February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
"With half the western world at stake, See Perry on the middle lake.” —Nineteenth-century ballad
In the late summer of 1812 a Great Lakes merchant captain named Daniel Dobbins arrived in Washington. He had had a dreadful time getting there, and his journey could not have been made more pleasant by the fact that he was bringing some very bad news with him.
On July 12, a month after President Madison announced a state of war between the United States and Great Britain, General William Hull had invaded Canada with twenty-two hundred men. Hull issued a number of sententious proclamations about the liberty and prosperity that would follow in the wake of his invasion, and then almost immediately quailed before minor British resistance and false reports of large numbers of the enemy nearby. By August 8 Hull was back in Detroit, where, a week later, he surrendered all his troops and his well-supplied garrison to a force half the size of his, composed mainly of militia and Indians. Whatever the reason for Hull’s extraordinary performance—it was variously ascribed to cowardice, senility, and treason—his capitulation left the American Northwest in the control of the British and Daniel Dobbins a prisoner.
This was particularly bad luck for Dobbins, for he was believed by his captors to have violated an earlier parole. He was told that he was to be executed but escaped from the British camp in a thunderstorm. A reward was offered for his scalp, and so, having anticipated this, he hid in a wrecked boat on the shore of the Detroit River. At length he made for the river’s mouth, where he found an abandoned Indian dugout. He paddled across Lake Erie to Sandusky and there got hold of a horse, which he rode to Cleveland. Then, again in a canoe, he pressed on to the harbor of Presque Isle—which was beginning to be known as the town of Erie—where the officer in command of a small blockhouse told him to carry his doleful news to Washington. So Dobbins travelled the long, dangerous forest road to Pittsburgh and then headed east.
Soon after he finally reached the capital, he was taken before President Madison, who immediately summoned a cabinet meeting to discuss Dobbins’ news. At the very beginning of the war Madison had hoped to take Canada by invasion, thereby obviating the need for a costly American fleet on the Lakes. Now Hull’s defeat had shown him that such a fleet was indispensable. Dobbins must have given a good account of himself, since Madison turned to him for advice. What did the lake captain think was the best place for building a fleet on Lake Erie? Dobbins recommended Presque Isle and was promptly given the service rank of sailing master and orders to proceed to Erie and build a flotilla.
However well Dobbins may have impressed the rattled Madison, it is unlikely that he would have been given his post had not Lake Erie seemed something of a side show. The President, quite reasonably, expected the real contest to take place on Lake Ontario, for Ontario dominated all the supply routes from the St. Lawrence to the upper Lakes. Although there was no American navy at all on Erie, there was already one of sorts on Ontario, its mainstay a sixteen-gun brig. Across the lake, operating out of Kingston Harbor, was a British fleet mounting upward of seventy guns. It was clear then that a first-rate commander was needed to seize the advantage on Lake Ontario. So the Navy Department gave the crucial command of the naval forces on Lakes Ontario and Erie to Isaac Chauncey.
Chauncey was an irritable, vigorous, corpulent man who had commanded his first ship when he was just nineteen. Now he was forty years old, a well-respected veteran of the Tripolitan war, where his courage under fire had drawn a special commendation from the exacting Commodore Preble. After the war he spent a year’s furlough from the Navy as captain of a ship belonging to John Jacob Astor and then returned to the service to take command of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. On September 3 of 1812 he was called from this last duty to go to the Lakes; and by the end of the month, when he embarked on an antediluvian steamboat for the twentyhour trip to Albany, he had already sent north scores of soldiers, sailors, and ship carpenters. He seemed to be the perfect man for the job.
Dobbins was also heading north late in September. His destination, Presque Isle, was a narrow finger of land six miles long, hooked out into Lake Erie and enclosing a superb natural harbor three miles long and more than a mile wide. A sandbar across the entrance to the bay presented some difficulties, but once inside, a ship was safe from any storm that might blow up.
Aside from this harbor and the fine timber that grew all about it, there was nothing there to encourage the construction of a fleet. There were forty-seven houses in the bleak little community, one blacksmith shop, and a few men who knew how to use whipsaws. There was no metal to speak of within a hundred miles, nor was there any rope or sailcloth to be had. The only cannon in the place was a small iron boat howitzer; it had been found on the beach years before, and the villagers liked to shoot it off on the Fourth of July.
When Dobbins got to Presque Isle on September 24, he had two thousand dollars and a few carpenters with which to build a navy. Two thousand dollars wasn’t very much money for the task, but Dobbins, acting on the assumption that there would be more coming, spent with a free hand. He set the price of timber at a dollar a tree. He sent to Meadville, some thirty miles away, for some steel and paid the blacksmith $2.00 a day to forge the steel into axes. Sawyers were to earn $1.25 a day and axemen 62½ cents. Hauling was worth $4.00 a day to those who had horses or oxen.
A few days after his arrival Dobbins wrote a letter to “Commodore Chauncey or the commanding officer of the lake at Buffaloe”: SIR : I have the honor to transmit to you … a coppy of my instructions from the Secretary of the Navy and assure you, Sir, that I stand ready to execute any orders you may be pleased to issue. …
Dobbins must have been infuriated by the reply that he received a few days later: It appears to me utterly impossible to build Gun Boats at Presqu’ile; there is not a sufficient depth of water on the bar to get them into the Lake. Should there be water, the place is at all times open to the attacks of the Enemy. … From a slight acquaintance I have with our side of Lake Erie … I am under the impression [it] has not a single Harbor calculated to fit out a Naval expedition, and the only one convenient I am at present at. … I have no further communication to make on the subject.
This frustrating message was not signed by Chauncey but by Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott. Elliott, who had just turned thirty, had been sent by Chauncey to take command of operations on Lake Erie. He was a vain man, and he was a troublemaker.
Elliott’s rank was superior to the one hastily conferred on Dobbins. But Dobbins knew Lake Erie; he had been sailing the Lakes for more than a decade. He was sure that he had picked the right spot in Presque Isle, and he was still very much a civilian, with a good republican mistrust of military wisdom. He wrote Elliott a testy letter explaining that he had “as perfect a knowledge of this lake as any other man on it” and went ahead with his work.
It was well that he did, for Elliott had lit on a curious spot for his operations. He was at Black Rock, near Buffalo, in a harbor so close to the British base across the Niagara at Fort Erie that soldiers frequently exchanged shots across the river. Moreover, vessels seeking the open lake would have to work their way through three miles of channels against a fourknot current right under the guns of the enemy. In this cul-de-sac Elliott had assembled a fleet of small schooners, bought up and down the lake.
Despite his dubious anchorage, however, Elliott did lead a spirited cutting-out operation a few days after he wrote his highhanded letter to Dobbins. Along with fifty sailors and fifty soldiers under Army Captain Nathan Towson, he put out from the American shore in darkness and moved against two British vessels that were riding at anchor in front of the fort. His barges were spotted from the deck of the brig Caledonia , but Towson scrambled aboard despite heavy musketry and managed to bring the brig—and its welcome cargo of $150,000 worth of pelts—back to Black Rock. Elliott secured the brig Detroit (which had been captured from Hull at Detroit) but ran her aground and, under heavy artillery fire, ordered her burned. Long afterward Towson, rankling over the scant credit that the Army received in Elliott’s official report, would try to provoke him into a duel; but for the moment the country was happy with this small success, and Elliott was a hero. Congress voted him a sword, and the next summer he was promoted to master commandant, over the heads of thirty of his senior lieutenants.
Elliott had added another ship to his squadron, but bottled up as it was in Black Rock, neither the Caledonia nor any other of his ships was of any immediate use to him.
Meanwhile, as autumn burned itself out in the forests around him, Dobbins worked to get ships by less spectacular means than splashy nighttime raids. He laid down the keels for two brigs and three gunboats. Supplies trickled in from Philadelphia, and from Pittsburgh by way of the Allegheny and French rivers. Dobbins paid one J. McDonald $200 for four foremasts, four mainmasts, four main booms, and four bowsprits. John Greenwood turned out sixty sweeps and fifty 14-foot oars for $92.25, and N. Richardson attempted to sell him the products of a “very extensive rope-walk in Kentucky.” Winter blew down from the north, and one of his workers died; others began to desert. Dobbins did all he could to keep them there and all the while wrote increasingly desperate letters to Chauncey and then to the Secretary of the Navy begging for instructions: The boats that I have laid down are 50 feet keel 17 feet beams 5 feet hold and from appearances will be fast sailors if you wish me to go on with the work you will Pleas give me orders to draw I have expended a considerable sum more than the two thousand dollars … I have brot the iron from Pittsburgh which comes high the Roads have been so bad if I am directed to go on with the work Pleas let me hear as soon as Posible.
Chauncey maintained a monumental silence, and it seems that the Secretary of the Navy did as well. But at last, in late December, Chauncey left his base on Lake Ontario to pay a visit to Lake Erie. There he found that the carpenters who had been converting the schooners at Black Rock to naval vessels had finally been discouraged by the combination of winter and enemy musketry and had returned to New York, leaving the ships in a dismal state of disrepair. Chauncey journeyed on to Presque Isle, where he studied the harbor and decided that Dobbins had been right; it was the best place for the American navy.
Dobbins soon received assistance more material than Chauncey’s approval. In January of 1813 the Navy Department sent Noah Brown, a superb New York shipbuilder, up to Lake Erie to build two large brigs. And at about the same time Oliver Hazard Perry petitioned Chauncey for a command on the Lakes.
Perry had been born twenty-seven years before in Rhode Island. Despite his family’s Quaker wellsprings, his father, Christopher, had fought in the Revolution, and Oliver was wild to get to sea by the time he was thirteen. The next year his father took him in as a midshipman on his frigate, and the boy saw action in the Caribbean during the naval war with France. He served in the Mediterranean at the time of the Tripolitan war and was made an acting lieutenant in 1803 and a permanent one four years later. He spent the first two years of his lieutenancy employed in the frus trating task of building gunboats; these balky craft were part of an illusory scheme to keep the British navy from violating Jefferson’s embargo. At last, in 1809, he was given command of the schooner Revenge . He got some creditable attention when he captured an American ship whose skipper had, in effect, stolen her from her owners and sailed her under English colors. For the most part, however, his duty was unspeakably tedious: he was to cruise up and down the Atlantic coast on the lookout for seizures of American ships by British men-of-war—which in any event the fourteen small guns of the Revenge would have been powerless to forestall. Even so, it was better than gunboat service. Then in January of 1811 the Revenge , making for New London in a thick fog, ran aground and sank. The pilot was in charge at the time, and Perry was completely exonerated at the court of inquiry that followed. Nevertheless he was dismayed to find himself back on gunboat duty, operating out of Newport. Fretful and restless, he wrote everyone he could think of, begging for a different service; and at last, a little more than a year after the loss of the Revenge , Chauncey petitioned for Perry to serve under him, saying that the young captain could “be employed to great advantage, particularly on Lake Erie, where I shall not be able to go so early as I expected, owing to the increasing force of the enemy on this lake.”
Chauncey had made a brilliant choice, but in his petition can be read a clue to the shortcomings that would hamstring the man in his own operations on Lake Ontario. He was always haunted by the “increasing force of the enemy,” and it is fortunate indeed that his English counterpart across the lake, Sir James Lucas Yeo, harbored the same fears. Yeo turned up available for duty when he lost his ship on an uncharted reef in the West Indies. The court-martial took a lenient view of his mishap and acquitted Yeo; then, for little better reason than the fact that he had lost his ship and needed a job, he was given command of the British naval forces on the Lakes.
He immediately began to build ships on Lake Ontario, and Chauncey did the same. All through the spring and summer of 1813 the balance of naval power seesawed back and forth as Yeo and Chauncey launched ever larger ships. Chauncey was a magnificent organizer; he produced a strong fleet out of raw timber in the wilderness but was always scared to fight it. And so with Yeo; he built the ships but lacked the determination to use them as they should be used. The two growing navies sparred timidly at each other and then retired to equip themselves better for the decisive action that would someday come. This shipbuilding race was carried to extremes; by the end of the war Chauncey had nearly finished building a 130-gun ship of the line, a vessel three times larger than anything America had on salt water. But by that time Perry’s operations on Lake Erie had made the command of Lake Ontario seem little more than a tactical exercise.
As soon as Perry got his transfer orders from the Navy Department, he sent fifty carpenters and sailors north to Erie, and he himself set out by sleigh. He arrived at Presque Isle at dusk on March 27. Noah Brown, the New York shipbuilder, had arrived two weeks before and was there with Dobbins to greet Perry when he arrived in the haggard town. The winter had slowed construction down, but Perry found the two brigs well under way as he first examined them in the fading light.
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.
Yet Perry was under constant pressure to go out and fight. The Secretary of the Navy, ignorant of the situation on Lake Erie, wrote Perry demanding that he cooperate with General William Henry Harrison. After Hull had been annihilated at Detroit, Harrison raised a force that was known by the somewhat pathetic name of “the second Northwestern Army.” Now Harrison had his troops in northern Ohio, facing the army of British General Henry Procter. Neither general could move without being assured of friendly control on Lake Erie; so in order to cooperate with Harrison, Perry had to secure the lake for the Americans. There was nothing that Perry wished to do more, but neither Harrison nor the Navy Department knew that he was for the moment powerless to move. The Department had been sending men to Chauncey right along. These men were designated for service on Lake Erie as well as Lake Ontario, the Department’s optimistic theory being that Chauncey would wisely select the number of men needed by Perry and then dispatch them to Presque Isle. Chauncey, on the other hand, felt that he needed the men on Lake Ontario and kept them there.
Perry, by now frantic, wrote strong letters to Chauncey. He sent Dobbins out to try to drum up recruits and promised ten dollars a month to anybody who would serve for four months or until a decisive battle was fought. His recruiting drew a meager response; not more than sixty men volunteered. Then in mid-July he received an urgent order from the Navy Department and a letter from Harrison, both demanding that he sail. And on the same day the topsails of a British fleet poked up over the horizon off Presque Isle.
In an ecstasy of frustration Perry wrote a strained, grandiloquent letter to Chauncey: The enemy’s fleet of six sail are now off the bar of this harbour. What a golden opportunity if we had men. … I am constantly looking to the eastward; every mail and every traveller from that quarter is looked to as the harbinger of the glad tidings of our men being on their way. … Give me men, sir, and I will acquire both for you and myself honour and glory on this lake, or perish in the attempt. … Think of my situation; the enemy in sight, the vessels under my command more than sufficient, and ready to make sail, and yet obliged to bite my fingers with vexation for want of men.
Perry did not worry about the British sailing in and sinking his ships; the sandbar would prevent that. But on any dark night they might land a force in boats and attack the garrison and burn his flotilla. He had some rudimentary fortifications, but they were weak and manned by a ludicrous regiment of Pennsylvania militia who, apparently afraid of the dark, would not stand watch at night. When Perry questioned their captain about this peculiar shortcoming, he received the reasonable reply “I told the boys to go, Captain, but the boys won’t go.”
Three days after his last letter Perry wrote Chauncey another: “For God’s sake and yours, and mine, send me men and officers, and I will have them all in a day or two.” But no men came, and the British fleet rode easily in the calm weather, always in view, mocking Perry’s impotence.
It might have given Perry some scant solace to know that the commander of the British fleet was harassed by exactly the same difficulties that were dogging him. Robert Heriot Barclay was the sort of officer who made possible Britain’s long maritime supremacy. The same age as Perry, he had spent more than half his life at sea. He had lost an arm serving with Nelson at Trafalgar, and after the great three-deckers he was used to, the scrabbly little collection of craft on Lake Erie must have seemed very modest to him. Still it represented a command, although one officer had already refused it on the grounds that the squadron was undermanned and in poor shape. Barclay reached his fleet at Amherstburg, where the Detroit River spills into the western end of Lake Erie, in the spring of 1813 and immediately went to work with the same energy Perry had shown. His first request was for men, but Yeo, who was cut from the same cloth as Chauncey, wanted to keep his sailors on Lake Ontario. Barclay complained that virtually every man Yeo did send his way was “a poor devil not worth his salt.” Nevertheless Barclay managed to win the loyalty of such men as he had and worked them into an effective fighting force. It was obvious that he was in better shape than Perry when he brought his fleet out to blockade Presque Isle.
At last Chauncey doled out a few men, though they were not much to Perry’s liking. “The men that came … ,” Perry complained, “are a motley set, blacks, soldiers, and boys. …” Chauncey sent him an exasperated reply, saying: “I regret that you are not pleased with the men sent you … for, to my knowledge, a part of them are not surpassed by any seamen we have in the fleet; and I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness.” As it turned out, perhaps a quarter of Perry’s crew were blacks, and they fought superbly when the time came.
Perry had men now—not many, but enough to sail his ships. His immediate problem was the sandbar. Though it had long protected his fleet, it was now a hindrance, for it would be a simple matter for Barclay to sweep down and shoot apart Perry’s squadron while the ships were being worked across the bar into the open lake. Barclay’s fleet kept watch over Perry until the end of July, and then, unaccountably, it vanished. It has been said the British captain was called away to go to a banquet across the lake; whatever the reason, his departure would prove to be a costly mistake.
Perry, rejoicing in his opponent’s absence, went to work. Getting the ships out of the harbor turned out to be a nightmarish job. Before he left, Noah Brown had built some “camels”—scows with no draft to speak of that could be flooded and then pumped out. As they were pumped dry they rose, lifting a ship braced between them enough so that she could negotiate the bar. But the bar was shallower than anyone had thought, and both the Lawrence and the Niagara got hung up on it. This meant four days of the worst kind of work: taking off all the guns and fittings, rowing them ashore, and then bringing them back again. And all the time this was going on, there was the chance that Barclay would reappear and finish things for good. He did finally reappear, but by then the Lawrence was out in open water, and Barclay declined to fight.
With his whole fleet across the bar Perry was joined by Jesse Duncan Elliott, who had brought down two more schooners from Buffalo, as well as two lieutenants, eight midshipmen, and eighty-nine seamen. Chauncey and Perry had long before agreed that the latter would need at least seven hundred and forty men to man his ships, but he was putting to sea with fewer than four hundred—less than a quarter of them part of the regular Navy. Nevertheless Perry was out of the harbor, with his squadron complete and ready to fight. Then, soon after his ships had cleared the bar, he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy resigning his command.
Perry must have been half mad with fatigue and strain. He was sick again, and his acrimonious exchange with Chauncey was rankling him. “I cannot serve longer,” he wrote, “under an officer who has been so totally regardless of my feelings.” Perry had a quick temper, and he most likely regretted the letter after he sent it; in any event, the request—no doubt to Perry’s great relief—was not taken seriously. The Secretary replied in a temperate letter, saying: “A change of commander, under existing circumstances, is equally inadmissible as it respects the interest of the service and your own reputation. It is right that you should reap the harvest which you have sown.”
It was weeks before Perry could reap his harvest, but they were valuable weeks. He cruised around the lake, exercising his crews and getting the feel of his squadron. He met with General Harrison, who, on September i, sent him a hundred Kentucky soldiers with their fabulous long rifles; the lanky, skeptical men poked around the ships and made a general nuisance of themselves. They brought Perry’s complement up to four hundred and ninety. Still weak from his sickness yet anxious for action, Perry based his squadron in Put-in Bay, a fine harbor in the Bass Islands, some thirty miles southeast of Amherstburg.
Barclay knew Perry was nearby, but he was loath to fight him, for his own ships were desperately undermanned. He had a fine new brig, the Detroit , built at Amherstburg. Yeo was no more anxious to give over guns than he was men, and so the ship had been constructed without her builders having any idea of what sort of armament she was to carry. Eventually Barclay armed her with field guns borrowed from General Procter. There were six different types of cannon among her nineteen guns, which would mean inconceivable difficulties with ammunition supply once the fighting started. By now Procter was desperate; thousands of his Indian allies were consuming rations, and until the Americans were dislodged from the lake, no more food could come in. Barclay was faced with the choice of abandoning the fleet or going out to fight. For a British naval officer that was no choice at all. When Barclay reluctantly weighed anchor late in the day on September 9, there was one day’s supply of flour left at Amherstburg.
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.
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 .
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.
But despite all the creaky rationale formulated by Elliott’s friends, the day was Perry’s and Perry’s alone. Through his own desperate initiative he had, at the very last moment, come through the smoke to win a lost battle. Henry Adams summed it up at the end of his description of the action: “No process of argument … could deprive Perry of the fame justly given him by the public, or detract from the splendor of his reputation as the hero of the war. More than any other battle of the time, the victory on Lake Erie was won by the courage and obstinacy of a single man.”
As for Daniel Dobbins, he spent the rest of his life on the Lakes, navigating them for forty years and never, he liked to boast, losing so much as a spar. When the President awarded a sword to each midshipman and sailing master who served well on Lake Erie, Dobbins wrote saying that he would like one too. But he was told that since he had not been in the battle, he was not eligible, and he never got his sword.