- 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
On that night Perry called his officers aboard his ship and discussed the battle he knew was imminent. Barclay’s strongest ships were the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte , which mounted seventeen guns. These would be engaged by the Lawrence , Perry’s flagship, and her sister ship, the Niagara , which Perry had placed under the command of Jesse Elliott. Perry drew up a line of battle and then, paraphrasing Nelson’s great dictum, said: “If you lay your enemy alongside, you cannot be out of place.” The officers returned to their ships, and a full autumn moon came out and rolled across the sky. Living things chittered and peeped on the shore of the harbor, and the ships lay motionless on the water in the bright, still night.
The next morning at sunup the lookouts sighted the British fleet, and Perry stood out for open water. It was a fine, cloudless day, with fluky breezes that eventually steadied and swung around to the southeast, giving the American ships the weather gauge—the important ability to force or decline battle as they chose. The schooner Chippewa led the enemy line, followed by Barclay’s flagship, the Detroit , the brig Queen Charlotte , the brig Hunter of ten guns, the schooner Lady Prevost , and the sloop Little Belt . Perry accordingly arranged his line so that the Lawrence was in the van, with the schooners Ariel and Scorpion standing by her weather bow, the Caledonia next, to fight the Hunter , and then the Niagara , with which Elliott was to engage the Queen Charlotte . The gunboat-schooners Somers , Porcupine , and Tigress and the sloop Trippe would take on the Lady Prevost and the Little Belt . Dobbins should have been there in the schooner Ohio , but he had been sent to Erie to pick up supplies.
The American ships cleared for action; stands of cutlasses were set up on deck, shot was placed near the guns, and the hatches were closed save for a ten-inch-square aperture through which the powder charges would be passed. Sand was sprinkled on the decks so that the sailors could keep their footing when the blood began to flow. Perry brought the ship’s papers, wrapped in lead, to the ship’s surgeon and told him to throw them overboard should the Lawrence be forced to strike. Sometime during the morning he hoisted his battle flag, a blue banner bearing the dying words attributed to Captain Lawrence: “Don’t Give up the Ship.” It was a curious slogan, in a way, filled as it was with negative implications—the ship, after all, had been given up—but the crew cheered when they saw it unfurl in the light breeze.
Then there was nothing more to be done. Perry turned to one of his officers. “This is the most important day of my life,” he said.
The British fleet had been freshly painted, and the ships looked clean and formidable, bearing toward the Americans in the sunny morning. At about quarter to twelve the sailors on the Lawrence heard a band playing what sounded like “Rule Britannia,” the music faint across the water. There was an enormous weight of reputation riding with those English men-of-war on a lake in the middle of North America. When the band was finished, the Detroit fired a ranging shot. A few minutes later she fired another, which hit the Lawrence . The two ships were still a mile apart, and Perry realized that Barclay had the edge on him. All but two of Perry’s guns were 32pounder carronades, short-barrelled pieces that were deadly at short range but not good for much beyond 250 yards. Barclay, on the other hand, was well supplied with long guns. Perry’s only hope was to engage Barclay closely, so he held his fire while the two ships closed, and the Briton picked his ship apart in a ghastly sort of target practice.
After a half hour the Lawrence’s rigging was almost useless, but Perry was close enough for his guns to take effect. The Lawrence opened fire, but she was virtually unsupported; she had sailed into action accompanied only by two small schooners. Far away through the smoke could be seen the Niagara , an idle spectator to the savage fight that was taking shape. Jesse Duncan Elliott had not yet begun to fight. Nor did he intend to, it seemed to the sailors on the Lawrence . The Queen Charlotte , finding that the Niagara would not come within range, now ran down on the Lawrence , and Perry soon found himself being fired on by some forty guns.