The year was 1812 the vast territory surrounding the Great Lakes was sparsely populated and for the most part wilderness. Across the Atlantic Great Britain was embroiled in a cataclysmic war against Napoleonic Europe. The United States found itself caught in the midst of that struggle. To prevent supplies from falling into enemy hands, the British Navy began seizing American merchant ships to add insult to injury it also forced US sailors to fight for the Royal Navy. There was also anger rising in the Northwest Territory. US settlement of this area around the Great Lakes was producing violent conflicts with American Indians. Some members of Congress went so far as to accuse the British in Canada of encouraging Indians to harass US settlers. Years of increasing friction fanned by American resentment toward the British that lingered from the Revolution led to public cries for retaliation. In June of 1812, Congress formally declared war on Great Britain. To secure a quick and decisive victory the US developed a strategy for invading Canada. A crucial aspect of the campaign was to take command of Lake Erie, but US forces stumbled early on as they attempted to carry out the plan. In August of 1812, US General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit. Five months later British and Indian forces defeated a small US Army at the River Raisin. The following summer of 1813 Fort Meigs thwarted two British sieges and Fort Stephenson repelled another British attack. The struggle for the territory had reached a stalemate. It was clear that whoever controlled Lake Erie held the advantage. In April of 1813 US troops were ordered to delay another invasion of Canada until naval support arrived. That naval support was taking shape in Erie, Pennsylvania. Construction was being completed on a US fleet. Command was given to 27-year-old Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. While Perry was busy with preparations another squadron was already afloat on Lake Erie. Since the outset of the war the British Navy had maintained control of the lake. In June of 1813 command of the British Lake Erie fleet was given to Robert Heriot Barclay just 26 years old. One of the first priorities for both commanders was Manning their ships in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy Perry wrote “Commodore Chauncey has sent me a sailing master three Midshipmen and 65 men very few of the men are seamen I am rejoiced to have them as bad as they are.” Commodore Barclay was equally pressed to find a competent and experienced crew for his British squadron referring to his lack of able-bodied seamen he wrote “until the 36 arrived from the Dover I had not more than 10 or 15 and those you know or of the very worst quality the rest consisted of Canadians and soldiers will except crossing the Atlantic had never seen a ship.” By late August the US fleet arrived at Put-in-Bay, a strategically located and naturally protected Harbor. By anchoring here Perry effectively severed the British supply line. Their food and supplies cut off the British faced the choice either to fight or abandon their base at Fort Malden and with it the region. In early September a new British flagship was completed and with this additional strength they opted to fight. As dawn broke on September 10th 1813, a lookout aboard Perry's flagship the Lawrence sighted the sails of the British fleet. Perry ordered his squadron of nine vessels to get underway. He knew two critical factors would determine the outcome of this fateful meeting. One was armament the British fleet was armed mostly with long guns, cannons that were accurate to about a half mile, the US fleet was outfitted primarily with carronades, stubby barreled cannons that could fire heavier charges but had less than half the range of a long gun. To make effective use of his guns Perry knew it would be necessary to fight at short range. To do so Perry needed the second critical factor the wind at his back. The US fleet sailed from Put-in-Bay at 6 am. For the next three hours Perry struggled against the wind barely making headway. Frustrated he finally issued orders to turn around but before the order could be executed the wind suddenly shifted giving Perry the advantage. As the US squadron drew closer Perry adjusted his fleet to match the British vessels. His flagship, the Lawrence, would fight Barclay’s flagship, the Detroit. Perry's other brig Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott would engage the British vessel Queen Charlotte. The remaining gunboats would take on the smaller British vessels. As the US ships bore down on the British Perry brought out his crudely inscribed battle flag DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP. Were the dying words of Captain James Lawrence a friend of Perry's who was killed in battle three months earlier and whose memory was honored in the naming of Perry's flagship. As recalled by a US seaman “we knew this flag was on board but none of us knew what the motto was when it was unfurled the whole squadron gave three cheers every soul seemed animated by one feeling” seaman David Bunnell. As the fleets prepared for battle buckets of water were placed by each gun to quench thirst and extinguish fires. Sand was spread along the decks to provide secure footing and to soak up blood. “Grog was then served out and every man repaired to quarters. Captain Perry went leisurely round inspecting his battery and occasionally spoke to the men, he asked well boys are you ready” Sir Samuel Hamilton. After the ships had been cleared for action all that was left was the agonizing wait. Every sailor who had ever been in a close quarters engagement knew what to expect. A naval fight embodied more terror than a land battle ever could because aboard a ship there was no place to escape. It wasn't only cannonballs that were feared just as deadly were the splinters shards of wood ranging from the size of toothpicks to airborne planks went flying when a cannonball plowed through the side of a wooden ship. There were also other projectiles to fear like grape shot and canister shot. There were marksmen in the tops of the enemy ships taking aim with their muskets. There was the possibility of being boarded with the dreaded hand-to-hand combat that would follow. There was the fear of being forced into the water for most sailors couldn't even swim, but most of all the seamen feared being wounded having to face the agony of crude surgery with nothing but a shot of whiskey for an anesthetic. As the battle line drew near the captain's posted sentries at the hatches to prevent anyone from fleeing below deck in the heat of battle. At 11:45 a.m. the British flagship Detroit fired the first shot a 24 pound cannonball that missed the Lawrence a few minutes later a second 24-pounder struck its target and punched a hole through Perry’s flagship. The carronades aboard the Lawrence were still out of range so Perry gave orders for the long guns on the Ariel and Scorpion to open fire. For the next 30 minutes Perry struggled to close the range during which time the Lawrence was pummeled by almost the entire British line. “My comrades fell on all sides of me one man who stood next to me was most shockingly wounded having both his legs shot off and a number of spikes from the bulwark drove into his body” seaman David Bunnell. By 12:15 p.m. the Lawrence was finally within carronade range and the huge 32 pounders began crashing into the British ships. When the Niagara closed within range and opened fire Perry would have the advantage. Looking back Perry expected to see the Niagara edging forward instead the Niagara had shortened sail and slowed down for reasons long debated the Niagara was dead in the water out of range of the enemy ships. With the Niagara staying back 40% of Perry's firepower was unusable taking full advantage of this unexpected opportunity the British ships now focused on the Lawrence. By 2:30 p.m. the Lawrence was a floating wreck every gun on her engaged side was disabled and four of every five men were killed or wounded. “I looked along the deck there was one continued gore of blood and carnage the dead and dying were strewn in every direction it was impossible to take the wounded below as fast as they fell.” In a last-ditch effort Perry made a fateful decision to transfer to the Niagara accompanied by four men and his battle flag Perry rode over a quarter mile through the hail of shot reaching the ship miraculously unscathed. Though Barclay ships had successfully pounded the Lawrence into a battered hulk they had also suffered terribly. During the fight, Barclay was severely wounded as were the captain and first lieutenant of every other British ship. The British fleet was now commanded by junior officers who had little or no experience maneuvering ships in the chaos of combat. As the Niagara bore down on their line the young British officers attempted to turn their vessels around to bring the unused guns to bear; however, in the confusion the Queen Charlotte collided with the crippled Detroit becoming helplessly entangled. Taking advantage of the blunder Perry steered the Niagara through the disorganized British battle lines unleashing guns from both sides of his ship. Perry blasted the vulnerable British vessels. By this time the lagging US gunboats had also sailed into range raking the enemy from the rear. “The smoke was so dense it was impossible to see the enemy, but we were so close to them that by firing on a level we could not miss”. A few minutes after 3 p.m. subjected to overwhelming firepower the British ships began surrendering one by one. “What a glorious date in my country and how rejoiced I was to find the battle ended and myself safe except a slight wound and much deafened. I did not recover my proper hearing for a year afterwards.” Grasping the enormity of his success Perry composed a message to General William Henry Harrison commander of the US Army in the northwest “Dear General, We have met the enemy and they are ours two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem OH Perry. The victory was important but came with a cost. One in four men on each side became a casualty. The officers from both sides were buried on South Bass Island but the dead seamen were lashed up in their hammocks and committed to the sea accompanied by the words of Chaplain Thomas Breeze. “Thus they sank without a moan unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.” Now that the lake was in US hands Perry’s fleet was able to transport General Harrison's army to the Canadian mainland. The British army abandoned their base at Fort Malden and retreated up the Thames River. Harrison's army followed defeating the British and their Indian allies on October 5th 1813. When peace talks finally began the dual victories of Lake Erie and the Thames gave US negotiators a major bargaining chip. Ultimately Perry's victory ensured that the Northwest Territory would remain the territory of the United States. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve 1814 bringing the War of 1812 to a close. Three years later the US and Great Britain signed the Rush-Bagot Agreement paving the way for the permanent disarmament of the four thousand mile border between the United States and Canada. Out of the horrors of war has come a peace that has lasted to this day. This commitment to peace has created the longest undefended border in the world though various disputes have arisen over the years the US and Canada have consistently relied on arbitration to resolve disagreements. As a fitting tribute to this piece Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial was constructed between 1912 and 1915. Interred beneath the Memorial Rotunda are the remains of the three British and three US officers killed in the battle. Lying side-by-side they represent the sacrifices of so many that many others would know peace.
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15 minute orientation film about the Battle of Lake Erie that is played in the Visitor Center at Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.
Victory Photo Gallery...contains selected photos from Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial, including scenic views of the memorial, an inside look at special events, and images from our historic archive.
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Last updated: August 4, 2023