WASHINGTON (NNS) — Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry was undermanned and pitted against what was once known as the greatest naval force on earth, in a naval battle where the British Empire expected victory. During no other naval battle during the War of 1812 were the Americans so unprepared for action. During no other battle were the navies so evenly matched, as Lake Erie. Perry had little time and even less manpower to build ships of war. The fate of the new nation of the United States depended on the battle’s outcome.
Perry’s naval career began when he was 13 years old as a midshipman in his father’s – a captain during the Quasi-War – ship; he had a taste for both maritime life and command. By 1812, the 26-year-old Perry, now a lieutenant, had served in two wars, though he had no actual experience of fighting an enemy under fire. Though an officer of promise, his record was blemished by the sinking and loss of his first command, the schooner Revenge. Though exonerated at a court of inquiry, this incident resulted in Perry taking a leave of absence and likely influenced the Navy Department’s decision to ignore his requests for a blue-water command at the start of the war.
There were many reasons that the U.S. and Britain were at war in 1812, but Naval History and Heritage Command historian Charles Brodine points out two reasons close to the Sailors’ hearts. “The maritime issues were the Royal Navy’s forcible seizure of American Sailors from U. S. merchant vessels to serve in British warships, known as impressment and their interference with our neutral trade,” Brodine, a part of NHHC’s Histories and Archive Branch said. “Estimates of Sailors impressed by the British prior to the American declaration of war range from 6,000-10,000. On 1 June of 1812, in a message to Congress, President Madison cited these two issues-impressment and the violation of American neutral rights on the high seas-as evidence that Great Britain was already engaging in de-facto warfare against the United States. Seventeen days later, a divided Congress passed and the president signed a formal declaration of war.”
According to Brodine, the central strategic objective of the Madison administration was to invade and occupy Canada, which former President Thomas Jefferson boasted could be accomplished by the “mere matter of marching” U.S. troops across the Canadian border.
“What the Madison Administration learned fairly quickly was that you can’t invade Canada – you can’t support land operations – unless you control the Northern lakes separating the U.S.-Canadian border,” Brodine explained. “Because of the nature of the terrain and the extreme distances over which the rival armies had to contend, naval support was essential to support the logistics of land-based operations. “Hence there was an effort to build ships on the Ontario and Erie.”
In late September of 1812, Daniel Dobbins, a salt merchant and a ship’s captain from Pennsylvania, who had been captured by the British twice since the beginning of the declared war, came to Washington to speak with the Secretary of the Navy and the President.
“When he went to Washington, he was actually bringing intelligence. They warranted him a Sailing Master and provided him money to go back to Erie, Pennsylvania and begin work on gunboats that would form an important part of Perry’s squadron on the southeast shore of Lake Erie,” Brodine said.
Dobbins received permission from President James Madison and $2,000 from Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to build four gunboats to help defend the U.S. settlements bordering Lake Erie.
“To command the planned naval forces on Lakes Ontario and Erie, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton selected Captain Isaac Chauncey, the commandant of the New York Navy Yard and an officer with combat experience, and more importantly, experience in directing ship building,” Brodine explained.”Chauncey was given the choice of making his headquarters on Erie or Ontario. He chose to hoist his flag at Sackets Harbor on that latter lake, although he retained administrative and operational direction over U.S. naval forces on both lakes.”
Sackets Harbor, on the shores of Lake Ontario, would remain a hotbed of activity between the British and the U.S. for the rest of the war.
Anxious to join the fight against Great Britain in an active capacity, Perry solicited and received departmental permission to serve under Isaac Chauncey on the Northern Lakes. Commodore Chauncey eagerly welcomed the energetic Perry to his undermanned corps of officers.
In February 1813, Perry, now promoted to master commandant (today’s equivalent of commander), received Chauncey’s orders to go to Erie and oversee the construction of the naval force being built there.was given orders to move to the 17-year-old settlement of Erie. The hamlet consisted of approximately 500 people in different occupations mostly revolving around the booming salt trade, 49 clapboard (like a log cabin) houses, one tannery and one blacksmith. Erie’s ship construction was to be assisted by the booming city of Pittsburgh with its populace 6,000, 130 miles to the south.
Dobbins, who had started building two shipyards in the bay, encountered many problems. He had a lack of trained craftsmen, little accommodation for workers and a lack of materials, especially iron for nails and the making of adzes, axes, and chippers. Every detail of the Erie ships had to be made by hand. There was not a gallon of paint, or oil, or a single pound of iron or copper within a hundred miles. All guns, sails, rope, cannon, cannon balls, and powder could only be moved to Erie primitive roadways.
On March 26, 1813, Perry and a skeleton crew of trained men arrived in Put-in-Bay and he swiftly recognized the magnitude of his task. Five months earlier, Dobbins had started the construction of four gunboats, but, with the lack of supplies and manpower, little was accomplished. The town was defenseless against a British force and the Canadian side of Lake Erie was filled with British sympathizers.
Perry used his official powers to summon able Sailors from the Black Rock Naval Station in New York. He also went to Pittsburgh to make contracts for the needed supplies to outfit ships. He then gave an order for 65 cannons sent from Washington D.C. and Sackets Harbor. Finally, with the help of Gen. William Harrison, commander of the Army of the Northwest, he fortified the settlement and gained soldiers to defend his shipyards from the British. It seems that Perry had brought luck with him.
“There are a number of examples where he enjoyed good luck,” Brodine said.
By April 1813, Perry’s “Fleet in the Wilderness” had begun to take shape with two gun boats, Porcupine and Tigress.. In May, 150 carpenters and ship builders arrived in Erie, joined by sail-makers and riggers and block-makers from Philadelphia. Three months later two brigs, Niagara and Lawrence, weighing 480 tons each as well as two more 80-110 ton ships, Ariel and Scorpion had been launched. Lawrence, taken as Perry’s command ship, was named after his friend James Lawrence who was killed on the USS Chesapeake a few months before. In nine short months Perry’s fleet went from being trees standing in the Pennsylvania wilderness to Navy ships ready for war. Perry himself evaded death, as more than a 100 men there had died from typhoid.
During that time, Chauncy, his commander of Naval Lake Forces, had encountered many setbacks on Lake Ontario. The commander had originally planned to take over the fleet at Erie but with so many problems cropping up from British attacks, Chauncy was forced to leave the defense of the lake to Perry.
In July, U.S forces took the British at Fort George leading the British offering Perry the chance to add to his fleet by using converted merchant vessels held at Black Rock, New York on the Niagara River. Perry’s luck saved him. During the movement of the ships down-river onto Lake Erie, ponderously slow due to them being hauled upstream with oxen, he went unnoticed by the British Squadron operating nearby.
On September 10, Perry set out with his six constructed ships and three converted merchantmen to face the British squadron in what might be the turning point of the war. Both Americans and the British Sailors valiantly sought to build, equip and man their ships – as a result, there were more ships on the American side and more trained sailors on the British side. Perry’s own command ship, USS Lawrence, sailed while flying the famous battle flag emblazoned with “Don’t Give Up The Ship!,” attributed to his friend James Lawrence’s mortally-wounded battle cry while leading his frigate, the USS Chesapeake, in battle against HMS Shannon.
In a letter to the secretary of the Navy on September 13. Perry recounted the battle, “At 15 minutes before twelve, the enemy commenced firing; at five minutes before twelve, the action commenced on our part. Finding their fire very destructive, owing to their long guns, and its being mostly directed at the Lawrence, I made sail, and directed the other vessels to follow, for the purpose of closing with the enemy. Every brace and bowline being soon shot away, she became unmanageable, notwithstanding the great exertions of the sailing master. In this situation, she sustained the action upwards of two hours, within canister distance, until every gun was rendered useless, and the greater part of her crew either killed or wounded. Finding she could no longer annoy the enemy, I left her [the ship] in charge of Lt. Yarnall, who, I was convinced, from the bravery already displayed by him, would do what would comport with the honor of the flag.”
With many of his men dead or wounded and the Lawrence severely damaged, Perry had boarded one of the few rowboats that was still afloat. With a few of his surviving men as crew, Perry hauled down his battle flag “Don’t Give up The Ship,” and they rowed for a half mile, amidst a hail of cannon and shrapnel toward the Niagara without being killed.
He continues, “At half past two, the wind springing up, Captain Elliott was enabled to bring his vessel, the Niagara, gallantly into close action. I immediately went on board of her, when he anticipated my wishes, by volunteering to bring the schooners, which had been kept astern by the lightness of the wind, into closer action. It was with unspeakable pain that I saw, soon after I got on board the Niagara, the flag of the Lawrence come down; although was perfectly sensible that she had been defended to the last, and that, to have continued to make a show of resistance would have been a wanton sacrifice of the remains of her brave crew. But the enemy was not able to take possession of her, and circumstances soon permitted her flag again to be hoisted. At forty-five minutes past two the signal was made for ‘closer action.’ The Niagara being very little injured, I determined to pass through the enemy’s line; bore up, and passed ahead of their two ships and a brig, saving a raking fire to them, from the starboard guns, and to a large schooner and sloop from the larboard side, at half pistol shot distance. The smaller vessels, at this time, having got within grape and canister distance, under the direction of Captain Elliott, and keeping up a well-directed fire, the two ships, a brig, and schooner, surrendered, a schooner and sloop making a vain attempt to escape.”
It was a stroke of luck that Perry hadn’t perished as Lawrence took a beating by the British cannons. “When you think about the devastation on the Lawrence, it’s amazing Perry escaped the carnage unscathed,” Brodine said.
In a battle that saw Perry change command from the nearly destroyed Lawrence to the Niagara and the deaths and wounding of 25 and 75 American Sailors respectively, he earned victory and accepted the surrender of the Commander of the British Naval Squadron. It was after his victory that he hastily sent the famous note to Harrison.
“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.”
Though he had won a complete victory for his country that day, Perry was impressed with the British Sailors’ valiant efforts and they won his respect. He even went as far as returning the surrendered sword to the British squadron commander and conducting a side-by-side funeral service for the dead of both sides.
The battle would prove to solidify America’s control of the Northeast. “Because of that battle, the United States was able to gain control of Lake Erie as part of a larger strategic vision to invade Canada,” Brodine said, “America would occupy it temporarily and then use it as a bargaining chip, to gain concessions from England regarding violations of neutral trade. The Battle of Lake Erie put the Northwest largely back in the control of the United States.”
While the battle was not a turning point in the war, it did help America in several ways: First, the victory on Erie, along with other naval triumphs on Lake Champlain and on the high seas, gained the United States Navy much acclaim from the American government and people. Two, it gave the Sailors who took part in these naval actions important warfare experience. More than 20 years later, these veterans would be in senior command positions when the Mexican American War began. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it proved the mettle of America and its Sailors to the British Empire, demonstrating that Americans were capable of overcoming any obstacle to protect the ideals they held dear, and their young country.