A glance at a map of Lake Erie quickly reveals its strategic importance to the belligerents of the War of 1812. The lake sits atop what was then the western boundary of the United States. The British were in control of Canada; with the waters of Lake Erie at their disposal, they would be able to ferry armies into positions allowing them to launch attacks on western Pennsylvania and New York, and proceed from there to America’s east coast cities.
This was not a situation that the Americans could tolerate. At the outbreak of war with Britain in 1812, however, there was little the United States could do to counter enemy moves in the region. The British quickly took control of Lake Erie. The U.S. Navy was both undermanned and deficient in ships; morale was high in the officer corps, a result of the successful conclusion of the Barbary Wars a decade earlier, but without money, men, and materiel, little could be done. At the start of the war there was only one U.S. warship on Lake Erie, the Adams, and she was unfit for service. The British captured both the Adams and the city of Detroit in short order.
Yet, as this conflict and others in the future were to prove, the Americans were never so dangerous than when the odds were stacked against them. U.S. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton met with a naval maverick named Daniel Dobbins who had experience on the Great Lakes; Dobbins recommended immediate construction of a small fleet of four warships and a staging-area at Presque Isle that could be used to retake Lake Erie. In 1813 Hamilton was replaced as naval secretary by William Jones, who ordered the construction of two more ships to the growing offensive fleet. The British must have seen these preparations, but for reasons that are not entirely clear, they failed to take them seriously. The most likely explanation is that they lacked the manpower and logistical capacity to build and outfit additional vessels; in the Western theatre of the war, they preferred to rely on their Indian allies to mount harassing attacks on the Americans.
Whatever the reason, the outcome was that in a short period of time, the enterprising Yankees had put together a sizeable force at Lake Erie. Command of this naval force would fall to Oliver Hazard Perry, a man whose family had had a long association with naval service. Perry’s father, a hard and resourceful man, had been a naval veteran of the Revolutionary War, and had even served time as a prisoner of war in a Jersey prison-ship. Released, he was later captured again and served eighteen months in a British prison; he then escaped and found his way to the island of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. He married at the war’s end in 1783; Oliver Hazard Perry, the future victor of Lake Erie, was his eldest child. It is incredible to think that Perry was twenty-eight years old in 1813; and on his confident, dashing shoulders rested the fate of the war’s western theater.
Young Oliver thus naturally discovered his vocation in the sea. At the conclusion of the Barbary Wars in the early 1800s, Perry found himself both aggressive and hungry for command; and when he heard about the fleet being assembled on the Great Lakes, he sensed his chance. In March 1813 he arrived at Presque Isle and took direct command. The British commander, Robert H. Barclay, found himself operating at a significant handicap. His weapons lacked decent firing mechanisms, and the quality of his manpower was low. Barclay’s superiors in Canada begrudged him decent equipment and reinforcements; and by the summer of 1813, his reconnaissance of Presque Isle made it clear that the Americans had two thousand soldiers defending the base. One gets the sense, from reading accounts of the battle, that it was an open secret that Lake Erie could not be held against an American counterattack. Barclay, nevertheless, did the best he could with the tools at his disposal.
The British were compelled to lift their blockade of Presque Isle at the end of July 1813, and Perry immediately began to move his fleet across the sandbar that inhibited naval movement near the coast. As Barclay saw his reinforcements slow to a trickle, and compared them to the growing power of the American presence at Erie, he felt—probably correctly—that time was not on his side, and that he should seek to engage his enemies before they became out of reach. The battle commenced on September 10th. It would prove to be the most decisive naval engagement of the war; despite Perry’s edge over the British in men and gunnery, there was more riding on this battle than he cared to admit at the time. A British victory at Lake Erie would have opened up the Western frontier to ground invasion.
The firing began around noon on September 10th. The light wind meant that Perry was unable to perform the kind of maneuvers he would have liked. An experienced seaman and naval combatant, he understood the critical importance of gaining the most favorable possible position before firing. Both sides pounded away at each other, but the superior numbers and quality of American guns eventually began to tell. Both the captain and first lieutenant of Britain’s Queen Charlotte were killed in the fighting; but Perry’s flagship, the Lawrence, saw eighty percent of her crew killed or wounded.
Personal bravery on both sides was in no short supply. In one of the most famous incidents of the battle, Perry decided to relocate himself from the destroyed Lawrence to another vessel, the Niagra. He and a small party rowed half a mile in an open boat through intense gunfire. Barclay, Perry’s British counterpart, was severely wounded during the fighting, and was compelled to turn over command to a subordinate. Things began to improve for the Americans once Perry transferred his command to the Niagra. Perry ordered his gunboats to renew their attacks, while he himself took advantage of the increased winds to try to pierce the British line. The British surrendered two of their major vessels, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte, in the late afternoon when they became crippled by damage. Gunnery had been of particular importance in the fight; as Theodore Roosevelt commented, “the battle was fought largely at long range, where the number of men, provided there were plenty to handle the sails and guns, did not much matter.”
By late afternoon it was over. The casualties were roughly equal; forty-one killed and ninety-four wounded on the British side, and twenty-seven killed and ninety-six on the American. Barclay had fought valiantly, but his force was simply outclassed and outgunned. In the battle he had lost a leg, and had suffered the paralysis of an arm; when we add the fact that he had lost his other arm in combat in 1809, we begin to appreciate the sacrifices he had made for his command and his country.
Perry’s elation at the victory come through in the following famous messages. Who will object to our quoting them once again? The first was sent to General William Henry 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,
Perry’s letter to Secretary of the Navy William Jones is equally ecstatic:
U.S. brig, Niagara, Off the Western Sister, head of Lake Erie. September 10, 1813, 4 p.m.
It has pleased the Almighty to give to the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this lake. The British squadron, consisting of two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop, have this moment surrendered to the forces under my command, after a sharp conflict.
I have the honor to be, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
The consequences of the battle were far-reaching; it remains one of the most decisive yet unfamiliar encounters in American military history. The British were forced to evacuate Detroit and Michigan. The long-feared Indian invasion by Britain’s Native American allies became an impossibility. The battle is a testament to the power of determination and persistence under duress, rather than brilliant naval wizardry. The Americans were simply able to bring more firepower in a shorter time to where it mattered most. Britain, although she fought valiantly, was unable to match the armaments and ordnance preparations of her opponent. The seeds of victory were to be found in the energy the Americans expended in in the spring and summer of 1813; they simply willed it to happen, knowing the consequences that would follow in the wake of failure. Theodore Roosevelt’s assessment is as accurate as any that can be made:
The superiority of the Americans in long-gun metal was therefore nearly as three is to two, and in carronade metal greater than two to one. The chief fault to be found in the various American accounts is that they sedulously conceal the comparative weight of metal, while carefully specifying the number of guns.
Congress awarded Perry a gold medal for his service, and silver medals for his officers. An extra three-months’ pay was awarded to all seamen, marines, and officers who took part in the battle. As a final token of national appreciation, Congress awarded $225,000 in prize money to be distributed among the participants.
Read more on feats of daring in Digest: