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From 1812 to 2012 with the U.S. Brig Niagara

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Debra Marvin is back this week with incredible information and pics on the naval aspects of the War of 1812. If you missed her first post on the war a couple weeks ago you can find it here. So come escape with us into the world of naval warfare against Britain. Be on guard though, I have a feeling that Deb may have a pop quiz later about naval stuff. Take it away, Deb!

Hi Jillian! On a beautiful September day in 2012, I had the pleasure of a dream-come-true day sail aboard the U.S. Brig Niagara. Just thinking of it now makes me smile and my heart go pitter-patter. Isn’t she beautiful? 
photo borrowed from Niagara Canadian Military Heritage Society to promote the U.S. Brig Niagara

At the start of the War of 1812, few ships capable of warfare plied the waters of the Great Lakes, so shipbuilding on these lakes became a competition won by the Americans. While they failed repeatedly in land battles, they knew winning the war along the Great Lakes would demand naval superiority—naval superiority shut down food and armament supply. For this post, I’m sticking with what happened on Lake Erie. The British had two warships on Erie when war broke out. The Americans had none.

American Isaac Chauncey was given carte blanche to build and buy a naval presence on Erie. By the spring of 1813, two brigs were underway at Erie, PA, the Lawrence and the Niagara. The ships didn’t have to last long and were built with shortcut methods including green wood.  In March of 1813 an upstart named Oliver Perry arrived at Erie after marching overland with 100 experienced sailors. The battle-tested and highly commended Master Commandant Jesse Elliot was put under the command of Perry who’d never commanded a ship in his life. Needless to say, but I’ll say it; Elliot and Perry had a strained relationship.

After a shaky start getting over the sand bars off Erie and Presque Isle, the Brigs Lawrence (the flagship--meaning the ship carrying the overall commander, in this case Perry) and Niagara headed west across the ‘inland sea’ known as Lake Erie to engage the enemy near the British port of Put-In-Bay, Ontario.

Aboard “my” day on the U.S Brig Niagara, Captain Wesley W. Heerssen, Jr. used a map to show ship movement during the famous battle. Perry, commanding the US Lawrence, ordered the fleet to fall in line. For some reason, the Niagara, with Elliot commanding fell back. After a lengthy, rousing battle, the Lawrence was out of commission. Perry, not ready to quit, had his flag brought down, (a flag proclaiming the last words of Captain James Lawrence, Don’t Give up the Ship) and ordered what he had left for a crew to lower a small boat. Perry (a descendant of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace) was rowed to the Niagara, still uninvolved and fresh. Elliot opted out and took over another smaller ship, while Perry set the Niagara straight into the British line. Unable to shoot ‘forward’, warships had to present broadsides. By sailing directly between two British ships, the Niagara was able to inflict damage to both, with little damage to herself. Two other large British ships plowed into each other and became entangled.

The battle was won shortly after and Commander Perry became the new darling of the nation and the U.S. Navy because the U.S now ruled the Great Lakes. Contentions with Elliot lived on long after as well. The Niagara did not end her service there and was involved throughout the end of the war and after as a transport ship.

By 1820, the American naval station at Presque Isle off of Erie PA was closed and the Niagara was one of four ships scuttled (intentionally sunk). In 1836, George Miles raised the Lawrence and Niagara as merchant vessels. It wasn’t going to work. They weren’t big enough to hold cargo and were in poor condition. Back to the bottom of a cold lake for consideration another day. That happened in 1913 when the Niagara was raised for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. It was towed around the lake and later put on show as a museum ship in Erie.

The state of PA bought Niagara in 1931 to completely restore but work was put off until 1963. A relatively sound ship was recreated using original wood and the ‘heart’ of the ship. But in 1980 it was completely revamped –taken apart and put back together to create a safety-first sailing vessel to be used as a training ship and floating classroom.

In this video, crew turn a topsail. Can you believe the amount of rope involved?

Some naval stuff:
A BRIG is a two-masted, square-rigged ship
A FRIGATE is a ship with not just one deck of guns but guns on the raised forecastle and quarterdeck.
A SCHOONER is a ship with two or more masts and fore and aft sales. (Not square sails)
A SHIP OF THE LINE is large with two full gun decks, plus guns on the two smaller raised decks.
A SLOOP is a single masted ship with fore and aft sails.

Next time you watch Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander, or Horatio Hornblower, you’ll thank me for this. To follow my obsession with the War of 1812, visit Inkwell Inspirations blog.  Thanks Jillian!

For more on the Brig Niagara, The War of 1812 see these links: Thank you!

Debra E. Marvin tries not to run too far from real life but the imagination born out of being an only child has a powerful draw. Besides, the voices in her head tend to agree with all the sensible things she says. Debra likes to write, weed and wander and is blessed to have the best family and friends in the world. She has decided she needs to live closer to her grandchildren. She’s thankful each day that God is in control, that He chooses to bless us despite ourselves and that He has a sense of  humor. Her work has finaled in the TARA, Great Expectations, Heart of the Rockies, Maggie, Rattler and most recently, the Daphne DuMaurier for the second time. Not too bad considering she’s trying a mashup of gospel and . . .  gothic.

Dark Tales Brimming with Light


  1. Hi Jillian,
    thanks for having me back. I'm glad the video worked out although it is decidedly amateur.

    In that video, viewers can see that crew members are turning the foresail - topsail on the 'front' of Niagara. I noticed that in every case, the effort got harder as the sail turned farther. The work was difficult and non-stop.

    Niagara is steered with a rudder by hand and not by use of a ship's wheel. The rudder is adjusted fairly often and with that many sails, there is a lot of adjustment as well. It was an amazing day for me.

    1. Good Morning Deb,
      What an amazing day you must have had on the Niagara. It's fascinating to get just a glimpse of how hard it was to steer and manage sails on a ship. Thanks for being here. Visitors are sure to love your post. Question: What ship was the largest? What were the cabins really like that they slept in?

  2. The largest ships was the 'ship of the line'. The "line" was the usual layout of ships in battle -as they had to broadside one another, and a line of ships could do a lot of damage. A Ship of the line had multiple decks of guns. While a brig like Niagara had only one gun deck (the top deck) and carried nine 32lb carronades on each side. A ship of the Line could carry multiple sized guns on three decks . 74 was a common number but a few carried up to 98. Each gun needed 6-8 men, plus the ship's crew neccessary to move 15=20 sails during maneuvers. No wonder a 500man crew wasn't out of the question.

    Horatio Hornblower's INDEFATIGABLE was a 62gun ship-of=the-line.

    1. I loved those Horatio Hornblower movies. Did you ever see the original with Gregory Peck? Loved that too! Thanks for the explanation.

  3. Sailors slept in hammocks below deck (and took turns) On the Niagara, the hammocks are hung along the 'wall' and out of the way. Officers had separate digs of course!

    I have a photo of below deck on Niagara.

    I forgot to mention that the U.S.Brig Niagara is actually on the list of "Historic Sites". She is her own traveling site, because some of the original wood is still incorporated into her new body.

  4. Very awesome Deb! Thank you for sharing the history, and your adventure! Hi Jilly!

    1. Hi Suzie! You better be careful if Deb tries to get you on a ship. You may end up on the other side of the world or even in a story. It was a dark and stormy night when . . . :)

  5. thanks Suzie! I am still excited about that day!