On this day (Sept. 10) in 1813, the 28-year-old U.S. Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry decisively defeated British Capt. Robert H. Barclay in the Battle of Lake Erie fought off the island of Put in Bay near the western end of Lake Erie, just north of the mouth of the Sandusky River.
With this dramatic victory, Perry became a national hero, receiving, in 1814, the official thanks of Congress.
Born Aug. 20, 1785, in South Kingston, R.I., Perry became a midshipman in 1799 (age 14) in the U.S. Navy. In the pre-War of 1812 period, the young Perry saw action in the West Indies during the “undeclared war” with France (1798-1800) and in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitan War (1801-1805).
After the outbreak of the War of 1812 on June 18, 1812, the still young, but now experienced Perry was given command of the U.S. naval forces on Lake Erie. Serving as a midshipman under him, during this second war with Great Britain, was his 9-year-younger brother, Matthew Calbraith Perry. The younger Perry would later become famous, in his own right, as the commander of a four-ship U.S. fleet that entered Tokyo Bay on July 8, 1853, thus effectively opening up Japan to world trade.
Upon receiving word of his new command in February 1813, Oliver Perry traveled to Presque Isle, Pa., where he took charge of the construction of a small American fleet, which when completed, could, it was hoped, challenge the British for control of the strategically located Lake Erie.
During the spring and summer, Perry supervised the construction of two brigs, one schooner, and three small gunboats, which when added to the four vessels he obtained from the naval yard at Black Rock (near Buffalo, N.Y.) gave the young commander a flotilla of 10 ships (mounting a total of 55 guns). Perry then sailed his makeshift armada down to Put in Bay and anchored to await the arrival of British Capt. Barclay’s six-vessel fleet (mounting a total of 65 guns). The ensuing engagement lasted a little more than three hours and turned out to be one of the bloodiest naval battles of the entire war.
Although numerically outgunned, the Americans prevailed because of superior seamanship, heavier tonnage, and heavier and more accurate gunnery. Perry was forced, during the heaviest of the fighting, to abandon his flagship Lawrence, but from the Niagara he skillfully bombarded the two strongest British ships into submission, which forced British Capt. Barclay into surrendering to the superior American flotilla.
After seeing to his wounded and dead, the victorious Perry sent, on Sept. 10, a message (received Sept. 12) to army theater commander Gen. William Henry Harrison in which he famously declared, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
Perry’s victory was a timely, much-needed American morale booster coming as it did after American Gen. William Hull’s cowardly Aug. 16, 1812, surrender of Detroit, after the unsuccessful American Niagara campaign in the fall of 1812, and after the failed November 1812 American invasion of Montreal.
This spectacular victory gave the U.S. complete control of Lake Erie, forced the British to evacuate Detroit, postponed the possibility of an immediate British invasion from Canada, made possible Harrison’s much-heralded victory over British Gen. Henry A. Proctor in the Oct. 5, 1813, Battle of the Thames, and forced the British to fall back to a defensive position along the Niagara frontier.
• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” He is available for tutoring, talks and workshops on American history. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.