Battle of Lake Erie

Thu, 09/08/2016 - 3:38pm -- lwhite

The Battle of Lake Erie is considered one of the most influential naval battles of the War of 1812. On the morning of September 10, 1813, a squadron on nine American vessels under the command of Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry would be approached by a British squadron of six vessels under Commander Robert Barclay. The resulting gun fight between the two squadrons would have an almost immediate effect on not only the Lake Erie campaign, but to the War of 1812 as a whole. Perry would go down as an American Naval Hero while Barclay, severely wounded in the battle, would be court martialed, exonerated and eventually leave the Royal Navy.

Up until that point in the War of 1812, American forces had unsuccessfully attempted an invasion of Canada three times, lost several forts along the upper Midwest territories and great lakes region, and realized just how ineffective militia is when they refused to cross the Canadian border. Lake Ontario had been controlled by the British and Lake Erie, though less defended, was in control of the British when Perry would be given command of the naval base at Presque isle. Located behind a sandbar, Presque Ilse was already the sight of construction of gunboats to try and counteract the British presence. The British, under Barclay who received this command because someone else refused it, could only do little more than harass and blockade the American forces. In Mid-July all that would change when due to poor weather and a shortage of supplies, Barclay called off the blockade. Perry took the opportunity to get his ships over the sandbar and into open water, a very taxing job that involved removing the guns. By the time Barclay returned four days later he found all but two American vessels past the sandbar. He would retreat to await the completion of his last ship, the Detroit, allowing Perry and his squadron to outfit and take on recruits at Sandusky, Ohio, and eventually anchor off of Put in Bay, Ohio.

Painting shows a scene from the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813.

There, on the morning of September 10, 1813 did Perry See Barclay and his ships coming. At first the British had the wind advantage and came at the American squadron at a steady pace, until around 10:00 am when the wind changed in favor of the American and Perry’s forces closed in for an attack. His hope was to get his two large ships, the Niagara and the Lawrence, his flagship named in honor of his late friend Captain James Lawrence whose dying command “Don’t Give up the ship” was also Perry’s personal flag, into broadside range. Before that could happen, the Lawrence had to endure almost twenty minutes of bombardment from the Detroit before it could effectively respond and when it did so it was not as effective as Perry hoped. Though the smaller American vessels were attacking the center of the British line with long range cannon, the Lawrence was still reduced to a wreck by the two large British ships losing four-fifths of the crew. 

The Lawrence would be captured, but not before Perry would be rowed nearly a half mile to the Niagara, who up to this point had not seen much action. The British, whose ships had tangled together and smaller vessels disabled hoped to see Perry and the Niagara lead the other ships in retreat. Instead Perry ordered the smaller American vessels in closer for action and steered the Niagara towards the tangled mess that was the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte. Perry, who had the wind at his back broke through the British line and with the help from the smaller vessels captured the entire British fleet of Lake Erie. He would dispatch a letter to General William Henry Harrison within which were the words he would be most remembered by, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

Oliver Hazard Perry 

The Americans would control Lake Erie for the remainder of the war, though missing several ships in the process in smaller engagements. With the lake under control it removed a threat of attack on Ohio, Pennsylvania and western New York from British forces and with naval assistance allowed the 1813 invasions of Canada to begin under General William Henry Harrison. Oliver Hazard Perry would be forever remembered in US Naval History as the Hero of Lake Erie for not only his actions during that battle, but for having major impacts on eight other battles. In 1814, Perry would be awarded an congressional gold medal, the thanks of Congress and a promotion to captain.  For the remainder of the war Perry would continue to serve seeing limited action. Afterwards, he would continue to serve in the US Navy in the second Barbary War and under a diplomatic mission to Venezuela that would result in his death due to Yellow fever in 1819 at the age of 35.