War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere


Oliver H. Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie
Battle of Lake Erie. US Naval History and Heritage Command

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Assessing the Situation

In the wake of the failed campaigns of 1812, newly re-elected President James Madison was forced to reassess the strategic situation along the Canadian border. In the Northwest, Major General William Henry Harrison had replaced the disgraced Brigadier General William Hull and was tasked with re-taking Detroit. Diligently training his men, Harrison was checked at the River Raisin and unable to advance without American control of Lake Erie. Elsewhere, New England remained reluctant to play an active role in supporting the war effort making a campaign against Quebec an unlikely prospect. As a result, it was decided to focus American efforts for 1813 on achieving victory on Lake Ontario and the Niagara frontier. Success on this front also required control of the lake. To this end, Captain Isaac Chauncey had been dispatched to Sackets Harbor, NY in 1812 for the purpose of constructing a fleet on Lake Ontario. It was believed that victory in and around Lake Ontario would cut off Upper Canada and open the way for an attack on Montreal.

The Tide Turns at Sea

Having achieved stunning success over the Royal Navy in a series of ship-to-ship actions in 1812, the small US Navy sought to continue its run of good form by attacking British merchant ships and remaining on the offensive. To this end, the frigate USS Essex (46 guns) under Captain David Porter, patrolled the South Atlantic scooping up prizes in late 1812, before rounding Cape Horn in January 1813. Seeking to strike the British whaling fleet in the Pacific, Porter arrived at Valparaiso, Chile in March. For the remainder of the year, Porter cruised with great success and inflicted heavy losses on British shipping. Returning to Valparaiso in January 1814, he was blockaded by the British frigate HMS Phoebe (36) and sloop of war HMS Cherub (18). Fearing that additional British ships were en route, Porter attempted to break out on March 28. As Essex exited the harbor, it lost its main topmast in a freak squall. With his ship damaged, Porter was unable to return to port and soon brought to action by the British. Standing off Essex, which was largely armed with short-range carronades, the British pounded Porter's ship with their long guns for over two hours ultimately forcing him to surrender. Among those captured on board was young Midshipman David G. Farragut who would later lead the Union Navy during the Civil War.

While Porter was enjoying success in the Pacific, the British blockade began to tighten along the American coast keeping many of the US Navy's heavy frigates in port. While the effectiveness of the US Navy was hampered, hundreds of American privateers preyed upon British shipping. During the course of the war, they captured between 1,175 and 1,554 British ships. One ship that was at sea early in 1813 was Master Commandant James Lawrence's brig USS Hornet (20). On February 24, he engaged and captured the brig HMS Peacock (18) off the coast of South America. Returning home, Lawrence was promoted to captain and given command of the frigate USS Chesapeake (50) at Boston. Completing repairs to ship, Lawrence prepared to put to sea in late May. This was hastened by the fact that only one British ship, the frigate HMS Shannon (52), was blockading the harbor. Commanded by Captain Philip Broke, Shannon was a crack ship with a highly trained crew. Eager to engage the American, Broke issued a challenge to Lawrence to meet him in battle. This proved unnecessary as Chesapeake emerged from the harbor on June 1.

Possessing a larger, but greener crew, Lawrence sought to continue the US Navy's streak of victories. Opening fire, the two ships battered each other before coming together. Ordering his men to prepare to board Shannon, Lawrence was mortally wounded. Falling, his last words were reputedly, "Don't give up the Ship! Fight her till she sinks." Despite this encouragement, the raw American sailors were quickly overwhelmed by Shannon's crew and Chesapeake was soon captured. Taken to Halifax, it was repaired and saw service in the Royal Navy until being sold in 1820.

"We Have Met the Enemy..."

As American naval fortunes were turning at sea, a naval building race was underway on the shores of Lake Erie. In an attempt to regain naval superiority on the lake, the US Navy began construction of two 20-gun brigs at Presque Isle, PA (Erie, PA). In March 1813, the new commander of American naval forces on Lake Erie, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, arrived at Presque Isle. Assessing his command, he found that there was a general shortage of supplies and men. While diligently overseeing the construction of the two brigs, named USS Lawrence and USS Niagara, Perry traveled to Lake Ontario in May 1813, to secure additional seamen from Chauncey. While there, he collected several gunboats for use on Lake Erie. Departing from Black Rock, he was nearly intercepted by the new British commander on Lake Erie, Commander Robert H. Barclay. A veteran of Trafalgar, Barclay had arrived at the British base of Amherstburg, Ontario on June 10.

Though both sides were hampered by supply issues they worked through the summer to complete their fleets with Perry finishing his two brigs and Barclay commissioning the 19-gun ship HMS Detroit. Having gained naval superiority, Perry was able to cut the British supply lines to Amherstburg forcing Barclay to seek battle. Departing Put-in-Bay on September 10, Perry maneuvered to engage the British squadron. Commanding from Lawrence, Perry flew a large battle flag emblazoned with his friend's dying command, "Don't Give Up the Ship!" In the resulting Battle of Lake Erie, Perry won a stunning victory that saw bitter fighting and the American commander compelled to switch ships midway through the engagement. Capturing the entire British squadron, Perry sent a brief dispatch to Harrison announcing, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Victory in the Northwest

As Perry was constructing his fleet through the first part of 1813, Harrison was on the defensive in western Ohio. Constructing a major base at Fort Meigs, he repelled an attack led by Major General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh in May. A second attack was turned back in July as well as one against Fort Stephenson (August 1). Building his army, Harrison was ready to go on the offensive in September following Perry's victory on the lake. Moving forward with his Army of the Northwest, Harrison sent 1,000 mounted troops overland to Detroit while the bulk of his infantry was transported there by Perry's fleet. Recognizing the danger of his situation, Proctor abandoned Detroit, Fort Malden, and Amherstburg and began retreating east (Map).

Retaking Detroit, Harrison began pursuing the retreating British. With Tecumseh arguing against falling back, Proctor finally turned to make a stand along the Thames River near Moraviantown. Approaching on October 5, Harrison assaulted Proctor's position during the Battle of the Thames. In the fighting, the British position was shattered and Tecumseh killed. Overwhelmed, Proctor and a few of his men fled while the majority were captured by Harrison's army. One of the few clear cut American victories of the conflict, the Battle of the Thames effectively won the war in the Northwest for the United States. With Tecumseh dead, the threat of Native American attacks subsided and Harrison concluded an armistice with several tribes at Detroit.

Burning a Capital

In preparation for the main American push at Lake Ontario, Major General Henry Dearborn was ordered to position 3,000 men at Buffalo for a strike against Forts Erie and George as well as 4,000 men at Sackets Harbor. This second force was to attack Kingston at the upper outlet of the lake. Success on both fronts would sever the lake from Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. At Sackets Harbor, Chauncey had rapidly constructed a fleet that had wrested naval superiority away from his British counterpart, Captain Sir James Yeo. The two naval officers would conduct a building war for the remainder of the conflict. Though several naval engagements were fought, neither was willing to risk their fleet in a decisive action. Meeting at Sackets Harbor, Dearborn and Chauncey began to have misgivings about the Kingston operation despite the fact that the objective was only thirty miles away. While Chauncey fretted about possible ice around Kingston, Dearborn was concerned about the size of the British garrison.

Instead of striking at Kingston, the two commanders instead elected to conduct a raid against York, Ontario (present-day Toronto). Though of minimal strategic value, York was the capital of Upper Canada and Chauncey had intelligence that two brigs were under construction there. Departing on April 25, Chauncey's ships carried Dearborn's troops across the lake to York. Under the direct control of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, these troops landed on April 27. Opposed by forces under Major General Roger Sheaffe, Pike succeeded in taking the town after a sharp fight. As the British retreated, they detonated their powder magazine killing numerous Americans including Pike. In the wake of the fighting, American troops began looting the town and burned the Parliament Building. After occupying the town for a week, Chauncey and Dearborn withdrew. While a victory, the attack on York did little to alter the strategic outlook on the lake and behavior of the American forces would influence British actions the following year.

Triumph and Defeat Along the Niagara

Following the York operation, Secretary of War John Armstrong chastised Dearborn for failing to accomplish anything of strategic value and blamed him for Pike's death. In response, Dearborn and Chauncey began shifting troops south for an assault on Fort George in late May. Alerted to this fact, Yeo and the Governor General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, made immediate plans to attack Sackets Harbor while American forces were occupied along the Niagara. Departing Kingston, they landed outside of the town on May 29 and moved to destroy the shipyard and Fort Tompkins. These operations were quickly disrupted by a mixed regular and militia force led by Brigadier General Jacob Brown of the New York militia. Surrounding the British beachhead, his men poured heavy fire into Prevost's troops and compelled them to withdraw. For his part in the defense, Brown was offered a brigadier general's commission in the regular army.

At the other end of the lake, Dearborn and Chauncey moved forward with their attack on Fort George. Again delegating operational command, this time to Colonel Winfield Scott, Dearborn watched as American troops conducted an early morning amphibious assault on May 27. This was supported by a force of dragoons crossing the Niagara River upstream at Queenston which was tasked with cutting off the British line of retreat to Fort Erie. Clashing with Brigadier General John Vincent's troops outside of the fort, the Americans succeeded in driving off the British with the aid of naval gunfire support from Chauncey's ships. Forced to surrender the fort and with the route south blocked, Vincent abandoned his posts on the Canadian side of the river and retreated west. As a result, American troops crossed the river and occupied Fort Erie (Map).

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Having lost the dynamic Scott to a broken collarbone, Dearborn ordered Brigadier Generals William Winder and John Chandler west to pursue Vincent. Political appointees, neither possessed significant military experience. On June 5/6, Vincent counterattacked at the Battle of Stoney Creek and succeeded in capturing both generals. On the lake, Chauncey's fleet had departed for Sackets Harbor only to be replaced by Yeo's. Threatened from the lake, Dearborn lost his nerve and ordered a withdrawal to a perimeter around Fort George. The situation worsened on June 24, when an American force under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Boerstler was crushed at the Battle of Beaver Dams. For his weak performance, Dearborn was recalled on July 6 and replaced with Major General James Wilkinson.

Failure on the St. Lawrence

Generally disliked by most officers in US Army for his prewar intrigues in Louisiana, Wilkinson was instructed by Armstrong to strike at Kingston before moving down the St. Lawrence. In doing so he was to link up with forces advancing north from Lake Champlain under Major General Wade Hampton. This combined force would in turn attack Montreal. After stripping the Niagara frontier of most of its troops, Wilkinson prepared to move out. Finding that Yeo had concentrated his fleet at Kingston, he decided to make only a feint in that direction before advancing down the river.

To the east, Hampton began moving north toward the border. His advance was hampered by the recent loss of naval superiority on Lake Champlain. This forced him to swing west to the headwaters of the Chateauguay River. Moving downstream, he crossed the border with around 4,200 men after the New York militia refused to leave the country. Opposing Hampton was Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry who possessed a mixed force of around 1,500 men. Occupying a strong position approximately fifteen miles below the St. Lawrence, de Salaberry's men fortified their line and waited for the Americans. Arriving on October 25, Hampton surveyed the British position and attempted to flank it. In a minor engagement known as the Battle of the Chateauguay, these efforts were repulsed. Believing the British force to be larger than it was, Hampton broke off the action and returned south.

Moving forward, Wilkinson's 8,000-men force left Sackets Harbor on October 17. In poor health and taking heavy doses of laudanum, Wilkinson pushed downstream with Brown leading his vanguard. His force was pursued by an 800-man British force led by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morrison. Tasked with delaying Wilkinson so additional troops could reach Montreal, Morrison proved an effective annoyance to the Americans. Tired of Morrison, Wilkinson dispatched 2,000 men under Brigadier General John Boyd to attack the British. Striking on November 11, they assaulted the British lines at the Battle of Crysler's Farm. Repulsed, Boyd's men were soon counterattacked and driven from the field. Despite this defeat, Wilkinson pressed on toward Montreal. Reaching the mouth of the Salmon River and having learned that Hampton had retreated, Wilkinson abandoned the campaign, re-crossed the river, and went into winter quarters at French Mills, NY. The winter saw Wilkinson and Hampton exchange letters with Armstrong over who was to blame for the campaign's failure.

A Dismal End

As the American thrust towards Montreal was coming to an end, the situation on the Niagara frontier reached a crisis. Stripped of troops for Wilkinson's expedition, Brigadier General George McClure decided to abandon Fort George in early December after learning that Lieutenant General George Drummond was approaching with British troops. Retiring across the river to Fort Niagara, his men burned the village of Newark, ON before departing. Moving into Fort George, Drummond began preparations to assault Fort Niagara. This moved forward on December 19 when his forces overwhelmed the fort's small garrison. Outraged over the burning of Newark, British troops moved south and razed Black Rock and Buffalo on December 30.

While 1813 had started with great hope and promise for the Americans, the campaigns on the Niagara and St. Lawrence frontiers met with failure similar to those of the year before. As in 1812, the smaller British forces had proved adept campaigners and the Canadians showed a willingness to fight to protect their homes rather than throw off the yoke of British rule. Only in the Northwest and Lake Erie did American forces achieve an undisputed victory. While the triumphs of Perry and Harrison helped bolster national morale, they occurred in arguably the least important theater of the war as victory on Lake Ontario or the St. Lawrence would have caused British forces around Lake Erie to "whither on the vine." Forced to endure another long winter, the American public was subjected to a tightening blockade and the threat of increased British strength in the spring as the Napoleonic Wars neared an end.

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-success-lake-erie-2361351. Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, February 16). War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-success-lake-erie-2361351 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-success-lake-erie-2361351 (accessed February 6, 2023).