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T2, R2, Prng 66: American Great Lakes Corvette vs British Great Lakes Sloop

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  • T2, R2, Prng 66: American Great Lakes Corvette vs British Great Lakes Sloop

    In your opinion, which of these two warship types was most significant, influential and/or effective?
    Feel free to apply those criteria as you please, along with any others you think appropriate.
    Note: Suggestions for some additional criteria are at the foot of this post.

    According to the criteria as you see and apply them, please vote for your preferred candidate in the attached poll.
    If your chosen criteria are significantly different from those suggested, telling us what they are and why you used them would be helpful.

    During the 18th and 19th centuries, building sailing warships for service on the Great Lakes of North America was quite different in some ways, than building them for the World's seas and oceans.
    For a start, on the positive side for example, travelling across the clean non-salt lakes allowed a ship's crew to draw safe drinking water en-route; provided they were not close to mooring points or other places near the shore that might be contaminated with effluent. Not having to carry much drinking water allowed more space for cargo, munitions or stores.
    Secondly, from the point of view of construction, the ships themselves did not need to be quite as robust or strongly built as their ocean-going equivalents. While the waters of the Great Lakes were by no means always calm, titanic forces such as those generated by the more extreme ocean storms did not have to be allowed for.
    A third advantage was that Great Lakes ships also did not need to adopt copper plating or other measures to deal with timber-eating organisms such as the teredo worm, that plagued shipping on salt water.

    One small disadvantage is the fact that in fresh water, ships are slightly less buoyant than in salt water; by a factor of about 3 percent. In effect, what this means - for example - is that a ship drawing 12ft of water on the ocean would draw 12ft 4in on the Great Lakes. That might not seem like very much but it did affect load carrying capacity to some extent. Also - and this applies on salt and fresh water alike - although having less draft is an advantage for movement in shallower waters, designers could not go too far in that direction either. A primary reason for this is the fact that the stabilizing effect of any ballast being carried is less when its center of gravity is closer to the surface. To some extent, this can be countered by having lower mast heights but there are limits to how far that can go too, before sailing efficiency is lost. As with most design challenges, it's all about getting the balance right.

    Finally, it has probably already occurred to most of you that the Great Lakes warships we'll be looking at in this tournament were all built on or near the edges of the Great Lakes themselves. I'm sure I don't need to explain why.

    37: American Great Lakes Corvette 1801-1815

    The corvette USS Saratoga, named after the battles of Saratoga in the Revolutionary War, was built in Vergennes, Vermont, for service on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812 (June 1812 - February 1815). She came fairly late into the conflict, being launched in April 1814. However, late or not her addition to the American side put the United States ahead in the naval construction race on that particular lake; for a short time at least. (By August of that year the British had completed construction of their new 36-gun frigate HMS Confiance, swinging the balance back somewhat.)
    Saratoga's crew was 212 officers and men. She displaced about 750 tons and carried 26 guns as follows:
    • 8 x 24pdr guns
    • 6 x 42pdr carronades
    • 12 x 32pdr carronades

    Battle of Lake Champlain (also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh)

    This battle was fought both on land and on Lake Champlain. Here, I shall focus on the naval battle only:

    On 11 September 1814, a British squadron led by Commodore George Downie aboard HMS Confiance, approached the American squadron, led by Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough aboard USS Saratoga.
    By this time, MacDonough was aware of the new British ship and his enemy's overall superiority in gun-power; especially at medium to longer ranges. He therefore decided to remain within the relatively narrow confines of Plattsburgh bay, where the British would be forced to engage at closer ranges to bring about a decision. This was a wise tactic, because the American ships had a considerably higher percentage of shorter-range carronades with much heavier shot. Shorter ranges would effectively at least even out the firepower disparity, or perhaps even favour the Americans.
    McDonough selected good positions from which his ships could fight at anchor, and had their crews put out anchored cables in such a way that they could swing their ships through a wide arc more quickly when needed.
    As the British ships closed for combat and attempted to maneuver for better positions, an intense and fierce exchange of fire began and casualties became heavy on both sides. However, the British were unable to defeat or break the American line. Partway through the battle, when most of Saratoga's starboard guns had been destroyed or dismounted, McDonough ordered her swung around to bring the guns of her undamaged port side to bear on the enemy.
    Confiance was unable to reply in any strength. By this stage, Downie and several other British officers had been killed, so a relatively junior Lieutenant was now in command. He attempted to maneuver to bring the guns on Confiance's less damaged side to bear but instead, all he achieved was to present his vulnerable stern, which allowed Saratoga to rake her with a devastating broadside. By this stage, the American brig Eagle had also positioned herself to bring fire upon the stern of the British ship. With the position now being completely hopeless, Confiance struck her colours and the battle was as good as over.

    Initial maneuvers, with Confiance (left, background) in position to rake Saratoga.
    Saratoga was able to turn quickly using previously prepared anchored cables.

    Corvette-Sloop Saratoga Lake Champlain 1814 p29 onv188.jpg

    Closing stage of the battle:
    American brig Eagle (right) has just joined Saratoga (left) and prepares to engage Confiance.

    Corv-Sloop Saratoga & Eagle engage Confiance Lake Champlain 1814 2.jpg

    Our third illustration shows the main types of guns used by warships during this conflict:

    1. Carronade. A short-barreled gun, attached to a carriage fitted on a slide. This in turn was fixed to the bulwark with a pivot pin. Two small wheels mounted sideways at the rear of the slide allowed the carronade to be pivoted. Carronades had a shorter range than regular guns but fired a ball of far greater size and weight, which was extremely destructive. The main downside was the need to close the range to use them. In the process of closing the range, an enemy using regular "long guns" could inflict considerable damage. For this reasons, many warships of the era carried both types of gun, experimenting with various combinations.

    Long guns used two main types of mounting:

    2. Pivot mounts had the gun on a carriage and slide combination, resting on a ring fixed to the ship's deck. Sometimes there were small wheels on the slide but it was commonly mounted directly on to the ring, which was usually lubricated with "slush" (beef and/or pork fat skimmed off during cooking). The slide allowed for recoil. The main advantage of this type of mount, when correctly set up, is that it allowed guns to be centrally mounted and fired to either side of a ship.

    3. By far the most common mount was the traditional truck carriage. In this configuration, the carriage had four small wooden wheels. When the gun was fired, these would allow recoil to occur smoothly but it was the "breeching rope" attached to the bulwark that absorbed most of the recoil forces.

    Guns p35 od79.jpg

    62: British Great Lakes Sloop 1801-1815

    For our first British example I have chosen the above-mentioned HMS Detroit, launched in August 1813. Although she lasted barely a month in British hands, in terms of her design and build she is nevertheless quite representative of the type; and here as in many of the other polls of this tournament it is more the type than the individual ship that I have intended to focus on. Having said that, the majority of the Great Lakes warships had relatively short lives anyway.

    Detroit was designed as a 20-gun sloop (some sources refer to her as a corvette) and as mentioned, she served on Lake Erie during the War of 1812. She displaced about 490 tons and had been built at the Royal Naval dockyard at Amherstburg.

    Detroit was originally supposed to have been fitted with a main battery of 20 x 24pdr carronades but these had not long previously been captured by enemy forces. As a consequence, in order to be available for action quickly enough she had to be fitted out with whatever guns were available. These turned out to be 19 assorted weapons, some of which were taken from a nearby fort. Most of them lacked flintlock firing mechanisms or even linstocks & slow matches, so they could be discharged only by flashing pistols at powder in the touch-holes. This would certainly have degraded Detroit's fighting capabilities quite considerably. However, her loss in the Battle of Lake Erie was mainly due to other factors as outlined previously.

    Drawing of Detroit

    Sloop Detroit 1813 p23 duel79.jpg

    Our second example - HMS Wolfe launched in April 1813 - was considerably more successful. She was built as a 20-gun (nominal) sloop of war and launched at the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard in April 1813. Her gun deck was 107ft long and she had a beam of 30ft 10in, with a draft of 11ft. She displaced about 420 tons and carried a varied armament over time. Following a temporary initial fit, she was armed with the following:
    4 x 68pdr + 10 x 32pdr carronades and 1 x 24pdr + 8 x 18pdr guns.
    Her final fit as Wolfe was:
    18 x 32pdr carronades +3 x 18pdr guns.
    Wolfe had a complement of 224 officers and men.

    During the War of 1812, Wolfe served in several engagement on Lake Ontario and was made squadron flagship pending the availability of a larger vessel. She also supported land operations in the Niagara region and at the Battle of Fort Oswego in May 1814, after having recently been re-named HMS Montreal.

    One of Wolfe's more notable actions occurred on 10 August 1813, when she was instrumental in the capture of the American schooners Growler and Julia. At this time, the British squadron was under the command of Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo and the American squadron was led by Commodore Isaac Chauncey.

    When the engagement commenced, Yeo's squadron was upwind of the Americans, which gave him an advantage. Chauncey knew, however, that compared to his own squadron the British ships had a considerably larger proportion of carronades, rather than long guns. This meant that they would need to close the range to bring most of their firepower to bear, while his squadron could start to do some damage to the British ships before they managed to get close enough. He also knew that most of his ships had sufficient speed and maneuverability to make such a tactic work in his favor. He therefore decided to use his smallest warships - six schooners - as bait, in an attempt to lure the British into a position where his squadron could gain the upper hand.

    According to one account, the plan began to look as if it was working but then somehow, it started to go wrong. At the critical point, only four of Yeo's six schooners turned back as planned. For some reason the remaining two - Growler and Julia - continued to tack into the wind until they had passed through the British line, which was at that stage in relatively open order; and then, realizing their error, attempted to turn back but were forced to surrender.

    Below, we see an image from a painting depicting this action:
    Growler and Julia (to the left of the picture) attempt to rejoin their squadron but by now, the British had maneuvered to make this more difficult. In particular, gunfire from Wolfe (right of center) helps to convince them that they have little chance of surviving the attempt.

    Sloop Wolfe capture of Growler and Julia 1813 p20-21 onv188.jpg

    Wolfe had to take on a much heavier opponent the following month, when she engaged the American corvette USS General Pike. Both ships sustained damage but Wolfe came of worst, being partly dismasted. She managed to disengage and the Americans - for whatever reason - did not pursue. Wolfe was able to be repaired and returned to service. This was not long before her name was changed to Montreal.

    Wolfe (left) vs General Pike on Lake Ontario, 28 September 1813

    Sloop Wolfe vs US General Pike Lake Ontario 1813 2.jpg

    OK, so what's your decision for this particular Great Lakes pairing?
    American corvette or British Sloop?

    Suggested additional criteria you might wish to consider, along with any others you deem appropriate.
    (Note: Some of these could be considered already covered by Significant, Influential and Effective)

    Which warship type ...
    • was the best?
    • was the greatest?
    • was the most widely used?
    • had the greatest longevity in service?
    • was the most versatile?
    • represented the best value for the cost/effort invested ("bang for the buck" in today's language)?
    • was the easiest to operate?
    Any other criteria you have applied (please tell us what they were).
    37 - American Great Lakes Corvette
    62 - British Great Lakes Sloop
    "England expects that every man will do his duty!" (English crew members had better get ready for a tough fight against the combined French and Spanish fleets because that's what England expects! However, Scotland, Wales and Ireland appear to expect nothing so the Scottish, Welsh and Irish crew members can relax below decks if they like!)

  • #2
    On the Great Lakes as elsewhere, the British didn't always win even when they had a more powerful ship or ships. That is well illustrated in the last example above. Nevertheless IMO, on the whole the British sloops had a modest edge in fighting power compared to the American corvettes but were still of a size that was handy enough for this environment.
    "England expects that every man will do his duty!" (English crew members had better get ready for a tough fight against the combined French and Spanish fleets because that's what England expects! However, Scotland, Wales and Ireland appear to expect nothing so the Scottish, Welsh and Irish crew members can relax below decks if they like!)


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