This post was written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
As we continue to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we pause this week to commemorate the September 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. Unlike those heroic naval encounters on the high seas, this victory for the young United States was fought on a literal backwater, where existing warships could not move down the St. Lawrence River and the combatants had to start from scratch—racing to find the supplies to build and man lake-worthy warships. American Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry actually sought this unheralded command, but he, too, would be beset by discouragement when he felt his superior on Lake Ontario was unwilling to provide him with experienced sailors. Perry, with his Master Mariner Daniel Dobbins, was able to supervise the building of nine warships in as many months at Presque Isle (now Erie) Pennsylvania, while his British counterpart, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, struggled even more with supplies and support.
Perry was especially inspired by the death from battle wounds of his friend Captain James Lawrence off Boston harbor that June. As he was creating this fleet to meet the British on the Great Lakes, Perry named his flag ship Lawrence and had a local family sew a battle ensign bearing Lawrence’s last, futile but memorable command, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.”
In August 1813 Perry took the initiative by successfully moving his newly-built ships into open water and toward the western end of the lake where he could disrupt and challenge the British. It was the threat of starvation that forced British commander Barclay to give battle on the morning of September 10 as his inexperienced crews were left with only one day’s rations.
Perry’s victory in this bloody encounter was secured in large part by a sudden shift in the wind that allowed him to bring up his gunboats and effectively use his shorter range guns. Still, his battle plan went awry when his second in command, Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott, did not directly follow the Lawrence into battle with the sister brig Niagara. This left the Lawrence to endure raking fire from the long-range guns of the two largest British warships.
The heroic turning point in the Battle of Lake Erie can be seen in this engraving when Perry had his few surviving seamen transfer him through the hail of fire in a small boat from the disabled Lawrence to take command of the lagging Niagara a half mile away. He is shown accurately here with the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” battle flag draped in his arms, the flag that survives now at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis. However, as Walter P. Rybka, Captain and Curator of the now-restored Niagara, quipped, “In actuality the only way to win the battle was to give up the ship and go to the next one. The real motto was ‘Don’t give up.’”
Costly in terms of casualties and marking the first time an entire British naval squadron was defeated, Perry’s victory gained control over Lake Erie. The outcome would allow Major General William Henry Harrison to defeat a British and Native American force the following month in present-day Ontario at the Battle of the Thames, thus securing the Old Northwest for the United States.
Here in manuscript is Perry’s 4 P.M. report of his victory to his superior, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, “It has pleased the Almighty to give 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 & one Sloop, have this moment surrendered to the force under my command, after a sharp conflict.” (Naval historians suggest that it was actually one brig and two schooners).
Perry’s other report of this triumph, as noted in this broadside, was scribbled to General Harrison on the back of an old letter at the same time. It contains the altogether more memorable epigram, “We have met the enemy and they are ours; Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner, & one Sloop.”