Battle of Lake Erie

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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 - O.H. Perry.

On September 10, 1813, nine small, outgunned ships defeated a Royal Navy fleet of six heavy vessels in the Battle of Lake Erie. That feat of courage proved to be yet another morale-building stepping stone for a U.S. military trying to put a successful end to the bloody war of 1812.

Prior to the Battle of Lake Erie

Many years of rugged times characterized the competition between America and British Canada over the old Northwest Territory around the Great Lakes. As a direct result, on June 18, 1812, an unprepared America declared war against the world's most powerful naval power.

The United States quickly discovered that it was not at all prepared for military action after declaring war. Attempts to overwhelm Canada at Detroit, Niagara Falls, and Montreal were quickly repelled by the British. By contrast, Britain forces had taken Detroit, Mackinac, and Fort Dearborn (Chicago).

With successful advances by the British slowly taking control of the upper Great Lakes and putting the Northwest Territory in unpredictable peril, America had to do something, and fast.

Building Perry's fleet

In response to Great Britain's successful advances, President James Madison ordered the construction of a U.S. naval fleet to regain control of the strategically located Lake Erie.

Daniel Dobbins, a Great Lakes ship master living in Erie, was assigned by the Navy to begin building until more experienced engineers arrived. Commander of the U.S. Navy on the Great Lakes, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, soon assigned Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry to take charge of the operation in the Spring of 1813.

Construction of Perry's fleet was mostly conducted by hand in Erie, a remote hamlet of five hundred inhabitants. Sawmills were non-existent in the area, which meant long and tedious efforts of hand-cutting lumber. Much of Perry's experienced trade help, including boat builders, shipwrights, and laborers were mostly brought in from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Iron, sail canvas, rigging and cannon shot also had to be imported from regions of Pennsylvania.

In February 1813, Commander Chauncey hired Noah Brown, a New York shipbuilder, to complete the work. Brown also designed two of four schooners and two brigs, Lawrence and Niagara, and a year later would help build and prepare battleships to ward off a British assault in the Battle of Plattsburgh.

Battle of Lake Erie

Britain prepares for battle

While maintaining naval control over Lake Erie for more than a year, the British were now experiencing heavy pressure. Great Britain's water supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been disrupted by the presence of Perry's fleet on the lake. It quickly became a simple choice for the British: Either fight, or abandon Fort Malden and the Old Northwest.

In early September 1813, construction of the massive British flagship Detroit was complete and it was ready to sail. With the Detroit's guns capable of firing 22-pound cannonballs a half mile farther that the Americans, the Brits opted to fight.

On the afternoon of September 9, with their ships manned mostly by poorly trained British soldiers, Canadian militia, and home-grown mariners, the British ships floated down the Detroit River and into western Lake Erie.

The British squadron consisted of six ships with 63 cannons, while the American squadron consisted of nine vessels and 54 guns. A quarter of the recruited American sailors during the Lake Erie campaign were black.

Battle for Lake Erie

On September 10, 1813, at 7 a.m., British Commodore Robert Heriot Barclay, in his flagship HMS Detroit, met Captain Perry near Put-in-Bay, Ohio (Erie). Barclay's six ships were magnificently massive, outweighing and out-gunning Perry's nine vessels, including his flagship, the Lawrence.

At 10 a.m., Mother Nature began to fill Perry's flagship sails with a favorable wind. He and his crew proceeded towards the British flagship.

At 11:45 a.m. the Detroit fired a 24-pound ball from an extreme distance at the Lawrence, causing nothing more than a big splash. A few minutes later, a second 24-pounder was launched, but this time plummeted through the bulwarks of the Lawrence. The impact of the second cannon ball caused boat debris and flying splinters to puncture lungs and inflict numerous fatal wounds upon the Americans.

The Lawrence's cannons were still out of range, so Perry issued orders to the Scorpion, with one long 24-pounder, and the Ariel, with four long 12-pounders, to open fire. Thirty minutes of unrelenting British bombardment slowly ticked away, with Perry still struggling to get within range. The whole British Fleet had made successful cannon strikes against it. The Lawrence was now dead in the water.

Luckily for the Americans, the Niagara, still out of range and relatively undamaged, was their last chance at victory. Collecting four of the last remaining able-bodied men, Commodore Perry manned the flagship's rowboat and rowed a mile through a barrage of explosions to the seaworthy Niagara. Perry then furiously prepared the Niagara for immediate action, and sailed toward the Royal line. Although the British had wreaked havoc on the Lawrence, Barclay sustained a horrible wound; the captain and first lieutenant of every British vessel also were severely wounded.

With only junior officers directing the English fleet, the Americans found easy targets. When the greenhorn sailors observed the Niagara closing water against them, they attempted to turn to expose unused cannons. The result was devastating for the English; the already battered Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided and became hung up, dead in the water.

Perry took little time to take complete advantage of the rookie mistakes. He unleashed two broadsides, tearing up the seemingly indestructible Royal fleet.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., the British threw down all their arms; the four largest vessels surrendered one by one. The last two British gunboats attempted to escape, but were quickly chased down and captured. The British fleet in Lake Erie was now a thing of the past.

Although Perry won the battle on the Niagara, he received the official British surrender on the deck of the Lawrence to allow the British to witness the terrible price his men had suffered.

Aftermath

The Battle of Lake Erie proved to be one of the most telling encounters of the War of 1812. The American victory secured control of the lake, forcing the British to abandon Fort Malden and retreat up the Thames River for Canada.

General William Henry Harrison's army clinched the naval victory by decisively defeating the small British army and its allied Indian force on October 5, 1813, at the Battle of the Thames. Later, after the Battle of Plattsburgh, British and American peace talks were initiated, which ensured that the states of Ohio and Michigan were to be forever United States property.

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Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History by Craig L. Symonds.
From thunderous broadsides traded between wooden sailing ships on Lake Erie, to the carrier battles of World War II, to the devastating high-tech acti...