On September 10, 1813, the fairly new and undisciplined American navy, under command of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, defeated Great Britain in the Battle of Lake Erie. This victory was monumental in the War of 1812 because it allowed America to gain control of Lake Erie, thus preventing the British from seizing control of the Northwest Territories in the middle of the present day United States.
Turning Point of the War of 1812
The victory in the Battle of Lake Erie was key not only in the War of 1812 but also for the future of the United States as a whole. This is because the U.S. had experienced a string of defeats at the hands of the British before the battle and this victory boosted moral of soldiers but also raised further hope in American citizens that their country would once be free from the rule of Great Britain.
When the War of 1812 was declared, the United States forces were poorly prepared, especially the American Naval systems. President James Madison had to send forces to the Michigan territory after hostile disputes with British and Natives in that region. Then came the surrender of Detroit on August 16, 1812. This was almost devastating to America controlling the war and President Madison realized the significance of reclaiming the lost territory. This in turn brought up the necessity of controlling Lake Erie because of how vital it was for trade between states and countries. The British already had a fleet occupying the lake so it was an important stepping stone as to cutting off the British from Canada.
With the inevitable British attack coming from the north, President Madison decided it was necessary to make an American Naval fleet in Lake Erie, and he appointed Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry to command. When the Americans Arrived at Lake Erie there was already a British fleet of 8 vessel while the Americans had zero [Source 4]. Naval Construction began immediately and by August of 1813 the Americans had a fleet of 9 vessels.
In the first unqualified defeat of a British naval squadron in history, Captain Oliver Hazard Perry led his nine vessels to a decisive American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. After the battle, Oliver Hazard Perry sent his famous dispatch to U.S. General William Henry Harrison that read, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours” [Source 5]. This victory was monumental for the U.S. because it caused the British to abandon Detroit, Lake Erie and the American Northwest Territories. Without this victory the British could have invaded America right through the heart of the country and could have possibly given the British enough momentum that America could have lost the war of 1812 and possibly never regained their independence. This victory also gave the Americans control of Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence Seaway, which almost in itself stippled the British forces from an adamant chance at a victory in the War of 1812. [Source 8]
The victory in turn also made the United States a naval power while also depleting the British Navy and British moral during the war in general. The Battle of Lake Erie allowed America to reclaim the Michigan, Indiana and Ohio territories which had been partially sieged throughout the war which then lead for America to participate in the destruction of the Tecumseh Indian confederacy. The victory in the Battle of Lake Erie enhanced American stature, it eventually led to winning the war in 1815 and ultimately led to America sealing its independence from Great Britain.
Building the Fleet in the Wilderness
With the fall of Detroit, it was evident that the British had complete command of the Great Lakes region and it looked as though they would be in control of the American Northwest very shortly. Planned attacks to take back the region were planned but either proved unsuccessful or were not properly equipped. Future President of the United States, General William Henry Harrison commanded a militia unit near Sandusky on the shores of Lake Erie but he soon realized that he could not initiate plans to re-take Detroit without naval support. The only problem with that was the United States had no warships on Lake Erie. With this, President Madison, recognized the need for ships, and the necessity of building them within the premise of Lake Erie, or face the chance of losing control of that region and possibly lose control of the War of 1812.
Although Oliver Hazard Perry receives much accreditation for the victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, which is deserving so considering his heroic wartime effort, there is an unsung hero whose efforts of organizing and building the fleet that won the battle are unmatched. Naval Sailing Master Daniel Dobbins went to Washington D.C., reported the surrenders of Fort Michilimackinac and Detroit while also stating the strength of the British fleet on Lake Erie. Daniel Dobbins then went on to convince President Madison and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton that a fleet on Lake Erie was necessary if America wanted to regain control of the region. Shortly thereafter, Dobbins received authorization from Secretary of the Navy Hamilton to start constructing the fleet that would win the Battle of Lake Erie. [Source 1]
By April of 1813, the “Fleet in the Wilderness” had begun to take shape and were being rapidly produced. The Tigress and Porcupine were launched in April, while the Scorpion was launched shortly after in May. Then the Lawrence was launched in June followed shortly after by the Niagara and Ariel in July. With the completion of these five boats, Dobbins then ordered for three more merchant ships, the Somers, Trippe and Caledonia to be converted with armaments into naval battle ships. Remarkably in nine months of time, Daniel Dobbins had done the impossible and constructed five naval vessels from oak trees that lived on the shores of Lake Erie and converted three merchant ships. With Dobbins’ great achievements the American fleet now outnumber the British fleet and with Dobbins’ perseverance to go out on his own and demand the ability to construct the fleet from President Madison and Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, solely won the Battle of Lake Erie but also shifted the momentum in the entire War of 1812.
Although, Daniel Dobbins never actually took part in the naval battles, he did have a considerable role in the battles by captaining the Ohio, a merchant ship, and supplying the American nine naval vessels with food and other supplies. But this does not matter considering the fact that without Dobbins’ efforts the persuade authority and then create the fleet, either the battle of Lake Erie would have never taken place or the American side would have suffered a defeat. With Dobbins’ ingenuity, the American fleet was able to outnumber the British fleet, nine vessels to six and 532 total crew members to 502. This in turn caused more British deaths, 41 to 27 American deaths, which then ultimately made British Captain Barclay realize defeat was inevitable and ultimately surrendered [Source 3]. The victory was the turning point in the War of 1812, ultimately proving to shift momentum in the war to the American side showing in many more victories coming in the war. It was such a decisive victory that it guided the way to causing the British to surrender the war and on Christmas Eve, December 12, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was passed [Source 7].
The People’s Hero
“Perry he comes behold his spreading sails
Rides high in Ethan waffled by the gales
He speaks my son see Barclays fleet away night
Prepare to action Conquer or to die
The guardian genius of Lake Erie’s deep
Stood speechless wondering & he began to weep
Like some hovering seraph anchored in the air
To view with wonder the conflicting pair
Old Neptune trembled & his sea nymphs fled
All filled with wonder and with dread
And great Leviathan that does guard the deep
Was roused astonished from his liquid sleep
The mare maid wondered & she wept aloud
To see the men mangled belcher rising to the vaporing cloud
And tenfold thunder bursting in the air
This roar of the cannon by the lightning glare
Like elements embattled whirl winds rend
To take the rock & all the mortars lend
To crush the forest fire alarms tare
The growth of nature waft it in the air
Tremendous roars like great regards fall
The mind astonished by the senses all
See brave Columbia & John Bull engage
One fought with venom and one with rage
In dreadful combat on a watery field
Each floating battery & service shield
Each fair broadside in high maritime ire
Seemed blagering sheets & awful streams of fire
Lake Erie trembled & fort Malden gaged
The awful thunder & the lightning blazed
Press on leocronnies hovering Justice cried
Justice oh Perry Justice on thy pride
The victory Gained by thy heroic powers
We met Great Britain & we made them ours” [Source 2]
With the likes of this poem, written by Ruggard on July 4th 1821, it is evident that Oliver Hazard Perry was a much admired man. Also considering the commendation and acclaim that he received for his triumphant bravery and patriotic endeavor as Master Commandant during the victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry is a major American symbol and quite possible the most influential person in defeating the British in the War of 1812. Although one could say that being a great naval commander was in his blood seeing as how his father was a commander in the U.S. Navy during the revolution, it is clear that Oliver Hazard Perry consistently made his own future by making powerful decisions and demands to ensure success and victory. He was a great commander who always did what was best for not only himself but also for crews and his country. He was very highly regarded and often promoted to be in charge of very difficult situations.
In February, 1813, at 28 years old, Oliver Hazard Perry was appointed Master Commandant to the fleet of Lake Erie. With the assistance of Daniel Dobbins, Perry put together the “Fleet in the Wilderness”. When Perry first arrived in Erie, it was evident that there would need to be advancement in the ship building in order to defeat the British fleet controlling Lake Erie. Perry and Dobbins then order 150 ship carpenters from New York City in addition to block-makers, sail-makers, and riggers from Philadelphia in order to assist in the making of the fleet. Nine short months later the fleet was ready to battle in order to take back Lake Erie and control of the Northwest Territories. What ensued from the battle not only assisted America in winning the war but proceeded to make Oliver Hazard Perry legendary. [Source 5]
As the battle went on it was obvious that Perry’s ship, the Lawrence, had taken too much fire and was inevitably ineffective for the remainder of the battle. Knowing that the battle needed him, Perry, heroically was lowered into a small skiff and was delivered to the next American brig in the battle, the Niagara. After assuming control of the boat from Captain Jesse D. Elliot, Perry led the Niagara and the rest of the American naval fleet into surrounding the British fleet and ultimately forcing them to surrender. By 2:50 pm on September 10th, 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry wrote a report to General William Henry Harrison stating that the battle had concluded and the American’s had control of the British surrendered fleet. With great bravery, heroics, strategic planning and tactical improvising, Oliver Hazard Perry had commanded the American naval fleet to a victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. [Source 6]
Once the battle was over, Perry quickly become the people’s hero and after the War of 1812 was a victory, it was easily seen that the victory in the Battle of Lake Erie was the turning point in the war and Oliver Hazard Perry soon became a national hero. Perry received has since received more public acclaim and accreditation than any other naval hero. Still today Perry receives praise and is known for his heroics and patriotism. This can be seen in the joint US-Canadian Border Peace Monuments bear Perry’s name. It can also be seen in today’s Naval Academy with their moto being “Don’t Give up the Ship”. The phase was Perry’s close friend, Naval Commander James Lawrence’s famous last command before dying at the hands of the British blockade. Perry had the words stitched on a flag which he flew on the Lawrence and then took with him as he valiantly crossed to the Niagara. Both of these accounts attest to Oliver Hazard Perry’s everlasting legacy as a United States Naval Commander. [Source 5]
- Dobbins, Daniel. (Dec. 12, 1812). Letter to Secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton.National Archives. [Source 1]
- Ruggard. (July 4, 1821). “Perry Victory on Lake Erie 10th Sept. 1813”. Olio Newspaper.Cincinnati,Ohio. [Source 2]
- Salem Massachusetts Gazette. (Oct. 1, 1813). Battle of Lake Erie Death Records and Battle Information. [Source 3]
- Burges, Tristam. (2009). Battle of Lake Erie. Applewood Books. [Source 4]
- Dillon, Richard. (1978). We have met the enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry, wilderness commodore. New York. McGraw-Hill. [Source 5]
- Galbreath, Charles B. (1911) “The Battle of Lake Erie in History and Ballad.” Ohio Archæological and Historical Publications [Source 6]
- Zaslow, Morris.(1964). The defended border; Upper Canada and the War of 1812. Macmillan Co. of Canada. [Source 7]
- Zwiebel, Dominique (2009). Battle of Lake Erie: Turning Point of the War of 1812. The Pennsylvania Center for the Book. [Source 8]