Caption under the image on this page: BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE. PERRY'S VICTORY
AMERICAN AND ENGLAND MATCHED AGAINST EACH OTHER IN SQUADRON COMBAT --- 1813
Foreign nations, who still smiled incredulously at the pretensions of the United States in carrying on an ocean warfare with the proud "mistress of the seas", --- as England was everywhere acknowledged to be, --- were now to receive, in addition to the splendid victory of the United States frigate Constitution over the Guerriere, fresh and decisive proof of the naval supremacy of the youthful republic, in the magnificent triumph achieved by Commodore Oliver H. Perry, on the waters of Lake Erie. Here, for the first time in the history of the western world, the flag of a British squadron was struck, humiliatingly, to the Americans. Great Britain had already been signally defeated in single naval combats, during the present contest; she was now beaten in squadron, --- every one of her ships striking their colors to the stars and stripes.
The unexpected and disgraceful surrender of the northern army under General Hull, to the British, rendered a superior force on Lake Erie necessary for the defense of the American territory bordering on the lake, as well as for offensive operations in Canada. Under these circumstances Oliver H. Perry, a brave and accomplished young officer, who had the command of a gunboat flotilla for the defense of New York, was designated to the command on Lake Erie. But, at this time, the United States possessed no naval force on the lake; the only vessels belonging to the government were captured at Detroit. The southern or American lake shore, being principally a sand beach formed by the sediment driven by the northerly winds, afforded but few harbors, and those encumbered with bars at their entrance. At Presque Isle, ninety miles west of Buffalo, a peninsula extending a considerable distance into the lake encircles a harbor, on the borders of which was the port of Erie.
At this place, Commodore Perry was directed to locate, and superintend a naval establishment, the object of which was to create a superior force on the lake. The difficulties of building a navy in the wilderness can only be conceived by those who have experienced them. There was nothing at this spot out of which it could he built, but the timber of the forest. Ship-builders, sailors, naval stores, guns, and ammunition, were all to be transported by land, in wagons, and over bad roads, a distance of four hundred miles, either from Albany by the way of Buffalo, or from Philadelphia by the way of Pittsburg. But under all these embarrassments, by the first of August, 1813, Commodore Perry had provided a flotilla, consisting of the ships Lawrence and Niagara, of twenty guns each, and seven smaller vessels, to wit, one of four guns, one of three, two of two, and three of one.
While the ships were building, the enemy frequently appeared off the harbor and threatened their destruction; but the shallowness of the water on the bar, there being but five feet, prevented their approach. The same cause, which insured the safety of the vessels while building, seemed likely to prevent their being of any service when completed. The two largest drew several feet more water than there was on the bar. The inventive genius of Perry, however, soon surmounted this difficulty. He placed large scows on each side of these two, filled them so that they sank to the water-edge, then attached them to the ships by strong pieces of timber, and pumped out the water. The scows, in this way, buoyed up the ships, enabling them to pass the bar in safety. This operation was performed in the very eyes of the enemy.
Having gotten his fleet in readiness, Commodore Perry proceeded to the head of the lake and anchored in Put-in Bay, opposite to and distant thirty miles from Malden, where the British fleet lay under the guns of the fort. He remained at anchor here several days, watching the British fleet, and waiting a chance to offer battle.
On the morning of the tenth of September, 1813, the enemy was discovered bearing down upon the American force, which immediately got under weigh, and stood out to meet him. Perry had nine vessels, consisting of the Lawrence, his flag-ship, of twenty guns; the Niagara, Captain Elliott, of twenty; the Caledonian, Lieutenant Turner, of three; the schooner Ariel, of four; the Scorpion, of two; the Somers, of two guns and two swivels; the sloop Trippe, and schooners Tigress and Porcupine, of one gun each.
The force of the British consisted of the Detroit, flag-ship of Commodore Barclay, and carrying nineteen guns and two howitzers; the Queen Charlotte, Captain Finnis, of seventeen guns; the schooner Lady Prevost, Lieutenant Buchan, of thirteen guns and two howitzers; the brig Hunter, of ten guns; the stoop Little Belt, of three guns; and the schooner Chippewa, of one gun and two swivels. Thus, the belligerents stood, in respect to force and power, as follows: The Americans had nine vessels, carrying fifty-four guns and two swivels; the British, six vessels, carrying sixty-three guns, four howitzers, and two swivels.
Commodore Perry got under way with a light breeze at the south-west. Summoning his commanding officers by signal to the deck of the Lawrence, he gave them in a few words their last instructions preparatory to the approaching battle, and, unfolding his union-jack, a blue flag upon which was inscribed in white letters the motto of the American navy, "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP!" The sight of this flag, bearing upon it the dying words of the brave Captain Lawrence, brought the most enthusiastic cheers from the crew. As the officers were about taking their leave, Perry declared that it was his intention to bring the enemy to close quarters from the first and that he could not advise them better than in the words of Lord Nelson --- "If you lay your enemy close alongside, you can not be out of your place" As soon, therefore, as the approach of the enemy warranted the display of the signal, every vessel was under sail, beating out against a light head-wind, and with the boats ahead towing. The object was, to beat to the windward of the islands which now interposed between the two approaching squadrons, and, thus gaining the weather-gauge, to bear down with that important advantage upon the foe. The wind, however, was light and baffling; and Perry's patience was so severely tried by the incessant tacking, that, seeing time lost, and but little progress made, he called out to his sailing-master, ---
"Taylor, you wear ship and run to the leeward of the islands."
"Then we'll have to engage the enemy from the leeward," exclaimed Taylor.
"I don't care --- to windward or to leeward; they shall fight to-day," was Perry's instant response.
He now formed the line of battle, the wind suddenly shifting to the south-east, thus bearing the squadron clear of the islands, and enabling it to keep the weather-gauge. But the moderateness of the breeze caused the hostile squadrons to approach each other but slowly, thus prolonging the solemn interval of suspense and anxiety which precedes a battle. The order and regularity of naval discipline heightened the dreadful quiet of this impressive prelude. No noise, no bustle, prevailed to distract the mind --- except, at intervals, the shrill pipings of the boat swain's whistle, or a murmuring whisper among the men, who stood in groups around their guns, with lighted matches, narrowly watching the movements of the foe, and sometimes stealing a glance at the countenances of their commanders. In this manner, the opposing fleets gradually neared each other in awful silence. Even the sick felt a thrill of the pervading deep emotion, and, with fancied renewal of strength, offered their feeble services in the coining conflict. To one of these poor fellows, who had crawled up on deck, to have a hand in the fight, the sailing-master said:
"Go below, Mays, you are too weak to be here."
"I can do something, sir," replied the brave old tar.
"What can you do?"
"I can sound the pump, sir, and let a strong man go to the guns."
It was even so. He sat down by the pump, and sent the strong man to the guns; and when the fight was ended, there he was found, with a ball in his heart. He was from Newport; his name, Wilson Mays; his monument and epitaph, the grateful memory of a whole nation.
As they were coming nearer and nearer the British fleet (says Dr. Tomes, in his admirable delineation of this battle), and by twelve o'clock would certainly be in the midst of action, the noonday-grog was served in advance, and the bread-bags freely emptied. In a moment after, however, every man was again at quarters. Perry now went round the deck, from gun to gun, stopping at each, carefully examining its condition, and passing a cheerful word with the "captain." Recognizing some of the old tars who had served on board the Constitution, he said, "Well, boys! are you ready?" "All ready your honor!" was the prompt reply, as they touched their tarpaulins or the handkerchiefs which some of them had wrapped their heads, that they might be as unencumbered as possible for the fight. "But I need not say anything to you," rejoined their commander --- "you know how to beat these fellows" --- and he passed on. His face now beamed with a smile of friendly interest as he recognized some of his fellow-townsmen, exclaiming, "Ah, here are the Newport boys! They will do their duty, I warrant."
At fifteen minutes after eleven, a bugle was sounded on board the enemy's head-most ship, the Detroit, loud cheers burst from all their crews, and a tremendous fire opened upon the Lawrence, from the British long-guns, and which, from the shortness of the Lawrence's, the latter was obliged to sustain for some forty minutes, without being able to return a shot.
Losing no time in waiting for the other ships, Commodore Perry kept on his course in such gallant and determined style, that the enemy supposed he meant immediately to board. At about twelve o'clock, having gained a more favorable position, the Lawrence opened her fire, but the long-guns of the British still gave them greatly the advantage, and the Lawrence was exceedingly cut up, without being able to do much of any damage in return. Their shot pierced her side in all directions, even killing the men in the berth-deck and steerage, where they had been carried to be dressed. One shot had nearly produced a fatal explosion; passing through the light room, it knocked the snuff of the candle into the magazine but which was fortunately seen by the gunner, who had the presence of mind immediately to seize and extinguish it. It appeared to be the enemy's plan at all events to destroy the commander's ship; their heaviest fire was directed against the Lawrence, and blazed incessantly from all their largest vessels.
Finding the peculiar and imminent hazard of his situation, Perry made all sail, and directed the other vessels to follow, for the purpose of closing with the enemy. The tremendous fire, however, to which he was exposed, soon cut away every brace and bowline of the Lawrence, and she became unmanageable. The other vessels were unable to get up; and in this disastrous situation, therefore, she still continued to sustain the main force of the enemy's fire, within canister distance, though, during a considerable part of this terrible ordeal, not more than two or three of her guns could be brought to bear with any material effect upon her antagonist.
Throughout all this scene of ghastly horror, however, the utmost order and regularity prevailed, without the least sign of trepidation or faintheartedness; as fast as the men at the guns were wounded, they were quietly carried below, and others stepped manfully into their Places; the dead remained where they fell, until after the action.
At this juncture, the enemy believed the battle to be won. The Lawrence was reduced to a mere wreck; her deck was streaming with blood, and covered with the mangled limbs and bodies of the slain, nearly the whole of her crew were either killed or wounded; her guns, too, were dismounted, --- the commodore and his officers personally working the last that was capable of service, assisted by the few hands yet remaining capable of duty. According to the account given by Dr. Parsons, the surgeon of the Lawrence, the muscular material was reduced to its absolute minimum. "When the battle had raged an hour and a half," says Dr. Parsons, "I heard a call for me at the small skylight, and, stepping toward it, I saw it was the commodore, whose countenance was calm and placid as if on ordinary duty. 'Doctor,' said he, 'send me one of your men,' --- meaning one of the six that were to assist me; which was done instantly. In five minutes the call was repeated and obeyed; and at the seventh call, I told him he had them all. He asked if any could pull a rope, when two or three of the wounded crawled upon deck to lend a feeble hand in pulling at the last guns." So close and desperate was this conflict; so brave and courageous the hearts of those who fought for the honor and rights of America.
It was two o'clock, and Captain Elliott, of the Niagara, was enabled by the aid of a fresh breeze to bring his ship into close action in gallant style. Finding, now, that no resistance or hostility on the part of the Lawrence could be profitably persisted in, Perry suddenly formed the determination to shift his flag to Elliott's ship; and, leaving his own vessel in charge of her lieutenant, the brave and gallant Yarnall, he hauled down his union-jack, and, taking it under his arm, ordered a boat to put him on board the Niagara. He passed the line of the enemy, exposed to a perfect shower of their musketry, still standing in the boat, --- waving his sword and gallantly cheering his men, --- a marked and pointed object from three of the enemy's ships, until he was forcibly pulled down by his own men. He arrived safe, and tumultuous huzzas rent the air as he again unfurled and hoisted aloft his union-jack, with its inspiring motto, 'Don't give up the ship!' gaily kissing the breeze. On seeing their noble commander step upon the deck of the Niagara, the crew of the Lawrence --- the few that yet remained --- sent up three lusty cheers. The question with which Elliott first saluted Perry was ---
"How is the day going?"
"Badly!" was the brief reply; "and do you see those infernal gun-boats, --- they have lost us the victory!"
"No!" exclaimed Elliott; "do you take command of this ship, and I will bring up the boats."
Elliott at once put off, to bring up the schooners which had been kept hack by the lightness of the wind. At this moment, the flag of the Lawrence was hauled down. Lieutenant Yarnall, upon whom the command of the vessel devolved after the commodore left her, refused for some time to leave the deck, though more than once wounded; and Lieutenant Brooks and Midshipman Saul were both killed. As the surgeon was stooping, in the act of dressing or examining a wound, a ball passed through the ship a few inches from his head, which, had it been erect, must have been taken off. The principal force of the enemy's fire had now been sustained uninterruptedly by the Lawrence, and, as she was rendered totally incapable of defense, any further show of resistance would have been a useless sacrifice of the remnant of her brave and mangled crew. The enemies were at the same time so crippled, that they were unable to take possession of her, and circumstances soon enabled her crew again to raise the American flag.
Commodore Perry now gave the signal to all the vessels for close action. The small vessels, under the direction of Elliott, got out their sweeps, and made all sail. On an inspection of the Niagara, and finding her but little injured, Perry determined upon the bold and desperate expedient of breaking the enemy's line; he accordingly bore up and passed the head of the two ships and brig, giving them a raking fire from his starboard guns, and also a raking fire upon a large schooner and sloop, from his larboard quarter, at half pistol shot.
Having brought the whole squadron into action, Perry luffed up and laid his ship alongside of the British commodore, Barclay, of the Lady Prevost. Approaching within half pistol shot, Perry's fire was so destructive that the enemy's men were compelled to run below. At this moment the wind freshened, and the Caledonia came up and opened her fire upon the British; and several others of the squadron were enabled soon after to do the same, --- the small vessels having now got up within good grape-and-canister distance on the other quarter, enclosed their enemy between them and the Niagara, and in this position kept up a most deadly fire on both quarters of the British.
For a time, the combat raged with indescribable violence and fury. The result of a campaign --- the command of a sea --- the glory and renown of two rival nations matched for the first time in squadron, --- these were the issues at stake which inspirited the combatants. The contest was not long doubtful. The Queen Charlotte having lost her captain and all her principal officers, by some mischance ran foul of her colleague, the Detroit. By this accident, the greater part of their guns were rendered useless, and the two ships were now in turn compelled to sustain an incessant fire from the Niagara and the other vessels of the American squadron. The flag of Captain Barclay soon struck; and the Queen Charlotte, the Lady Prevost, the Hunter, and the Chippewa, surrendered in immediate succession. The Little Belt attempted to escape, but was pursued by two gun-boats, and captured. Thus, after a contest of three hours, was a naval victory achieved by the Americans, in which every vessel of the enemy was captured. If anything could enhance its brilliancy it was the modest and laconic manner in which, Caesar-like, it was announced by the gallant victor --- "WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY, AND THEY ARE OURS!"
The carnage in this action was very great in proportion to the numbers engaged. The Americans had twenty-seven killed, and ninety-six wounded. The loss of the British was about two hundred in killed and wounded, many of these being officers; and the prisoners, amounting to six hundred, exceeded the whole number of Americans. Commodore Barclay, a gallant sailor, one of whose arms had been shot off at the battle of Trafalgar, under Lord Nelson, was severely wounded in the hip, and lost the use of his remaining arm. Perry was but twenty-seven years old, and had scarcely recovered from an attack of the lake-fever, when he thus 'met the enemy,' --- a circumstance that heightens the estimate to be put upon his indomitable perseverance and bravery on this occasion. To his adroit transfer of his command to the Niagara, passing through the thickest of the battle in an open boat, may fairly be attributed his brilliant fortune on that eventful day. His success raised him to the very pinnacle of professional renown, and the naval supremacy of the United States upon the lakes was triumphantly secured.
This important and decisive battle was fought midway of the lake, between the two hostile armies, who lay on the opposite shores, waiting in anxious expectation of its result, --- the allied British and Indian forces, to the amount of nearly five thousand, under Proctor and Tecumseh, being ready, in case of a successful issue, to renew their ravages on the American borders. The fruits of this victory, therefore, were such as to cause unbounded demonstrations of joy in the United States. All party-feelings were for the time forgotten; and the glorious occurrence was celebrated by illuminations and festivities, from one end of the continent to the other. During this same year, our gallant navy was victorious in the capture of the sloop-of-war Peacock, by Captain James Lawrence; and in the capture of the brig Boxer, by the Enterprise, commanded by Lieutenant Barrows. The British, however, on the first of June, rejoiced in the capture of the Chesapeake by the frigate Shannon, off Boston harbor, and, on the fourteenth of August, in the capture of the Argus, Captain Allen, by the Pelican. The British were also victorious on land, at the battles of Mackinaw, Queenstown, Frenchtown, and some other points; but lost the baffles of York, Fort Meigs, and the Thames. The proposed invasion of Canada, under the direction of Generals Dearborn, Wilkinson, Hampton, Lewis, and Izard, proved a failure. Such a victory, therefore, as that of Perry, was well calculated to fill the nation with joy.
The struggle being ended, and Perry acquainting himself with the condition and wants of the several vessels and their crews, at last visited the shattered remains of the Lawrence. The deck was slippery with blood and brains, and strewed with the bodies of officers and men, and the ship resounded everywhere with the groans of the wounded. Those of the crew who were spared and able to walk or limp, approached the gallant captain with tears in their eyes, and with outstretched arms of welcome; but the salutation was a silent one on both sides, --- so overcome with emotion were the hearts of these brave men, that not a word could find utterance. The principal loss in the whole action was on board the Lawrence, so indomitable was Perry's resolution not to be conquered. In memory of this heroic service to his country, there was erected in 1860, at Cleveland, Ohio, near the scene of his great battle, a marble statue by Walcutt.
Two days after the battle, two Indian chiefs who had been selected for their skill as marksmen, and stationed in the tops of the Detroit for the purpose of picking off the American officers, were found snugly stowed away in the hold of that ship. These savages, who had been accustomed to vessels of no greater magnitude than what they could sling upon their backs, when the action became warm, were so panic-struck at the terrors of the scene and at the strange perils surrounding them, that, hooking at each other in amazement, they vociferated their significant 'Quonth!' and precipitately descended to the hold. In their British uniforms, hanging in bags upon their famished bodies, they were now brought before Commodore Perry, fed, and discharged, --- no further parole being necessary to prevent their ever engaging again in a similar contest.
The slain of the crews of both squadrons were committed to the lake immediately after the action; and, the next day, the funeral obsequies of the American and British officers who had fallen, were performed at an opening on the margin of the bay, in an appropriate and affecting manner. The crews of both fleets united in the ceremony. The autumnal stillness of the weather --- the procession of boats --- the music --- the slow and regular motion of the oars, striking in exact time with the notes of the solemn dirge --- the mournful waving of the flags --- the sound of the minute-guns from all the ships --- the wild and solitary aspect of the place; --- all these gave to this funeral ceremonial a most impressive influence, in striking contrast with the terrible conflict of the preceding day. Two American and three British officers were interred side by side of each other, in this lonely place of sepulture, on the margin of the lake, a few paces from the beach.
In his official dispatch, Perry speaks in the highest terms of the co-operation, bravery and judgment, of his associate, Captain Elliott. Nevertheless, there is universal agreement with the assertion made by Mackenzie, the appreciating biographer of this heroic commander, that the battle of Erie was won not merely by the genius and inspiration, but eminently by the exertions, of one man, --- a young man of twenty-seven, who had never beheld a naval engagement. He had dashed boldly into action with the Lawrence, trusting that the rear of his line would soon be able to close up to his support. Sustained, however, only by the Caledonia, the Ariel, and the Scorpion, he resisted for two hours or more the whole of the British squadron. Overcome at last, Perry made a new arrangement of his remaining resources, and snatched from the enemy, with desperate obstinacy, a victory which that enemy had already claimed with exulting cheers for his own. This he accomplished by an evolution unsurpassed for genius and hardihood, bearing down with dauntless assurance upon the whole of the opposing fleet, and dashing with his fresh and uninjured vessel through the enemy's line, to their dismay and complete discomfiture. And this victory on the lake was so much more important from its enabling General Harrison to recover from the British invaders the American territory which they had occupied, and to pursue them into Canada, where, on the fifth of October, they were totally routed in the battle of the Thames. Nearly all the British force was either captured or slain, and their famous Indian ally, Tecumseh, here ended his life.