The War's Most Challenging Theater

By Charles E. Brodine Jr.

Montreal and Quebec held the keys to Canada’s conquest, and the capture of both cities figured prominently in American war plans. 2 From a strategic and military standpoint, it would have made sense for the United States to marshal its resources for one giant hammer blow against these two cities lying some 140 miles apart on the St. Lawrence River. But some of Madison’s strongest wartime support came from the citizens living in the territories and states bordering the Great Lakes, a region that had endured several decades of bloody conflict with Native Americans. Many of these tribesmen were expected to ally with Great Britain in the event of war, prompting fears among the region’s settlers. 3

As a result of these and other considerations, Madison directed that American forces operate on multiple, widely separated fronts, attacking key British points on Lakes Huron, Erie, and Ontario (Upper Canada) and on the St. Lawrence River (Lower Canada). While this strategy dispersed rather than concentrated American military might, it was not inherently a losing one. That it failed in the end to secure victory owed less to flaws in its conception than to failures in its execution, especially with regard to sea power.

The best example of this was the American failure to capture Kingston, the Royal Navy’s base and shipyard on the northeast shore of Lake Ontario. Had U.S. forces been able to capture this vital facility in 1813, the campaign for Upper Canada might have tipped for good in America’s favor. In the spring and fall of that year, successive U.S. commanders on the Niagara frontier, Major Generals Henry Dearborn and James Wilkinson, balked at assaulting Kingston, despite instructions from Secretary of War John Armstrong assigning that port’s capture the highest priority. Armstrong was at least partly to blame for this disappointment as the instructions he issued were vaguely worded, allowing his subordinate to substitute his own choice of targets for the secretary’s. 4

In 1814 the direction of naval and military affairs suffered from amateurish management by the executive branch in Washington. As was the case the year before, Secretary Armstrong issued orders that managed to confuse and misdirect his general officers, thus retarding land and joint operations. 5 The president and his cabinet made similar contributions to muddle or delay the year’s major campaigns. Incredibly, the nation’s chief executive and his secretaries put off approving a plan of naval and land operations until the first week of June, months after the campaigning season should have begun. Secretary of the Navy William Jones compounded this problem for his Lake Ontario commodore, Isaac Chauncey, by failing to foward him a complete set of the cabinet’s deliberations. Chauncey thus did not realize that he was expected to participate in joint operations with his military counterpart, Major General Jacob Brown, a fact that soon led to a bitter and disruptive clash between the two officers. Had naval and military commanders enjoyed timely, clear, and direct orders from Washington respecting strategic objectives, the stalemate that prevailed on the Niagara frontier might have been broken.

Sea power did not figure prominently in the American government’s prewar preparations for an invasion of Canada. 6 Early war plans were silent on the topic of navies, though they did make mention of the need for light watercraft to transport troops and supplies. 7 Madison and his advisers expected the invasion of Canada to succeed so quickly and so overwhelmingly that there would be no need for naval support.

British use of sea power in capturing Forts Michilimackinac and Detroit in the opening months of the war exposed the barrenness of American strategic thinking in this regard. The president quickly realized that the conquest of Canada could not succeed without “command of the lakes, by a superior force on the water.” 8 At Madison’s direction, the Navy Department issued orders to Chauncey instructing him to “purchase, hire or build” a naval force powerful enough “to obtain command of the Lakes Ontario and Erie.” Navy Secretary Paul Hamilton vested Chauncey with broad financial and administrative powers to execute this mission. 9 One month after Chauncey received these orders, Hamilton directed Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough to build a naval force on Lake Champlain. 10 His orders were neither as expansive nor included the large grant of authority bestowed on Chauncey, a fact that reflected the lower priority the government gave operations on the Champlain corridor at this time.

These orders launched a shipbuilding program on the northern lakes that was unprecedented in the history of the young Navy, requiring the efforts of hundreds of skilled laborers, mechanics, craftsmen, officers, and sailors. Logistical challenges and administrative headaches abounded in constructing and organizing these wilderness fleets. While wood cut from nearby forests was available in ready supply, nearly every other item needed to build, arm, or fit out a ship had to be transported to the lakes from more settled areas, often at great expense. Inclement weather, bad roads, and the enemy often combined to disrupt supply lines, thereby delaying work at American shipyards. Manning the lakes squadrons, however, proved a more intractable problem. The Navy Department’s solution was to supply the individual squadrons with drafts of men from warships idled in Atlantic ports.

The phenomenal speed and output of American shipyards on the lakes produced the squadrons that carried Oliver Hazard Perry and Thomas Macdonough to victory on Erie and Champlain. On Lake Ontario, the story was different. Unlike his brother commanders, Chauncey faced a British opponent who offered battle only when the odds favored him. For this and other reasons, the fighting on Ontario remained largely stalemated, with each squadron commander seeking to gain the upper hand afloat by building larger, more powerful warships than those of his rival. In the fall of 1814, with the national treasury on the verge of bankruptcy, Secretary Jones urged Madison to abandon the naval contest for Lake Ontario, which he styled “a war of Dockyards and arsenals.” 11 But Madison remained undeterred from continuing the naval arms race and Chauncey pressed ahead with plans to build two ships of the line mounting more than 100 guns each. When news of the peace treaty arrived at Sackets Harbor in February 1815, the commodore had two of these leviathans already framed and planked up. This feat had been accomplished in a mere 42 days.

But achieving mastery of the northern lakes through the construction of powerful fleets was never an end in itself, but a means to an end. 12 And that end, as Navy Department orders reveal, was “to cooperate with the american army.” 13 Thus joint operations were a key feature of campaigns on the northern lakes. With the exception of the summer of 1814, relations between Army and Navy officers on the Upper and Lower lakes were marked largely by harmony and a cooperative, professional spirit, and led to some important military successes. In 1813 on Lake Ontario, Navy and Army forces combined to capture York (present-day Toronto) twice and to take Fort George. 14 While on Erie in that same year, Perry’s squadron supported General William Henry Harrison’s army in the recapture of Detroit and its pursuit of the British army up the Thames River. 15 The following year a joint Army-Navy expedition sailed into Lake Huron to recapture Fort Michilimackinac. Though the expedition failed in its objective, the operation was free from interservice squabbling.

Besides cooperating in military operations, the Navy transported Army troops, supplies, ordnance, and munitions. Naval vessels and their crews acted as picket boats, gathered intelligence, and carried messages. They also covered operations, such as James Wilkinson’s thrust down the St. Lawrence River at the close of 1813.

It is noteworthy that the Army returned support in important ways, the most significant being the transfer of troops to crew Navy ships. Indeed, Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie would not have been possible except for the contributions of soldiers who served as sailors and marines in the American fleet. It has been estimated that approximately 40 percent of the 533 men in Perry’s fleet were drawn from Army units. 16 Chauncey and Macdonough also benefited from the transfer of troops to fill out their crews. Finally, the Army and local militia units provided protection ashore at important naval bases at Sackets Harbor and Erie.

The United States embarked on its invasion of Canada in 1812 to effect through force of arms what diplomacy had failed to achieve. It was frustrated in this ambition because it underestimated the capability and resolve of its opponent, overestimated the abilities of its own fighting forces and leadership, and discounted the challenges of waging war in a wilderness setting. President Madison correctly assessed that naval command of the lakes held the key to conquering Canada, and he committed significant resources to accomplishing this end. While his investment in “obtaining command of the lakes” may not have produced the military and diplomatic decisions he sought, it yielded a legacy of leadership, heroism, and combat brilliance that still resonates in the Navy today.

1. On Canada’s role in U.S. strategic thinking in the War of 1812, see Reginald Horsman, “On to Canada: Manifest Destiny and United States Strategy in the War of 1812,” Michigan Historical Review 13 (Fall 1987), 1–24.

2. See, for example, Henry Dearborn to Madison, 6 April 1812, in J. C. A. Stagg et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison, Presidential Series , vol. 4 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1999), 298–301.

3. Scott to Madison, 30 July 1812, Stagg et al., The Papers of James Madison , vol. 5, 101.

4. Edward Skeen, John Armstrong, Jr., 1758–1843 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1981), 148–49, 154–55, 163–64.

5. Ibid., 177–80, 183–86.

6. For a discussion of the Madison administration’s prewar planning, see Stagg et al., Papers of James Madison , vol. 4, 301–3.

7. Dearborn to Madison, 6 April 1812, ibid., vol. 4, 299.

8. Madison to Dearborn, 7 October 1812, ibid., vol. 5, 371.

9. 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.

10. Hamilton to Macdonough, 28 September 1812, ibid., vol. 1, 319–20.

11. Jones to Madison, 26 October 1814, ibid., vol. 3, 631.

12. Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (1905; repr., New York: Haskell House Publishers,1905), vol. 2, 301–2.

13. Hamilton to Chauncey, Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , vol. 1, 300.

14. Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812–1814 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 103–12, 124–29, 166–69.

15. David C. Skaggs, “Joint Operations during the Detroit-Erie Campaign, 1813,” in William B. Cogar, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 121–38.

16. Gerard T. Altoff, Deep Water Sailors, Shallow Water Soldiers: Manning the United States Fleet on Lake Erie, 1813 (Put-in-Bay, OH: The Perry Group, 1993), 40.



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