The Battle of Lake Erie
At dawn on the morning of September 10, 1813, a lookout spotted six British vessels to the northwest of Put-in-Bay beyond Rattlesnake Island. Immediately Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry issued a flurry of orders and made preparations to sail forth to engage the British.
With Perry's fleet on Lake Erie the British supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been severed. The British had to either fight, or abandon Fort Malden. The British squadron consisted of six ships with sixty-three cannons, while the American flotilla comprised nine vessels and fifty-four guns. The British were armed with long guns that could throw a cannonball approximately one mile, accurately to about one-half mile. The American ships primarily armed with carronades had less than half the range of a long gun. The carronades could inflict much more damage at close range. Perry needed the wind to his back to close within carronade range.
When the squadron sailed from Put-in-Bay harbor at 7 a.m. the American vessels were steering west-northwest; the wind was blowing from the west-southwest. For more than two hours Perry repeatedly tacks his ships in an effort to put the wind to his back, but with no success. The frustrated Perry, conceded to mother nature at 10 a.m., issuing orders to turn his fleet in the opposite direction. But before the order could be executed the wind suddenly shifted and blew from the southeast, placing the wind directly behind the Americans.
Perry's opponent, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, was an experienced Royal Navy officer who had fought with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, and two years later he lost an arm fighting the French. Barclay's options did not alter when the wind shifted, so the Scotsman pointed his bow sprits to the westward, and hove to in line of battle.
With the wind at his back and the British battle line finally revealed, Perry made his own tactical adjustments. The Schooners Ariel and Scorpion were placed off the flagship's weather bow to engage the first British vessel and to prevent the enemy from raking his fleet. The Lawrence, a 20-gun brig serving as Perry's flagship, was third in line and would engage the Detroit, Barclay's 19-gun flagship. Next in line floated the Caledonia, a small brig with only three guns. Fifth in the American line of battle was the Niagara, Perry's other 20-gun brig and the Lawrence's sistership.
The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, would engage the 17-gun Queen Charlotte, the second largest British ship. Lastly came the smaller schooners and sloop; these would engage the smaller British vessels.
Just before the engagement opened Perry hoisted his battle flag to the flagship's main truck. The large navy blue banner was emblazoned with the crudely inscribed words, "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP". For his battle slogan Perry used the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, a friend of the commodore who was killed on June 1, 1813. Perry's flagship was named for the fallen Lawrence, and the dead hero's inspiring words clearly indicated Perry's determination to prevail.
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Did You Know?
Commodore Perry, aboard the Niagara, won the first US Navy fleet action and captured an entire British squadron. Perry reported "Dear General (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".