Volume 40

The Building of History I: The Battle of Lake Erie

A lesson in Dignity, Civility, and Honor

 

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Winds of Change

 

If ever there was a country who knew everything about the sea, it was England, an island nation, that depended on the seas for protection from invading armies. Its navy ruled the waves. “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” While England tolerated the independence of the United States, it liked to believe it was still America’s “mother hen.”

 

America was free, but England’s influence was strong. At the beginning of the War of 1812, there was strong support in New England for a return to English rule.

 

The crux of the problem that precipitated the war - England had a shortage of seamen to man their ships, so they removed American citizens from merchant ships, and forced them to work as sailors on the British ships.

 

Antagonized by the abduction of its sailors, America challenged and won several sea battles in the Atlantic against England’s best. Buoyed by those victories, and by its successes on Lake Champlain, Lake Ontario, and Lake Erie, the Navy proved to the world that in the future, it would be ready to defend US interests anytime, anywhere.

 

Friday September 10, 1813

 

As the two fleets approached each other near West Sister Island, musicians on the HMS Detroit played “Rule Britannia.” At 11:45, the ship opened fire, and the battle was on.

 

Initially, the wind favored the British, but as the ships closed, the wind shifted in favor of Commodore Perry. His flagship, The US Brig Lawrence, paired off with the British Ship Detroit. The plan was to have the US Brig Niagara take on HMS Queen Charlotte, but for reasons unknown, the Niagara lagged behind, and Perry had no choice but to fight the two largest British ships alone.

 

Needless to say, The Lawrence was pounded by the large guns of its two adversaries. The deafening roar of the guns, the splintering sounds of the wooden ships being torn apart, and the screams and the cries of battle filled the air. The decks ran red with blood.

 

Perry, with his guns silenced, and with so many of his men killed or wounded, ordered his battle flag lowered.

 

The British, thinking Perry was going to surrender, temporarily ceased firing. Suddenly, the British sailors saw a tiny boat with Perry aboard, rowing away from The Lawrence. All the British ships in range began firing at the little boat, but miraculously, no one was hit.

 

When Perry reached the Niagara, he took over the command from Jesse Elliot, who was sent to a smaller ship.

 

The Niagara, still fresh with barely any damage to it, took aim at the Queen Charlotte and The Detroit.

 

The captain of the Detroit, Robert Barclay, acutely aware of the torn and battered condition of his ship, braced himself for the Niagara.

 

Suddenly, the Queen Charlotte, with her rudder damaged, became tangled up with the Detroit.

 

Commodore Perry, bearing down on the two ships, recognized the predicament of the two British ships, and abruptly changed course, knifing through the line of British ships. To maximize the fire power of the Niagara, Perry trimmed some of her sails to slow down, and as the Niagara glided through the British line, it let loose from both sides with a tremendous barrage of cannon fire. The withering fire did tremendous damage to the two British ships.

 

Queen Charlotte was the first to strike her colors, and raised the white flag in surrender. The other British ships quickly followed suite, and the firing ceased on all sides.

 

The battle had lasted four hours. In the midst of chaos and destruction around him, Perry quickly penned a note to American General William Henry Harrison, who was bivouacked with his army near Port Clinton­—We have met the enemy, and they are ours!

 

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“The Toll on the Human Psyche”

 

When the fighting ceased, the sudden silence was just as profound and jarring to the people as was the shock of the initial booming cannons.

 

Across the waters of Lake Erie, the thunderous shock waves of sound traveled 50 miles in all directions.

 

The people from Detroit, the Canadian and American shorelines, and the islands had experienced every range of emotion. They felt fear, anxiety, hope, love, and hate.

 

They prayed to God that their side had prevailed, and their loved ones spared. The answers would come, but not quick enough.

 

Sunday Morning, September, 12, 1813

 

Small boats with American and British sailors and soldiers aboard, moved slowly towards shore, away from the battered ships laying at anchor in the Put-In-Bay harbor on South Bass Island. A muffled drumbeat marked the cadence of the oars.

 

Towards the shore they rowed, this strange procession. When they reached land, an Anglican service was held, honoring the 3 British and 3 American officers who had been killed. The officers and enlisted men who bore the terrible wounds, and the few who escaped injury, were there.

 

How could dignity, civility, military decorum, and honor prevail, when, less than 48 hours earlier, on September 10th, 1813, these men on their ships were mortal enemies, locked in a deadly battle, fighting for their country, their ships, and their lives?

 

Many of the majestic tall ships had been reduced to floating wrecks. Huge masts were broken, like toothpicks, and Perry’s Flagship, The US Brig Lawrence, was just a floating hull full of torn sails and wooden debris. Towards the end of the battle, the two largest British ships, HMS Detroit, and HMS Queen Charlotte, had taken a horrific pounding from the US Brig Niagara and the other American ships close by.

 

In the evening after the battle, the enlisted men who had died, were sewn in their own hammocks or sail canvas, weighted down by a cannon ball, and descended into a watery grave.

 

Burial at sea is an honor. Men of the sea are part of the sea. They share the sunrises, the sunsets, the tranquil seas, and batten down the hatches when violent waves crash over their ships. They share the stars, the moon, the blazing hot sun, and endure long periods of time away from their loved ones.

 

Oliver Hazard Perry was one of those men of the sea. His decisions after the battle came from his experiences on the sea. He was a military man. He followed orders, and he gave orders. It was his calm demeanor after the battle that led to the solemn ceremony on South Bass Island.

 

He had reached out to the captain of the Detroit, Robert Barclay, and had sought medical help for him. He refused the sword of the British captain, and he let the British keep their weapons. Because of his actions, men on both sides came together, tending the wounds of each other. Together the two fleets sailed back to Put-in-Bay.

 

Together they buried their dead, and because of these actions, we can believe that, yes, if they could live with honor and dignity after their experiences, we can also conduct our lives with dignity, civility, and honor.

 

 

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