Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews



A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813. By David Curtis Skaggs

and Gerald T. Althoff. (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1997. x +

244p.; illustrations, notes, appendix, glossary, glossary of nautical terms, bib-

liographic essay, index. $34.95.)


The battle of Lake Erie, in which an American naval squadron annihilated its

British counterpart on 10 September 1813, was one of two defining engagements

of the War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. The British-Indian capture of Detroit in

August 1812 and their seizure of Michigan Territory changed the course of the war

at its beginning. It aborted the American attempt to invade Upper Canada, ex-

posed the western settlements of the United States to Indian attack, and humiliated

the arms of the republic. Thenceforth, Madison's administration threw dispropor-

tionate resources into redeeming itself in the Northwest, to the detriment of opera-

tions in strategically more significant theaters further east. It took a year, but

those objectives were effectively achieved by the desperately fought encounter on

Lake Erie. The battle, and Oliver Hazard Perry's dynamic leadership, entered

American folklore, but this new study is by far the best we have.

It is both comprehensive and judicious. The authors have garnered material

diligently, and in a clearly written and even-handed analysis tackled almost every

aspect of their subject, from its overall strategic context to the politics and tech-

nicalities of the competing dockyards. As a study of the issues governing naval

conflict-strategy, tactics, men, ships, seamanship, armaments, gunnery, health,

morale, discipline, logistics and the sheer unpredictability of war-this is a model

for the sailing-ship era. Shipwrights, dockyard artificers, and contractors justly

find their place in the narrative alongside the commanders and their men. The

only issue missing, the question of whether horizontal hull-smashing fire con-

ferred advantages over upward dismasting fire, did not influence the engagement

on Lake Erie, in which both sides opted for the British tradition of close-quarter

action and horizontal fire.

Initial British supremacy on the Lakes played an important role in frustrating

American attempts to invade Canada in 1812, but as this book makes clear the

United States was successful at every subsequent stage of the naval rivalry on Lake

Erie. In the ensuing year the Americans built twice as many vessels for Lake Erie

as their opponents. They acted more quickly, and drew men and materials from a

more resourced hinterland in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Whereas the

British high command was willing to sacrifice the Lake Erie front to retain control

of the more vital Lake Ontario, the American administration drove its building

program forward with greater energy. Even Noah Brown, the shipwright at Presque

Isle, had a clearer sense of purpose than his British counterpart at Amherstburg.

He put speed of completion above quality, observing that "plain work is all that is

required: they [the ships] will only be wanted for one battle" (p. 72).

On the decisive day, Robert Heriot Barclay, the British commander, sailed into

action disadvantaged in vessels, guns, equipment and the proportion of profes-

sional seamen among his crews. The British flagship even lacked slow matches to

ignite the cannons, and pistols had to be fired into the gun vents to discharge

them. Although a light wind and a hesitant performance from Perry's second- in-

command, Jesse D. Elliott, enabled the British to use a slight advantage in long