At the declaration of war [War of 1812], in 1812, which came so unlooked for on the country, and which would not have been made at the time it was but for a concurrence of unexpected circumstances, Woolsey was still in command on Lake Ontario, with the rank of lieutenant. His whole force consisted of the Oneida brig, while the enemy could muster a small squadron of several sail, among which was the Royal George, a ship heavy enough to engage two such vessels as the American brig, with every chance of success. As soon as the Oneida was actively employed, the naval station had been removed from Oswego to Sackett's Harbor, where she was lying at the declaration of war. On the 19th of July, the enemy appeared in the offing, with the Royal George, Earl of Moira, Duke of Gloucester, Seneca, and Simcoe. The first two were ships, the third was a brig, and the two last schooners. As soon as apprised of the presence of this force, Woolsey got the Oneida under way, and went out, with the view of passing the enemy, and escaping to the open lake, in the hope of being able to separate his enemies in chase. But finding this impossible, he beat back into the harbor, and anchored his brig directly opposite to its entrance, under the bank that is now occupied by Madison Barracks. The utmost activity was shown in making this arrangement, and in landing all the guns on the off side of the brig, and in placing them in battery on the bank.
Finding that the enemy was slowly working up on the outside of the peninsula, Woolsey now repaired in person to a small work that had been erected on the high land above the navy-yard, and made his preparations to open on the English from that point. A long thirty-two had been sent on for the Oneida, but never mounted, being much too heavy for that brig, of which the armament consisted of twenty-four pound carronades. This gun Woolsey had caused to be mounted on its pivot, in the work named, and, as soon as the enemy got wihtin range, he opened on them with it. The English had captured a boat in the offing, and sent in a demand for the surrender of the Oneida and the Lord Nelson, under the penalty of destroying the place, in the event of refusal. This demand Woolsey answered with his long Tom, when a cannonading that lasted two hours succeeded. As the enemy kept at long shot, little damage was done, though the English were supposed to have suffered sufficiently to induce them to bear up and abandon the attempt. Although this affair was not very bloody, Woolsey did all that circumstances would allow; he preserved his brig, and saved the town. He was assisted by a small body of troops in the work. If the enemy did not press him harder, the fault was their own; he had not the means of acting on the offensive.
The government deciding to increase its force on Lake Ontario, Com. Chauncey was ordered to assume the command. Woolsey continued second in rank all that season, however, retaining the command of the Oneida. He was in charge of this brig in the spirited dash that Chauncey made against Kingston, in November, on which occasion the Oneida was warmly engaged, receiving some damage, and having four of her crew killed and wounded. This attack virtually closed the war on the lake for the season, as the affair of Sackett's Harbor had commenced it.
Both parties building in the course of the winter, it was found necessary to send several officers to Ontario, who ranked Lieut. Com. Woolsey. As this was done only to take charge of new vessels, he ever after was employed in command, when employed at all. Woolsey was second in command, however, at the attack on York, retaining his own brig, the commodore having hoisted his pennant in the Madison. Woolsey was also present at the landing and the attack on the batteries of Fort George, still commanding the Oneida, with the rank of lieutenant. As Perry was present on this occasion, our subject was only third in rank among the sea-officers engaged.
When the squadron returned to port, Woolsey found his new commission, and he was transferred to a large new schooner, called the Sylph, Lieut. Brown succeeding him in his old command, the Oneida. The Sylph was a large, fast-sailing schooner, that carried an awkward armament of four heavy pivot-guns amidships, mounted to fire over all. Woolsey was in this vessel, on the 28th September, when Chauncey so nobly brought the whole English squadron to close action, supported for a considerable time only by Bolton, in the Governor Tompkins, and the Asp, a schooner that the Pike had in tow. This was one of the sharpest affairs of the war, as long as it lasted, and would have been decisive had the Madison and Sylph been able to close; or, had not Sir James Yeo run through his own line, and taken refuge under the batteries of Burlington Heights.
As is usual, when success does not equal expectation, most of the superior officers received more or less censure, for supposed mistakes on this occasion. It is now well known that a complete defeat would have befallen the enemy had he been hotly pressed, and that he was seriously worsted as it was; but it is easy to discover the avenues to success, after the road has been once thoroughly traveled. It is a fact worthy of being remembered, that not an English vessel was taken in battle, during the whole of the war of 1812, with two very immaterial exceptions, unless she offered freely to engage. The exceptions were two small craft taken at the close of Perry's victory on Lake Erie, in which the whole English force had, in the first instance, very gallantly offered battle.
Woolsey did not escape criticism in this affair, any more than other commanders. His schooner did not prove of as much service as she might have been, on account of the awkwardness of her armament, which was changed to broadside guns, as soon as the squadron went into port again. Woolsey alleged that he was compelled to tow a large schooner, as was the fact with the Madison. Neither dared to cast off the tow, in the presence of the commodore, and the latter had sufficient reasons for not ordering them to do so. Woolsey very frankly admitted, however, that he impaired the sailing of the Sylph, by surging on the tow-line in the hope it would part; a false step, that dropped his schooner so far astern that she greatly embarrassed him by her yawing. It is by no means certain Sir James Yeo would have engaged at all, could the whole of the American force have closed at the same time, and he always had Burlington Bay under his lee.
A few days after this action, Chauncey chased to the eastward, under a crowd of canvas, with the mistaken notion that the English had got past him in the night. In the afternoon of the 5th October, seven sail were made ahead, and it was supposed the British squadron was leading down the lake. An hour later, the vessels ahead were made out to be schooners, when the commodore signalled the Sylph and Lady of the Lake to cast off their tows. This was no sooner done than these two fast schooners shot swiftly ahead. Seeing their danger, the enemy set fire to the dullest craft, and separated. The Pike now cast off her tow, and she soon succeeded in capturing three of the enemy. Woolsey soon after joined with a fourth, and, continuing on, next morning he brought a fifth out from the Ducks. The prizes were gun-vessels, and near 300 prisoners were made in them, including a detachment of troops. Two of these vessels were the schooners Chauncey had lost in his action with Sir James, earlier in the season. This affair substantially closed the cruising service of that year.
Woolsey went on, and entered Big Sandy Creek, with his charge, agreeably to a previous understanding. In the mean time, Sir James Yeo, learning the situation of the brigade, from the crew of the captured boat, sent a strong party, covered by three gun-boats, to capture it. The English entered the creek with confidence, throwing grape and canister into the bushes ahead of them, from some very heavy carronades. Woolsey set about discharging his guns and cables, in order to secure them, while Major Appling placed his command in ambush, a short distance below the boats. As the English advanced they were met by a most destructive fire, and every man of their party was captured. Among the prisoners were two captains, four sea lieutenants, and two midshipmen. The stores were safely conveyed to the Harbor, and Chauncey was enabled to raise the blockade, as soon as he could arm his new ships.
After the American squadron got out, Woolsey commanded the Jones 22. He was only the sixth in rank on the lake this summer, there being several captains present, besides two commanders that were his seniors. The Jones was kept in the squadron until Chauncey had swept the lake, but the commodore going off Kingston with a diminished force, in the hope of tempting Sir James to come out, he ordered Woolsey to cruise between Oswego and the Harbor, in order to keep the communication between these two important points free. At a later day Woolsey was sent to join Ridgely, who was blockading the Niagara. On this station the Jefferson and the Jones experienced a tremendous gale, in which the former had to throw some of her guns overboard.
The last service on the lake that season, was in transporting the division of Gen. Izard to the westward. Shortly after, Chauncey collected all his force at the Harbor, and prepared to repel an attack, which it was expected the English would make, having got their two-decker out.
Woolsey passed the flower of his days on Lake Ontario. No doubt this was of disservice, by withdrawing him, for many years, from the more active duties of his profession. But he liked, and was liked in, that quarter of the country, and family ties came in aid of old associations to keep him there. After remaining something like fifteen years in the lake service, however, he got the Constellation frigate, then attached to the West India Squadron. Com. Warrington had his pennant in his ship, most of the time, and there being very little difference in the dates of the commissions of these two officers, Woolsey always spoke with feeling of the extreme delicacy with which he was treated by his superior. On his return from this station, he had charge of the Pensacola Yard.
After quitting Pensacola, Woolsey preferred his own claims for a squadron, but he was sent to the coast of Brazils, where he commanded, with a broad pennant, the usual term. This was the last of his service afloat, or, indeed, ashore. His health began to decline, not long after his return, and he died in 1838.
Commodore Woolsey was of middle height, sailor-built, and of a compact, athletic frame. His countenance was prepossessing, and had singularly the look of a gentleman. In his deportment, he was a pleasing mixture of gentleman-like refinement and seaman-like frankness. His long intimacy with frontier habits could not, and did not, destroy his early training, though it possibly impeded some of that advancement in his professional and general knowledge, which he had so successfully commenced in early life. He was an excellent seaman, and few officers had more correct notions of the rules of discipline. His familiar association with all the classes that mingle so freely together in border life, had produced a tendency, on his excellent disposition, to relax to much in his ordinary intercourse, perhaps, but his good sense prevented this weakness from proceeding very far. Woolsey rather wanted the grimace than the substance of authority. A better-hearted man never lived. All who sailed with him loved him, and he had sufficient native mind, and sufficinet acquired instruction, to command the respect of many of the strongest intellects of the service.
The widow of Com. Woolsey still lives. She has several children, and we regret to say, like those of her sex who survive the public servants of this country, she is left with few of the world's goods to console her. Woolsey's eldest son is in the navy, and has nearly reached the rank of lieutenant.
Melancthon Taylor Woolsey
Background, Adams, Boston, Essex and Constitution,
Lakeboats, Niagara, Oneida, Sylph, Jones, After the War
|Copyright © 2001, Mary S. Van Deusen|