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The Chase of the Royal George

It was hard for both sides to move their armies in Upper New York State and Upper Canada in 1812 because most of it was wilderness. There were few roads and the ones that were there were not very good at all making it very difficult to deploy troops and keep them supplied.

By far the easiest and fastest way to move troops and supplies was by water, so they used the creeks and rivers to move the troops and keep them supplied. It became apparent early in the war that the side that controlled the lakes had the advantage when it came to distant points in the countryside. Brock's rapid advance to the Detroit Frontier and it's subsequent capture was made possible by British control of Lake Erie.

President Madison and his cabinet, in discussing their plans for the campaign of 1813, realized that control of Lakes Erie and Ontario was very important and necessary to the success of summer operations. To reach this objective they planned a naval build up to sweep the British from the Great Lakes and keep supply lines open.

With the ships built and manned, the Americans chose Captain Isaac Chauncey, commandant of the New York Shipyards, to oversee the developement of a fleet on the lakes. By the end of September 1812, Seamen, labourers and construction materials were pouring into Sackett's Harbor, the main naval base at the eastern end of Lake Ontario.

At the outbreak of the war the American presence on the two lakes consisted of the six gun brig "Adams" on Lake Erie and the sixteen gun brig "Oneida" on Lake Ontario. The "Adams" hauled down her colours at Detroit leaving the Americans with no ships on Lake Erie at all.

The British naval organization on the lakes had bee in place since the days of the French and Indian Wars of the mid 1700's. It was revitalized during the American Revolution and prior to the war was used for conducting government business and moving troops from one place to another. The force, however, was not part of the British Navy, but reported to the military authorities in Quebec. It was known as the Provincial Marine.

The Provincial Marine was undermanned and its officers were of indifferent quality. Captain Andrew Gray, acting Deputy Quartermaster General, reported to Sir George Prevost in december 1812 on the state of his naval arm: "The officers of the Marine appear to be destitute of all energy and spirit, and are sunk into contempt in the eyes of all that know them. The want of seamen is so great that the "Royal George" has only seven men on board who are capable of doing their duty, and the "Moira" has only ten able seamen. On the other hand the efforts of the enemy are such, that nothing can save our navy from destruction, the moment navigation opens in the spring".

Prevost was aware of the short comings of the Provincial Marine. His solution to the problem was to get the Royal Navy involved. He wrote Lord Bathurst, the Colonial Secretary, and Sir John Borlase Warren, whose headquarters at Halifax controlled naval operations from Newfoundland to the west Indies, asking for veteran officers and seamen from the fleet.

His Majesty's Brig, the "Royal George" was completing another leg of her patrol watching for enemy shipping between Wolfe Island and Amherst Island at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Lieutenant George Smith, the ships's second Lieutenant had the watch along with Midshipmen John Ridout, son of the Surveyor General of Upper Canada. They would soon come about and begin the tedious run back across to Big Sandy Bay where the process would repeat itself.

The winds of early November cut through Smith's boat cloak like a knife. Despite his attempts to control it, he shivered with the cold.

As he thought about calling the captain for the change in coarse a hail came from the masthead, "Deck there, sail on the port bow". his thought of another merchant schooner on it's way into Kingston was cut short by the next call from the lookout, "Enemy in sight," there was a slight pause then, "Brig and four schooners, sir, looks like the "Oneida" sir".

The captain ran to the quarter deck "Beat to quarters, Mr Smith, clear for action" he said. The crew rushed to comply with the orders, but Lieutenant Smith knew how short handed they were. If they stood their ground and fought the enemy there was little doubt of the outcome.

The Americans had the wind gauge and could run down on them at will where they would have to beat up into the wind to come to grips, they were in a trap.

One of the schooners fired a ranging shot, which fell short. The next went through the main sail and a whole appeared as if by magic. "Those schooners are mounted with long 32 pounders by the sounds of it sir," Lieutenant Smith called out. Just then a ball smashed through the port gangway deadly wooden splinters across the deck. Three men went down due to these injuries and were taken below deck.

"Set all plain sail, Mr Smith, and get the stud sails on her if you can,"ordered the captain. "We'll go around Amherst Island and take the North Channel to Kingston; We'll give them a run.' The crew worked quickly to get the sails ready.

For two days the "Royal George" led her pursuers up the North Channel taking several hits from the schooners' big 32 pounders. Fortunately for them nothing vital was carried away and they managed to make it into Kingston Harbour.

The shore batteries kept the American ships at bay. They were soon forced to withdraw to Sackett's Harbor as the navigation season ended until spring. Winter set in leaving the Americans and British forces the long cold months to think about the coming battles.