The Battle of Lake Erie

Commander Robert Barclay, the one armed senior British naval officer on Lake Erie, inspects his little flotilla with some pride. Although it was undermanned and the quality of the seamen was suspect, he felt they could give a good account of themselves against the Americans.

The corvette "Detroit" was without her proper guns and there was little prospect of them arriving quickly. She was designed to carry sixteen 24 pound carronades and four long 12 pounders. It was decided to split up the ordinance among the ships to arm her. The guns taken from the floating batteries were replaced by guns from Fort Maiden.

The task of shifting the guns was not an easy one. The barrel of a long twelve weighed almost two tonnes and it's carriage just under half of that. For hours work crews strained with block and tackle to sway the guns aboard ship and to place them.

When all was completed Barclay reviewed the ships under his command. They were: the "Detroit" of three hundred tons mounting seventeen guns and two Carronades, of which he took personal command; the "Queen Charlotte" of two hundred tons with three guns and fourteen carronades commanded by Commander Robert Finnis; the "Lady Prevost" of ninety-six tons with three guns and ten carronades, Lieutenant Edward Buchan commanding; the "General Hunter" commanded by George Bignell of seventy-five tons mounting six guns and two carronades; the "Little Belt" of sixty tons with three guns; and the thirty-five tons Chippawa commanded by John Campbell mounting a single nine pounder. In total Barclay could muster six vessels with thirty five guns and twenty-eight carronades. The crews of the squadron totaled four hundred and forty.

Despite the preperations that were made, there were some nagging problems. The guns fired by means of a flintlock similar to those used on a musket. However, the flintlocks in the Lake Erie squadron were so old and decrepit that the gun captains were forced to trigger their guns by firing a pistol at the vent. This greatly reduced the rate of fire.

The American squadron commanded by Master Commandant Oliver Hazzard Perry consisted of the two hundred and sixty tonne "Lawrence" mounting two guns and eighteen carronades commanded by Perry himself; the "Niagara" of two hundred and sixty tons with the same compliment of guns and carronades; the eighty-five tons "Caledonia" with two guns and single carronade; the "Ariel" of sixty tons mounting four guns; the "Somers" of sixty-five tons mounting one gun and one carronade; the sixty ton "Scorpion" had same armament; the "Porcupine" , the "Tigeress" and the "Trippe" of fifty tons each with a single gun mounted on swivels rounded out the squadron.

Unlike Barclay more than half of Perry's crews were from the eastern seaboard and many had combat experience. There were even some veterans from the "Constitution" that was refitting at Boston. The Americans boasted nine ships with crews totaling five hundred and thirty-two men.

Barclay waited for his expected reinforcements but when none arrived he gave orders to weigh anchor at 3:00 p.m. on the 9th of September, a Thursday. They sailed away from Amherstburg in search of the Americans.

At dawn the next day a hail from the masthead shook the sleep from everyone's eyes, "Deck there, enemy in sight." Barclay steadied his glass with his good arm and watched the American squadron fighting it's way out of it's anchorage at Put-in-Bay. One thing was in his favor at least, the wind was blowing lightly from the southwest giving him the weather gauge, that is, his ships would be between the wind and the enemy.

They were still five kilometres apart at 10 a.m. when the fitful breeze died away. To Barclay's chargrin it immediately returned but this time from the southeast. The enemy now had the weather gauge.

At 11:45 a bugle sounded aboard the "Detroit" and the entire British line broke into songs and cheering. The battle of Lake Erie was about to get underway.

Barclay ordered the gunner to try a ranging shot and one of the "Detroit's" long 24 pounders belched fire and smoke. The round shot fell short. A second was seen to to strike the Lawrence on the forward bulwark and Barclay could picture the flying splinters raking the deck.

The "Lawrence" began to close with the "Detroit" but the British gunnery was taking a terrible toll. Not only was the "Detroit" hammering away at the "Lawrence" but Master's Mate John Campbell had his "Chippawa" firing his tiny 9 pounder at her as well.

Elsewhere the "Queen Charlotte" was having problems. The "Niagara" and the "Caledonia" were engaging her at a distance and she could not bring her guns to bear. To compound matters, in the early minutes of the battle a round shot killed Commander Finnis leaving Barclay without his most experienced captain. Lieutenant Thomas Stokoe who took over command also fell with a splinter wound. Command devolved to Provincial Marine Lieutenant Robert Irvine.

By 2:30 p.m. the "Detroit" had reduced the "Lawrence" to a floating hulk and Perry was seen leaving her. He transfered his flag to the "Niagara", which had escaped serious damage to that point. As soon as Perry was clear, the "Lawrence" struck her colours.

Perry took command of the "Niagara" and bore down on the "Detroit" to engage her with his carronades. Barclay watched the oncoming brig with much apprehension. The "Detroit" was in a bad way and the enemy almost unmarked. Then a blast of canister struck him in the back tearing his shoulder blade. Command of the ship fell to his second lieutenant, George Inglis.

The "Niagara" pounded the "Detroit" with her carronades and Inglis ordered the bow of the ship be brought across the wind bringing the starboard battery into action. A shuttering crash brought cries of alarm from the battle weary crew. The "Detroit" had collided with the "Queen Charlotte" entangling their rigging. The two ships lay wallowing helplessly. The "Niagara" crossed her bow and raked her stern to stern.

The Niagara broke the British line pounding the British ships from both starboard and larboard batteries. The deck of the "Lady Prevost" was empty except for the tragic figure of her commander, Lieutenant Edward Buchan who was hanging over the rail screaming in agony from a terrible wound. Perry saw this and ordered his larboard battery to cease firing.

The "Queen Charlotte" struck her colours as the "Detroit" broke free from their embrace. Inglis tried to get his ship under control but to no avail. Since the ensign had been nailed to the stump of the mast Inglis ordered that a white flag be waved as a sign of surrender. The Battle of Lake Erie was over.

Barclay tendered his sword, but Perry refused it telling all the British officers to keep their weapons as a sign of their gallant fight. Control of Lake Erie now passed to the Americans with grave consequences for the forces at Amherstburg.