THE MOST DECISIVE NAVAL BATTLE of the War of 1812 took place on Sept. 10, 1813. That’s the day a fleet of 10 U.S. Navy schooners and brigs under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a force of six British vessels in a savage mid-day duel off the American base at Put-in-Bay. After three hours of withering broadsides, the Royal Navy’s Robert Heriot Barclay ordered what remained of his battered fleet to strike their colours. By that point, his ships had been repeatedly raked by enemy cannon fire and more than a quarter of his 400 sailors were either wounded or dead. Barclay himself was a casualty of the action. A veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, he’d lost his left arm years earlier during an engagement with the French in the English Channel. Now his right arm was crippled too having been shredded by a flying splinter. For America, Perry’s victory helped tip the scales of the year-old conflict in the Unites States’ favour. Overnight, the 28-year-old commodore from Rhode Island became a national hero. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this pivotal naval clash is that it was fought on the fresh water of Lake Erie – more than 1,000 km (600 miles) from the nearest ocean! And surprisingly, this isn’t the only famous ‘sea battle’ not to be fought at sea. Here are some others.
History’s Biggest Naval Battle?
China’s largest body of fresh water, Lake Poyang may lie 600 km from the East China Sea, but it was the scene that country’s greatest naval contest and one of the largest of all time – bigger than Trafalgar, Jutland or even Midway. It took place in 1363 between a fleet of more than 100 Han vessels and a much smaller flotilla of Ming Chinese boats. In all, nearly a million soldiers and sailors were involved. The warring factions fought for control of the Ming-held town of Nanching as part of the Red Turban Rebellion. A 600,000-strong Han force had blockaded the city by land and water and hoped to reduce its defences using their formidable trebuchet-armed “tower ships”. The Ming navy on the other hand, which was made up of mostly junks and fishing boats, sailed in from the Gan River to try to break through the siege. Over a period of a several weeks, the impromptu flotilla decimated the gigantic Han armada using hit and run tactics and fire ships packed with gunpowder. Eventually, the blockade was lifted and the Ming forces achieved control of the entire Yangtze Valley.
The Battle for Lake Champlain
The Battle of Valcour Island, the first sizeable naval action of the American Revolution, was also fought far from the nearest ocean. The Oct. 11, 1776 clash on Lake Champlain, was also one of the earliest contests involving what would later become the United States Navy. Early in the war, the British hoped to seize control of the 120-mile long lake, which connects the Richelieu and St. Lawrence rivers in the north with the Hudson River in the south. By controlling the lake, the king`s forces would be able to cut New England off from the southern colonies, effectively driving a wedge through the rebellion. The Americans, still reeling from a number of stinging defeats at the hands of redcoats, set out to foil their enemy`s plans. Benedict Arnold and 500 men spent the summer of 1776 at what is now Whitehall, New York building a fleet of freshwater warships to assert control over the waterway. The British, headquartered at Fort St. Jean on the northern end of the lake, embarked upon their own shipbuilding campaign using prefabricated hulls brought in from English shipyards. By the fall, the Tories had sortied 28 gunboats and two schooners, as well as the square-rigged 22-gun HMS Inflexible. On Oct. 11, the British intercepted 15 American ships off Valcour Island and a fierce six-hour duel ensued. While much of the American fleet was mauled in the fight, Arnold and his flagship Congress, managed to slip away in the gathering dusk along with a handful of other vessels. The British had won control of the lake, but with the onset of winter at hand, their thrust south would have to wait until the following year. The Crown`s forces would try to make good on their victory the following year, but would be decisively crushed at Saratoga in October. Lake Champlain would be the scene of more action, this time in 1814, when an even more substantial British fleet carried 10,000 redcoats into New York State. Four American warships and 10 gunboats met the invaders off Plattsburg and over five days, defeated the Royal Navy and the Provincial Marine. It was one of the final actions of the War of 1812.
One of the last naval battles of the American Civil War was also a fresh-water affair. The Battle of Trent’s Reach, fought from Jan. 23 to 25, 1865, saw a trio of Confederate ironclads, three torpedo boats and five gunboats take on four Union fighting ships on the James River in Virginia. The Rebels planned to sail downstream from Richmond and smash through the Yankee blockade of the waterway before attacking Union forces at City Point. It was all an effort to relieve the besieged city of Petersburg. The rebels first struck at Fort Brady about 15 miles up river from their final objective. The two-day fight against Union shore batteries and river vessels cost the Confederacy one gunboat and a torpedo boat. Two of the ironclads and three gunboats also sustained considerable damage. The Southern fleet was forced to abandon the operation and withdraw upstream to safety. While hundreds of armed riverboats, monitors and ironclads saw action on America’s inland waterways during the Civil War, for the most part, the ships’ guns mainly engaged shore targets. Only on a handful of occasions did opposing vessels actually fight one another.
Fritz and Tommy Fight for an African Lake
At a time when the battleships of Britain and Imperial Germany were steeling themselves for an epic war-altering confrontation on the high seas, one of the tiniest and most bizarre naval campaigns in history was playing out in a backwater of East Africa. For three months beginning in December of 1915, a miniature armada of armed British and Belgian steamboats and motor launches slugged it out against two German warships for control of Lake Tanganyika. The 600-kilometer long, 50-kilometer wide waterway lies between what was then the colonies of German East Africa and the Belgian Congo — more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Indian Ocean.
While the Kaiser’s ships, the 60-ton Hedwig von Wissman, the 45-ton Kingani and the armed passenger ferry Graf von Goetzen, had been plying lake’s waters since before the war, the British had to transport their fighting vessels overland to Tanganyika, first by rail and then by dragging them through the bush. By late 1915, the small Allied fleet under the command of the very eccentric Geoffrey Spicer-Simson (RN) was in the water and harrying the German forces from the lake. Using his lightly armed vessels HMS Mimi and HMS Toutou, the British flotilla captured the Kingani (renaming her HMS Fifi) and sank the Götzen. Suddenly outnumbered and outgunned, the Germans gave up control of the lake. Spicer-Simpson was awarded the DSO and the Belgian Order of the Crown for his deeds. He was later committed to a mental hospital.
Not an Ocean in Sight
Two of South America’s landlocked countries, Bolivia and Paraguay, fought a major war between 1932 and 1935 in which the some of the continent’s inland lakes and rivers also served as battlefields. The conflict was fought between the two powers over the supposedly resource rich border region known as Gran Chaco. While the Paraguayan military was only half the size of Bolivia’s, it managed to acquire two 850-ton Italian-made Humaitá-class gunboats along with a pair of Macchi M.18 flying boats prior to the outbreak of hostilities. The Bolivian military had its own fleet of river transports and a 50-ton armed steamer named Tahuamanu. While the war lacked any major encounter between the surface forces, the Paraguayan naval air service carried out a number of recon and strike missions, while aircraft of the Bolivian air force mixed it up with armed enemy riverboats. To this day, Paraguay maintains a considerable brown water navy.