A small British vessel gallantly stood in the way of an invasion from America.
It was a cold November morning on the Saint Lawrence River in 1838. British Royal Navy Lieutenant William Fowell stood on the deck of Her Majesty’s Steam Vessel watchful eye on the American shore. In Experiment, keeping a the earliest hours of the morning, invaders had failed in an attempt to land at Prescott, Ontario. But Fowell knew that the invasion had only been delayed, not deterred.
The War of 1812 was decades past, but all was not quiet along the American-Canadian border. The threat to Canada came not from the United States government, but from a clandestine organization called the Patriot Hunters. The situation along the Saint Lawrence was an uneasy one. Nathaniel S. Benton, district attorney for northern New York, informed U.S. President Martin Van Buren that the situation was becoming explosive: “The whole frontier is filled with people … who appear to be ready at a moment’s warning for any movement upon or acts of violence” directed against Canada. President Van Buren agreed that the growing tensions were cause for concern, referring to “the mutually disturbing and irritating occurrences growing out of the Canadian Rebellion and the unauthorized participation of [American] citizens in its prosecution.”
Britain had no desire for another conflict with the United States, but there appeared to be no way to protect Canada short of war. British officials informed U.S. leaders that they would regret having to pursue the “Rebels or Pirates” into American territory, but that “some little overstepping of the boundary” might be required. The risk was that any “overstepping of the boundary” would lead to the very war that both countries fervently hoped to avoid. But alternatives seemed limited.
The Hunters were convinced that Canadians longed to throw off the yoke of British tyranny. They believed the presence of a well-organized, well-armed force would provide the spark to foment a full-scale uprising. The moment the Hunters’ banner was planted on Canadian soil, the downtrodden masses would flock to the cause and rally to overthrow their oppressors. The Hunters would soon learn just how badly they had miscalculated.
The invasion did not start auspiciously. The insurgents planned to use two schooners, Charlotte of Oswego and Charlotte of Toronto, to land a force at Prescott early morning on November 12. The pilots quickly realized they couldn’t land at their primary destination – the wharf was torn up for repairs – so they moved their boats to the next landing. But an attempt to tie up there failed when the rope broke. By the time a third landing was attempted, Lieutenant Colonel Plomer Young had arrived at the waterfront with troops, threatening to open fire unless the boats identified themselves. Realizing a landing was now impossible, the two vessels turned, disappeared into the mist, and sailed back for the American side.
Daybreak revealed no improvement in the Hunters’ luck after the aborted landing. In the mist and darkness, Charlotte of Oswego and Charlotte of Toronto had run aground on a mudbank off Ogdensburg, N.Y., and were tangled in each other’s lines. The Hunters’ only consolation: The schooners were in American waters.
William “Bill the Pirate” Johnston procured a scow in Ogdensburg and directed artillery and arms from Charlotte of Toronto unloaded onto the smaller boat. That lightened the schooner enough to free it from the mudbank and it soon moved downriver, careful to remain in American waters. Its sister ship, however, was not as lucky. No amount of effort could free Charlotte of Oswego. It needed a tow. John Ward Birge led a force to Ogdensburg and commandeered the passenger steamer United States, whose new captain, Oliver B. Pierce, was described as a “drunken phrenologist.”
While Charlotte of Toronto and the scow carrying the munitions moved downriver to the agreed landing site, United States went to rescue Charlotte of Oswego. Because of the mudbank, however, the steamer could not get close enough to the stranded schooner and thus returned to Ogdensburg for a longer towrope. When United States arrived for a second rescue attempt, it gave the mudbank a wide berth lest it also become grounded. In the process, the steamer came up on Charlotte’s northern side. This was a mistake – United States was now in Canadian waters.
Aboard Experiment, Fowell was well aware that venturing into American waters was forbidden. While the U.S. government did not support the Hunters, American General Winfield Scott made it clear he would not tolerate any British vessels entering his country’s waters. With War of 1812 memories still fresh, anything resembling a British invasion would not be allowed. General Scott advised the British that he intended to “protect our own soil or waters from violation” and would be “obliged to consider a discharge of shot or shell from or into our waters, from the armed schooners of her Majesty, an act seriously compromising the neutrality of our two nations.”
With the error made by United States’ captain, however, Fowell was free to attack. His vessel was an unlikely British warship. A former civilian vessel powered by a 30-horsepower engine, it mounted two 3-pounder guns and an 18-pounder carronade. Unlikely though it might be, Experiment was then all that stood between Canada and an invasion. Fowell was determined to stand his ground. He had been lying in wait on the chance that one of the Hunters’ vessels would make an error, and his gun crews were prepared for action against any that ended up in Canadian waters.
As United States approached Experiment, Hunters on deck opened rifle fire. Fowell returned fire with the carronade and 3-pounders. Shots hit the hull of United States but did no damage. Charlotte of Toronto had already reached its landing point with the scow. Men and munitions were being unloaded and the invasion was under way. After the brief scuffle with Experiment, United States moved downriver to support the assault.
Fowell, afraid that Prescott was still the real target and that the Hunters intended to lure him away, turned back Experiment. As he did, he saw that the steamer Paul Pry had come to rescue Charlotte of Oswego, freeing it from the mudbank. In doing so, both vessels ventured into Canadian waters. Fowell now had a new target.
Experiment opened fire at close range. Paul Pry cut loose the towrope and headed fast for Ogdensburg. At that time, the men aboard Charlotte called that they wanted to surrender. But by the time Experiment came about, Charlotte had reached the safety of American waters. Those on board quickly recanted their surrender plea. Fowell had to let the schooner go. For Experiment, how ever, the battle was not over. United States was bearing down on it at top speed.
Experiment displaced 100 tons, while United States displaced 450 tons. Thus from the Americans’ point of view, the aggressive move must have seemed like a good idea at the time. If United States could not sink the smaller vessel by ramming, it appeared likely it could inflict enough damage to keep Experiment out of any further action.
Hunters on board United States jeered at the little British ship that seemed so vulnerable. Fowell opened fire, but once again the shots had no effect. The smaller craft had no difficulty avoiding an attempted ramming, and it fired again as United States passed. This time, one shot took out the starboard engine and another splintered the wheelhouse, decapitating the pilot. The Hunters’ jeers quickly died away while one of the crewmen managed to guide the damaged vessel back to Ogdensburg.
Charlotte of Toronto, which had been following United States upriver, saw what happened and veered into American waters. With all U.S. ships safely on the American side, Fowell returned to Prescott and reported the action.
The Hunters’ incursion, however, was not yet ended. The Battle of the Windmill the following day east of Prescott was the last gasp. British regulars and local Canadian militia won decisively. Far from flocking to the Hunters’ banner, Canadians took up arms to resist the invasion.
The Patriot Hunters’ invasion of Canada was a dismal failure. Those insurgents not killed were captured. Some were pardoned or shipped off to exile in Tasmania. Eleven were executed.
After fighting one of the British Royal Navy’s oddest engagements, gallant little Experiment could retire with dignity, having upheld the pride of that illustrious service.
Carole Butcher, who has published articles in numerous magazines, received a Master’s Degree in Military History from Norwich University (norwich.edu).
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Armchair General.