War of 1812: Battle of Lake Erie

Perry at Lake Erie
Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry transferring from USS Lawrence to USS Niagara during the Battle of Niagara. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of Lake Erie - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Lake Erie was fought September 10, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815)

Fleets & Commanders:

US Navy

Royal Navy

  • Commander Robert Barclay
  • 2 ships, 2 brigs, 1 schooner, 1 sloop

Battle of Lake Erie - Background:

Following the capture of Detroit in August 1812 by Major General Isaac Brock, the British took control of Lake Erie.

In an attempt to regain naval superiority on the lake, the US Navy established a base at Presque Isle, PA (Erie, PA) on the recommendation of experienced lake mariner Daniel Dobbins. At this site, Dobbins began building four gunboats in 1812. The following January, Secretary of the Navy William Jones requested that two 20-gun brigs be constructed at Presque Isle. Designed by New York shipbuilder Noah Brown, these vessels were intended to be the foundation of the new American fleet. In March 1813, the new commander of American naval forces on Lake Erie, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, arrived at Presque Isle. Assessing his command, he found that there was a general shortage of supplies and men.

Battle of Lake Erie - Preparations:

While diligently overseeing the construction of the two brigs, named USS Lawrence and USS Niagara, and providing for Presque Isle's defense, Perry traveled to Lake Ontario in May 1813, to secure additional seamen from Commodore Isaac Chauncey.

While there, he participated in the Battle of Fort George (May 25-27), and collected several gunboats for use on Lake Erie. Departing from Black Rock, he was nearly intercepted by the recently-arrived British commander on Lake Erie, Commander Robert H. Barclay. A veteran of Trafalgar, Barclay had reached the British base of Amherstburg, Ontario on June 10.

After reconnoitering Presque Isle, Barclay focused his efforts on completing the 19-gun ship HMS Detroit which was under construction at Amherstburg. As with his American counterpart, Barclay was hampered by a perilous supply situation. Upon taking command, he found that his crews were comprised of a motley mix of sailors from the Royal Navy and Provincial Marine as well as soldiers from the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and 41st Regiment of Foot. Due to American control of Lake Ontario and the Niagara Peninsula, supplies for the British squadron had to be transported overland from York. This supply line had been disrupted previously in April 1813 due to the British defeat at the Battle of York which saw a shipment of 24-pdr carronades intended for Detroit captured.

Battle of Lake Erie - Blockade of Presque Isle:

Convinced that construction of Detroit was on target, Barclay departed with his fleet and began a blockade of Presque Isle on July 20. This British presence prevented Perry from moving Niagara and Lawrence over the harbor's sand bar and into the lake. Finally, on July 29, Barclay was forced to depart due to low supplies. Due to the shallow water over the sand bars, Perry was forced to remove all of Lawrence and Niagara's guns and supplies as well as employ several "camels" to sufficiently lessen the brigs' draft.

The camels were wooden barges that could be flooded, attached to each vessel, and then pumped out to further raise it in the water. This method proved laborious but successful and Perry's men worked to restore the two brigs to fighting condition.

Battle of Lake Erie - Perry Sails:

Returning several days later, Barclay found that Perry's fleet had cleared the bar. Though neither Lawrence or Niagara was ready for action, he withdrew to await the completion of Detroit. With his two brigs ready for service, Perry received additional seamen from Chauncey including a draft of around fifty men from USS Constitution (44) which was undergoing a refit at Boston. Departing Presque Isle, Perry met with General William Henry Harrison at Sandusky, OH before taking effective control of the lake. From this position, he was able to prevent supplies from reaching Amherstburg.

As a result, Barclay was forced to seek battle in early September. Sailing from his base, he flew his flag from the recently completed Detroit, and was joined by HMS Queen Charlotte (13 guns), HMS Lady Prevost (13), HMS Hunter (10), HMS Little Belt (3), and HMS Chippawa (1).

Perry countered with Lawrence (20), Niagara (20), USS Ariel (4), USS Caledonia (3), USS Scorpion (2), USS Somers (2), USS Porcupine (1), USS Tigress (1), and USS Trippe (1). Commanding from Lawrence, Perry's ships sailed under a blue battle flag emblazoned with Captain James Lawrence's immortal command, "Don't Give Up the Ship" which he uttered during USS Chesapeake's (38) defeat by HMS Shannon (38) in June 1813. Departing Put-in-Bay (OH) harbor at 7:00 AM on September 10, 1813, Perry placed Ariel and Scorpion at the head of his line, followed by Lawrence, Caledonia, and Niagara. The remaining gunboats trailed to the rear.

Battle of Lake Erie - Perry's Plan:

As the principal armament of his brigs was short-range carronades, Perry intended to close on Detroit with Lawrence while Lieutenant Jesse Elliot, commanding Niagara, attacked Queen Charlotte. As the two fleets sighted each other, the wind favored the British. This soon changed as it began to lightly blow from the southeast benefiting Perry. With the Americans slowly closing on his ships, Barclay opened the battle at 11:45 AM with a long-range shot from Detroit. For the next thirty minutes, the two fleets exchanged shots, with the British getting the better of the action.

Battle of Lake Erie - The Fleets Clash:

Finally at 12:15, Perry was in position to open fire with Lawrence's carronades. As his guns began pummeling the British ships, he was surprised to see Niagara slowing rather than moving to engage Queen Charlotte. Elliot's decision not to attack may have been the result of Caledonia shortening sail and blocking his path. Regardless, his delay in bringing Niagara allowed the British to focus their fire on Lawrence. Though Perry's gun crews inflicted heavy damage on the British, they were soon overwhelmed and Lawrence suffered 80% casualties.

With the battle hanging by a thread, Perry ordered a boat lowered and transferred his flag to Niagara. After ordering Elliot to row back and hasten the American gunboats which had fallen behind, Perry sailed the undamaged brig in to the fray. Aboard the British ships, casualties had been heavy with most of the senior officers wounded or killed. Among those hit was Barclay who was wounded in the right arm. As Niagara approached, the British attempted to wear ship (turn their vessels). During this maneuver, Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided and became entangled. Surging through Barclay's line, Perry pounded the helpless ships. Around 3:00, aided by the arriving gunboats, Niagara was able to compel the British ships to surrender.

Battle of Lake Erie - Aftermath:

When the smoke settled, Perry had captured the entire British squadron and secured American control of Lake Erie. Writing to Harrison, Perry reported "We have met the enemy and they are ours." American casualties in the battle were 27 dead and 96 wounded. British losses numbered 41 dead, 93 wounded, and 306 captured. Following the victory, Perry ferried Harrison's Army of the Northwest to Detroit where it began its advance into Canada. This campaign culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. To this day, no conclusive explanation has been given as to why Elliot delayed in entering the battle. This action led to a life-long dispute between Perry and his subordinate.

Selected Sources