War Of 1812: Leathernecks On Lake Erie

By Gerard T Altoff - Originally published in the November 1988

Banished to the wilderness! Of all the glorious assignments that awaited enterprising young officers, this one was not at the top of the list for Lieutenant of Marines John Brooks.

Command of a detachment on one of the fast, heavily armed frigates, or posting to the barracks at New York or the seat of power, Washington, D.C., were the types of duties that appealed to ambitious junior officers. The disappointed Brooks was instead slated for the backwaters of Lake Erie.

If Brooks felt slighted by his appointment, it was not entirely unwarranted. Scion and namesake of surgeon and Revolutionary War general, and later governor of Massachusetts, John Brooks, the younger Brooks was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. After graduating from Harvard, Brooks studied medicine before receiving a lieutenant's commission in the Marine Corps on October 1, 1807. His early career was everything that could be asked for, including a stint with the Marine guard at Boston and command of the detail on USS Wasp.

However, Brooks' fortunes and career potential took a sudden downturn. A fellow officer's accusation resulted in Brooks' arrest for cheating at cards, and in December 1812 he appeared before a court-martial board. A guilty verdict was handed down, but higher authority overturned the sentence and a confusing situation ensued. Brooks found himself in limbo. Out of favor with his superiors, he could not anticipate the fame and glory his contemporaries were achieving during the early months of the War of 1812.

The Marine Corps had established a reputation as a tough, disciplined fighting force. With regularity, Marine units exhibited irrepressible courage. Even in defeat, the Marines stood tall. When the U.S. frigate Chesapeake was captured by H.M.S. Shannon off Boston harbor on June 1, 1813, the fierce defense by the Marine contingent proved the only bright spot in an otherwise lamentable engagement.

Thus the impropriety of John Brooks was a deviation from the expected norm, and the strict code of honor demanded that he pay for his indiscretion. Fortunately for Brooks, his superiors apparently wished to avoid a major scandal at a time when every experienced officer was desperately needed. In the spring of 1813, the Commandant, Lieutenant Colonel Franklin Wharton, provided a ready solution to the Brooks dilemma.

As the War of 1812 progressed, the strategic significance of the Great Lakes became readily apparent. The lakes provided much of the buffer between the U.S. and Canada. They were also the likeliest route for invasion by either belligerent. Consequently, warships were necessary to protect America's vulnerable back door.

Brooks' sojourn into Marine Corps immortality originated with Captain Isaac Chauncey. In September 1812, Chauncey was dispatched to Lake Ontario with the grade of commodore and assigned overall command of Great Lakes naval operations. The humiliating surrender of Detroit only a month earlier served to illustrate America's weakness on Lake Erie, and construction of a small fleet of gunboats was initiated at Erie, Pa. By January 1813, Chauncey had selected a commander for the infant fleet, and his new subordinate, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, required a strong Marine guard. Chauncey accordingly forwarded a request to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, who instructed LtCol Wharton to cater to Perry's needs. Wharton devoted little thought to his problem. Here was the opportunity to remove Brooks from the public eye and provide Perry with a qualified detachment commander.

Brooks departed Washington in April with a recruiting party comprised of a sergeant, two corporals, two privates, a fifer, and a drummer. Over the next month, stops at Frederick and Hagerstown, Md., and Pittsburgh, Pa., yielded limited success. Wishing to remain at Pittsburgh in hopes of garnering more recruits, Brooks directed Sgt James McClure to report to Erie and inform Perry as to his whereabouts.

Perry, hoping to sail by June 1, and anxious to complete his command, recommended that Brooks join him at Erie without delay. Realizing he was wasting his time at Pittsburgh, Brooks proceeded to Erie. On the northerly journey Brooks managed to procure one volunteer at Waterford, Pa. Finally, on May 18, Brooks and his disappointingly small squad of 15 Marines tramped into sleepy Erie, Pa.

In the spring of 1813, Erie was a tiny, backwoods village of only 400 souls. If Brooks could unearth only one volunteer in a burgeoning city like Pittsburgh, what expectations could he have at isolated Erie. Oddly enough, it was the Pennsylvania Militia that would furnish a solution.

While Perry's ships were under construction at Erie, one of his major concerns was a British venture to destroy the unfinished fleet. As a result, the 147th Pennsylvania Militia Regiment was called out. Far from being a finely tuned fighting unit, the militia were described by Sailing Master William Taylor as "a poor, miserable, and undisciplined set who never could be brought into action with any reliance upon their firmness. . .two-thirds of whom had probably never seen water except in their own wells." However, what the militia lacked in training and discipline, they more than made up for in numbers. The spectre of the sprawling militia camps surrounding Erie discouraged any potential attack.

More importantly for Brooks, the militia ranks provided fertile ground for recruiting. The challenge for Brooks was convincing these farmers, woodsmen, and small-town boys to relinquish their relatively lax and comfortable posting for the stringent discipline of the Corps. It was no easy chore for Brooks. Some sought relief from boredom; others were enticed by the uniform and promise of adventure, and some were impressed by the fierce demeanor and professionalism of the regulars. Whatever their reasons, recruits slowly trickled in.

Two militiamen from the Pennsylvania Artillery, James Bird and Thomas Crossin, were under threat of a militia court-martial. Brooks offered to intervene and have the charges dropped if they would enlist. On June 12, Brooks added two new names to his muster roll.

Total success could not be anticipated considering the raw material Brooks was working with. In a few cases, ulterior motives compelled the militiamen to trade a six-month enlistment for a five-year tour in the Corps. One enlistee, apparently attempting to hide from his past, was turned over to civil authorities on June 25. Others, possibly spurred initially by patriotism, eventually realized the enormity of their action. Nine volunteers bolted for parts unknown. One Marine died and others, like Private William McGinnis, were left sick in the hospital at Erie. Already short of the numbers required to fill the complement of each vessel, Brooks eventually lost 25 percent of his strength even before leaving Erie.

In late May, Perry traveled north to assist Commodore Chauncey with the capture of Fort George, the British bastion at the mouth of the Niagara River. The fall of Fort George forced the evacuation of Fort Erie, at the opposite end of the Niagara River. This, in turn, lifted the blockade of the small American naval yard at Black Rock, N.Y. At Black Rock floated five small merchant vessels recently converted to gunboats, and Perry prepared to add the tiny flotilla to his Lake Erie fleet.

Strangely enough, Chauncey only furnished 55 men to crew the five vessels. Among those 55 men was one Marine sergeant, Jonathan Curtis, who proved to be the only documented case of a Marine detached to Lake Erie from Captain Richard Smith's large Marine contingent on Lake Ontario.

Ironically, Chauncey requested General Henry Dearborn to supply army troops to man Perry's new flotilla. Dearborn responded and detached 200 soldiers to crew the ships. Under the command of Captain Henry B. Brevoort of the 2d U.S. Infantry, these regular troops enabled Perry to sail the Black Rock fleet to Erie without incident.

Perry suffered a severe setback, when a few weeks after their arrival, Dearborn ordered the return of his 200 soldiers. Perry's only consolation was his retention of Capt Brevoort, who was allowed to remain because of prior experience on Lake Erie. Due to a shortage of qualified officers, Brevoort soon found himself an acting-Marine.

From mid-May through August, Brooks managed to recruit approximately 35 men. Most were from the Pennsylvania Militia ranks. This number was still far short of the fleet's requirements. Marines were not Perry's only shortage. With a total of 10 serviceable vessels, Perry needed a minimum of 720 officers and men to flesh out his crews. By mid-July he mustered only 120 men fit for duty.

With overall command responsibility for the Great Lakes, Chauncey immersed himself in his own problems during the summer of 1813, neglecting other areas within his purview. Frustrated by Chauncey's seemingly uncaring attitude toward the Erie fleet, Perry bypassed his superior and communicated directly with Secretary of the Navy William Jones. Although a serious breach of military etiquette, Perry's unorthodox tactic succeeded, but not without incurring Chauncey's wrath.

Chauncey finally relented after orders from Jones compelled him to provide manpower for Perry's ships. The two drafts of men Chauncey transferred to Lake Erie comprised only the minimum number necessary to comply with orders, and those selected tended to be less than first class. During the summer, Chauncey had promised Perry 50 Marines, but recent developments inspired second thoughts and he reneged.

At the end of July, the British fleet, maintaining a blockade of Erie, mysteriously disappeared. Perry's ships were now rigged and fitted, and he realized that no further assistance could be expected from Chauncey. It was imperative that his fleet clear Erie harbor before the British returned, and even though critically short of crewmen, he opted to leave. Perry's odd assemblage of 400 men included a strange mixture of seamen, landsmen, regular army troops, militiamen, and approximately 35 Marines.

The fleet sailed westward on August 12, slipping into Sandusky Bay four days later. After a conference with General William Henry Harrison, Perry sailed for Put-in-Bay harbor, on the north side of South Bass Island. Perry would train his composite crews and wait for the British to sail forth and fight.

Upon discovering Perry's shortage of men, Harrison called for volunteers from his Northwest Army, and 130 men stepped forward. With his minimal resources stretched to the limit, there was no way Brooks could have fulfilled his obligation to the fleet. What had arrived was an incredible amalgamation of regulars and militiamen-infantry, artillery, and dragoons-representing more than 10 different regiments. Many were accomplished sharpshooters, and perfectly suited for their new role as acting-Marines.

The arrival of Harrison's volunteers enabled Brooks to consolidate his regular Leathernecks on Perry's flagship, the Lawrence. For some reason, one Marine, Thomas Crossin, was stationed on the schooner Somers. Crossin's billet remains a mystery since he was a Pennsylvania Militiaman and possessed no apparent special qualifications. He was the only Leatherneck allocated to any of Perry's seven smaller vessels.

Thirty soldiers from the 28th U.S. Infantry, all that volunteered from that regiment, were assigned to the Niagara, Perry's other 20-gun brig. Capt Henry B. Brevoort commanded this group of quasi-Marines, ably assisted by Sgt Jonathan Curtis, the only regular Marine allotted to the Niagara.

On board the small brig Caledonia a number of Kentucky dragoons were berthed. The navy crew, finding them somewhat humorous, appropriately dubbed them "Horse Marines." The remainder of the smaller schooners and sloop also received their quota of soldiers-some manning the big guns, others retaining their muskets. In one form or another, each of Perry's vessels now had its quota of Marines.

With Perry's fleet on the lake, the British were outnumbered and their water supply route to the east was severed. By early September, the British faced a cruel choice. The food supply of Fort Maiden and the Amherstburg Navy Yard, at the mouth of the Detroit River, was rapidly dwindling.

The British commander of combined operations, Gen Henry Proctor, could either abandon his base and retreat overland to Lake Ontario, or prod Commodore Robert H. Barclay into engaging the enemy fleet. There was really no option. On September 9, the British ships heaved anchors and floated into western Lake Erie.

On the morning of September 10, 1813, a lookout at the Lawrence's masthead bellowed a sighting report. Perry immediately loosened his canvas, and a majestic line of nine vessels (a schooner had earlier departed for supplies) eased out of Put-in-Bay.

A foul wind initially placed Perry at a disadvantage, but fortunately for the American cause, the wind shifted. This placed the wind behind the American fleet and gave Perry the advantage.

Several of his smaller vessels were converted merchant ships, deep-hulled schooners designed to carry cargo, not cannon. Consequently, as Perry moved into battle, his fleet was scattered, and four of his smaller vessels fell astern. Of the 54 guns on his nine ships, 40 lined the broadsides of Lawrence and Niagara, his two 20-gun brigs. As long as he could press the Lawrence and Niagara against the Detroit and Queen Charlotte (the two largest British sips with 19 and 17 guns respectively), then Perry would maintain an advantage. Perry's guns were primarily 32-pounders, whereas the British weapons were all 24-pounders or lighter. Both commanders knew that the two largest ships in each fleet would determine the outcome of the battle.

The two fleets converged ever so slowly. Perry utilized the interval to hoist his battle flag to the Lawrence's main truck. A large, cobalt blue banner, the flag was crudely inscribed with white lettering. The epithet was negative in its connotation, but the phrase "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP" was the dying utterance of Perry's friend, James Lawrence, who commanded the Chesapeake, and it clearly indicated his determination to secure a victory.

At 11:45 a.m., a brilliant flash illuminated Barclay's flagship, and seconds later a 24-pounder splashed harmlessly short of the Lawrence. The battle had opened; however, Perry was unable to answer the British fusillade. The Americans had sacrificed size for range. Most of Perry's heavy pieces were carronades, which relinquished one considerable factor-they possessed less than half the range of a comparably sized long gun.

For the first half-hour of the engagement, while British shot fractured the Lawrence's bulwarks and killed American crewmen, Perry was able to reply with only his long 12-pounder bow chaser, a futile retort to the fierce British onslaught.

Finally, at 12:15 p.m., Lawrence glided into range. A barked command, followed by a thunderous crash, signaled a murderous American cannonade. All Perry required now was the Niagara to close Queen Charlotte, after which the British would find themselves inundated by American metal. But as Perry glanced astern, he was staggered when he saw Niagara's topmen brail her jib and back her main topsail. Within moments Niagara was dead in the water. With Niagara lingering well out of range, the three largest British ships focused their broadsides on Perry's isolated flagship.

Over the next two hours Lawrence's deck was reduced to a gory charnel house. Early in the battle, Marine Lt John Brooks was felled by a solid shot which shattered his hip and pelvis. In agony Brooks pleaded with Perry to end his misery. When Perry could not force himself to end his friend's life, Brooks begged for a pistol to complete the task himself, but to no avail.

Eventually carried below, Brooks lingered for a tormented hour before expiring. Also suffering Brooks' fate were Corporal Philip Sharpley, and Privates Jesse Harlan and Abner Williams.

The Lawrence and her crew were slowly whittled away. The highly visible Marines suffered fearful casualties. Sgt James Tull's ankle was mangled by a British musket ball, and dragging his mutilated leg along the sanded deck, he slowly and painfully crawled below to the surgeon. A jagged wood splinter pierced Pvt David Christie's shoulder, and by the time he crumpled to the planking, the splinter had penetrated all the way to his hip joint. Sgt William Baggs was smashed to the deck with a severe thigh wound.

Pvt John Garwood was manning one of the starboard 32-pounders as shot and wadman when cracked on the back of his skull by a falling back-stay block. He collapsed with blood oozing from his ears. Also severely wounded were Privates James Bird, William Burnett and Henry Vanpool. Numerous others suffered minor wounds or were rendered deaf by the roar of continuous cannonading.

By 2:30 p.m. the Lawrence was a defenseless wreck. All of her starboard guns were out of commission, rigging and sails shredded, and over half her crew either killed or wounded. Perry was moved by this grievous sacrifice, but he remained undaunted.

Spying the Niagura one-half mile to windward, he hauled down his battle flag and boarded a miraculously undamaged small boat. Four men rowed Perry through a veritable hailstorm of British shot to the undamaged Niagara. After sending Elliott, Niagara's captain, back in the same small boat to hurry along the lagging schooner, Perry set all sail, double-shotted Niagara's guns, and pointed her bowsprit toward the British line.

The British had suffered terribly themselves. Every British captain and first lieutenant was either killed or wounded, including Barclay. Detroit had incurred severe damage, and every British ship was hard hit. As Niagara approached the enemy line, the British realized their broadsides took little chance against a fresh ship. Maneuver was the only hope.

As the two largest British ships initiated their turn, the brave but inexperienced junior officer who succeeded to command Queen Charlotte misjudged Detroit's sluggish movement. At the most crucial stage of the battle, Queen Charlotte ripped her head booms straight through the tangled mizzen rigging of the Detroit, locking the two vessels helplessly together.

Perry sailed Niagara directly between his opponent's line, double-crossing the British "T". With three enemy ships to larboard and three more to starboard he unleashed his double-charged broadsides. The battle lasted only 15 minutes, but the British bared their remaining teeth and Niagara lost 25 men killed and wounded-eight of whom were from the ranks of her acting-Marines. After a bloody three-hour engagement, the entire British fleet was captured.

Shortly afterward, Perry inscripted his now famous message to William Henry Harrison. The first sentence of which has since been immortalized in American military lore-"We have met the enemy and they are ours."

Immediately after the battle, the damaged vessels anchored near West Sister Island to conduct hasty repairs and bury the enlisted dead at sea. They returned to Put-in-Bay the next day. The following morning, Sunday, September 12, a solemn procession of small boats approached South Bass Island. Flag-draped coffins rested upon the thwarts of six of those boats, coffins containing the remains of the three British and three American officers killed in the battle. The coffins were escorted ashore through a double-ranked honor guard-one line of British redcoats, the other of American bluecoats. After a brief ceremony conducted by Chaplain Thomas Breese, the six officers, including John Brooks, were interred in a common grave on the shores of Put-in-Bay harbor, the last act of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Faulty record-keeping of the period leaves many questions as to the actual number of Marines who fought Spying the Niagara one-half mile to windward, he hauled down his battle flag and boarded a miraculously undamaged small boat. Four men rowed Perry through a veritable hailstorm of British shot to the undamaged Niagara. After sending Elliott, Niagara's captain, back in the same small boat to hurry along the lagging schooners, Perry set all sail, double-shotted Niagara's guns, and pointed her bowsprit toward the British line.

During the days following the battle, Lawrence's sails and rigging were patched, and she sailed to Erie as a hospital ship. During that voyage, Privates Henry Vanpool and Richard Williams died of typhus, and Privates John Duff and William Lyons died of natural causes.

The Battle of Lake Erie proved the turning point of the War of 1812 in the "Old Northwest." Naval supremacy enabled Perry to transport Harrison's army and its supplies to the Canadian mainland. The British burned Fort Maiden and retreated up the Thames River. Harrison pursued and soon brought the British to bay. On October 5, Harrison decisively defeated the British army and its Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames, eliminating the British threat along western Lake Erie.

The Marines maintained a detachment on Lake Erie for several years after the War of 1812. Many of those who signed the muster during that fateful summer of 1813 served their full tour, receiving an honorable discharge five years later.

They joined to fight, and fight they did, truly upholding and enhancing the proud tradition of the U.S. Marine Corps.