Commodore Perry Whips The British On Lake Erie
"WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY AND THEY ARE OURS"
IN the year 1813, when war was going on between England and the United
States, the whole northern part of this country was a vast forest. An
ocean of trees stretched away from the seaside in Maine for a thousand
miles to the west, and ended in the broad prairies of the Mississippi
The chief inhabitants of this grand forest were
he moose and the deer,
the wolf and the panther, the wild turkey and the partridge, the red
Indian and the white hunter and trapper. It was a very different country
from what we see to-day, for now its trees are replaced by busy towns
and fertile fields.
But in one way there has been no change. North of the forest lands
spread the Great Lakes, the splendid inland seas of our northern
border; and these were then what they are now, vast plains of water
where all the ships of all the nations might sail.
Along the shores of these mighty lakes fighting was going on; at Detroit
on the west; at Niagara on the east. Soon war-vessels began to be built
and set afloat on the waters of the lakes. And these vessels after a
time came together in fierce conflict. I have now to tell the story of a
famous battle between these lake men-of-war. There was then in our navy
a young man named Oliver Hazard Perry. He was full of the spirit of
fight, but, while others were winning victories on the high seas, he was
given nothing better to do than to command a fleet of gunboats at
Newport, Rhode Island.
Perry became very tired of this. He wanted to be where fighting was
going on, and he kept worrying the Navy Department for some active work.
So at last he was ordered to go to the lakes, with the best men he had,
and get ready to fight the British there. Perry received the order on
February 17, 1813, and before night he and fifty of his men were on
their way west in sleighs; for the ground was covered deep with snow.
The sleighing was good, but the roads were bad and long; and it took him
and his men two weeks to reach Sackett's Harbor, at the north end of
Lake Ontario. From that place he went to Presque Isle, on Lake Erie,
where the fine City of Erie now stands. Then only the seed of a city was
planted there, in a small village, and the forest came down to the lake.
Captain Perry did not go to sleep when he got to the water-side. He was
not one of the sleepy sort. He wanted vessels and he wanted them
quickly. The British had warships on the lake, and Perry did not intend
to let them have it all to themselves.
When he got to Erie he found Captain Dobbins, an old shipbuilder, hard
at work. In the woods around were splendid trees, white and black oak
and chestnut, for planking, and pine for the decks. The axe was busy at
these giants of the forest; and so fast did the men work, that a tree
which was waving in the forest when the sun rose might be cut down and
hewn into ship-timber before the sun set. In that way Perry's fleet grew
like magic out of the forest. While the ships were building, cannon and
stores were brought from Pittsburgh by way of the Allegheny River and
its branches. And Perry went to Niagara River, where he helped capture a
fine brig, called the Caledonia, from the British.
Captain Dobbins built two more brigs, one of which Perry named the
Niagara. The other he called Lawrence, after Captain Lawrence, the
story of whose life and death you have just read.
Have any of you ever heard the story of the man who built a wagon in his
barn and then found it too wide to go out through the door? Perry was in
the same trouble. His new ships were too big to get out into the lake.
There was a bar at the mouth of the river with only four feet of water
on it. That was not deep enough to float his new vessels. And he was in
a hurry to get these in deep water; for he knew the British fleet would
soon be down to try to destroy them.
How would you work to get a six-foot vessel over a four-foot sand bar?
Well, that doesn't matter; all we care for is the way Captain Perry did
it. He took two big scows and put one on each side of the Lawrence.
Then he filled them with water till the waves washed over their decks.
When they had sunk so far they were tied fast to the brig and the water
was pumped out of them. As the water went out they rose and lifted the
Lawrence between them until there were several feet of water below her
keel. Now the brig was hauled on the bar until she touched the bottom;
then she was lifted again in the same way. This second time took her out
to deep water. Next, the Niagara was lifted over the bar in the same
The next day the British, who had been taking things very easily, came
sailing down to destroy Perry's ships. But they opened their eyes wide
when they saw them afloat on the lake. They had lost their chance by
wasting their time.
Perry picked up men for his vessels wherever he could get them. The most
of those to be had were landsmen. But he had his fifty good men from
Newport and a hundred were sent him from the coast. Some of these had
been on the Constitution in her great fight with the Guerriere.
Early in August all was ready, and he set sail. Early in September he
was in Put-in Bay, at the west end of Lake Erie, and here the British
came looking for him and his ships.
Perry was now the commodore of a fleet of nine vessels,--the brigs
Lawrence, Niagara and Caledonia, five schooners, and one sloop.
Captain Barclay, the British commander, had only six vessels, but some
of them were larger than Perry's. They were the ships Detroit and
Queen Charlotte, a large brig, two schooners, and a sloop. Such were
the fleets with which the great battle of Lake Erie was fought.
I know you are getting tired of all this description, and want to get on
to the fighting. You don't like to be kept sailing in quiet waters when
there is a fine storm ahead. Very well, we will go on. But one has to
get his bricks ready before he can build his house.
Well, then, on the 10th of September, 1813, it being a fine summer day,
with the sun shining brightly, Perry and his men sailed out from Put-in
Bay and came in sight of the British fleet over the waters of the lake.
What Captain Perry now did was fine. He hoisted a great blue flag, and
when it unrolled in the wind the men saw on it, in white letters, the
dying words of Captain Lawrence, "Don't give up the ship!" Was not that
a grand signal to give? It must have put great spirit into the men, and
made them feel that they would die like the gallant Lawrence before they
would give up their ships. The men on both fleets were eager to fight,
but the wind kept very light, and they came together slowly. It was near
noon before they got near enough for their long guns to work. Then the
British began to send balls skipping over the water, and soon after the
Americans answered back.
Now came the roar of battle, the flash of guns, the cloud of smoke that
settled down and half hid everything. The Americans came on in a long
line, head on for the British, who awaited their approach. Perry's
flagship, the Lawrence, was near the head of the line. It soon plunged
into the very thick of the fight, with only two little schooners to help
it. The wind may have been too light for the rest of the fleet to come
up. We do not know just what kept them back, but at any rate, they
didn't come up, and the Lawrence was left to fight alone.
Never had a vessel been in a worse plight than was the Lawrence for
the next two hours. She was half surrounded by the three large British
vessels, the Detroit, the Queen Charlotte, and the brig Hunter,
all pouring in their fire at once, while she had to fight them all. On
the Lawrence and the two schooners there were only seven long guns
against thirty-six which were pelting Perry's flagship from the British
This was great odds. But overhead there floated the words, "Don't give
up the ship"; so the brave Perry pushed on till he was close to the
Detroit, and worked away, for life or death, with all his guns, long
Oh, what a dreadful time there was on Perry's flagship during those sad
two hours. The great guns roared, the thick smoke rose, the balls tore
through her sides, sending splinters flying like sharp arrows to right
and left. Men fell like leaves blown down by a gale. Blood splashed on
the living and flowed over the dead. The surgeon's mates were kept busy
carrying the wounded below, where the surgeon dressed their wounds.
Captain Perry's little brother, a boy of only thirteen years, was on
the ship, and stood beside him as brave as himself. Two bullets went
through the boy's hat; then a splinter cut through his clothes; still he
did not flinch. Soon after, he was knocked down and the captain grew
pale with fear. But up jumped the boy again. It was only a flying
hammock that had struck him. That little fellow was a true sailor boy,
and had in him plenty of Yankee grit.
I would not, if I could, tell you all the horrors of those two hours. It
is not pleasant reading. The cannon balls even came through the vessel's
sides among the wounded, and killed some of them where they lay. At the
end of the fight the Lawrence was a mere wreck. Her bowsprit and masts
were nearly all cut away, and out of more than a hundred men only
fourteen were unhurt. There was not a gun left that could be worked.
Most men in such a case would have pulled down their flag. But Oliver
Perry had the spirit of Paul Jones, and he did not forget the words on
his flag--"Don't give up the ship."
During those dread two hours the Niagara, under Lieutenant Elliott,
had kept out of the fight. Now it came sailing up before a freshening
As soon as Perry saw this fresh ship he made up his mind what to do. He
had a boat lowered with four men in it. His little brother leaped in
after them. Then he stepped aboard with the flag bearing Lawrence's
motto on his shoulder, and was rowed away to the Niagara. As soon as
the British saw this little boat on the water, with Perry standing
upright, wrapped in the flag he had fought for so bravely, they turned
all their guns and fired at it. Cannon and musket balls tore the water
round it. It looked as if nothing would save those devoted men from
"Sit down!" cried Perry's men. "We will stop rowing if you don't sit
So Perry sat down, and when a ball came crashing through the side of the
boat he took off his coat and plugged up the hole.
Providence favored him and his men. They reached the Niagara without
being hurt. The British had fired in vain. Perry sprang on board and
ordered the men to raise the flag.
"How goes the day?" asked Lieutenant Elliott.
"Bad enough," said Perry. "Why are the gunboats so far back?"
"I will bring them up," said Elliott.
"Do so," said Perry.
Elliott jumped into the boat which Perry had just left, and rowed away.
Up to the mast-head went the great blue banner with the motto, "Don't
give up the ship." Signals were given for all the vessels to close in on
the enemy, and the Niagara bore down under full sail.
The Lawrence was out of the fight. Rent and torn, with only a handful
of her crew on their feet, and not a gun that could be fired, her day
was done. Her flag was pulled down by the few men left to save
themselves. The British had no time to take possession, for the
Niagara was on them, fresh for the fray, like a new horse in the race.
Right through the British fleet this new ship went. Three of their ships
were on one side of her and two on the other, and all only a few yards
away. As she went her guns spoke out, sweeping their decks and tearing
through their timbers.
The Lawrence had already done her share of work on these vessels, and
this new pounding was more than they could stand. The other American
vessels also were pouring their shot into the foe. Flesh and blood could
not bear this. Men were falling like grass before the scythe. A man
sprang up on the rail of the Detroit and waved a white flag to show
that they had surrendered. The great fight was over. The British had
Perry announced his victory in words that have become historic: "We have
met the enemy and they are ours."
This famous despatch was written with a pencil on the back of an old
letter, with his hat for a table. It was sent to General Harrison, who
commanded an army nearby. Harrison at once led his cheering soldiers
against the enemy, and gave them one of the worst defeats of the war.
When the news of the victory spread over the country the people were
wild with joy. Congress thanked Perry and voted gold medals to him and
Elliott, and honors or rewards to all the officers and men. But over the
whole country it was thought that Elliott had earned disgrace instead of
a gold medal by keeping so long out of the fight. He said he had only
obeyed orders, but people thought that was a time to break orders.
Perry was made a full captain by Congress. This was then the highest
rank in the navy. But he took no more part in the war. Six years later
he was sent with a squadron to South America, and there he took the
yellow fever and died. Thus passed away one of the most brilliant and
most famous officers of the American navy.