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U.S. Commodore Chauncey at Burlington Bay
by Robert Malcomson

Robert Malcomson is the author of Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814 which has won the John Lyman Book Prize, presented by the North America Society for Oceanic History, as the best work in Canadian naval and maritime history published in 1998. His other books related to the Great Lakes War are HMS Detroit: The Battle for Lake Erie and Sailors of 1812: Memoirs and Letters of Naval Officers on Lake Ontario. Purchase Lords of the Lake by Clicking Here

    The circumstances under which Commodore Sir James Yeo’s squadron fled from the Americans during the afternoon of 28 September 1813 and anchored near the north shore Burlington Bay (outside the sandbar) has been discussed at great length recently. Less well described have been the movements and motivations of the American squadron commanded by Commodore Isaac Chauncey. This brief article seeks to illuminate the situation in Chauncey’s camp.

    Shortly after Chauncey exchanged broadsides with Yeo around 12:30 PM twelve miles south of York, the Americans had reason to think that a victory similar to the one Oliver Hazard Perry had won earlier in the month was close at hand. "In 20 minutes the Main and Mizen Top Mast and Main Yard of the Wolf (sic) was shot away," Chauncey later wrote. But Commander William Mulcaster used HMS Royal George to cover his commodore, preventing Chauncey’s General Pike from making its killing strike and allowing Yeo time to recover and begin his mad dash toward the head of the lake. The Americans followed, but due to the rough sea and the poor sailing qualities of most of the squadron, their vessels proceeded in a disorderly fashion, most of them apparently unable to get involved in the fighting. The General Pike, the Madison and the Sylph were each towing a converted merchant schooner. The Pike was hampered also because as Chauncey’s flag-captain, Captain Arthur Sinclair, related to a friend: "He [Yeo] was elegantly covered by the Royal George and his other vessels all of whom aimed at this ship to disable her." Sinclair was extremely frustrated not to be able to capture the schooner Beresford or the brig Melville both of which were, he believed, within his grasp. "I beged the Comdr to let me take them," wrote Sinclair, "but he was so sure of all, he exclaimed, all or none."

     The General Pike suffered from all the attention it received, losing rigging and spars and taking shot in the hull. This was aggravated by the bursting of one of the 24-pdr. long guns on the forecastle, putting other guns out of commission and killing men as far away as the quarterdeck, running total casualties to twenty-seven. At the same time the wind was rising and Chauncey was heading full bore into "a narrow bay full forty miles deep, owned on all sides by the enemy," as Sinclair described it.

    Not long after 3:00 PM Chauncey called off the chase. Had he been outmanoeuvred by the British or was he a coward? Neither explanation properly accounts for Chauncey’s conduct. The British were lucky to escape and might not have if the American commodore had not been so preoccupied with other concerns.

     First, the converted merchantmen that composed the majority of his squadron, as well as the navy brig Oneida, sailed very poorly and would not have not lasted long on a leeshore under gale conditions even if Yeo had been captured. Both Chauncey and Sinclair acknowledged how that problem influenced the decision to turn away, though Sinclair vowed that, had been in charge, he would have gone after the British at their anchorage with the Pike, Madison, Sylph and Oneida.

     Secondly, the Pike had been holed and was taking water and Sinclair insisted: "the ship, until we stopt the holes would scarcely float." The Madison was hit, but not nearly as severely as Sinclair suggests since it survived the next couple of days and did not need any time-consuming repairs. On the other hand, the Oneida had suffered damage to its main topmast and the Governor Tompkins would soon lose its foremast. None of this damage was significant enough to sink the vessels on most days, but the severity of the weather caused Chauncey to worry for their survival. His concerns were well-founded because rather than turn tail and run for safety at Niagara, the Americans had a tremendously difficult time avoiding being castaway in Burlington Bay.

     Some commentaries state that Chauncey turned tail and ran for Niagara which is not correct. Comments in the logbook of schooner Sylph reveal that the squadron did not make any kind of easterly heading until midnight on 28 September. In the intervening time Master Commandant Melancthon Woolsey in the Sylph tried to take the wounded Governor Tompkins in tow and was nearly run down in the dark by one of the other vessels. The horrible weather continued through 29 and 30 September and it was not until the next morning that Chauncey got his squadron into the anchorage near Niagara. That place was less than twenty straight miles from where he had turned away from Yeo, though the vessels had covered a lot more distance as they tacked desperately to eastward for two and a half days. Despite damage from the battle and the storm the squadron was in motion again the next day, 2 October.

     A third reason for Chauncey deciding to give up his chase is that he was, as he had been from the day he received orders to take command on the lakes, beholden to work in cooperation with the army. Through September, Major General James Wilkinson had been at Niagara collecting 3500 soldiers who were to be added to a similar force at Sackets Harbour for an expedition down the St. Lawrence River to capture Montreal (the campaign ended in disaster at Crylser’s Farm on 11 November).

     Chauncey had met with Secretary of War John Armstrong at Sackets before leaving there on 18 September. Armstrong had asked him to escort Wilkinson’s army from Niagara as it proceeded to Sackets in a massive flotilla of open boats. Wilkinson had planned to board the Pike for the journey on 28 September, but word that Yeo was lurking nearby caused the two officers to decide that the squadron should be on the lake to cover the left flank of the army’s flotilla, ready to fend off Yeo. Had Chauncey pursued Yeo and lost some or all of his squadron in the storm, or on the beach or in a pitched battle at the British anchorage, Wilkinson’s campaign would have been ruined. As Chauncey explained to his superior, Secretary of the Navy William Jones, "I without hesitation relinquished the opportunity then presenting itself of acquiring individual reputation at the expense of my Country."

     Chauncey made that decision even though he and his officers, with Sinclair ranking high among them, were smarting from the news that Perry had won on Lake Erie. Chauncey and Perry’s relationship had become quite acrimonious during the summer and it must have pained Chauncey to give up a chance to overshadow the young upstart’s victory.

     On 2 October Chauncey, with Wilkinson’s full approval, sailed to keep an eye on Yeo to prevent him from getting his Wolfe in among Wilkinson’s sheep. A few days later, when Yeo failed to protect a convoy of transports, Chauncey received a partial reward for his selfless conduct by capturing five transports laden with men and materiel near the False Ducks.

     The naval campaigns on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812 were complicated affairs, multi-faceted and deep. For the most part, they were waged by two cunning and dedicated, though not perfect, naval commanders, Yeo and Chauncey, both of whom deserve an equal share of any accolades that may be distributed.

Copyright Robert Malcomson 1999

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