Robert Heriot Barclay
son of a Scottish minister, Robert Heriot Barclay joined the Royal Navy
as a midshipman when he was eleven years old. In 1805, he was posted to
Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson's ship, Victory. He fought at Trafalgar on the
HMS Swiftsure and was commended for his part in saving a large number of
French sailors from the gale that came up after the battle. Barclay lost
his left arm in a battle with a French convoy while serving on the HMS Diana.
In 1810, Barclay was posted to North America, where he served as a lieutenant on various ships. In 1813 he was appointed full naval lieutenant and given the command of the Canadian Provincial Marine Squadron based in Amherstburg on Lake Erie. Barclay hadn't been British naval commander James Yeo's first choice for the Lake Erie post. Yeo offered the position to Captain William Howe Mulcaster, who promptly turned it down. Mulcaster had good reason to decline the post: Lake Erie was clearly considered expendable by the British higher command, who were saving most of their resources for the Lake Ontario fleet. In a letter from Sir George Prevost to both Barclay and Amherstburg's army commander, Henry Procter, Prevost wrote that "the ordnance and the naval stores you require must be taken from the Enemy, whose resources on Lake Erie must become yours."
Despite his limited resources, Barclay managed to strengthen his fleet with the construction of the three hundred-ton vessel Detroit . This was still not enough to match the power of the reinforced American fleet. Barclay was given no choice and he was ordered to fight the Americans under Oliver Hazard Perry. By September of 1813 Amherstburg was so short of supplies that Barclays sailors were on half-rations. On September 10, the day the British and American fleets fought the Battle of Lake Erie, the garrison had only enough provisions to last one more day. Barclay needed to try to reopen the British supply line on the lake.
The battle itself was a complete disaster for the British. It was the first time in history that an entire British fleet was defeated and completely captured by an enemy. Barclay was badly wounded and lost full movement in his one remaining arm. According to one story, Barclay wrote to his fiancee to tell her about the crippling wounds he received at the battle and offered to release her from their engagement. His fiancee would have none of it, replying that if there was enough of Barclay's body left to house his soul, she would marry him.
At his inevitable court martial, Barclay was absolved of all blame for the Lake Erie defeat. He had to wait another ten years however, to be promoted to the rank of full navy captain.