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The Battle of Lake Erie

Oliver Hazard Perry's refusal to give up snatched victory from the British

When the War of 1812 began, Lake Erie was a vast inland sea in a nearly roadless wilderness. Stretching 241 miles long and 57 miles across, it separated British-controlled Canada from the “Northwest Territory” – the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois.

In March, 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry, a 27 year-old naval officer, arrived. His assignment: build a fleet from nothing, and defeat the proud Royal Navy.

The war began badly for the United States. The British occupied Detroit and captured the only American warship on the lake, the 6-gun brig Adams. With a few vessels based near the mouth of the Detroit River, they controlled the lake.

Oliver Hazard Perry

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie. U.S. Naval Academy Museum painting

In March 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry, a 27-year-old naval officer, arrived. His assignment: build a fleet from nothing, and defeat the proud Royal Navy.

Perry established his base at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pa., then a cluster of cabins on a bay blocked by a sand bar). “Lake fever” (probably typhoid) was endemic. Tools, rope, canvas, provisions, guns and powder had to be hauled overland from Pittsburgh, 130 miles to the south. Trees, at least, were abundant – the shipwright’s rule-of-thumb was an acre of oak forest for each gun in a ship’s rating. But urgency required using unseasoned “green” timber that shrank and warped. Shortage of iron meant vessels were held together with wooden pegs. Despite the difficulties, Perry proved to be a brilliant project manager, ably assisted by lake pilot Dan Dobbins and master shipwright Noah Brown.

Perry had nine ships versus six, and heavier guns. But the British had more long guns – unless Perry could close quickly to bring his short carronades into effective range, Barclay could stand off and shoot his ships to pieces.

Four armed schooners were under construction at Presque Isle: Ariel (2 guns), Scorpion (4 guns), Tigress (1 gun) and Porcupine (1 gun). Two powerful 480-ton brigs were added, Lawrence and Niagara, each carrying two long 12-pounders and eighteen short 32-pounder carronades. Drawing nine feet of water, they could not cross the sand bar – they would have to be stripped of equipment and lifted across by specially built floats called “camels.”

In June, Cmdr. Robert Heriot Barclay (1786-1837) took command of the Royal Navy on the lake. A veteran of Trafalgar (1805,) he had lost an arm fighting the French. Short of sailors, he manned his fleet with Canadian militia. Perry, with only a few experienced sailors from Newport, R.I., also had to rely on militia, but Gen. William H. Harrison sent him some Kentucky sharpshooters.

Battle of Lake Erie

A painting shows a scene from the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813. The battle took place between the opposing forces of the U.S. and Britain on the contested waters of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie was one of the pivotal points of the war. U.S. Navy painting

 

The Battle Begins

Barclay blockaded Perry at Presque Isle, hoping to catch the Americans as they crossed the sandbar. Then, on July 29, Barclay sailed away; some accounts say to replenish supplies, others say to attend a banquet. Perry quickly got his squadron out onto the lake. He anchored at Put-in Bay, near the British base, where the powerful HMS Detroit (19 guns) was nearing completion. On Sept. 10, Barclay came out to fight.

Perry had nine ships versus six, and heavier guns. But the British had more long guns – unless Perry could close quickly to bring his short carronades into effective range, Barclay could stand off and shoot his ships to pieces.

We have met the enemy and they are ours.

At the start of the battle (11:45 a.m.), the British had the “weather gauge” – the best position relative to the wind – but the light wind soon veered to give Perry the edge.

As the fleets slowly closed, Lawrence was battered by converging fire from British ships. After two hours, only 17 men of the 103 crew were still fit for duty. When his last gun was disabled, Perry abandoned the wreck, taking his personal flag and a few men in a rowboat (which fortunately was undamaged). Under fire, it took 15 minutes to cover the half mile to Niagara, commanded by Jesse D. Elliot.

Battle of Lake Erie

The Niagara, homeported in Erie, Pa., and the schooner Pride of Baltimore II, homeported in Baltimore, fire a broadside into the Sorlandet, homeported in Kristiansand, Norway, on Lake Erie Sept. 2, 2013. The tall ships were participating in the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial to commemorate Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British fleet during the War of 1812. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Christopher M. Yaw

Sending Elliot to bring up the schooners that had lagged behind, Perry maneuvered Niagara to “rake” HMS Detroit, which had become entangled with another British ship. Most of the British officers were killed or wounded. About 3:00 p.m., the British surrendered. With the stub of a pencil on the back of an envelope, Perry wrote his report:

Dear General:

We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

Yours with great respect and esteem,

O.H. Perry

 

Aftermath

Perry became a national hero. American control of the lake made British occupation of Detroit untenable, and they soon retreated.

Perry’s personal flag, with the slogan “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP” is  preserved at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.

A 325-foot monument to Perry’s victory stands at Put-in Bay. USS Niagara, sunk in 1820 to preserve it, was raised and rebuilt in 1913 for the 100th anniversary of the battle. Extensively restored in 1988, it is a living memorial at the Erie Maritime Museum.

Battle of Lake Erie

The 325-foot Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial commemorates the Battle of Lake Erie and stands at Put-in Bay, Ohio. U.S. Coast Guard photo

In 1817, construction of the Erie Canal began. When completed in 1825, linking Erie to the Hudson River, the U.S. began a westward expansion that would continue to the Pacific.