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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.
There 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.
The 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.