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History of Robert Heriott Barclay

I trust that...the honor of His Majesty's flag has not been tarnished." These fateful words were penned to mitigate a lamented British defeat on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813; however, they also serve as a fitting epitaph to the relatively brief, but distinguished Royal Navy career of Captain Robert Heriott Barclay.

The product of a typical middle class British Isles upbringing, Barclay was born on September 18, 1786 at King's Kettle Manse near Fife, in the Fife Region of Scotland. The second child of Reverend Peter Barclay, D.D. and Margaret Duddingstone Barclay, Robert received his unusual middle name from one of his father's parishioners and close friends, one Heriott of Ramornie. Slight of stature as a youth, Barclay was, according to one source, "neatly formed, plump and rosy-cheeked, with large dark eyes surmounted by black eyebrows and a shock of black hair, with a slight inclination to curl." Barclay proved to be an adept student, and he was showing great academic promise when, at the tender age of 12, he made a decision which was to devastate his mother. Captivated by the deeds and reputation of his seafaring uncle, Admiral William Duddingstone, Barclay chose to follow in the footsteps of his famous relative by opting for a career in the Royal Navy.

In the summer of 1798 Barclay was appointed a midshipman on board the H.M.S. Anson, a 44-gun frigate. His cruise on the Anson was eventful to say the least; the young Scot was involved with the capture of two French frigates, two large Spanish gunboats, a privateer, and seven merchant vessels. In December 1804, while the Anson was provisioning at Malta, Barclay sat for his promotion examination. In March 1805, having passed the crucial test, he was appointed to the rank of lieutenant by Lord Horatio Nelson and assigned to the Swiftsure, a 74-gun ship of the line.

On board the Swiftsure Barclay was to find himself embroiled in the most cataclysmic naval battle of the century. On October 21, 1805 Lord Nelson, with twenty-seven line of battle ships, decisively defeated a numerically superior French and Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar, Spain, destroying seventeen enemy sail. The Swiftsure was engaged with the Achille, a French 74, and suffered seventeen killed and wounded. Only slightly damaged, the Swiftsure was extensively involved in rescue and salvage operations during the severe gale that followed the battle.

The Swiftsure was paid off in 1807, after which Barclay enjoyed a bittersweet two month leave at the Manse in Fife. Barclay's mother had died in 1801, his father having remarried, and his childhood playmates, his older and next youngest brothers, were in the King's service far from home. Nevertheless, it was during this leave that Barclay met his future bride, Agnes Cossar, who was from Cupar, a town near Fife.

In late 1807 Barclay joined the Diana, a 38-gun frigate cruising the Bay of Biscay on blockade duty. During April 1808 the Diana encountered a small French convoy attempting to move supplies from Nantes to Rochefort. When pursued the French sought shelter and safety in Noirmoutier Roads, and Barclay was ordered to assemble a detachment of smallboats to cut out the enemy. Cutting out expeditions were sought after opportunities which could lead to notoriety and promotion for an ambitious young officer, but during this deadly foray Barclay was struck by a swivel gun shot, a critical wound which cost him his left arm.

Normally such a debilitating injury would result in the invalid being beached on half-pay, but with the nation gripped by global warfare every trained and experienced officer was needed. After a brief visit to his home in December 1809, Barclay was shipped to the North American Station, headquartered at Halifax, Lower Canada. Over the next few years he served as first lieutenant on the Frigates Aeolus and Iphigenia, until in March 1813 he was promoted to commander and dispatched to Lake Ontario, where Barclay would serve as temporary commodore until a more experienced and senior officer could be appointed.

Barclay's tenure superintending Lake Ontario affairs was short-lived. In the late spring of 1813 Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo arrived to assume command of Royal Naval forces on the Great Lakes, and Barclay was relegated to command of the small squadron on Lake Erie. Barclay's assignment to the southernmost lake was not a voluntary one. He was ordered to Lake Erie only after another officer, Captain William Mulcaster, declined the command. Mulcaster cited as his reasons the deplorable conditions of the Lake Erie flotilla, and the fact that there would be little opportunity to gain glory on Lake Erie.

Arriving at the Amherstburg Navy Yard on June 3, 1813, Barclay marshalled his forces and energetically patrolled the eastern end of the lake until his adversary's flotilla forced Barclay to retire to his Amherstburg base. Nearing completion at the navy yard was the Detroit, a 19-gun sloop-of-war. The Detroit would become Barclay's flagship, and with her additional strength, the Royal Navy commander could contest Oliver Hazard Perry for control of Lake Erie, even though, in broadside power, the Scotsman's flotilla was still far short of parity with the American fleet.

Regardless of strength, Barclay faced little choice but to fight. With Perry's fleet anchored at Put-in-Bay, the water supply route to Fort Malden and the navy yard had been severed. The only possible way the British could hope to continue operations in western Upper Canada was for the British flotilla to defeat the obstructing American fleet. Barclay was all too aware that his fleet was undermanned, under trained, and outgunned, but he was out of options.

At the Battle of Lake Erie, during which Barclay suffered another severe wound, the entire British flotilla was captured by the Americans. Barclay himself was court-martialed following the defeat, a standard procedure whenever one or more vessels were lost. After testimony was heard the court decreed that, "the Officers and Men of His Majesty's late Squadron conducted themselves in the most gallant Manner." The board further ruled "Captain Robert Heriot (sic) Barclay, his surviving Officers and Men, to be most fully and most honourably acquitted." Much controversy surrounded events relating to the Battle of Lake Erie, but virtually none of that contention concerned the actions of Robert Heriott Barclay.

The Lake Erie commander was acquitted, but the Scotsman's body and career both were in ruins. Barclay suffered two wounds during the battle. In addition to having already lost his left arm, his right arm had now been rendered virtually useless by grapeshot. His pathetic appearance at the court-martial reportedly drew tears from spectators. Such was the state of Barclay's body and mind that he offered his fianc?e a release from her vow to marry him.

His career fared no better. Despite the favourable outcome of the court-martial, Barclay had still suffered what was for the British Navy an embarrassing defeat. As a result, over the next eleven years he was employed for a total of only three or four months. It was not until October 1824 that Barclay was finally posted to captain. Even then his only command was the Infernal, a tiny bomb vessel. Shortly thereafter Barclay opted to retire.

Barclay married Agnes Cossar on August 11, 1814 during his convalescent leave. The couple moved to a house in Saxe-Cobourg Place in Edinburgh, Scotland, where they raised a family of eight children. After his retirement Barclay was a conspicuous figure on the streets of Edinburgh, well known in the city as the one-armed captain. Robert Heriott Barclay died in Edinburgh on May 8, 1837.

Captain Barclay subsequently appeared before a court martial. His mangled figure brought tears to the eyes of spectators. He had lost one arm at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1803 and the second was so badly injured by grape shot that it required artificial support. His thigh was cut away so that "he tottered before the court martial like a Roman trophy.

The Court Martial of R.H. Barclay

The following sentence was pronounced by the court.

"That the capture of his Majesty's late squadron was caused by the very defective means Captain Barclay possessed to equip them on Lake Erie; the want of sufficient numbers of able seamen whom he repeatedly and earnestly requested from Sir James Yeo; the very great superiority of the enemy; and the unfortunately early fall of the superior officers in the action. He was fully justified in bringing the enemy into action and during the contest was highly conspicuous and entitled to the highest praise. The court adjudges that Captain Barclay and his surviving officers and men be most fully and honourably acquitted."

While Barclay received a gift of plate from the inhabitants of Quebec and Canadian merchants in London, Upper Canadians had mixed emotions about the man. Despite Barclay's brave fight those who knew of his leaving the blockade could not help feeling that all the disasters of the upper part of the province lay at his door.

In 1813 the British Admiralty confirmed Barclay's rank as commander and in 1815 granted him a pension of 200 pounds in addition to the five pence he already received for his previous wounds. He was consigned to obscurity by the British navy and received no further employment before his death in 1837.

U.S. Captain Perry gained great fame, instant promotion to the rank of captain and a gold medal presented by President Madison. Perry died of yellow fever while on duty in the West Indies in 1819.

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