Assessing the Situation
In the wake of the failed campaigns of 1812, newly re-elected President James Madison was forced to reassess the strategic situation along the Canadian border. In the Northwest, Major General William Henry Harrison had replaced the disgraced Brigadier General William Hull and was tasked with re-taking Detroit. Diligently training his men, Harrison was checked at the River Raisin and unable to advance without American control of Lake Erie. Elsewhere, New England remained reluctant to play an active role in supporting the war effort making a campaign against Quebec an unlikely prospect. As a result, it was decided to focus American efforts for 1813 on achieving victory on Lake Ontario and the Niagara frontier. Success on this front also required control of the lake. To this end, Captain Isaac Chauncey had been dispatched to Sackets Harbor, NY in 1812 for the purpose of constructing a fleet on Lake Ontario. It was believed that victory in and around Lake Ontario would cut off Upper Canada and open the way for an attack on Montreal.
The Tide Turns at Sea
Having achieved stunning success over the Royal Navy in a series of ship-to-ship actions in 1812, the small US Navy sought to continue its run of good form by attacking British merchant ships and remaining on the offensive. To this end, the frigate USS Essex (46 guns) under Captain David Porter, patrolled the South Atlantic scooping up prizes in late 1812, before rounding Cape Horn in January 1813. Seeking to strike the British whaling fleet in the Pacific, Porter arrived at Valparaiso, Chile in March. For the remainder of the year, Porter cruised with great success and inflicted heavy losses on British shipping. Returning to Valparaiso in January 1814, he was blockaded by the British frigate HMS Phoebe (36) and sloop of war HMS Cherub (18). Fearing that additional British ships were en route, Porter attempted to break out on March 28. As Essex exited the harbor, it lost its main topmast in a freak squall. With his ship damaged, Porter was unable to return to port and soon brought to action by the British. Standing off Essex, which was largely armed with short-range carronades, the British pounded Porter's ship with their long guns for over two hours ultimately forcing him to surrender. Among those captured on board was young Midshipman David G. Farragut who would later lead the Union Navy during the Civil War.
While Porter was enjoying success in the Pacific, the British blockade began to tighten along the American coast keeping many of the US Navy's heavy frigates in port. While the effectiveness of the US Navy was hampered, hundreds of American privateers preyed upon British shipping. During the course of the war, they captured between 1,175 and 1,554 British ships. One ship that was at sea early in 1813 was Master Commandant James Lawrence's brig USS Hornet (20). On February 24, he engaged and captured the brig HMS Peacock (18) off the coast of South America. Returning home, Lawrence was promoted to captain and given command of the frigate USS Chesapeake (50) at Boston. Completing repairs to ship, Lawrence prepared to put to sea in late May. This was hastened by the fact that only one British ship, the frigate HMS Shannon (52), was blockading the harbor. Commanded by Captain Philip Broke, Shannon was a crack ship with a highly trained crew. Eager to engage the American, Broke issued a challenge to Lawrence to meet him in battle. This proved unnecessary as Chesapeake emerged from the harbor on June 1.
Possessing a larger, but greener crew, Lawrence sought to continue the US Navy's streak of victories. Opening fire, the two ships battered each other before coming together. Ordering his men to prepare to board Shannon, Lawrence was mortally wounded. Falling, his last words were reputedly, "Don't give up the Ship! Fight her till she sinks." Despite this encouragement, the raw American sailors were quickly overwhelmed by Shannon's crew and Chesapeake was soon captured. Taken to Halifax, it was repaired and saw service in the Royal Navy until being sold in 1820.
"We Have Met the Enemy..."
As American naval fortunes were turning at sea, a naval building race was underway on the shores of Lake Erie. In an attempt to regain naval superiority on the lake, the US Navy began construction of two 20-gun brigs at Presque Isle, PA (Erie, PA). In March 1813, the new commander of American naval forces on Lake Erie, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, arrived at Presque Isle. Assessing his command, he found that there was a general shortage of supplies and men. While diligently overseeing the construction of the two brigs, named USS Lawrence and USS Niagara, Perry traveled to Lake Ontario in May 1813, to secure additional seamen from Chauncey. While there, he collected several gunboats for use on Lake Erie. Departing from Black Rock, he was nearly intercepted by the new British commander on Lake Erie, Commander Robert H. Barclay. A veteran of Trafalgar, Barclay had arrived at the British base of Amherstburg, Ontario on June 10.
Though both sides were hampered by supply issues they worked through the summer to complete their fleets with Perry finishing his two brigs and Barclay commissioning the 19-gun ship HMS Detroit. Having gained naval superiority, Perry was able to cut the British supply lines to Amherstburg forcing Barclay to seek battle. Departing Put-in-Bay on September 10, Perry maneuvered to engage the British squadron. Commanding from Lawrence, Perry flew a large battle flag emblazoned with his friend's dying command, "Don't Give Up the Ship!" In the resulting Battle of Lake Erie, Perry won a stunning victory that saw bitter fighting and the American commander compelled to switch ships midway through the engagement. Capturing the entire British squadron, Perry sent a brief dispatch to Harrison announcing, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."