Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Beams in My Home Town and Other Personal Stuff (Part 6)


Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial was established to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812, and to celebrate the long-lasting peace among Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. The Memorial, a Doric column rising 352 feet over Lake Erie, is situated 5 miles from the longest undefended border in the world. (National Park Service)
Ohio did not have a role in the American Revolution and no significant Civil War battles were fought on Ohio soil, but the War of 1812 was another matter. In that conflict, Ohio was the front line. Many battles were fought on Ohio soil and in the waters of Lake Erie. In Part 4, I mentioned how most kids who grow up in Mansfield visit the Copus Monument on a field trip at some point. Many Ohio kids also visit the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay.

The wonderfully-named Put-in-Bay is a town on South Bass Island, one of several small islands in Lake Erie just north of Sandusky and Sandusky Bay, about 75 miles north of Mansfield. It's a beautiful area with many popular attractions. Trips to Put-in-Bay often are combined with visits to Sandusky's Cedar Point amusement park. 

(A personal note. My great-great grandfather on my mother's side, Charles Bunsey, my namesake, was a farmer in the Sandusky area before he moved to Cleveland. Another, more distant relative was Marcellus F. Cowdery, who was the first superintendent of the Sandusky City Schools and a leader in education throughout Ohio in the 1840s. M. F. Cowdery wrote a collection of "Moral Lessons" which were widely used in public schools. M. F. Cowdery's uncle, Oliver Cowdery, was an early leader of the Mormon Church and a scribe to Joseph Smith. Oliver also lived in Ohio during that period, much further east in Kirtland. Cowdery Street in Sandusky was named in honor of M. F. Cowdery, but all that came later. Back now to the War of 1812. What follows comes from the National Park Service, which runs the Perry Monument at Put-in-Bay.)

At dawn on the morning of September 10, 1813, a lookout spotted six British vessels to the northwest of Put-in-Bay beyond Rattlesnake Island. Immediately, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry issued a flurry of orders and made preparations to sail forth to engage the British.

With Perry's fleet on Lake Erie the British supply route from Fort Malden to Port Dover had been severed. The British had to either fight or abandon Fort Malden, which protected the Detroit River at Detroit. The British squadron consisted of six ships with sixty-three cannon while the American flotilla comprised nine vessels and fifty-four guns. The British were armed with long guns that could throw a cannonball approximately one mile, accurately to about one-half mile. The American ships, primarily armed with carronades, had less than half the range of a long gun. The carronades could inflict much more damage at close range. Perry needed the wind to his back to close within carronade range.

When the squadron sailed from Put-in-Bay harbor at 7 a.m. the American vessels were steering west-northwest; the wind was blowing from the west-southwest. For more than two hours Perry repeatedly tacked his ships to put the wind to his back, but without success. The frustrated Perry conceded to mother nature at 10 a.m., issuing orders to turn his fleet in the opposite direction. But before the order could be executed the wind suddenly shifted and blew from the southeast, placing the wind directly behind the Americans.

Perry's opponent, Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, was an experienced Royal Navy officer who had fought with Lord Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, and two years later he lost an arm fighting the French. Barclay's options did not alter when the wind shifted, so the Scotsman pointed his bow sprits to the westward, and hove to in line of battle.

With the wind at his back and the British battle line finally revealed, Perry made his own tactical adjustments. The schooners Ariel and Scorpion were placed off the flagship's weather bow to engage the first British vessel and to prevent the enemy from raking his fleet. The Lawrence, a 20-gun brig serving as Perry's flagship, was third in line and would engage the Detroit, Barclay's 19-gun flagship. Next in line floated the Caledonia, a small brig with only three guns. Fifth in the American line of battle was the Niagara, Perry's other 20-gun brig and the Lawrence's sistership.

The Niagara, captained by Master Commandant Jesse Elliott, would engage the 17-gun Queen Charlotte, the second largest British ship. Lastly came the smaller schooners and sloop; these would engage the smaller British vessels.

Just before the engagement opened Perry hoisted his battle flag to the flagship's main truck. The large navy blue banner was emblazoned with the crudely inscribed words, "DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP." For his battle slogan Perry used the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, a friend of the commodore who was killed on June 1, 1813. Perry's flagship was named for the fallen Lawrence and the dead hero's inspiring words clearly indicated Perry's determination to prevail.

By 2:30 p.m. Perry's flagship was a floating wreck; every gun on her engaged side was disabled and four of every five men fit for duty were either killed or wounded. Perry was facing the dismal prospect of surrender.

Then, as he gazed across to the Niagara, still out of range and relatively undamaged, the commodore made a fateful decision. Collecting four unwounded men Perry manned the flagship's first cutter and rowed through a hail of shot to the Niagara. Miraculously Perry and his boat crew reached the Niagara unscathed.

Following a brief conversation the flotilla commander dispatched Elliott in the same small boat to hurry along the lagging gunboats. Perry then prepared the Niagara for immediate action, put the helm up, and sailed toward the British line.

The British, though they had pounded the Lawrence into a crippled hulk, had suffered terribly. During the engagement Barclay was severely wounded, plus the captain and first lieutenant of every British vessel was incapacitated. The English fleet was now commanded by junior officers - brave men, but with little or no experience maneuvering ships in the chaos of combat. When they observed the Niagara bearing down on their line the British attempted to wear ship - to turn their vessels around to bring the unused starboard broadsides to bear. Orders were issued, but amidst the tumult of battle the battered Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided, becoming helplessly entangled.

Taking full advantage of his enemy's blunder, Perry steered the Niagara through the jumbled British battle line. Unleashing both broadsides, the American commodore ravaged the vulnerable British ships. As the Niagara pressed through the British line Perry backed the maintop sail, holding the Niagara stationary while her belching carronades decimated the enemy decks. The wind had also picked up by this time, allowing the sluggish gunboats to rush forward and rake the enemy from astern.

A few minutes after 3 p.m., the British bowed to the inevitable. The four largest vessels surrendered one by one. The gunboats Chippawa and Little Belt sheered off and tried to escape, but they were tracked down and snared by the Scorpion and Trippe. The entire British fleet had been captured.

The American vessels anchored and hasty repairs were underway near West Sister Island when Perry composed his now famous message to General William Henry Harrison (who we met in Part 3). Scrawled in pencil on the back of an old envelope, Perry wrote, "Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O. H. Perry".

The Battle of Lake Erie proved one of the most resounding American triumphs of the War of 1812. It secured control of Lake Erie and forced the British to abandon Fort Malden and retreat. Harrison's army pursued, decisively defeating the small British army and its allied Indian force on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the Thames. Later, during peace talks, the dual victories of Lake Erie and Thames ensured that the states of Ohio and Michigan would remain the sovereign territory of the United States.

Next time, in Part 7, we head to southeastern Ohio where we will meet my great-grandfather.


Cary Dice said...

Perry suspected that Elliott held the Niagara out of battle and let the Lawrence take all the punishment as Perry had taken over the Erie fleet from Elliott.

Richard Turner said...

Interesting tidbit, Cary Dice. If true it proved quite fortuitous, even if it wasn't intended as a tactical decision. Where did you find this bit of 'historical opinion'?