THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (July 15-July 21)

July 16, 2012 at 1:11 am 3 comments

War on the Great Lakes and at Sea

Surprise at Mackinac

Map courtesy of the Michigan Society, Sons of the American Revolution

In another instance of slow traveling war news, U.S. Army Lt. Porter Hanks and about 60 troops under his command at Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan Territory are unaware that the United States has declared war against Great Britain. Pronounced Mack-in-aw, the fort sits on an island commanding the Straits of Mackinac, a strategically important link between two of the Great Lakes: Huron and Michigan.

On the morning of July 17, 1812 a combined force numbering about two hundred British and Canadian troops, plus 100 or more Native Americans (Indians), landed on the island and stole up on the fort. The British fire their two canon on the fort, and Lt. Hanks – realizing his men were outnumbered and fearing a massacre by the Indians allied with the British — agrees to surrender the fort.

Shortly after that, two American schooners, the Chippewa and the Friends Good Will – also unaware that war had broken out and that the fort had been captured – sail up to Mackinac’s dock and are promptly captured by the British.

News of Mackinac’s fall unnerves Gen. William Hull who has crossed the Detroit River from Fort Detroit in Michigan to invade Canada. After failing to capture what is now called Fort Malden near Amherstburg, Hull will retreat back to Detroit in August.

Chasing U.S.S. Constitution

USS Constitution today. (U.S. Navy photo by Sonar Technician 2nd Class Thomas Rooney)

One of the U.S. Navy’s few large warships, the 44-gun frigate U.S.S. Constitution, sails out of Chesapeake Bay in early July with orders to join an American squadron already in the Atlantic. Late in the day on July 16, the Constitution spies four ships in the distance Capt. Isaac Hull thought they might be ships from the American squadron. But the lead ship fails to respond to Hull’s signals through the night and he begins to suspect it was a British warship.

At daybreak on July 17, the Constitution’s crew sees the other ship, now within gunshot range, is a British frigate with four or five more ships a mile or two behind it. Capt. Hull – who is  a nephew of Gen. Hull at Fort Detroit – determines that discretion is the better part of valor, especially when outnumbered, and flees south. But the wind dies and the British ships are gaining on Constitution. Hull dispatches his vessel’s crew into longboats with tow lines to row and tow the the 1,500-ton ship out of harm’s way – much the way Capt. Jack Aubrey’s ship evaded a French warship in the 2003 Russell Crowe film “Master and Commander.: The Far Side of the World.”

But the British also begin towing their ships and start drawing dangerously close to Constitution. That’s when one of the Constitution’s officers suggests the strategy of kedging: rowing out in front of the ship with two of its smaller anchors, dumping the anchors into the water and winding the ship’s capstan to pull the Constitution to where the anchors rest and then starting the process over again. In effect, the Constitution is dragging itself across the water – and away from the British – like a man crawling with two broken legs. Hull keeps Constitution’s sails rigged to catch whatever breeze might come. After a tortuous 60-hour slow motion race, the wind picks up again and Constitution escapes to fight another day and eventually earn the nickname “Old Ironsides.”

British Attack Repulsed

On July 19, the American brig U.S.S. Oneida and a shore battery repulse an attack on the U.S. Navy shipyard at Sackets Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario. The British attacking force consists of two sloops, two schooners and a brig. The 24-gun British sloop-of-war, HMS Royal George, is struck by canon fire that kills eight crewmen, and damages the ship’s top mast and rigging.

The British force withdraws. But because Sacket’s Harbor is a key Army supply base and the largest U.S. shipyard on the Great Lakes, the British will try again to take Sacket’s Harbor the following year.

First Battle of Sacket’s Harbor (Image courtesy of the Flower Memorial Library)

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Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, SHAKO, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions, Weaponry and Equipment. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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