Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The ghost fleet

Hot on the heels of the discovery of the wreck of HMS Ontario, a Revolutionary War vessel that sank with all hands in 1780, comes news of the potential discovery of another significant wreck on Lake Ontario, the HMS Wolfe, a warship that faced a more pedestrian fate than its Revolutionary War predecessor. No longer needed after the guns of the War of 1812 fell silent, the Wolfe was scuttled.

But the Wolfe's role in its war was more important than that played by the Ontario thirty years earlier. The Wolfe was the flagship of Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander of the British naval force on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812, and was a powerful vessel for her day, bristling with 32 cannons and carrying a crew of around 220.

She took part in a number of battles, but her most celebrated engagement came in what is known as the Burlington Races (because the battle looked more like a boat race to spectators on shore) in September 1813.

The confrontation found Yeo and the British fleet facing a potent American force led by the formidable flagship General Pike. Things were not going well for the British on the lakes at this point in the war; just days earlier, the Americans had pulled off a stunning victory on Lake Erie (you can read more about that in Lake Erie Stories), and things didn't go much better for the British on this day.

In a short, sharp fight near present-day Toronto (in the middle of a storm, no less), the American fleet poured fire into Yeo's Wolfe, dismasting her. The Americans, and the Pike in particular, were within moments of finishing her off when Captain William Howe Mulcaster, in a dramatic move, threw his ship, the Royal George, between Yeo and his pursuers. This gave the British the time they needed to slip away, which they did, finding safe haven in Burlington Bay. The Americans, fearing that pressing their luck in such terrible conditions could be catastrophic, decided not to follow. As a result, the British fleet lived on, and soon the Wolfe was repaired and back in action.

The Burlington battle is notable to historians because it is one of those seemingly inconsequential skirmishes that, had an element or two gone the other way, could have had massive consequences. The British fleet was nearly defeated. Had it been, both Lake Ontario and Lake Erie could have been lost, and the war would likely have had a very different conclusion.

For now, the location of the wreck (it has not yet been officially verified) is being kept quiet, but this is likely not the last we've heard of the legendary Wolfe.

For the National Post story on the discovery, click here.

For more on HMS Ontario, click here.

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