2014-09-06 / Columnists

A Look at History

Mackinac Island Painting Pays Tribute to Long-ago Feat of Arms

In the Richard and Jane Manoogian Art Museum, built inside the historic Indian Dormitory on Main Street, is a painting of our Island’s harbor. It shows a scene that took place on September 7, 1814. The view of two American warships being sailed as prizes into English hands is a reminder of derring-do from a time when “Britannia ruled the waves.” In a little-known follow-up to the Battle of Mackinac Island, the Royal Navy relied upon courage, individual initiative, and a couple of rags of dishonesty to regain maritime control over northern Lake Huron.

Even after the Americans withdrew, defeated, from British Landing on August 4, they retained naval supremacy in the Straits of Mackinac. Brigs and schooners such as the U.S.S. Niagara, the armed warship whose replica visited us earlier this year, were the only War of 1812 vessels capable of carrying cannon and heavy arms on the upper Great Lakes. The Americans hoped, by using some of these vessels, to cut off supplies from Upper Canada to Mackinac Island, to starve the British and force them to surrender Fort Mackinac. The successful American raid on Nottawasaga, in what is now Ontario, on August 13, had reinforced the belief of both sides that this would be a likely outcome. As the main American fleet returned to Detroit to refit, two armed American schooners, the Tigress and the Scorpion, were detached to keep watch over Lake Huron in and around Point Detour and the Detour Passage. Control over this key sound would prevent the British from dispatching food and munitions toward Fort Mackinac from either Lake Huron or Lake Superior. Mackinac Island was now under siege, and the investment caused immediate suffering for the victorious but famished British garrison. As early as August 31, the King’s troops were forced to start eating their horses, including the draft beasts that had helped build Fort Holmes and haul fieldpieces to the Battle of Mackinac Island.

To this scene of hunger on that day came naval Lieutenant Miller Worsley, in command of an open boat and a small detachment of about 50 sailors from Upper Canada. Learning that the experienced watermen had brought no food, and also had mouths, overall Mackinac commander Robert McDouall was more than willing to allow the 23-year-old Worsley to embark upon the apparently forlorn hope of using British rowboats to capture the two American armed vessels. The would-be buccaneers oared their way eastward out of Mackinac Island’s harbor bay on September 1. On the evening of September 2, they reached their goal, the waters of Detour Passage; and on the following evening, September 3, the British sighted the U.S.S. Tigress. The American schooner was a 52-ton warship armed with a cannon that could fire a ball weighing 32 pounds. Her experienced crew had been numbered among the victors in the previous year’s Battle of Lake Erie.

As a ship’s bell struck two bells for 9 p.m., though, that cannon was all but useless. By September, that hour was one of gathering gloom on the upper Lakes, and only a sharpeyed watchman could have seen four rowboats approaching with cloth-muffled oars. A hail from the American warship, aimed at the small vessels, was met with sinister silence, followed by the roar of musketry. The royal seamen, many from the maritime island of Newfoundland, grappled the schooner and swarmed aboard their prize. The fight was brief and desperate; six men, three from both sides, were killed, and every American officer was wounded. Within five minutes, Worsley’s men had captured the U.S. vessel.

The young British lieutenant then seized upon a stratagem that was as brilliant as it was dishonorable. Learning from his captives that the other American vessel, the Scorpion, had been operating in close tandem with the Tigress, Worsley ordered the American prisoners-of-war to doff their uniforms. The victorious buccaneers re-raised the American flag, which had been lowered in surrender, on the captured vessel and dressed themselves in borrowed blue. In the small hours of September 6, sure enough, the American sister schooner, continuing her patrol in Detour Channel, approached the vessel she thought was her comrade-in-arms. Another brief fight provided clear and convincing evidence of the true state of affairs. Two men of the Scorpion were killed.

On the following day, September 7, the starving garrison of Fort Mackinac saw the two vessels that had been their torment approaching Mackinac Island from the east. A spyglass revealed the Royal Navy flags now flying above the vanquished stars and stripes. Great was the rejoicing in loyal English hearts of oak as the two schooner-rigged vessels entered the harbor, bearing with them the promise, which would be swiftly fulfilled, of fresh supplies from British depots on or near Georgian Bay. Fort Mackinac would eat heartily for the remainder of the war, fed by the newly renamed Royal Navy schooners Surprize (ex-Tigress) and Confiance (ex-Scorpion).

The war over, the Treaty of Ghent returned Fort Mackinac to the Americans. A jagged international boundary was drawn part way down the St. Marys River, but Detour Channel would be American water. Back in Britain, Worsley and McDouall were promoted in retirement rank and granted generous pensions for their active service, and McDouall’s resources were sufficient to commission a portrait of the triumphal episode of September 7, 1814. It may have hung in the McDouall home in Scotland for some years, but it is this oil painting that is now preserved on Mackinac Island. Fort Mackinac can be clearly seen atop the hill, its stockaded wall dominated by the Officers’ Stone Quarters that stands to this day. Now hung in a building that rests peacefully under the once-sullied American flag, the painting is a final bicentennial reminder of the War of 1812.

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