A little over 200 years ago this month, a small American fleet led by a Rhode Islander marked a major defeat of a superior British naval force. It was the Battle of Lake Erie. It contributed to the end of the War of 1812 and made a hero of one of Rhode Island’s own: Oliver Hazard Perry of South Kingstown.
The War of 1812 marked the first official declaration of war by the still new United States of America. And, of course, it brought together as enemies two parties that had only recently concluded the War of American Independence. War broke out over trade restrictions (occurring as the result of Britain’s ongoing war with France), the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, British support of Native American tribes against American expansion and, although this remains a bone of contention among some historians, a suspected desire of America to annex Canada.
So it was that President James Madison put his signature to the declaration on June 18, 1812. Neither side was really ready for war with the other. Britain was knee deep in the Napoleonic Wars. The U.S. was short of cash and not in the position to field an army (or navy) of consequence. In fact, it was hoped that state militias would fill the ranks of an American army. In New England, this didn’t sit well at all. Threats of secession were openly made in state capitols around the Northeast.
The war took place in three general theaters: land and sea battles on the frontier, on the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence River, and in the South on the Gulf Coasts where American forces turned back an attempted British invasion of New Orleans.
Our story will focus on one key battle and the impact of our Rhode Island native son, Oliver Hazard Perry. He was born in 1785 one of eight children (the family home still stands in South Kingstown), the older brother of the equally famous Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, who in 1853, opened Japan to western trade and influence.
The Battle of Lake Erie was a seminal event in the war. It took place at the west end of the lake, near Detroit, in September of 1813 when the British attacked Perry’s forces. At the age of 27, Oliver Perry had been sent from Newport in the spring of 1813 to serve as second in command to Commodore Isaac Chauncey. Perry was given command of the Lake Erie squadron and quickly decided he wanted autonomy from his senior officer (in fact, he protested his secondary status in a letter to the Navy in Washington).
Perry immediately set out to prove his point: that he was ready and able to play a deciding role in any conflict with a superior British naval force. He didn’t have much to work with. He had received a smaller and less experienced body of seamen, and he was also short of hulls. He completed construction and then took command of two newly built 20-gun brigs (the Lawrence and the Niagara) at Presque Island, Pennsylvania (near Erie). He also had to hustle to round up sufficient men and supplies. Interestingly, the British commander, Robert Barclay, also suffered from similar shortages.
When the British attacked on the west side of the lake at Put In Bay on September 13, Perry was as ready as he could be, saying, “If a victory is to be gained, I will gain it.” In addition to his two brigs, he had a collection of smaller sloops and gunboats carrying anywhere from 1 to 4 guns. Perry knew he would be in for a fight. Following the example of Horatio Nelson, he told his ships’ captains, “commanding officers are particularly enjoined to pay attention in preserving their stations in the Line (of battle), and in all cases to keep as near the Lawrence as possible … Engage your designated adversary, in close action, at half cable’s length.” Perry arranged his fleet in single file with his flagship, the USS Lawrence, third in the line and the Niagara at the rear. When the Lawrence was heavily damaged, suffering 80% casualties, he shifted his flag to the USS Niagara and carried on what was an intense and bloody fight since most of Perry’s cannon were short range, necessitating close combat. Before moving to a more seaworthy ship, with the ship’s chaplain and purser remaining, Perry fired a final salvo from the Lawrence. His battle flag “Don’t give up the ship” continued to fly. A doctor aboard one of the American warships described the horror in his diary, noting he had “cut off six legs in the cockpit, which were nearly divided by cannon balls.” The less injured were exhorted by Perry to return to the battle. Perry concentrated on the 19-gun HMS Detroit, the British flagship, and ordered Lt. Jessie Elliot, commanding the Niagara, to take on the 13-gun HMS Queen Charlotte.
Advantage shifted back and forth with the winds as the day wore on. In the midst of battle, the two largest British ships collided. Perry surged into the enemy fleet and bombarded them into submission. Barclay, who had been badly wounded, ran up the flag of surrender around 3:30 in the afternoon. When the seas calmed, Perry was in control of Lake Erie. He returned to his own heavily damaged flagship to accept the surrender of the British commander. Perry then retired below to write of his victory to General William Henry Harrison, including the now immortal words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry’s fleet transported General Harrison’s army to Detroit where they crossed into Canada and went on to defeat the British at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.
As a result of the Battle of Lake Erie, British control of the war began to erode. They also lost much support that had been rendered by their Native American allies. For that reason, the Battle of Lake Erie is considered a major turning point in the war.
Perry resigned his command in October of 1813 and returned to Newport where he was given great honors, including a Congressional Gold Medal (one of only 27 awarded during the War of 1812) and a new command, the 44-gun frigate USS Java, protecting Washington and Baltimore from Chesapeake Bay. He was succeeded on Lake Erie by Lt. Elliot (with whom Perry had a long and bitter feud over Elliot’s perceived failure to pursue his role in the battle more aggressively).
The War of 1812 ended before Perry could see further battle. He went on to serve in the Mediterranean and in 1819, on a diplomatic mission to Venezuela, signed an anti-piracy pact with the government of President Simon Bolivar. Perry, along with many of his crew, was stricken with yellow fever. Before their ship could return to Trinidad where treatment was available, Perry died aboard the USS John Adams on August 23, 1819, at the age of 34. Initially buried in Port of Spain, his remains were returned to Newport, rested briefly in the Old Common Burial Ground and finally interred in Newport’s Island Cemetery where his brother Matthew is also buried.
Without a doubt, Oliver Hazard Perry, and the other Rhode Islanders who served with him at the Battle of Lake Erie, earned their place in history as American heroes.
For more information, and a look at some amazing period documents about Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie, go to: