The War of 1812 had not been going well for the Americans. Securing and controlling the border between the United States and Canada was a key strategic goal and Lake Erie was the linchpin. Control of Lake Erie would guarantee American control of the Ohio Valley and the Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan territories. Up to the middle of 1813, American attempts to do just that had failed, often miserably.
Then Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry came on the scene.
The Battle of Lake Erie
The Pithy Version
Most battles are a team effort but it sounded like Perry was pretty much on his own. His other ships disobeyed orders and did not attack, some even pulled back to leave his ship alone to get crushed by the English ships. Maybe they couldn’t navigate into position… which made no sense because he fought alone for FOUR HOURS! Once his ship, the Lawrence, bit the dust, he took a few men and ROWED a boat through cannon and musket fire to the Niagara, where he took command and gave it another go… and won!
But like most battles this one had more than Its share of luck, pluck, and controversy.
The Two Fleets
The United States squadron, commanded by Perry, consisted of nine ships – three brigs, five schooners, and one sloop. The British squadron, commanded by Commander Barclay, consisted of seven ships – two ships, one brig, two schooners, and one sloop.
Each squadron had two types of armament: long guns and carronades. A long gun was heavier, required more sailors to serve her, but had an effective range of up to a mile. A carronade was lighter, required fewer sailors to serve her, but only had an effective range of 1/3 mile.
Perry’s flagship, Lawrence, carried a flag that said “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” Many people mistakenly think he spoke those words. They were spoken by the mortally wounded Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake just before it was captured near Boston in June.
The Americans spotted the British squadron at daybreak and moved to intercept it at 6AM. Because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, the Americans’ progress was agonizingly slow. Once Perry saw how the British squadron was deployed, he altered his line accordingly and hoisted the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag.
At 11:45AM, as the American squadron closed, the British ships opened up with their long guns, focusing on the Lawrence. At this point the British had the advantage as the Americans had fewer long guns and weren’t close enough to employ their carronades.
The Day Is Almost Lost
For two hours, the Lawrence took the brunt of the British fire while trying to sail within carronade range. Its sister ship, the Niagra, failed to keep up. The controversy surrounding this has never been resolved.
By 2:30PM every gun on the Lawrence had been silenced, its crew decimated – 22 dead and 63 wounded out of 103 effectives.
With the Lawrence adrift, the two squadrons slowly sailed past it.
When the Niagra got close to the Lawrence, Perry transferred to that ship, taking the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” flag with him.
The Niagra was relatively unscathed because the British had focused on the Lawrence.
But the British ship Detroit had also been heavily damaged and could make little headway. The Queen Charlotte, the Detroit’s sister ship, was also damaged. Both ships were essentially out of control and ended up colliding. At this point, neither ship could maneuver.
Perry sailed the Niagra clockwise around the two entangled ships, firing broadside after broadside into them, and forced them to surrender.
With the two largest British ships out of action, the rest of the British fleet also surrendered.
The Lake Erie Campaign of 1813 by Walter Rybka gives an excellent description of the battle although his extensive use of nautical terms had me flipping back and forth in search of definitions. However, he did provide many figures that illustrated various maneuvers.
The Visitor Center
The clean, modern, well-lit, and welcoming visitor center has an information desk, museum, theater, gift shop, and rest rooms. The staff was very friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful.
The visitor center is dominated by a statue of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. The statue was created by New York sculptor William Wallcutt in 1860 and displayed in Cleveland, Ohio until 1929 when it was given to the city of Perrysburg, Ohio. That city donated the statue to the Perry Memorial in 2001.
Although small, the museum contains a wealth of information about the construction of the monument and the battle.
The movie does an excellent job of describing battle and should be your first stop.
The museum provides information on the types of ships sailed by the opposing fleets, the types of armament they used, and the compositions of their crews.
One poster illustrates from the crew’s perspective how cramped, noisy, chaotic, and bloody a ship was during battle.
A large, detailed diorama showed the positions of all the ships at the turning point of the battle.
Like all national park sites, this one has a Junior Ranger program for 5 to 12 year old children. After completing the park’s Junior Ranger book, our granddaughter Chloe was sworn in by a Park Ranger. The picture in the background shows Admiral Perry boarding a boat so he could transfer his flagship from the now shredded Lawrence (between the ranger’s hands) to the Niagra (out of the image).
Building the Monument
The monument was built between 1912 and 1915 (32 months). The cornerstone was laid on July 4, 1913. It was opened to public on June 13, 1915.
The monument consists of 78 courses or layers of pink Milford, Massachusetts granite blocks. Each layer contains 30 granite blocks giving a grand total of 2340 blocks. (Note from Holly – Pink? Yes, pink. This was planned. If they had used white, it would have reflected the blue sky. By using pink, it looks white and stands out against the blue sky… who knew?)
When it was finished, the monument stood 352 high, had a base diameter of 45 feet, and weighed 18,400 tons.
A solid bronze urn, 23 feet high and weighing 11 tons, was placed on top.
Touring the Monument
When you first enter the monument, you face a four pointed star. The bronze plaque reads, “Beneath this stone lie the remains of three American and three British officers killed in the battle of Lake Erie. September 10, 1813”
After the battle the sailors who died were sewn into their hammocks, weighted down with shot, and dropped overboard. On the other hand, dead officers from both side were buried on shore.
If you don’t have Senior Pass, you can pay a fee to go to the top of the monument. The view is awesome! After climbing a set of steps you have to wait for an old time elevator to ride to the top. They don’t allow camera bags, day packs, purses, or Frisbees onto the elevator. Yes, someone tried to carry a Frisbee up, no doubt to see how far it would go from that height. A ranger is stationed at the elevator to take away those Frisbees; all items can be ‘reclaimed when you come back down. Another ranger strolls around the the wide walkway to answer questions. There are also interpretive signs that tell you what you are looking at and show you where the battle took place. The view from the top is amazing. Pictures are included in our Put-in-Bay post.