On the High Seas and the Thames

Constitution_v_HMS_Guerriere anton otto fischer
The Constitution takes down the HMS Guerierre, in what is likely a generous take on the clash. Photo Credit: Anton Otto Fischer

Oddly enough, the one bright spot for an America bruised from stomping on one too many military rakes to the face had been the naval war. Going into 1813, the United States’ small fleet of just 16 ships had actually achieved a measure of success against their British counterparts. In a series of one to one ship actions, Captain Isaac Hull of the USS Constitution brought down two British frigates, and the USS United States took out another in 1812.[1] Elsewhere the USS Essex broke out of the Atlantic cordon and began to terrorize British shipping in the Pacific. Part of the reason for this was that the Constitution and her sister ships were the biggest fish in a small pond. Likely the only thing that Presidents Adams and Jefferson ever agreed on, they had been conceived as a core group of capital ships for the new American navy, and were essentially oversized frigates. Just as important though was the overall professionalism and accuracy of the American sailors, and their counterpart’s own need to fling their better trained crew and best ships into the Napoleonic War.[2] Still, even if the matchup was uneven it annoyed a British public used to their naval supremacy to lose at all. Standing orders were revised for the British ships to avoid engaging with their American foes, at least for the moment. While it was great for morale, formerly enthusiastic warhawk Henry Clay gloomily noted that the victories, “Brilliant as they are . . . do not fill up the void created by our misfortunes on land.”[3]

Shannon boarding George Cruikshank
A British cartoon highlighting the capture of the USS Chesapeake. As is always the case, both side’s cartoonists had a great time lampooning the opposition in the war. Photo Credit: George Cruikshank.

The one exception to this naval success was the hapless fate of the USS Chesapeake. Chomping at the bit to prove himself, its new Captain James Lawrence had taken the vessel out to answer a literal challenge issued by the captain of the HMS Shannon.[4] On June 1st 1813 the two ships met in a short but sharp battle. After British gunnery cleared the deck, the Shannon’s crew charged onboard and overwhelmed the shellshocked American crew in less than fifteen minutes of vicious hand to hand combat. Dying of a musket wound, Captain Lawrence’s final command to defend the ship went unfulfilled. As a skeleton crew sailed the American ship back to England, the nervous British pacified their American prisoners by pointing two of the own Chesapeake’s guns at the makeshift holding cells they built to hold the surviving sailors. While hardly decisive, like American victories at sea, the Chesapeake was more a propaganda coup than a game changer. Needless to say, for many New Englanders already opposed of the conflict, the Chesapeake did little to shore up support for what angry Federalists were already calling “Mr. Madison’s War”.

Imacon Color Scanner
“Drive me closer! I want to hit them with my sword”. -Oliver Perry, probably. Photo Credit: William Henry Powell

While naval scraps on the high seas were hardly decisive, American talent on the Great Lakes was another story. Lake Erie’s shore had already seen fighting from Detroit to Toronto, and it was obvious that command of the lake was the key to success in the western war. Both sides had rushed out a new commander for the naval side of things in 1813, Robert Barclay for the British, and Oliver Hazard Perry for the Americans. Likewise, both men quickly realized that they were tasked with building and crewing a fleet out of little more than what the bits and material they could cobble together in a season. In the resulting arms race, Barclay’s crews refitted a half built American ship into the near perfect HMS Detroit, but Perry’s crews built six smaller warships. Proving that quantity is a quality all on its own, in the resulting Battle of Lake Erie on September 10th, Perry’s fleet overwhelmed the British with what Teddy Roosevelt would later call a storm of “superior heavy metal”. Perry’s victory was decisive, even if he had been forced to switch vessels halfway through the battle as his flagship sank from under him. Writing briefly to General Harrison, Perry told his counterpart that “we have met the enemy and they are ours”.

The victory on Lake Erie allowed Harrison to take back the offense against his own nemesis Tecumseh, and closed the door on any resupply for the coalition forces. British General Procter had proved to be something of a disappointment to everyone. To the Americans he was a butcher that had stood by while the native coalition had slaughtered their wounded. To Tecumseh’s coalition and many of his own British troops, he was also an idiot, and a coward who had abandoned the offensive far too readily. After several attacks on United States forts on Ohio had failed to dislodge the turtling Americans, Procter had begun to fall back. He had even abandoned Detroit after Lake Erie fell, infuriating Tecumseh. To the Shawnee and the other tribes, Procter was effectively ceding their own lands to their hated enemies without a fight.

Tecumseh would get his battle anyways. Using the newly American Lake Erie to speed his arrival, Harrison’s forces quickly caught up to the retreating allied forces as they moved north. Facing the music, Procter and Tecumseh met their enemy on October 10th at the Battle of the Thames. Outnumbered three to one and with none of the genius they needed to beat a seasoned commander like Harrison, the outcome was never really in doubt. It was a victory for the United States, and a crushing loss for the independence of the Native Americans as Tecumseh himself was killed in the fighting.

Dying Tecumseh Smithsonian Art Museum
The Dying Tecumseh. Per usual the sculpture is more throwback to the original Gaul, and aims for the sort of “Noble Savage” that Tecumseh has often been stuck with. Photo Credit: Smithsonian American Art Museum

Almost immediately the Shawnee chief transitioned from man to legend. In the grand tradition of Hannibal, now that he was safely dead Tecumseh was lionized by Harrison and others eager to generate political fuel from their victory. Harrison would later run for President on his war record, generating a catchy chant of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” that easily outlasted his 40 day presidency. A statue of Tecumseh, in the tradition of the famous “Dying Gaul” statue was even chiseled out.[5] In a darker twist, many American souvenir hunters, unsure of Tecumseh’s appearance also cut strips of skin from the dead Shawnee they found, eager to make a leather strop or belt from the remains of their fallen rival.

For their part, as many of the Native Americans who had argued for peace and accommodation with their land crazy eastern neighbors saw their treaties violated and their sovereignty obliterated, Tecumseh was seen as a Cassandra to many. The  battle had actually broken out near a neutral Native American community called Moraviantown, which the Americans had promptly sacked in a moment of ominous foreshadowing. Tecumseh became a visionary who hadn’t been heeded when there was time to arrest the situation. With Tecumseh’s loss the Northwest Territories fell into American hands, and the British lost their interest in bargaining for its protection as a proxy state. It would be dropped as a bargaining chip in the Realpolitik of peace negotiations, in a tacit acknowledgement of the genocide to come.

[1] The Constitution would bring down five British warships over the course of the war. Her nickname, Old Ironsides, derived from the fact that cannon shot would often bounce clean off the well-constructed hull.

[2] Accurate gunnery in this case meant hitting the enemy ship at all. Naval strategy at the time basically meant treating ships like a large shotgun and steering as close as possible to maximize the impact. To demonstrate the inherent challenge, the author suggests the following experiment: Try to fling a bowling ball from a moving car onto another moving car, while both vehicles go over speed bumps in a rainstorm. Legally, the author isn’t actually proposing anyone try this, but if someone does try he hopes it is filmed.

[3] Clay, H. (1797-1814) The Papers of Henry Clay. Compiled 1959.

[4] “As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags.” –Philip Broke, HMS Shannon. One could only imagine how such an offer would go over today.

[5] Yes Really.

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