“James Bird”


James Bird leaves his family to join Perry's fleet on Lake Erie. In the battle, he fights valiantly, continuing to serve even after being wounded. Later, however, he tells his parents that he is to be executed for desertion.


The American victory on Lake Erie was something of a surprise due to the inexperience of the U.S. forces. To that point, the Americans had done very badly on the Canadian frontier (see the notes to "Brave General Brock [Laws A22]" and "The Battle of Queenston Heights"). If the Americans were to have any hope of reversing things, command of Lakes Erie and Ontario seemed crucial.

To make matters worse, both sides were concentrating most of their forces on Lake Ontario, which was downstream, easier to reach, and and has more people in the area. The naval force the British sent to Lake Erie, for instance, consisted of only about two dozen men headed by a 27-year-old Lieutenant by the Robert Heriot Barclay (see Walter R. Borneman, _1812: The War that Forged a Nation_, p. 121) -- who was, however, a veteran of Trafalgar, and he had lost an arm in later fighting. If nothing else, he was aggressive.

The commander of the American fleet was a 27-year-old Master Commandant (a rank later retitled "Commander") named Oliver Hazard Perry, who had accepted the Lakes command (considered a step down from the blue-water navy) in order to at least see some action (see see John K. Mahon, _The War of 1812_, Da Capo, 1972, p. 166). He was a friend of the James Lawrence who had recently died on the U.S.S. _Chesapeake_ (see the notes to "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]). Perry would try to emulate Lawrence's spirit; fortunately he did not emulate Lawrence's inept tactics.

Perry initially suffered one major disadvantage: His ships were in Presque Isle Bay -- a good place to build a ship, but there was a bar in the harbor mouth which was too shallow to get his biggest ships out. Barclay blockaded the harbor entrance; had Perry tried to take his big ships out in those circumstances, they would surely have been destroyed and would have blocked the passage as well. But Barclay at the end of July 1813 briefly sailed away, and the Americans managed to get their ships out (Borneman, pp. 123-125; Donald R. Hickey, _The War of 1812_, p. 131; Mahon, p. 170; Fletcher Pratt, _A Compact History of the United States Navy_, p.86, opines that the British, who had not yet completed their flagship _Detroit_, thought the American fleet too large to fight, but most others think it was a supply problem or the like. Mahon mentions a folktale that Barclay went to a dinner in Dover). The Americans would settle at Put-In Bay, not far from the British base at Amherstberg (Mahon, p. 170).

That may have been the decisive move of the campaign. Rather than the blockader, Barclay was now the blockaded. He had the single biggest ship on the lake, the _Detroit_, but it was not finished until mid-August, by which time the American blockade had made it impossible for the British to bring in big guns. The _Detroit_ ended up armed rather haphazardly, using the few guns at hand (taken from a land fort; Mahon, p. 171); according to Hickey, p. 132, most of them had to be fired by shooting a pistol over the fire-hole (Mahon, p. 176, blames this on bad matches, but the result is the same). The next-best British ship, the _Queen Charlotte_, had almost no long guns. To add to Barclay's problems, he had to supply not only his own ships but the sundry army troops and Indians in the vicinity (Hickey, p. 132).

The Americans had their own problems. The main force of their fleet consisted of the two brand-new brigs, the _Lawrence_ (named for James Lawrence) and the _Niagara_, both armed mostly with short-range carronades (these were the two ships that had been so hard to get out of Presque Isle Bay). He also had a medium-sized vessel, the _Caledonia_; the rest of his fleet was small schooners with only a few guns.

The fleets that fought at Lake Erie were probably about equal in practical strength. The American fleet had ten ships to six (so most sources; Mahon, p. 169, credits the Americans with only nine and gives numbers of guns I haven't seen elsewhere), but in ships larger than gunboats, the British had four and the Americans three. Worse, none of the Americans vessels had ever served as warships before, nor even had much of the way of a shakedown (all the British ships except the _Detroit_ had at least spend time maneuvering on Lake Erie), and the crews were inexperienced. And the American vessels were badly undermanned; it had initially been thought he would need about 740 crewmen, but apparently he decided to sail with only about 500 (Borneman, pp. 123, 125; Mahon, p. 169, says he had 490) -- and many of these were landsmen from General Harrison's army (Hickey, p. 132).

Barclay too had to put soldiers on his ships (Mahon, p. 169; p. 176 cites a British enquiry which claims there were no more than ten experienced seamen on each ship), but only Mahon seems to think this seriously handicapped him.

According to Mahon, the American vessels had a combined broadside of 896 pounds, the British 459 -- though Mahon has a tendency to magnify American competence, and no other source mentions quite such a discrepancy.

The battle was a rather disorderly affair. Perry had the advantage of the wind guage, letting him choose the time and distance of the fight (Hickey, p. 132); but Perry used that to change his fleet arrangements once he saw Barclay?s fleet. In the confusion that followed, the two biggest British ships, the _Detroit_ and the _Queen Charlotte_, both turned on American flagship _Lawrence_, while the _Niagara_ (commanded by Jesse Duncan Elliot, formerly Perry?s superior; Borneman, p. 125) stayed in its place far back in the line rather than doing something about _Queen Charlotte_. As a result, the _Lawrence_ would be crippled and out of the fight (Borneman, p. 128; Hickey, p. 133, reports that her crew suffered 80% casualties).

Perry eventually decided to leave the _Lawrence_ (which would suffer about two-thirds of the American casualties in the battle; Borneman, p. 132) and head for the _Niagara_. Even though his ship was being destroyed (she was still floating, but dismasted and unmaneuverable and incapable of firing a proper broadside) and his crew slaughtered, he forbid his former flagship to surrender (see William Ratigan, _Great Lakes Shipwrecks and Survivals_, revised edition, Eerdmans, 1977, p. 172). Sure, he might cause many more men to die -- but what was that compared with his reputation?

Barclay, meanwhile, had been wounded; he ordered his men to try to sink the boat in which Perry was fleeing, but then had to be taken below. And Perry got lucky. _Queen Charlotte_ had lost her captain and the next two officers in command (Mahon, pp. 175-176), and Barclay was disabled on the _Detroit_ (which had itself suffered badly at the hands of _Lawrence_), and the two British ships ran afoul of each other. _Niagara_ was able to cross the T of the other two ships, and Elliot (who had left the _Niagara_ when Perry came aboard) brought up several smaller American ships to attack the other side, and the four smaller British ships were unable to stop him. _Queen Charlotte_ struck her colors, then _Detroit_ (Borneman, p. 132), and the other four British ships apparently preferered to give in rather than fight or flee (to be sure, _Niagara_, a square-rigged ship, should have been faster than the schooners and could probably have sunk most of them).

The fate of the British ships varied; that of the _Detroit_ was particularly absurd. There was apparently in this period a habit of loading a boat with innocent animals and sending it over Niagara Falls (Ratigan, p. 1790. The _Detroit_ was one ship so used; Ratigan, p. 181 reports that her sacrifice ended the appalling practice; "that is the last record of such a fresh-water Roman holiday."

Perry's announcement of the battle result is famous; he reported to General William Henry Harrison, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

This was fortunate for Harrison (one of many lousy American generals of 1812; with the military academy still new, most of the generals were political picks -- see Mahon, p. 103, which lists the four Major Generals, including Harrison, appointed in early 1813; all were old and well-connected. It says something that, by the standards of the time, Harrison was a *good* general; the others were basically disasters).

Harrison had already suffered badly at the hands of British commander Henry Proctor, who defeated pieces of Harrison's army in detail. After Lake Erie, with his supply lines in danger, Proctor should have fallen back, but waited too long, then let his Indian allies talk him into battle at Moravian Town on the Thames River (about half way between modern Windsor and London, Ontario). And his forces were not very strong -- perhaps 800 regulars and 500 Indians, most of whom had been on short rations (Hickey, p. 137; Mahon, pp. 182-183). The Americans charged, and Proctor's thin line was broken; his surviving European troops were sent reeling back, and many of the Indians, including the brilliant Tecumseh, were killed (Borneman, pp. 158-161).

Harrison, though he couldn't advance much farther, had secured Detroit, and that, combined with his treacherous slaughter at Tippicanoe, would later make him President. Richard Mentor Johnson, who had trained up an elite cavalry unit (nearly every Kentucky regiment was mounted, but only Johnson's were allowed to take their horses into Canada; Mahon, pp. 181-182) and led the charge that won the battle and took part in the slaughter of the Indians, would eventually end up in a presidential race against Harrison in 1836; he was Martin Van Buren's vice presidential candidate, with the absurd campaign slogan "Rumpsey dumpsey, Rumpsey dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh" (see Samuel Eliot Morison, _The Oxford History of the American People_, p. 454. Johnson almost certainly did not personally kill Tecumseh, but no one knew who had -- his body was reportedly never found, though Hickey, p. 139, talks of soldiers bringing home Tecumseh relics). As a result, Johnson was able to make at least an informal claim to have killed the Indian leader.

So strange was the 1836 election -- which featured three Whig candidates plus Democrat Martin Van Buren -- that, though Van Buren was elected directly, the electoral college did not settle on a Vice President and the matter was settled in the Senate, where the Democratic majority naturally picked Johnson over the leading Whig candidate).

There is a broadside ballad about the Battle of Lake Erie, called "Perry's Victory" or something similar. Ratigan, p. 175, reports, "Considering the ratio of population, the ballad of Perry's victory outold any popular recording of today. It was still a prime favorite at county fairs and other festivals half a century later." But it seems to have left no hold on tradition.

There are few other monuments to the campaign, either. Lake Erie was the first and only true naval battle of the War of 1812 (as opposed to single-ship combats), and because it was a complete victory, there was no real need for further fighting. And, because a ship on the Upper Lakes could not be sent over Niagara Falls, there was no other practical use for the ships, _Lawrence_, badly battered, was not preserved; _Niagara_, after Americans and British reached an agreement to disarm the lakes, was scuttled in Misery Bay (see Michael J. Varhola, _Shipwrecks and Lost Treasures: Great Lakes_, Globe Pequot Press, 2007 [listed as copyright 2008, but I bought my copy in November 2007], p. 44). The cold fresh water preserved her, and she was eventually raised -- but the _Niagara_ sailing now is a replica reassembled based on the raised ship (Varhola, pp. 45-46).

James Bird seems to have been a fairly typical American soldier of the period: Brave, but completely impervious to discipline. After joining the army, he transferred to the marines to escape the regimentation of army life. He showed great courage at the Battle of Lake Erie, but hated the tedium of garrison work, neglected his duties, and was court-martialed and executed at Erie, Pennsylvania. - RBW

Historical references

  • Sept 10, 1813 - Battle of Lake Erie. The Americans under Perry defeat the British.
  • Oct 1814 - Execution of James Bird for desertion while on guard duty

Same tune

  • The Dying Fifer (File: BrII227)

Cross references


  • O. J. Abbott, "James Bird" (on GreatLakes1)
  • Warde Ford, "James Bird" [fragment] (AFS 4202 A1, 4202 A2, 1938; in AMMEM/Cowell)


  1. Laws A5, "James Bird"
  2. Eddy 118, "James Bird" (1 text plus a gragment, 1 tune)
  3. Belden, pp. 296-297, "James Bird" (1 text)
  4. Flanders/Olney, pp. 18-21, "James Bird" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. FSCatskills 9, "The Kingston Volunteers" (1 text, 1 tune, much more heavily "folk processed" than most other texts)
  6. Warner 17, "James Bird" (1 text, 1 tune)
  7. McNeil-SFB1, pp. 38-41, "James Bird" (1 text, 1 tune)
  8. LPound-ABS, 41, pp. 93-97, "James Bird" (1 text)
  9. JHCox 62, "James Bird" (1 text)
  10. BrownII 221, "James Bird" (1 text)
  11. Rickaby 38, "James Bird" (1 tune, partial text)
  12. Burt, pp. 183-184, "(James Bird)" (1 excerpted text, 1 tune)
  13. Darling-NAS, pp. 158-159, "James Bird" (1 text)
  14. cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 479, "James Bird" (source notes only)
  15. DT 361, JAMEBIRD*
  16. ST LA05 (Full)
  17. Roud #2204
  18. BI, LA05


Author: James Miner
Earliest date: 1814 (newspaper, "The Gleaner")
Keywords: execution war battle
Found in: US(All) Canada