Among British Army historians the reputation of Sir John Fortescue stands virtually without equal. His comprehensive fourteen volume history is a work of unparalleled achievement in its field. Fortescue combines thorough source material research with insightful academic observation of the conduct of the campaigns he describes and of the decisions, errors and strategic and tactical options of their principal protagonists. The Leonaur editors have carefully selected passages from Fortescue’s magnum opus to create a series of books, each focusing on a specific war or campaign.
In 1812, the British Army, together with the armies of its European allies, was engaged against the might of Napoleon’s imperial France. Since the loss of the New World colonies there had been little affection between Britain and the United States of America. The Americans, having consolidated their nation, and looking to expand their influence, invaded Canada. The Canadians remained staunchly British in their allegiances and decisively repelled the American Army. A British Army expeditionary force, including soldiers who had recently defeated Napoleon’s French Army in Iberia, was despatched and the Americans suffered the ignominy of the occupation of Washington and the burning of the White House. Finally, an American force under Jackson, inflicted a bloody defeat on the British at New Orleans. The British commander, Pakenham, who was Wellington’s brother-in law, was killed in the battle. Tragically, and unknown to the protagonists, peace terms had been signed two weeks previously in Europe. Nevertheless, America had redeemed itself with an iconic victory, Canada had demonstrated it was capable of holding its own ground and the British Army had once again shown its renowned mettle. The War of 1812 was a war in which, unusually, all nations who had fought in it were comparatively satisfied with its outcome.
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With a force depleted by the necessity of supplying Barclay with crews, Proctor was left mainly dependent on the Indians, who now proposed a second attack upon Fort Meigs. The design, said to have been framed by Tecumseh himself, was to decoy part of the garrison into the forest by opening a heavy fire, and to fall upon its rear as soon as it was safely entangled in the trees; whereupon the British, who were to be concealed near the fort, would endeavour to storm it by surprise.
Proctor consented to this flimsy stratagem against his better judgment, as he admitted; and accordingly towards the end of July he sailed for the Maumee with four hundred of the Forty-First and a few field-guns. Tecumseh’s plan failed completely; most of the Indians returned to their homes; and Proctor, in order to keep the remnant with him, re-embarked his troops for an attack upon Fort Stephenson, the American post at Sandusky. Moving up the river in boats, he opened his attack on the evening of the 1st of August with an ineffectual bombardment; and on the evening of the 2nd, yielding once more to the importunity of the Indians, he delivered an assault.
The garrison of the place numbered no more than one hundred and sixty men with a single field-gun; but it was situated in a strong position on the lip of a deep wooded ravine, the whole being surrounded by a stockade and by an external ditch eight feet wide and as many deep. The assault was to have been delivered at two different points, the one being entrusted to the Indians and the other to the Forty-First; but neither scaling-ladders nor fascines were provided to facilitate the passage of the ditch; wherefore, though the British made their way gallantly to the bottom of it under a heavy fire, they could advance no farther, and were shot down at leisure by the Americans.
The Indians never fell on at all; and after two hours of fruitless endeavour Proctor drew off his men under cover of darkness, and, leaving the greater number of his killed and wounded—ninety-six in all—behind him, returned to the mouth of the Detroit River. The action was highly creditable to the young officer, Major Croghan, who commanded the garrison, and much the reverse to Proctor. It is difficult, perhaps, to blame a man who in so desperate a position endeavoured to conciliate his only allies, the Indians, by a desperate venture; but a commander can never be excused, least of all in a dangerous enterprise, for neglecting the most elementary means of obtaining success. His situation was doubtless trying and discouraging to the last degree; but it is very evident that Proctor had lost his temper, patience and hope, looked upon himself as sacrificed to the welfare of de Rottenburg, and was disposed to drift carelessly in what direction soever the eddies of circumstance might guide him.
Meanwhile, on the very day of the failure before Fort Stephenson, Perry had begun the most difficult and dangerous operation of bringing his vessels from their anchorage through a very shallow channel into deep water. To effect this he was obliged not only to take out the guns from the larger ships, but to lift them over the bar with floats; and it was not until the evening of the 4th that Perry could report the entire squadron as safe in deep water.
On the same day Barclay returned to the blockade and found himself too late. His new ship, the Detroit, had been launched, but was still unready for service; and he was obliged to return in all haste to fit her out. By one shift and another she was within the next three weeks masted and equipped, and by the disarming of Fort Amherstburg she was furnished with nineteen guns of four different calibres. (Proctor wrote to Prevost on the 26th of August that all his ordnance, except his field-guns, was on the fleet).
But she still needed to be manned, and it was difficult to say where a crew could be found for her, for there were only twenty-five British seamen on Lake Erie. Perry himself had been nearly as much embarrassed for sailors as was Barclay, for Chauncey, like Yeo, was unwilling to spare any of his own; and in fact Perry had taken the water with no more than three hundred, including a proportion of landsmen, out of a proper complement of seven hundred and forty. On the 10th of August, however, he received a reinforcement of one hundred seamen, and established his headquarters at Put-in Bay, about thirty miles to south of the mouth of the Detroit, from which point he made frequent reconnaissances of the British squadron at Amherstburg. Barclay was naturally in no condition to meet him; and Proctor stated the case fairly when he informed Prevost that, so long as Barclay was without seamen, he ought to avoid the enemy.
This, however, signified that for the time the naval command of Lake Erie was yielded to the Americans, a very serious matter. Prevost, in order to be nearer at hand to help Proctor, moved his headquarters during the third week in July to the Niagara frontier; but he acknowledged that he could do little to remedy the most threatening danger of all, namely the interception of Proctor’s supplies. For the white troops alone enough might with great exertion have been transported by land; but the Indians, some fourteen thousand men, women and children, also required feeding; and the victualling of such a multitude was possible only if there were free transit for British shipping from Long Point to the River Detroit.
By the 5th of September the situation had become alarming, for there was only from two to three days’ flour left, and Proctor’s commissary was in despair. For three more days Barclay waited anxiously for the arrival of forty or sixty seamen, whom Prevost on the 22nd of August had reported to be on their way to Kingston; but a sudden movement of the enemy, presently to be narrated, upon Sackett’s Harbour caused the commander-in-chief to return hastily eastward, and the waiting was in vain.
On the 9th, when his crews had already been for some time on half-rations, Barclay, with Proctor’s approval, sailed out to meet Perry. Each squadron had two large ships, and one intermediate vessel; but of lighter craft the British numbered only three against six, while the American ships, though themselves undermanned, carried rather more men, and an infinitely larger proportion of trained seamen.