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Fort Malden National Historic Site of Canada

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The Battle of Lake Erie

As a remote and isolated post, Fort Malden's defensibility was integrally linked to the maintenance of the supply lines to Niagara, York and beyond. Superiority of the British fleet on Lake Erie was therefore essential to the continued occupation of the fort and control of the southwestern Ontario peninsula. In June 1813, British Captain Robert Barclay, an experienced naval officer who had served at Trafalgar, arrived in Amherstburg to take charge of naval operations. The small fleet that he took over was lacking in equipment and trained sailors, in part because naval stores at York had been taken by the Americans in April, in part because his superior on Lake Ontario, Sir James Yeo, had retained much of the available personnel for himself. Compounding the problem of shortages, a major new vessel, the Detroit, was nearing the launching stage, with little hope of additional resources to outfit her.

The Americans entered the war thinking that they could succeed through the use of land based forces, but losses at Detroit and elsewhere led them to understand the importance of control on the Great Lakes. Work on a fleet for Lake Erie commenced at Presqu'ile, which had a land-locked harbour with insufficient depth to admit fully armed vessels. In March 1813, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry assumed command of this shipbuilding operation and he channelled all of his energy into the effort. He too was plagued by supply and personnel problems. His superior on Lake Ontario, like the British Commander, was also keeping the bulk of the resources for himself. Furthermore, Barclay's fleet from Amherstburg was blockading the Presqu'ile harbour and preventing the entry into the lake of Perry's two new 20 gun brigs, the Lawrence.and the Niagara.

On July 31, for reasons not clearly understood, Barclay lifted his blockade of the harbour for about four days. Making ingenious use of rafts constructed for this purpose, Perry was able to raise his two large vessels high enough to clear the sandbar in the mouth of the harbour and when Barclay returned, he found the newly constructed American brigs in the lake. Unaware that the two large brigs were not yet outfitted, Barclay withdrew the British fleet to Long Point and subsequently returned to Amherstburg. Perry thus gained the time he needed to ready his ships for action. He then sailed for the well protected harbour at Put-In-Bay on South Bass Island, which was to be his base of operations while he waited for Barclay to make the next move.

With the supply route controlled by the new American fleet, Barclay and General Procter, the British military commander at Amherstburg, had little choice: they either abandoned Fort Amherstburg and the Southwestern Ontario Peninsula, or they had to defeat the Americans. By September 9, their situation was becoming desperate and on the evening of that date, Barclay slipped in Lake Erie. Because of the supply shortages, his recently launched flagship, the Detroit, was armed with an undesirable mixture of cannons from the fort, and much of his crew was in the form of soldiers, rather than trained seamen.

Early on the morning of the 10th, a lookout at Put-In-Bay, spotted the British fleet and at 7:00 am the American fleet of nine vessels set out to meet the British six. However, as both commanders knew, it would be the two largest vessels of each side that would decide the outcome of the battle. Barclay, outfitted with long-range cannons from the fort would have superiority if he could engage the enemy at a distance. Perry, with his large calibre, but short range carronades had decided superiority if he could close in on the British. Which ever side was to have the wind advantage, or the "weather gauge", could choose the type of battle to be fought, and would probably emerge victorious.

As the fleets approached each other, the weather gauge was Barclay's. But a change in the wind gave the advantage over to Perry. The battle started at about 11:45am when the Detroit.opened up with her long guns, and notwithstanding the wind advantage, by 2:30pm in the afternoon the American flagship, the Lawrence, was a floating wreck, her guns disabled and four out of five men on board either dead or wounded. The second large American vessel, the Niagara, had not closed in for battle and remained intact. Perry struck his colours from the Lawrence.and transferred to the Niagara.to resume the battle. Barclay, in the meantime, had also suffered heavy casualties and damage on board the Detroit.and Queen Charlotte, and by this time the Captain and First Lieutenant of every British ship was either killed or wounded, including Barclay himself. All of the British ships were now in command of lesser experienced junior officers.

As the undamaged Niagara.approached the British ships the Detroit.responded slowly to a necessary turn and she became entangled with the Queen Charlotte. The Niagara.ailed right between the British line, and delivered a devastating broadside. Despite their desperate position, the British ships fought back and inflicted even more casualties on the Americans. But the battle was nearly over. The ships were so badly damaged as to be unable to manoeuver; most of their guns were out of action, and casualties were heavy. At three o'clock, the battle was over, the British fleet had surrendered. As a result, the British position at Amherstburg was now untenable, and the abandonment of the fort was to follow.

Both sides had entered the battle with approximately equal personnel, a little more than 500 each. Of these, British and Canadian casualties were 135 killed and wounded, and American, 123, a 25% casualty rate! After the battle, both fleets lay at anchor near West Sister Island, where they made repairs and buried their enlisted dead. On September 11, they sailed to Put-In-Bay, and on Sunday, September 12, the six officers killed, three British and three American, were interred on South Bass Island with full honours. The joint funeral ceremony symbolized the mutual respect which the two sides held for each other after an emotional, hard-fought, bloody battle.

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