The Battle of Lake Erie

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Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, painted 1865, shows Oliver Hazard Perry transferring from Lawrence to Niagara

Commodore Oliver Perry led his fleet to victory at the Battle of Lake Erie proving the United States Navy could stand up to the British Navy on the waves.

Prior to the War of 1812, the British had unarguably the world’s top navy but by the end of the war in 1814, the United States had proven its mettle against the King’s Fleet. One of the battles that proved Americans could fight on an even keel with their counter parts across the Atlantic was the Battle for Lake Erie.

Invading Upper Canada

The war strategy for the United States when war broke out against Great Britain in 1812 was to invade Upper Canada (modern day Quebec and Ontario) and expel the British from the continent. The failed campaign of General William Hull in 1812 which ended disastrously underscored the need for supply route by water to aid any other future invasion.

President James Madison and his cabinet decided to build a fleet on Lake Erie and the Navy Department sent Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to oversee the construction of a naval flotilla on the lake.

Perry completed his task in late summer 1813 despite having difficulties raising materials and men to build and man his boats.

Clashing With the British Fleet

In September, Perry’s squad was afloat consisting of the two large vessels the Niagara and Perry’s Flagship the Lawrence. The Lawrence was named after Captain James Lawrence whose dying words “Don’t give up the ship” were an inspiration to his friend Perry. Perry had the words sewn onto a blue banner which would serve as his battle flag.

Seven other smaller vessels also made up the American fleet, which would face an experienced British squadron which had more guns and longer fighting range.

On September 10, 1813, Perry and the British Commander Robert Barclay clashed near the harbor of Put-in-Bay.

Perry, who had a favorable wind, quickly advanced on the enemy, engaging Barclay’s flagship the Detroit. Both ships took considerable damage as the American boats needed to fight in close due to the limited range of their cannons.

Unexpectedly, the Niagara under the command of Commandant Jesse Elliott, hung back out of the battle. Without the Niagara in the fray, the second large ship in the British line, the Queen Charlotte, was able to train its cannons on the Lawrence severely crippling the American vessel.

Switching Ships Under Fire

With the Lawrence badly damaged and its guns knocked out of commission, Perry knew he could not fight any more from his position. Looking back at the undamaged Niagara, Perry decided to make a bold move.

Hauling down his battle flag and taking one of the ships lifeboats, Perry rowed across the water with a small crew of four men. Despite being fired upon by the British with cannon and grape shot, Perry made it to the Niagara unscathed.

Taking command of the Niagara, Perry sailed the vessel back into the heat of battle and engaged the heavily damaged Detroit and Queen Charlotte and inflicted several crippling blows on the ships.

Barclay had been injured in the first exchange with Perry and the officers now commanding the British ships knew they could not stand up to the uninjured Niagara. Striking their colors, the British surrendered the larger ships and the American boats rounded up the smaller English vessels and the battle was over.

Opening the Door to Canada

With Lake Erie cleared of any British naval force, the path was open for a new invasion of Canada, this time led by General William Henry Harrison. Harrison, who had already scored victories in regaining portions of Ohio and Michigan that had been lost in previous battles, was eager to get the invasion started.

Knowing this, Perry quickly sent a note to Harrison stationed at Fort Sandusky and those words became burned in the American psyche. Perry wrote “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

Upon receiving the dispatch, Harrison began his campaign and on October 5 defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames.

Preserving the Northwest

While the United States would eventually return Upper Canada to the British in the treaty of Ghent ending the war, Perry’s victory on Lake Erie ensured the British would not be able to take control of the Northwest Territory.

Without that victory, the states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin and Illinois may have never been in the Union.

Source:

  1. Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence,by A.J. Langguth, Simon & Schuster, 2007