Monday, September 22, 2008

The guns of September

September 2008 marks the 195th anniversary of a key event from the War of 1812, an escapade known as "the war that both sides won" because, despite a significant amount of bloodshed, the border between Canada and the U.S. remained pretty much the same once the guns fell silent in 1814.

But in September 1813, events looked like they might be heading for a significantly different ending. The storied commander of the British army in Upper Canada, Isaac Brock, had been killed in the Battle of Queenston Heights nearly a year earlier, and on Lake Erie the Americans were building a fleet of impressive battleships designed to directly threaten the meagre British presence in what is today southwestern Ontario.

Standing largely alone against this threat was Henry Procter, the commander of Fort Malden, in Amherstburg. Constantly undermanned and provisioned through a tenuous waterborne supply line stretching to it from Long Point, conditions at Malden often verged on starvation for the garrison, which consisted of British soldiers and a significant number of Native warriors.

Procter's job was not shaping up to be an easy one.

Still, despite all this (or more correctly because of it), a fleet of six British warships under the command of Royal Navy commander Robert Heriot Barclay sailed out of Malden on the morning of September 10, 1813, with a single goal: to wipe out the new American fleet under the command of young Oliver Hazard Perry. Gamely, Barclay approached Perry's anchorage at Put-in-Bay, on South Bass Island, in American waters.

But Perry, who would be lionized for his role in the battle, had a key advantage -- his fleet carried a superior number of short-range carronades, which were key to taking on the British in close combat. Barclay, on the other hand, was dramatically short of cannons of all types, and many of these had been stripped from the ramparts of Fort Malden in a last, desperate attempt to fit out his flagship, HMS Detroit.

So, the early stages of the battle between the six-ship British fleet and the nine American boats looked an awful lot like a chess match, as Perry tried to bring his flagship, the Lawrence, closer to the British, while Barclay, who was reliant on long-range guns, tried to keep the gap as wide as possible. In the end, mainly owing to a favourable wind, Perry was able to close the distance, though many of his gunners paid the ultimate price, being picked off by British cannonballs and sharpshooters while the American flagship pressed closer. By the time Perry was able to slam a broadside into the Detroit, the Lawrence was nearly completely wrecked. But his guns still had a lethal effect on the British flagship.

The coup de grace came when Perry had himself rowed, fully exposed to British fire, to the Lawrence's twin, the Niagara. The latter had stayed out of the fray, for reasons that have never been fully explained, and when Perry climbed aboard and took command, he had a nearly unscathed 20-gun warship to inflict on the by-now-tattered British fleet. In the end, he made short work of them, busting through the British line and unleashing broadside after broadside into his opponents until, at the height of this ruthless pounding, one of the American officers finally spotted a white flag fluttering above the deck of the utterly shattered Detroit.

With that, it was over. And the Americans found themselves in firm possession of Lake Erie.

Today, there aren't any memorials to the fallen British and Canadian soldiers on the Canadian side of the lake. But Perry and his men were revered for their victory by their countrymen. The most telling monument to the battle, and to the peace that has existed between the Canadians and Americans since 1814, is the 107-metre Perry's monument. Built to mark the battle's centenary and completed in 1815, the single stone tower draws tourists from all over the United States (along with more than a few curious boaters from Canada). From its observation deck, you can take in a stunning view of the surrounding Lake Erie islands, including the very spot where the two fleets met on that cool, clear day in 1813.

The 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the War of 1812 is coming up in just four years. As 2012 approaches, expect to hear a lot more about this peculiar conflict from the distant past.

Meantime, you can read more about this and many other escapades on Lake Erie in Lake Erie Stories.

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