Another look at the Battle of Lake Erie
The history of the War of 1812 has to a considerable extent been written in purely tactical terms. Historians, particularly the authors of general histories, have dwelt upon what happened on the battlefield and have paid less attention to strategic considerations and still less to administrative considerations ("logistics" ); though these things often, and indeed usually, determined the outcome of the individual engagements. The Battle of Lake Erie is a case in point.
In warfare on the Great Lakes the British, though far superior in naval strength at the outset, were at a serious administrative disadvantage. The lakes' Canadian shores afforded few of the resources necessary to the support of a naval establishment. A town like Kingston or Amherstburg, where vessels had been built and troops stationed for a considerable time, was likely to have small stocks of naval and military equipment in store, but such equipment was not produced in Canada to any extent. Guns and heavy anchors were not cast in Canada, nor apparently were heavy cables produced, although some cordage was made at Amherstburg, the British naval station on Lake Erie, and doubtless elsewhere.
That heavy equipment had to cross the Atlantic from Britain was not in itself an extremely serious disadvantage, for in spite of occasional losses to American or French privateers ocean transport for the British was relatively easy and reliable. The worst feature of the British situation was the extraordinary difficulty of the transport problem between tidewater and the theatre of operations on the lakes, and within that theatre itself. Just what the effect of the St. Lawrence rapids was appears in an account written from Kingston in 1814 by an officer who had lately made the trip up the river:
In the winter, of course, land transport had to be resorted to; and although this was the season when the roads of Canada were most passable, Sir George Prevost reported that he had paid £1,000 for sending one large cable from Sorel to Kingston by land.
The St. Lawrence was only the first leg of the British inland line of communication. It supported the naval squadron on Lake Ontario, but the establishments on the upper lakes were dependent on the precarious extension of it west of Kingston. The farther west a British garrison or a British warship, the longer and shakier was its line of supply. In Upper Canada roads were either non-existent or vile. Only by water could heavy stores be moved with any ease, and even troops on foot found movement by land difficult. General Drummond wrote from Niagara Falls in the autumn of 1814: "The disappointment I experienced at finding that half the 90th Regiment had been left to Struggle through the dreadful Roads betwixt Kingston and York at such a season, and at such a Crisis, was greater than I can express." The British could not afford to lose control of the lakes, for those waters were not only their frontier and their fighting front, but also their essential line of communication. From Montreal westwards they were, strategically, "formed to a flank."
Because of its position on this communication, Ontario was the most important of the lakes; and on it, by tremendous efforts, the British managed to hold their own. The control of the lake changed hands repeatedly as one side or the other commissioned new and more powerful ships. At the end of hostilities the British held it, thanks to their great new three-decker H.M.S. St. Lawrence. But they had lost Lake Erie once and for all on September 10, 1813, when their squadron under Commander R. H. Barclay was defeated and captured by a superior American squadron commanded by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry. Much ink has been spilled about this bloody little battle, and particularly about the unedifying later controversy between Perry and his second in command, Elliott, the commander of the D.S.S. Niagara. But comparatively little has been written about a more important matter-the logistical process by which that superior American squadron was created and the victory made possible.
At the time when the United States declared war, in June, 1812, the British enjoyed complete naval control of Lake Erie, thanks to the Canadian force known as the Provincial Marine. They had there the Qtteen Charlotte of sixteen guns and the General Hunter of six; and during the summer of 1812 they added to their force the 10-gun schooner Lady Prevost. It is true that the Provincial Marine was not a real fighting navy. It was primarily a military transport service and was administered by the Army. Nevertheless, its armed vessels were capable of controlling the Great Lakes, and the control they exercised largely explains the British successes during the 1812 campaign, including General Brock's capture of Detroit. The only actual American naval vessel on the lakes at the outset was the brig Oneida on Lake Ontario, built in 1809. The brig Adams on Erie apparently belonged to the War Department, and though the Navy took her over she was still unarmed when captured by Brock's army at Detroit. Although Captain Isaac Chauncey, D.S.N., who had been appointed to command the American forces on the Great Lakes, succeeded in seizing control.of Lake Ontario-with the Oneida and a group of converted merchant schooners-at the very end of the 1812 season of navigation, the contest for Erie began seriously only in 1813. Perry arrived at Presqu'Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania ), to which the American base was transferred from Black Rock, near Buffalo; Barclay arrived at Amherstburg; and shipbuilding was pressed at both bases. When the rival commanders reached their stations, the Americans were already building two 20-gun brigs, the Niagara and Lawrence, the British a 19-gun ship, the Detroit. These were the largest units engaged in the subsequent battle. Let us examine the process of fitting them for action.
At Amherstburg Barclay found "a general want of stores of every description." And to get stores from outside was next to impossible, for he was close to the extremity of that long and exposed line of communication that has been described. The normal communication with Amherstburg was by Lake Ontario and the Niagara River, stores being portaged around the gorge and the falls to Fort Erie, whence they were taken on again by water up Lake Erie. But the initial American operations of 1813 cut this line: Fort George, at the mouth of the Niagara, was captured on May 27. This threw the British back on the less satisfactory line overland from the head of Lake Ontario to Long Point on Lake Erie, the Grand River sometimes being used for' the final stage. The American raid on York in April had had an even worse effect on Barclay's fortunes. Prevost wrote on July 20,
Commodore Chauncey reported gleefully from York that the Americans had found there twenty cannon from 6-pounders to 32's, and much shot and other munitions, "a great deal of which was put up in boxes and marked for Niagara and Malden [Amherstburg]":
So far as Lake Erie was concerned, this was scarcely an overstatement. The raid on York has usually been regarded as a rather nugatory operation; but though Chauncey's letter describing his intention of making it does not indicate that he knew the stores so urgently needed by Barclay were in the town, the raid's effect upon the situation on Lake Erie was so considerable as to give it very real significance. Barclay never did receive the guns for his flagship;  and the Detroit went into action on September 10 armed with the cannon from the ramparts of Amherstburg's Fort Malden ("a more curiously composite battery," writes Admiral Mahan, "probably never was mounted"). Nor was this all. At Barclay's court martial testimony was given that "Sails and other articles" had to be taken from the Queen Charlotte to render the Detroit fit to take the lake; and that the matches and tubes provided at Amherstburg were so bad that throughout the action it was necessary to "fire pistols at the Guns to set them off."
So much, very briefly, for British "logistical support." It is evident that Barclay's squadron had to be fitted out on tIle basis of the resources available at Amherstburg, and that these were very inadequate. Let us turn to the American side, where the picture was rather different.
One advantage which the British enjoyed at the beginning of the war was the fact that there were no American naval bases on the Great Lakes. Bases had to be created before there could be squadrons. So far as the resources for the purpose existed ready-made, they were to be found at the V.S. navy yards on the Atlantic seaboard; and the means of getting ordnance and stores from those yards to the chosen sites on the lakes became a matter of great importance. When Chauncey was appointed to the lake command, he sent the raw materials of his enterprise on from the New York navy yard, which he had lately commanded. He catalogued them for the Secretary of the Navy: "one hundred and forty ship-carpenters, seven hundred seamen and marines, more than one hundred pieces of cannon, the greater part of large caliber, with muskets, shot, carriages, etc. The carriages have nearly all been made, and the shot cast, in that time [three weeks]. Nay, I may say that nearly every article that has been sent forward has been made." Admiral Mahan, whose book on this war remains after half a century the best ever written about it, remarks that these words reflect the United States' lack of preparation for war. This is true; but the fact that these articles could be manufactured locally, and so rapidly, also reflects an American advantage over Canada. No such manufacture was possible in the British provinces.
It is fair to say that the New York area, with its Navy yard and primitive yet considerable industrial resources, was a good source of the war material required by the U.S. Navy on Lake Ontario. Nor were the communications between New York and Sackets Harbor, the U.S. base on that lake, particularly difficult. There was water transport by the Hudson and Mohawk rivers as far as Rome, the only serious obstacle being overcome by a portage road. The roads from Rome to Sackets were so bad that they could not be used with any convenience in winter; but there was also the water route by a canal connecting with Wood Creek, which flowed into Oneida Lake, and on by the Oswego River into Lake Ontario. This had the disadvantage that the final leg of the communication, across the corner of Lake Ontario, was exposed to interruption by the British when they controlled the lake. They did attempt to cut it on several occasions, but never with very marked success.
As long as the American base for Lake Erie was at Black Rock, it too was dependent for logistical support upon New York and its navy yard, and upon the line of communication by the Hudson and the Mohawk, supplemented by a long land haul from the head . of navigation on the Mohawk to the Niagara. Thirteen miles of this road was "intolerably bad." But the whole picture was changed when Chauncey moved the base from Black Rock to Erie in the winter of 1812-13. Erie had relatively· good communications with Philadelphia through Pittsburgh. Now the Philadelphia navy yard, and the industrial resources of the Philadelphia area, could be applied to the support of the establishment on Lake Erie; and New York could concentrate on supporting those on Lakes Ontario and Champlain. By 1812 there were good roads between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and from Pittsburgh the Allegheny River and its tributary French 'Creek provided water transport to within 15 miles of Erie. That last fifteen miles had to be covered by road. Five years before the war a traveller reported the road was bad, but subsequently it seems to have improved. Obviously this was not an ideal line of communication; but it was far superior to Barclay's from Amherstburg to Montreal-shorter, simpler, and less difficult. And it had the speCial advantage of not being exposed to interruption by the enemy at any point.
What today seems the most surprising of Perry's logistical advantages remains to be described. It has attracted little attention from historians, and is scarcely mentioned by Mahan. Many of the heaviest of Perry's vessels' fittings did not have to come from the seaboard: they were manufactured in Pittsburgh. The iron industry was already developing in western Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh's first foundry was erected in 1804, its first steamboat launched in 1811. The town was ready to grasp the opportunity offered by the war. The Pittsburgh Directory for 1815 tells the story. Pittsburgh's population has increased from 4,740 to "upwards of 9,000" since 1810. "This great increase is to be attributed to the late war with Great Britain, which converted a great portion of the capital of the seaboard into manufactures, much of which was concentrated in this place." Among the town's industries is "An anvil and anchor factory, Capable of furnishing anvils and anchors of the largest size. Many of the anchors for Commodore Perry's squadron on lake Erie, were made at this Factory." Pittsburgh also possesses "three large and extensive Rope Walks, which make all kinds of ropes, twine and . cordage. The principal part of the cordage for Perry's Fleet was made here. Two cables weighed each, about 4,000 lbs. and were 4~ inches in diameter." There were "three Foundries in Pittsburgh and one in Birmingham," and one of them was equipped for boring cannon. There were no such facilities as these in Upper Canada in 1813.
On April 10 Perry reported to Chauncey from Erie:
The guns that won the battle of Lake Erie, however, were not cast at Pittsburgh. As early as September 26, 1812, Chauncey had asked Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to have forty-four 32pounders "cast immediately" and sent on to Black Rock during the winter. Whether this request was actually the origin of the armament of the Lawrence and Niagara seems rather doubtful, as it was not until January 27 that the Secretary (now William Jones) told Chauncey that he would immediately contract at Washington for 32-pounder carronades to arm the two brigs which. by then had been authorized for construction at Erie. Apparently however the carronades did not have to be cast, for early in February there are references to twenty of them lying, still unproved, at Henry Foxall's foundry near Georgetown in the District of Columbia, and fourteen others being at the Washington Navy Yard. During the next few weeks these were sent on by wagon to Pittsburgh en route to Erie. The few long guns required were obtained, it appears, wherever they could be found-from Lake Ontario and pOSSibly from New York; the Secretary of the Navy undertook to obtain a couple of guns belonging to the War Department which were at Pittsburgh.
Perry, it may be noted, had nothing to do with planning the squadron or initiating the work on it; construction was well under way when he reached the Lakes. But his driving energy clearly had much to do with pushing the work to' completion. Incidentally, he was no admirer of the men of Pittsburgh, for the optimistic promises made to him during his visit in April were not carried out. He complained to Chauncey on June 13 that although the anchors for the brigs had been promised by May 1 he now heard that they would not be finished before July 20. His comment was, "I make no comments on this abominable deception." But in due course all the essential stores and equipment reached Erie, and on July 23 Perry wrote the Secretary of the Navy that both "sloops" were ready to go over the bar, "and the shot-the only thing that could have detained both of them-is now constantly arriving in considerable quantities." The shot had been cast at Pittsburgh, under the superintendence of Captain Abraham R. Woolley, Deputy Commissioner of Ordnance at Fort Fayette, the army post there, whose help Perry gratefully acknowledged. The superior local resources of the United States had now done their work.
Of the manning of the rival squadrons only a word need be said here. Both were under-manned on the day of battle, but Perry's was evidently better off than Barclay's. The British commander described his crews as consisting of "not more than fifty British Seamen, the rest a mixt Crew of Canadians, and Soldiers, and who were totally unacquainted with such Service." This may have exaggerated his disadvantages, but the casualty list shows that of 135 officers and men killed and wounded 69 were soldiers of the 41st and Royal Newfoundland Regiments. Thirteen were "landsmen." The rest held naval ranks, and doubtless a proportion of them were men of the Provincial Marine. Theodore Roosevelt in his Naval War of 1812 suggested that Canadian "lake sailors, frontiersmen" were "the very best possible material." A modem Canadian may perhaps be permitted to share Barclay's prejudice in favour of trained fighting men. As for Perry, he too had soldiers and landsmen among his crews; but letters written by him before the action refer to the arrival of three drafts of seamen totalling nearly 230 all ranks and ratings, and it would seem that he had a rather larger proportion of naval personnel in his ships than his antagonist. Incidentally, both Barclay and Perry accused their superiors on Lake Ontario of sending them inferior men.
Why did the Americans win the Battle of Lake Erie? Because they had managed to create on the lake a stronger squadron than their opponents'. The heavy metal won the day in an action which was as valiantly and as bitterly contested as any ever fought on fresh water or salt. Roosevelt computes the actual American broadside in the battle as 896 pounds against 459 for the British. (Mahan points out however that the precise weight of the British broadside is not known; a sailor as competent as Barclay would certainly have contrived to employ more than half of the Detroit's metal on the engaged side.) Barclay lost his one real chance of victory when, by relinquishing his blockade of Erie for a short time-a lapse on his part which has never been satisfactorily explained-he allowed Perry to get his brigs over the bar into the lake. In a stand-up fight between two squadrons so unevenly matched, nothing but mismanagement by the Americans could have given success to the British. In fact, the gallant Barclay very nearly did win-simply because the Americans attacked him in detail. But once the American commander shifted his flag from the shattered Lawrence and brought into close action the brig Niagara, hitherto merely on the fringe of the engagement, the game was up.
Roosevelt, relating these facts, remarks, "Captain Perry showed indomitable pluck, and readiness to adapt himself to circumstances; but his claim to fame rests much less on his actual victory than on the way in which he prepared the fleet that was to win it." This is less than just to Perry. Actually, the preparation of the fleet was far from being all his work, as we have seen; much of the credit is due to Commodore Chauncey and Secretary Jones, and certainly that remarkable shipbuilder Noah Brown should not be forgotten. On the other hand, at the crisis of the fight, when an engagement which ought never to have been in doubt was close to being lost through no fault of his, it was the young commander's energy and resolution that saved the day; but for him the outcome would have been different. There are good grounds, indeed, for Henry Adams' opinion, so different from Roosevelt's: "More than any other battle of the time, the victory on Lake Erie was won by the courage and obstinacy of a single man."
This is a salutary reminder that there is more to warfare than heavy metal and big battalions; that wars after all are fought by men, and that mere physical power is useless unless directed with judgment and determination. Nevertheless, the Battle of Lake Erie was more a logistical than a tactical victory. Perry merely made good use of the superior weapon that was in his hands. If it had not been a superior weapon he would not have won.
The American squadron on Lake Erie, built "from scratch," was stronger than its British rival (which had in part existed before the war) because its builders were served by a line of communication which, though neither short nor easy, was shorter and easier than the British communication with Montreal and Quebec. Still more important, Perry's communications with the seaboard, as we have seen, were secure from interruption; whereas Barclay's were exposed to enemy action and were in fact interrupted in the spring of 1813 with dire effect. At the same time, the Americans were far superior in local resources. Canada produced almost nothing required for the outfitting of naval vessels except timber. The immediate source of armament and equipment for the British lake squadrons was the depots in the St. Lawrence ports; the ultimate source was Britain. But the United States, though in 1813 still industrially a child as compared with the British giant, was capable of casting its own guns, shot, and anchors and making its own cables. What is more, it was becoming capable of doing these things not only on the seaboard but also in the rising west, within comparatively easy reach of the theatre of operations on the upper lakes. However unappreciated by Perry, the lusty infant industries of Pittsburgh played a considerable part in his success. The growing industrial resources of the United States at large, combined with relatively energetic naval administration in Washington and on the lakes, were the unseen but solid foundations of the American victory on Lake Erie.