By Bill Federer
Defeating the British in Lake Erie
Among the U.S. Navy and Marine heroes confronting Tripoli’s Muslim Barbary pirates was Captain James Lawrence. In 1804, Captain Lawrence was second-in-command, under Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, of an expedition to destroy the captured 36-gun frigate USS Philadelphia held in Tripoli’s harbor. It had run aground on an uncharted sandbar. Muslim pirates captured it and were preparing to use it for piracy.
James Lawrence also commanded the USS Enterprise which fought gunboat battles with Muslim pirates. Later, during the War of 1812, Captain James Lawrence commanded the USS Hornet. He won fame by capturing the British packet brig Resolution, which was carrying $20,000 in gold and silver. Captain Lawrence and the USS Hornet then captured the British privateer HMS Dolphin, blockaded the British sloop HMS Bonne Citoyenne at Bahia, Brazil, and sank the British HMS Peacock.
President James Madison wrote May 25, 1813: “The brilliant achievements of our infant Navy, a signal triumph has been gained by Captain Lawrence … in the Hornet sloop of war. … The contest in which the United States are engaged appeals … to the sacred obligation of transmitting … to future generations that … which is held … by the present from the goodness of Divine Providence.”
On June 1, 1813, 31-year-old Captain James Lawrence sailed his 38-gun frigate USS Chesapeake out of Boston’s Harbor. His ship was suddenly attacked by the British ship HMS Shannon. For over an hour, the 38-gun USS Chesapeake fired away, hitting the Shannon 158 times, but the Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, killing nearly every American officer.
As Captain James Lawrence lay dying on the deck the Chesapeake, his last words were “Don’t give up the ship!”
So inspiring was the courage of Captain James Lawrence that Captain Oliver Hazard Perry named his flagship the USS Lawrence. A little over three months later, Captain Perry defeated the British squadron on Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813.
Theodore Roosevelt wrote in “Hero Tales from American History,” 1895: “Lawrence, dying with the words on his lips, ‘Don’t give up the ship’ and Perry … with the same words blazoned on his banner … won glory in desperate conflicts and left a reputation hardly dimmed.”
British Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon’s combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar, Oct. 21, 1805. Britain now had the undisputed most powerful navy in the world. Britain began to intercept American ships headed to French ports. They seized their goods and impressed thousands of American sailors into the British navy.
The British government, as during the Revolutionary War, again supplied weapons to Indians and incited them to terrorize and attack American frontier settlements. In alliance with the British, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh approached many tribes across a thousand mile frontier in an attempt to form a confederation.
In the Shawnee language, the name “Tecumseh” means “shooting star.” The appearance of the Great Comet of 1811, which reached its brightest in October, followed by the New Madrid Earthquake, Dec. 16, 1811, spread fear which contributed to Tecumseh raising nearly 5,000 warriors under his direction. Some were Shawnee, who had been forced from the east and resettled in northwestern Ohio and Northeastern Indiana; and Lenape who had resettled in south-central Indiana. Others were from:
- Miami in central Indiana
- Pottawatomie in northern Indiana and Michigan
- Wea, Kickapoo and Piankeshaw in western Indiana and eastern Illinois
- Sauk in northern Illinois
- Iroquois in Canada
- Chickamauga; Ojibway; Mascouten; Wyandot; Fox; Winnebago; Ottowa; Mingo; Seneca; and Red Stick Creek in Alabama
On July 17, 1812 British and Native American tribes captured Fort Mackinac. On Aug. 15, 1812, Pottawatomie attacked Fort Dearborn, massacring 38 American soldiers, 2 women, 12 children, and took 41 prisoners. The British with Native American allies threatened or captured:
- Fort Osage
- Fort Madison
- Fort Shelby
- Rock Island Rapids
- Credit Island
- Fort Johnson
- Fort Cap au Gris
- Battle of the Sink Hole
Seven hundred British regulars and Canadian militia joined Tecumseh’s warriors in the capture of Fort Detroit, forcing 2,500 Americans to surrender Aug. 16, 1812. With a rumor British would pay in gold for American scalps, over 500 Americans were massacred by the Red Stick Creeks in Fort Mims, Alabama, August 30, 1813.
In September of 1813, with war hindering supply lines to British Fort Malden in Amherstburg, Ontario, the British attempted to send supplies on a squadron of six ships across Lake Erie, commanded by the one-armed Commodore Robert Barclay who had his arm blown off fighting Napoleon’s French fleet.
The United States had 28-year-old Captain Oliver Hazard Perry launch ships into Lake Eire at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, to block the British. Most of Perry’s crew were free Blacks from Ohio.
September 9, 1813, was recommended by President James Madison as a day of public humiliation and prayer: “Whereas in times of public calamity such as that of the war brought on the United States by the injustice of a foreign government it is especially becoming that the hearts of all should be touched with the same and the eyes of all be turned to that Almighty Power in whose hand are the welfare and the destiny of nations: I do therefore … recommending to all who shall be piously disposed to unite their hearts and voices in addressing at one and the same time their vows and adorations to the Great Parent and Sovereign of the Universe that they assemble on the second Thursday of September next in their respective religious congregations. …”
President Madison continued: “He has blessed the United States with a political Constitution rounded on the will and authority of the whole people and guaranteeing to each individual security, not only of his person and his property, but of those sacred rights of conscience so essential to his present happiness and so dear to his future hopes … with … supplications to the same Almighty Power that He would look down with compassion on our infirmities; that He would pardon our manifold transgressions and awaken and strengthen in all the wholesome purposes of repentance and amendment; that in this season of trial and calamity He would … inspire all citizens with a love of their country … that as He was graciously pleased heretofore to smile on our struggles against the attempts of the government of the (British) Empire … so He would now be pleased … to bestow His blessing on our arms in resisting the hostile and persevering efforts of the same power to degrade us on the ocean.”
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The next day, Sept. 10, 1813, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry confronted the British squadron. Strong winds prevented Perry from getting into a safe position. Long-range British cannons splintered to pieces Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, killing many of his crew.
Faithful to his battle flag, “Don’t give up the ship,” Perry and his men courageously rowed a half-mile through heavy gunfire to the USS Niagara. The wind suddenly changed directions and Perry sailed broadside directly across the British line, firing every cannon continuously. After 15 minutes, the smoke cleared to reveal that all of Barclay’s ships had been disabled. This was the first time in history that an entire British naval squadron had been disabled at one time.
To the sailors on deck Captain Perry remarked: “The prayers of my wife are answered.”
That same day, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry sent a dispatch to U.S. Major General William Henry Harrison: “Dear Gen’l, We have met the enemy, and they are ours, two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem. H. Perry.”
Captain Oliver Hazard Perry wrote to the Secretary of the Navy: “It has pleased the Almighty to give the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this lake. The British squadron, consisting of two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop have this moment surrendered to the force of my command after a sharp conflict.”
President James Madison stated in his fifth annual message, Dec. 7, 1813: “It has pleased the Almighty to bless our arms. … On Lake Erie, the squadron under the command of Captain Perry having met the British squadron of superior force, a sanguinary conflict ended in the capture of the whole.”
As a result of Perry’s victory, the British abandoned Fort Malden. Major General William Henry Harrison was then able to recapture Fort Detroit and defeat the British and their Indian ally Shawnee Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, Oct. 5, 1813.
Captain Oliver Hazard Perry died Aug. 23, 1819, being hailed as a national hero for victorious role in the War of 1812 and helping to secure for the United States the Northwest Territory.
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