In the summer of 1812 the surrender of Detroit and the defeat of American forces on the Niagara Frontier caused a realization in Washington that naval control of Lakes Ontario and Erie were essential components to victory in the Old Northwest and Upper Canada (present-day Ontario). The Navy sent Commodore Isaac Chauncey to Lake Ontario with instructions to build the vessels necessary to gain control there and on Lake Erie. Soon Chauncey began a "shipbuilder's war" between his own construction operations at Sackets Harbor, New York, and those of the British at Kingston, Upper Canada. By the end of 1814 both sides were building vessels outfitted with more than 100 guns, and neither was able to maintain naval superiority on Lake Ontario. 1
On Lake Erie the situation became quite different. The British dominated the lake in the summer of 1812 with the ship Queen Charlotte (18 guns), brig General Hunter (10 guns), schooner Lady Prevost (12 guns), and a brig owned by the British fur trading North West Company named the Caledonia (3 guns). With the capture of Mackinac Island and Detroit in the summer of 1812, the British added the American commercial sloop Friends Good Will (renamed Little Belt ) and the U.S. Army supply brig Adams (renamed Detroit ), both of which were unarmed at the time of their capture. All the Americans had on the lake were a few unarmed commercial vessels at Buffalo of which two sloops were armed to fight at Lake Erie as the Trippe and Somers . 2
For the Americans to change the naval situation on this lake, they would have to construct, arm, and man a squadron of vessels above, or south of, Niagara Falls. Commodore Chauncey gained naval superiority on Lake Ontario in the fall and spring of 1812-13, allowing the American forces to secure control of the British posts of Fort George and Fort Erie at both ends of the Niagara River. At that point the Americans dominated the logistical line between the lower and upper lakes, thereby opening a route for them to send naval equipment, weaponry, and men from the eastern seaboard to the lakes. For the British, on the other hand, the loss of the Niagara portage meant that what few supplies and men they might spare from Lake Ontario had to use the primitive road net from Burlington Bay on the lake's northwest side to Port Dover at Long Point on Lake Erie. This meant that construction of new Lake Erie warships at Amherstburg, Upper Canada, at the southern end of the Detroit River would have to be done with materials and shipwrights available there and not with equipment or men from Lake Ontario.
The British soon suffered a loss to their Lake Erie squadron when U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott conducted a nighttime cutting-out raid on 8-9 October 1812 that captured the Detroit (n e e Adams ) and Caledonia from their anchorage at Fort Erie. Although the Detroit ran aground in the Niagara River and had to be burned to save her from recapture, Elliott's bold enterprise subtracted two vessels from the British inventory and added one to the Americans'. The balance of naval power on Lake Erie had begun to shift. British Major General Isaac Brock warned his superior, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, that the Americans were "making every exertion to gain naval Superiority on both Lakes which if they accomplish I do not see how we retain the Country."
Meanwhile, at Presque Isle Bay (Erie, Pennsylvania), Great Lakes mariner Daniel Dobbins supervised the initial construction of four gunboats for the Navy—the Ariel , Scorpion , Tigress , and Porcupine —from November until the following March. Commodore Chauncey visited the Erie shipyard in January and approved its selection for the construction site of a new brig, despite the bar at Presque Isle Bay. He also disliked the size of the gunboats and ordered the enlargement of two, which were not yet in frame. Above all, he contracted with New York shipbuilder Noah Brown to bring his well-known talents and skilled shipwrights from the East Coast to build these vessels. Brown and his workmen began arriving in early March.
Perry to the Lakes
The Great Lakes commodore needed someone he trusted to supervise the shipbuilding, who would see that the necessary ship components—sails, cordage, iron, cannon, shot, etc.—arrived, the rigging was set, the ships launched, the Sailors trained, and British dominance of Lake Erie eliminated. He needed an officer who was comfortable working with civilian shipwrights, public contractors, and military bureaucracy; he wanted someone accustomed to command. This was a tall order. Naval personnel were stretched from the high seas to the Great Lakes; few wanted to serve on the lakes when saltwater service led to greater fame and prize money.
Languishing in Newport, Rhode Island, and commanding the gunboats there was 27-year-old Master Commandant (equivalent to present-day commander) Oliver Hazard Perry. Tarnishing his experience and record was his captaincy of the U.S. schooner Revenge that was lost in a fog off Watch Hill Reef, Rhode Island, on 9 January 1811. Although a board of inquiry exonerated his conduct in the incident and placed the blame on the sailing master, the loss of the Revenge ruined his reputation with Navy Department headquarters. But Perry's resumé included two key ingredients: He had been the supervisor of the construction of several gunboats, and he had commanded a schooner and a gunboat squadron.
His requests for a saltwater command or assignment unheeded, in desperation he finally asked for a lakes billet by writing directly to Chauncey. The Great Lakes commodore responded enthusiastically, and Perry received orders to report to him at Sackets Harbor before going on to Presque Isle Bay. Perry brought more than 140 officers and men from his Rhode Island station, including Sailing Masters Stephen Champlin (a cousin) and Thomas C. Almy, both of whom would command ships in the Lake Erie squadron, and William V. Taylor, who would be Perry's sailing master. Chauncey expected Perry to supervise the construction, rigging, provisioning, and manning of the Lake Erie squadron, but the commodore anticipated he would also command it when ready. Chauncey's Lake Erie command depended on his maintaining naval dominance on Lake Ontario, something not achieved when the fleet at Presque Isle Bay was ready to sail.
Brown and Perry and their workmen and Sailors skillfully worked at extraordinary speed in the ensuing months and finished two identical brigs—the Lawrence and Niagara —and four gunboats. With the addition of the Caledonia , Somers , and Trippe from the Niagara River, Perry had a clear advantage over the Royal Navy squadron if he could bring his two brigs over the sandbar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay. On 1 August and over the next three days, as British Commander Robert H. Barclay temporarily lifted his loose blockade of the bay, Brown, Perry, their workers, and crews moved the brigs and gunboats into the lake. This was perhaps the decisive event in the United States' quest for naval dominance on Lake Erie.
While the Americans built two brigs and four gunboats at Presque Isle Bay, the British attempted to construct the largest warship on the upper lakes at Amherstburg. With a limited number of workmen but without logistical support after the capture of the Niagara portage, construction of a ship—sloop named HMS Detroit (not to be confused with the vessel of the same name that Elliott's raid destroyed) progressed very slowly. Cannibalization from vessels no longer fit for use assisted in the construction, but she was not launched until the end of July and was still not ready to sail when Perry's squadron entered the lake. Hence, Barclay withdrew to Amherstburg to await the Detroit 's completion. Arming the ship with different caliber cannon from the walls of Fort Malden, Barclay would not be able to sail until the second week of September.
By that time Perry achieved a logistical dominance that made his force superior to that of Barclay's. The British squadron carried 64 guns throwing 905 pounds total weight of metal and 496 pounds in broadside. The U.S. squadron mounted 54 guns with a total weight of metal of 1,536 pounds and a broadside of 936. Barclay's advantage was the Detroit 's long guns, with an effective range of approximately a mile. His best opportunity lay in having the Detroit disable one of the American brigs before shifting to the other. Unfortunately for him, his second largest vessel, the Queen Charlotte , was armed with short-range carronades (as were Perry's two brigs). How to fight with two dissimilarly armed men-of-war posed a problem for the Royal Navy. Historian Fred Drake concluded that "Barclay was damned if he fought a close action, damned if he ranged in a running fight, and damned if he had not fought at all." 3
For each commander the advantage lay in having the weather gage. For Barclay it meant he could eliminate one of the American brigs before she came into carronade range. For Perry it allowed him to close with the long-gunned Detroit before she inflicted too much damage on the Lawrence .
Manning the Lake Erie Squadron
Once Perry's squadron was built and on Lake Erie in early August, it was woefully undermanned. Consequently, he could not attack Barclay at Amherstburg because he did not have enough trained Sailors to maneuver his ships in the Detroit River. If HMS Detroit came out, the Americans could not fight on the lake because of an inability to sail all their vessels in formation, in light of the shortage of skilled seamen and experienced officers. Moreover, had the U.S. squadron been fully manned in early August, Perry might well have caught the British Army and its Indian allies on the lake during a retreat after failed attacks on Fort Meigs (Perrysburg, Ohio) and Fort Stephenson (Fremont, Ohio).
Perry required approximately 600 Sailors to fully man his nine combatants. Most of the men he brought with him from Newport were held by Chauncey at Sackets Harbor (out of approximately 150, only 40 ended up on Lake Erie). This had not been critical at the time, because Perry's fleet was still under construction.
Slowly as the vessels were constructed, Chauncey allowed a few Sailors to dribble to the Lake Erie squadron. To him this was reasonable because he expected to secure naval dominance of Lake Ontario and to bring men with him when he assumed command on Lake Erie. But dominance was not achieved by mid-summer and the shipbuilding race between Chauncey and British Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo consequently demanded more and more Sailors for the Lake Ontario squadron. Perry's crews were seldom augmented.
By mid-June, Perry wanted to fully man his vessels and began an acrimonious series of letters to Chauncey about his failures to send men for service above the Niagara Falls. General William Henry Harrison desired naval assistance to drive British ground forces from northwest Ohio, and Perry could not comply. Between May and mid-July Chauncey received more than 500 men but forwarded only 55 Tars to Lake Erie. Finally in late July the Great Lakes commodore sent 122 junior officers and Bluejackets to Perry, possibly because of pressure from General Harrison and Secretary of the Navy William James.
Not all of these men were from the Navy; like some of Chauncey's crews, they included Soldiers from the 9th and 14th U.S. Infantry, 1st U.S. Light Dragoons, and 3rd New York Artillery regiments. Perry impetuously wrote Chauncey that one group was "a motley set, blacks, Soldiers, and boys, I cannot think that you saw them after they were selected." To this the commodore bluntly replied, "I have yet to learn that the Colour of the skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man's qualifications or usefulness." Perry also began recruiting from the militia in the area.
Still short of officers and men and with no one capable of commanding the Niagara, on 9 August Perry received his last complement from Chauncey: the newly promoted Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott, 11 officers, and 91 men. Elliott had been the captain of Chauncey's flagship and became the commander of the Niagara.
When Perry sailed from Erie for the last time on 12 August, he had approximately 450 men with him. From General Harrison's army he acquired another 130. But death, desertion, and illness depleted the number that would participate in the battle. The greatest percentage of the Soldiers served as marines on various ships. Army Captain Henry Brevoort commanded the ones on board the Niagara and Marine Lieutenant John Brooks led those in the Lawrence. Perry had two weeks to convert the last group of landsmen into Sailors before facing the horrors of ship-to-ship combat. 4
Officers and Orders
Elliott remains one of the most enigmatic characters in the early U.S. Navy, and his conduct at the Battle of Lake Erie one of the most controversial aspects of a contentious career. Acclaimed as a hero for his conduct in the raid that brought the Caledonia into American hands and destroyed the first Detroit , Elliott's attitude toward Perry is undecipherable. His personality defies complete analysis, and the information regarding his emotional stability is inconclusive. He was a skilled sailor and ambitious officer whose service as a flag captain made him familiar with squadron maneuvers and signaling; he had more experience in this regard than Perry.
Below the two master commandants commanding the identical brigs that constituted the main strength of the American squadron was a mixed bag of officers. The captains of the smaller vessels in Perry's flotilla were young and inexperienced—at least one was under 21—and some had personality deficiencies.
Daniel Turner, commander of Perry's third largest vessel, the brig Caledonia , had acquired a reputation as a genial companion with temperate drinking habits and as a hard disciplinarian. Captaining the schooner Scorpion was 24-year-old Sailing Master Stephen Champlin, a man of modest talent and simple taste who had commanded a commercial vessel before the war.
Lieutenant John Packet of the schooner Ariel was about 23 years old and had been in grade only six weeks. He had been a midshipman on the Constitution in two of her battles and was the only commanding officer with ship-to-ship combat experience. Packet's efficiency report of 1815 described him as a "gentlemanly officer of sober habits - wanting in professional acquirements, and the industry to attain them." Augustus H. M. Conkling of the schooner Tigress was "an elegant officer in appearance, but too convivial even for the navy." (One had to be a consumer of very large amounts of alcohol to be "too convivial" for the early U.S. Navy.)
Another hard drinker was Midshipman George Senat of the schooner Porcupine . This Louisianan was killed in 1814 in his second duel with Midshipman James McDonald. His commander wrote after the incident that Senat "was an extremely intemperate young man, and will be of no loss to the Service." Sailing Master Thomas Almy of the schooner Somers had merchant experience before the war and died of pneumonia three months after the battle. Surgeon Samuel Parsons described him as an "active, efficient officer, and much esteemed by his brother officers." Elliott, on the other hand, said Almy was drunk during the battle; if true, it may partially account for the lagging performance of his vessel, the lead among the four gunboats bringing up the squadron's rear. Thomas Holdup of the sloop Trippe was only 18, but was considered "the very soul of chivalry, generous, high-minded, gallant, and heroic." His son and grandson became admirals.
The changes in personnel as Sailors and officers had arrived from Lake Ontario contributed to a lack of cohesion between officer and crews. The two American brig commanders were slightly older than their opponents, but most of the other officers were much younger, and all lacked significant naval experience when compared with their opposite numbers. Theirs was not a Nelsonian "Band of Brothers."
At a commanders' conference shortly before the battle, Perry issued two somewhat conflicting orders to his subordinates: "Commanding officers are particularly enjoined to pay attention to preserving their stations in Line" and "engage your designated adversary, in close action." A ship could not leave its place in the line of battle without good reason and had to engage a given opponent. What was a captain to do if his target changed position in the enemy line of battle ? Perry made no provision for this or for closing with the enemy in a melee that might occur in the course of an engagement. Paraphrasing Lord Nelson, Perry admonished his commanders: "If you lay the enemy close alongside you can't be out of place."
During this meeting, Perry showed his senior officers the "fighting flag" recently sewn in Erie, inscribed with the last order of his friend, Captain James Lawrence, killed during the USS Chesapeake 's duel with HMS Shannon : "Don't Give Up the Ship." They were to keep it a secret from their crews until the day of battle. Its hoisting would be Perry's signal for action.
The Battle of Lake Erie
Knowing that American naval dominance choked the British supply line in the Detroit River region, Perry anchored his fleet at the western end of Lake Erie, at South Bass Island's Put-in-Bay, and awaited Barclay's arrival. On the morning of 10 September 1813 his lookout sighted the British squadron leaving the mouth of the Detroit River, and Perry weighed anchor. Initially the wind favored Barclay, but it suddenly changed and gave Perry the weather gage in a light breeze. The British vessels hove to and in a compact line awaited the American attack. Perry's squadron advanced slowly, but his squared-rigged brigs soon outdistanced the slower sloop-rigged gunboats, which eventually trailed two miles behind the flagship.
The first Royal Navy shot against the Lawrence fell short, but instead of waiting for his line to close up, Perry immediately headed for the Detroit and began a duel that lasted nearly three hours. Trailing him and focusing on the brig HMS General Hunter , the thin-hulled Caledonia opened fire with her long guns. Elliott in the Niagara followed her even though his carronades did not have the range to engage the second-largest British vessel, the ship-sloop Queen Charlotte . When the Queen Charlotte 's captain saw he could not fight the Niagara with his short-range carronades, he moved ahead of the General Hunter and began attacking the Lawrence , which was then battling the two largest British brigs. The Niagara kept her place in line rather than move forward, neither did she engage her designated foe, as Perry had directed.
For more than two hours the Lawrence fought off the Detroit and Queen Charlotte , the Caledonia engaged the General Hunter , and the Niagara remained in line with no opponent. The gunboats disabled the trailing Little Belt but did not close either the General Hunter or Queen Charlotte with their long guns. Up to this point Perry had fought the Lawrence gallantly but had been delinquent as commodore in not communicating with his subordinates regarding the changing situation. Meanwhile Elliott refused to support his commander by leaving his position in the line of battle.
Finally and almost simultaneously, Perry decided to leave the helplessly damaged Lawrence (two-thirds of her crew were casualties) and headed by long boat for the Niagara . Elliott, believing Perry was either dead or severely wounded, decided to come forward. On boarding Elliott ' s ship, Perry ordered his subordinate to take command of the gunboats while he would direct his relief flagship—the Niagara . The gunboats then delivered devastating fire with their long guns against the General Hunter and the Queen Charlotte , while Perry maneuvered the Niagara through the British line, her guns blasting enemy vessels right and left, and forced the two largest British ships to surrender. Soon the entire British squadron lowered its flags.
The drama of transferring his flag from one vessel to another, the pungent "We have met the enemy and they are ours" message to General Harrison, and the theatrical "Don't Give Up the Ship" battle flag made Perry a national hero overnight. The rare Royal Navy loss of an entire squadron gave Americans great pride in a triumph over the mistress of the seas. Shortly thereafter Perry assisted General Harrison with an amphibious invasion of the Canadian shore that resulted in the recapture of Detroit and the defeat of the British and Indians at the Battle of the Thames (5 October 1813). Lake Erie and the Ohio Valley were free from British and Indian depredations.
Elliot was both furious and envious. Outraged at what he thought was Perry's less-than-supportive report of his decision to bring the Niagara forward without orders, and jealous of his commander's acclaim while he was ignored in the battle's aftermath, Elliott engaged in a 30-year controversy with Perry and his supporters that eventually ended with his reputation in tatters. 5
Although one can criticize Perry's command and control during the battle, one must never forget his determination, enterprise, and leadership in building a superior fleet on Lake Erie, in molding and training a disparate and inexperienced group of officers and men into a reasonably cohesive fighting force, and in courageously commanding the Lawrence and resolutely transferring his flag so that he might win America's first naval squadron triumph.
1. For a solid analysis of the war on Lake Ontario see Robert Malcomson, Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814 (Toronto: Robin Bass Studio, 1998).
2. The standard secondary study of the strategic and tactical aspects of the Battle of Lake Erie is David Curtis Skaggs and Gerard T. Altoff, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997). There were other commercial vessels on each side, but none participated in the battle.
3. Frederick C. Drake, "Artillery and Its Influence on Naval Tactics: Reflections on the Battle of Lake Erie," in William Jeffrey Welsh and David Curtis Skaggs, eds., War on the Great Lakes: Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1991), p. 29.
4. The most thorough discussion of the manpower Perry had available is found in Gerard T. Altoff, Deep Water Sailors, Shallow Water Soldiers: Manning the United States Fleet on Lake Erie, 1813 (Put-in-Bay, Ohio: Perry Group, 1993).
5. For an extended discussion of the Perry-Elliott controversy, see David Curtis Skaggs, Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006).
Erie Maritime Museum
The Erie Maritime Museum opened in 1998 as the homeport of the reconstructed relief flagship Niagara that delivered the decisive blow for the United States in the Battle of Lake Erie, 10 September 1813. Funded by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission, the facility offers a wide range of multimedia and interactive exhibits depicting the ship's role in the battle and the region's rich maritime heritage.
When in homeport, the Niagara allows visitors to experience conditions on board a man-of-war in the age of fighting sail. The brig is docked for public viewing September through May and intermittently during the summer each year. In those months, the ship conducts one-day sailing excursions out of Erie and voyages to other ports in the Great Lakes as a U.S. Coast Guard inspected Sailing School Vessel.
The museum also contains a reconstruction of the mid-ship section of the brig Lawrence , Oliver Hazard Perry's original flagship, complete with mast, spars, and rigging to foster hands-on learning in the ways of sail handling. Another powerful display is the section of the Lawrence replica that has been blasted with live ammunition from the current Niagara 's own carronades that allows visitors to envision the horrific carnage inflicted on both ships and men during the battle. The original Lawrence and Niagara were built in Erie during the spring and summer of 1813.
The museum is in the heart of Erie, Pennsylvania, just off the water at 150 East Front Street. January through March, the museum is open Thursday through Saturday, 0900 to 1700, and is closed Monday through Wednesday. April through December, the museum hours are: Monday through Saturday 0900 to 1700 and Sunday 1200 until 1700. Admission fees are based on the Niagara being in or out of port. In port for adults 18 and up is $6, youths 6-17 is $3, and seniors 60 and above is $5. The out of port fees for the same categories are, respectively, $4, $2, and $3.50. The museum's Web site is www.brigniagara.org .
Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial
Overlooking Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie's South Bass Island, is the dramatic Doric column known as Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial. Established to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812 and to celebrate the long-lasting peace between Britain, Canada, and the United States, it is situated five miles from the longest undefended border in the world.
Monument construction began in October 1912, and it opened to the public on 13 June 1915. It became a National Park Service Memorial in 1936. Approximately 200,000 people visit the site each year.
The 352-foot monument is the most massive Doric column in the world. In the United States only the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the San Jacinto Monument in Texas, and the Washington Monument are taller. Beneath its stone floor are the remains of three American and three British naval officers who lost their lives during the Battle of Lake Erie.
The monument is currently undergoing major repairs, and access to the observation deck may be limited during the 2009 tourist season. The new $2.4-million visitor center contains a marble statue of Oliver Hazard Perry, paintings of the battle by Mississippi artist Dean Mosher, and a small theater showing a film on the battle and its importance.
The monument's hours are seasonal. January to late April it is open by prior appointment; from late April to mid-May, 1000-1700; from mid-May to mid-June, 1000-1800; from mid-June to September, 1000-1900; from September to mid-October, 1000-1700; and from late October to December 31, by prior appointment. Entrance fees are $3 for adults 16 and over, and free for children under 15 accompanied by an adult.