Book Review: Warships of the Great Lakes

 

American History textbooks rarely spend much time on the Great Lakes; their importance as the barrier between the original thirteen colonies and French Canada — and later the barrier between the United States and British Canada — is seldom mentioned, nor is their roll in the calculations of power and trade in the early American interior given its just due.  If the lakes are even mentioned, it is only to note that Commodore Perry won a famous battle and secured the lakes for us in the War of 1812.  Theyrarely discuss is just why securing the lakes was vital, which is exactly what Warships of the Great Lakes: 1754 – 1834 by Robert Malcomson does so well.

Screen Shot 2014-08-08 at 12.23.17 AMThere were only three main arteries into the American interior in colonial times: up the Mississippi River, up the Saint Lawrence River, or overland through the Appalachians.  The latter option was treacherous for lack of roads, while the other two were under French control.  The Saint Lawrence drains Lake Ontario and the other lakes beyond, but also drains — by way of navigable feeder rivers — Lake Champlain which, in turn, gives access to the interior of upstate New York and New England.  The Great Lakes, however, allow access to the entire interior of North America as far as the Mississippi.

The book focuses its attention on the ships the English, the French, and the Americans used to contest the control of this vital waterway, from the French and Indian War (i.e., The Seven Years War) through the War of 1812.  The author does not attempt to paint a narrative arc of the campaigns, but catalogs and records the evolving ship designs and the facts of the campaigns themselves, including how naval activities affected the land strategies of the various armies.  As naval construction terminology may be unfamiliar, he also defines the vocabulary of ship design as required throughout the text.

The French and Indian War saw the first militarization of the Lakes.  The French already nominally controlled the waters, but the British and American colonists had been intruding on French commerce for decades prior to the war.  British merchants had been building trading vessels on lakes Ontario and Champlain, and these became the first war vessels on the lakes.  The French responded by arming their own merchantmen.

We know from our histories that France lost this war and ceded all of Canada and the lands east of the Mississippi to Britain, but the book fills in the details of how the French losses on Lake Ontario allowed British armies to flank French positions.  Britain first swept Ontario and Champlain of French ships, then used the open waterways to support the land armies in besieging the forts, opening the routes to the conquest of Quebec and Montreal.  By the war’s end, Britain even had one lone warship on the heretofore empty upper lakes. [[[???]]]

In our War For Independence, the Great Lakes were not so militarized, as they offered no viable route into the colonies, and the colonies themselves did not have the resources to contest them.  Lake Champlain, however, was a fierce battleground.  Benedict Arnold led a substantive holding action against an invading army, and while his loss eventually allowed General Burgoyne through, the delays contributed to Burgoyne’s ultimate loss at Saratoga.  Britain made no further attempt to use that route.

432px-HMS_St_Lawrence_001The War Of 1812 occupies the majority of the book, as this was the period when the Great Lakes came most into their own as a battleground.  The initial months of the war followed much the pattern of the two prior wars, with both sides first arming their merchant fleets with available ordnance.  As the American naval war on the Atlantic stalled with the blockades of 1813, the American Navy directed large numbers of cannons, shipwrights, and sailors up to the Lakes, where a naval arms race commenced.  Commodore Chauncey set in motion a rapid building program to launch frigates (then the mainstay of capital warships) on Lake Ontario, which the British soon matched.  Late in 1814, Britain even launched a 112-gun first rate battleship, HMS St Lawrence, whose firepower was the equal of Nelson’s HMS Victory.  Had the war progressed into 1815, the USA would have launched two first-rate in response, while Britain was building two more as well.

Commodore Perry’s squadron on Lake Erie was effectively a sideshow compared to the activity on Ontario, and — though he did clear the British off of the upper lakes, allowing the relief of Detroit — by 1815 Britain would have had a much larger squadron return to those waters.  Perry’s victory was one of the few celebrated naval triumphs of the war, so it is still commemorated.  Commodore Chauncey, however, did the real work of the war by preventing Britain from invading New York by that route, even though he never risked his fleet in a pitched battle.

Late in 1814, Britain risked one other major naval action, this time on Lake Champlain.  Britain looked to invade by Burgoyne’s route, but the loss of their entire Champlain squadron at Plattsburg ended that strategy.  The losses on the upper lakes — combined with those on Champlain, and the Ontario stalemate — all contributed to the eventual peace treaty.  With the end of the war, the fleets of both sides were either sold off or allowed to rot at their moorings; the lakes have been unarmed zones ever since.

The author spends some time discussing some of the oddities of sailing vessels on the lakes.  The shallowness of Erie made the brigs of Perry’s squadron very shallow of draft and poor sailors – had the British commander at Put In Bay been more aggressive in maneuvering he could have stolen the weather gauge from Perry, giving him a huge tactical advantage.  Wooden ships on the lakes also tended to rot or wear out very quickly: ocean-going vessels of the era could last decades with care, while lake vessels tended to be useless after 5-7 years, even as builders attempted to pack their ballasts and bilges with salt to dry them out and make them last longer.  Vessels launched in 1812 were frequently beyond repair by late 1814, making the maintenance of the fleets an expensive proposition.  The weather patterns of the lakes also played havoc with the squadrons.  Perry lost most of the ships he captured in battle when the winds drove them into a British harbor.  Sudden storms and a short sailing season kept ships at their bases for a surprising amount of time, and the commanders on both sides could rarely make aggressive raids or maneuvers out of fear of capture or grounding.

All told, Malcomson has put together a useful and compact reference for naval historians and enthusiasts, and an illuminating look at a neglected front in the struggle for control of North America.

Image Credits: William Henry Powell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons & “HMS St Lawrence 001” by This file is lacking author information. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:HMS_St._Lawrence_001.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

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  1. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Did he mention my old friend James?

    • #1
  2. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Arahant:

    Did he mention my old friend James?

     Cooper was not mentioned in this book, but was mentioned in another book on 1812 that I will write about later.  Where mentioned in the later book Cooper is essentially described as a hack historian, useful only insofar as he actually knew many of the officers and men of the time but otherwise biased and prone to gross exaggeration of fact and moral preening.

    Have you read Mark Twain’s criticism of Cooper?  Great stuff.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Like most historians today, with many more credentials, aren’t biased and prone to gross exaggeration? Yes, there are some true professionals, as there were then. Still, his main credentials were knowing people and having written fiction (after a challenge from his wife).  How perfect do you expect such an amateur to be? And again, compare to many university professors. Do they even teach history anymore? Or is it all this studies and that studies? (VDH, Paul Rahe, and a few others excepted, of course.)

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    By the way, if you ever get up to Ann Arbor, there is a little used bookshop where the owner was educated as a nautical engineer. So he has a large section on sailing, ship design, and the history of sailing.

    • #4
  5. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Arahant:

    Like most historians today, with many more credentials, aren’t biased and prone to gross exaggeration? Yes, there are some true professionals, as there were then. Still, his main credentials were knowing people and having written fiction (after a challenge from his wife). How perfect do you expect such an amateur to be? And again, compare to many university professors. Do they even teach history anymore? Or is it all this studies and that studies? (VDH, Paul Rahe, and a few others excepted, of course.)

     I’m just reporting what another author had said.  I’m still adding Cooper to my reading list.  

    • #5
  6. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Arahant:

    By the way, if you ever get up to Ann Arbor, there is a little used bookshop where the owner was educated as a nautical engineer. So he has a large section on sailing, ship design, and the history of sailing.

     Ann Arbor isn’t too far away, so I’ll try to remember that next time I’m in the area.

    • #6
  7. user_6236 Member
    user_6236
    @JimChase

    I might have to check this out.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    skipsul: Ann Arbor isn’t too far away, so I’ll try to remember that next time I’m in the area.

    It’s just off Main Street on Liberty, and called the West Side Book Shop. Not much of a Website, so here’s Google’s Streetview.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    As one goes into the shop, there is the main room. If one goes straight back on the right side, there is a short hallway that leads to some other rooms. Most of the right side of the hallway is the sailing and shipping section.

    • #9
  10. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    IMG_0374 IMG_0377

    The Flagship Niagara, in Erie, PA, is a mostly-faithful replica of Perry’s 2nd flagship at Put In Bay.  She still sails regularly and takes volunteers every summer for the crew.  Back in the 90’s I spent a month in a naval history class at Gannon University in Erie, during which I helped recaulk the deck after hours.  Sadly I didn’t get to sail on her as she was under substantial repair most of that season.

    • #10
  11. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    The lower of the two photos above is the section of deck I helped repair.  I’m pretty sure she’s been recaulked a few times since.

    • #11
  12. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    skipsul: …the lakes have been unarmed zones ever since.

    Wellllll….

    For the first time, Coast Guard officials want to mount machine guns routinely on their cutters and small boats here and around all five of the Great Lakes as part of a program addressing the threats of terrorism after Sept. 11.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/us/16lakes.html

    • #12
  13. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    skipsul: I’m pretty sure she’s been recaulked a few times since.

    Pretty much guarantee it.

    • #13
  14. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Misthiocracy:

    skipsul: …the lakes have been unarmed zones ever since.

    Wellllll….

    For the first time, Coast Guard officials want to mount machine guns routinely on their cutters and small boats here and around all five of the Great Lakes as part of a program addressing the threats of terrorism after Sept. 11.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/us/16lakes.html

     That’s a bit different than sending capital warships to patrol the waters.  When US and Canadian submarines start stalking each other, or when Quebec destroyers make a raid on Rochester, then I’ll worry.  Revenue cutters and customs agents have always been there, often armed against smugglers.

    • #14
  15. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    skipsul:

    Misthiocracy:

    skipsul: …the lakes have been unarmed zones ever since.

    Wellllll….

    For the first time, Coast Guard officials want to mount machine guns routinely on their cutters and small boats here and around all five of the Great Lakes as part of a program addressing the threats of terrorism after Sept. 11.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/16/us/16lakes.html

    That’s a bit different than sending capital warships to patrol the waters. When US and Canadian submarines start stalking each other, or when Quebec destroyers make a raid on Rochester, then I’ll worry. Revenue cutters and customs agents have always been there, often armed against smugglers.

    They still ain’t “unarmed zones”.

    • #15
  16. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Misthiocracy: They still ain’t “unarmed zones”.

     But they aren’t contested and patrolled by capital ships of opposing rival navies, which was my point.

    • #16
  17. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Misthiocracy: They still ain’t “unarmed zones”.

    “It’s only a flesh wound.”

    • #17
  18. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    The Rush-Bagot Treaty (1816) limited Great Britain (and subsequently Canada) to one armed warship each on Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain, and the Upper Lakes (Eire and upstream).

    For many years the Upper Lakes warship was the USS Michigan, the only iron-hulled ship in the United States Navy.

    Both the  British and US kept ships in ordinary on the lakes until the 1840s, and the ship of the line New Orleans was not broken up until the 1880s.

    • #18
  19. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    skipsul:

    Misthiocracy: They still ain’t “unarmed zones”.

    But they aren’t contested and patrolled by capital ships of opposing rival navies, which was my point.

    That wasn’t the original claim. The original claim was that they are “unarmed zones”.

    • #19
  20. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Misthiocracy:

    skipsul:

    Misthiocracy: They still ain’t “unarmed zones”.

    But they aren’t contested and patrolled by capital ships of opposing rival navies, which was my point.

    That wasn’t the original claim. The original claim was that they are “unarmed zones”.

     Fine fine.

    Regarding the ships in ordinary, this was not the full story.  They may have been “on the books” as laid up, but they were mostly sold off or allowed to rot at the moorings.  The entire lake Champlain squadron was canvassed over and never moved again.  The Saint Lawrence rotted and sank at her moorings and was only finally moved when scrapped.  Niagara and Lawrence were scuttled in Erie harbor for preservation, with Lawrence hauled up again after 20 years for sale, while Niagara’s location made her retrieval less economical until the 1812 centenary.

    Regarding the New Orleans, she was never actually completed, instead laid up in a storage shed and forgotten.  When the Navy finally remembered her in the 1880s they sold her off for lumber.

    • #20
  21. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    skipsul: Regarding the New Orleans, she was never actually completed, instead laid up in a storage shed and forgotten.  When the Navy finally remembered her in the 1880s they sold her off for lumber.

     Uh . . . no. She was completed.  She was never launched, and fitted out for service, but the hull was completed.  This was pretty common practice by the United States Navy during the 19th century.  Virtually every ship-of-the-line authorized by the Gradual Increase Act was completed between 1820 and 1824 and left on the building ways until there was a need for the ship.  In one case (New Hampshire) it took over 40 years to launch the ship, and three others (Chippawa, New York, and Virginia) were never launched.  However in all cases the hulls were finished.  

    The disintegrating/incomplete roof seen in the famous 1883 photo of New Orleans was not part of the ship’s hull.  They are a temporary roof put over the ship to protect it from the elements.

    Wikipedia lists these ships as “never completed.”  Wikipedia is wrong.  They could have been launched and fitted out for service in three months.

    Seawriter

    • #21
  22. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Seawriter:  Uh . . . no. She was completed.  She was never launched, and fitted out for service, but the hull was completed.

     The author of the book listed her as incomplete, something like 90% of her hull work done but still not ready for launch, and I based what I said on that.  

    Seawriter: The disintegrating/incomplete roof seen in the famous 1883 photo of New Orleans was not part of the ship’s hull.  They are a temporary roof put over the ship to protect it from the elements.

     The book included that photo with just such a note.  Also noted that her timbers were made into some interesting souvenirs, including a walking stick later presented to FDR.

    • #22
  23. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Seawriter: The disintegrating/incomplete roof seen in the famous 1883 photo of New Orleans was not part of the ship’s hull.  They are a temporary roof put over the ship to protect it from the elements.

     Malcomson actually described what sounded more like a full hangar / shed for the hull, something that would have protected the hull along with decks.  According to him, the photo was taken some time after that shed / hangar / barn had been knocked apart in a storm, then further damaged prior to the actual scrapping.

    • #23
  24. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    skipsul:  The author of the book listed her as incomplete, something like 90% of her hull work done but still not ready for launch, and I based what I said on that.  

     No author is 100% correct.  (God knows, I am not.) You might want to take a look at Coffins of the Brave by Kevin Crisman.    He has images of New Orleans in the 1850s from a book of that era.  It was in a boathouse at the time.  The book is available via google books, but the title escapes me.  I’ll post a link to it and indicate the page number which has the images.

    Malcomson’s book is ten years old.  It is excellent (I used it as one of my sources), but new information keeps getting added all the time.  

    Seawriter

    • #24
  25. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Seawriter:

    No author is 100% correct. (God knows, I am not.) You might want to take a look at Coffins of the Brave by Kevin Crisman. He has images of New Orleans in the 1850s from a book of that era. It was in a boathouse at the time. The book is available via google books, but the title escapes me. I’ll post a link to it and indicate the page number which has the images.

    Malcomson’s book is ten years old. It is excellent (I used it as one of my sources), but new information keeps getting added all the time.

    Seawriter

     Yowza but that’s a pricey one.  I’ll add it to my wish list.

    BTW, thanks to your mention of the New Hampshire / Granite State, I’ve just blown 1/2 hour skimming sources on her.  The historian in me grieves that she survived so long, only to be lost within living memory.  Rather like the return of the USS Oregon back to the Navy after Pearl for scrapping.

    • #25
  26. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    skipsul:  Yowza but that’s a pricey one.  I’ll add it to my wish list.

     Think I buy all the books I read?  I’d go broke. Especially when I am researching something.

    There was this great thing that emerged in the 19th century – the free public lending library.  Go for interlibrary loan if your library lacks it.

    Seawriter

    • #26
  27. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    skipsul: BTW, thanks to your mention of the New Hampshire / Granite State, I’ve just blown 1/2 hour skimming sources on her.  

     Also, if you want to waste more time, go to the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog and do a search on USS Vermont and USS New Hampshire.

    Your only regret will be the time you spend.

    Seawriter

    • #27
  28. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Seawriter: Think I buy all the books I read?  I’d go broke. Especially when I am researching something.

     Wish list also serves as a reminder when I shop the library collections.  It’s a handy way to bookmark things for later.

    • #28
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    It is interesting how history has developed as a study, I guess one might call it meta-history, the history of history itself, and how “facts” come into being and paraded about when they sometimes have no basis in history. Our discussion of carronades was an example of that, Seawriter.

    • #29
  30. skipsul Inactive
    skipsul
    @skipsul

    Arahant:

    It is interesting how history has developed as a study, I guess one might call it meta-history, the history of history itself, and how “facts” come into being and paraded about when they sometimes have no basis in history. Our discussion of carronades was an example of that, Seawriter.

     Carronades?  Shame to have missed that one.

    • #30
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