The story of the Battle of Lake Erie

PHOTO BY VICKI JOHNSON A view of Middle Bass and North Bass islands from the monument’s observation deck.

(A full version can be read on the website provided below; this is an abbreviated version)

The annual Historic Weekend event takes place at the national park Sept. 7-9, and this commemorates the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie.

According to an account of the battle of the park’s website (www.nps.gov/pevi/learn/historyculture/battle_erie_detail.htm) the day of the battle began at dawn on the morning of Sept. 10, 1813, when a lookout spotted six British vessels to the northwest of Put-in-Bay beyond Rattlesnake Island. Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry prepared to sail out to engage the British.

With Perry’s fleet on Lake Erie, the British supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been severed. The British had to either fight for or abandon Fort Malden. The British squadron consisted of six ships with 63 cannons, while the American flotilla was comprised of nine vessels and 54 guns. The British fleet had superior long-range cannons.

At 7 a.m., the American vessels left the harbor and dealt with issues of wind moving in a direction not compatible with Perry’s plans. But by mid-morning, the wind shifted, which allowed Perry to move forward with his battle plan.

PHOTO BY VICKI JOHNSON An inscription in the ground level of the memorial tells of six people buried beneath the monument.

Perry’s opponent, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, an experienced Royal Navy officer, met Perry’s fleet.

With the wind at his back and the British battle line finally revealed, Perry made his own tactical adjustments. The schooners Ariel and Scorpion were placed off the flagship’s weather bow to engage the first British vessel and to prevent the enemy from raking his fleet. The Lawrence, a 20-gun brig serving as Perry’s flagship, was third in line and would engage the Detroit, Barclay’s 19-gun flagship. Next in line floated the Caledonia, a small brig with only three guns. Fifth in the American line of battle was the Niagara, Perry’s other 20-gun brig and the Lawrence’s sistership.

The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, would engage the 17-gun Queen Charlotte, the second largest British ship. Lastly came the smaller schooners and sloop; these would engage the smaller British vessels.

Just before the engagement opened Perry hoisted his battle flag to the flagship’s main truck. The large navy blue banner was emblazoned with the crudely inscribed words, “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP.” For his battle slogan Perry used the dying words of Capt. James Lawrence, a friend of the commodore who was killed June 1, 1813. Perry’s flagship was named for the fallen Lawrence.

At 11:45 a.m., the Detroit fired the first shot at long range. Perry’s fleet was hit but was not able to return fire. During tactical maneuvering aimed at getting closer to the British ships, the Lawrence suffered punishment along the battle line.

In the meantime, the captain of the Niagara had stopped his ship instead of pursuing the Queen Charlotte as expected, and he kept the Niagara out of range. The Lawrence, however, had been overwhelmed by superior firepower, and by 2:30 p.m. was “a floating wreck.”

Perry was facing the dismal prospect of surrender.

Then, as he gazed across to the Niagara, still out of range and relatively undamaged, the commodore made a fateful decision. Collecting four unwounded men, Perry manned the flagship’s first cutter and rowed through a hail of shot to the Niagara. Miraculously, Perry and his boat crew reached the Niagara unscathed.

Perry prepared the Niagara for action, and sailed toward the British line.

The British, though they had pounded the Lawrence, had suffered also. During the engagement Barclay was severely wounded, plus the captain and first lieutenant of every British vessel was incapacitated. The English fleet was commanded by junior officers with little or no experience maneuvering ships in the chaos of combat. When they observed the Niagara bearing down on their line, the British attempted to turn their vessels around to face the unused starboard broadsides to bear. Orders were issued, but amidst the tumult of battle the battered Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided, becoming helplessly entangled.

Taking full advantage of the enemy blunder, Perry steered the Niagara through the jumbled British battle line. Unleashing both broadsides, the American commodore ravaged the British ships. As the Niagara pressed through the British line, Perry backed the maintop sail, holding the Niagara stationary while her belching carronades decimated the enemy decks.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., the British vessels surrendered. The gunboats Chippawa and Little Belt tried to escape, but they were tracked down and snared by the Scorpion and Trippe. The entire British fleet had been captured.

The vessels were anchored and repairs were underway near West Sister Island when Perry composed his now-famous message to William Henry Harrison. Scrawled in pencil on the back of an old envelope, Perry wrote, “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.”

The Battle of Lake Erie proved one of the most resounding triumphs of the War of 1812. The victory secured control of the lake, forcing the British to abandon Fort Malden and retreat up the Thames River. Harrison’s army pursued, decisively defeating the small British army and its allied Indian force Oct. 5, 1813, at the Battle of the Thames. And later, during peace talks, the dual victories of Lake Erie and the Thames insured the states of Ohio and Michigan would remain the sovereign territory of the United States of America.

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