He soon earned a name for not just courage, but skill, as a second lieutenant of the 38-gun ship Diana in the English Channel. In November 1809, while in command of a detachment of boats targeting a French convoy, Barclay lost his arm. After recovering from his injury he was sent to North America, awaiting a promotion that did not come. Instead, he found himself assigned to the schooner Bream, the gunship Aeolus (32 guns), and the sloop Tartarus. Between 1810 and 1812, he served primarily on the 36-gun Iphigenia. The WAR OF 1812 would offer him one last chance at naval glory.
As war began, the commander-in-chief of the North American station, Admiral Warren, detached Barclay, Robert Finnis and Daniel Pring to become the "Captains of the Corvettes" on the Great Lakes. Barclay was initially sent to Halifax in February 1813. With a handful of officers he journeyed to Kingston and became acting commander of all British naval forces on the Great Lakes, 5 May 1813. He was soon superseded by Captain Sir James Lucas Yeo, and then took command of forces on Lake Erie. Barclay was not Yeo's first choice, but when Captain William Howe Mulcaster turned down the appointment (Lake Erie was of secondary importance compared to the more critical theatre in Lake Ontario), Yeo agreed to appoint the one-armed officer.
After a difficult overland journey to AMHERSTBURG, Barclay took command of the 16-gun ship Queen Charlotte and the small local squadron. While he outnumbered the Americans in ships, he was taxed on supplies and trained officers, and found little support from Yeo, whose main concern was the ships on Lake Ontario. Barclay's advantage in numbers would not last forever, but he was unable to launch a naval assault on the American dockyard due to a sandbar in the harbour's mouth. Barclay asked for land support. If Major-General Francis de Rottenburg and his men could destroy Perry's base in Erie, Pennsylvania, the outcome for control of Lake Erie could swing in Britain's favour. Rottenburg refused.
Barclay's chief adversary was Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, who had at his disposal ample industrial materials and skilled labour, though he was also limited in the number of experienced seamen for his squadron. But Perry soon was able to outpace Barclay in shipbuilding at Presque Isle, where two 20-gun brigs, Niagara and Lawrence, were being speedily constructed for service. In early August, the Americans were able to float the brigs to the docks by removing their guns and raising the hulls on floats. This move effectively gave the Americans superiority. Perry concentrated his forces, and established a base at PUT-IN-BAY in the Bass Islands should land operations require naval support. Barclay, not seeing signs of American ships from the US harbour, lifted the blockade he had initiated before heading across the lake to Dover, expecting limited action when he returned. On August 4th, upon his return, he found the Lawrence and smaller vessels at anchor. Battle was now closer, and Barclay was outnumbered and outgunned. He commissioned the vessel Detroit, and prepared his squadron. Barclay was also being urged to action by Major General Henry PROCTER so he could begin resupplying the British forces at Long Point, who were desperately low on food, basic goods and medicines.
On 9 September, with the weather favourable, Barclay sailed from Amherstburg aboard the Detroit to meet the American forces. By the 10th, around the Bass Islands, he found them and the battle was on by noon. The proper armaments for the Detroit had been lost at YORK, and she'd been fitted with an assortment of long guns from the ramparts at FORT MALDEN that provided the advantage of being able to fight at longer ranges than the American vessels. But that was Barclay's only advantage. Perry's brig had better armaments, and six schooners to Barclay's three. Two hours of deadly fire saw the battle sway first toward Barclay, but finally to Perry, as the winds shifted and allowed the Americans to swiftly close with the British ships and nullify Barclay's one advantage. Both flagships were severely beaten. Nearly all the British experienced senior officers were killed or critically wounded, including Barclay; his remaining arm was injured, and part of his thigh was later removed due to its severe injury. Perry accepted Barclay's surrender, and made off with the entire British fleet. American casualties were 27 killed and 96 wounded, most on the USS Lawrence. British and Canadian casualties were 41 fatalities and 94 wounded.
The crushing defeat fostered a court martial where Barclay, wounded but proud, was exonerated of misconduct, and indeed earned some thanks for his bravery during the battle. Procter earned sharp criticism for pushing a naval engagement that, in hindsight, was not favourable to British victory. Barclay was confirmed as a commander on 13 November 1813, and received an admirable pension in addition to funds due him because of his injuries. Still, his defeat caused his personal reputation to be tarnished. His career stalled after the war, and despite some successful promotion due to political patronage, he is best remembered for the loss against Perry.
Author JASON RIDLER
Links to Other Sites
War of 1812: Detroit Frontier
Highlights of key battles along the Detroit frontier during the War of 1812. From the Archives of Ontario.
Robert Heriot Barclay
A biography of British naval officer Robert Heriot Barclay. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Battle of Lake Erie: Building the Fleet in the Wilderness
An illustrated account of the challenges of constructing war ships for service on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812. Also chronicles key events in the Battle of Lake Erie from an American perspective. From the Naval History & Heritage Command in the US.
The Battle of Stoney Creek and the Blockade of Fort George
A very long and detailed account of British and US military planning and strategic maneuvers in the Battle of Stoney Creek and the blockade of Fort George that was part of the War of 1812. From the Niagara Historical Society.
In Their Own Words -- Aboriginal Leaders and the War of 1812
See excerpts from key speeches delivered by Tecumseh and Black Hawk to First Nations followers and British military officers during the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
The Western Theatre in the War of 1812
An article about apparent deficiencies in Canadian and British historiography concerning events and notable figures in the "western theatre" of the War of 1812. From the War of 1812 Magazine.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...