By John Kennedy
Feb. 25, 2013
NEWPORT, R.I. -- On Feb. 14 at the Naval War College Museum’s Eight Bells Lecture Series, Professor David Skaggs provided a comparison of two defining victories for the Navy during the War of 1812. That both of the battles were fought upon fresh water is about the only shared factor.
The first battle took place Sept. 10, 1813, and was fought upon Lake Erie. Oliver Hazard Perry was in command of the American vessels. An analysis of the battle shows that the Americans had superior firepower and more experienced sailors. The British were fighting at the extreme limits of their logistics support and were suffering from a lack of resources and adequate transportation to remedy the situation. Many of their sailors were soldiers drafted into crews and lacked the necessary training to be effective. On paper, the Americans should have won. In the end, Perry did win the day; yet, Perry exhibited ineffective command and control of his squadron and failed to correct the situation as he plunged headlong into the fight, a factor that could have lost the day. An examination of the orders given by Perry prior to the day shows them to be contradictory as he wanted captains to "preserve stations in line" yet to "engage your adversary in close action". The victory contributed to the securing of lower Michigan and naval superiority on Lakes Erie and Huron but the victory did not have an impact on British foreign policy.
The Battle on Lake Champlain was fought exactly one year later and was for naval superiority on a body of water that had historically been an invasion route. The British were engaged in a joint operation with the British Army advancing on Lake Champlain. The success of their operation, however, was predicated on gaining naval superiority on the lake to secure a waterborne supply route.
The American naval forces were led by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. With the British having a slight advantage in firepower, Macdonough elected to anchor his ships in a position to protect the army of General Alexander Macomb. From this position, he was able to wind his ship, Saratoga, and bring both port and starboard guns to bear on the enemy, leaving the British to try and maneuver into a position to bring their opposite guns to bear. Macdonough's plan wins the day and he secures control of the lake and all national territory. A consequence of the victory was that the British were forced to reconsider the diplomatic and military situation and this greatly influenced the terms of peace later at the Treaty of Ghent, Dec. 24, 1814.
It is Perry's victory that is best remembered, though it was not the most significant strategically. Why was that? Professor Skaggs points out the timing of Perry's victory as it was seized upon as a morale booster at a time when there was not much else to celebrate. Then there was the drama. Perry's famous after-action report to General William Henry Harrison that stated "We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop" captured the enthusiasm of the moment.
Perry was honored with a Congressional Gold Medal and both men received the Thanks of Congress and a promotion to the rank of captain. Unfortunately for both men, they both would be dead from disease within ten years, depriving the United States Navy of two of the most aggressive and brilliant naval commanders.
The next 8 Bells Lecture will be on Feb. 28 with Gus Bourneuf presenting Wendy the Welder. For more information, contact the NWC Museum at 841-2101.