Cannon shot boomed across the waters of Lake Erie as Oliver Hazard Perry, in command of the flagship Lawrence , led his small, undermanned fleet into battle against the British, commanded by the one-armed Robert Heriot Barclay, on the morning of September 10.
Perry’s second officer, Jesse Duncan Elliott, commanding the 480-ton brig Niagara , mysteriously held back (later he lamely asserted that his ship had been stalled by a lack of wind), leaving Perry to engage the enemy’s two most formidable vessels with just his own ship and two small schooners.
By the time the Niagara finally came up, the Lawrence was little more than a floating assemblage of splinters. Eighty-three out of just over a hundred crew members had been killed or wounded. Perry, miraculously unscathed, transferred command of the flagship to a junior officer and took the ship’s remaining dinghy over to the Niagara .
With a fresh ship he now had the upper hand. The Detroit , despite her advantage, had taken quite a beating from the Lawrence . Barely afloat, she angled frantically to present a narrower target to the American fleet but blundered into the Queen Charlotte in the process. As the two ships struggled to keep clear of each other, the Niagara ’s broadsides quickly decided the battle.
With victory at hand Perry hurriedly wrote out a dispatch to Gen. William Henry Harrison on the back of an old envelope: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.…”
The defeat of the British fleet at Lake Erie left British troops at Fort Maiden dangerously exposed, so Gen. Henry Procter and his men retreated up the Thames River in Ontario. American troops under General Harrison pursued.
The Shawnee chief Tecumseh had forged an alliance with the British in hopes of putting an end to the cession of Indian lands to the Americans. He found General Procter a disheartening ally. “We must compare our father’s conduct,” he said, “to a fat dog that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrightened drops it between its legs and runs off.”
On October 5 Harrison’s forces overtook Procter near the Indian settlement of Moravian Town. It was a brief battle, during which Procter fled the scene. Tecumseh and his braves fought well but received scant help from the dispersed and unnerved British regulars.
Tecumseh had foreseen this would be his last battle. “Brother warriors,” he is reported to have said, “we are about to enter into an engagement from which 1 shall never return.” Before the fighting began, he shed his British uniform and donned the buckskins of his younger days.
Tecumseh’s fate remains a mystery; his body was never found. The following year, at the close of the War of 1812, Indian veterans of the Battle of the Thames were asked what had happened to their leader. They raised their arms to the sky and said, “Gone.”