The Battle Of Lake Erie

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In the late summer of 1812 a Great Lakes merchant captain named Daniel Dobbins arrived in Washington. He had had a dreadful time getting there, and his journey could not have been made more pleasant by the fact that he was bringing some very bad news with him.

On July 12, a month after President Madison announced a state of war between the United States and Great Britain, General William Hull had invaded Canada with twenty-two hundred men. Hull issued a number of sententious proclamations about the liberty and prosperity that would follow in the wake of his invasion, and then almost immediately quailed before minor British resistance and false reports of large numbers of the enemy nearby. By August 8 Hull was back in Detroit, where, a week later, he surrendered all his troops and his well-supplied garrison to a force half the size of his, composed mainly of militia and Indians. Whatever the reason for Hull’s extraordinary performance—it was variously ascribed to cowardice, senility, and treason—his capitulation left the American Northwest in the control of the British and Daniel Dobbins a prisoner.

This was particularly bad luck for Dobbins, for he was believed by his captors to have violated an earlier parole. He was told that he was to be executed but escaped from the British camp in a thunderstorm. A reward was offered for his scalp, and so, having anticipated this, he hid in a wrecked boat on the shore of the Detroit River. At length he made for the river’s mouth, where he found an abandoned Indian dugout. He paddled across Lake Erie to Sandusky and there got hold of a horse, which he rode to Cleveland. Then, again in a canoe, he pressed on to the harbor of Presque Isle—which was beginning to be known as the town of Erie—where the officer in command of a small blockhouse told him to carry his doleful news to Washington. So Dobbins travelled the long, dangerous forest road to Pittsburgh and then headed east.

Soon after he finally reached the capital, he was taken before President Madison, who immediately summoned a cabinet meeting to discuss Dobbins’ news. At the very beginning of the war Madison had hoped to take Canada by invasion, thereby obviating the need for a costly American fleet on the Lakes. Now Hull’s defeat had shown him that such a fleet was indispensable. Dobbins must have given a good account of himself, since Madison turned to him for advice. What did the lake captain think was the best place for building a fleet on Lake Erie? Dobbins recommended Presque Isle and was promptly given the service rank of sailing master and orders to proceed to Erie and build a flotilla.

However well Dobbins may have impressed the rattled Madison, it is unlikely that he would have been given his post had not Lake Erie seemed something of a side show. The President, quite reasonably, expected the real contest to take place on Lake Ontario, for Ontario dominated all the supply routes from the St. Lawrence to the upper Lakes. Although there was no American navy at all on Erie, there was already one of sorts on Ontario, its mainstay a sixteen-gun brig. Across the lake, operating out of Kingston Harbor, was a British fleet mounting upward of seventy guns. It was clear then that a first-rate commander was needed to seize the advantage on Lake Ontario. So the Navy Department gave the crucial command of the naval forces on Lakes Ontario and Erie to Isaac Chauncey.

Chauncey was an irritable, vigorous, corpulent man who had commanded his first ship when he was just nineteen. Now he was forty years old, a well-respected veteran of the Tripolitan war, where his courage under fire had drawn a special commendation from the exacting Commodore Preble. After the war he spent a year’s furlough from the Navy as captain of a ship belonging to John Jacob Astor and then returned to the service to take command of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On September 3 of 1812 he was called from this last duty to go to the Lakes; and by the end of the month, when he embarked on an antediluvian steamboat for the twentyhour trip to Albany, he had already sent north scores of soldiers, sailors, and ship carpenters. He seemed to be the perfect man for the job.

Dobbins was also heading north late in September. His destination, Presque Isle, was a narrow finger of land six miles long, hooked out into Lake Erie and enclosing a superb natural harbor three miles long and more than a mile wide. A sandbar across the entrance to the bay presented some difficulties, but once inside, a ship was safe from any storm that might blow up.

Aside from this harbor and the fine timber that grew all about it, there was nothing there to encourage the construction of a fleet. There were forty-seven houses in the bleak little community, one blacksmith shop, and a few men who knew how to use whipsaws. There was no metal to speak of within a hundred miles, nor was there any rope or sailcloth to be had. The only cannon in the place was a small iron boat howitzer; it had been found on the beach years before, and the villagers liked to shoot it off on the Fourth of July.