Yeo’s conduct is plausible. “From what I have been able to discover of the movements of the enemy, he has no intention of engaging us, except he can get decidedly the advantage of wind and weather; and as his vessels in squadron sail better than our squadron, he can always avoid an action.... He thinks to cut off our small dull sailing schooners in detail.” Here and always Chauncey’s conduct reflects the caution prescribed in his instructions to Perry, rather than the resolute determination the latter showed to bring matters to an issue. On the other hand, it is to be remembered that, owing to the nearly equal facilities for ship-building for replacing ships lost possessed by Kingston and Sackett’s, a decisive naval victory would not have the finality of result to be expected on Lake Erie. Contrary to the usual conditions of naval war, the two ports, not the fleets dependent on them, were the decisive elements of the Ontario campaign; and the ignoring of that truth was the fundamental, irremediable, American error.

Chauncey returned to Sackett’s on August 13, provisioned the squadron for five weeks, and sailed the same evening. On the 16th he was back off Niagara, and there again sighted the enemy; but a heavy westerly gale drove both squadrons to the lower end of the lake, where each entered its own harbor on the 19th. August 29 the American put out again, having an additional newly built schooner, named the “Sylph,” large and fast, carrying three or four long 32-pounders. Chauncey reported that he had now nine vessels with ninety-one guns, but that the enemy was still superior. In number of guns, possibly; but it is difficult to accept the statement otherwise, except in the one very important particular of squadron manoeuvring power. This enabled Yeo to avoid action, except when it suited him to fight; or unless Chauncey was willing to engage first with part only of his squadron, following it with the rest. Such advantage in manoeuvring greatly increases the ability of the inferior to serve his own cause, but it does not constitute superiority. The delusion of measuring force by guns, irrespective of the ships that carry them, has been explained.

Yeo’s intermediate movements do not appear, but on September 7 the antagonists again met off the Niagara River. From that day till the 12th the American fleet endeavored to force a general action, which the other steadily, and properly, refused. The persistent efforts of the one to close, and of the other to avoid, led to a movement round the lake, ending by the British entering Amherst Bay, five miles west of Kingston. On one occasion, off the Genesee on September 11, a westerly breeze carried the United States squadron within three-quarters of a mile of the enemy, before the latter felt it. A cannonade and pursuit of some hours followed, but without decisive result. There seems traceable throughout Chauncey’s account a distinct indisposition to what is called technically “a general chase;” to press on with part of the squadron, trusting to the slower vessels coming up soon enough to complete the work of the faster. He was unwilling thus to let his fleet loose. “This ship” (the “General Pike"), “the ‘Madison,’ and the ‘Sylph,’ have each a schooner constantly in tow, yet the others cannot sail as fast as the enemy’s squadron, which gives him decidedly the advantage, and puts it in his power to engage me when and how he chooses.” In such a situation success can be had only by throwing the more rapid upon the enemy as an advance guard, engaging as they get within range, relying upon their effecting such detention that the others can arrive in time to their support. To this recourse, though in halting fashion, Chauncey finally came on what proved to be his last collision with Yeo, September 28.