Skip to main content

Feature

Roosevelt the Revisionist

Young TR takes on the War of 1812

By Meredith Hindley | HUMANITIES, September/October 2013 | Volume 34, Number 5

Just after two o’clock in the afternoon on September 10, 1813, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry was one of the few men still standing—or even alive—on the USS 
Lawrence. British cannon balls and grapeshot lobbed across the murky waters of Lake Erie by the HMS Detroit and her sister ships had torn his brig and crew to pieces. No amount of sand spread on the decks could soak up the blood that ran freely from the mangled and missing limbs of his men. Broadside after broadside had made the air thick with a pungent combination of ash and burning flesh. The Lawrence’s guns had ceased to work, leaving the flagship of the American squadron defenseless. Perry faced a choice: surrender or find a way to continue to fight. 
He knew that ceding the day would spell disaster for the American war effort against the British in 
the Great Lakes.

Perry turned his eyes to the USS Niagara, a ship equal in size and firepower to his shattered Lawrence. Despite the intense firefight between the American and British ships around it, the Niagara had sustained little damage. Perry turned over command of the Lawrence to his injured lieutenant and took a rowboat through a fifteen-minute gauntlet of bullets, grapeshot, and cannon fire. He arrived unscathed. Upon boarding the Niagara, he assumed command, sending her captain, Jesse Duncan Elliott, off in the rowboat with orders to redirect three American schooners. Perry then steered the Niagara alongside the ailing Detroit, unleashing a devastating wall of iron and fire. The American rally had begun. Within half an hour, the British, who had appeared to be on the brink of victory, had no choice but to surrender.

“We have met the enemy, and they are ours—two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop,” Perry said in a 
message to Brigadier General William Henry Harrison, 
commander of American forces in the Great Lakes.

The Battle of Lake Erie, fought two hundred years ago this September, was a turning point in the War of 1812. By controlling the lake, the Americans were able to take back Detroit, then a key trading outpost, and eventually defeat the Indian Confederation that had been aiding the British.

Perry became an instant war hero in a country hungry for victory and resolution. “For a long time yet to come, the name of Erie, will suggest that of Perry; and that future history of the late war, which should omit, or pass lightly over his distinguished services on that Lake, will not deserve the name 
of history,” wrote Washington Irving in American Naval 
Biography. Villages and towns were named after Perry, and the U.S. Navy commissioned two ships bearing his name 
during the nineteenth century.

But when Theodore Roosevelt sat down to write The Naval War of 1812 almost seventy years later, he refused to crown Perry with laurels and shower him with accolades for his heroics. In Roosevelt’s estimation, any American commander on that day with that fleet could have beaten the British. Why was Roosevelt so hard on Perry? For Roosevelt, it was all about giving credit where credit was due—and it was high time the British got some of their own. He also thought Perry’s real contribution was something more methodical and less swashbuckling: building and deploying an American force capable of fighting the British. Roosevelt reached these conclusions by writing an operational history using primary sources, something no other American naval historian had done before.

Historian in the Rough

In early December 1881, Teddy Roosevelt put the finishing touches on the manuscript for what would become The Naval War of 1812. It had been an auspicious year. The month before, he had been elected to the New York State Assembly. During the summer, while on break between his first and second year of law school at Columbia, he had taken his bride, Alice, on a delayed honeymoon to Europe. While in Switzerland, Roosevelt, an inexperienced climber, scrambled up 15,000 feet to reach the top of the Matterhorn. He was all of twenty-three.

Roosevelt’s interest in naval history came not from a class or lectures, but from his upbringing. He’d grown up learning to sail in the waters off Long Island, crewing everything from a rowboat to a yacht. During the summer between his junior and senior years at Harvard, he and a friend had steered a dugout canoe across Maine’s Munsungen Lake and tackled a stretch of the Aroostook River fifty miles long and infested with rapids. Then there were the familial tales of naval derring-do. His mother, Martha Bulloch, hailed from Georgia, and her brothers had distinguished themselves in the Confederate Navy. “My mother’s brother was an admiral in the Confederate navy, and her deep interest in the Southern cause and her brother’s calling led her to talk to me as a 
little shaver about ships, ships, ships, and fighting of ships, 
till they sank into the depths of my soul,” Roosevelt explained to a friend. The Bullochs, however, were no ordinary sailors. They were the brains behind the Confederacy’s secret operation in Britain to buy ships and turn cotton into cash.

“Before I left Harvard I was already writing one or two chapters of a book I afterwards published on the Naval War of 1812,” wrote Roosevelt in his Autobiography. “Those chapters were so dry that they would have made a dictionary seem light reading by comparison. Still, they represented purpose and serious interest on my part, not the perfunctory effort to do well enough to get a certain mark.”

What Roosevelt sheepishly omits is that he started working on the book just after Thanksgiving as a way to cope with a broken heart. He’d fallen head over heels for Alice Hathaway Lee, a golden-haired girl with a sharp mind who loved to laugh. “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me,” he wrote of their first meeting in October 1878. Alice had gently refused his marriage proposal, tendered at the end of his junior year. When Roosevelt returned to Cambridge in the fall of 1879, he believed their romance would continue. Instead, he found her cold to his attentions. “Oh the changeableness of the female mind!” he complained in a letter home. His grief at losing her led to terrible bouts of insomnia, during which he read voraciously about the War of 1812. He found the differing accounts offered by American and British historians hard to reconcile, both in terms of fact and approach, so he decided to write 
his own.

His heart got a reprieve in the new year. While on a family trip to New York to visit the Roosevelt clan over Christmas, Alice warmed again to Teddy, and they announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day of 1880. “How she, so pure and sweet and beautiful, can think of marrying me I can not understand, but I praise God it is so,” he wrote in his diary. They married in the fall and Roosevelt entered law school at Columbia University shortly thereafter. Rather than set the book aside now that he’d won the girl, Roosevelt forged ahead. Mornings were spent in class and afternoons in the Astor Library doing research. To capture the British side, he used published sources, such as the London Naval Chronicle, Naval Records, and Niles’ Register. He reconstructed logs and muster rolls for ships from notices in the 
Gazette and Naval Chronicle. He translated French works on the war. For the American side, he used the records of the Department of the Navy, a privilege arranged for him by a well-connected friend. It was a valuable resource that no other historian had yet tapped. Roosevelt found the letters written by officers illuminating, while the log books were “rather exasperating, often being very incomplete.”

When he and Alice headed to Europe for their honeymoon in the summer of 1881, the book came with them. He began to worry that he had taken on an overwhelming task. There was a big difference between listening to tales of naval exploits at his mother’s knee and mastering the technical details required to write about them with authority. On a visit to Liverpool, his uncle Jimmie, a “blessed old sea-captain,” helped steer him through the shoals. Back in New York, Roosevelt devoted his energies to finishing the book. “How I long for the time when I am to have my sweetest darling back with me!” he wrote Alice in October. “But I am really glad that you are away now, for I am so busy that I could not be any company at all for you. I must get this naval history through and off my mind; it worries me more than I can tell now, and I wished it were finished.”

Roosevelt may have begun The Naval History of 1812 without any professional historical training, but the five hundred pages that he churned out could have qualified as a dissertation. He had original research and opinions galore, starting with decisive views on the books that had come before, which he felt didn’t do “justice to both sides.” He did, however, find three books to have merit, particularly when read in combination. William James’s Naval History of Great Britain, a six-volume study that covered 1793 to 1827 was “an invaluable work, written with fullness and care; on the other hand it is also a piece of special pleading by a bitter and not over-scrupulous partisan.” Roosevelt believed that successive generations of British and Canadian historians had been unduly influenced by James, a solicitor-turned-naval historian, to the detriment of the American story. James’s pro-
British leanings could be offset by reading James Fenimore Cooper’s Naval History of the United States. While keen on the portrayal of the American effort, Cooper had, Roosevelt thought, written “without great regard for exactness.” Cooper needed to be read alongside the more technical History of the United States Navy by Admiral 
George E. Emmons.

The ever-earnest Roosevelt set himself the task of writing an impartial narrative. “Without abating a jot from one’s devotion to his country and flag, I think a history can be made just enough to warrant its being received as an authority equally among Americans and Englishmen. I have endeavored to supply such a work.” But he also acknowledged that while he aimed to be nonpartisan, if he failed, it would probably be in favor of the Americans.

Roosevelt had grown up reading the adventure 
tales of Mayne Reid and engaging in plenty of his own, but The Naval War of 1812 tends toward the technical side. He favors facts and figures over a more human story, moving purposefully through the conflict, not afraid to show his work and point out where he believes others are wrong. Nowhere else in the book is this method so stark as in the account of the Battle of Lake Erie.

Roosevelt begins with a detailed reckoning of the American and British squadrons. The Americans had three brigs (Lawrence, Niagara, Caledonia), five schooners (Ariel, Scorpion, Somers, Porcupine, Tigress), and one sloop (Trippe). The British squadron, under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay, was significantly smaller: two brigs (Detroit and Hunter), one sloop of war (Queen Charlotte), two schooners (Lady Prevost and Chippeway), and one sloop (Little Belt). The Americans had 1,671 tons of ship to the British 1,460.

Roosevelt discovered that the real difference came in firepower. American writers had dwelled on the fact that Perry had only fifteen long guns to Barclay’s thirty-five, which seemed to give the British an advantage in distance fighting. But when Roosevelt listed the guns held by both sides, a startling fact appeared: Perry’s squadron had 936 pounds of broadside power, while Barclay’s fleet had 459 pounds. “The chief fault to be found in the various American accounts is that they sedulously conceal the comparative weight of metal, while carefully specifying the number of guns,” wrote Roosevelt.

Why was Roosevelt so intent on establishing who had what? Because he wanted to show that “the Americans were certainly very greatly superior in force.” Part of the aura surrounding Perry’s heroics rested on the idea that he had triumphed over a superior force. Roosevelt’s calculations showed that wasn’t the case. “The important fact was that though we had nine guns less, yet, at a broadside, they threw half as much metal again as those of our antagonist. With such odds in our favor it would have been a disgrace to have been beaten.” It also set the stage for him to make a more provocative argument: The weight given to Perry’s heroics was misplaced.

“Don’t Give Up the Ship”

In the fall of 1812, Oliver Hazard Perry was desperate to join the fight against the British. The twenty-seven-year-old master commandant found defending the harbor of Newport, Rhode Island, boring and petitioned for a change of duty. The son of a naval officer, Perry had been at sea since the age of thirteen when he received a commission as a midshipman. Since then, he had seen action in the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars, and skirmished with the British, defending American merchant ships.

In February 1813, Perry got his wish when he was given command of American forces on Lake Erie. He arrived at 
Presque Isle (now Erie) in late March to find his fleet in 
pieces on the shore, still in the throes of construction. By May, two brigs and three schooners were in the water. Then came the hard part: getting the newly constructed ships past the sandbar that protected the harbor. The schooners could be dragged along the shore by oxen and men, but the 480-ton brigs had to go over the sandbar, which required removing their guns. Defenseless and floundering, they would be easy pickings for the long guns of the British ships that regularly patrolled the harbor. In early August, the British mysteriously disappeared, giving Perry the time he needed to get his brigs into open water. By the end of August, Perry’s fleet had grown to ten ships, thanks to the addition of five ships no longer needed on the Niagara River. He also now had the services of Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott, who had been fighting with distinction on Lake Ontario, where he was credited with the first American 
victory on the Great Lakes. Elliott was given command of the 480-ton brig Niagara.

On the evening of September 9, Perry brought his officers together for a meeting. An engagement with the British was inevitable, and he wanted to be ready. Perry had drawn up a line of battle that would have his brig, Lawrence, engaging Barclay’s Detroit. Elliott’s Niagara would handle the Queen Charlotte, the second strongest British ship. He intended to follow Lord Nelson’s dictum: “If you lay your enemy alongside, you cannot be out of place.”

Just after daylight, Perry’s lookouts spotted the British. The spyglass and reports shouted from the crow’s nest told him that Barclay had formed his newly painted ships in a line of battle: The schooner Chippeway took the lead, followed by Barclay’s Detroit, Hunter, Queen Charlotte, Lady Prevost, and Little Belt. The wind danced around the lake, before finally settling in from the northeast, giving the Americans the advantage. On board the Lawrence, Perry ordered the battle flag hoisted, a blue pennant embroidered with the words “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Perry formed his own attack column: Ariel, Scorpion, Lawrence, Caledonia, Niagara, Somers, Porcupine, Tigress, and Trippe.

About a quarter to noon, the Americans thought they heard the notes of “Rule, Britannia!,” the closest thing the Royal Navy had to a fight song, floating across the lake. Next came a ranging shot from the Detroit, as Barclay calibrated his guns. The ships were one mile apart. Barclay’s next shot hit the Lawrence. Perry realized he was in trouble. The Lawrence was well outfitted with carronades, which were deadly at less than 250 yards, but lacked the long guns needed to engage the Detroit. To beat Barclay, Perry would have to draw him closer. For the next half hour, Barclay lobbed shot after shot at Perry, smashing the Lawrence to bits, shredding her rigging, and mauling her crew. “By 12:20 the Lawrence had worked down to close quarters, and at 12:30 the action was going on with great fury between her and her antagonists, within canister range. The raw and inexperienced American crews committed the same fault the British so often fell into on the ocean, and overloaded their carronades,” wrote Roosevelt.

Rather than mimicking Perry and moving the Niagara in to attack the Queen Charlotte, Elliott held his position. When the Queen Charlotte’s captain realized the Niagara wasn’t going to engage, he joined the Detroit in savaging the Lawrence. “The fighting at the head of the line was fierce and bloody to an extraordinary degree,” writes Roosevelt. “The Scorpion, Ariel, Lawrence, and Caledonia, all of them handled with the most determined courage, were opposed to the Chippeway, Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter, which were fought to the full as bravely.” But one ship was missing from the list: Elliott’s Niagara.

By two o’clock, the Lawrence was in dire straits. “The vessel was shallow, and the ward-room, used as a cockpit, to which the wounded were taken, was mostly above water, and the shot came through it continually, killing and wounding many men under the hands of the surgeon.” Eighty percent of Perry’s crew was dead or wounded—and the ship’s guns had ceased to function. The Detroit was also a wreck. Barclay, who had lost his left arm fighting the French, was forced to leave the deck when he injured his right. The Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost were crippled as well. The Niagara, however, had suffered little damage. If the Americans were to win the day, she would have to enter the fight.

Perry, unscathed though coated in ash and blood, discovered that one of the Lawrence’s rowboats had survived intact. He handed command of the Lawrence over to Lieutenant Yarnall, ran down the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag, and rowed for the Niagara. At half past two, from the deck of the Niagara, Perry watched the Lawrence, incapable of carrying on the fight, lower her colors. Once the British boarded her, she would be theirs.

Any notion the British had that they were close to victory vanished when Perry steered the Niagara toward the floundering British fleet. “There could thus be but little resistance to Perry, as the Niagara stood down, and broke the British line, firing her port guns into the Chippeway, Little Belt, and Lady Prevost, and the starboard ones into the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter, raking on both sides.” The other American ships soon joined in, finishing off what the Niagara had begun. As the three o’clock hour passed, Barclay struck 
his colors. The Chippeway and Little Belt tried to flee, but 
the Trippe and Scorpion ran them down. The Americans had won the battle.

The blood reckoning for both sides was severe: twenty-seven dead and ninety-six wounded for the Americans, the majority of the casualties from the Lawrence. The British lost forty-one men, while ninety-four required medical attention. “The first and second in command on every vessel were killed or wounded, a sufficient proof of the desperate nature of the defence,” writes Roosevelt of the British effort.

Roosevelt regarded the victory at Lake Erie as an important turning point in the War of 1812. “It gave us complete command of all the upper lakes, prevented any fears of invasion from that quarter, increased our prestige with the foe and our confidence in ourselves, and ensured the conquest of upper Canada.” But he was less impressed with the tendency to give Perry all the credit for the victory.

Most Americans, even the well educated, if asked which was the most glorious victory of the war, would point to this battle. Captain Perry’s name is more widely known than that of any other commander. Every school-boy reads about him, if of no other sea-captain; yet he certainly stands on a lower grade than either Hull or Macdonough, and not a bit higher than a dozen others. On Lake Erie our seamen displayed great courage and skill; but so did their antagonists. The simple truth is, that, where on both sides the officers and men were equally brave and skillful, the side which possessed the superiority in force, in the proportion of three to two, could not 
well help winning.

Roosevelt wanted the glory to be spread around—and for some to be given to the British for the way they fought. “The courage with which the Lawrence was defended has hardly ever been surpassed, and may fairly be called heroic; but equal praise belongs to the men on board the Detroit.” He is also hesitant to call Perry a great leader solely based upon his actions that day. “Courage is only one of the many elements which go to make up the character of a first-class commander; something more than bravery is needed before a leader can be really called great.” It’s interesting to see a young Roosevelt, a man whose ascent to the presidency would be helped by tales of his audacious exploits, suggesting there is more to leadership than acts of bravery. Instead, Roosevelt wanted more attention given to Perry’s “indomitable pluck” in preparing the American fleet. “It was greatly to our credit that we had been enterprising enough to fit out such an effective little flotilla on Lake Erie, and for this Perry deserves the highest praise.”

Engage the Enemy More Closely

While the Battle of Lake Erie proved decisive, a war raged for the next thirty years over Elliott’s role in the fight. Why did he hold back the Niagara? Was it jealousy over the less experienced Perry being given command? Was he waiting for a signal from Perry to engage?

In his official report, Perry praised Elliott and the two men shared equally the prize money of $225,000 from capturing Barclay’s squadron. They also both received the Congressional Gold Medal for their service at Lake Erie. That didn’t stop the private grousing about Elliott’s supposed cowardice and dereliction of duty. Two years later, the grumbling went public, prompted by American newspaper reports on the outcome of Barclay’s court-martial for his conduct at Lake Erie. Because he lost the British fleet, an inquest was convened to examine the events of September 10. Barclay was acquitted with honor, but testimony given during the trial suggested that Elliott “had not been engaged” when Perry arrived on her deck.

With his reputation on the line, Elliott asked for an inquiry to be convened. Five officers from the Niagara and two from the Lawrence testified. Their accounts yielded a conflicting timeline, albeit one that didn’t suggest Elliott had avoided the fight. While the controversy receded, the hard feelings didn’t. In 1818, after an exchange of letters, Elliott challenged Perry to a duel. Instead of pistols at dawn, Perry requested that the Navy convene a court-martial. Perry was no stranger to dueling, having recently squared off with another foe on the same field where Hamilton and Burr faced each other. By initiating a court-martial, Perry appears to have wanted the issue decided for the historical record and not merely pride.

The charges were filed in September 1818, but no action was taken before Perry set sail for South America and the Caribbean. In 1819, Perry contracted yellow fever, passing away at the age of thirty-four. The man who had dodged cannon fire had been felled by a mosquito bite. Elliott went on to have a tumultuous naval career that included a slew of court-martials and more duels.

The Perry-Elliott controversy exploded again in 1839 following publication of Cooper’s A History of the Navy of the United States of America. Cooper discounted the adulation heaped on Perry for changing ships, while reminding readers of the dangers faced by all in the battle. “Popular opinion, which is too apt to confound distinctions in such matters, usually attaches the idea of more gallantry to the mere act of passing in a boat from one vessel to another, during an action, than in fighting on a vessel’s deck,” wrote Cooper. Perry’s supporters rallied to his defense, resulting 
in a testy exchange of pamphlets and mudslinging.

Roosevelt had little regard for Elliott. “The Niagara, the most efficient and best-manned of the American vessels, was thus almost kept out of the action by her captain’s misconduct,” he wrote. The Niagara had been, in his estimation, “wretchedly handled.”

As for Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, begun in a fit of heartbreak, would serve as a calling card, announcing him as a young man with a serious mind. It also helped Roosevelt’s career. Throughout the book, he harped on how the investment made by the Federalists in the 1790s in a small, but formidable, navy helped the United States overcome Britain in the War of 1812. He wanted the country to make that same investment again. “If in 1812 our ships had borne the same relation to the British ships that they do now, not all the courage and skill of our sailors would have won us a single success,” he wrote. His interest in preparedness also accounts for his desire to recast Perry’s reputation. The efforts that come before a battle are just as valuable as the actions on the day of battle.

Roosevelt’s naval writings earned him an invitation to speak at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. He also struck up an enduring friendship with Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, president of the college and author of The Influence of Sea Power on History. Together, Roosevelt and Mahan became two of the most vocal advocates for naval rearmament. In 1897, Roosevelt was tapped to be assistant secretary of the navy, helping prepare the fleet for the Spanish-American War. Four years later, he was sworn in as the youngest president of the United States. In 1907, in the waters off Hampton Roads, Virginia, Roosevelt watched as the Great White Fleet, sixteen steam-powered battleships painted stark white, embarked on a round-the-world cruise that would take them 43,000 miles in fourteen months in a peacetime show of American strength. Roosevelt had gotten his navy.

Meredith Hindley is senior writer of Humanities.

The Ohio Historical Society received $326,957 to host two Landmarks of American History workshops—one for schoolteachers and one for community college faculty—on “The War of 1812 in the Great Lakes and Western Territories.” Western New York Public Broadcasting Association received $875,000 to produce The War of 1812, a two-hour documentary that aired on PBS. Dickinson State University is using a $500,000 challenge grant to establish a chair in Theodore Roosevelt studies and enhance its library.