Conventional study of the naval history of the War of 1812 has focused on two specific areas: squadron engagements and ship-on-ship duels. The engagements of the frigates Constitution and Essex, as well as the victories of Master Commandants Oliver Hazard Perry and Thomas McDonough over Royal Navy squadrons on the northern lakes, have been studied and written about by many naval historians. However, there was another element of the maritime war that receives less attention. Gunboat operations, maritime raids, and cutting-out expeditions were common elements of naval warfare during the Age of Sail in general, and the War of 1812 in particular.
Perhaps because of the shadow cast across naval history by Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, and his often-told principle that naval warfare is defined by fleet engagements, these operations are frequently left as footnotes in the histories of the U.S. and British navies. However, on the Great Lakes during the only declared war between the United States and Great Britain, these operations were common and played a role in determining the balance of power.
A Flotilla for Black Rock
When war was declared in June of 1812, neither the British nor the Americans were genuinely ready to commence naval operations on the Great Lakes. Not much had changed by the following fall. On Lake Erie the Americans established their base at Black Rock, located at the southern end of the Niagara River. Commodore Isaac Chauncey, the newly appointed American naval commander for the Great Lakes, assigned Lieutenant Jesse Elliott to begin building a naval presence there. The 30-year-old Elliott had been appointed a lieutenant two years prior and was in search of a way to make his name in the wartime Navy.1
He had been born in Maryland in July 1782. When he was nine years old his father was killed by an Indian party while working to purchase supplies for the U.S. Army in Ohio, under Major General Anthony Wayne. Elliott’s mother kept him in school in Pennsylvania, where he prepared to study law until he was 18, when he received an appointment as a midshipman and orders to report to the Essex. Like Oliver Hazard Perry, Elliott’s eventual superior on Lake Erie with whom he would have a lifelong rivalry, he saw his first combat during the First Barbary War. Unlike Perry, Elliott was not promoted at the end of the conflict. In 1810 he received the appointment as an acting lieutenant that he had been seeking for years, and he served on board the frigate Enterprise, the corvette John Adams, and the brig Argus before the outbreak of war with the British.2
Across the Niagara River from Black Rock was a small Canadian garrison at Fort Erie. The fortifications had been under construction since the end of the French and Indian War, though progress had been slow. The British attempted to accelerate construction of the defensive works as soon as hostilities were announced. The British regulars and Canadian militia were spread thin. They struggled to cover the frontier with gun emplacements, attempting to locate one every mile to ward off the invasion they were sure would come. On rising ground that lay across from the Americans at Black Rock they had constructed three small batteries, but they left the rest of the works unfinished due to “want of means.”3
Elliott’s orders, once his base was selected, were to begin construction of two 300-ton schooners and a half-dozen gunboats. The Navy had purchased several small coasters, and he was in the process of fitting them out as warships as well, but with few supplies and fewer skilled shipwrights the process was laboriously slow. On 6 October Elliott received a report that two British brigs were headed up the lake to anchor under the guns at Fort Erie. By the morning of the 8th, the Detroit, rated at 14 guns, and Caledonia, rated at 3 guns, lay at anchor across from Black Rock. The Detroit had previously been the American vessel Adams, which was captured and reflagged by the British during their successful attack on the American outpost at Detroit in August. The two vessels carried arms and prisoners from the battle that were to be offloaded at Fort Erie.4
A Bold Plan
As Elliott gazed at the enemy across the Niagara River, he received the first good news that had come his way in weeks. The sailors and officers that Commodore Chauncey had promised him were spotted on the wilderness roads not far from his base. He sent an express rider with orders for the men to hurry their march, since he had “determined to make an attack,” the goal of which would be to capture the pair of British vessels newly arrived off Fort Erie. By noon the men arrived at Black Rock. Elliott realized they were unarmed, only carrying about 20 pistols and no cutlasses or battle-axes, and told them to rest for their intended mission while he put his plan together.5
Elliott approached Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, the commander of the U.S. Army regulars at Black Rock, and Major General Amos Hall, who commanded the local frontier militia. The two senior officers agreed to loan him the arms that his sailors would need from the Army’s supplies. General Smyth recognized the daring of the plan and detached a group of 50 regulars armed with muskets and placed them under Elliott’s command for the cutting-out. As the men rested the lieutenant had two boats, with a capacity for 50 men each, prepared and hidden in nearby Buffalo Creek.
While the expedition was being prepared, the British sent Captain Harris H. Hickman across the river by boat. Hickman, a U.S. Army officer, was among the prisoners from Detroit who had been transported on board the ships. Paroled by the British, he brought with him an accurate report of the manning of the two ships as well as their arms and cargo. A British account later admitted that Hickman revealed to his countrymen the ships’ “defenceless state.”6
In the early-morning darkness Elliott loaded his joint force of sailors and Army regulars aboard the two boats. At 0100 they shoved off and headed south against Buffalo Creek’s current before crossing the Niagara’s mouth. It took two hours of hard pulling at the oars but the boats pulled alongside the two ships at 0300 and caught the British completely by surprise. The Americans poured over the gunnels of the ships and quickly subdued their prisoners. Elliott reported that within ten minutes of boarding the sailors had secured the prisoners, slipped the anchors, sheeted the topsails, and had the Detroit under way as the Caledonia followed.7
The plan had worked smoothly until this point. As the Americans attempted to sail their captured vessels into the lake, the operation started to come apart when they encountered a rapidly moving current and little wind. Elliott gave up his plan to sail the ships clear and was instead forced to head downstream into the river, directly under the guns of Fort Erie. The alarm was raised (the British report was that 300–400 men had overwhelmed the ships’ defenders) and the batteries opened fire.8
Escape From Fort Erie
The heavy guns mounted in the incomplete works at Fort Erie poured round as well as canister and grapeshot into the two ships as they passed the fort. Elliott struggled to keep control of the Detroit, as the Caledonia was beached under a battery of American guns on the east side of the river. While the British shifted their “flying artillery” to keep the Detroit under fire, Elliott dropped anchor, fearing (from a faulty report) that another British vessel lay farther downriver. He threatened the British gunners, warning that he would bring his prisoners on deck to bear the brunt of the grapeshot. When his threat didn’t silence the guns, he reconsidered and decided “not to commit and act that would subject me to the imputation of barbarity.”9
With the batteries at Black Rock covering the Caledonia, Elliott ordered all the guns on board the Detroit hauled over to bear on the western shore. The American sailors commenced fire into the British artillery positions. Elliott sent a boat with a heavy line from the ship toward the eastern bank of the river, hoping they would be able to pull the brig to the American side. The current moved too quickly, however, forcing the boat to pay out all the line before it reached the shore. An attempt from the bank, with a line already secured ashore, met with the same fate.
Meanwhile, the gun crews on board the Detroit, firing all the ship’s cannon in a single broadside, rapidly expended all their powder and shot and were left defenseless. Hoping to get out of range of the heavy guns so he could make a final stand against the mobile artillery pieces, Elliott cut the cable of the anchor and the brig drifted downstream. The Detroit drifted stern first, moving with the current for about ten minutes until she ran aground on Squaw Island.10
Elliott immediately offloaded his prisoners in the boat his force had used to attack the ship, sending them ashore under the guard of most of his crew. With only a few men left, the Americans lowered a skiff that they found. When Elliott abandoned the vessel, “she had received twelve shot of large size in her bends[,] her sails in ribbons, and her rigging all cut to pieces.”11
The Detroit was still heavy with weapons, both the ship’s guns and approximately 200 muskets that were being moved from Detroit to Fort Erie, as well as powder and ball for the muskets.12 The British sent a boat with 40 men across the river to board and attempt to salvage what they could from the brig. Heavy cannon and musketry fire from the American side of the river drove them off.
A second attempt was made, with only a handful of men under the command of Major Cornet Pell of the Niagara Light Dragoons. The boat safely made it abeam the Detroit, with the beached hull providing cover for the British party. However, as they reached the stranded ship, the current continued to push them downstream where they rounded her stern. Now exposed to American musket fire from the shoreline just a hundred yards away, the British began taking casualties. As Major Pell attempted to hoist himself through the cabin windows at the Detroit’s stern, a musket ball caught him in the forehead, killing him instantly. His body fell back in the boat, and the party struggled back to the British riverbank, every man on board wounded by the withering fire.13
Throughout the day the cannon and musket fire continued from both sides. Elliott eventually realized that it had “so much injured her [the Detroit] that it was impossible to float her.”14 In order to keep the British from being able to salvage anything, he elected to end the standoff. As evening approached he reported to Commodore Chauncey, “I determined at once to set her on fire.”15
Despite the fact that the Detroit burned, Elliott was still able to pull some advantage from taking the ship. During the night his men salvaged some of her guns to provide the nucleus of the armament needed for the vessels being built and fitted out at Black Rock. On board the Caledonia were $200,000 worth of furs that the vessel’s owners, the Northwest Company, had hoped to ship to England.16 After the prize money was split and she had been refitted, the Caledonia was officially purchased by the U.S. Navy. Placed under the command of Lieutenant Daniel Turner, the ship proved invaluable at the Battle of Lake Erie when her two long 24-pound guns were the only ones that had the range to hit the heavy British ships as they pounded Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence. The Caledonia also served in the 1814 expeditions on Lakes Huron and Superior before being sold in Erie at the close of the war.17
The cutting-out of the Detroit and Caledonia caught virtually everyone by surprise. Commodore Chauncey remarked to Secretary Hamilton that “Lieutenant Elliott deserves much praise,” and that he “had no particular orders from me” and was acting out of his own initiative. Chauncey predicted that, because Elliott’s attack deprived the British of two vessels while providing one, as well as arms, to the Americans, control of Lake Erie would be gained before he would be able to establish command of Lake Ontario.18 He was right; building on the fleet that Elliott founded at Black Rock, Oliver Hazard Perry would take command of Lake Erie first. His suggestion that the lake would be taken in mere months, however, turned out to be optimistic, and it was a year before Perry’s victory near Put-in-Bay.
A Double-Edged Sword
By the summer 1814, American forces had controlled Lake Erie for almost a year since Perry’s victory. He and Elliott had both moved on, with new orders to the Atlantic coast, and Captain Arthur Sinclair had taken the Lake Erie command. That summer he departed on an expedition to Lake Huron, leaving Lieutenant Edmund Kennedy at Presque Isle with responsibility for the naval forces on Lake Erie and orders to cooperate with the Army. In support of operations on the Niagara Peninsula, Kennedy placed three schooners, the Somers, Ohio, and Porcupine, off Fort Erie. It was nearly the same anchorage where the Detroit and Caledonia had lain two years prior.
In July Brigadier General Jacob Brown and his U.S. troops crossed the Niagara River, captured Fort Erie, and defeated the British at the Battle of Chippewa. But the offensive stalled, and British forces under Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond arrived on the Niagara Peninsula. The two armies clashed at the hard-fought Battle of Lundy’s Lane, a tactical draw but a British strategic victory in that the American advance on the Niagara front was curtailed. General Brown was injured and the Americans pulled back to Fort Erie, where the British began establishing siege lines.19
The British had no naval forces on Lake Erie to contest the waters or to challenge the three schooners overlooking their positions around Fort Erie. Undeterred by the lack of traditional naval force, officers under Commodore James Yeo on Lake Ontario devised a plan to strike at the small American squadron. A force of five bateaux, one gig, and 200 sailors and marines was gathered together near the Niagara River’s outlet on Lake Ontario for an attack. The operation was placed under the command of Commander Alexander Dobbs, the commanding officer of the square-rigged sloop HMS Lord Melville in Yeo’s Ontario squadron, with the assistance of Lieutenant Charles Radcliffe, who commanded the brig-sloop Netley.
Dobbs was 30 years old and a lieutenant when he came to Canada to join Commodore Yeo in 1813, the two having served together on board the ship-sloop Confiance. Born in Dublin in 1784, Dobbs joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 13 and received his lieutenant’s commission at the age of 20. In February 1814, after a year on the lake, he was promoted to commander and had command of the Lord Melville, which was renamed the Star. The senior of the commanding officers in a division of sloops and schooners tasked with supplying the British Army on the Niagara Peninsula, he was placed in charge of the four ships that ferried supplies and men between Forts Niagara and George.20
With the famous Niagara Falls and other obstacles between Dobbs’ raiding force and Lake Erie, the party devised an overland route to close with Fort Erie. The first half of the journey the boats traveled up the Niagara River. Once they reached the farthest point of navigation southbound, they put ashore and the men began clearing a wilderness road south across the peninsula. The boats were hoisted onto wagons and dragged ten miles to the water near Point Ebony.21
After dark the British raiders put their boats in the water and embarked the force, moving upriver toward the anchorage overlooking Fort Erie. It was an extremely dark night, and they likely used muffled oars to conceal the sound as they moved through the water, making their approach difficult to detect. Near midnight the American schooners came within sight, and the boats closed silently on them. It wasn’t until the British came alongside the American ships’ anchor cables that a lookout on board the Somers called out a challenge.
The British replied that they were “provision boats.” The American land forces had been using the cover provided by the schooners to move provisions and cargo along the river to supply the besieged troops at Fort Erie, so the response sounded reasonable and fooled the Somers’ officer of the deck. It gave the raiders enough time for their boats to get in position alongside the Somers and Ohio.22
The Somers was attacked first, as the British cut her anchor cable and poured several volleys of musket fire across the deck. Two men on watch were quickly wounded. Before he could respond to support his sister ship, Lieutenant Augustus Conckling, the officer commanding the Ohio, found bateaux alongside his own schooner and the British swarming aboard. Musket and pistol fire were exchanged as cutlasses were drawn, and a bloody struggle ensued on the deck of the small ship. The 35-man crew of the Ohio was overwhelmed by the much larger British force.
The Americans on deck rallied with their skipper. Holding off the attackers, they shot and killed Lieutenant Radcliffe as he attempted to scale the stern of the ship to come at them from behind. Master’s Mate Alexander McCully was shot through the thigh and was bayoneted in the foot as he defended the ship alongside his skipper. As the British pressed their assault, Lieutenant Conckling’s sword was knocked from his hand when he took a musket ball through the shoulder. Conckling reported that “as their force was an overwhelming one, I thought further resistance vain & gave up the vessel with the satisfaction of having performed my duty and defended my vessel to the last.”23
The Luck of the Porcupine
Commander Dobbs reported that, of the schooners, “two of them were carried sword in hand in a few minutes.”24 However, with the cables cut the ships began to drift apart. The Somers and Ohio were pushed to leeward of the Porcupine before the British raiders could reorganize and launch an assault on the third ship. The two captured schooners drifted toward the Niagara River rapids, and the British sailors and marines focused on getting control of the vessels, rather than worrying about the Porcupine. They eventually anchored under the British siege batteries that faced Fort Erie.
The Porcupine lost one of her anchors during the night and dragged down toward the rapids. As the ship passed the British positions she was challenged by a sentry, just as the wind sprang up. The Americans gave no response, instead setting sail and heading for the open lake. The batteries ashore opened up and the Porcupine returned fire as she ran toward the open water. The gun crews kept up a heavy fire, pouring round, grape, and canister shot into the enemy’s positions, hitting and dismounting five of the British cannon. Clearing the Niagara River, the schooner sailed for Presque Isle. After repairs there, she soon sailed again for Fort Erie.25
The British suffered two killed and four wounded in the operation. The Somers, having been attacked first and taken completely by surprise, had two members of the crew injured before they were overwhelmed and surrendered. The crew of the Ohio suffered the most, having fought a short but pitched battle with the raiders on their deck. One seaman was killed, shot through the body, and seven others were wounded, including Lieutenant Conckling.26
General Drummond ordered a message read to all the troops in the corps that had held the siege of Fort Erie, congratulating the raiders on their success. He was so inspired by it that he told his men he intended to launch other attacks and called on them to volunteer if they desired, or provide similar ideas for raids.27 The Americans held out at Fort Erie until November. The British schooners and the threat they posed to the resupply of the fort contributed to the fear that they would be unable to maintain their position during the winter months. The Americans decided to evacuate and destroy the fort.28
Irregular Warfare, Then and Now
Ship duels and squadron actions created many larger-than-life naval heroes out of captains and commodores during the War of 1812. However, the history of aggressive junior officers, and the use of maritime irregular warfare, illuminates important elements of the war that were no less daring. Today, during the bicentennial of the War of 1812, both the U.S. Navy and Royal Navy find themselves conducting maritime security operations, antipiracy patrols, and irregular warfare worldwide—the kinds of missions that were conducted by junior officers and gunboats throughout the Age of Sail.
The irregular naval operations conducted at the mouth of the Niagara River in 1812 and 1814 provide illustrative examples and an important foundation for discussions of irregular warfare and 21st-century naval operations. Both Elliott and Dobbs became career officers who were promoted to captain in their respective services. In the War of 1812 they demonstrated the ability of maritime irregular warfare to impact the balance of power in naval wars, and the importance of maintaining the capability for such missions.
2. Naval Biography: Consisting of the Memoirs of the Most Distinguished Officers of the American Navy (Cincinnati: Morgan Williams & Co., 1815), 212–14.
3. W. H. Merritt, Journal of Events Principally on the Detriot and Niagara Frontiers During the War of 1812 (St. Catharines, C.W.: The Historical Society, B.N.A., 1863), 14.
4. Jesse Elliott to Paul Hamilton, 9 October 1812, American State Papers: Naval Affairs, vol. 1, 282.
6. Merritt, 14. Harris H. Hickman to Jesse Elliott, 8 January 1813, American State Papers: Naval Affairs, vol. 1, 284.
7. Elliott to Hamilton, 282.
8. Merritt, 14.
9. Elliott to Hamilton, 283.
12. Hickman to Elliott, 284. (Hickman says 2,000 muskets, but British reports of the cargo list 200.)
13. Merritt, 14–15.
14. Elliott to Hamilton, 283.
15. Jesse Elliott to Isaac Chauncey, 10 October 1812, American State Papers: Naval Affairs, vol. 1, 283.
16. Elliott to Hamilton, 283.
17. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (Washington D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 2004), www.history.navy.mil/.
18. Isaac Chauncey to Paul Hamilton, 16 October 1812, American State Papers: Naval Affairs, vol. 1, 283–4.
19. A good first-person summary of the action is contained in: Colonel Hercules Scott to His Brother, 12 August 1814, in E. Cruikshank, ed., The Documentary History of the Campaign on the Niagara Frontier in 1814, (Welland, ON: Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, 1896), 130–32.
20. Robert Malcomson, “Dobbs and the Royal Navy at Niagara,” Fortress Niagara, vol. 1 (June 2000), 7–13.
21. Alexander Dobbs to James Yeo, 13 August 1814, and Edmund Kennedy to William Jones, 15 August 1814, in Michael J. Crawford, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2003), vol. 3, 588–89.
22. Augustus Conckling to Edmund Kennedy, 16 August 1814, Naval War of 1812, vol. 3, 590.
23. Ibid., 590–91.
24. Dobbs to Yeo, 588.
25. Kennedy to Jones, 589.
26. Conckling to Kennedy, 591.
27. Gordon Drummond, “Morning District General Order,” 13 August 1814, in L. Homfray Irving, ed., Officers of the British Forces in Canada During the War of 1812–1815 (Welland, ON: Canadian Military Institute, 1908), 255–56.
28. Naval War of 1812, vol. 3, 370.