Don't Give Up the Ship
One of North American history’s most pivotal naval battles was fought far from the Atlantic or Pacific coasts. Its victor was bold, young and untested in combat, but blessed with uncanny good fortune. Oliver Hazard Perry’s legendary luck cemented the destiny of a fledgling state and set a struggling young nation on the path to unfettered self-determination.
Despite the highly symbolic victory of the Revolutionary War, the successful organization of a new democracy, and the eventual division of the untamed Northwest Territory into orderly states, the new nation was not at peace in the 1780s and 90s. Disputes with the indigenous peoples continued over its borders, and former colonial powers continued to threaten its liberty.
In the first dozen years of the new millennium, as Ohioans worked to create a state government with executive, judicial and legislative branches, the great Shawnee war chief Tecumseh was busy building his own confederation of tribes who were enraged at being displaced from their homes by the white settlers. The Indian confederacy aspired to drive the Americans back to the region east of the Ohio River. All the while, the British continued to harass American ships on the Atlantic. The British also took advantage of the mounting resistance movement among the native tribes, and seized the opportunity to ally themselves with the Indians, arming them with guns and ammunition.
In June 1812, United States President James Madison declared war against Britain, and the U.S. Congress supported the declaration after a bitter debate. Unlike the Revolutionary War, where patriots defended the colonies and Atlantic seaboard, this new conflict would be fought on the frontier. The Americans’ objective was to wrestle away British control and influence over the Great Lakes region and Canadian territory.
At the outset of the war, the American strategy was to capture Montreal and drive the British off the continent. Meanwhile, though, the American settlements along Lake Erie and Lake Michigan, notably Detroit, which originally served as a British Fort in the Revolutionary War, Mackinac Island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and the small port at Chicago, needed protection.
The British and Indians delivered a one-two punch in the summer of 1812 with the capture of Fort Michimillimac on Mackinac Island, and the capture of Fort Detroit a few weeks later.
With the fall of Detroit, the British dominated Lake Erie, which allowed them to easily move troops and supplies to their posts in the Canadian territory. The frequency and ferocity of the Indian attacks on Ohioans escalated as the British gained the upper hand. The U.S. Army stationed troops at Cleveland and Mansfield, but northern Ohio west of the Huron River, including the Lake Erie Islands, was evacuated. It was clear that the Americans needed to take control of the lake in order to retake Detroit. It was not at all clear who could beat the odds and deliver such a victory.
While the newly appointed commander of the Great Lakes fleet, Captain Isaac Chauncey, undertook a feverish shipbuilding enterprise on Lake Erie, an ambitious young commander of a U.S. Navy gunboat flotilla, Oliver Hazard Perry, sat idle in Newport, Rhode Island awaiting action on the Atlantic. When he heard the news that Chauncey was seeking a commander for the Lake Erie fleet being assembled, Perry volunteered with his customary spirit and enthusiasm. Oliver Hazard Perry came from a prominent Naval family, and by age 27 he had distinguished himself as a capable leader while commanding the 12-gun Navy Schooner Revenge, as well as directing the construction of several Navy gunboats and serving as their captain.
Chauncey was impressed with Perry’s resume and reputation, and immediately gave Perry his new assignment. Perry set out in late winter for the rugged overland journey from the Atlantic coast to the inland sea. He and his seasoned sailors were jostled along rough roads on horseback, in stagecoachs and open wagons, and finally loaded into sleighs for the final leg across the frozen lake. They arrived at Presque Isle (near modern-day Erie, Pennsylvania) in the early spring, and promptly ventured into the wilderness to hack down huge trees for lumber. Perry supervised the shipbuilding operations as he was instructed, but soon grew restless for a taste of combat.
Perry’s next adventure would conclude with the first of three incidents of remarkable good luck. Several weeks into the shipbuilding project, Perry volunteered for a joint Army/Navy mission on Lake Ontario to capture the British Fort George, at the mouth of the Niagra River. Perry commanded an amphibious assault on the fort. Outnumbered and outgunned, the British evacuated Fort George as well as Fort Erie, at the other end of the Niagra River (near present-day Buffalo, New York). With the British gone, five American ships that had been anchored at the Black Rock Naval Yard on the Niagra River were now free to join the American fleet on the Great Lakes.
Perry, along with 55 sailors and 200 soldiers, towed the five ships against the wind and current into Lake Erie, and cautiously set sail along the southern lakeshore for the 90-mile voyage from Buffalo to Presque Isle. As Perry approached Presque Isle Bay, a British squadron patrolling Lake Erie was warned of Perry’s risky plan, and lay in wait to attack him. Luckily for Perry, a thick fog settled in and masked the small fleet, allowing them to pass unnoticed within a few miles of the British ships. The gift of five ships gave Perry’s hardworking construction crew a great boost, and by the last week of July 1813, his fleet was rigged, armed and ready to sail.
Meanwhile, Robert H. Barclay of the Royal Navy was appointed commander of the British fleet on Lake Erie. Barclay was also 27 years old, a skilled sailor and respected leader. Like Perry, his first order of business was to craft a fleet from the trees of the forest and guns and materials salvaged from the Revolutionary War. Barclay’s flagship, the Detroit, would be the largest on Lake Erie at 110 feet long, with a shallow draft for maneuvering on the shallow lake.
While Perry nudged ahead of Barclay in the feverish race to build their Lake Erie fleets, both commanders faced similar difficulty in assembling enough seasoned sailors to man the vessels. The U.S. Navy assigned little more than a hundred sailors to serve in Perry’s squadron by the end of July, a mere one-fourth of the force he needed. Over the next month, Perry dispatched his officers across the frontier to recruit soldiers, marines, militia, and able-bodied volunteers to enter the fray. Initially, Perry was dismayed at his motley crew, now numbering more than 400, including frontiersmen and a number of teenagers and free blacks with little social status or sailing experience. Soon though, Perry’s dismay would melt away as his heart swelled with gratitude and pride for their courage and tenacity.
The next challenge Perry would face concluded with the second incidence of his amazing good fortune. With construction of the fleet completed, each ship had to be maneuvered through shallow waters over a sandbar at the mouth of Presque Isle Bay. To accomplish this feat, Perry’s ingenious shipbuilder, Noah Brown, had devised a set of enormous wooden boxes that could be filled with water to create portable locks, allowing the boats to slip over the sandbar. The procedure was effective, but risky, as each ship sat vulnerable atop the sandbar during the time-consuming chore of filling and bailing the boxes. All through July, Barclay maintained relentless patrols on the lake within view of the mouth of the bay, preventing Perry from making any attempt to move even a single vessel into the lake.
Suddenly, on the first of August, Barclay’s ships set sail toward the distant north shore of Lake Erie and disappeared over the horizon. Despite the possibility that the movement was a trick that would end in an ambush, Perry boldly seized the opportunity to initiate the sandbar crossing with the British out of sight. Perry’s gamble appeared to pay off, but four days into the laborious ship moving project, with the Niagra sitting exposed on the sandbar stripped of her heavy guns and armaments, Barclay’s ship reappeared on the horizon. The Americans braced for an unplanned skirmish, but Barclay’s fleet sailed on keeping their distance, apparently fooled by an illusion that the American ships were all floating free in the main body of the lake and ready to defend themselves. Once again, at a critical moment, Perry’s luck saved the day.
At last, after months of planning and arduous preparations, and tense weeks of posturing, Perry’s fleet was rigged, armed, manned, and plying the waters of Lake Erie. Perry directed the fleet to the well-protected cove at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island, which had been abandoned for over a year by its owner, John Stark Edwards. The stage had been set for the inevitable battle in the Lake Erie theater, and the players were gather- ing backstage. U.S. General William Henry Harrison was amassing his ground troops on the mainland at the mouth of the Portage River (modern-day Port Clinton) across from South Bass Island in anticipation of the siege of Fort Detroit, once Perry eliminated the British threat on Lake Erie.
As Perry and Harrison contemplated their options for engaging the British, a contagious liver ailment swept through Perry’s crew, temporarily incapacitating two hundred men, including Perry, and claiming a handful of lives. Meanwhile, Barclay was struggling with his own setbacks in gathering enough men, arms and supplies to engage the Americans. The British found themselves critically low on provisions by the ninth of September. Finally, hunger became the deciding factor as Barclay sailed out into the lake with favorable westerly winds behind him.
As dawn broke over Lake Erie on the morning of September 10, 1813, the entire British squadron emerged over the horizon to the northwest of North Bass Island. Perry boarded his flagship, the Lawrence, named in honor of his fallen friend Captain James Lawrence. Perry quickly assessed the British position and determined that he would have to direct his squadron past Rattlesnake Island to the west of his current position to gain the advantage for the battle. With the wind blowing from the southwest, this plan entailed a tedious set of tacking maneuvers to zig-zag toward Barclay.
For three hours, Perry’s men labored non-stop against the wind, but the inexperienced crew members found the plan confusing and the ships made little progress. Sailors and commander alike grew frustrated with the seemingly futile exercise, and Perry was about to sacrifice strategic position for smoother sailing when the third instance of his incredible good luck turned the tide. Before Perry could shout out new orders, the wind suddenly shifted direction by ninety degrees, and filled the sails as they pointed toward Barclay.
On both sides of the lake, men wrote letters, muttered prayers and searched their souls during the agonizing wait as the enemy ships slowly glided toward each other. As the guns were readied on the American flotilla, Perry gave the orders to hoist the ship’s banner emblazoned with the motto, “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” the last words of Captain Lawrence as he lay mortally wounded in a battle with the British on the Atlantic in June 1813. As the Lawrence cruised into range, Barclay ordered cannon shots from his flagship, the Detroit. The first shot plunked harmlessly into the lake, but the second shot hit the Lawrence soundly, ripping a hole in the wooden hulk and claiming the first casualties of the conflict.
The Lawrence took a severe pounding from the Detroit’s powerful cannon, and was soon so badly damaged that Perry had to abandon it. He refused to give up the fight, however, and grabbed the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” banner as he gave orders to cut loose the small cutter alongside the ship so that he could paddle out to the undamaged Niagra and resume command. Barclay fired unrelentingly on the tiny cutter, but Perry dodged the hail of bullets and claimed his new flagship, flying the banner once again.
Through the battle, the British fleet clustered closely together. Now aboard the relatively undamaged Niagra, Perry aggressively bore down on the Detroit, which had sustained heavy fire. Barclay attempted to maneuver the Detroit around as the Niagra approached, so as to position his cannons more favorably. As his ship was turning, it caught the nearby British ship Queen Charlotte, and the two vessels became entangled. In the chaos that followed aboard the British ships and the fury of the American attack, Barclay was severely wounded and the flag of surrender was raised.
The battle had raged for more than two hours-twice the length of time that fragile wooden sailing ships could typically withstand in heated combat. The injuries were gruesome and the carnage was terrible. In addition to wounds from grape shot, crewmen were pierced by splinters propelled with tremendous force as the hulls and masts of the wooden ships were smashed by cannonballs. Aboard the Lawrence, 83 of the 103 crew members were killed or wounded. Still, Perry’s crew fought admirably, and despite their lack of experience in sailing or naval combat, they prevailed under their fearless leader.
Perry penned a letter to General Harrison informing him of the American victory. Ten days later, Perry accompanied General Harrison and 5,000 soldiers to Detroit. The fort was quickly retaken, and the victorious Americans pressed on into Canada. Perry traded his ship for a horse to help General Harrison pursue Tecumseh along the Thames River (east of present-day Windsor, Ontario). Tecumseh was killed in the fateful Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, halting the Indian resistance and effectively ending the hostilities and, ultimately, the war.
Perry’s victory was pivotal not only in making the frontier safe for settlement, it also made the frontier ripe for commerce. Eastern markets were clamoring for Ohio pork, beef and flour, but the high transportation costs dampened the export trade. Overland transportation on the crude roads through the frontier and the Pennsylvania mountains was difficult enough for a single horseman, let alone a heavy wagon loaded with perishable agricultural products. Even the introduction of steamboats on the Ohio River in 1811 could not guarantee reliable river transportation during the dry summer months.
Before Perry made his stand on Lake Erie, the great lake posed more of a threat than an opportunity to Ohioans. With the lake free of Indian war canoes and British war ships at last, the free flow of commercial vessels could begin in earnest. Navigational aides were needed, and in 1821, the Marblehead Lighthouse was erected on the Marblehead peninsula to warn sailors approaching the rocky coast. Shortly after New York state’s Erie Canal was completed in 1825, ground was broken at Licking Summit in central Ohio (near Newark) and at Middletown to commence construction of the Ohio and Erie Canal and the Miami and Erie Canal, linking the mighty Ohio River with Ohio’s great lake.
Lake Erie commerce and the new canals served as a catalyst for rapid settlement and development in northern Ohio. Cleveland, the northern terminus of the Ohio and Erie Canal, was a mere village in 1814. By 1825, when construction began on the canal, the population had risen to 500. Ten years later, the population jumped ten-fold to more than 5,000, and by 1845 had doubled again to more than 10,000, nudging Cleveland ahead of the state capital, Columbus, as Ohio’s largest city.
The canals also brought prosperity to inland towns, and quickly transformed Ohio from a frontier backwater to a commercial and agricultural giant. Many of the feeder reservoirs that were dug by hand to provide a steady supply of water for the canals are now the canal lakes that provide the backbone of Ohio’s modern state park system.
Nearly one hundred years after Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s momentous achievement, the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial was built at South Bass Island’s Put-in-Bay. Work started in 1912 on the elegant granite column that rises 340 feet from its formal plaza to pierce the sky above the sparkling bay. Nine states collaborated with the federal government to build the monument, which not only celebrates Perry’s naval triumph and all that it contributed to America, but also serves as a reminder of the lessons of international peace by arbitration and disarmament. The monument was dedicated as a national memorial in 1936 and is operated by the National Park Service.
-Jean Backs, Editor
- Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, 1896.
- Skaggs, David C. and Atloff, Gerald T., A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813, Annapolis Naval Institute Press, 1997.
- Wittke, Carl, Editor; Utter William T, author, A History of the State of Ohio Volume II, Ohio Historical Society, 1968.
- Wittke, Carl, Editor; Weisenburger, Francis P., author, A History of the State of Ohio Volume III, Ohio Historical Society, 1968.
With a little imagination and some coaching from a tour guide, history buffs can almost picture the graceful clipper ships of Commodore Perry’s era while standing atop the 184-year-old Marblehead Lighthouse. To help history come to life for Marblehead Lighthouse State Park visitors, the Keeper’s House next to the lighthouse is home to a museum, operated by the Marblehead Lighthouse Historic Society, with interesting displays and artifacts of Lake Erie maritime history.
One historic treasure recently added to the museum is the beautiful Fresnel lens that served as the lighthouse beacon from the early 1900s until the crystal lens was replaced with a modern plastic lens in 1969. The Fresnel lens was manufactured in France and displayed at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair as a marvel of technology and functional aesthetics. The interlocking prisms projected the light from a lantern (later replaced with an electric light) an astonishing 16 miles.
The Fresnel lens was brought to the Keeper’s House through a partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, who had carefully preserved the lens at the Coast Guard’s Marblehead Station since the 1970s.
Tours of the Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in continuous operation on the Great Lakes, as well as the Keeper’s House are offered Monday through Friday, June 1 through September 2, from 1:00 to 4:45 p.m. Saturday tours are offered June 11, July 9 and August 13 from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.