- Historic Sites
The Battle Of Lake Erie
"With half the western world at stake, See Perry on the middle lake.” —Nineteenth-century ballad
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
When Dobbins got to Presque Isle on September 24, he had two thousand dollars and a few carpenters with which to build a navy. Two thousand dollars wasn’t very much money for the task, but Dobbins, acting on the assumption that there would be more coming, spent with a free hand. He set the price of timber at a dollar a tree. He sent to Meadville, some thirty miles away, for some steel and paid the blacksmith $2.00 a day to forge the steel into axes. Sawyers were to earn $1.25 a day and axemen 62½ cents. Hauling was worth $4.00 a day to those who had horses or oxen.
A few days after his arrival Dobbins wrote a letter to “Commodore Chauncey or the commanding officer of the lake at Buffaloe”: SIR : I have the honor to transmit to you … a coppy of my instructions from the Secretary of the Navy and assure you, Sir, that I stand ready to execute any orders you may be pleased to issue. …
Dobbins must have been infuriated by the reply that he received a few days later: It appears to me utterly impossible to build Gun Boats at Presqu’ile; there is not a sufficient depth of water on the bar to get them into the Lake. Should there be water, the place is at all times open to the attacks of the Enemy. … From a slight acquaintance I have with our side of Lake Erie … I am under the impression [it] has not a single Harbor calculated to fit out a Naval expedition, and the only one convenient I am at present at. … I have no further communication to make on the subject.
This frustrating message was not signed by Chauncey but by Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott. Elliott, who had just turned thirty, had been sent by Chauncey to take command of operations on Lake Erie. He was a vain man, and he was a troublemaker.
Elliott’s rank was superior to the one hastily conferred on Dobbins. But Dobbins knew Lake Erie; he had been sailing the Lakes for more than a decade. He was sure that he had picked the right spot in Presque Isle, and he was still very much a civilian, with a good republican mistrust of military wisdom. He wrote Elliott a testy letter explaining that he had “as perfect a knowledge of this lake as any other man on it” and went ahead with his work.
It was well that he did, for Elliott had lit on a curious spot for his operations. He was at Black Rock, near Buffalo, in a harbor so close to the British base across the Niagara at Fort Erie that soldiers frequently exchanged shots across the river. Moreover, vessels seeking the open lake would have to work their way through three miles of channels against a fourknot current right under the guns of the enemy. In this cul-de-sac Elliott had assembled a fleet of small schooners, bought up and down the lake.
Despite his dubious anchorage, however, Elliott did lead a spirited cutting-out operation a few days after he wrote his highhanded letter to Dobbins. Along with fifty sailors and fifty soldiers under Army Captain Nathan Towson, he put out from the American shore in darkness and moved against two British vessels that were riding at anchor in front of the fort. His barges were spotted from the deck of the brig Caledonia , but Towson scrambled aboard despite heavy musketry and managed to bring the brig—and its welcome cargo of $150,000 worth of pelts—back to Black Rock. Elliott secured the brig Detroit (which had been captured from Hull at Detroit) but ran her aground and, under heavy artillery fire, ordered her burned. Long afterward Towson, rankling over the scant credit that the Army received in Elliott’s official report, would try to provoke him into a duel; but for the moment the country was happy with this small success, and Elliott was a hero. Congress voted him a sword, and the next summer he was promoted to master commandant, over the heads of thirty of his senior lieutenants.
Elliott had added another ship to his squadron, but bottled up as it was in Black Rock, neither the Caledonia nor any other of his ships was of any immediate use to him.
Meanwhile, as autumn burned itself out in the forests around him, Dobbins worked to get ships by less spectacular means than splashy nighttime raids. He laid down the keels for two brigs and three gunboats. Supplies trickled in from Philadelphia, and from Pittsburgh by way of the Allegheny and French rivers. Dobbins paid one J. McDonald $200 for four foremasts, four mainmasts, four main booms, and four bowsprits. John Greenwood turned out sixty sweeps and fifty 14-foot oars for $92.25, and N. Richardson attempted to sell him the products of a “very extensive rope-walk in Kentucky.” Winter blew down from the north, and one of his workers died; others began to desert. Dobbins did all he could to keep them there and all the while wrote increasingly desperate letters to Chauncey and then to the Secretary of the Navy begging for instructions: The boats that I have laid down are 50 feet keel 17 feet beams 5 feet hold and from appearances will be fast sailors if you wish me to go on with the work you will Pleas give me orders to draw I have expended a considerable sum more than the two thousand dollars … I have brot the iron from Pittsburgh which comes high the Roads have been so bad if I am directed to go on with the work Pleas let me hear as soon as Posible.