British Royal Navy Captain Robert Barclay: A hard-knock lifeWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
Ever feel like the world is against you? I think we all have. Oh, I’ve had unlucky days. Like the time I overslept for the trial on which I was juror No. 7. As I strode through the courtroom to my seat, two hours late, the stares of disdain from the lawyers and judge melted me into the woodwork. It was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day.
Some of us get more than our fair share of those days; Capt. Robert Heriot Barclay of the British Royal Navy was one such unfortunate.
Who? Sure, you all have heard of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie, but you probably haven’t heard much about his adversary Barclay. The battle was fought Sept. 10, 1813. Perry won; Barclay lost. As a result, Perry became a superstar, and Barclay, well, he faded into a history book.
Born in Scotland with an instinctive love of the sea, Barclay left his family at the tender age of 12 and proudly enlisted in the British Royal Navy. A note in a family album suggested that he was “ill-used” as a teenage midshipman and that seems to hold true as the good-hearted and hardworking young man was frequently taken advantage of. Despite stoic performances at sea, he just never seemed to get ahead.
In 1805, during the early Napoleonic Wars, it seemed he was on his way up with his assignment to serve on the Victory under the famous Lord Horatio Nelson. Soon he was promoted to lieutenant and assigned his own ship, Swiftsure, which he commanded successfully through the renowned British victory at Trafalgar. Instead of being promoted further, however, he was repeatedly assigned to lesser ships.
From 1809 on, the unlucky Barclay always carried a combination knife and fork utensil with him so he could cut his food one-handed, having lost his left arm in battle with the French that year.
After serving four more years in the Atlantic, he was sent to North America, finally as commander of all naval forces on the lakes. Ten days later, however, his title was usurped by his superior officer, Sir James Yeo. Commander Yeo in turn ordered him to Lake Erie as a mere senior officer, a post he was offered only because Yeo’s first choice for the position refused it as a demeaning assignment.
Because England was preoccupied with Napoleon in Europe at this time, Barclay had the daunting task of organizing a British fleet that was undermanned, underequipped and underfed into a competent force. He succeeded as well as anyone could have expected and aboard his flagship, Detroit, he boldly took on Perry.
Unfortunately, Barclay lost himself in the battle — parts of himself, that is. About an hour into the fight, a canister shot took out a chunk of his thigh. An hour or so later, his right shoulder blade was shattered by grapeshot (golf-ball sized metal, clustered like grapes and shot from cannons).
As if the wounds weren’t enough, Barclay soon faced a court martial for losing the contest. As he was escorted into the courtroom, his mutilated body brought tears to the men who served with him. He was acquitted of any wrongdoing, but, deeply depressed by his appearance, he offered his fiancée a release from their engagement. She responded that if there was enough of him left to contain his soul, than she would marry him, and she did. Finally, some solace came his way.
Ironically, just four years after Barclay’s death, his ship Detroit, which was decrepit but periodically used as a merchant ship after the battle, became the object of a publicity stunt. A number of businesses along the Niagara River, which runs over Niagara Falls, decided to send the old ship over the edge in order to draw customers to the area. The shores were lined with curiosity-seekers for this spectacle, which many felt was tasteless.
As it turned out, the boat was tossed and broken by the rapids, but became permanently lodged against an island. Like its former commander, the rest of its life was spent disfigured but in bittersweet peace, as life rushed by.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bugle Call: Upcoming Events
—10 a.m. June 18: The River Raisin National Battlefield Park, 1403 E. Elm Ave., Monroe, will hold a commemorative ceremony marking the start of the War of 1812. The National Park Service will release the special edition commemorative passport cancelation stamp.
—June 18-24: Way Public Library, 101 E. Indiana Ave., Perrysburg, will hold several 1812 Bicentennial events. At 11:45 a.m. June 18, there will be a commemoration ceremony with bells rung at noon. At 7 p.m. June 20, historian, author and Perrysburg native Douglas Brinkley will speak at the library about the significance of the War of 1812 in our area and about his new biography of Walter Cronkite. At 4 p.m. June 24, there will be a Fort Meigs Cemetery Walk featuring re-enactors at the gravesites of War of 1812 veterans.