In the winter of 1813, the war with the British was not going well for the Americans. An alliance of British troops and Indians, led by the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, had soundly defeated poorly led and inadequately trained Americans at every turn. British warships patrolled Lake Erie and harassed American interests in Pennsylvania and the Ohio Territory.
To turn the tide of the war, President James Madison appointed William Henry Harrison as Commander-in-Chief of the Northwest Army and Oliver Hazard Perry to deal with the British naval presence on Lake Erie.
Perry, just 27, had to build a fleet from scratch. It was a daunting task, as the area lacked a proper shipyard, building materials and experienced shipbuilders. So he purchased three schooners and a sloop and set about building more ships. He added the brig Caledonia, recently captured from the British.
Despite sporadic shelling by the British from Fort Erie, Perry was able to assemble a fleet of five vessels. A surprise attack by the American army and navy in May drove the British out of Fort Erie and off the Niagara Peninsula. This allowed Perry to get five of his ships out of the harbor and onto the lake. Five more were still under construction at what passed for a shipyard at Erie, Pa.
On Sept. 10, 1813, six British ships, commanded by the one-armed captain Commodore R.H. Barclay weighed anchor, hoisted their sails, moved into formation and began the trip across Lake Erie. Commodore Perry was ready for them.
Though sick and flushed with a fever that had been bothering him for months, the young captain was eager for battle. He impressed upon his captains the need to remain in close formation and press the action to offset the superior range of the British navy’s guns. Then he showed them a blue flag bearing the words “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” a quote from his good friend, the late Captain James Lawrence.
When they saw it, Perry told them, they were to commence the battle.
A light wind hampered the American fleet and Perry’s flagship, Lawrence, was battered by the Detroit’s superior guns for 15 minutes before it could close to within range of its own guns. It wasn’t long before more than two-thirds of Lawrence’s crew was dead or wounded, the ship was too damaged to sail and the guns were rendered inoperable. Two more of Perry’s ships were also severely damaged.
Perry boarded a small skiff and transferred to the Niagara, which had been kept back and was essentially undamaged. He pressed the action, got in close and bombarded the Detroit with broadsides from Niagara’s guns.
With Barclay severely wounded and the Detroit heavily damaged, Perry closed within range of his small arms and began raking the deck with pistol and rifle fire. Twenty minutes after Perry had changed ships and pressed the attack, every British commanding officer and his second was either dead or too badly wounded to continue and the British fleet surrendered.
To impress upon the British the cost of the victory, Perry accepted Barclay’s surrender on the bloodied deck of the Lawrence. It was the first time in history an entire fleet of the vaunted British navy had been defeated and captured intact.
Perry scribbled a note to Harrison that read:
We have the met the enemy and they are ours—two ships, two brigs, one schooner and a sloop.
Yours, with great respect and esteem,
Oliver Hazard Perry
(Sources: The Frontiersman, by Allan W. Eckert; www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_By_the_Master_Historians_Vol_III/Commodore_c.html; and www.history.com/this-day-in-history/the-battle-of-lake-erie)