Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

View of Fort Niagara from the British Side

War on the Great Lakes in 1812

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War on the Great Lakes in 1812

At the start of the war, there were few United States military forces on the Great Lakes for either offensive or defensive actions.  U.S.S. Oneida, moored at Sackets Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario, was the only capable Navy warship in the entire region.  Oneida’s commander, Lieutenant Melancthon T. Woolsey, soon acquired the schooner Julia and in late July sent it to engage two small British ships at Ogdensburgh.  The action caused little damage and no casualties on either side.  In mid-August, the U.S. Army suffered a serious defeat and the loss of Detroit, which included a brig used by the Army, the Adams

The danger on the lakes now pressing, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton sent Captain Isaac Chauncey, a talented and experienced officer to take control of Lakes Ontario and Erie.  To Lake Champlain, where there were no ships or naval presence, he sent Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, with orders to create a force.

On 8 October Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott, who Captain Chauncey sent ahead to begin assembling ships and supplies, led a force of sailors and soldiers at night to capture two British vessels anchored at Fort Erie opposite Buffalo and Black Rock on the St. Lawrence River.  He recaptured the U.S. Army brig Adams, which had been renamed H.M.S. Detroit and the Caledonia, a merchant ship.  Elliott burned Detroit to prevent it from falling back into British hands.

By judicious purchase and use of local ships, by the end of 1812 Isaac Chauncey had gained control of Lake Ontario.  While the onset of winter suspended most war operations in the Great Lakes, shipbuilding continued on both sides.  At Sackets Harbor and at Presque Isle, Chauncey had carpenters building a force for Lake Erie in hope of securing it in the coming year.