The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Frederick C. Curry
When President Madison declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, eight little schooners lay in the harbor of Ogdensburg, New York, and Ogdensburg, then as now, was the lower limit of lake navigation.
The greatest change in the hundred odd years that have elapsed is that whereas now the great 500-foot Upper Lake freighters discharge their cargoes into elevators or directly into cars for shipment by rail to Atlantic ports; in the 1800’s, transshipment was made either to bateaux to run the rapids to Montreal, or to wagons to be taken by road to Lake Champlain and thence to New York. For a famous road, wide enough to take eight cattle abreast, linked “Oswegatchie,” as Ogdensburg was then called, to the New England settlements as early as 1792, being mentioned in that year by Lady Simcoe in her famous diary1.
Between this road and that connecting Oswego with the Mohawk valley lies the great mass of the Adirondack mountains, which even to this day is penetrated by very few roads. Ogdensburg’s value as a port was thus assured although there were few settlements scattered along the southern bank of the St. Lawrence, unlike the Canadian shore, which had been largely settled by Loyalist emigrants from the New England States after the Revolutionary War.
The British had been loath to hand over Oswegatchie at the end of that conflict and had in fact retained it till June 1796, when the transfer was made under Jay’s Treaty of Amity, and the town site was purchased by Samuel Ogden from Alexander MacComb who had bought over a million acres in Northern New York when the “ten townships” were offered for sale in 1781. Hence the modern name of “Ogdensburg.”
Now with war again on their hands the British realized the need of a strong post at the head of the St. Lawrence rapids, for all supplies both military and civil for Upper Canada, had to be brought up this river for there were no roads worthy of that name.
Therefore they began construction of a fort directly opposite the mouth of the harbour at Ogdensburg which they later called “Fort Wellington.” The width of the river at this point was only about 1800 yards, which brought the harbor within extreme range of the 24- pounders with which the fort was armed. It became important to remove the schooners from this menace before the fort was completed. Soon June 29th, while they were beating their way up river against the prevailing west wind they were sighted from near Maitland, a little village on the Canadian shore about seven miles above Ogdensburg, by a militia officer named Dunham Jones who gathered a party of volunteers in small boats and pursued the schooners.
After a galling chase of six miles, the Canadians overhauled the little fleet among the islands just above Brockville and succeeded in capturing two of them, the Sophia and the Island Packet. Their crews and passengers were landed and the vessels burned and the other six, realizing their danger, escaped down wind to Ogdensburg where the bridge over the Oswegatchie was raised and the vessels concealed above it.
To prevent any repetition of this attempt the British sent down two brigs armed with 14 and 12 guns respectively, the Duke of Gloucester and the Earl of Moira. These lay in midstream effectively blockading the harbor to the great annoyance of the citizens of Ogdensburg who were not averse to doing a little business with their enemy neighbors even during wartime. Meanwhile the schooners chafed at their moorings and their owner chafed at his desk and was probably relieved when Major Darby Noon, writing to General Porter on the 4th of July added this postscript:
Your brother’s vessels are safe at Ogdensburg and Captain Wolsey is doing all in his power to collect and arm vessels to carry them up to Sackett’s Harbour and the assistance of General Brown.
To attempt to break the blockade the armed schooner Julia was sent down the river. She packed a long 32-pound gun on a swivel amid-ships and two long 6’s with a crew of 60 men. This swivel gun was a typical Yankee invention, simple and effective. It was the forerunner of the modern gun-turret and enabled the gun to be pointed in any direction without swinging the ship as was necessary where guns were mounted in batteries firing through portholes, which, while giving the gunners more protection, limited the arc of fire2.
On July 31st at about 3 o’clock, the Julia met up with the Moira and Gloucester in the open water between Morristown, New York, and the Canadian town of Brockville. The two brigs immediately dropped anchors, brailed up their canvas and got out their spring-lines.
The Julia accepted the challenge, outgunned as she was, and then until darkness fell the three vessels battered each other with great gusto. However, due to the inexperience of the gunners there were no casualties on either side. But the Julia had decidedly the best of the encounter for she was able to slip away in the dusk and smoke to Ogdensburg with but a single shot-hole to plug, while the Moira had been so badly hulled she was forced to lighter her guns at Brockville before proceeding to Kingston for repairs. No record seems to have been left of the Gloucester’s part in the affair and some accounts mention only the Moira as being in the battle, but Hough, the historian of Northern New York mentions both brigs quoting a letter from General Jacob Brown to Governor Tompkins as his authority3.
The Julia took station at Ogdensburg until September when, during the armistice she was able to escort the six schooners to Sackett’s Harbour. Here they came under General Brown’s eagle eye and he wrote to the Governor asking His Excellency, “Why in the name of all that was holy” these vessels were not armed and “manned with such men as this nation could furnish. ” He lists the schooners that were at the “Harbour,” among others, as the Genesee Packet, Experiment, Collector and Lord Nelson and at Oswego, the Charles and Ann and Diana.
When Commodore Chauncey arrived in November with Henry Eckford, he lost no time in fitting them out and when, on November 8th, he hoisted his pennant aboard Oneida as Commodore he had in his van the six little schooners under the new names of Conquest, Growler, Pert, Scourge, Gov. Tompkins and Hamilton respectively, mounting in all some 40 guns of various calibres and manned by 430 men.
Opposed to Chauncey’s fleet were the Royal George, Moira, Prince Regent, Gloucester, Simcoe and Seneca, the first two being listed as “ships” and the rest as schooners. They mounted 92 guns, all firing broadside, and carried 806 men. Nearly double Chauncey’s strength.
On the 9th Chauncey fell in with the George and chased her into the Bay of Quinte when nightfall let her escape him but the following morning he took a small schooner and burned her, and sighting the George again gave chase to Kingston Harbour where he engaged her for an hour and a half under the guns of the fort. Being out-gunned and with night coming on and a gale rising, he stood off till dawn, when the wind still rising he beat out into the lake meeting the Simcoe and filling her so with shot that she sank at her moorings though she escaped him. On the same day he took a large schooner coming from Niagara and sent her down past Kingston convoyed by Growler, hoping this slight escort would draw out the George but her commander failed to respond.
Later in the same cruise the Growler managed to cut the schooner Elizabeth out from under the Moira’s escort and Chauncey with the rest of his fleet chased the latter into Kingston. Among his prisoners was a Captain Brock conveying the effects of his relative, the late General Brock, to Kingston and the Commodore with great civility allowed him to proceed with his baggage. He left the Julia, Pert, Fair American, Ontario and Scourge to blockade Kingston.
The action of the George, the largest vessel on the Great Lakes, in retiring before Oneida’s onslaught was attributed to inexperience and poor leadership, the British having not then drawn on the Royal Navy for seamen to man their lake fleet as they did in the years following4.
All winter long the shipyards on both sides of the lake had rung with the sound of mauls and caulking mallets as the British sought to out build their American rivals. For while the year 1812 was disastrous to America’s land forces their fleet had almost absolute control of Lake Ontario.
Sir James Yeo with 80 shipwrights and 200 seamen had arrived at Kingston and had several vessels on the ways while Henry Eckford was laying the keel of the brigs Jefferson and Jones at the “Harbour” where he launched them on the 7th and 10th, April respectively, while laying the keel of another, the General Pike on the ninth.
On the 22nd of the same month 1700 troops under General Pike embarked from Sacketts Harbour for an unknown destination. The fleet sailed on the 25th and the betting was even for York or Niagara. On the 27th the fleet arrived at York and the same day it fell to their arms. Chauncey’s little schooners helped cover the landing and took part in the action. Among the captured vessels was the Duke of Gloucester which was in port awaiting repairs.
The fleet returned to the “Harbour” on May 13th bringing with them the body of General Pike who lost his life in the attack. Burial was made at Fort Tompkins.
On August 7th, while maneuvering off Niagara a terrific gale struck the fleet and the Hamilton and Scourge overturned and were lost with all but sixteen men from both crews. Our eight little schooners were now reduced to four. On the 9th the Julia and Growler were taken by the enemy and renamed Confiance and Hamilton.
Fighting swung from one end of the lake to the other whenever the rival fleets met, for the British no longer avoided battle though their primary military duty was the convoying of supplies to Upper Canada. On September 5th, near the False Ducks, Chauncey re-captured the Julia and Growler with three gunboats and some 300 men of DeWatteville’s regiment bound from York to Kingston.
For the rest of the year Chauncey was blockading Kingston while Wilkinson was gathering his army at Oswego for his descent on Montreal. Late in October he began slipping his boats into the south channel of the St. Lawrence in the intervals of the autumnal gales which were playing havoc with his smaller vessels. Growler arrived at Grenadier Island, at the mouth of the lake, on the 31st, with 230 men of the 20th Regiment, and Chauncey lay off Carleton Island, a key position to the South channel which had been seized at the start of the war by an enterprising sergeant, to prevent the British from occupying the ruins of Fort Haldimand there.
By chance, British gun-boats scouting around the eastern end of Wolfe Island spotted Wilkinson’s army on the move and though they were driven off with some loss they escaped to Kingston with the news. Then began a curious race down the river with the British forces rowing desperately down the northern channel while Wilkinson, screened from view by the long bulk of Wolfe Island, continued down the southern.
The two forces met at Chrysler’s Field, just above the Long Sault rapid, on November 11th and an eight-hour battle followed, as a result of which, Wilkinson abandoned his plan on Montreal and went into winter quarters at Salmon River, now Fort Covington.
Once again the ship-yards sweated through the winter and when spring came an official return showed that Chauncey had a fleet of 15 vessels of all types, including our four little schooners, mounting 108 guns.
The British on the other hand had laid the keel of the St. Lawrence, reputed to mount 102 guns, a vessel as large as Nelson’s flagship Victory which carried 108 guns.
As soon as the ice broke up the Lady of the Lake cruised off Kingston Harbour drawing the fire of the fleet and fort and noting the enemy were ready to come out.
The British had re-armed and re-named their vessels and Sir James Yeo now had three ships, two brigs and two schooners mounting a total of 188 guns under his command and the St. Lawrence building.
With such a preponderance of metal it was expected that the British would take the initiative, but they also had new ships to meet for the Frigate Superior was launched at the “Harbour” May 1st, only eighty days after the laying of the keel, and was followed by the Mohawk and Jones, the former, mounting 44 guns, having been but 34 days in building.
But the two fleets never met, the only great naval action of the year being Perry’s astonishing victory on Lake Erie.
On May 5th however Yeo appeared off Oswego and on the following day took it and burned the barracks and stores. It is said his original objective had been Sackett’s Harbour but having had the number of his troops cut down by Sir George Prevost, he had chosen the smaller and less strongly held port. Consequently, he could not exploit his victory and on the 30th suffered a sharp defeat when a party of marines and sailors attempted a cutting-out expedition near Sandy Creek, to prevent Chauncey from getting supplies from Oswego; every man being killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.
During the summer the St. Lawrence made her appearance on the lake and toward the end of July Chauncey moved his whole fleet to Niagara, but except for some gun-boat actions near Kingston and on the river no further fighting took place, the war ending abruptly on Christmas Eve with the news that peace had been signed at Ghent.
In all these actions the four remaining schooners played an active part. They were as useful to Chauncey as the fifty obsolete destroyers were to Britain in the “Battle of the Atlantic” in the recent war.
In 1817 the famous Rush-Bagot agreement between the two nations was signed at Washington. This put an end, for all time, to any naval armament race on the Great Lakes for it limited the armed vessels to a single gun-boat on each lake. The agreement was remarkable for two things, its brevity and the fact it was written in English, the common language of both contracting parties. Perhaps it was because of this it has remained unbroken for a century and a quarter.
It has been suspended twice by mutual consent, during World War I to permit Eagle boats built in Detroit to proceed to the ocean by way of Canadian canals and again for similar purpose in World War II when hundreds of frigates, minesweepers and corvettes born in the pangs of war on both sides of that imaginary line, rushed breathlessly down these narrow channels to unite in the mutual defense of this continent.
It is a far cry from the Rush-Bagot agreement to that signed at Ogdensburg between Canada and the United States, but the one fathered the other, just as the courage and determination shown by our fresh-water sailors in the last World War is a direct heritage from their ancestors who fought the six little schooners.
- Lady Simcoe, wife of the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada accompanied her husband on his travels through the province and her diary is a valuable record of intelligent observation.
- An interesting description of this invention and the building of the Lake fleets is contained in The Fleet in the Forest by Carl Lane.
- History of Jefferson County, by Franklin B. Hough, Albany, 1854, p. 465
- Naval History of the United States, by Fenimore Cooper, Ii,
This article first appeared in Inland Seas in July, 1946