Coming one month and one day after the United States declared war on Britain, the first battle of the War of 1812 was not initiated by the Americans, but by the British. Their naval commander at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario where it feeds the St Lawrence River, had a small flotilla of five ships. On 19 July 1812 he set out to capture American shipping on the lake. That morning the British seized a small ship filled with flour, from whose crew they learned of an American brig, the USS Oneida, at Sackets Harbor, New York, not too far away. The British sent the crew to the town to inform the garrison that they were to surrender a recently captured (before the war) merchant schooner along with the Onieda to the British, and if the Americans fired on them, they’d “burn the village to the ground”.
29 year old Lt Melancthon Woolsey, the captain of the Onieda, was having none of it. The British commander must have been misinformed because there was a substantial American force in Sackets Harbor, though only one fighting ship, Woolsey’s Oneida. He sent runners to assemble COL Bellinger’s 27th New York Militia Regiment, and took command of the infantry company and a volunteer artillery battery under CPT Camp already in town. Once his lookout spotted the approaching British off in the distance, Woolsey sailed the Oneida out to meet them. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the morning winds off the lake prevented him from leaving the harbor, so he anchored his ship broadsides to the British, and quickly transferred the guns of the landward broadsides to augment Camp’s shore battery.
Along with the other guns, Woolsey had a lone 32 pounder which was originally meant for the Oneida, but was too big, and was mounted in a swivel on shore, in Camp’s hastily built “Fort Volunteer”. The 32 pounder was commanded by Mr. William Vaughan, the Oneida’s sailing master (roughly equivalent to an old warrant officer specialized in navigation) and it was he who fired the first hostile round of the War of 1812.
Vaughan didn’t have any 32 lb ammunition, so he initially used 24 lb cannonballs (of which he had many, the Oneida’s guns were mostly 24 pounders), and wrapped them in carpet that he ordered torn up from the floors of the village houses. The first shot was woefully short, and laughter was heard from the crews of the British ships. They weren’t laughing for long.
Woolsey turned over his ship to his first mate, and directed the battle from the shore battery. For two hours, the Americans and British traded fire, of which only the Americans’ was effective, especially that of Vaughan’s gun. Many of the British cannonballs failed to even reach the shore battery, and those that did just plowed shallow furrows in the mud until they stopped. Many were 32 pounders from the bigger British ships, so Woolsey had the men dig them up. Vaughan fired them back at the British to much greater effect.
In response to the accurate American fire, the British ships raised anchor and began to maneuver, in order to throw off the American’s aim and get their other broadsides into the fight. As the British flagship, the HMS Royal George, was doing so, a 24 lb cannon ball entered her stern and raked the ship: killing eight sailors, wounding a dozen more, and doing a great amount of damage all along its entire length. Shortly thereafter, the exasperated and ineffectual British withdrew back to Kingston, without causing the American’s any casualties, and no damage beyond the furrows. One sailor remarked, “The enemy broke nothing but – the Sabbath”.
In celebration, Woolsey’s sailors and gunners, and the militia in the village with their band, broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
Though they didn’t take part in the battle, 3000 militia arrived in Sackets Harbor by nightfall, and many watched from shore. Woolsey, Camp, Vaughan, and “Black Julius” Torry, an African American on Vaughan’s gun crew, were given credit in the dispatch to the governor of New York for America’s first victory in the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor would become the American military and ship building epicenter in the Lake Ontario arms race against the British and Canadians across the St Lawrence River in Kingston.