During the War of 1812, American strategists formulated a plan to harass and spread the British forces by attacking Canada (there is some debate as to who came up with this plan first, and who was to attack whom). To do this, however, it was first necessary for the Americans to gain control of the Great Lakes.
Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, commodore in command of all U.S. Naval forces on Lake Erie, threw the first punch in what would later be known as the Battle of Lake Erie. His orders were to gain mastery of the lake to support Gen. William Henry Harrison’s invasion forces. Contingents from both sides traveled to the lake and built small fleets at local shipyards using available materials. The British had a slight advantage in that they were able to bring in hardware and some other difficult-to-manufacture components from England; however, the fleets were roughly equal in crew size and firepower. Notably, crews from both sides were untrained and inexperienced in sea warfare. The six British ships, commanded by Cmdr. Robert Barclay, who fought with Nelson at Trafalgar, were equipped with long guns, which possessed greater range than the Americans’ carronades.
On Sept. 10, 1813, the opposing fleets met off South Bass Island, near Detroit. The fleets sighted each other at sunrise, but owing to fickle winds, didn’t join the battle until just after noon. Perry’s ship, Lawrence, suffered grievous damage thanks to the superior range of Barclay’s guns, and by 1430, the deck strewn with dead and wounded, Lawrence was out of action. In light of the vessel’s condition, Perry transferred his flag to Niagara, which had been standing out of range of the British long guns. Perry took command, and under a freshening breeze, engaged the already depleted British ships, passing their line while delivering devastating, raking fire. By 1600, Barclay struck his colors, surrendering the entire squadron to Perry. Perry later received acclaim not only for his victorious actions, but also for his chivalrous and compassionate treatment of the enemy wounded and prisoners. Upon the British surrender, Perry penned the now-famous communiqué to Harrison, which read, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
The Battle of Lake Erie avenged an earlier American defeat at the hands of the British. In June of 1813, USS Chesapeake, under the command of James Lawrence, engaged HMS Shannon, under command of Philip Broke. Some reports indicate that Broke sent a message to Lawrence, whose ship was berthed in Boston Harbor, challenging him to come out and fight, while others indicate he never received any such bidding. Whichever is true, it is likely that Lawrence showed more courage than prudence on that day. The crew of Shannon, as well as Broke, were both highly seasoned, having been bloodied on several previous occasions. Lawrence, while equally seasoned, possessed in Chesapeake’s crew a shortage of officers and inexperienced enlisted ranks.
In the ensuing battle, which lasted a mere 15 minutes, Chesapeake was mauled and Lawrence mortally wounded by Shannon’s initial broadside. His dying exhortations would, however, spur on the crews of many American ships and sailors for decades to come. “Tell the men to fire faster, fight ’til she sinks boys … don’t give up the ship!” Lawrence gasped as he was carried below. Although the battle was lost, and Chesapeake and its surviving crew captured, the tale of Lawrence’s dogged refusal to surrender reached Perry before the Battle of Lake Erie. In honor of his countryman’s selfless, if not imprudent, actions, Perry had stitched into his ship’s battle flag — the flag he carried during the battle from Lawrence to Niagara — the inscription, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.” Today, Perry’s battle flag hangs at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Md., inspiring midshipmen as it did the crews of Chesapeake, Lawrence and Niagara.
Steve C. D’Antonio