- 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 British had taken quite a mauling before they finally silenced the Lawrence . A Canadian prisoner who visited the Detroit a month after the battle wrote that “it would be impossible to place a hand upon that broadside which had been exposed to the enemy’s fire without covering some portion of a wound, either from grape, round, canister, or chain shot.” Barclay was down—his remaining arm had been disabled and he had other wounds as well—and many of his officers were dead. The Detroit had gotten (tangled up with the Queen Charlotte and could not get clear. The British were expecting the American fleet to sail away, leaving them their hard-won prize of the derelict Lawrence . Most of them, then, must have known that the game was up when they saw the Niagara with all sail set and hardly a scratch on her bearing down upon them. The American ship passed between the Detroit and the Hunter , her guns double-shotted, both broadsides booming out. It was enough. The gunboats were coming up, the Niagara had every gun in action, and the day was lost. At about three o’clock Barclay struck his colors.
Perry—hatless, filthy, his breeches black with smoke and blood—thought of General Harrison waiting on his word. He found an old envelope and wrote on the back of it: “ DEAR GENL : 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.”
Perry returned to the Lawrence that afternoon to receive the surrender of the British officers. As he climbed aboard a very few unwounded men, the surgeon among them, came forward to greet him. He stared speechlessly at the survivors and the carnage around him. When the British came aboard, he quietly refused their swords and inquired after Captain Barclay. Forty-one British had been killed, and ninety-four wounded. The Americans had suffered twenty-seven killed and ninety-six wounded, most of them on the terribly ravaged Lawrence . Four men had died on Elliott’s ship.
Soon after Harrison got word of Perry’s triumph, he started out after Procter. Perry ferried his men across the now friendly lake. When Procter got news of the outcome of the battle, he realized that his situation was hopeless. He retreated, but not fast enough, and Harrison caught up with him and beat him decisively at the Battle of the Thames. Detroit and the Northwest were regained for good. As Washington Irving said in a biography of Perry that he whipped out a few weeks after the victory: “The last roar of cannon that died along the shores of Lake Erie was the expiring note of British domination.”
There was no question of the decisive results of the battle, but controversy over Elliott’s role in it arose almost immediately and did not subside for thirty years. Perry, perhaps simply relieved and ebullient over the victory, mentioned Elliott favorably in his official report to the Secretary of the Navy. There were mutterings from Perry’s subordinates when the two captains each got an equal share out of the $225,000 prize money for the capture of Barclay’s fleet, and later an enraged Perry retracted his initial statement when it became evident that Elliott felt he had not received enouafh credit.
Barclay returned to London and faced a court-martial, which acquitted him with honor, although his only subsequent command was a brief one on a tiny bomb vessel. A London magazine, reporting the incident, indicated that shortly before Perry left the Lawrence , Elliott was making away from the battle. When this report reached the States, it meant a court of inquiry for Elliott—a hasty affair in which nothing was really decided.
Storm clouds always gathered thickest around Elliott’s head. In 1818 he challenged Perry to a duel. Perry in turn filed charges against Elliott and demanded his court-martial, but President Monroe pigeonholed the matter; and the next year Perry died, killed by a fever he had contracted while on duty along the South American coast. Elliott continued to court controversy, and in 1839 the whole thing blew up again when James Fenimore Cooper published a history of the Navy in which he sought to justify Elliott’s behavior. It never was conclusively settled, though Elliott struck off a medal for Cooper. The rest of his career was an amalgam of duels and challenges and courts-martial. He flickered in and out of favor with successive administrations and was in command of the Philadelphia Navy Yard when he died in 1845.