Military Subjects:  War of 1812


 

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 4: September 2006

Articles

The Epic Saga of His Majesty’s Schooner Nancy and the Struggle for the Control of the Upper Great Lakes

By John R. Grodzinski

Aboard the Nancy!
"Surrender, Hell!" I say.
Aboard the Nancy
"It's back to Mackinac I'll fight, aboard the Nancy-o."

From the Chorus of “The Nancy” by Stan Rogers

The story of the Nancy[1] is a compelling, legendary one and would certainly make an exciting subject for a feature film.

The Nancy was a British schooner built in 1789 at Detroit, under the supervision of John Richardson and was probably named after his wife or daughter. She was approximately 80 feet long, with a beam of 22 feet and a hold eight feet deep, with a burthen of 67 tons. Nancy was built to transport supplies for the fur trade on the upper Great Lakes.

HMS <i>Nancy</i>
The British Schooner Nancy

When the War of 1812 commenced, the Nancy was quickly requisitioned for military service and armed. She was taken over by the Royal Navy in 1814, becoming His Majesty’s Schooner Nancy.

On 30 July 1812, Nancy participated in her first convoy with the Provincial Marine Schooner Lady Prevost, in moving military stores and 60 men of the 41st Regiment of Foot from Fort Erie to Amhertsburg. During the summer, and early autumn, the Nancy was employed constantly on Lake Erie between Detroit and Fort Erie in the transportation of stores and provisions.

Map of Lake Huron
Lake Huron and Georgian Bay
(Courtesy of Robin Brass Studio)

On 23 April 1813 the Nancy joined a squadron that transported General Proctor’s force of British regulars, Canadian militia and natives from Amherstburg to Miami Bay for the unsuccessful attack on Fort Meigs. With the defeat of Barclay’s Lake Erie Squadron on 10 September 1813, Nancy became the sole British warship on the Upper Great Lakes.

The Nancy was almost captured near the St. Clair River in October 1813, while en route to Detroit, which had recently fallen into American hands, following the American victory on Lake Erie. Later that month, Nancy sailed to Sault Ste. Marie, where she wintered and was refitted.

In February 1814, a British relief party consisting of 10 officers, 220 infantry and artillerymen, and 20 seamen under Colonel Robert McDouall left Kingston for Fort Mackinac. They moved via the Lake Simcoe and Nottawasaga River route and arrived on May 18.The Nancy was to have been cut down to a gunboat to augment the defences, but that plan was quickly discarded and she continued to serve as a transport. During that spring, the Nancy made three round trips from Fort Mackinac to the mouth of the Nottawasaga River for supplies.

During August 1814, the Americans had failed in their bid to retake Fort Mackinac and their plans shifted to capturing or destroying the Nancy, the sole British war vessel on the Upper lakes, which they believed to be in Georgian Bay. Lieutenant Miller Worsley, Royal Navy, had recently taken command of the Nancy and upon learning that an American squadron was looking for her, had the Nancy hauled two miles up the Nottawasaga River, where he also ordered a blockhouse be built.

On 13 August, three American ships, the Niagara, Tigress and Scorpion, under the command of Captain Arthur Sinclair, arrived off the mouth of the Nottawasaga River hoping to catch the Nancy, which they thought to be in Georgian Bay. It was only when wood gathering parties happened upon the Nancy’s hiding place that her true location was discovered. The next day, the American vessels moved in to bombard the schooner, but the intervening sand dunes made this largely ineffective and it was not until a detachment was landed with a mortar that she came under effective fire. The blockhouse had to be abandoned and seeing the situation as hopeless, Lieutenant Worsley decided to scuttle Nancy rather than surrender her. Before the preparations were completed, a shell hit the blockhouse and started a fire that soon consumed the Nancy, which burned to the waterline and sank. Worsley and his men escaped up the river.

While Sinclair returned to Detroit, the Scorpion and Tigress remained behind to guard the river to prevent canoes and bateaux from getting supplies to Fort Mackinac. Eventually the Americans blocked the river mouth with felled trees and departed in the hope of intercepting fur-laden canoes on Lake Huron.

Meanwhile, after a 360 mile journey in two bateaux and a canoe, Worsley and his men arrived at Fort Mackinac on 31 August 1814. During their trip, they slid past the Tigress and Scorpion near St Joseph Island.

Worsley wanted revenge and Colonel McDouall authorized him to make an attack on both the American vessels. Leaving Fort Mackinac on 1 September with a party of sailors in one boat and a detachment of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry under Lieutenant Andrew Bulger in three others (two of the boats carried small artillery pieces), plus some native escorts, Worsley’s party of 92 men set off to find the American vessels. Natives had reported them being in Georgian Bay, in an area known as the Detour. 

On 3 September, Worsley went ashore to reconnoitre for the vessels and after travelling six miles found the Tigress anchored alone. That night the sailors and soldiers paddled off with the goal of taking her by surprise. Worsley’s men were within ten yards of the Tigress before they were spotted, but it was too late and after a quick action, she was taken with the loss of only two killed and two wounded.

The next morning, the American prisoners were sent to Mackinac. They had also told Worsley that the Scorpion was only 15 miles away. Robert Livingston, of the Native Department set off to find here and returned in two hours to report the Scorpion was moving towards their position. To lull the approaching Americans to believe nothing was wrong, Worsley kept the American flag flying on the Tigress, while Bulger’s men covered their red jackets with greatcoats. On the 5th, the Scorpion came into view and leisurely anchored nearby. Worsley made his move as dawn approached on 6 September 1814 and bore down on the Scorpion, its crew still suspecting nothing. At 12 yards distance, Worsley opened fire and the Newfoundlanders uncovered themselves, fired volley and then stormed onto the deck of the Scorpion. It was over within minutes and the Scorpion was now British. Through this bold boat action, the British had regained control of Lake Huron and the supplies lines to the Northwest for the remainder of the war.

Both vessels were then taken to Fort Mackinac, where the Scorpion was renamed Confiance in honour of a ship which was captured from the French by Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, while Tigress was renamed Surprise for the manner in which she was captured.

The story of the Nancy and the subsequent struggle to gain control of the Upper Great Lakes is recounted at the Nancy Historical Site at Wasaga Beach, Ontario.

Further information on the Nancy story can be found in Barry Gough’s Through Water, Ice and Fire: Schooner Nancy And The War Of 1812, (Dundurn Press, 2006 ISBN 1550025694).

The Naval General Service Medal, 1793 – 1814[2] and the Actions of 3 and 6 September 1814

Aside from the Waterloo Medal, which was issued in 1816, and a few medals commemorating specific actions or that were awarded only to officers, Britain did not issue any general service medal to it’s sailors and soldiers to commemorate their services during the Napoleonic and other wars from 1793 to 1815 until the late 1840s. The first such medal was the Naval General Service Medal, issued in 1848. The medal had the diademed head of Queen Victoria on the obverse and the figure of Britannia, holding a trident and seated on a seahorse, on the reverse. The ribbon was 32 mm wide, white with dark blue edges. The Naval General Service Medal was originally to have been for service between 1793 and 1814, but was later extended to 1840.

The Naval General Service Medal
The Naval General Service Medal
An example of the Naval General Service Medal, this one with the bar “The Potomac 17 Aug 1814,” an action in which a number of American vessels were destroyed by the Royal Navy, nearly fifty miles up the Potomac River. Eight Royal Navy ships were involved but only 108 bars for this action were awarded. (Courtesy Eugene G. Ursual, Military Antiquarian).

Potential recipients had to apply for the medal, which meant that when the General Order announcing it was published in 1848, many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars had either passed away, were infirm or simply did not know it. As a result, 20,993 medals were issued, each of which had one or more bars attached to the ribbon to commemorate specific “actions,” such as Trafalgar, or “boat actions,” such as “8 April Boat Service 1814,” which acknowledged the destruction of 27 vessels and a considerable quantity of stores on the Connecticut River by men from HMS Boxer, Endymion, Hogue and Maidstone. A total of 231 different bars were sanctioned, of which no claimants came forward for ten of them. The maximum number of bars issued for any one medal was seven and most of those issued, or 15,577,had but a single bar.

Obviously some of the bars are quite rare and there are several where only a single recipient came forward. One of these included the bar “3 & 6 Sep Boat Service 1814,” issued to Lieutenant Andrew Bulger of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, for his involvement in the capture of the American schooners Tigress and Scorpion. Unfortunately Miller Worsley, who could have received the medal with the same bar, died in 1835, before the Naval General Service Medal was issued.

Bulger also received the Military General Service Medal, which was instituted in 1848, with 29 possible bars. Bulger’s Military General Service Medal included two bars: “Fort Detroit” (1812) and “Chrystler’s[3] Farm,” (1813).

Andrew Bulger was born in Newfoundland in November 1789. He was commissioned in the Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry in 1804 and when the War of 1812 broke out, he was sent to the Niagara Peninsula and was present at the capture of Fort Detroit in August 1812. He later served on the Upper St Lawrence River and was present at the battles of Fort George and Stoney Creek in May and June 1813 and at Crysler’s Farm that November. In February 1814, he proceeded from Kingston to Fort Mackinac, where he was involve in the actions described in this article. In October, Bulger was promoted to captain and given command of Fort McKay, where he deftly navigated his way through difficult native and local issues, including a near mutiny by the Michigan Fencibles. After the war, Bulger went to the Red River settlement in what would later become Manitoba. In 1823, he went to England for two years, after which he returned to Quebec. He died in Montreal in 1858.[4]

Wasaga Under Siege

This Grand Encampment at Nancy Island Historic Site is held every summer and features over 500 War of 1812 re-enactors along with 19th century merchants, artisans, period cooking, musket and artillery demonstrations, a surgeons tent, “Dr. Quimby's Medicine show,” period musical entertainment and much more. Further information is available at Battle of Georgian Bay l

There is also a site for the Friends of Nancy Island Historic Site at Friends of Nancy Island Historic Site

Click on the image to see a larger photo.

<i>Nancy</i> Historical Site The entrance way to the Nancy Historical Site. A short bridge from this building takes visitors to Nancy Island, which was formed by silt diverted by the sunken vessel. The island has a pavilion housing the remains of the Nancy and an interpretation centre, while a second building shows an interesting film about the action. The site is also home to an annual War of 1812 encampment.
   
The remains of the <i>Nancy</i> The remains of the Nancy, which were discovered in 1911 and raised in 1927 and placed on display on Nancy Island in the following year. (John R. Grodzinski)
   
The figure-head of the <i>Nancy</i> The figure-head of the Nancy, carved by Skelling of New York, was "a lady dressed In the present fashion with a hat and feather." (John R. Grodzinski)
   
A model of the <i>Nancy</i> View of the interior of the interpretation centre and a model of the Nancy. (John R. Grodzinski)
   
Annual War of 1812 encampment on <i>Nancy</i> Island An aerial view of the annual War of 1812 encampment on Nancy Island. (Courtesy Wasaga Under Siege)
   
British troops loading during a battle enactment. British troops loading during a battle enactment. (Courtesy Wasaga Under Siege)
   
American troops prepare to attack. American troops prepare to attack. (Courtesy Wasaga Under Siege)
   
The American attack is halted by the intervention of two local citizens. The American attack is halted by the intervention of two local citizens. Nearby Wasaga Beach offers tourists a 14 mile long white sandy beach (Courtesy Wasaga Under Siege)
   
Members of the Glengarry Light Infantry engaging American troops. Members of the Glengarry Light Infantry engaging American troops. (Courtesy Wasaga Under Siege)

 

Notes:

[1] The summary here is provided from a number of sources including Barry Gough, Through Water, Ice & Fire: Schooner Nancy and the War of 1812,Toronto: Dundurn, 2006; Donald R. Hickey, Don’t Give Up the Ship: Myths of the War of 1812, Toronto; Robin Brass Studio, 2006; J. Mackay Histman, The Incredible War of 1812,Toronto: Robin Brass Studio,  1999; Robert Malcomson, Warships of the Breat Lakes, 1754 – 1834, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001 and the Nancy Island Historic Site website.

[2] The details provided here are from E.C. Joslin, A.R. Litherland and B.T. Simpkin, British Battles and Medals,London: Spink, 1988, p. 33 – 62.

[3] This spelling differs from the now accepted “Crysler’s Farm.”

[4] Summarized from the entry for Andrew Bulger written by Robert S. Allen and Carol M. Judd in the “Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

 

 



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