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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
Perry had men now—not many, but enough to sail his ships. His immediate problem was the sandbar. Though it had long protected his fleet, it was now a hindrance, for it would be a simple matter for Barclay to sweep down and shoot apart Perry’s squadron while the ships were being worked across the bar into the open lake. Barclay’s fleet kept watch over Perry until the end of July, and then, unaccountably, it vanished. It has been said the British captain was called away to go to a banquet across the lake; whatever the reason, his departure would prove to be a costly mistake.
Perry, rejoicing in his opponent’s absence, went to work. Getting the ships out of the harbor turned out to be a nightmarish job. Before he left, Noah Brown had built some “camels”—scows with no draft to speak of that could be flooded and then pumped out. As they were pumped dry they rose, lifting a ship braced between them enough so that she could negotiate the bar. But the bar was shallower than anyone had thought, and both the Lawrence and the Niagara got hung up on it. This meant four days of the worst kind of work: taking off all the guns and fittings, rowing them ashore, and then bringing them back again. And all the time this was going on, there was the chance that Barclay would reappear and finish things for good. He did finally reappear, but by then the Lawrence was out in open water, and Barclay declined to fight.
With his whole fleet across the bar Perry was joined by Jesse Duncan Elliott, who had brought down two more schooners from Buffalo, as well as two lieutenants, eight midshipmen, and eighty-nine seamen. Chauncey and Perry had long before agreed that the latter would need at least seven hundred and forty men to man his ships, but he was putting to sea with fewer than four hundred—less than a quarter of them part of the regular Navy. Nevertheless Perry was out of the harbor, with his squadron complete and ready to fight. Then, soon after his ships had cleared the bar, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy resigning his command.
Perry must have been half mad with fatigue and strain. He was sick again, and his acrimonious exchange with Chauncey was rankling him. “I cannot serve longer,” he wrote, “under an officer who has been so totally regardless of my feelings.” Perry had a quick temper, and he most likely regretted the letter after he sent it; in any event, the request—no doubt to Perry’s great relief—was not taken seriously. The Secretary replied in a temperate letter, saying: “A change of commander, under existing circumstances, is equally inadmissible as it respects the interest of the service and your own reputation. It is right that you should reap the harvest which you have sown.”
It was weeks before Perry could reap his harvest, but they were valuable weeks. He cruised around the lake, exercising his crews and getting the feel of his squadron. He met with General Harrison, who, on September i, sent him a hundred Kentucky soldiers with their fabulous long rifles; the lanky, skeptical men poked around the ships and made a general nuisance of themselves. They brought Perry’s complement up to four hundred and ninety. Still weak from his sickness yet anxious for action, Perry based his squadron in Put-in Bay, a fine harbor in the Bass Islands, some thirty miles southeast of Amherstburg.
Barclay knew Perry was nearby, but he was loath to fight him, for his own ships were desperately undermanned. He had a fine new brig, the Detroit , built at Amherstburg. Yeo was no more anxious to give over guns than he was men, and so the ship had been constructed without her builders having any idea of what sort of armament she was to carry. Eventually Barclay armed her with field guns borrowed from General Procter. There were six different types of cannon among her nineteen guns, which would mean inconceivable difficulties with ammunition supply once the fighting started. By now Procter was desperate; thousands of his Indian allies were consuming rations, and until the Americans were dislodged from the lake, no more food could come in. Barclay was faced with the choice of abandoning the fleet or going out to fight. For a British naval officer that was no choice at all. When Barclay reluctantly weighed anchor late in the day on September 9, there was one day’s supply of flour left at Amherstburg.