Don't Give Up The Ship: Oliver Hazard Perry's Victory at the Battle of Lake Erie
“We have met the enemy and they are ours.” So wrote the 27-year-old Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry to Major General William Henry Harrison after defeating the British in one of the most significant naval clashes in American history at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
On Friday, September 10, 1813, Perry led his flotilla of nine vessels with 54 guns against a British squadron of six ships and 63 cannons under Commander Robert Heriot Barclay at Put-In-Bay, on the western end of Lake Erie near present-day Sandusky, Ohio. Commanding the Lake Erie fleet from his 20-gun flagship, the Lawrence, which was named for Perry’s fallen friend, Captain James Lawrence, the master commandant raised his battle flag to the main trunk of his vessel. Captain Lawrence had given the last full measure of devotion in battle earlier that June. His dying words were inscribed on Perry's flag: “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP.”
The original "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP" flag flown by Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry's battle flag is preserved and on display at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. (Photo Credit: Naval History and Heritage Command)
At 11:45 a.m., Barclay’s 19-gun flagship, the Detroit, fired the first shot of the action. Armed with long guns that greatly outranged the short-barreled carronades that were the primary weapons of the American flotilla, the British owned the initial stages of the battle. The fighting was intense as Perry sailed forward to meet the enemy head-on. In fact, his flagship received so much heavy fire that by 2:30 p.m., it was “a floating wreck; every gun on her engaged side was disabled and four of every five men fit for duty were either killed or wounded,” as cited by the National Park Service. Unwilling to accept defeat or surrender, Perry took his battle flag, and together with four unwounded sailors, boarded one of the flagship’s cutters and rowed under fire to the Lawrence’s sister-ship, the 20-gun Niagara.
Perry and his sailors rowing over to the Niagara to continue the fight against the British. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
After boarding the Niagara and raising his battle flag once again, Perry rallied his forces and sailed toward the British line. With Barclay severely wounded and the captain and first lieutenant of every British vessel incapacitated, junior officers were forced to take command of the fleet, men who had “little or no experience maneuvering ships in the chaos of combat,” according to the NPS. Crashing through the enemy line of ships and pouring out fire, Perry and his sailors overwhelmed the battered British squadron. In the end, the entire enemy fleet fell into Perry’s hands. The victorious master commandant ultimately returned to the devastated Lawrence, where he received the British to discuss terms of surrender. Afterwards, Perry wrote to the future ninth President of the United States, William H. 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.”
Considered a major turning point in the War of 1812, Oliver Perry’s victory over the Royal Navy secured control of Lake Erie for America and forced the British to abandon Detroit. Additionally, Perry’s success paved the way for General Harrison’s victory later that October at the Battle of Thames, which established U.S. sovereignty over the Ohio and Michigan territories. Reflecting on the significance of the battle, Theodore Roosevelt later wrote, “The victory of Lake Erie was most important, both in its material results and in its moral effect. It gave us complete command of all the upper lakes, prevented any fears of invasion from that quarter, increased our prestige with the foe and our confidence in ourselves....” In a war that had featured many setbacks for the young United States, Perry became a national hero, delivering a victory that his country truly needed. For good reason, he would forever be remembered as the “Hero of Lake Erie.”
American Battlefield Trust: Oliver Hazard Perry.
Detroit Historical Society: Battle of Lake Erie.
History.com: War of 1812.
National Park Service: The Battle of Lake Erie, War of 1812.
Ohio History Central: Battle of Lake Erie.
Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island: Battle of Lake Erie.
PennState University Libraries: Erie: Turning Point of the War of 1812.
Smithsonian.com: The Battle of Lake Erie.