Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Lords of the Lake, The Naval War on Lake Ontario 1812-14 - Robert Malcomson


The cover of Lords of the Lake is a picture by Peter Rindlisbacher showing the squadron of Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo consisting of the Royal George, Melville and Sir Sydney Smith becalmed and under tow from their boats whilst under bombardment from the guns of the US squadron, and specifically the Pike and the Sylph under the command of Commodore Isaac Chauncey during the engagement at the Genesee River, 11th September 1813.

Robert Malcomson's account of the struggle for control of Lake Ontario during the War of 1812 more than lives up to the dramatic artwork that adorns the cover of this excellent four-hundred plus page history and I found myself eagerly looking forward to to my usual bedtime read that more than upgraded my, till then, superficial knowledge of the naval war in this part of the Canadian front line during the war.

I always approach histories covering the struggle between Great Britain and the United States in the War of 1812 with a certain apprehension, given the rather jingoistic nature of a lot of the writing that has come out of both camps over the intervening centuries, preferring to get a more nuanced and balanced account looking at the war, if possible from both sides, and realistically appraising the actions and outcomes of both.

One might say that these are high standards for an historical account, from two English speaking peoples, some say separated by a common language, that bring all their misconceptions and bias based on competing accounts of history; but it seems the modern era is starting to produce these more balanced accounts and I have to say that the Canadian historians seem to have led the way in their re-telling of a war that a lot of Americans think they won, that most Canadians know they won and that most Brits have never heard of.

The first history of the war I read was 'The War of 1812 , Land Operations' by George F.G. Stanley, another Canadian historian and apparently the designer of the current Canadian flag, that I picked up from the book shop in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa whilst touring Canada and the north east states of America whilst on honeymoon in 1988. 

The book is a thoroughly good read with plenty of maps that really brought the conflict to life for me and fired a life long interest in it since. However as its title suggests the coverage of the naval activities only really extended as far as their impact on the land war and the majority of modern titles I've read since have been similarly focussed; thus Lords of the Lake is the first specifically naval history on what was the most strategically important of the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario, that I have read and if you are interested in this war, a book I would be happy to recommend getting.

The book is broken down into six distinct parts encompassing its eighteen chapters charting life on Lake Ontario before the war and the build up to it through the various stages that came to characterise the struggle for its control that passed between the warring factions as both sides raced to gain dominance over the other whilst attempting to support their respective land forces.

Commodore Isaac Chauncey circa 1818 - Gilbert Stuart (US Naval Academy Museum)

The struggle to focus efforts on gaining dominance on the water and giving support to the army would prove to be a difficult balance for both the British and Americans with both Yeo and Chauncey becoming less and less willing to submit to the demands of the armies after experiencing the negative effects on their naval campaigns, whilst the land forces seemingly demanded more and more support to supply and move their forces from one front to another in terrain that was reliant on waterborne traffic to rapidly move armies and their supplies.

Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo - Miniature in the Sim Comfort Collection

As the war progresses it seemed that Chauncey became slightly more protective of his fleet than Yeo and the tensions that this caused between the respective naval commanders and their army colleagues together with higher command and other naval commanders on the other lakes is captured well in Malcomson's account as he interweaves them with the military action and helps show how the naval struggle lost sight of its purpose, that of supporting the land war, at the expense of preserving naval bases and ships as a force in being. 

The fact of the matter was that Lake Ontario and its control was vital to both parties war aims in determining who would gain a dominant hold in Canadian North America with Britain on the defence for the most part and its forces under the somewhat cautious leadership of Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost that provoked much frustration among his more aggressive subordinates and managed on several occasions to seemingly snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, to the sometimes seemingly muddled leadership coming from President Maddison, his Naval Secretary, William Jones and Secretary of War, John Armstrong with their often conflicting demands to their respective subordinates only magnified by the military incompetence of the general officers leading the American troops on the Canadian front.

The ship-sloops USS General Pike and Provincial Marine Sloop Wolfe

It seems the Americans, able to focus their whole military and naval efforts on the Great Lakes and the invasion of Canada, particularly as the salt water navy became increasingly land locked under Royal Naval blockade and the crews of laid up frigates together with guns and ammunition were transferred over the relatively short route north to Sackets Harbour, had 1812 and 1813 to really make that advantage tell with Chauncy able to run rings around the Provincial Marine at the start of the war, a force more designed around transport than naval fighting and in 1813 with a fleet of vessels possessing the greater broadside weight of fire, long gun range advantage and the most powerful ship on the lake in the form of the USS General Pike.

The arrival of Yeo and his navy crew contingents helped offset the deficiencies of the Provincial Marine crews and the success of the hard pressed British, Canadian and Indian allied land forces held Chauncy at bay long enough into 1814 to allow the defeat of Napoleon in Europe to have the effect of delivering the much needed focus to the war from Britain, by which time British war weariness, Prevost's caution and the naval arms race to build bigger lake vessels, the 'Carpenters War', combined to end a pointless conflict that left both sides pretty much where they started.

I really appreciated the way the book alternated its chapters to look at the military situation from both sides at each stage of the conflict together with the stresses and strains on both Yeo and Chauncey that was obviously affecting their decisions and the impact that had on the clashes that occurred, intermixed with great descriptions of the large and small actions that took place on the open water and in among the creeks and on the shore.

The account is also well supported with illustrations of the vessels, the characters involved together with strategic and tactical maps and a copious appendix detailing the vessels that made up the opposing squadrons throughout the war on Lake Ontario at its various stages.

Whilst reading this book I picked up a second hand copy of Malcomson's previous work looking specifically at the warships built on the Great Lakes in this period which makes a great addition to the information gleaned from Lords of the Lake.

The Great Lakes in the War of 1812 make for an interesting theatre of naval operations in the age of sail and the small squadrons of small ships in the main make for very easy to build wargame collections with two forces very evenly matched.

My own current interest in 1:700th scale and Warlord Games commitment to add to their current range of Napoleonic age ships, together with a lot of brigs, schooners and cutters makes it very likely that I will build a collection around the Great Lakes theme and these books are a vital addition to my library in support of those ideas.

Lords of the Lake is 429 pages and includes the following:

A Note about Time and Terminology

Part I - The Curtain Rises
1. "On the Banks of the Lake" - Lake Ontario Before The War.
2. "Opposing Force to Force" - War Is Declared: 18 June 1812

Part II - The Importance of Controlling the Lake, July-November 1812
3. "Our Navy... Is Worse Than Nothing" - The Failure Of The Provincial Marine: July-November 1812
4. "The Command of Lake Ontario" - Chauncey's Season Of Success: September-December 1812
5. "Our Prospects are Far... from Flattering" - Winter Projects: December 1812 - March 1813
6. "Everything Shall Be Prepared" - Planning The Campaign: February-April 1813

Part III - Fighting for Supremacy, April-November 1813
7. "Things Would Have Turned Out Better" - The Attack On York: 27 April 1813
8. "They Fought... Like Lions" - Fort George And Sackets Harbour: May 1813
9. "We Have the lake Open to Us" - The Royal Navy At Large: June-July 1813
10. "Deer, She's Gone!" - The Commodores Meet: August 1813
11. "Give the Vapouring Dog a Sound Drubbing" - Engagement At The Genesee: 11 September 1813
12. "All or None" - The Burlington Races: 28 September 1813
13. "A Mere Attendant upon the Army" - The St. Lawrence Campaign: October-November 1813

Part IV - The War of the Dockyards, November 1813 - March 1814
14. "Such a Force... May Save the Country" - British Naval Escalation: November 1813 - March 1814
15. "An Augmentation of our Naval Force" - Preparations For Sackets Harbour: November 1813 - April 1814

Part V - Conflicting Priorities, April - December 1814
16. "Wary Measures and Occasional Daring Enterprises", Actions At Oswego And Sandy Creek: April-June 1814.
17. "For God's Sake Let Me See You" - Strife Among The Senior Officers: July-November 1814.
18. "Returning Peace at Length Is Heard" - Winter Arrives And The War Ends

A - Overview of the British and American Squadrons on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814
B - The Opposing Squadrons, Autumn 1812
C - British Gunboat Flotillas during and after 1813
D - The Opposing Squadrons, May and June 1813
E - The Opposing Squadrons, 8-11 August 1813
F - The Opposing Squadrons at the Engagement near the Genesee River, 11 September 1813
G - The Opposing Squadrons at the Burlington Races 28 September 1813
H - The Opposing Squadrons in 1814


Robert Malcomson, who sadly passed away in 2009, has written a very readable and fascinating history of this very important theatre of the War of 1812 and together with Warships of the Great Lakes make a very important addition to my library on the naval war of this period.

My copy of Lords of the Lake is the somewhat more affordable paperback edition and is currently available for between £11 to £15 at the time of writing, with the hardback edition retailing for substantially more. 

Next up: Three more Spanish 74-gun third rates join the Cape St. Vincent order of battle and the French launch the L'Orient of 118-120 guns depending on which source you prefer, plus Carolyn and I have been having fun exploring Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh border and Ancient monuments on Anglesey with Roman forts, watchtowers and Neolithic burial tombs on the list of places visited.


  1. I'll have to chase this down, thanks. I've done some reading on the land campaigns, but am woefully ignorant of the fighting on the Lakes.

  2. Lords of the Lakes is a great book. I used it as the basis for a mini-campaign I ran years ago (

  3. Thanks for your comments chaps. This is indeed a really good read in terms of the information and the way the chapters are constructed and if the War of 1812 is of interest is a bit of a must read I would have thought.

    Dave S. I read with interest your campaign game and liked the use of the Columbia War of 1812 map and I know there is a board game in the offing from Gina Willis, 'A Glorious Chance' that would also serve as a good campaign engine and something I have thought about doing at some stage.


  4. The War of 1812 is such a fascinating topic/history isn't it? So many interesting actions, several of them combined land/naval. The sea and lake actions are a critical part.
    I have several books on the subject about the overall conflict and specific actions. Thanks for making me aware of a couple of others.
    Regards, James

    1. Hi James,
      Yes indeed, and I think you will find this book a particularly good read.


  5. A very nice summary of these most interesting War of 1812 naval books and I concur with your assessment.
    I also suggest; War of 1812: The Marine Art of Peter Rindlisbacher, which is simply outstanding. All of the paintings are put into their historical surroundings including men and equipment. It is a bit pricey but worth every penny.
    Also, Four Years on the Lakes, 1813-1816: The Journal of Lieutenant Wingfield, Royal Navy.
    BTW, I really like the historical quality of your blog, well done.

    1. Hi Rod,
      Thank you for your comments, much appreciated and also for the book recommendations, which are noted for checking out.

      kind regards