Monday, September 9, 2013

200th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie

by Ryan Rooney

Tuesday, September 10th, marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. Yes, the same Lake Erie that many view as a tranquil body of water nestled along the shores of the Canadian Province Ontario and the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Michigan. However, on the morning of September 10, 1813, tensions were high as Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry led his fleet of ships to battle in what would be the most historical naval engagement fought on the Great Lakes.

For several weeks, rival British and American naval squadrons had been preparing for battle. On the morning of September 10th, Americans anchored at Put-In-Bay, Ohio saw the British fleet under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay moving toward Detroit. The nine boats under the leadership of U.S. Master Commandant Perry left from Put-In-Bay at 7:00 a.m. on the morning of the battle. Nearing 10:00 a.m., they confronted the fleet of Commander Barclay.

When the two fleets made contact, each in a line of battle with their larger ships centered in the line. The British fleet initially held the advantage with the longer-range guns aboard the HMS Detroit bombarding Perry as his ships approached the British line. Under heavy fire from the Detroit, sometime around 11:45 a.m., Commandant Perry boldly orders his two largest brigs, the Lawrence and Niagara, to close with the Detroit. This would bring the Detroit within firing range of his carronades, the shorter-ranged cannons arming the two ships. But this maneuver was dangerous because it exposed Perry's ships to a sustained 20 minutes of bombardment before coming within range of the Detroit. Even as the Lawrence pulled within range, the cannon fire was less effective than predicted due to gunners over packing each blast.

"Battle on Lake Erie" by Sully and Kearny

Supposedly helping Commandant Perry and the Lawrence was the Niagara under the command of Lieutenant Jess Elliot. However, as the Lawrence faced the Detroit, Elliot and the Niagara remained far out of carronade range, proving to be little aid. The Niagara's timid course would lead to debate Perry and Elliot most of their lives.

Although American gun boats in the rear continued their cannon fire on the British squadron, the Lawrence was soon reduced to a shipwreck, killing the majority of the crew. Commandant Perry made the decision to transfer his flag bearing his personal motto “Don’t give up the ship” and was rowed through heavy fire to the Niagara, where he took command from Lieutenant Elliot. As the Lawrence found its resting place at the bottom of Lake Erie, Perry experienced a bit of luck; the Detroit and her fellow British vessel, the Queen Charlotte collided, rendering them both unmanageable.

With the sinking of the Lawrence, the British fleet expected Perry to retreat. However, Perry did the opposite. He sent Lieutenant Elliot to bring the remaining schooners into action while he, now in command of the Niagara, took the ship to face Barclay’s ships head on. Perry broke the British line with gun fire toward the Detroit and Queen Charlotte while the rest of the American fleet provided support from the broad side. After the British ships untangled they were unable to provide organized resistance.

Sometime near 3:00 p.m., the entire British fleet surrendered to Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry in what marks the first time an entire British naval squadron had ever surrendered. The surrender of the British fleet marks a distinct turning point in the War of 1812 -- With control of Lake Erie, the Americans were now in position to quickly recapture the city of Detroit, invade Canada and decisively defeat Britain's Native American allies, and protect the American West.

Here in the Clarke Historical Library, we have numerous books that discuss this historic event on Lake Erie. Along with our many books we have various maps of the Lake Erie area circa 1812-13 as well as an engraving of the battle by Sully and Kearny (1815). Please join us as we recognize the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie and all those who have served and continue to serve our nation.