- Historic Sites
The Battle Of Lake Erie
"With half the western world at stake, See Perry on the middle lake.” —Nineteenth-century ballad
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Perry took command vigorously and at once. He sent parties out into the wilderness to scare up a detachment of carpenters that had left Philadelphia for Erie weeks before, and put pressure on the carpenters who were already there. As more straggled in the pace of work increased, although Perry never had more than two hundred men building his fleet. He was in a hurry—he wanted to get out on the lake as soon as possible—and he rushed his men. As the ships took shape it became obvious that they would bear some of the marks of hasty construction. They were made of green timber; trees that were standing in the forest at daybreak would often be part of a hull by dusk. It is said that Brown, coming upon a carpenter who was taking too much time with a particular task, said to the man: “We want no extras; plain work, plain work, is all we want. They are only required for one battle; if we win, that is all that will be wanted of them. If the enemy are victorious, the work is good enough to be captured.” Wooden-peg construction was used largely in all sailing ships of the era, but the scarcity of metal forced the Erie builders to use pegs in places where nails were considered vital. There was nothing to be done about it; Perry had all he could do to scare up enough iron to make mounts for the guns.
The guns themselves were coming in now. The first to arrive, four twelve-pounders, were brought from Black Rock by Dobbins early in April. The breezy pragmatism of the shipbuilding was less evident in the selection of the ordnance. Perry himself often left Erie to visit foundries where he supervised the casting of round shot and inspected artillery.
On the fifteenth of April two gunboats, each mounting a 32-pounder cannon, waddled off the stays into the water, and two weeks after that another gunboat was launched. Then, toward the end of May, Perry travelled up to Lake Ontario, joined Chauncey, and played a major role in the American attack on the British garrison at Fort George, at the mouth of the Niagara River. The British spiked their guns, withdrew from the fort, and decided that Fort Erie, at the other end of the river, was now also untenable. The troops were pulled out of Fort Erie, thereby making it possible for the Americans to move the small fleet that had long been stuck tight across the river at Black Rock.
There were no British guns banging away at Perry while he got the ships out of Jesse Elliott’s favorite harbor, but it was still a frightful task. The vessels had to edge along the shore, towed by oxen against the strong current. All the ships made Presque Isle in safety, but the strain was beginning to tell on Perry. He was a hardylooking type, tall and burly, but his healthy appearance was deceptive. He had not been strong as a child, and as an adult he was prey to what was then known as bilious fever. Since that convenient diagnosis was used to identify almost any intestinal disorder, it is impossible to say what his ailment really was. It is perhaps significant that it seemed to strike him after periods of prolonged stress.
In any event, Perry was sick by the time he returned to Presque Isle, and there he found most of his work force to be sick as well. Those who could work stayed at their jobs in double shifts, sawing and hammering long into the night. Sail, shot, and anchors came in from Pittsburgh, and the rest of the guns arrived.
By mid-July the job was done; the fleet was afloat in Presque Isle Bay. The two brigs, which represented about two thirds of Perry’s strength—they were each a hundred and ten feet long and mounted twenty guns—were rigged and armed. Word had come through of the death of Captain James Lawrence of the frigate Chesapeake in his brief, luckless fight with the Shannon . Perry immediately named one of his brigs the Lawrence ; the other he called the Niagara . Noah Brown, his work done, returned to New York. He would not be paid for his labors until March, 1814.
Perry had his fleet, but his greatest frustrations and anxieties were still ahead of him. He had no sailors to man his ships, and Chauncey, whose job it was to see that he got them, did not want to send him any. After the attack on Fort George, Chauncey had written warmly of Perry: “He was present at every point where he could be useful, under showers of musketry, but fortunately escaped unhurt.” As Perry began to badger him for men, however, Chauncey soured and finally became hostile.