Eastern Lake Ontario Environmental Research Group 2000 (cont'd from eloerg.tripod.com/waupoos)

George Prevost, Saviour of the Canadas, 1812 - 1814. June 2012
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Enter subhead content here

M. Chairman

 

Having had just a couple of hours to prepare this

I thought that I would choose a long title

to fill in some of the allotted time!         

 

( Ed. Note, an expanded version appears here.)

 

So the official title is

A Tale of Three Commanders,

James Yeo, George Prevost, and Isaac Chauncey,

a Titanic Tale of the Truculent, the Timid, and the Truant,

in the British Siege of Sacket’s Harbour

on Lake Ontario in 1813.

 

This tale is of a single episode

which occurred during the War ot 1812 – 1814

in which the British military

attacked Sacket’s Harbour,

a strategically very important location,

on May 25, 1813.

 

Of course this is the Bicentennial commemoration of that conflict,

and so it’s an opportunity to learn more about our history.

As our Prime Minister has pointed out,

understanding the events of the conflict

gives a firm foundation to our understanding

of the early history of the two countries.

The conflict played a critical role

in the further development of both nations.

 

The three prinicipals involved in the Sacket’s incident were:

Governor Sir George Prevost,

head of the British military in Upper Canada,

who I , somewhat unfairly, call the timid

as he was generally inclined to adopt a defensive posture

as he had been specifically instructed to do

by Lord Bathurst, the secretary of war and the colonies

on behalf of the British government cabinet of Lord Liverpool.

 

Secondly, Commodore Sir James Yeo,

commander of the Lake Ontario fleet of the British navy

young, decorated, and newly arrived from Iberia

and the Napoleonic wars,

who I call, rathe superficially,  the truculent,

 as he was rather aggressive

in his desire to get into battle with the Americans

although he also proved to be very conservative in his approach.

 

Thirdly, Commodore Isaac Chauncey,

commander of the Lake Ontario fleet

of the American navy

whose pet project was Sacket’s Harbour,

the main centre of American shipbuilding for Lake Ontario

(remember that neither the Welland or the Erie canals

would open until a few years after the war)

and transit point on the supply line

from the northern U. S. to Lake Ontario

and Fort Niagara and points south and west,

who I call, rather inaccurately, the truant,

as he was away from the action, being otherwise engaged

when Prevost decided (uncharacteristically for him)

to attack Sacket’s Harbour.

 

 

By way of background,

war had been reluctantly declared in June 1812

by President James Madison.

Notwithstanding American irritation

over naval impressment of American sailors,

and blockade of American shipping to Europe and the West Indies

by the British Navy

the truth is that the cause of the war was very simply

that the Americans wanted Canada.

They were aggressively expanding in directions west and south,

and the southern Republicans,

which included Jefferson and Madison, both of Virginia,

and the likes of Henry Clay,

wanted more land, specifically the Northwest Indian territories

of Michigan, and Indiana, as well as the two Canadas.

 

It was said by the leadership that taking Canada

would be “a mere matter of marching”.

 

However the year 1812 went very badly for the Americans.

 

General William Hull surrendered at Fort Detroit,

and General Von Renssalaer failed

in the assault on Queenston Heights,

both due to the opposing leadership of General Isaac Brock,

who unfortunately got himself killed

in that second engagement of the two sides.

 

By 1813, the American had developed

a sort of dominoes plan.

They would like to have strangled the British supply lines

along the St. Lawrence River at their source in Montreal

(or even Quebec City)

but judged resistance too strong there.

Initially they therefore planned to take Kingston,

but came to the same conclusion

regarding that place,

so in April 1813 Commodore Isaac Chauncey

set off with his fleet of 12 ships for Fort York,

conveying soldiers there with the goal

of reducing that shipbuilding centre to rubble,

which is exactly what they did,

rather unnecessarily destroying

government and public buildings at York

in the process,

which ultimately lead to similar action by the British

in Washington D.C in 1814.

 

Finally, York was the first success for the Americans,

and they later returned for seconds.

 

Whether Roger Sheaffe,

who had saved the situation at Queenston Heights,

was correct in abandoning Fort York

to get his troops to the safety of Kingston

has been debated ever since.

(Sheaffe later redeemed himself again

by leading troops along the Chateaugai River

before  the unsuccessful offensive

by Hampton in the autumn of 1813

in a failed attempt on Montreal.)

 

From Fort York the idea was that the Americans

would capture Fort George across the lake,

then take Fort Erie, gain  control of Lake Erie,

and thereby regain Fort Detroit,

and ultimately this is what in fact happened.

 

Chauncey conveyed the troops to Fort Niagara,

made a trip back to Sacket’s Harbour for re supply,

then returned to the Niagara

where he successfully supported the troops

in their capture of Fort George on May 25, 1813.

 

Meanwhile, back in Kingston

Prevost got wind of the Fort George loss

and to his credit realized

he had to lure Chauncey back to Sacket’s

lest Chauncey’s ships supply the troops

in their bid to defeat the British at Burlington Heights

to whence the British had withdrawn from Fort George.

 

The ploy was successful, as Chauncey took the bait

and headed back to eastern Lake Ontario,

and the Americans were defeated at Stoney Creek

in the absence Chaucey’s naval support.

General Dearborn’s career was finished.

 

On Prevost’s initiative

two days after the Fort George capture,

while said Chauncey was still absent  (“truant”)

Commodore Yeo led the British flotilla,

consisting of three warships (including the Royal George)

two armed schooners, two gunboats,

and 30 bateaux transporting 750 regular British soldiers,

with Governor Prevost aboard,

(being therefore the ranking officer)

out of Kingston and to the Sacket’s Harbour area

35 miles to the south during the night of May 27,

arriving there at dawn.

 

Unfortunately the wind then died

and the fleet spent the whole day slowly

working up to Horse Island,

the disembarkation point for the soldiers

to engage with the Americans at Sacket’s,

arriving there in the evening.

 

Yeo was all for proceeding immediately

but Prevost overruled him

so the men sweated it out in the ships’ holds

until morning,

(although there seem to be different accounts of this story)

at which time battle was joined.

 

The fight raged for three hours on the mainland,

with the British making advances.

The goal was to destroy

the shipbuilding capacity of Sacket’s

including the dockyard,

and a corvette under construction there

named the Zebulon Pike after the American commander

killed at Fort York and returned to Sacket’s

pickled in whiskey for his safe transport.

 

At this point however

Prevost, over the further objections of the younger Yeo,

decided his objectives had been achieved,

and ordered a withdrawal,

which was successfully accomplished,

and the British fleet returned to Kingston.

 

Chauncey by then was returning to his home port.

Indeed, after this British assault on his beloved Sacket’s

Chauncey was reluctant to leave that harbour

for the remainder of the war

no matter what the requests and requirements
for naval support of land operations,

so in that way Prevost’s object,

if that was it,  had been accomplished.

Commodore Yeo and his fleet

had the unchallenged run of Lake Ontario

for the remainder of the early part of the summer,

while Chauncey awaited the completion

of his flagship General Pike, a fearsome vessel.

 

In July 1813, the Pike completed,

when Chauncey launched his flag ship

and reconnoitred a planned attempt

on Vincent at  Burlington Hgts.

However he soon determined

that the Heights were too well defended

and this lead to an elaborate dance of tactical manouvering

on Lake Ontario between Yeo’s fleet of six,

replete with short range carronades,

and Chaunceys fleet of thirteen, which included

the colossus of Sacket’s  shipyard the General Pike,

dominated by long guns.

In the process Chauncey lost two schooners in a storm,

Hamilton and Scourge,

and Yeo captured two more , Growler and Julia,

when they fell out of position.

The two fleets spent the remainder of the summer

playing cat and mouse,

but  they never fully did engage,

both wisely realizing that should one lose his fleet,

control of Lake Ontario would go to the other,

who would then probably prevail in the war.

 

On one occasion off Rochester Chauncey did deliver a pasting

using his long guns on the becalmed British fleet,

and Yeo was fortunate to make an escape across the lake

to take refuge in South Bay of Prince Edward Bay

where he had a chance to contemplate his options.

 

Such was the Battle of Lake Ontario,

which paled in comparison to the Battle of Lake Erie,

where Barclay’s smaller British fleet was pitted against

Oliver Hazard Perry’s superior strength.

The British were badly defeated

at the Battle of Put-In Bay,

the Americans gained control of Lake Erie,

which in turn led to Harrison’s foray to Moravian Town from Detroit,

where the British land forces were defeated ,

Tecumseh killed, Procter disgraced,

and Harrison discredited for his subsequent withdrawal to Detroit.

 

Toward the end of 1813 the Niagara peninsula

was regained by the British,

and Wilkinson failed in his attempt on Montreal,

blaming Hampton for lack of support.

 

Further actions, principally in the Lake Champlain region

ensued in 1814,

in the case of Plattsburg rather successfuly for the Americans.

This was another example of Prevost’s defensive, conservative approach.

He was much criticized and indeed recalled to Britain to face a court martial

ironically after his colleague, James Yeo,

had complained about Prevost’s strategy at Plattsburgh.

It was all too much for Prevost, who died suddenly

shortly before the inquiry  was to be held.

Many witnesses had been assembled,

and he likely would have been fully vindicated,

and recognized the true hero that he was,

a man who save the Canadas against impossible odds.

 

The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in 1814,

by the provisions of which,

the post war boundary line between the two nations

was exactly the same as the pre war boundary,

 

with the exception of little Carleton Island

which lies south of Wolfe Island

and on which the since abandoned Fort Haldimand,

the British forward fort during the War of the Revolution

had been located

(to be replaced by Fort Henry in Kingston by 1812).

Carleton Island started the war in British hands and finished  in American.

 

Thus a consolation prize from  the Canadas,

flattered as we were by American interests in our country.

 

The very unsatisfactory post script to the whole affair

was the fate of the American Indians.

They had repeatedly supported the British military

at various critical engagements

and were thus crucial to the war’s outcome.

 

However they were ultimately abandoned by the British.

 

Despite the initial declared goal of the British

at the Treaty of Ghent negotiations

to establish a buffer zone Indian Territory

in the American North West

that goal was abandoned early on,

and the status quo was maintained.

 

 

M. Chairman.

 

 

References.

 

1.     The Incredible War of 1812, J Mackay Hitsman, 1965, updated by Donald E Graves, 1999

2.     Tecumseh, John Sugden, 1997

3.     The Civil War of 1812, Alan Taylor, 2010

4.     Lords of the Lake, Robert Malcolmson, 1998

5.     1812, War with America, John Latimer, 2007

6.     For Honour’s Sake, Mark Zuehlke, 2006

 

Resources.

 

Naval Marine Archives, Canadian Collection,

at the Victory in downtown Picton, Ontario ,

find a first class collection

of some 150 volumes of 1812 history

at the Naval Marine Archives, Canadian Collection

at the Victory in downtown Picton, Ontario

 

as well as the Proceedings of a Conference on:  The War of 1812: Differing Perspectives

 

Picton, Ontario — 15-19 May 2012

Programme

Tuesday, 15 May

at the Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection

17:00-21:00

Reception and Registration

 

Day 1: Wednesday, 16 May

08:00-08:45

Coffee, etc

at the Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection

08:45-09:00

President's Welcome

 

09:00-12:00

Chair: Dr Faye Kert

Speakers:

Peter Rindlisbacher: "A Few Good Paintings: Contemporary Marine Art on the Great Lakes from the War of 1812."

Alexander Craig: "Britons, Strike Home! Amphibious warfare during the War of 1812."

Christopher McKee: "Wandering Bodies: A Tale of One Burying Ground, Two Cemeteries, and the U.S. Navy's Search for Appropriate Burial for Its Career Enlisted Dead."

 

12:00-13:30

Lunch (local establishments making special arrangements will be recommended)

 

13:30-16:30

Chair: Dr Roger Sarty

Speakers:

James Walton: "'The Forgotten Bitter Truth:' The War of 1812 and the Foundation of an American Naval Myth"

John Grodzinski: "'The Navy in Canada have made serious charges:' Preparations for the Court Martial of Sir George Prevost."

Robert Davison: "The War of 1812: The Laboratory of Sea Power."

 

Day 2: Thursday, 17 May

Excursions, visits to local wineries, lighthouses, museums, details to follow.

at the Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection

10:00-13:00

Book fair: Dundurn Press, John Lord's Books (Stouffville), Grenadier Books (Port Perry), Starlight Books (Newmarket), Naval Marine Archive, etc ...

at the Waring House Inn

18:00

Social gathering prior to ...

 

19:00

Banquet and Awards Ceremony.

 

Day 3: Friday, 18 May

08:00-09:00

Coffee, etc

at the Waring House Conference Centre

09:00-12:00

Chair: Dr W.A.B. Douglas

Speakers:

Michael McAllister: "A Very Pretty Object: The Socially Constructed Landscape of Burlington Heights 1780-1815."

Natalie Anderson: "British Ballads and Yankee Ditties: The Musical War of 1812."

Victor Suthren: "Every Inch A Sailor: The Napoleonic Sailor in Fiction."

 

12:00-14:00

Luncheon at the Waring House; guest speaker Steve Campbell, publisher of The County Magazine.

 

14:00-17:00

Chair: Professor emeritus James Pritchard

Speakers:

Faye Kert: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia: Paintings, Prize and Precedent in the War of 1812."

Jane Errington: "In the Midst of War: Keeping Hearth and Home, 1812-1815."

Walter Lewis: "The Treaty of Ghent and the Great Lakes Region."

 

Day 4: Saturday, 19 May

08:00-09:00

Coffee, etc

at the Naval Marine ArchiveThe Canadian Collection

09:00-11:30

Chair: Dr Richard Gimblett

Speakers:

Sarah Gibson: "The Indian Act of 1830, an analysis of Indian-Crown Relations in the aftermath of the War of 1812"

Roy Wright: "Communications on the St Lawrence and the Lakes: Indigenous Boating and Water Ways in Fur Trade and in War."

Victor Suthren: "Conjuring The Past: The Navy's Colonial Sailor Program."

 

11:30-12:30

Light luncheon and refreshments

 

12:30-

Annual General Meeting of the Canadian Nautical Research Society – Société canadienne pour la recherche nautique

 

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Eastern Lake Ontario Environmental Research Group