Isaac Chauncey held the most important American naval command during the War of 1812. Charged with creating and directing squadrons that would dominate the waters of Lakes Erie and Ontario, Chauncey’s command was “the hinge on which” U.S. strategic ambitions for the war turned.1 For without American naval ascendancy on the lakes, U.S. plans to invade and conquer Canada were unlikely to succeed, let alone have permanence.
That Chauncey, in the end, failed to execute successfully his charge on Lake Ontario has led many historians to conclude that he was a flawed commander who lacked the requisite qualities to lead his forces to victory. This judgment appears all the easier to make when the strategic impasse that characterized naval affairs on Lake Ontario is compared with the stunning triumphs that Master Commandants Oliver Hazard Perry and Thomas Macdonough engineered on Lakes Erie and Champlain.
While one can point to a number of factors underlying Chauncey’s failure to sweep the Royal Navy from Lake Ontario, the one that historians have most often cited is his cautiousness. Contemporary critics of Chauncey certainly found fault with him in this regard, deriding the commodore as a risk-averse commander who avoided combat unless he held “a decided superiority in men and guns” over his British antagonist.2 Fair or not, this unflattering assessment was repeated and more fully developed by three historians whose works on the War of 1812—all appearing within two and half decades of one another—are still considered authoritative—Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Adams, and Alfred Thayer Mahan.
Roosevelt described Chauncey as an “over-cautious” commander who likely would have swept the British fleet from Lake Ontario had he directed his squadron with the aggressive spirit of a Perry.3 Henry Adams faulted Chauncey for his role in redirecting American joint operations away from the British shipyard at Kingston, Upper Canada, in the spring of 1813, a strategic blunder for which the commodore deserved to be removed from his command.4 Mahan likewise judged Chauncey a reluctant commodore whose withholding of support to Major General Jacob Jennings Brown on the Niagara Peninsula in the summer of 1814 had fatal consequences for U.S. operations in that theater.5
With few exceptions, these judgments of Chauncey have echoed and reechoed in subsequent works on the war down to the present day to such an extent that they have assumed scholarly orthodoxy, forever cementing Chauncey’s reputation as the cautious commodore. The characterization implies, of course, that had Chauncey been a bolder leader, his quest for naval ascendancy on Lake Ontario would have had a more favorable outcome.
But this portrait requires reappraisal; the criticisms that have been directed at the commodore both discount the obstacles he had to overcome and underestimate the ease with which he could have defeated British naval forces on Ontario. In fact, Isaac Chauncey’s inability to secure victory owed more to the circumstances of his command than an inherent flaw in the man himself.
Wearing Three Hats
If naval supremacy on the northern lakes did not factor in the planning of President James Madison’s administration before the declaration of war on 18 June 1812, it surely did once news of Detroit’s capture reached Washington ten weeks later. From that moment on, the administration viewed naval control of the lakes as integral to achieving its wartime objective of conquering Canada. To this end, on 31 August 1812, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton issued orders to Chauncey to organize and build a naval force “to obtain command of the Lakes Ontario & Erie.”6 The wording of these orders and subsequent ones issued by Hamilton’s successor, William Jones, were noteworthy for three reasons: They granted Chauncey broad authority to carry out his mission, directed him to oversee naval operations on two lakes, and called on him to cooperate with U.S. land forces in operations against the enemy. It is important to note that Chauncey wore three hats as a result—those of administrator, squadron commander, and joint-operations collaborator. Any one represented a formidable charge by itself; taken together they represented the height of professional challenge.
In selecting Chauncey for the lakes command, the Madison administration chose well. A veteran of the Quasi- and Barbary wars, the 40-year-old had served under both Thomas Truxtun and Edward Preble. He was physically brave and an accomplished seaman, having commanded vessels in both the Navy and the China trade. Most important, he had extensive experience with ship construction. And as commandant of the New York Navy Yard, he was able to draw on the resources of that city’s shipbuilding community to serve his needs on the lakes.7
Chauncey’s “formidable drive and administrative skill” enabled him to develop “on wartime Lake Ontario the largest fleet, the biggest ships, and the most elaborate support organization of the pre-1815 navy.”8 Overcoming the logistical challenges alone to work this miracle in the wilderness represented a daunting and sometimes temporarily insurmountable challenge. Indeed, the sheer volume and variety of Chauncey’s correspondence testifies to the enormity and scope of his labors, which included overseeing all aspects of the squadron’s finances, supply, and personnel. This heavy administrative burden no doubt impaired his ability to effectively direct his squadron’s offensive operations and may have contributed to a breakdown in his health at a critical juncture during the Niagara campaign in July 1814.
Complicating matters for Chauncey as an operational and joint commander was the lack of direction and sometimes conflicting instructions emanating from the Navy and War secretariats. The Navy’s initial orders to Chauncey made clear that he was to harmonize and coordinate operations with the Army’s leadership on the lakes. What the department heads never clarified was the priority Chauncey should assign his collaborative role with the Army. Did it supersede the destruction of the enemy fleet or the protection of his base at Sackets Harbor? Lacking clear departmental guidance on this critical point, Chauncey gave primacy to the defense of his base and the elimination of British Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo’s squadron—a choice that in 1814 generated considerable interservice friction and frayed Chauncey’s relations with civilian leadership in Washington. Secretary of War John Armstrong, too, contributed in no small way to a souring relationship between Chauncey and Army commanders on the Niagara frontier by issuing poorly written, vacillating orders that led to numerous misunderstandings regarding interservice cooperation and strategic objectives.9
If confusing and conflicting departmental directions were not enough, Army leadership on the Niagara frontier added in varying degrees to Chauncey’s woes. By and large, his relations with Major General Henry Dearborn and his replacement, Major General James Wilkinson, were marked by civility and mutual respect. The latter’s decision, though, to waive attacking the strategically vital Kingston in favor of a downriver thrust at Montreal in the fall of 1813 left Chauncey furious. Having been frustrated by wrongheaded military priorities that left his base at Sackets Harbor inadequately defended and that reduced his squadron to “a mear attendant upon the Army,” Chauncey was probably less disposed to extend himself for his brothers-in-arms ashore the following year.10 Unfortunately for Chauncey and his historical reputation, illness conspired with a critical supply shortage to prevent his sailing to assist Brigadier General Jacob Brown’s operations on the Niagara Peninsula in mid-July 1814. The commodore’s delay left him unfairly branded as a parochial, self-interested officer whose timorous nature repeatedly frustrated U.S. strategic ambitions on Lake Ontario.11
The Enemy and the Lake
Administrative, bureaucratic, and service issues aside, Chauncey’s greatest obstacle to securing control of Ontario’s waters was the British squadron based at Kingston. From mid-May 1813 until the end of the war, it was commanded by Yeo, a 21-year veteran of naval service “with a reputation for daring exploits.”12 He enjoyed several important advantages over his American counterpart. For one thing, he had a more experienced and talented cadre of officers to command his vessels than did Chauncey.13 For another, his ships, because they were purpose-built craft, had more uniform sailing characteristics than those in the Yankee fleet, giving Yeo an edge in maneuverability. Finally, his orders required him to adopt only a defensive, harassing posture on the lake. Unlike Chauncey, Yeo did not have to defeat his opponent to achieve his strategic goal.
Lake Ontario imposed its own unique operational and tactical challenges to the American commodore. First, the harsh winters on the Ontario frontier restricted meaningful operations on the lake to a window from approximately mid-April to late November. Second, the weather patterns on the Great Lakes often resulted in sudden, unpredictable, and destructive storms. Chauncey lost two schooners, the Hamilton and Scourge, in one such storm. Powerful squalls not only damaged and swallowed up American shipping, they disrupted and frustrated U.S. operations against the enemy. Third, because the lake was a bounded seaway with northern- and western-shore harbors controlled by the British, Yeo enjoyed several ports of retreat by which means he could evade and frustrate Chauncey. Finally, Ontario was a body of water largely unknown to Chauncey and his men, thus requiring a greater reliance on pilots than would have been the case in operations on the Atlantic. On more than one occasion, Chauncey had to call off his pursuit of Yeo because his pilots refused to navigate channels and shorelines with which they were unfamiliar.
The fact that Chauncey’s headquarters and shipyard at Sackets Harbor was only 30 miles from Kingston haunted him throughout the war—and with good reason. On 29 May 1813, Yeo launched a raid that nearly captured the American base. Undaunted by failure, Yeo returned less than five weeks later to attempt a surprise night assault, which he called off at the last minute. The following spring, Yeo seized a cache of Chauncey’s naval stores and ordnance at Oswego, New York, which was defended by lightly manned Fort Ontario. It was a critical loss of matériel that Chauncey found all the more maddening because he had repeatedly warned military officials about the fort’s vulnerability. Ultimately, the presence of an aggressive and enterprising enemy at his doorstep factored into Chauncey’s calculus when deliberating whether to sortie with his squadron.
The commodore was further handicapped by the disparate sailing qualities of the vessels that composed his squadron. The small schooners he had purchased into service tended to be dull sailors whose handling qualities were further impaired once heavy ordnance was mounted on their upper works. The purpose-built ships Chauncey laid down after his arrival proved to be swift sailors owing to their “sharp, shallow hull form[s].” But what these new craft gained in speed was offset by a decrease in their stability, rendering them “unstable and prone to capsizing”—a characteristic they shared with the top-heavy schooners.14 Collectively then, Chauncey commanded ships that defied skillful management in battle as a squadron.
This circumstance was further complicated by the fact that the majority of Chauncey’s armament was composed of long-range cannon, while that of Yeo was short-range carronades. As a result, each commander pursued tactics best suited to deliver his own squadron’s firepower most effectively. For Chauncey, this meant engaging at a distance that permitted him to outrange Yeo’s broadside fire. And for Yeo, this situation applied in the reverse. In practical terms, this disparity in each fleet’s armament lessened the likelihood of a climatic, decisive winner-take-all encounter because neither Chauncey nor Yeo was willing to throw away his tactical advantage to bring on such an engagement.
An Inexperienced and Ill-Disciplined Lot
But the greatest barrier to U.S. naval victory on Lake Ontario lay not within Chauncey himself but in the deeply flawed officer corps he had been assigned to lead during the first full year of his squadron’s operations. In his account of the war on the Great Lakes, Theodore Roosevelt declared that the “officers and crews” of the rival Ontario fleets “were, man for man, just about on a par” with each other.15 But before accepting Roosevelt’s assessment without qualification, consider the following. Of the hundred or so officers that constituted the U.S. squadron’s command structure in 1812–13, only 12 had commanded a gunboat or some larger U.S. warship. With an ever-growing squadron, Chauncey had more command billets to fill than he had experienced officers with which to fill them. As a result, he had to rely on more junior officers to lead his ships in battle. In fact, no fewer than six of the commodore’s ship commanders were novice naval officers.16
Not only were Chauncey’s officers for this period an inexperienced lot, they were also an ill-disciplined, misbehaving bunch. Predictably, most of the troublemakers came from the ranks of the squadron’s new, younger officers, with drunkenness, insubordination, and neglect of duty leading their list of infractions. But senior officers caused Chauncey headaches in this regard as well. In April 1813, he arrested his second-in-command, Master Commandant James T. Leonard, for, among other things, scandalizing local society by living openly with his mistress.17 But the disciplinary tools—arrests, suspensions, dismissals—Chauncey employed to cope with these malefactors exacerbated another problem undermining his command structure: officer turnover.
In the first 15 months of his command, 14 officers exited the squadron through resignation, dismissal, or discharge. An additional 15 died during the same period, contributing to a further thinning out and unsettling of the squadron’s command structure. Sickness also made inroads among the leadership, sometimes delaying operations or disrupting those already underway. One lesser-known example of this occurred in August 1813, when the commander of the schooner York, Master Commandant Edward C. Trenchard, went temporarily insane and had to be placed “in a strait Jackett.” Even when confined in this manner, Trenchard managed to elude “his keepers” and jump overboard. “We had great difficulty saving him,” Chauncey later recalled, “he is at times perfectly sane but at other times as wild as a madman.”18
The deficiencies of Chauncey’s officer corps inevitably undermined his squadron’s discipline, training, unit cohesion, and ultimately its performance in battle. For example, during an engagement off York on 10 August 1813, Chauncey lost two of his schooners because their commanders failed to follow orders to “edge down upon” the main U.S. battle line and then compounded that error by tacking away from the squadron. The pair were promptly snapped up by the enemy.19 One month later, Chauncey’s schooner commanders failed him again in an action off the Genesee River. “Had our schooners done their duty,” observed one officer, “we must have had him [the enemy]. . . . but they are commanded by a set of boys without the least experience or judgment.”20
Compare the poor decision-making and seamanship of Chauncey’s schooner captains with that of Yeo’s second-in-command, Commander Richard Mulcaster. In the 28 September 1813 action known as the Burlington Races, Mulcaster’s masterful handling of his own ship saved Yeo’s badly damaged flagship from being overhauled and captured by Chauncey.
Despite Roosevelt’s claims, there was no professional equivalency between the officers of the two rival Ontario squadrons in 1813. William Jones acknowledged as much when he declared in early 1814: “The character and talents of the Officers employed on the lake by the enemy shews the importance attached to that service, and must be met by corresponding qualifications on our part.”21 But by the time the Navy secretary ordered seasoned combat officers to Lake Ontario, Chauncey’s window of opportunity to seize victory at a manageable cost had passed. With opposing sides now planning and building larger and more powerful ships, the possibility of U.S. naval ascendancy on Ontario was ephemeral at best.
Chauncey failed to “obtain command” of Lake Ontario not because he was too cautious or lacked “the gambler’s instinct,” but because of a combination of factors that, over time, became too difficult for him to overcome.22 Had the war on the northern lakes been better directed from Washington, U.S. land forces in the Ontario theater performed more competently, and more talented, veteran officers been assigned to the Lake Ontario squadron from early on, Chauncey might have earned a victory that ensured him undying fame. Absent these altered circumstances, the best he was able to accomplish was a stalemate.
Early in the war, Isaac Chauncey expressed the belief that his reputation would be “connected with the success of operations on the Lakes.”23 Sadly for his reputation, his name remains linked more with the word failure than with its opposite. Nevertheless, Chauncey’s wartime accomplishments were not inconsequential. He contributed in no small way to Perry’s victory on Lake Erie and to the Army’s Lake Ontario successes, through his strong and able support of joint operations on the lower lake in 1813. More important, Chauncey’s energetic wartime direction of the Navy kept the New York frontier bordering Ontario’s waters secure from invasion by an increasingly aggressive foe.24
Modest achievements perhaps when compared with those of Perry or Macdonough. But given the circumstances on Lake Ontario, no amount of boldness could have achieved more.
1. James Madison to Henry Dearborn, 6 February 1813, in J. C. A. Stagg et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison. Presidential Series, vol. 5 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2004), 646.
2. Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D. Written by Himself 2 vols. (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1864), vol. 1, 113.
3. Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812; or, the History of the United States Navy during the Last War with Great Britain(New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1882), 472. For comparisons of Chauncey to Perry, see 253–54.
4. See Henry Adams, History of the United States during the Administration of Henry Adams 3 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), vol. 2, 171. See also vol. 3, 28, where Adams writes that Chauncey’s “repugnance to attacking Kingston was invincible.”
5. See Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 2 vols. (London: Sampson Low, Marsten, & Company, 1905), vol. 2, 298–316. Like Roosevelt, Mahan also compared Chauncey unfavorably to Perry. See vol. 2, 59.
6. For Hamilton’s orders, see Hamilton to Chauncey, 31 August 1812, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, 3 vols. to date (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985–), vol. 1, 297–301. See also William Jones to Chauncey, 27 January 1813, vol. 2, 420, in which Jones writes: “Indeed you are to consider the absolute superiority on all the Lakes, as the only limit to your authority.”
7. There is no book-length biography of Isaac Chauncey, modern or otherwise. Fletcher Pratt essays his career in Preble’s Boys: Commodore Preble and the Birth of American Sea Power (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1950), 170–98. Chauncey’s professional career is neatly summarized in Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812–1814 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 38–42.
8. Christopher McKee, A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794–1815 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1991), 244.
9. On Armstrong’s flawed direction of military operations on the northern frontier, see C. Edward Skeen, John Armstrong, Jr., 1758–1843: A Biography (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), chapters 9–10.
10. Chauncey to Jones, 30 October 1813, Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812, vol. 2, 594.
11. This episode is economically summarized in Malcomson, Lords of the Lake,284–93. John D. Morris, Sword of the Border: Major General Jacob Jennings Brown, 1775–1828 (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000), 93–95, 107, 109–10, 112, 140–42, offers a more critical assessment of Chauncey’s actions
12. Frederick C. Drake, “Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo and Governor General George Prevost: A Study in Command Relations, 1813–14,” in William B. Cogar, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 158. For more on Yeo’s background, see also Malcomson, Lords of the Lake, 115–19.
13. On Yeo’s officers, see Malcomson, Lords of the Lake, 118–20.
14. Kevin James Crisman, “The Jefferson: The History and Archaeology of an American Brig from the War of 1812” (PhD diss., Texas A&M University Press, 1989), 114.
15. Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812 365. See also p. 254, where Roosevelt writes: “the crews and commanders on both sides . . . [were] very nearly equal.”
16. The figures here derive from an analysis of officer profiles in Gary M. Gibson, Service Records of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps Officers Stationed on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812 (Sackets Harbor, NY: Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance, 2005).
17. For documents listing the charges against Leonard, see Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 vol. 2, 442–44. See also, McKee, Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, 441–42.
18. Chauncey to Jones, 25 August 1813, Letter No. 149, Captains Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy, Record Group 45, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC (Microcopy M125, Roll No. 40).
19. Chauncey to Jones, 13 August 1813, Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812, vol. 2, 540.
20. Arthur Sinclair to Sarah Skipwith Sinclair, 10 October 1813, in Robert Malcomson, ed., Sailors of 1812: Memoirs and Letters and Naval Officers on Lake Ontario (Youngstown, NY: Old Fort Niagara Association, 1997), 59.
21. Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812, vol. 3, 387.
22. McKee, Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession, 244.
23. Isaac Chauncey to Paul Hamilton, 21 February 1813, Letter No. 99, Captains Letters, M125, Roll No. 26.
24. William S. Dudley, “Commodore Isaac Chauncey and U.S. Joint Operations on Lake Ontario, 1813–14,” in Cogar, New Interpretations in Naval History,151–52.