Conflict on Land and Water
The War of 1812 in and around Niagara was a conflict on land and water. Until the arrival of the railroad in the 1840’s, the only practical means of travel throughout Ontario was by water. Sailing ships could carry people, goods and supplies to the ports of the Great Lakes. All the forts and gun batteries from the War of 1812 were nothing compared to the resources and money poured into ship building during the war. At the start of the fighting, the British had a small but effective armed merchant fleet on the lakes known as, the Provincial Marine. This allowed them to transport troops and equipment in large numbers to any region threatened by American attack. Outgunned on the lakes and suffering set backs on land, the Americans started a fleet to counter the British ships. An arms race developed that saw larger and larger ships of war being constructed. The Americans eventually took control on all the lakes except Lake Ontario.
It was on Lake Ontario that the building of massive ships reached its zenith. The HMS St. Lawrence was launched September 10, 1814 at the dockyards in Kingston. When launched, the St Lawrence was armed with 104 guns. The smallest cannon on board was a two-ton gun that fired a 24 pound cannonball. By comparison, the British Army at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane had eight guns on the field, in 1812 Fort George only had 6 cannons.
This floating monster was one of the most heavily armed ships in the world and the Americans scrambled to build a more powerful 130 gun ship the USS New Orleans. However, there was one major problem with launching huge ships on Lake Ontario at the end of the War of 1812 – there were no canals and these great ships could not leave Lake Ontario. There was one other problem. Although these ships could deliver a massive amount of fire power, they also cost a massive amount of money to build and operate. One of the reasons both sides sought peace in 1814 was (the) lack of funds in their bank accounts. The War of 1812 and the race to build larger and larger ships were bankrupting both sides.
In April 1812, the U.S. imposed a ninety-day embargo on trade with Britain, therefore with the Canadas. The embargo was enforced on Lake Ontario by the 16-gun brig commanded by Lieut Melancthon T. Woolsey. He describes capture of schooner Lord Nelson (later renamed Scourge) for suspected violation of the embargo. The Scourge and Hamilton were the 2 schooners that sank in the lake in August 1813. Woolsey writes from the brig Oneida , Sackets Harbour Roads, to Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton, 9 June 1812. He first reported seeing on 4 June 3 sail, he chased them but night came on with a haze. He continues:
“At day light on the 5th discovered two schooners …standing in for land. At 7 p.m. we brought to one of the Schooners which proved to be the Lord Nelson from Prescot…said to be bound to Newark in Canada, she had no papers on board other than a loose Journal and a bill of lading of a part of her Cargo, but no Register, licence or clearance. Wether it was intended to smuggle her Cargo on our shores, or wether she was hovering along our shores to take on board property for the Canada market in violation of the Embargo law I was not able to determine. But appearances were such as to warrant a suspicion of an intention to smuggle both ways. I accordingly took her Crew out and sent her my gunner on board as Prize Master to this port. …All the proofs which I can collect respecting her voyage I will transmit without delay to the District Attorney.”
The technology of war in 1812 was based on gunpowder. Salt petre, sulfur and charcoal were mixed together to make an explosive combination. Ignited with a flame, a spark or static electricity; it could be very volatile. Black powder firearms and cannons had been in use for centuries when the War of 1812 began. The soldier, militiaman or warrior who marched into battle was armed with technology that his great, great grandfather would have recognized. The nature of battles were dictated by the weaponry of war. The idea of standing on a battlefield, at a few dozen paces from your enemy seems ridiculous by modern standards but war in any era is not an act based on logical thought. The standard weapon of the War of 1812 was the smoothbore flintlock musket and it was unreliable, inaccurate and slow to load. The firing mechanism relied on sparks from the flint and steel falling on the gunpowder.
On a windy or wet day the sparks could blow away or the priming powder might become too damp to ignite. Even in good weather the flintlock worked 80% of the time. If your musket was not among the 20% misfiring, there was a slim chance that you could deliberately hit a target past 75 meters/yards/paces. Without rifling in the barrel to make the lead ball spin, the ball could kill a man at 300 meters but not an aimed shot. Rifles were available and they had three times the accurate range of a smoothbore musket but the rate of fire was three times slower and a rifle cost four times more to manufacture. In addition, the quickest means of loading a muzzle loading musket was – standing; again not a logical way to wage war but the mathematics was simple. ‘To win a battle, you get close to your enemy and unleash as much lead as possible.’ Sadly, that formula has not changed for the common foot soldier.