Oliver Hazard Perry
(This 704th column was first published in the September 26, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)
In my column about my scooter ride around Lake Erie I described Oliver Hazard Perry as "arguably our luckiest naval commander." That description brought many responses - some questioning my judgment, some simply seeking information - so in this column I will tell the story of the famous September 10, 1813 Battle of Lake Erie to justify my claim.
Before I start, however, I assure readers that I do not offer revisionist history here. There is nothing wrong with being lucky and I continue to consider Commodore Perry a personal hero.
The preliminaries to the Battle of Lake Erie began in the bay enclosed by the arm of Presque Isle off Erie, Pennsylvania. There the larger ships of Perry's flotilla, the Lawrence and the Niagara, were built. Unfortunately, these two vessels had to be worked over a sandbar with the British squadron within view maintaining a blockade.
Good Fortune 1: For some unknown reason the British withdrew to Port Dover for a few days beginning at the end of July and Perry was able to proceed on August 1.
To lighten the ships all guns had to be unloaded and wooden floats called camels brought alongside to raise them. Even with these actions, the first ship was stranded for days on the bar. Only on a third try aided by a strengthening wind was the Lawrence worked across and rearmed.
Then just as the Niagara took its turn, the British fleet reappeared.
Good Fortune 2: On this hazy day the British commander misjudged the situation and, thinking that the full fleet was in the lake, he didn't attack. Thus the Niagara was also successfully made ready for action.
Good Fortune 3: Perry's ships were still so undermanned that they could not go into battle. Only on August 3 did 101 officers and sailors arrive including Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott, who would take command of the Niagara.
Now the fleets were in the lake with the British holding an edge in number of vessels: their two ships, one brig, seven schooners, one gunboat and two sloops poised against the Americans' three brigs, seven schooners and a single sloop. The British also enjoyed a slight advantage in number of guns, 63 to 54. However, the Americans' broadsides outgunned the British 912 to 494 due to their superiority, 39 to 31, in short-range guns called carronades.
Perry's flotilla sailed west from Erie to anchor in Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island off Sandusky, Ohio and on September 10, the British fleet emerged from the Detroit River to attack him. On this morning the British enjoyed what is called the weather gauge, that is, the wind was at their backs. Perry's vessels had to tack back and forth to get out of the harbor and he made little headway. It appeared in fact that he would not be able to steer south of Rattlesnake Island and would be further disadvantaged. But then:
Good Fortune 4: At the last minute and just as Perry was giving the command to go around the island, the wind suddenly shifted to give him the advantage.
On a beautifully clear day from a vantage point near the top of the 352-foot Perry Monument on South Bass Island I could see where these fleets converged. I experienced a cold shiver as I thought how the sailors must have felt slowly approaching their opponents. And slow it was, with only a slight wind it was almost two hours before the ships would engage.
Forging ahead impulsively, Perry on the Lawrence took the full weight of the British metal and over the next two hours his ship was reduced to a hulk, his guns rendered useless. The commodore made a crucial decision. He hauled down the famous "Don't Give Up the Ship" flag and, with his midshipman son and four sailors, headed by cutter for the Niagara.
Good Fortune 5: Recognizing this possible transfer of command, the British trained their guns on the cutter but failed to hit it and Perry took over the Niagara.
He turned his brig to sail through the British line of battle, a maneuver that would allow his broadsides to sweep the lengths of the British ships.
Good Fortune 6: In attempting to turn to meet this challenge the British ships Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided and locked together allowing the Niagara and the American gunboats to rake them at point blank range.
This spelled the end for the British and within a few minutes the entire fleet had surrendered. Now Perry sent that famous message, "Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours: Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner, and one Sloop."
Indeed good fortune did attend him but Oliver Hazard Perry remains our wonderful hero nonetheless.-- Gerry Rising
I found two books especially useful in preparing this column:
David Curtis Skaggs and Gerard T. Altoff, Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1997)
Gerard T. Altoff, Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie (Put-in-Bay, Ohio: The Perry Group, 1999)