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Royal Naval Biography/Barclay, Robert Herriot

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[Post-Captain of 1824.]

Is the son of the Rev. Peter Barclay, D.D. and was born at Kettle Manse, in Fifeshire, N.B. Sept. 18th, 1786. He entered the navy in May, 1798; and served the whole of his time as midshipman, under Captain (now Sir Philip C. Henderson) Durham. He was consequently present at the capture of la Flore French 36, off Bourdeaux, Sept. 6, 1798; at the defeat of Mons. Bompart, near the coast of Ireland, Oct. 12th following ; at the capture of la Loire frigate, on the 18th of the same month[1]; at the landing of arms, &c. for the royalists on the coast of la Vendee, in 1799; at the capture of a French letter of marque, a privateer of 18 guns and 194 men, two large Spanish gun-vessels, and seven sail of merchantmen (the latter taken under the batteries between Tariffa and Algeziras) in 1800; and at the capture of la Furie French privateer, April 13th, 1801[2].

Mr. Barclay passed his examination at Malta, in Dec. 1804; was received on board the Victory first rate, bearing the flag of Viscount Nelson, in Feb. 1805; and appointed by his lordship acting lieutenant of the Swiftsure 74, Captain William Gordon Rutherford, in the month of March following. His appointment to that ship was confirmed by the Admiralty ten days previous to the battle of Trafalgar; on which occasion she was engaged with l’Achille French 74, and sustained a loss of 17 men killed and wounded. A subsequent perilous service performed by Lieutenant Barclay and others is thus noticed in James’s Naval History, Vol. IV. p. 124:–

“During the whole of the 22d Oct., the wind blew fresh from the southward, with repented squalls. At 5 P.M., the Redoubtable 74, in tow by the Swiftsure, being actually sinking, hoisted a signal of distress. The latter ship immediately sent her boats, and brought off part of the prize-crew and about 120 Frenchmen, which were as many as the boats would contain. At 10-30 p.m., the Redoubtable being with her stern entirely under water, the Swiftsure cut herself clear. At about midnight, the wind shifted to N.W., and still blew a gale. At 3-30 a.m. on the 23d, attracted by the cries of the people, the Swiftsure again sent her boats, and, from three rafts which the French crew, amidst a dreadful night of wind, rain, and lightning, had constructed from the spars of their sunken ship, saved fifty more of the sufferers. The remaining survivors of the Redoubtable’s late officers and crew, thirteen of the Temeraire’s men, and five of the Swiftsure’s, perished in her.”

The Swiftsure was paid off, at Portsmouth, towards the end of 1807; and Lieutenant Barclay was soon afterwards appointed second of the Diana frigate, Captain Charles Grant, employed on channel service. While serving under that officer, he was upset in a six-oared cutter, between Sandwich Bay and Ramsgate, at a distance of three miles from the shore, but providentially preserved, with all his companions, by another boat which came out from the latter place on witnessing the accident.

Shortly after this remarkable escape. Lieutenant Barclay commanded a detachment of boats, and lost his left arm, in an attack upon a French convoy going from Nantz to Rochfort, with supplies for the enemy’s squadron. In 1809, he was granted a pension for the loss of his limb, and sent to Halifax on promotion. Unfortunately for him, however, a change soon took place in the naval administration, and four years more elapsed before he obtained advancement. From the period of his arrival on that station he served as first lieutenant of the AEolus and Iphigenia, frigates, until Nov. 1812, when he was again ordered thither, with another official recommendation in his favor. Early in 1813, we find him appointed by Sir John Borlase Warren to the naval command on the Canadian lakes, and directed to conduct a small party of officers overland from Halifax to Quebec.

Could the Admiral have spared some British seamen as well as officers, it is probable that the Americans might have been attacked with success on their return from the capture of York; but, as it was, acting Commander Barclay’s whole attention was necessarily confined to the equipment of a squadron at Kingston, on Lake Ontario, where he arrived just before the commencement of the enemy’s operations against the infant capital of Upper Canada. The only British armed vessels then on that lake were the Royal George of 20 guns, a brig of 14 guns, and three schooners, all manned by fresh-water sailors, and commanded by a very incompetent provincial officer. In the beginning of May, another 20-gun ship was launched, and named the Wolfe; and by the end of the same month. Sir James Lucas Yeo having arrived from England, with 4 commanders, 8 lieutenants, 24 midshipmen, and about 450 picked seamen, the whole were ready for active service.

The subject of this memoir was now appointed to the command of the naval force on Lake Erie; an appointment which Captain William Howe Mulcaster, another of Sir James L. Yeo’s officers, had declined accepting, on account of the exceedingly bad equipment of the vessels, five in number, but not equal in aggregate force to a British 20-gun ship.

After co-operating for a short time with the troops retreating from the Niagara frontier. Captain Barclay proceeded to Amherstburg, where he arrived with only four commissioned officers and nineteen seamen, about the middle of June, at which time the enemy’s naval force on Lake Erie consisted of seven vessels, all well equipped and manned, under the orders of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, of the United States navy. By the end of August, each of the rival squadrons was augmented, – the American by two brigs, of about 460 tons each, built at Presqu’ Isle; and the British, by a ship named the Detroit, of about 305 tons, which Captain Barclay had found on the stocks at Amherstburg, and used every energy to get launched. The following authentic statement will place the superiority of the enemy beyond a doubt:


Long Guns.
32 24 18 12 9 6 4 2 32 24 18 12
Detroit, ship . . 2 1 6 8 . . . . . . . . 1 1 . .
Queen Charlotte, ditto . . . . . . 3 . . . . . . . . . . 14 . . . .
Hunter, brig . . . . . . . . . . 2 4 2 . . . . . . 2
Lady Prevost, schooner . . . . . . . . 3 . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Chippeway, ditto . . . . . . . . 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Little Belt, sloop . . . . . . . . 1 2 . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . 2 1 9 13 4 4 2 . . 15 1 12
The long 18-pounder, one long 12-pounder, three long nines, and two of the carronades, were mounted on traversing carriages. The fort of Amherstburg was stripped of its guns, in order to arm the Detroit.


Lawrence, brig . . . . . . 2 . . . . . . . . 18 . . . . . .
Niagara, ditto . . . . . . 2 . . . . . . . . 18 . . . . . .
Caledonia, ditto . . 2 . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 . . . . . .
Ariel, schooner . . . . . . 4 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Porcupine, ditto 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Scorpion, ditto 1 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Summers, ditto . . 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . 1 . . . . . .
Tigress, ditto 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Trippe, ditto . . 1 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
3 5 . . 8 . . . . . . . . 38 . . . . . .

The guns of the Caledonia, and of all the American schooners, were mounted on pivots; the broadside weight of metal on the part of the enemy was consequently 928 pounds, – on that of the British only 478. The former had at least 580 picked men; the latter not more than 345 persons of every description.

Early in September, 1813, Captain Barclay received a small draught of seamen from the Dover troop-ship, then in the river St. Lawrence; and on the 12th of the same month, he reported to Sir James L. Yeo the disastrous result of a conflict between his squadron and the more formidable force under Captain Perry. The following is a copy of his official statement:

“Sir,– The last letter I had the honor of writing to you, dated the 6th instant, informed you, that unless certain intimation was received of more seamen being on their way to Amherstburg, I should be obliged to sail with the squadron, deplorably manned as it was, to fight the enemy (who blockaded the port) to enable us to get supplies of provisions and stores of every description; so perfectly destitute of provisions was the port, that there was not a day’s flour in store, and the crews of the squadron wore on half allowance of many things. Such were the motives which induced Major-General Proctor (whom by your instructions I was directed to consult, and whose wishes I was enjoined to execute, as far as related to the good of the country) to concur in the necessity of a battle being risked, notwithstanding the many disadvantages under which I laboured; and it now remains for me the most melancholy task to relate to you the unfortunate issue of that battle, as well as the many untoward circumstances which led to that event.

“No intelligence of seamen having arrived, I sailed on the 9th instant, fully expecting to meet the enemy next morning, as they had been seen among the islands; nor was I mistaken. Soon after day-light, they were seen in motion in Put-in-Bay, the wind then at S.W. and light, giving us the weather-gage. I bore up for them, in hopes of bringing them to action among the islands; but that intention was soon frustrated, by the wind suddenly shifting to the S.E., which brought the enemy directly to windward.

“The line was formed according to a given plan, so that each ship might be supported against the superior force of the two brigs opposed to them[3]. About 10 a.m., the enemy had cleared the islands, and immediately bore up, in a line abreast, each brig being also supported by small vessels. At a quarter before 12, I commenced the action, by firing a few long guns; about a quarter past, the American commodore, supported by two schooners, one carrying four long 12-pounders, the other a long 32 and a 24-pounder, came to close action with the Detroit; the other brig, apparently destined to engage the Queen Charlotte, kept so far to windward as to render the Queen Charlotte’s carronades useless, while the latter was, with the Lady Prevost, exposed to a heavy and destructive fire of the Caledonia and four schooners, armed with long and heavy guns like those I have already described.

“Too soon, alas! was I deprived of the services of the noble and Intrepid Captain Finnis, who fell soon after the commencement of the action, and with him fell my greatest support. Lieutenant Thomas Stokoe of the same ship, was also struck senseless by a splinter, which deprived the country of his services at this very critical period. Provincial Lieutenant Irvine, who then had charge of the Queen Charlotte, behaved with great courage, but his experience was much too limited to supply the place of such an officer as Captain Finnis; hence she proved of far less assistance than I expected.

“The action continued with great fury until half-past 2 p.m., when I perceived my opponent drop astern, and a boat passing from him to the Niagara, which vessel was at this time perfectly fresh. The American commodore seeing that as yet the day was against him (his vessel having struck soon after he left her), also the very defenceless state of the Detroit (now a perfect wreck, principally from the raking fire of the gun-boats), and likewise that the Queen Charlotte was in such a situation that I could receive very little assistance from her, and the Lady Prevost being at this time too far to leeward, from her rudder being injured, made a noble and, alas! too successful an effort, to regain it. He bore up, and, supported by his small vessels, passed within pistol-shot, and took a raking position on our bow; – nor could I prevent it, as the unfortunate situation of the Queen Charlotte hindered us from wearing. My gallant first lieutenant (John) Garland, was now mortally wounded, and myself so severely that I was obliged to quit the deck. Manned as the squadron was, with not more than fifty British seamen, the rest a mixture of Canadians and soldiers, who were totally unacquainted with such service, rendered the loss of officers more sensibly felt, and never in any action was the loss more severe; every officer commanding a vessel, and his second, was either killed, or wounded so severely as to be unable to keep the deck.

“Lieutenant (Edward Wise) Buchan, in the Lady Prevost, behaved most nobly, and did every thing that a brave and experienced officer could do in a vessel armed with 12-pounder carronades, against vessels carrying heavy long guns. I regret to state that he was severely wounded; Lieutenant Bignell, of the Dover, commanding the Hunter, displayed the greatest intrepidity; but his guns being small, he could be of much less service than he wished.

“Every officer in the Detroit behaved in the most exemplary manner. Lieutenant Inglis shewed such calm intrepidity, that I was fully convinced I left the ship in excellent hands, on my quitting the deck; and for an account of the battle after that, I refer you to his letter which he wrote me, for your information.

“Mr. (J. M.) Hoffmeister, purser of the Detroit, nobly volunteered his services on deck, and behaved in a manner that reflects the highest honor on him. I regret to add, that he is very severely wounded in the knee.

“Provincial Lieutenant (Francis) Purvis, and the military officers. Lieutenants Garden, of the Royal Newfoundland Rangers, and O’Keefe, of H.M. 41st regiment, behaved in a manner which excited my warmest admiration: the few British seamen I had, behaved with their usual intrepidity, and as long as I was on deck the troops behaved with a calmness and courage worthy of a more fortunate issue to their exertions.

“The weather-gage gave the enemy a prodigious advantage, as it enabled them not only to choose their position, but their distance also, which they did in such a manner as to prevent the carronades of the Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost from having much effect; while their long guns did great execution, particularly against the Queen Charlotte.

“Captain Perry has behaved in a most humane and attentive manner, not only to myself and officers, but to all the wounded.

“I trust that, although unsuccessful, you will approve of the motives that induced me to sail under so many disadvantages, and that it may be hereafter proved that, under such circumstances, the honor of his Majesty’s flag has not been tarnished. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)R. H. Barclay.”


H.M. late Ship Detroit, Sept. 10th, 1813.

“Sir,– I have the honor to transmit you an account of the termination of the late unfortunate battle with the enemy’s squadron.

“On coming on the quarter-deck, after your being wounded, the enemy’s second brig, at that time on our weather beam, shortly afterwards took a position on our weather bow to rake us; to prevent which, in attempting to wear, to get our starboard broadside to bear upon her, a number of the larboard guns being then disabled, we fell on board the Queen Charlotte, running up to leeward of us, and in this situation the two ships remained for some time. As soon as we got clear of her, I ordered the Queen Charlotte to shoot ahead of us if possible, and attempted to back our fore-top-sail to get astern; but the ship lay completely unmanageable, every brace cut away, the mizen-top-mast and gaff down, all the other masts badly wounded, not a stay left forward, hull shattered very much, a number of the guns disabled, the enemy’s squadron raking both ships ahead and astern, and none of our own in a situation to support us, I was under the painful necessity of answering the enemy, to say we had struck, the Queen Charlotte having previously done so. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)George Inglis, Lieut..”

To Captain Barclay, &c.

Of 345 officers, sailors, soldiers, provincialists, and boys, the total number on board the British squadron, no less than 41 were slain and 94 wounded. Captain Barclay’s remaining arm was injured, and apart of his thigh cut away. Amongst the other officers who suffered were Lieutenant S. James-Garden, of the Newfoundland Rangers, killed; and Lieutenants George Bignell and F. Rolette (R.N.), Henry Gateshill and J. Campbell (master’s-mates), and James Foster (midshipman), wounded. The gallant commander of the Lady Prevost died of his wounds, at Fort Fayette, Upper Canada, in 1814.

The loss sustained by the enemy was 27 killed and 96 wounded, and it would have been still greater but for the complete success of a ruse de guerre practised on board Captain Perry’s brig, the Lawrence. This was no other than hauling down the colours to obtain quarter, and re-hoisting them at a convenient opportunity, to resume the combat| “It was with unspeakable pain,” says the American commodore, “that I saw soon after I got on board the Niagara, the flag of the Lawrence come down, although I was perfectly sensible that she had been defended to the last, and that to have continued to make a show of resistance, would have been a wanton sacrifice of her brave crew. But the enemy was not able to take possession of her, and circumstances soon permitted her flag again to be hoisted. The Lawrence has been entirely cut up: it is absolutely necessary she should go into a safe harbour. I have therefore directed Lieutenant Yarnall to proceed to Erie in her, with the wounded of the fleet, and to dismantle and get her over the bar as soon as possible”

Captain Barclay’s commission as commander was not confirmed until Nov. 19th, 1813; the intelligence of his disaster arrived at the Admiralty, Feb. 8th, 1814; and his trial, for the loss of the Lake Erie flotilla, took place at Portsmouth, on the 16th Sept, in the same year, previous to which he had been requested by the inhabitants of Quebec to accept a piece of plate, with an appropriate inscription, value 100 guineas. The court-martial pronounced the following sentence:–

“That the capture of His Majesty’s late squadron was caused by the very defective means Captain Barclay possessed to equip the vessels on Lake Erie; the want of a sufficient number of able seamen whom he had repeatedly and earnestly requested of Sir James L. Yeo to he sent to him; the very great superiority of the enemy to the British squadron, and the unfortunate early fall of the superior officers in the action. That it appeared that the greatest exertions had been made by Captain Barclay in equipping and getting into order the vessels under his command; that he was fully justified, under the existing circumstances, in bringing the enemy to action; that the judgment and gallantry of Captain Barclay in taking his squadron into battle, and during the contest, were highly conspicuous, and entitled him to the highest praise; and that the whole of the officers and men of His Majesty’s late squadron conducted themselves in the most gallant manner; and did adjudge the said Captain Robert Heriot Barclay, his surviving officers, and men, to be most fully and honorably acquitted.”

After this investigation, the Canada merchants in London voted an increase of 400 guineas to the sum already subscribed by the inhabitants of Quebec, for the purchase of plate to be presented to Captain Barclay. On one of the largest pieces, the following inscription is engraved:

“Presented to Captain Robert H. Barclay, of His Majesty’s royal navy, by the inhabitants of Quebec, in testimony of the sense they justly entertain of the exalted courage and heroic valour displayed by him, and by the officers, seamen, and soldiers, of the flotilla under his command, in an action with a greatly superior force of the enemy, upon Lake Erie, on the 10th day of September, 1813; when the presence of a few additional seamen was only wanting to have effected the total discomfiture of the hostile squadron. Of Captain Barclay it may most truly be said, that although he could not command victory, he did more – he nobly deserved it!”

On another large piece, an inscription is likewise engraved, expressive of the sentiments of the Canada merchants in London, whose spontaneous mark of their sense of Captain Barclay’s zeal in the execution of his duty, could not but be most highly gratifying to him – because, in his defeat their interest was most deeply involved.

It is believed, that a discussion on the Lake Erie affair, in both Houses of Parliament, together with the pending trial of Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, if not of Commodore Sir James L. Yeo also, prevented Captain Barclay’s promotion to post rank at the close of the war with America. He consequently remained a commander ten years longer, and was employed only four or five months during the whole of that period. His last appointment was April 12th, 1824, to the Infernal bomb, fitting out for the Mediterranean station, from whence he returned in the ensuing autumn, on the amicable termination of the war against Algiers. His commission as captain bears date Oct. 14th, 1824.

This officer married, Aug. 11th, 1814, Miss Agnes Cosser, of Millbank Street, Westminster, and has several sons and daughters. The present amount of his pension, for wounds, is 400l. per annum.