Saturday, August 23, 2008
A Lake Ontario shipwreck hunter claims to have discovered a legendary vessel from the War of 1812 -- the 32-metre sloop HMS Wolfe, the star of one of the most dramatic naval battles on the Great Lakes at the height of the U.S. invasion of Canada. The ship, renamed HMS Montreal later in the war, was the Canadian-made flagship of commodore James Yeo, commander of the inland British fleet during the crucial struggle against the Americans for control of the lakes. In a famous 1813 engagement known as the Burlington Races, a damaged Wolfe was under intense fire near present-day Toronto, but just managed to escape the enemy assault by retreating rapidly westward to a gun-protected shore near Burlington Bay. A defeat in that battle -- which came just days after a major U.S. victory on Lake Erie -- could have given the Americans free rein in the lower lakes and, according to a leading War of 1812 naval historian, made certain Ontario became "a state of the American union." The ship, which was involved in numerous battles throughout the 1812-1814 war, was scuttled years after the war in waters off Kingston, Ont., along with several other vessels that had outlived their usefulness in peacetime Upper Canada. But Kingston-based diver Kenn Feigelman says he has found, on the murky lake bottom at an undisclosed location near the city, a ships' graveyard with four War of 1812-era wrecks -- including, he believes, the Wolfe. He told Canwest News Service on Friday that he expects the discovery to generate international interest ahead of the bicentennial of the war in 2012. "Although these were derelict vessels, they are a very, very important part of not only Canadian but North American history," he said. Depending on the outcome of the battles fought by the Wolfe -- which carried 20 cannon and 200 crew -- and the other ships in Britain's Lake Ontario squadron, the "political geography of North America could have been completely different," said Mr. Feigelman, a Montreal native who now runs Kingston-based DeepQuest2 Expeditions. He and his dive team have captured sonar images and photographs of the sunken hulks and adjacent debris fields, but Mr. Feigelman insists the wreck sites have not been disturbed and that all information gathered is being shared with Parks Canada archeologists.The find follows the discovery this year of the Revolutionary War-era HMS Ontario and a major Parks Canada-led probe of the Hamilton and Scourge, two American ships from the War of 1812 that went down in a storm near Hamilton. Marc-Andre Bernier, Ottawa-based manager of operations for Parks Canada's underwater archeology unit, said government scientists have conducted surveys off the Kingston shore in the past and identified some potentially significant wreck sites. He added that any War of 1812 wrecks would be considered "important" and worth investigating, but added that there's "nothing conclusive" yet to determine whether the ships spotted by Mr. Feigelman are the same ones already known to Parks Canada, or to prove they include the Wolfe and other vessels under Commodore Yeo's command during the war. "We need to see evidence." If one of the ships is the Wolfe, its discovery recalls what naval historian Robert Williamson has called "a pivotal engagement that would determine the outcome of the War of 1812." In a 1999 essay published in Canadian Military History, Mr. Williamson reconstructed the events of Sept. 28, 1813, using the logbooks of the Wolfe, which had only recently been opened to researchers by the U.S. national archives in Washington. The logs had apparently been seized by the Americans after an 1814 battle in which a British officer was killed -- apparently enroute to Britain to deliver the Wolfe's records to admiralty headquarters. The logs offered a wealth of new details about the Burlington Races, which had appeared to observers on shore more like "a yacht race" than a naval battle, Mr. Williamson wrote. The historian debunked a popular tale that the British ships vaulted a sandbar to escape their U.S. pursuers, but Mr. Williamson concluded that the survival of the Wolfe and the other vessels was a true turning point in Canadian history. "Yeo's Lake Ontario naval squadron survived the scrape of 28 September as strong as ever," Mr. Williamson wrote. "In fact, it went on the offensive in the following spring and helped to capture Fort Oswego.... By maintaining the integrity of his squadron, Yeo played a far more important role in the events of the War of 1812 that shaped our future than generations of historians have been prepared to grant him."