A Story of Sackett's Harbor
"It is useless," said the British officers stationed in Canada, "to attempt to march across the frontier to attack the Americans. But there are the lakes—their waters are open to us as well as to them. We will sail down upon them if we cannot march down upon them."
But you may be sure the Yankees' eyes were open—Yankees are not often caught napping, especially in war time. "The lakes must be fortified," said they. "The British will be sailing down upon us if we leave the great water course free to them."
But it was no easy thing to reach these frontiers in these early days. There were no railroads, not even roads through this section of the country. The same wildness, the same density of forests that prevented the march of the British down upon the American towns, made it a discouraging if not an impossible task to carry to the lakes the necessary guns and ammunition. More than that, the sailors themselves looked with scorn upon the ship life on land, as they called it. "We, who have sailed the Atlantic, do not propose to end our lives in those fish ponds," said they.
But after much hard work on the part of the government, much arguing and explaining, together with promise of larger pay to those seamen, who for their dear country's sake would thus martyr themselves, sailors were gathered together for the lake expeditions. They were a jolly crew, these sailors—a reckless, noisy crew. Sledges dashing up through the Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont woods, filled with these noisy, rollicking fellows, decked out in their red, white and blue, filling the woods with their shouts and songs were common sights in those days.
It was May, 1814, and the new frigate "Superior" lay in her dock at Sackett's Harbor. She was a trim little vessel; her builders were proud of her; her captain loved her; and the crew, ever the crew, eager to see her sail out over the sparkling waters of the lake.
But her stores, her cannon, her guns, her cordage—all these were to be brought from Oswego Falls some fifty miles away. Now it would be easy enough to bring them up the Oswego River, but there were English vessels blockading the harbor—and to run an English blockade was not an easy thing to do, you may be sure.
But the stores must be brought. That was a fact. That it would be no easy matter was another fact equally plain.
But Yankees can always find a way if there is a way to be found; so finally, a captain, one who had grown up and grown old on and about the lakes, and so knew every inch of the way, was found who agreed to do the best he could, though even he hardly dared hope to reach the "Superior."
He set out with the stores and cannon. By dint of sailing the clear waters by night, and lying hidden up the creeks by day, the wise and wary old captain succeeded in getting within sixteen miles of Sackett's Harbor, where the English vessels lay in blockade.
But the hardest was not to come. How were those cannon, the stores, most of all, that enormous cable weighing ninety-six hundred pounds, to be taken across the country to the dock at Sackett's Harbor? Anyone but a "Yankee" would have given up in despair. But not so the brave captain and his faithful men. "The cannon we will load on to carts. They may sink in the marshes; they may break down in the forests; but we'll load them, we'll load them, my boys," said the captain.
"Aye, aye, sir!" replied the hearty sailors.
"But the cable; ninety-six hundred pounds of cable!" and the captain shook his wise old head ruefully.
The sailors looked at it too, and shook their heads. There it lay, a great heap of coiled rope. No cart could bear its weight; it could not be dragged; it could not be lifted; it could not be cut.
"If it would be divided among us—cut in pieces—there are two hundred of us—we—"
"Divide it! divide it! that's just the way!" shouted one great strong sailor. " 'Rah for Teddy! 'Rah for Teddy! You shall have double rations for a week for that, my lad! Come on, boys, come on!"
And seizing one end of the cable, he tugged away at it, lifted it upon his shoulder, and facing Sackett's Harbor, broke into a hearty sailor song. "Come on, boys," said he. "Put your shoulder to the cable, every man of you. Come now! Single file. Forward, march, to Sackett's Harbor!"
The two hundred jolly tars fell in at once with the plan and in this way the great cable reached its destination. What fun they had! How they laughed and shouted! How the forest rang with their sailor songs!
O, but it was heavy! Their backs ached; their shoulders grew raw and bleeding; and towards the end of the journey they were a weary, lame, exhausted file of men, indeed. But they reached the town, nevertheless, and were received with shouts of praise from the people. The shouts rang out over the harbor; the rockets blazed up above the house-tops; bands played; men shouted; the town was in a blaze of excitement; the sailors were feted and feasted, praised and honored till their very heads were turned. They were the heroes of the hour.
"What can have happened?" wondered the English squadron outside the harbor, as the shouts came out across the water, and the sky lighted up with the glare of the rockets.
"O, some Yankee victory," said one officer, bitterly.
"Those Yankees are a plucky set," answered his companion, shaking his head and scowling.