Theodore Roosevelt's Account of the Battle of Lake Erie
Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had assumed command of Erie and the upper lakes, acting under Commodore Chauncy. With intense energy he at once began creating a naval force which should be able to contend successfully with the foe. As already said, the latter in the beginning had exclusive control of Lake Erie; but the Americans had captured the Caledonia , brig, and purchased three schooners, afterward named the Somers , Tigress , and Ohio , and a sloop, the Trippe . These at first were blockaded in the Niagara, but after the fall of Fort George and retreat of the British forces, Captain Perry was enabled to get them out, tracking them up against the current by the most arduous labor. They ran up to Presque Isle (now called Erie), where two 20-gun brigs were being constructed under the directions of the indefatigable captain. Three other schooners, the Ariel , Scorpion , and Porcupine , were also built.
The harbor of Erie was good and spacious, but had a bar on which there was less than seven feet of water. Hitherto this had prevented the enemy from getting in; now it prevented the two brigs from getting out. Captain Robert Heriot Barclay had been appointed commander of the British forces on Lake Erie; and he was having built at Amherstburg a 20-gun ship. Meanwhile he blockaded Perry's force, and as the brigs could not cross the bar with their guns in, or except in smooth water, they of course could not do so in his presence. He kept a close blockade for some time; but on the 2d of August he disappeared. Perry at once hurried forward every thing; and on the 4th, at 2 P. M., one brig, the Lawrence , was towed to that point of the bar where the water was deepest. Her guns were whipped out and landed on the beach, and the brig got over the bar by a hastily improvised "camel."
"Two large scows, prepared for the purpose, were hauled alongside, and the work of lifting the brig proceeded as fast as possible. Pieces of massive timber had been run through the forward and after ports, and when the scows were sunk to the water's edge, the ends of the timbers were blocked up, supported by these floating foundations. The plugs were now put in the scows, and the water was pumped out of them. By this process the brig was lifted quite two feet, though when she was got on the bar it was found that she still drew too much water. It became necessary, in consequence, to cover up every thing, sink the scows anew, and block up the timbers afresh. This duty occupied the whole night." [Footnote: Cooper, ii, 389. Perry's letter of Aug. 5th is very brief. ]
Just as the Lawrence had passed the bar, at 8 A. M. on the 5th, the enemy reappeared, but too late; Captain Barclay exchanged a few shots with the schooners and then drew off. The Niagara crossed without difficulty. There were still not enough men to man the vessels, but a draft arrived from Ontario, and many of the frontiersmen volunteered, while soldiers also were sent on board. The squadron sailed on the 18th in pursuit of the enemy, whose ship was now ready. After cruising about some time the Ohio was sent down the lake, and the other ships went into Put-in Bay. On the 9th of September Captain Barclay put out from Amherstburg, being so short of provisions that he felt compelled to risk an action with the superior force opposed. On the 10th of September his squadron was discovered from the mast-head of the Lawrence in the northwest. Before going into details of the action we will examine the force of the two squadrons, as the accounts vary considerably.
The tonnage of the British ships, as already stated, we know exactly, they having been all carefully appraised and measured by the builder Mr. Henry Eckford, and two sea-captains. We also know the dimensions of the American ships. The Lawrence and Niagara measured 480 tons apiece. The Caledonia , brig, was about the size of the Hunter , or 180 tons. The Tigress , Somers , and Scorpion were subsequently captured by the foe and were then said to measure, respectively, 96, 94, and 86 tons; in which case they were larger than similar boats on Lake Ontario. The Ariel was about the size of the Hamilton ; the Porcupine and Trippe about the size of the Asp and Pert . As for the guns, Captain Barclay in his letter gives a complete account of those on board his squadron. He has also given a complete account of the American guns, which is most accurate, and, if any thing, underestimates them. At least Emmons in his "History" gives the Trippe a long 32, while Barclay says she had only a long 24; and Lossing in his "Field-Book" says (but I do not know on what authority) that the Caledonia had 3 long 24's, while Barclay gives her 2 long 24's and one 32-pound carronade; and that the Somers had two long 32's, while Barclay gives her one long 32 and one 24-pound carronade. I shall take Barclay's account, which corresponds with that of Emmons; the only difference being that Emmons puts a 24-pounder on the Scorpion and a 32 on the Trippe , while Barclay reverses this. I shall also follow Emmons in giving the Scorpion a 32-pound carronade instead of a 24.
It is more difficult to give the strength of the respective crews. James says the Americans had 580, all "picked men." They were just as much picked men as Barclay's were, and no more; that is, the ships had "scratch" crews. Lieutenant Emmons gives Perry 490 men; and Lossing says he "had upon his muster-roll 490 names." In vol. xiv, p. 566, of the American State Papers, is a list of the prize-monies owing to each man (or to the survivors of the killed), which gives a grand total of 532 men, including 136 on the Lawrence and 155 on the Niagara , 45 of whom were volunteers--frontiersmen. Deducting these we get 487 men, which is pretty near Lieutenant Emmons' 490. Possibly Lieutenant Emmons did not include these volunteers; and it may be that some of the men whose names were down on the prize list had been so sick that they were left on shore. Thus Lieutenant Yarnall testified before a Court of Inquiry in 1815, that there were but 131 men and boys of every description on board the Lawrence in the action; and the Niagara was said to have had but 140. Lieutenant Yarnall also said that "but 103 men on board the Lawrence were fit for duty"; as Captain Perry in his letter said that 31 were unfit for duty, this would make a total of 134. So I shall follow the prize-money list; at any rate the difference in number is so slight as to be immaterial. Of the 532 men whose names the list gives, 45 were volunteers, or landsmen, from among the surrounding inhabitants; 158 were marines or soldiers (I do not know which, as the list gives marines, soldiers, and privates, and it is impossible to tell which of the two former heads include the last) ; and 329 were officers, seamen, cooks, pursers, chaplains, and supernumeraries. Of the total number, there were on the day of action, according to Perry's report, 116 men unfit for duty, including 31 on board the Lawrence , 28 on board the Niagara , and 57 on the small vessels.
All the later American writers put the number of men in Barclay's fleet precisely at "502," but I have not been able to find out the original authority. James ("Naval Occurrences," p. 289) says the British had but 345, consisting of 50 seamen, 85 Canadians, and 210 soldiers. But the letter of Adjutant-General E. Bayne, Nov. 24, 1813, states that there were 250 soldiers aboard Barclay's squadron, of whom 23 were killed, 49 wounded, and the balance (178) captured; and James himself on a previous page (284) states that there were 102 Canadians on Barclay's vessels, not counting the Detroit , and we know that Barclay originally joined the squadron with 19 sailors from the Ontario fleet, and that subsequently 50 sailors came up from the Dover , James gives at the end of his "Naval Occurrences" some extracts from the court-martial held on Captain Barclay. Lieut. Thomas Stokes, of the Queen Charlotte , there testified that he had on board "between 120 and 130 men, officers and all together," of whom "16 came up from the Dover three days before." James, on p. 284, says her crew already consisted of 110 men; adding these 16 gives us 126 (almost exactly "between 120 and 130"). Lieutenant Stokes also testified that the Detroit had more men on account of being a larger and heavier vessel; to give her 150 is perfectly safe, as her heavier guns and larger size would at least need 24 men more than the Queen Charlotte . James gives the Lady Prevost 76, Hunter 39, Little Belt 15, and Chippeway 13 men, Canadians and soldiers, a total of 143; supposing that the number of British sailors placed on them was proportional to the amount placed on board the Queen Charlotte , we could add 21. This would make a grand total of 440 men, which must certainly be near the truth. This number is corroborated otherwise: General Bayne, as already quoted, says that there were aboard 250 soldiers, of whom 72 were killed or wounded. Barclay reports a total loss of 135, of whom 63 must therefore have been sailors or Canadians, and if the loss suffered by these bore the same proportion to their whole number as in the case of the soldiers, there ought to have been 219 sailors and Canadians, making in all 469 men. It can thus be said with certainty that there were between 440 and 490 men aboard, and I shall take the former number, though I have no doubt that this is too small. But it is not a point of very much importance, as the battle was fought largely at long range, where the number of men, provided there were plenty to handle the sails and guns, did not much matter. The following statement of the comparative force must therefore be very nearly accurate:
Crew Broad Total fit for side; Name. Rig. Tons. Crew. Duty. lbs. Armament.
Lawrence , brig 480 136 105 300 -+- 2 long 12's '-18 short 32's Niagara , " 480 155 127 300 -+- 2 long 12's |-18 short 32's Caledonia , " 180 53-+ 80 -+- 2 long 24's | '- 1 short 32 Ariel , schooner 112 36 | 48 4 long 12's Scorpion , " 86 35 | 64 -+- 1 " 32 | '- 1 short 32 Somers , " 86 35 +- 184 56 -+- 1 long 24 | '- 1 short 32 Porcupine , " 83 25 | 32 1 long 32 Tigress , " 96 27 | 32 1 " 32 Trippe , sloop 60 35-+ 24 1 " 24 --------- ---- --- ---- --- --------------- 9 vessels, 1,671 532 (416) 936 lbs.
During the action, however, the Lawrence and Niagara each fought a long 12 instead of one of the carronades on the engaged side, making a broadside of 896 lbs., 288 lbs. being from long guns.
Broadside; Name. Rig. Tons. Crew. lbs. Armament.
, - 1 long 18 | 2 " 24's Detroit , Ship 490 150 138 -+ 6 " 12's | 2 " 24's | 8 " 9's | 1 short 24 '- 1 " 18, - 1 long 12 Queen Charlotte , " 400 126 189 -+ 2 " 9's '-14 short 24's Lady Prevost , schooner 230 86 75 -+- 1 long 9 | 2 " 6's '- 10 short 12's Hunter , brig 180 45 30 -+- 4 long 6's | 2 " 4's | 2 " 2's '- 2 short 12's Chippeway , schooner 70 15 9 1 long 9 Little Belt , sloop 90 18 18 -+- 1 " 12 '- 2 " 6's -------- ---- --- ------ 6 vessels 1460 440 459 lbs.
These six vessels thus threw at a broadside 459 lbs., of which 195 were from long guns.
The superiority of the Americans in long-gun metal was therefore nearly as three is to two, and in carronade metal greater than two to one. The chief fault to be found in the various American accounts is that they sedulously conceal the comparative weight of metal, while carefully specifying the number of guns. Thus, Lossing says: "Barclay had 35 long guns to Perry's 15, and possessed greatly the advantage in action at a distance"; which he certainly did not. The tonnage of the fleets is not so very important; the above tables are probably pretty nearly right. It is, I suppose, impossible to tell exactly the number of men in the two crews. Barclay almost certainly had more than the 440 men I have given him, but in all likelihood some of them were unfit for duty, and the number of his effectives was most probably somewhat less than Perry's. As the battle was fought in such smooth water, and part of the time at long range, this, as already said, does not much matter. The Niagara might be considered a match for the Detroit, and the Lawrence and Caledonia for the five other British vessels; so the Americans were certainly very greatly superior in force.
At daylight on Sept. 10th Barclay's squadron was discovered in the N. W., and Perry at once got under weigh; the wind soon shifted to the N. E., giving us the weather-gage, the breeze being very light. Barclay lay to in a close column, heading to the S. W in the following order: Chippeway , Master's Mate J. Campbell; Detroit , Captain R. H. Barclay; Hunter , Lieutenant G. Bignall; Queen Charlotte , Captain R. Finnis; Lady Prevost , Lieutenant Edward Buchan; and Little Belt , by whom commanded is not said. Perry came down with the wind on his port beam, and made the attack in column ahead, obliquely. First in order came the Ariel , Lieut. John H. Packet, and Scorpion , Sailing-Master Stephen Champlin, both being on the weather bow of the Lawrence , Captain O. H. Perry; next came the Caledonia , Lieut. Daniel Turner; Niagara , Captain Jesse D. Elliott; Somers , Lieutenant A. H. M. Conklin; Porcupine , Acting Master George Serrat; Tigress , Sailing-Master Thomas C. Almy, and Trippe , Lieutenant Thomas Holdup. [Footnote: The accounts of the two commanders tally almost exactly. Barclay's letter is a model of its kind for candor and generosity. Letter of Captain R. H. Barclay to Sir James. Sept. 2, 1813; of Lieutenant Inglis to Captain Barclay, Sept. 10th; of Captain Perry to the Secretary of the Navy, Sept. 10th and Sept. 13th, and to General Harrison, Sept. 11th and Sept. 13th. I have relied mainly on Lossing's "Field-Book of the War of 1812" (especially for the diagrams furnished him by Commodore Champlin), on Commander Ward's "Naval Tactics," p. 76, and on Cooper's "Naval History." Extracts from the court-martial on Captain Barclay are given in James' "Naval Occurrences," lxxxiii. ]
As, amid light and rather baffling winds, the American squadron approached the enemy, Perry's straggling line formed an angle of about fifteen degrees with the more compact one of his foes. At 11.45 the Detroit opened the action by a shot from her long 24, which fell short; at 11.50 she fired a second which went crashing through the Lawrence , and was replied to by the Scorpion's long 32. At 11.55 the Lawrence , having shifted her port bow-chaser, opened with both the long 12's, and at meridian began with her carronades, but the shot from the latter all fell short. At the same time the action became general on both sides, though the rearmost American vessels were almost beyond the range of their own guns, and quite out of range of the guns of their antagonists. Meanwhile the Lawrence was already suffering considerably as she bore down on the enemy.
[Illustration: The Battle of Lake Eire: a painting done for Thomas Brownell, sailing master of the Ariel , by George I. Cook in 1815-16. The composition was inspected for accuracy by Commodore Perry and three other officers as well as by Brownell himself, "all of whom," he wrote years later, "were in the battle, and in whose minds all its incidents, the positions of the fleets & appearance of the vessels was fresh. In the last two particulars the picture is the product of our joined opinions and recollections; it is, therefore, to be presumed that it is a correct representation of that naval combat." Here published for the first time, it depicts the second stage of the battle, in which Perry, having transferred his flag to the Niagara , brought the entire American squadron into action. The vessels, from left to right, are American unless denoted (Br): Lady Prevost (Br), Trippe , Chippeway (Br), Caledonia , Niagara , Detroit (Br), Queen Charlotte (Br), Hunter (Br), Scorpion , Ariel , Porcupine , and Lawrence . (Courtesy U. S. Naval Academy Museum) ]
It was twenty minutes before she succeeded in getting within good carronade range, and during that time the action at the head of the line was between the long guns of the Chippeway and Detroit , throwing 123 pounds, and those of the Scorpion , Ariel , and Lawrence , throwing 104 pounds. As the enemy's fire was directed almost exclusively at the Lawrence she suffered a great deal. The Caledonia , Niagara , and Somers were meanwhile engaging, at long range, the Hunter and Queen Charlotte , opposing from their long guns 96 pounds to the 39 pounds of their antagonists, while from a distance the three other American gun-vessels engaged the Prevost and Little Belt . By 12.20 the Lawrence had worked down to close quarters, and at 12.30 the action was going on with great fury between her and her antagonists, within canister range. The raw and inexperienced American crews committed the same fault the British so often fell into on the ocean, and overloaded their carronades. In consequence, that of the Scorpion upset down the hatchway in the middle of the action, and the sides of the Detroit were dotted with marks from shot that did not penetrate. One of the Ariel's long 12's also burst. Barclay fought the Detroit exceedingly well, her guns being most excellently aimed, though they actually had to be discharged by flashing pistols at the touchholes, so deficient was the ship's equipment. Meanwhile the Caledonia came down too, but the Niagara was wretchedly handled, Elliott keeping at a distance which prevented the use either of his carronades or of those of the Queen Charlotte , his antagonist; the latter, however, suffered greatly from the long guns of the opposing schooners, and lost her gallant commander, Captain Finnis, and first lieutenant, Mr. Stokes, who were killed early in the action; her next in command, Provincial Lieutenant Irvine, perceiving that he could do no good, passed the Hunter and joined in the attack on the Lawrence , at close quarters. The Niagara , the most efficient and best-manned of the American vessels, was thus almost kept out of the action by her captain's misconduct. At the end of the line the fight went on at long range between the Somers , Tigress , Porcupine , and Trippe on one side, and Little Belt and Lady Prevost on the other; the Lady Prevost making a very noble fight, although her 12-pound carronades rendered her almost helpless against the long guns of the Americans. She was greatly cut up, her commander, Lieutenant Buchan, was dangerously, and her acting first lieutenant, Mr. Roulette, severely wounded, and she began falling gradually to leeward.
The fighting at the head of the line was fierce and bloody to an extraordinary degree. The Scorpion , Ariel , Lawrence , and Caledonia , all of them handled with the most determined courage, were opposed to the Chippeway , Detroit , Queen Charlotte , and Hunter , which were fought to the full as bravely. At such close quarters the two sides engaged on about equal terms, the Americans being superior in weight of metal, and inferior in number of men. But the Lawrence had received such damage in working down as to make the odds against Perry. On each side almost the whole fire was directed at the opposing large vessel or vessels; in consequence the Queen Charlotte was almost disabled, and the Detroit was also frightfully shattered, especially by the raking fire of the gun-boats, her first lieutenant, Mr. Garland, being mortally wounded, and Captain Barclay so severely injured that he was obliged to quit the deck, leaving his ship in the command of Lieutenant George Inglis. But on board the Lawrence matters had gone even worse, the combined fire of her adversaries having made the grimmest carnage on her decks. Of the 103 men who were fit for duty when she began the action, 83, or over four fifths, were killed or wounded. The vessel was shallow, and the ward-room, used as a cockpit, to which the wounded were taken, was mostly above water, and the shot came through it continually, killing and wounding many men under the hands of the surgeon.
The first lieutenant, Yarnall, was three times wounded, but kept to the deck through all; the only other lieutenant on board, Brooks, of the marines, was mortally wounded. Every brace and bowline was shot away, and the brig almost completely dismantled; her hull was shattered to pieces, many shot going completely through it, and the guns on the engaged side were by degrees all dismounted. Perry kept up the fight with splendid courage. As the crew fell one by one, the commodore called down through the skylight for one of the surgeon's assistants; and this call was repeated and obeyed till none were left; then he asked, "Can any of the wounded pull a rope?" and three or four of them crawled up on deck to lend a feeble hand in placing the last guns. Perry himself fired the last effective heavy gun, assisted only by the purser and chaplain. A man who did not possess his indomitable spirit would have then struck. Instead, however, although failing in the attack so far, Perry merely determined to win by new methods, and remodelled the line accordingly. Mr. Turner, in the Caledonia , when ordered to close, had put his helm up, run down on the opposing line, and engaged at very short range, though the brig was absolutely without quarters. The Niagara had thus become the next in line astern of the Lawrence , and the sloop Trippe , having passed the three schooners in front of her, was next ahead. The Niagara now, having a breeze, steered for the head of Barclay's line, passing over a quarter of a mile to windward of the Lawrence , on her port beam. She was almost uninjured, having so far taken very little part in the combat, and to her Perry shifted his flag. Leaping into a row boat, with his brother and four seamen, he rowed to the fresh brig, where he arrived at 2.30, and at once sent Elliott astern to hurry up the three schooners. The Trippe was now very near the Caledonia . The Lawrence , having but 14 sound men left, struck her colors, but could not be taken possession of before the action re-commenced. She drifted astern, the Caledonia passing between her and her foes. At 2.45, the schooners having closed up, Perry, in his fresh vessel, bore up to break Barclay's line.
The British ships had fought themselves to a standstill. The Lady Prevost was crippled and sagged to leeward, though ahead of the others. The Detroit and Queen Charlotte were so disabled that they could not effectually oppose fresh antagonists. There could thus be but little resistance to Perry, as the Niagara stood down, and broke the British line, firing her port guns into the Chippeway , Little Belt , and Lady Prevost , and the starboard ones into the Detroit , Queen Charlotte , and Hunter , raking on both sides. Too disabled to tack, the Detroit and Charlotte tried to wear, the latter running up to leeward of the former; and, both vessels having every brace and almost every stay shot away, they fell foul. The Niagara luffed athwart their bows, within half pistol-shot, keeping up a terrific discharge of great guns and musketry, while on the other side the British vessels were raked by the Caledonia and the schooners so closely that some of their grape shot, passing over the foe, rattled through Perry's spars. Nothing further could be done, and Barclay's flag was struck at 3 P. M., after three and a quarter hours' most gallant and desperate fighting. The Chippeway and Little Belt tried to escape, but were overtaken and brought to respectively by the Trippe and Scorpion , the commander of the latter, Mr. Stephen Champlin, firing the last, as he had the first, shot of the battle. "Captain Perry has behaved in the most humane and attentive manner, not only to myself and officers, but to all the wounded," writes Captain Barclay.
The American squadron had suffered severely, more than two thirds of the loss falling upon the Lawrence , which was reduced to the condition of a perfect wreck, her starboard bulwarks being completely beaten in. She had, as already stated, 22 men killed, including Lieutenant of Marines Brooks and Midshipman Lamb; and 61 wounded, including Lieutenant Yarnall, Midshipman (acting second lieutenant) Forrest, Sailing-Master Taylor, Purser Hambleton, and Midshipmen Swartout and Claxton. The Niagara lost 2 killed and 25 wounded (almost a fifth of her effectives), including among the latter the second lieutenant, Mr. Edwards, and Midshipman Cummings. The Caledonia had 3, the Somers 2, and Trippe 2, men wounded. The Ariel had 1 killed and 3 wounded; the Scorpion 2 killed, including Midshipman Lamb. The total loss was 123; 27 were killed and 96 wounded, of whom 3 died.
The British loss, falling most heavily on the Detroit and Queen Charlotte , amounted to 41 killed (including Capt. S. J. Garden, R. N., and Captain R. A. Finnis), and 94 wounded (including Captain Barclay and Lieutenants Stokes, Buchan, Rolette, and Bignall): in all 135. The first and second in command on every vessel were killed or wounded, a sufficient proof of the desperate nature of the defence.
[Illustration: The following diagrams will serve to explain the movements. ]
[Illustration: 2 P. M.]
[Illustration: 2:30 P. M.]
The victory of Lake Erie was most important, both in its material results and in its moral effect. It gave us complete command of all the upper lakes, prevented any fears of invasion from that quarter, increased our prestige with the foe and our confidence in ourselves, and ensured the conquest of upper Canada; in all these respects its importance has not been overrated. But the "glory" acquired by it most certainly has been estimated at more than its worth. Most Americans, even the well educated, if asked which was the most glorious victory of the war, would point to this battle. Captain Perry's name is more widely known than that of any other commander. Every school-boy reads about him , if of no other sea-captain; yet he certainly stands on a lower grade than either Hull or Macdonough, and not a bit higher than a dozen others. On Lake Erie our seamen displayed great courage and skill; but so did their antagonists. The simple truth is, that, where on both sides the officers and men were equally brave and skilful, the side which possessed the superiority in force, in the proportion of three to two, could not well help winning. The courage with which the Lawrence was defended has hardly ever been surpassed, and may fairly be called heroic; but equal praise belongs to the men on board the Detroit , who had to discharge the great guns by flashing pistols at the touchholes, and yet made such a terribly effective defence. Courage is only one of the many elements which go to make up the character of a first-class commander; something more than bravery is needed before a leader can be really called great.
There happened to be circumstances which rendered the bragging of our writers over the victory somewhat plausible. Thus they could say with an appearance of truth that the enemy had 63 guns to our 54, and outnumbered us. In reality, as well as can be ascertained from the conflicting evidence, he was inferior in number; but a few men more or less mattered nothing. Both sides had men enough to work the guns and handle the ships, especially as the fight was in smooth water, and largely at long range. The important fact was that though we had nine guns less, yet, at a broadside, they threw half as much metal again as those of our antagonist. With such odds in our favor it would have been a disgrace to have been beaten. The water was too smooth for our two brigs to show at their best; but this very smoothness rendered our gun-boats more formidable than any of the British vessels, and the British testimony is unanimous, that it was to them the defeat was primarily due. The American fleet came into action in worse form than the hostile squadron, the ships straggling badly, either owing to Perry having formed his line badly, or else to his having failed to train the subordinate commanders how to keep their places. The Niagara was not fought well at first, Captain Elliott keeping her at a distance that prevented her from doing any damage to the vessels opposed, which were battered to pieces by the gun-boats without the chance of replying. It certainly seems as if the small vessels at the rear of the line should have been closer up, and in a position to render more effectual assistance; the attack was made in too loose order, and, whether it was the fault of Perry or of his subordinates, it fails to reflect credit on the Americans. Cooper, as usual, praises all concerned; but in this instance not with very good judgment. He says the line-of-battle was highly judicious, but this may be doubted. The weather was peculiarly suitable for the gun-boats, with their long, heavy guns; and yet the line-of-battle was so arranged as to keep them in the rear and let the brunt of the assault fall on the Lawrence , with her short carronades. Cooper again praises Perry for steering for the head of the enemy's line, but he could hardly have done any thing else. In this battle the firing seems to have been equally skilful on both sides, the Detroit's long guns being peculiarly well served; but the British captains manoeuvred better than their foes at first, and supported one another better, so that the disparity in damage done on each side was not equal to the disparity in force. The chief merit of the American commander and his followers was indomitable courage, and determination not to be beaten. This is no slight merit; but it may well be doubted if it would have ensured victory had Barclay's force been as strong as Perry's. Perry made a headlong attack; his superior force, whether through his fault or his misfortune can hardly be said, being brought into action in such a manner that the head of the line was crushed by the inferior force opposed. Being literally hammered out of his own ship, Perry brought up its powerful twin-sister, and the already shattered hostile squadron was crushed by sheer weight. The manoeuvres which marked the close of the battle, and which ensured the capture of all the opposing ships, were unquestionably very fine.
The British ships were fought as resolutely as their antagonists, not being surrendered till they were crippled and helpless, and almost all the officers, and a large proportion of the men placed hors de combat . Captain Barclay handled his ships like a first-rate seaman. It was impossible to arrange them so as to be superior to his antagonist, for the latter's force was of such a nature that in smooth water his gun-boats gave him a great advantage, while in any sea his two brigs were more than a match for the whole British squadron. In short, our victory was due to our heavy metal. As regards the honor of the affair, in spite of the amount of boasting it has given rise to, I should say it was a battle to be looked upon as in an equally high degree creditable to both sides. Indeed, if it were not for the fact that the victory was so complete, it might be said that the length of the contest and the trifling disparity in loss reflected rather the most credit on the British. 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. Here his energy and activity deserve all praise, not only for his success in collecting sailors and vessels and in building the two brigs, but above all for the manner in which he succeeded in getting them out on the lake. On that occasion he certainly out-generalled Barclay; indeed the latter committed an error that the skill and address he subsequently showed could not retrieve. But it will always be a source of surprise that the American public should have so glorified Perry's victory over an inferior force, and have paid comparatively little attention to Macdonough's victory, which really was won against decided odds in ships, men, and metal.
There are always men who consider it unpatriotic to tell the truth, if the truth is not very flattering; but, aside from the morality of the case, we never can learn how to produce a certain effect unless we know rightly what the causes were that produced a similar effect in times past. Lake Erie teaches us the advantage of having the odds on our side; Lake Champlain, that, even if they are not, skill can still counteract them. It is amusing to read some of the pamphlets written "in reply" to Cooper's account of this battle, the writers apparently regarding him as a kind of traitor for hinting that the victory was not "Nelsonic," "unsurpassed," etc. The arguments are stereotyped: Perry had 9 fewer guns, and also fewer men than the foe. This last point is the only one respecting which there is any doubt. Taking sick and well together, the Americans unquestionably had the greatest number in crew; but a quarter of them were sick. Even deducting these they were still, in all probability, more numerous than their foes.
But it is really not a point of much consequence, as both sides had enough, as stated, to serve the guns and handle the ships. In sea-fights, after there are enough hands for those purposes additional ones are not of so much advantage. I have in all my accounts summed up as accurately as possible the contending forces, because it is so customary with British writers to follow James' minute and inaccurate statements, that I thought it best to give every thing exactly; but it was really scarcely necessary, and, indeed, it is impossible to compare forces numerically. Aside from a few exceptional cases, the number of men, after a certain point was reached, made little difference. For example, the Java would fight just as effectually with 377 men, the number James gives her, as with 426, the number I think she really had. Again, my figures make the Wasp slightly superior in force to the Frolic , as she had 25 men the most; but in reality, as the battle was fought under very short sail, and decided purely by gunnery, the difference in number of crew was not of the least consequence. The Hornet had nine men more than the Penguin , and it would be absurd to say that this gave her much advantage. In both the latter cases, the forces were practically equal, although, numerically expressed, the odds were in favor of the Americans. The exact reverse is the case in the last action of the Constitution . Here, the Levant and Cyane had all the men they required, and threw a heavier broadside than their foe. Expressed in numbers, the odds against them were not great, but numbers could not express the fact that carronades were opposed to long guns, and two small ships to one big one. Again, though in the action on Lake Champlain numbers do show a slight advantage both in weight of metal and number of men on the British side, they do not make the advantage as great as it really was, for they do not show that the British possessed a frigate with a main-deck battery of 24-pounders, which was equal to the two chief vessels of the Americans, exactly as the Constitution was superior to the Cyane and Levant . [Footnote: It must always be remembered that these rules cut both ways. British writers are very eloquent about the disadvantage in which carronades placed the Cyane and Levant , but do not hint that the Essex suffered from a precisely similar cause, in addition to her other misfortunes; either they should give the Constitution more credit or the Phoebe less. So the Confiance , throwing 480 pounds of metal at a broadside, was really equal to both the Eagle and Saratoga , who jointly threw 678. From her long guns she threw 384 pounds, from her carronades 96. Their long guns threw 168, their carronades 510. Now the 32-pound carronade mounted on the spar-deck of a 38-gun frigate, was certainly much less formidable than the long 18 on the main-deck; indeed, it probably ranked more nearly with a long 12, in the ordinary chances of war (and it must be remembered that Downie was the attacking party and chose his own position, so far as Macdonough's excellent arrangements would let him.) So that in comparing the forces, the carronades should not be reckoned for more than half the value of the long guns, and we get, as a mere approximation, 384 + 48 = 432, against 168 + 255 = 423. At any rate, British writers, as well as Americans, should remember that if the Constitution was greatly superior to her two foes, then the Confiance was certainly equal to the Eagle and Saratoga; and vica versa . ] And on the same principles I think that every fair-minded man must admit the great superiority of Perry's fleet over Barclay's, though the advantage was greater in carronades than in long guns.
But to admit this by no means precludes us from taking credit for the victory. Almost all the victories gamed by the English over the Dutch in the 17th century were due purely to great superiority in force. The cases have a curious analogy to this lake battle. Perry won with 54 guns against Barclay's 63; but the odds were largely in his favor. Blake won a doubtful victory on the 18th of February, 1653, with 80 ships against Tromp's 70; but the English vessels were twice the size of the Dutch, and in number of men and weight of metal greatly their superior. The English were excellent fighters, but no better than the Dutch, and none of their admirals of that period deserve to rank with De Ruyter. Again, the great victory of La Hogue was won over a very much smaller French fleet, after a day's hard fighting, which resulted in the capture of one vessel! This victory was most exultingly chronicled, yet it was precisely as if Perry had fought Barclay all day and only succeeded in capturing the Little Belt . Most of Lord Nelson's successes were certainly won against heavy odds by his great genius and the daring skill of the captains who served under him; but the battle of the Baltic, as far as the fighting went, reflected as much honor on the defeated Danes as on the mighty sea-chief who conquered them. Many a much-vaunted victory, both on sea and land, has really reflected less credit on the victors than the battle of Lake Erie did on the Americans. And it must always be remembered that a victory, honorably won, if even over a weaker foe, does reflect credit on the nation by whom it is gained. It was creditable to us as a nation that our ships were better made and better armed than the British frigates, exactly as it was creditable to them that a few years before their vessels had stood in the same relation to the Dutch ships. [Footnote: After Lord Duncan's victory at Camperdown, James chronicled the fact that all the captured line-of-battle ships were such poor craft as not to be of as much value as so many French frigates. This at least showed that the Dutch sailors must have done well to have made such a bloody and obstinate fight as they did, with the materials they had. According to his own statements the loss was about proportional to the forces in action. It was another parallel to Perry's victory. ] It was greatly to our credit that we had been enterprising enough to fit out such an effective little flotilla on Lake Erie, and for this Perry deserves the highest praise. [Footnote: Some of my countrymen will consider this but scant approbation, to which the answer must be that a history is not a panegyric. ]
Before leaving the subject it is worth while making a few observations on the men who composed the crews. James, who despised a Canadian as much as he hated an American, gives as one excuse for the defeat, the fact that most of Barclay's crew were Canadians, whom he considers to be "sorry substitutes." On each side the regular sailors, from the seaboard, were not numerous enough to permit the battle to be fought purely by them. Barclay took a number of soldiers of the regular army, and Perry a number of militia, aboard; the former had a few Indian sharp-shooters, the latter quite a number of negroes. A great many men in each fleet were lake sailors, frontiersmen, and these were the especial objects of James' contempt; but it may be doubted if they, thoroughly accustomed to lake navigation, used to contests with Indians and whites, naturally forced to be good sailors, and skilful in the use of rifle and cannon, were not, when trained by good men and on their own waters, the very best possible material. Certainly the battle of Lake Erie, fought mainly by Canadians, was better contested than that of Lake Champlain, fought mainly by British.
The difference between the American and British seamen on the Atlantic was small, but on the lakes what little there was disappeared. A New Englander and an Old Englander differed little enough, but they differed more than a frontiersman born north of the line did from one born south of it. These last two resembled one another more nearly than either did the parent. There had been no long-established naval school on the lakes, and the British sailors that came up there were the best of their kind; so the combatants were really so evenly matched in courage, skill, and all other fighting qualities, as to make it impossible to award the palm to either for these attributes. The dogged obstinacy of the fighting, the skilful firing and manoeuvring, and the daring and coolness with which cutting-out expeditions were planned and executed, were as marked on one side as the other. The only un-English element in the contest was the presence among the Canadian English of some of the descendants of the Latin race from whom they had conquered the country. Otherwise the men were equally matched, but the Americans owed their success--for the balance of success was largely on their side--to the fact that their officers had been trained in the best and most practical, although the smallest, navy of the day. The British sailors on the lakes were as good as our own, but no better. None of their commanders compare with Macdonough.
Perry deserves all praise for the manner in which he got his fleet ready; his victory over Barclay was precisely similar to the quasi-victories of Blake over the Dutch, which have given that admiral such renown. Blake's success in attacking Spanish and Algerian forts is his true title to fame. In his engagements with the Dutch fleets (as well as in those of Monk, after him) his claim to merit is no greater and no less than Perry's. Each made a headlong attack, with furious, stubborn courage, and by dint of sheer weight crushed or disabled a greatly inferior foe. In the fight that took place on Feb. 18, 1653, De Ruyter's ship carried but 34 guns, [Footnote: "La Vie et Les Actions Memorables de Lt. -Amiral Michel De Ruyter" (Amsterdam, 1677), p. 23. By the way, why is Tromp always called Van Tromp by English writers? It would be quite as correct for a Frenchman to speak of MacNelson. ] and yet with it he captured the Prosperous of 54; which vessel was stronger than any in the Dutch fleet. The fact that Blake's battles were generally so indecisive must be ascribed to the fact that his opponents were, though inferior in force, superior in skill. No decisive defeat was inflicted on the Dutch until Tromp's death. Perry's operations were on a very small, and Blake's on a very large, scale; but whereas Perry left no antagonists to question his claim to victory, Blake's successes were sufficiently doubtful to admit of his antagonists in almost every instance claiming that they had won, or else that it was a draw. Of course it is absurd to put Perry and Blake on a par, for one worked with a fleet forty times the strength of the other's flotilla; but the way in which the work was done was very similar. And it must always be remembered that when Perry fought this battle he was but 27 years old; and the commanders of his other vessels were younger still.