Monday, September 10, 2012

The Battle of Lake Erie 199 Years Ago

And nothing but engines of destruction in view…
--Captain Stanton Sholes, 2nd Regiment of Artillery.
battle lake erie
Today is the 199th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, one of the most decisive naval battles in American history. This engagement decided the War of 1812 in the Northwest Territory, because afterwards General William Henry Harrison’s army was able to go over to the offensive against British forces. With the US Navy’s help, Harrison landed his troops on the Canadian shore of Lake Erie and recaptured Detroit and the Michigan Territory. You can find a  ship’s log of the battle at the website of the reconstructed USS Niagara (link).
There are a lot of different angles to this battle that are well worth exploring, and I’ll try to write a few different posts this week to commemorate it. Today we’ll skip ahead in the diary of Stanton Sholes to witness the aftermath of the engagement.
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Looking out towards the battlefield today. A marker buoy is being placed at the spot to commemorate the site—a watery grave for the enlisted men who died and were thrown overboard though there are no wrecks from the battle.
Captain Stanton Sholes, with a company of the 2nd US Artillery then moving by boat from Cleveland, arrived at Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s base on South Bass Island’s Put-in-Bay a couple days after the battle.
Saturday Sept. the 11th—Nothing material took place through the day, except the conjecture on the cannonading that was heard the day before, nearly in the direction of Malden [Amherstburg, Ontario], which was supposed to be American, and British fleets, which the next day was confirmed by…[two letters follow]
Sunday Sept. 12th—This day an express arrived from Lower Sandusky [Fremont, Ohio] bringing the account that Commodore Perry had captured the whole of the British fleet. This [illegible] great joy in the countenance of every person. See a letter Commodore Perry to General Harrison, after the battle:
United States Brig Niagara off the Western Sister [West Sister Island] head of Lake Erie Sept. 10th 1813 4 p.m.
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
Major General Harrison
Sept. 11th 1813.
Dear Sir,
We have a great number of prisoners, which I wish to land. Will you be so good as to order a guard to receive them, and inform me the place: Considerable numbers have been killed and wounded on both sides. From the best information, we have more prisoners than we have men on board our vessels. In great haste yours very truly,
O. H. Perry
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Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, flew his battle flag “Don’t Give Up The Ship”. After he transferred his command to the USS Niagara, the one or two able-bodied survivors struck their colors. The British never got the chance to take the surrender, though.
Several days later, Sholes was ferried over to Put-in-Bay aboard one of Perry’s ships and described what he saw there:
Saturday Sept. 18th—This day fine weather. At six o’clock this morning the artillery corps with several hundreds of the infantry, received orders to embark on board of the boats, & two schooners and one sloop, for the purpose of being transported to base [South Bass] Island, a distance of about six leagues from the Portage River. About 9 o’clock we had embarked on board with all our men of the artillery corps and several hundred infantry, with all our baggage &c we set out the wind being a head we made slow progress. Major [Eleazar Derby] Wood and myself got on board of the Erie [not the Sloop of War USS Erie, probably the Schooner USS Ariel, which Perry often used as his personal vessel] the Commodore’s vessel, and a part of my company. About three o’clock we arrived at Put-in-Bay. By night all the troops that set out in the morning arrived and encamped at this place.
At this place, on harbor I had the pleasure of seeing the remains of the once British fleet. But still there was something shocking to behold. To see two ships (one but a few days of the stocks) cut and mangled to pieces , not a mast or spar standing on board of either ship, except the foremast of the Ship Charlotte, and that a stump. [A severe gale two days after the battle took down the seriously damaged spars aboard the captured British ships before Sholes saw them].
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HMS Detroit had been launched and fitted out only days before the battle. She was so poorly equipped that her gunners had to fire their cannons with blank pistol charges rather than port-fires or cannon locks. Along with her crew of Royal Navy, Provincial Marine sailors and men from the 41st Regiment of Foot and Royal Newfoundland Regiments, the Detroit carried three Indians and the surgeon’s mascot bear as passengers—all of whom survived the battle.
On going on board I found that their hulls was cut beyond description, their decks besmeared with blood, and nothing but engines of destruction in view. The Detroit, not less than two hundred shot cannon had entered her larboard side. The Detroit mounted nineteen long 24, 18, and 12 [heavy 24-, 18- and 12-pound cannons], the Queen Charlotte mounted twenty guns, the schooner Lady Prevost thirteen, the brig Hunter, ten, Little Belt three and the Chippeway one—So that two ships one brig two schooners and one sloop and sixty-six pieces of cannon and not less than one thousand stand of arms [sets of muskets, bayonets, and cartridge boxes with belts] has gloriously fell into our hands by the refined skills and bravery of Commodore Perry who has reflected the highest honor on himself, and country. He may now set down in the chair of honor.
Oliver Hazard Perry was indeed showered with laurels by his countrymen, as well as with prize money from the Department of the Navy, but he didn’t have much time to rest on his laurels. Working together, Perry and General Harrison coordinated an amphibious “island hopping” operation that landed two brigades of United States regular infantry, three divisions of Kentucky (dismounted) volunteers, and two companies of artillery on the Canadian beachhead. Afterwards, Perry joined Harrison as a volunteer aide during the land campaign that defeated Major General Henry Procter. He even participated in the horseback charge that broke the British army. In 1814, while waiting for his new ocean-going frigate USS Java to fit out, Perry fought in the defense of Washington and Baltimore.