Tecumseh: A Chronicle of the last Great Leader of his People: Chapter 9
The Battle of Lake Erie
The hope of the British now centred in their fleet, which commanded Lake Erie. It was known that Harrison was anxious to regain Detroit and invade Canada, but he could do nothing until the control of the lake had been won. Towards this object the Americans now bent their energies, sparing no expense in their effort to equip a lake fleet superior to that of the British. Several new ships were building in the port of Presqu'isle (now Erie), Pennsylvania, under the direction of Captain Oliver Perry, the young officer in command on Lake Erie. At length nine American vessels were fitted out—Lawrence, twenty guns; Niagara, twenty guns; Caledonia, three guns; Ariel, four guns; Scorpion, two guns; Somers, two guns; Trippe, one gun; Porcupine, one gun; Tigress, one gun. These boats were commanded by able officers and were manned chiefly by experienced seamen taken from the crews of frigates which were blockaded in the seaports.
Opposed to this fleet Canada had on Lake Erie a squadron consisting of six vessels—Queen Charlotte, seventeen guns; Lady Prevost, thirteen guns; Hunter, ten guns; Little Belt, three guns; Chippewa, one gun; Detroit, still on the stocks at Amherstburg, nineteen guns. Captain Robert Barclay, one of Nelson's heroes at Trafalgar, was in command. Like the great admiral under whom he served, he had lost an arm in naval conflict, which gained for him the Indian title of 'our father with the one arm.'
The American ships had been in readiness since the early part of July, but were blockaded in Presqu'isle. There were but seven feet of water on the bar at the entrance to the harbour, which made it impossible for the larger ships to sail out with their heavy armament on board and in face of a fire from the British ships. Barclay, assured of his mastery of the situation, frequently visited places along the coast in search of provisions. The enemy, who maintained constant and careful watch, took advantage of his absence on one of these occasions and skilfully slipped their vessels over the bar. Barclay, on returning, saw with dismay that the American fleet had escaped from Presqu'isle, and, realizing that the control of the lake had passed from his hands, he directed his course towards Amherstburg to hasten the completion of the Detroit.
Starvation threatened the garrison at Amherstburg. Indians swarmed about the fort, their numbers seeming to increase as the food supply diminished. Barclay writes, 'There was not a day's flour in the store and the squadron was on half allowance of many things,' and 'it was necessary to fight the enemy to enable us to get supplies of every description.' Immediate battle was inevitable, and on the efforts of the navy hung a momentous issue. Should it fail, supplies from Niagara would be cut off and Harrison's forces, which were stationed in readiness for this opportunity, would march in and crush Procter's command.
From Bois Blanc Island Tecumseh and his warriors followed with interest the manoeuvres of the American ships. They watched with wonder the spreading sails, which in the morning sun looked like a flock of huge white sea-gulls. Naval warfare was new to many of the Indians, and they gazed in silent awe as the ships sailed towards Amherstburg. Tecumseh, who closely followed their movements, assured the Indians crowded about him on the beach that these vessels with their proud white sails would soon be destroyed by 'their father with the one arm.' But there were no signs of immediate battle, and Tecumseh grew impatient. Launching his canoe, he paddled over to Amherstburg to discover the reason of delay. 'A few days since you were boasting that you commanded the waters; why do you not go out and meet the Americans?' he demanded of Procter. 'See, yonder they are waiting for you and daring you to meet them.' Procter assured Tecumseh that the delay would not be long; the British were waiting for the completion of the Detroit. The chief returned to the island to inform his warriors that the big canoes of their great fathers were not yet ready and that the destruction of the American fleet must be delayed a few days.
Barclay remained in Amherstburg to hasten the completion of the Detroit, his largest vessel. But, at length, as further delay was dangerous, she had to be launched as she was, in a rough and imperfect condition. In default of other guns, she was armed with long battering pieces taken from the ramparts of the fort. Every calibre of gun was used, and so incomplete was her equipment that her cannon had to be discharged by flashing pistols at the touch-holes.
Long and vainly had Barclay waited for the arrival of the promised seamen from Lake Ontario, with whom he hoped to man his ships. His insistent appeal and final remonstrance were treated with indifference. There were but fifty experienced seamen in the British ships, the remainder of the crews consisting of two hundred and forty soldiers and eighty Canadian volunteer sailors, who had no proper training in seamanship and gunnery. While Barclay was obliged to enter the contest with his fleet thus wretchedly equipped, Perry had a force of over five hundred men, hardy frontiersmen and experienced soldiers, and a sufficiency of trained seamen to work his squadron in any weather or circumstance. On the night of September 9 the British commander ran up his flag, weighed anchor, and set sail, hoping to encounter early next morning the American fleet, which lay thirty or more miles distant at Put-in-Bay.
The grey curtain of morning mist rolled up from Lake Erie, where the British fleet stood out in battle array. A light breeze rippled the surface of the lake and filled the swelling sails. Barclay took advantage of the favourable wind and bore towards the American vessels, which were lying among a cluster of islands. He put forth every effort to reach them before they could sail clear of the islands to form their line. But the wind was so light that they had got away from their cramped quarters before Barclay could come near them.
The enemy's fleet now bore towards the British, Perry leading in his flagship the Lawrence. From his mast-head flew a flag with the motto, 'Don't give up the ship'—the dying words of Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake, after whom the vessel was named. The British fleet, compactly formed and under easy sail, awaited the enemy's approach. Captain Barclay in his flagship Detroit headed towards the south-west. The Chippewa, Hunter, Queen Charlotte, Lady Prevost, and Little Belt, in close column, followed in his wake. The breeze, still light, veered to the north-east, giving the Americans the weather gauge.
About noon the action began. The roar of the Detroit's twenty-four pounder, reverberating over the lake, told the anxious watchers on land that the battle had begun. The first shot fell short, but the second struck the decks of the Lawrence, dealing death and destruction. Perry's Scorpion now opened fire with her long thirty-two, and the Lawrence with her long twelves and her carronades. As soon as the two flagships were engaged, the battle was taken up by the Scorpion, Ariel, and Caledonia opposed to the Chippewa, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter.
For over two hours Barclay engaged Perry, until brace and bowline of the Lawrence had been shot away. The American flagship's hull was rent by shot and shell and every gun on her fighting side dismounted. The condition of the Detroit was equally perilous. Masts and rigging were cut to pieces and her decks torn and splintered from the heavy fire of the Lawrence. Captain Barclay's remaining arm had been disabled in the early part of the action, and, weak from his wounds, he had been carried below. But the valiant crew, inspired by the courage and determination of their officers, stubbornly continued the fight.
Perry's ship being reduced to a wreck, that gallant young commander, still undaunted, determined to abandon her. Hauling down his flag, he bade four stout seamen row him to the Niagara. The little boat sped swiftly on her way; all about her the water was churned to foam by shot and shell. Those on the flagship anxiously watched the dangerous passage, and broke into cheers as their commander reached the Niagara's deck in safety and ran up his flag on that ship. The Lawrence now struck to the Detroit, but the latter's small boats had been so damaged by the enemy's fire that they were not seaworthy, The British, therefore, were unable to take possession of their prize before the action recommenced.
A fresh breeze sprang up, and the fortunes of the fight changed. The Americans still had the advantage of the wind, for Perry was able to choose both position and distance, while Barclay's ships became unmanageable for lack of proper seamen. The American fleet was now drawn up in line. The Niagara bore up to pierce the British line. Passing between the Lady Prevost, Little Belt, and Chippewa on the port side and the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter upon the starboard, she fired heavy broadsides both ways. The Detroit, anticipating the manoeuvre, attempted to wear, but in so doing ran foul of the Queen Charlotte. In this helpless condition the two British ships remained for some time. Perry, promptly availing himself of this accident, bore down upon the distressed vessels, pouring in broadside after broadside with deadly effect. The Detroit had already received rough treatment in combat with the Lawrence; and the smaller vessels now also made her a target, the Somers, Porcupine, Tigress, and Caledonia, which had closed up in the rear, keeping up a deadly fire astern.
Never in any naval action was the loss greater in proportion to the number of men engaged. The encounter had been so severe that every officer on the Detroit was either killed or wounded. Barclay's thigh was badly shattered and he had also been severely wounded in the shoulder. So deadly had been the fire from the American guns that three-fourths of his men were disabled. Without officers to direct or men to fight, resistance was no longer possible. All that perseverance and courage could do had been done. The brave Barclay was compelled to yield at last to a superior force and to double the weight of metal. The two ships so helplessly entangled were the first to strike their colours, and their example was followed by the Hunter and Lady Prevost. The Little Belt and the Chippewa endeavoured to escape, and led the Trippe and Scorpion a lively chase before they were eventually captured.
Cooper in his naval history remarks:
Stress was laid at the time on the fact that a portion of the British crews were Provincials, but the history of this continent is filled with instances which went to increase the renown of the mother country without obtaining any credit for it. The hardy frontier men of the American lakes are as able to endure fatigue, as ready to engage and as constant in battle as the seamen of any marine in the world. They merely require good leaders, and this the English appear to have possessed in Captain Barclay and his assistants.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when the flag of the Detroit was lowered, and Captain Barclay with his officers, amidst the dead and dying who cumbered her decks, gave up their swords to Perry on the Niagara. The American commander could not but feel the greatest admiration for his courageous opponent. Courteous as he was brave, Perry begged the British officers to retain their swords.
For three hours the cannon had thundered over Lake Erie on that fateful day, but, after the opening encounter, the manoeuvres of the ships were lost to those on shore in the heavy clouds of smoke that hung over the water. When these had cleared away, a scene was revealed that contrasted sadly with that disclosed by the lifting of the morning mist. Crippled and dismantled, the brave ships, whose sails had swelled so proudly in the morning breeze, now made their way towards Put-in-Bay.
The Indians, marvelling at the roar of the guns, watched intently the heavy smoke of battle drifting over the lake. When the thunder had ceased and the sky was clear they eagerly inquired as to the result of the fight; and Tecumseh demanded the reason for the vessels sailing in the direction of the American shore. Procter, fearing that the news of defeat might cause the chief and his warriors to desert, craftily explained that his vessels had beaten the Americans, but had gone to refit and would return in a few days. But Tecumseh's keen eyes soon detected signs on land which aroused his suspicions, for hasty preparations were being made for retreat. He was indignant at what seemed to him the cowardice of Procter, and demanded to be heard in the name of all his warriors. At a council of war held on September 18 the great orator delivered his last powerful speech. With flashing eye and rapid gesture he thundered forth to Procter:
Father, listen to your children! You have them now all before you.
The war before this, our British father gave the hatchet to his red children, when our old chiefs were alive. They are now dead. In that war our father was thrown on his back by the Americans; and our father took them by the hand without our knowledge; and we are afraid our father will do so again at this time.
Summer before last, when I came forward with my red brethren and was ready to take up the hatchet in favour of our British father, we were then told not to be in a hurry—that he had not yet determined to fight the Americans.
Listen! When war was declared our father stood up and gave us the tomahawk, and told us that he was then ready to strike the Americans; that he wanted our assistance, and that he certainly would get us back our lands, which the Americans had taken from us.
Listen! You told us at that time to bring forward our families to this place, and we did so, and you promised to take care of them and that they should want for nothing, while the men would go and fight the enemy; that we need not trouble ourselves about the enemy's garrisons; that we knew nothing about them and that our father would attend to that part of the business. You also told your red children that you would take good care of your garrison here, which made our hearts glad.
Listen! When you were last at the Rapids, it is true we gave you little assistance. It is hard to fight people who live like ground hogs.
Father, listen! Our fleet has gone out; we know they have fought; we have heard the great guns; but we know nothing of what has happened to 'our father with the one arm.' Our ships have gone one way, and we are much astonished to see our father tying up everything and preparing to run away the other, without letting his red children know what his intentions are. You always told us to remain here and take care of your lands; it made our hearts glad to hear that was your wish. Our great father, the king, is the head, and you represent him. You always told us you would never draw your foot off British ground; but now, father, we see that you are drawing back, and we are sorry to see our father doing so, without seeing the enemy. We must compare our father's conduct to a fat dog that carries its tail on its back, but when affrighted drops it between its legs and runs off.
Father, listen! The Americans have not yet defeated us by land, neither are we sure they have done so by water; we, therefore, wish to remain here and fight our enemy should they make their appearance. If they defeat us, we will then retreat with our father.
At the battle of the Rapids, last war, the Americans certainly defeated us; and when we returned to our father's fort at that place, the gates were shut against us. We were afraid it would again be the case, but instead of closing the gates we now see our British father preparing to march out of his garrison.
Father, you have the arms and ammunition which our great father sent for his red children. If you intend to retreat, give them to us, and you may go, and welcome, for us. Our lives are in the hands of the Great Spirit. We are determined to defend our lands, and if it be His will, we wish to leave our bones upon them.
This challenging, straightforward, and heroic speech failed to move Procter. He stubbornly refused to make a stand at Amherstburg, which, indeed, would have been fatal. Tecumseh, however, accused him of cowardice, contrasting his conduct with that of the courageous Barclay, and expressed his own fixed determination to remain and meet the enemy.