Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Battle of Lake Erie: September 10, 1813

Per Scriptum E. Wesley - Mackinac Center Intern

September of 1813 spelled the end of British position of the Northwest Territory during the War of 1812. Up to that time, the British had controlled Lake Erie, but when American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry gained navigational access to Lake Erie, he docked his fleet at Put-in-Bay which cut the British supply line to the British fleet at Amherstburg. Commodore Robert Heriot Barclay now faced a choice; abandon Lake Erie or fight. When construction on the new British flagship Detroit was finished, Barclay decided to risk all his stakes on a fight with the Americans. The British fleet included six ships with sixty-three cannon, and the American fleet consisted of nine ships with fifty-four cannon. The fleets met near Put-in-Bay.

As the morning of September 10th dawned, Perry spotted the British advance, and at 7:00 am Perry left port. He knew full well that his guns were short range when compared with the British guns that could fire accurately at half of a mile away. He must close in on the British, or be pelted helplessly by the British guns. However, the wind was contrary, blowing from the west-southwest. Perry climbed with the wind disparately trying to avoid the British fleet until the wind changed. Finally, he gave in at 10:00 and ordered to turn around and engage the British. Just then the wind providentially changed, and Perry now swooped down on the British with the wind at his back.

Perry placed his two Schooners, the Ariel and Scorpion, to his left in order to protect his fleet from being raked, while his own 19-gun flagship, the Lawrence was to engage the Detroit at the center of the British line (double click on the tactical map above).The Caledonia protected Perry's starboard. The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, was to challenge the Queen Charlotte, followed by four other smaller American ships that would take on the leftover British ships. Perry hoisted the battle flag over the Lawrence. On the flag was written the following, "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP." The flag repeated the dying words of Perry's friend Captain James Lawrence, who had been killed earlier that June.

The Detroit fired the first short at 11:45, which missed. A second 24-pounder was fired, which smashed into the Lawrence. Perry ordered the Scorpion to fire its 24-pounder and the Ariel to open up its four 12-pounders, because most of the American carronades were still out of range. The next 30 minutes were devastating to the Lawrence, as it was forced to pass almost the entire British line in an attempt to get within range. At 12:15, Perry finally was in range, and opened up his 32-pounder starboard guns. Meanwhile the Niagara and Caledonia hesitated, giving all three of the biggest British ships (the Queen Charlotte, General Hunter, and Detroit) the devastation opportunity to focus on the Lawrence. Soon, four out of every five men aboard the Lawrence had been killed or wounded, and Perry now was almost forced to surrender. However, he decided to risk a daring mission on the Lawrence's cutter, and row through a hail of iron to the Niagara. After reaching the Niagara unscathed, Perry sent the Niagara fearlessly into the heart of the British line. The British had lost so many top commanders in trying to take out the Lawrence (Barclay had been wounded) that now inexperience commanders conducted the final stage of the battle. As the Niagara bore down, these junior British officers decided to turn their ships around in order to open up their largely unused starboard guns. In the process however, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte collided. Perry took advantage of this blunder, and scooted right into the middle of the British line, opening all of his guns on both broadsides into the helpless British ships. Backing his maintop sail, Perry sat there while blasting away and decimating the enemy decks. Just then the wind picked up, and allowed Perry's slower gunboats to rush in and rake the enemy's stern. The British surrendered a few minutes past 3:00, and Perry wrote his very famous words addressing General William Henry Harrison,

"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"

The victory at Lake Erie was one of the most resounding victories in the entire war, and secured American domination of the Lake. The British were force to leave Fort Malden, and retreat up the Thames River. The Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames ensured that Michigan and Ohio would remain part of the United States. As a resident of Michigan, I am particularly grateful for this triumph of American liberty over British usurpation.

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