Noah Brown, like the Biblical patriarch whose name he carried, needed to build a ship—two snow-brigs, specifically—to fulfill a particular purpose. The reason, however, was not to ensure the survival of species but to enable the United States to contend with the greatest naval power on the globe—Great Britain—for supremacy on Lake Erie. "We want no extras," Brown reportedly said, "plain work is all that is required; they will only be wanted for one battle; if we win, that is all that is wanted of them; if the enemy is victorious the work is good enough to be captured."
Embarking on an expedited building program, Brown and his workmen constructed not only the required ships but the yard where they were built as well as supporting structures. The facilities were located at the mouth of Cascade Creek at one end of the town of Presque Isle (present-day Erie), Pennsylvania. Built of white pine, red cedar, black walnut, oak, ash, poplar, and cucumber wood, the two brigs, sister ships, took shape in the early spring of 1813 as Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry oversaw and directed the formation of the American naval force on Lake Erie.
"One of the new brigs is ready for sea," Surgeon Usher Parsons wrote in his diary on 8 July, "the other . . . will also be ready in ten days more." The brigs had not yet been named. Five days before, however, Secretary of the Navy William Jones had written and instructed Perry that "one of the sloops of war [sic], (the first ready) is to be called the 'Lawrence' after our brave countryman, Captain James Lawrence, late of the United States Navy; the other the 'Niagara.'"
The Lawrence and her sister each carried two 12-pounder long guns and 18 32-pounder carronades. Ease of maneuver and loading and smaller gun crews, in addition to their relatively light weight, led to the selection of the latter ordnance, cast in Georgetown, D.C., for the unsophisticated ships. Powered by a four-pound powder charge, a "smasher's" 6-inch-diameter shot achieved a relatively low velocity, but it packed a considerable wallop. The short-range carronade was designed with a low muzzle velocity specifically to smash a jagged hole in the side of a ship, producing considerably more deadly splinters than higher velocity long-gun projectiles.
Providence smiled on Perry's preparations. The British, believing the American squadron was intact and ready for battle, shied away from attacking it at its most vulnerable time—when the brigs, completed but not on the lake were in the process of being lifted over the sandbar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay. When pumped dry, camels—rectangular floats lashed to the sides of the lightened ships—enabled the 9-foot-draft brigs to be floated over the bar and onto the lake.
"I have great pleasure in informing you," Perry wrote to Secretary Jones on the evening of 4 August 1813 from on board his flagship, the Lawrence, "that I have succeeded after almost incredible labour and fatigue to the men, in getting all the vessels I have been able to man, over the bar." In a hasty missive to his father on 9 August, Perry expressed similar sentiments: "I have at length got my little squadron out, but am only about half man'd and officer'd—I hear of about 90 men being on their way to join me [but] this will not be half enough—I have made one short cruise, after the enemy however he retreated up the Lake in a great hurry—we shall be after him the moment those men arrive." After expressing his intention to write again later, citing his being "entirely overrun with business," he told his father that his 13-year-old brother, James Alexander Perry, "is well and is as smart a midshipman on board the vessels as any I have—[he] will make a fine officer."
When combat came on 10 September 1813, Perry broke out a "fighting flag" bearing the words DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP. The Battle of Lake Erie began shortly before midday, and for the first 2.5 hours, the Lawrence "sustain'd the most destructive fire with the most [gall]ant spirit perhaps that has ever been witnessed under similar circumstances," wrote Sailing Master William V. Taylor, "they [the British] observing us to be the flag ship directed their whole fire at us." Taylor later wrote, "Judge the scene . . . 22 Men & officers lay dead . . . 66 wounded, every gun dismounted carriages knock'd to pieces—every strand of rigging cut off—masts & spars shot & tottering over head & in fact an unmanageable wreck."
"Men [had fallen] faster than they could be taken below," Surgeon Parsons observed. The Lawrence's shallow draft afforded no space for a cockpit-shelter below the waterline for the wounded. Shots passed through the ship, sparing neither the battle dressing station nor its people.
Only when "not another gun could be worked or fir'd or man'd," Perry, his "fighting flag" handed him by Army Private Hosea Sergeant, descended into the Lawrence's undamaged first cutter and transferred to the Niagara. While Perry sent her commanding officer, Master Commandant Jesse D. Elliott, to rally the American squadron's gunboats, the commodore brought the battle to a successful conclusion. The Niagara's carronades and guns decided the issue and forced the two largest British ships to strike their colors, followed by the rest in due course. Perry's squadron had achieved U.S. naval supremacy on Lake Erie.
When Perry returned to the Lawrence after the battle, "every poor fellow rais'd himself from the decks to greet him with three hearty cheers." Writing to his wife Abby four days after the battle, Sailing Master Taylor declared, "I do not hesitate to say that there was not a dry eye on the Ship." No vessel in that war, Taylor opined to his "dear girl . . . has been fought so obstinately & suffer'd so much."
The Lawrence, on whose deck Perry accepted the British surrender, later served as a hospital ship and a transport. Ordered sunk for preservation in the appropriately named Misery Bay in July 1815 along with the captured British flagship, HMS Detroit, and her consort, the Queen Charlotte, the Lawrence remained on the bottom for more than two decades. With the closing of the naval station at Erie in 1825 and auction of the property, Benjamin H. Brown of Rochester, New York, acquired the sunken Lawrence, but sold her to Captain George Miles of Erie. Miles had intended to fit out the ship for commercial service, but the sword would not be beaten into a ploughshare. Miles raised his sight-unseen purchase the following year, but found her so riddled with shot as to require complete repairs and too shallow in depth of hold to be a profitable merchantman.
The Lawrence thus lay submerged for 40 more years, "easy prey of relic hunters," according to a 1905 article by Frank H. Severance, secretary of the Buffalo Historical Society. Three "handsome armchairs" were made from her remains, while fragments of the hull went to the society's museum, and the manufacture of "Lawrence canes" proved "a profitable industry in Erie." In 1857 Miles sold the Lawrence and the Niagara to Leander Dobbins of Erie, who in 1875 turned the former over to speculators for exhibition at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Raised and then sunk again in September 1875 and raised for the last time the following spring, the remains of "Perry's gallant flagship" proved poorly placed at the exposition.
Sold to satisfy a landlord's claim, the little ship that had survived British gunfire at Lake Erie and been deliberately sunk twice met her end "in a gradual and ignominious dispersal into fragments." Although her life had been short, the Lawrence had done what had been wanted of her, and in so doing caused her name to be remembered, and equated with courage of the highest order.