- 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
The destruction on the decks of the Lawrence was appalling. The air was filled with iron and great jagged splinters of wood, and the wounded tottered below faster than Usher Parsons, the surgeon, could treat them. “It seemed,” he said, “as though heaven and earth were at loggerheads.” John Brooks, the affable and popular lieutenant of marines and the handsomest man in the fleet, had his hip carried away by a cannonball and lay on the deck in agony, begging for a pistol with which to kill himself. Lying next to him, Samuel Hambleton, the purser, who was also wounded, took a verbal disposition of his will before the lieutenant died. The wounded crawled away to hide, but there was no safe, stout corner in the hastily built brig. Parsons was helping a midshipman to his feet after dressing a wound in his arm when the boy was torn out of his hands by a shot that smashed through the hull. Five cannonballs passed through the cabin where he was working. Blood spilled on the deck faster than men could throw sand on it, and sailors slipped and fell as they strained at the guns. The hammocks were shot apart, and the scraps of cloth that filled them danced in the smoky air like snowflakes. They settled on the bloody head of Lieutenant John Yarnall, Perry’s second-in-command, and gave him the appearance of a huge owl as he kept the guns manned and working. Spars and rigging tumbled down from aloft, round shot hulled the ship again and again, men fell dead and were clawed apart by canister; and through it all the ship’s dog, a small black spaniel, wailed and keened.
Courage takes strange forms. It is said that Perry suffered a psychopathic fear of cows and would splash across a muddy road to avoid going near one of the innocuous beasts; but here he was, in the center of and bearing full responsibility for what was undoubtedly the worst place on earth at the moment, and he was utterly composed. An hour and a half into the chaotic afternoon he appeared at the skylight over the sickbay and calmly asked Parsons to spare him one of his assistants. He returned six time» and finally, with all the assistants gone, asked if there were any wounded who could pull a rope. A few men actually dragged themselves back to the deck. But it was no use. By 2:30 P.M. , after an almost unbelievable defense, there was not a gun working on the Lawrence , and 80 per cent of her crew were down. And off out of range the Niagara still stood undamaged; Parsons says that many of the wounded cursed her in their last words.
Nobody will ever know what was going through Jesse Duncan Elliott’s mind as he watched his sister ship get hammered into a listing ruin. He was some years older than Perry and felt that he should have had command of the squadron, and his jealousy may have been such that, like John Paul Jones’s mad ally Captain Landais, he stood back waiting for his superior to be killed so that he could come in at the end of the fight and claim the victory. Much later his apologists would give the insufficient explanation that he was simply obeying orders by keeping the line of battle intact. The Caledonia was a slow sailor, and he was stuck behind her, reluctant to leave his station. Whatever the reason, as the Lawrence ’s last gun stopped firing Elliott did leave the line and pass to windward of the ruined flagship. He was sure that Perry was dead, and it is a pity that there is no clear record of his reactions when Perry clambered up over the side of the Niagara and stood facing him.
On board the Lawrence Perry, miraculously unhurt, had determined that there still was a ship’s boat, also miraculously unhurt. He had hauled down the “Don’t Give up the Ship” battle flag—but not the American flag—and took it with him as he climbed into the boat, leaving Yarnall in command of the ship and the nine men still fit for duty. Thickly banked powder smoke covered him for part of the way as he made for the Niagara , but for most of the fifteen-minute journey the water around him was roiled with musketry and round shot. But Perry made it through unhurt.
As he climbed aboard Elliott’s ship he saw, with “unspeakable pain,” Yarnall lower the flag of the Lawrence in surrender. But it did not stay lowered for long, and the British never had a chance to take possession of the ship. Perry exchanged a word or two with Elliott, sent him back in the Lawrence’s dinghy to bring up the gunboats, and then, taking command of the Niagara , steered her toward the Detroit .