A Signal Victory; Deep Water Sailors, Shallow Water Sailors; and Lords of the Lake
Skaggs, David Curtis and Gerard T. Altoff. A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000. 264 pages. ISBN# 1557508925. $16.95. Paperbound.
Altoff, Gerard T. Deep Water Sailors, Shallow Water Sailors: Manning the United States Fleet on Lake Erie, 1813. Put-In-Bay, OH: The Perry Group, 1993. 203 pages. ISBN#1887794018. $10.95. Paperbound.
Malcomson, Robert. Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1813. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999. ISBN # 1557505322. 432 pages. $36.95. Hardcover.
These benchmark volumes cover the naval engagements and strategic problems faced by the navies on both sides of the War of 1812. They are well researched, well written, and definitely fill a gap in the scholarship of the naval side of that lonely, mostly forgotten war.
A Signal Victory relates the tale of the build up of both navies on Lake Erie and the climactic fight that took place in September 1813 and that gave control of that strategic body of water to the United States to the end of the war. Two small naval squadrons, out in the middle of forest and lake, no visible 'civilization' anywhere, slugging it out in small ships constructed at their respective bases. They were, quite literally, at the end of a nonexistent line of communication and all on their own. Fortunately for the United States, Oliver Hazard Perry was an officer of vision, character, and a superb sailor and combat leader.
The campaign and battle are covered in excellent detail, as is the recruiting of the two squadrons, the makeup of the personnel, and who built the ships and how. There is also attention given to the controversy following the battle between Perry and his second in command, Jesse Elliott, who appeared to be somewhat reluctant to engage on the day of battle. The book is fairly presented by the co-authors, and the prose is lively and entertaining. This book is highly recommended, and it definitely demonstrates that naval skills could be found in more places than the Royal Navy.
Deep Water Sailors Shallow Water Soldiers is something of a companion volume to A Signal Victory, reviewed above, and it is written by one of the co-authors of that volume, who is also part of the staff at Put-in-Bay. It is a compendium listing of the personnel of the American squadron, with appropriate short biographical sketches of the senior personnel. It is well researched, complete in itself, and also highly recommended. This volume is published by the Perry Group, P. O. Box 484, Put-In-Bay, OH 43456.
The third volume, Lords of the Lake is about the campaign on Lake Ontario, control of which by the British could have made things somewhat difficult for Perry on Lake Erie. Strangely the two fleets on Lake Ontario never met in decisive combat, both commanders, Sir James Yeo and Isaac Chauncey appearing to be more interested in their private arms race than in meeting for a showdown gunfight on the lake.
It is amazing the type of ships they had built, and the effort that went into them, culminating in a ship of the line for Yeo's squadron late in the war. Ships on the lake could be lighter and of shallower draft, as they did not have to carry the water or supplies a comparable ship at sea would. There was periodic fighting, but nothing decisive; neither commander really having the killer instinct of a true independent commander. Looking at it from another viewpoint, Yeo didn't have to seek the decisive engagement. Just possessing a 'fleet in being' deprived Chauncey of controlling the lake, and, therefore, of victory. Yeo actually won by default. There is a forward by Donald Graves, the Canadian authority on the northern frontier during the War of 1812.
These three volumes are a definite addition to the sparse scholarship of that last war between Great Britain and the United States. Highly recommended and they are, singularly or as a group, a definite beneficial addition to any period collection.
Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2000