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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
Yet Perry was under constant pressure to go out and fight. The Secretary of the Navy, ignorant of the situation on Lake Erie, wrote Perry demanding that he cooperate with General William Henry Harrison. After Hull had been annihilated at Detroit, Harrison raised a force that was known by the somewhat pathetic name of “the second Northwestern Army.” Now Harrison had his troops in northern Ohio, facing the army of British General Henry Procter. Neither general could move without being assured of friendly control on Lake Erie; so in order to cooperate with Harrison, Perry had to secure the lake for the Americans. There was nothing that Perry wished to do more, but neither Harrison nor the Navy Department knew that he was for the moment powerless to move. The Department had been sending men to Chauncey right along. These men were designated for service on Lake Erie as well as Lake Ontario, the Department’s optimistic theory being that Chauncey would wisely select the number of men needed by Perry and then dispatch them to Presque Isle. Chauncey, on the other hand, felt that he needed the men on Lake Ontario and kept them there.
Perry, by now frantic, wrote strong letters to Chauncey. He sent Dobbins out to try to drum up recruits and promised ten dollars a month to anybody who would serve for four months or until a decisive battle was fought. His recruiting drew a meager response; not more than sixty men volunteered. Then in mid-July he received an urgent order from the Navy Department and a letter from Harrison, both demanding that he sail. And on the same day the topsails of a British fleet poked up over the horizon off Presque Isle.
In an ecstasy of frustration Perry wrote a strained, grandiloquent letter to Chauncey: The enemy’s fleet of six sail are now off the bar of this harbour. What a golden opportunity if we had men. … I am constantly looking to the eastward; every mail and every traveller from that quarter is looked to as the harbinger of the glad tidings of our men being on their way. … Give me men, sir, and I will acquire both for you and myself honour and glory on this lake, or perish in the attempt. … Think of my situation; the enemy in sight, the vessels under my command more than sufficient, and ready to make sail, and yet obliged to bite my fingers with vexation for want of men.
Perry did not worry about the British sailing in and sinking his ships; the sandbar would prevent that. But on any dark night they might land a force in boats and attack the garrison and burn his flotilla. He had some rudimentary fortifications, but they were weak and manned by a ludicrous regiment of Pennsylvania militia who, apparently afraid of the dark, would not stand watch at night. When Perry questioned their captain about this peculiar shortcoming, he received the reasonable reply “I told the boys to go, Captain, but the boys won’t go.”
Three days after his last letter Perry wrote Chauncey another: “For God’s sake and yours, and mine, send me men and officers, and I will have them all in a day or two.” But no men came, and the British fleet rode easily in the calm weather, always in view, mocking Perry’s impotence.
It might have given Perry some scant solace to know that the commander of the British fleet was harassed by exactly the same difficulties that were dogging him. Robert Heriot Barclay was the sort of officer who made possible Britain’s long maritime supremacy. The same age as Perry, he had spent more than half his life at sea. He had lost an arm serving with Nelson at Trafalgar, and after the great three-deckers he was used to, the scrabbly little collection of craft on Lake Erie must have seemed very modest to him. Still it represented a command, although one officer had already refused it on the grounds that the squadron was undermanned and in poor shape. Barclay reached his fleet at Amherstburg, where the Detroit River spills into the western end of Lake Erie, in the spring of 1813 and immediately went to work with the same energy Perry had shown. His first request was for men, but Yeo, who was cut from the same cloth as Chauncey, wanted to keep his sailors on Lake Ontario. Barclay complained that virtually every man Yeo did send his way was “a poor devil not worth his salt.” Nevertheless Barclay managed to win the loyalty of such men as he had and worked them into an effective fighting force. It was obvious that he was in better shape than Perry when he brought his fleet out to blockade Presque Isle.
At last Chauncey doled out a few men, though they were not much to Perry’s liking. “The men that came … ,” Perry complained, “are a motley set, blacks, soldiers, and boys. …” Chauncey sent him an exasperated reply, saying: “I regret that you are not pleased with the men sent you … for, to my knowledge, a part of them are not surpassed by any seamen we have in the fleet; and I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” As it turned out, perhaps a quarter of Perry’s crew were blacks, and they fought superbly when the time came.