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Once again America was at war with its former colonial master, only some 30 years after winning the American Revolution. The British were still the most powerful military force in the world, and the war was not going well for the Americans. When we think of famous naval battles at that time we usually think of them taking place somewhere off of our Atlantic coasts, or in the Caribbean. But this famous battle took place on the waters of Lake Erie, off the northern coast of Ohio.
This month marks the two-hundredth anniversary of the battle where U.S. Naval Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, after a harrowing naval engagement with British warships on Lake Erie, wrote in his battle report the famous line: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This was, of course, during the War of 1812. The U.S. had rather brashly declared war on Britain in 1812 because the Royal Navy was in the habit of taking American ships, kidnapping and conscripting American sailors to fight on Royal Navy ships. There were also some outstanding and simmering trade issues that the British had been reluctant to resolve.
Captain Perry was 28-years-old at the time of the battle. He was an incredibly brave individual, but in this case, he was also a very lucky one. He set out from Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island to meet the British naval forces massed there on September 10th. His command ship was the Lawrence. The battle was engaged and the Lawrence found itself pounded furiously by British naval guns. He and his crew fought on bravely, even though after two hours his ship had 75% of its crew either killed or maimed by the onslaught. His ship had lost all of its guns on the starboard side, his rigging was shredded, and he could no longer maneuver.
Rather than surrender, he left the Lawrence in a rowboat and, under heavy fire, traversed about a mile of open water to another American vessel called the Niagra. He brought with him the Lawrence’s battle flag, which had emblazoned on it the now ironic words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” The luck for Perry was that as he boarded the Niagra, the winds shifted and picked up, and the Niagra was able to maneuver and sweep across the British line of ships, firing a heavy set of broadsides and inflicting heavy damage. Two of the other American ships, meanwhile, were able to pour fire onto the British from astern.
When the smoke had cleared, the nine American ships involved in this engagement had captured the six superior British naval vessels. This victory gave the Americans control of Lake Erie for the rest of the war and enabled American forces to recover Detroit, which had been taken earlier by the British.
Although Perry had won the battle aboard the Niagra, he accepted the surrender of the British on the battered decks of the Lawrence, so that he could allow the British the opportunity to see the terrible price his men had paid for the victory in that battle. It is quite conceivable that, if the U.S. naval forces had not won this battle on Lake Erie, what is now Michigan and Wisconsin — and maybe even Ohio — might be Canadian territory today.
Reading about this battle is as exciting as reading an account of a naval battle in one of Michael O’Brien’s sea novels. But the reality is that it was one of the few successful moments in the War of 1812 for the American side. The Battle of Lake Erie had turned things in favor of the Americans 200 years ago, September 10, 1813.
Top: Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, oil on canvas painting by Thomas Birch, c. 1814; Bottom: Oliver Hazard Perry standing on front of small boat after abandoning his flagship, the Lawrence at the Battle of Lake Erie, by Edward Percy Moran, c. 1911.