Commodore Perry Whips The British On Lake Erie


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

and short.

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

given up.

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.