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
Chauncey maintained a monumental silence, and it seems that the Secretary of the Navy did as well. But at last, in late December, Chauncey left his base on Lake Ontario to pay a visit to Lake Erie. There he found that the carpenters who had been converting the schooners at Black Rock to naval vessels had finally been discouraged by the combination of winter and enemy musketry and had returned to New York, leaving the ships in a dismal state of disrepair. Chauncey journeyed on to Presque Isle, where he studied the harbor and decided that Dobbins had been right; it was the best place for the American navy.
Dobbins soon received assistance more material than Chauncey’s approval. In January of 1813 the Navy Department sent Noah Brown, a superb New York shipbuilder, up to Lake Erie to build two large brigs. And at about the same time Oliver Hazard Perry petitioned Chauncey for a command on the Lakes.
Perry had been born twenty-seven years before in Rhode Island. Despite his family’s Quaker wellsprings, his father, Christopher, had fought in the Revolution, and Oliver was wild to get to sea by the time he was thirteen. The next year his father took him in as a midshipman on his frigate, and the boy saw action in the Caribbean during the naval war with France. He served in the Mediterranean at the time of the Tripolitan war and was made an acting lieutenant in 1803 and a permanent one four years later. He spent the first two years of his lieutenancy employed in the frus trating task of building gunboats; these balky craft were part of an illusory scheme to keep the British navy from violating Jefferson’s embargo. At last, in 1809, he was given command of the schooner Revenge . He got some creditable attention when he captured an American ship whose skipper had, in effect, stolen her from her owners and sailed her under English colors. For the most part, however, his duty was unspeakably tedious: he was to cruise up and down the Atlantic coast on the lookout for seizures of American ships by British men-of-war—which in any event the fourteen small guns of the Revenge would have been powerless to forestall. Even so, it was better than gunboat service. Then in January of 1811 the Revenge , making for New London in a thick fog, ran aground and sank. The pilot was in charge at the time, and Perry was completely exonerated at the court of inquiry that followed. Nevertheless he was dismayed to find himself back on gunboat duty, operating out of Newport. Fretful and restless, he wrote everyone he could think of, begging for a different service; and at last, a little more than a year after the loss of the Revenge , Chauncey petitioned for Perry to serve under him, saying that the young captain could “be employed to great advantage, particularly on Lake Erie, where I shall not be able to go so early as I expected, owing to the increasing force of the enemy on this lake.”
Chauncey had made a brilliant choice, but in his petition can be read a clue to the shortcomings that would hamstring the man in his own operations on Lake Ontario. He was always haunted by the “increasing force of the enemy,” and it is fortunate indeed that his English counterpart across the lake, Sir James Lucas Yeo, harbored the same fears. Yeo turned up available for duty when he lost his ship on an uncharted reef in the West Indies. The court-martial took a lenient view of his mishap and acquitted Yeo; then, for little better reason than the fact that he had lost his ship and needed a job, he was given command of the British naval forces on the Lakes.
He immediately began to build ships on Lake Ontario, and Chauncey did the same. All through the spring and summer of 1813 the balance of naval power seesawed back and forth as Yeo and Chauncey launched ever larger ships. Chauncey was a magnificent organizer; he produced a strong fleet out of raw timber in the wilderness but was always scared to fight it. And so with Yeo; he built the ships but lacked the determination to use them as they should be used. The two growing navies sparred timidly at each other and then retired to equip themselves better for the decisive action that would someday come. This shipbuilding race was carried to extremes; by the end of the war Chauncey had nearly finished building a 130-gun ship of the line, a vessel three times larger than anything America had on salt water. But by that time Perry’s operations on Lake Erie had made the command of Lake Ontario seem little more than a tactical exercise.
As soon as Perry got his transfer orders from the Navy Department, he sent fifty carpenters and sailors north to Erie, and he himself set out by sleigh. He arrived at Presque Isle at dusk on March 27. Noah Brown, the New York shipbuilder, had arrived two weeks before and was there with Dobbins to greet Perry when he arrived in the haggard town. The winter had slowed construction down, but Perry found the two brigs well under way as he first examined them in the fading light.