Oliver Hazard Perry And The Battle Of Lake Erie
The Battle of Lake Erie. 1911 painting by Edward Percy Moran. Source: (Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
The War of 1812 is not the sexiest war in American history. It was generally unpopular, the United States was not ready for the war, the British burned Washington, D.C., and it ended in a stalemate. Still, the War of 1812 brought the United States the national anthem thanks to Francis Scott Key; and it created a naval hero for the Americans: Oliver Hazard Perry.
Oliver Hazard Perry was born on August 23, 1785, in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. He was warranted a midshipman in 1799 and took part in the Quasi-war against the French as well as the action against the Tripoli pirates. At the beginning of the War of 1812, he found himself stationed at Newport, Rhode Island commanding a small squadron of gunboats.
Perry, however, wanted a more important command. He, therefore, petitioned Isaac Chauncey, who was the commander of naval operations on the Great Lakes. Chauncey who needed seasoned men to help build a flotilla against British Canada, brought Perry to help.
The Great Lakes is not typically thought of as a great theater of naval combat. But its strategic importance was immeasurable. It formed the border between Canada and the United States, and it was the great highway of commerce into the heart of North America. The nation that could control the lakes, could determine the outcome of the war. The British knew this and at the outset of hostilities seized control of the lake and were building an even larger fleet.
Perry hired a team of carpenters and within a year had built a fleet of nine vessels consisting of six small gunboats, a sloop, and two brigs -- the Lawrence and Niagara. Meanwhile, the British under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay were continuing to strengthen their own forces.
The battle took place at Put-in-Bay on September 10, 1813. Barclay’s forces had better and more accurate range with their cannons, but Perry’s carronades had more firepower. When the action opened at 11:45 A.M., Perry spent an hour taking heavy fire on his flagship Lawrence while he struggled to get into firing range. But by the time he was within distance to fire his carronades at the British, he found that he was not effective, his artillery being overloaded.
The Lawrence by this point was badly beaten up and virtually all of his weapons useless. Meanwhile, the captain of the Niagara, Jesse Elliott, had backed off, leaving the Lawrence to burn. When he was certain that the Lawrence was lost, he boarded one of the ship’s cutters holding a blue flag that read, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” This command was uttered by Captain James Lawrence (of whom Perry's ship was named) as his dying words in a naval engagement in 1813 and was adopted by Perry. Perry sailed to the Niagara. In a tense exchange, Elliott volunteered to leave the Niagara and rally the schooners. Perry took command of the Niagara.
Perry’s fleet was now at close range and with great firepower, unleashed devastation upon the British. Every commanding officer aboard the British fleet was wounded or killed, leaving the command to junior officers. In an act of further derring-do, Perry rammed the Niagara into the British flagship.
By nightfall, the Americans had won. Perry wrote a message to Major General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Perry’s victory ensured that the Ohio Valley would remain in American hands and made Canada vulnerable to American attacks. This gave the United States some bargaining power when the war concluded in 1815. Perry himself was awarded a gold medal and promoted to captain. Perry died of yellow fever while on a mission in South America in 1819. His legacy as the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie immortalized him in American naval history.
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