Battle of Lake Erie: U.S. Navy Defeats Mighty British
During the 19th century the powerful British Royal Navy ruled the waves. However, during the War of 1812 one of the key clashes, the Battle of Lake Erie off the coast of Ohio, was a naval engagement in which the fledgling U.S. Navy completely defeated its British counterpart. On Sept. 10, 1813, American Commodore Oliver Perry’s nine warships with 54 guns captured the entire British squadron of six warships with 61 guns led by Commodore Robert Barclay.
The nearly 3½ hour battle was hard-fought with similar casualties on both sides: the British lost 134 killed and wounded, the Americans 123. The battle did not start off well for the Americans, as Perry’s flagship Lawrence was badly damaged and most of its crew killed. He and his personal flag were rowed a half mile, while guns were roaring all around them, to take over the other large U.S. vessel, the Niagara. Perry dispatched the Niagara’s captain, Jesse Elliot, to command the smaller gunboats while he carried on the fight from the Niagara’s deck. Through sheer tenacity the Americans outfought the British, capturing all six ships and 306 men.
The British had controlled Lake Erie since the outset of the war, and used this advantage to capture Detroit. However, after the Battle of Lake Erie the U.S. controlled the lake for the rest of the war, enabling them to recapture Detroit and prevail at the crucial Battle of the Thames.
Right after the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry wrote on the back of an old envelope his famous message to General William Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
These four newspaper articles give accounts of the battle, and one expresses pride at having soundly defeated the British and shown them that American sailors, or “tars,” are worthy adversaries.
This article was published by the American & Commercial Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland) on Sept. 23, 1813:
Western Sister [Island], head of Lake Erie
September 10th, 1813, 4 p.m.
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
September 11th, 1813.
We have a great number of prisoners, which I wish to land; will you be so good as to order a guard to receive them, and inform me the place? Considerable numbers have been killed and wounded on both sides. From the best information, we have more prisoners than we have men on board our vessels.
In great haste, yours very truly,
O. H. Perry
Extract to the Editors—Dated:
Chillicothe, Sept. 15, 1813.
“I anticipated adding to the above important and glorious news the particulars of the battle, but the express mail has not yet come in although momently expected; it has been thought that we were too sanguine in our opinions of affairs in this quarter; we rejoice, but are not surprised in this success; it is what we have repeatedly wrote our friends two and three months past; and we still say to the unbelieving—have no fears for the Western War—the strength, the patriotism, the ardor of the “Backwoodsmen” in this holy and just war against the “Bulwark of our Religion,” is beyond what any person in the Atlantic states can conceive—the freshet in our rivers is not more sudden, nor its strength more destructive than the spirit of this people when once roused into action.
“P.S. Harrison with his whole force were on the move two days before this news came.”
Two days later, the American & Commercial Daily Advertiser published this article:
Amidst the joyful sensations which we feel at the brilliant and unexampled success of our squadron under the guidance of Com. Perry, and which has cheered the hearts and elevated the hopes of every honest American, we are impelled to express our highest approbation of the modest and the pious, yet dignified language of the heroic commander. “It has pleased the Almighty (says he) to give the arms of the United States a signal victory”—and adds, with Spartan brevity “we met the enemy, and they are ours! ” Here, in a few, but emphatic sentences, is the language of a Christian united to that of a Patriot. No vaporing about what he intended to do, but the short, the expressive relation of what he had done!
After sustaining a conflict, which, we believe, is not to be paralleled in naval history (considering the number of ships and men), what a contrast is here between the actions and the language of this gallant seaman, and those of certain “wordy warriors,” who said a great deal, and did nothing—alas! worse than nothing. The late battle on Lake Erie has amply redeemed the honor of the country. It is a recompense for the disgrace we suffered at Detroit, that shameful source of so much blood and misfortune—and must, if anything can, awaken the consciences of those venal, infatuated machinators at Carleton house, from their dream of corruption and injustice.
This article was published by the Weekly Aurora (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on Sept. 28, 1813:
This city, and a considerable portion of the liberties, were on Friday evening last, illuminated in a most splendid manner, in consequence of the brilliant victory achieved by the gallant Perry, which terminated in the capture of the whole of the British fleet on Lake Erie. Hardly an incident occurred to mar the general exultation and joy—the republicans checked everything that had a tendency to excite tumult or disturb the public peace; and whilst they gave free vent to their own feelings, treated those whose British attachments would not permit them to join in celebrating a victory so honorable to the American arms and from which must flow the most salutary consequences, exactly as they deserved to be treated—with silent contempt.
We are happy to hear that illuminations for this victory have become very general—Baltimore was illuminated on Thursday evening last, and New York on Friday evening.
According to the London newspapers, our enemies have paid higher compliments to the valor of our tars than we have done ourselves. Their lamentations over the Guerriere, Java, Macedonian, Frolic, &c. &c. have thundered our applause over the universe; the tone of deep regret has been so universal with the boasted masters of the ocean, that its singularity must have been noted even at Algiers. Nor is our glory emblazoned only by British lamentation—our fame is spread abroad by the tower guns and by British illuminations. Formerly, when a Duncan, a St. Vincent, or a Nelson gained a signal victory, and destroyed a Dutch, a Spanish, or a French fleet, the tower guns were fired, but never were there rejoicings at a victory over a squadron or a ship—until the capture of the Chesapeake. Then, indeed, were the tower guns fired and the Bow bells rung, and well they might, for it was an unusual thing to triumph over Americans—what an encomium did those guns pay to our tars! What a peal of joy did the bells ring in the ears of Americans! Yes, the bravery of our tars is such, that we have compelled the enemy to proclaim it themselves: so difficult was it to gain a single victory or a single ship from us, that when gained, as much was done to celebrate it, as used to be done after a battle in which twenty ships of the line were taken.
But short is the triumph over the Chesapeake; doubly dull and heavy will the British feel, after their short lived joy, when they learn the fate of the Boxer and their fleet on Lake Erie; the tower guns and the Bow bells will be thought of every day more and more by the “thinking people,” when they learn our new triumphs. Our victories will be spoken of, and thought of, ten times more, because our loss of the Chesapeake was so much rejoiced at. Glorious cause, which has such tars to maintain it! Fortunate seamen, who have a country which will ever make your cause its own, which never will make a peace until your rights shall be secured and your glorious toils rewarded.
This article was published by the Telegraph (Georgetown, Kentucky) on Sept. 29, 1813:
Victory on Lake Erie
The following interesting particulars were received by yesterday’s mail:
The commodore’s victory appears to have been of a very splendid and decisive character, having captured the whole of the enemy’s squadron…We lost 130 killed and wounded. The enemy lost upwards of 400 prisoners, and upwards of 200 killed and wounded, though it is said to be impossible to ascertain how many of the enemy were killed, as they keep it as much as possible a secret, and kept throwing out their dead as our boats approached their ships. The British commodore states that they had in all 64 guns, and we had 54; they six vessels, we nine. They have now but three small vessels on this lake, and they were not in the battle; so that our ascendancy upon this lake is completely established.
Perry ran between the [enemy ships] Detroit and Queen Charlotte, fought some time, until he lost nearly all his men; when he left his vessel [the Lawrence] in the smoke, with only 17, leaving a few in to fire and strike the flag when he got at a proper distance. When he got on board the Niagara Capt. Elliot, anticipating his wishes, observed the presence of both there was unnecessary, and proposed to take himself the command of the gunboats, which the commodore agreed to. Perry ran the Niagara between the Detroit and Queen Charlotte as he had done before, gave each a broadside, passed them, tacked, and was preparing to give them more of the same sport, when they both struck their colors. However, they had also been annoyed much by a severe firing from the boats under Capt. Elliot. A drawing of the Detroit and Queen Charlotte, as taken by a British officer after the battle (which lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes) was over, represents the former as having lost every mast and spar, even to the bowsprit, and all her rigging, and lying like a log in the water; the latter as having lost one mast, and nearly all her rigging. The Lawrence had sailed for Erie, with the wounded. The British commodore was mortally wounded.
Kentucky has had some share in this battle. Twenty-five men were detailed from Colonel Owing’s regiment (all Kentuckians) who were placed as sharpshooters in the tops, and are said to have killed as many of the enemy in one or two vessels as the great guns did. Some of them are severely wounded, but will recover. Of them the enemy complain much, and they are all praised for their gallantry and courage by the naval officers.
From the prisoners taken by Com. Perry, it is ascertained that there are not more than 500 or 600 regulars, and about 1500 Indians at Malden. Two of the officers state that Major Graves is certainly alive, and is in possession of an Indian chief, about 100 miles from Malden, who has refused 500 dollars and a barrel of whiskey for him.
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