The American plan for the Niagara Front in 1813 was to recapture Detroit and invade Canada. In order to do so they had to control Lake Erie, which in turn depended on conquering Ontario. The British were forced onto the defensive by lack of resources. The Americans captured Fort George on 27 May. They were reluctant to advance further after being defeated at Beaver’s Dam on 24 June, whilst the British were too weak to try to retake Fort George.
I have written British throughout this post because the ships were sailing under the British flag, but the majority of their crews were Canadians.
The two naval commanders on Lake Ontario, Commodore James Lucas Yeo of the Royal Navy and Commodore Isaac Chauncey of the United States Navy, were cautious men, who spent much of July, August and September manoeuvring without coming to a decisive battle
The British ships were more strongly built and more manoeuvrable. The total armament of the two squadrons was similar, but the British had a far higher proportion of carronades, very powerful but short ranged guns. The Americans had an advantage in calm weather, when they could stay at long range, but a disadvantage in strong winds.
Yeo had the better of an engagement off Niagara on 10 August, whilst Chauncey had the advantage of one off the Genesee on 11 September. Neither was decisive.
On Lake Erie, which was initially completely controlled by the British, the Americans had to construct a fleet locally. The story of how they did so, under the direction of Dan Dobbin, a merchant navy captain, is told in this article by Rear Admiral Denys W. Knoll, USN (Ret.).
Oliver Hazard Perry took command of the US squadron on Lake Erie 26 March. The British squadron was commanded by Captain Robert Barclay. Both men were far more energetic and aggressive than Chauncey and Yeo.
Theodore Roosevelt notes that sources differ on the armaments and crews of the ships involved, but believes that the following figures are the most likely. Note that some guns could bear on either broadside, so the broadside is often more than half the total weight of fire carried.
|Name||Type||Tons||Crew||Long guns||Carronades||Broadside lbs|
Only 105 of the Lawrence’s crew, 127 of the Niagara’s crew and 184 of the crews of the smaller ships were fit for duty, meaning that the US fleet had only 416 men available.
The Lawrence and the Niagara both swapped a long 12 pounder from their unengaged side for a 32 pound carronade of the engaged side, giving a total US broadside of 896 lb, split 288 lb from long guns and 608 lb from carronades.
|Name||Type||Tons||Crew||Long guns||Carronades||Broadside lbs|
The British broadside split 195 lb from long guns and 264 lb from carronades. A comparison of the number of guns suggested that the British fleet was superior, but its largest guns were two long 24 pounders and a 24 pound carronade on HMS Detroit and 14 24 pound carronades on HMS Queen Charlotte.
The USS Trippe carried a long 24 pounder, and all the other US ships except the USS Ariel had at least one 32 pound long gun or carronade. The USS Lawrence and the USS Niagara each had 18 32 pound carronades, although only eight were carried on the engaged side during this action.
Thus the Americans had a significant fire power advantage over the British regardless of range, but it was even more pronounced at short range than at long range.
The two squadrons encountered each other on 10 September near Put-In-Bay in light winds. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, flew a flag with the words ‘Don’t give up the ship’ on it. This phrase had famously been said by James Lawrence, Captain of the USS Chesapeake, just after he was mortally wounded. HMS Detroit opened fire at 11:45 am, first hitting the USS Lawrence at 11:50.
At the head of the line HMS Chippeway and Barclay’s flagship HMS Detroit were engaged with the USS Lawrence, Scorpion and Ariel, with the British fire concentrated on the USS Lawrence. HMS Queen Charlotte and Hunter were in a long range artillery duel with the USS Caledonia, Niagara and Somers. At the end of the line the USS Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were exchanging long range fire with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt.
The USS Lawrence reached close quarters at 12:20. The USS Lawrence, Scorpion, Ariel and Caledonia were now in a bloody battle in at canister range with HMS Chippeway, Detroit, Queen Charlotte and Hunter. Roosevelt argues that this part of the action was roughly equal because the larger British crews cancelled out the heavier American guns.
Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott kept his ship, the USS Niagara, at long range, a strange tactic for a ship armed mainly with carronades and possessing the largest crew of any of the US warships present.
At the end of the line the USS Somers, Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe were engaged at long range with HMS Lady Prevost and Little Belt. The British were outgunned in this segment of the battle.
Both sides concentrated on the largest enemy ships, resulting in heavy damage to HMS Detroit and Queen Charlotte and especially to the USS Lawrence. At one point Perry fired the last effective heavy gun himself, helped by only the purser and chaplain.
The USS Lawrence was too badly damaged to continue as the flagship. Perry had to switch his flag to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara. Perry, along with four seamen and his brother, took a rowing boat to the virtually undamaged USS Niagara, and transferred his flag to her at 2:30 pm. Perry had four brothers who all served in the USN. One of the others, Matthew, led the mission that opened up Japan to US trade in the 1850s.
Perry ordered the schooners USS Somers, Tigress and Porcupine to join the Niagara, and at 2:45 led an attack aimed at breaking the British line. The British ships were too badly damaged to manoeuvre or offer much resistance. Barclay struck his colours at 3:00 pm. All the British squadron was captured. The USS Lawrence also struck her colours, but the British were unable to take possession of her.
US casualties were 27 killed and 96 wounded, three of whom died. Most of them were on board the USS Lawrence, which suffered 22 dead and 61 wounded. British losses were 41 killed and 94 wounded. The Captain and second in command of every British ship was killed or wounded. Barclay was wounded.
One consequence of the battle was a long-running feud between Perry and Elliott over the latter’s conduct during it.
This was a vital victory for the USA. It now controlled Lake Erie, protecting it from invasion in that region, and allowing it to later recapture Detroit. It also boosted US morale. However, like most naval actions of the War of 1812, it was won by the side that had the greater firepower, with the men on both sides fighting equally well.
 T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), pp. 287-88.
 Ibid., pp. 311-17.
 Ibid., p. 321.
 Ibid., pp. 325-26.