Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie

I.  “Anecdotes on Perry’s Victory.  By the Editor of the Albany Museum.”
Some Extracts:

Reprinted in the Harrisburgh Chronicle, June 13, 1814 [apparently, no copy of the Albany Museum, according to the Library of Congress, survives]

“On the morning of the 10th September, at sunrise, the enemy were discovered bearing down from Malden, for the evident purpose of attacking our squadron, then at anchor in Put-in-Bay [Ohio].  . . .  The line was formed at 11, and commodore Perry raised an elegant flag, which he had privately prepared to be hoisted at the mast head of the Lawrence; on this flag was painted the characters, legible to the whole fleet, the dying words of the immortal Lawrence–“DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP.’  It effect is not to be described–every heart was electrified.”

“The editor of this paper, in company with five others, arrived at the head of Put-in-Bay Island on the evening of the 9th, and had a view of the action at a distance of only ten miles.  The spectacle was truly grand and awful.  The firing was incessant for the space of three hours, and continued at short intervals for five minutes longer.  In less than one hour after the battle began, most of the vessels of both fleets were enveloped in a cloud of smoke, which rendered the issue of the action uncertain, till the next morning, when we visited the fleet in the harbor on the opposite side of the island.”

“The carnage on board the prizes was prodigious–they must have lost 200 in killed besides wounded.  The sides of the Detroit and Queen Charlotte were shattered from bow to stern–there was scarcely room to place one’s hand on their larboard sides without touching the impression of a shot–a great many balls, canister and grape, were found lodged in their bulwarks, which were too thick to be penetrated by our carronades, unless within pistol shot distance.”

“The loss of the Americans was severe, particularly on board the Lawrence.  When her flag was struck she had but nine men fit for duty remaining on deck.  . . .  Her deck, the morning after the conflict, when I first went on board, exhibited a scene that defies description–for it was literally covered with blood, which still adhered to the plank in clots–brains, hair, and fragments of bones, were still sticking to the rigging and sides.”

“The efficacy of the gun boats was fully proved in this action, and the sterns of all the prizes bear ample testimony of the fact.”

“The undaunted bravery of admiral Barclay entitled him to a better fate; to the loss of the day was superadded grievous and dangerous wounds; he had before lost an arm; it was now his hard fortune to lose the use of the other . . . his wounds were for some days considered mortal.   Every possible attention was paid to his situation.  When com. Perry sailed for Buffalo, he was so far recovered that he took passage on board our fleet.  The fleet touched at Erie.  The citizens saw the affecting spectacle of [General] Harrison and Perry supporting the wounded British hero, still unable to walk without help, from the beach to their lodgings.”

“The British officers had domesticated a bear at Malden.  Bruin accompanied his comrades to battle–was on the deck of the Detroit during the engagement, and escaped unhurt.”

“The killed of both fleets were thrown overboard as fast as they fell.  Several were washed ashore upon the island and the main during the gales that succeeded the action.”

“The British were superior in the length and number of their guns, as well as the number of men.  The American fleet was manned with a motley set of beings.  Europeans, Africans, Americans from every part of the U. States.  Full one fourth were blacks.  I saw one Russian who could not speak a word of English.  They were brave–and who could be otherwise under the command of Perry?”

“The marines of our fleet were highly complimented by the commodore, for their good conduct; although it was the first time the most of them had seen a square rigged vessel, being fresh from Harrison’s army.  The Kentuckians proved, on this occasion, as has the commodore since, that they can fight on both elements.”

These anecdotes brought to you by the early nineteenth century custom of newspapers’ exchanging papers with each other; only thus have these anecdotes been preserved.  Support your newspaper preservationists!

II.  Another Eye-Witness Account

These are from a Naval Officer, dated Erie, October 7, 1813, who writes of the action of September 10, “as we have not many letter writers in our squadron,” and as Perry’s official account puts “himself too much in the background.” –printed in the New York Gazette, October 18, 1813.

“In no action fought this war has the conduct of the commanding officer been as conspicuous or so evidently decisive of the fate of the battle, as in this.  When he [Perry] discovered that nothing further could be done in the Lawrence, he wisely removed to the Niagara, and by one of the boldest and most judicious maneouvres ever practised decided the contest at once.  Had the Niagara shared  the fate of the Lawrence, it was his intention to have removed to the next best vessel, and so on as long as one of his squadron continued to float.  The enemy saw him put off standing up in the stern of the boat; but the crew insisted on his sitting down.  The enemy speak with admiration of the manner in which the Lawrence bore down upon them.  She continued her course so long and so obstinately, that they thought we were going to board them.  They had a great advantage in having long guns.  Many of our men were killed on the berth deck and in the steerage, after they were taken below to be dressed–midshipman Lamb was of this number.  One shot went thro’ the light room, and knocked the snuff of the candle into the magazine–the gunner happened to see it immediately and extinguished it with his hand; two shot passed through the magazine–two through the cabin–three or four came into the ward room–but I believe only one went quite through, and that passed a few inches over the surgeon’s head as he sat in the cockpit.  Our short guns lodged their shot in the bulwarks of the Detroit, where a number of them now remain.  Her bulwarks however are vastly superior to ours, being of oak and very thick.  Many of their grape shot came through ours.  They acknowledge that they threw combustible matter on board of us, which set our sails and rigging on fire in several places.  I am clearly of opinion that they were better manned than we were.–They had a much greater number–they had veteran troops–their men were all well.  We had as motley a crew as ever went into action, and our vessels looked like hospital ships.

During the whole of the action the most complete order prevailed on board the Lawrence–there was no noise, no bustle, no confusion–as fast as the men were wounded they were taken below and replaced by others–the dead remained where they fell until the action was over.  Capt. Perry exhibited that cool collected, dignified bravery which those acquainted with him would have expected.  His countenance all the time was just as composed as if he had been engaged in ordinary duty.  As soon as the action was over he attended to the securing the prisoners and to the wounded on both sides.

Capt. Barclay declared to one of our officers several days after the action, that capt. Perry had done himself immortal honor by his humanity and attention to the wounded prisoners.  The action was fought on Friday–we got into harbor next day.  On Sunday, all the officers on both sides, who fell, were buried on South Bass Island, at Put-in-Bay, with the honors of war.

I am sorry to inform you that midshipman Claxton died of his wound this morning.

There were two Indian chiefs on board the Detroit.  The 2d lieut. informed me that as soon as the action became general they ran below.”

III.  Another Account, from one on board the U. S. brig Hunter

These are from the Ohio Fredonian, as reprinted by the Commercial Advertiser of October 16, 1813)

. . .  At half past 10, the enemy’s fleet seemed to clear away for action, by taking in top gallant sails, and hauling in their courses–at 11, the enemy sounded a bugle horn on board the new ship, Detroit, accompanied by the loud huzzas of the crews of the different vessels in their squadron.  At meridian, both fleets steering W. by N.; 3 minutes past 12 heard the report of a musket on board the enemy’s ship Queen Charlotte, which was succeeded by one of her waist guns, and was returned by an animated fire from the Lawrence, seconded by the Caledonia, and the rest of the smaller vessels as they came up–at half past 12, a tremendous firing was kept up on both sides, being within about point blank range with each other–at 1, the Commodore made the signal for closer action, at the same time ordering the Caledonia to take her station under his stern, and run down in the midst of the enemy’s fleet; when the action became general, between the Lawrence, the Caledonia,  and several small vessels on the one side, and the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, Lady Prevost, brig Hunter and several smaller vessels on the other.–About 3, the Lawrence being in the hottest of the action, and having lost so many of her crew in killed and wounded, that the officers and even the commodore had to work the guns, and she being so crippled from the fire of two of the enemy’s largest ships, the intrepid Perry hauled down his union jack, and, with his usual presence of mind, deliberately jumped into a boat, and got on board the Niagara, a vessel of the same size with the Lawrence, bore down upon the enemy, and renewed the action, when the Queen Charlotte struck, and a few minutes after the Detroit, and within 20 minutes of 4, the whole fleet struck, except two small vessels who attempted to get away by making sail, but were chased and brought back by our pilot boat and another of our smaller vessels.  . . .

Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, painted 1865.

The Lawrence, when she struck, had 60 men wounded and 20 killed, lying on her decks, all her rigging cut away, and spars much injured, with shot holes through her in every direction.  The Caledonia was also much injured, but has been repaired, and is now ready to sail; and the Lawrence has been sent to Erie with the wounded, where she will be fitted out.  The two captured ships have no masts standing; they were so much cut up in the action that the first gale of wind blew them all overboard:  and their hulls are so peppered that a common sized plate cannot be laid on them without covering balls or ball holes:  they will remain here till we get possession of Malden, where they will be repaired.  The mode of warfare adopted by the enemy, was very ungentlemanly:  they fired carcasses, and every kind of combustible material; while we dealt out good wholesome rations, of round, grape and canister.

IV.  And a Last One, from an Officer on the Niagara

These are from  the Georgetown, Ky., Telegraph, September 29, 1813, reprinting the Scioto Gazette)

“It affords me singular pleasure that I have it in my power to inform you of a victory we have obtained over the avowed and acknowledged enemy of our country.  On the 10th instant at 5 in the morning we discovered the hostile fleet on the Lake, distant about 5 miles.  The signal was immediately made to weigh and prepare for action, which duty was discharged in a few minutes, the wind light and we to windward, which kept us in plain sight, nearing very slowly.  At meridian the enemy commenced the fire from their long guns in the whole line–not a gun discharged from us until all would tell, long and short; the fire commenced from our line at a quarter before 1, and continued without one moment’s intermission until 4, when to my great satisfaction we discovered their standards to come down, notwithstanding their flags were nailed to the masts, with an asservation from the commanders that the vessels should go to the bottom rather than surrender to a damn’d Yankee–Will you have the goodness to pass to our friend Mr. Clay the nail which fastened the flag of the commodore to his mast?”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden