In the course of the winter of 1812-13, Captain O. H. Perry, then a young master and commander at the head of the flotilla of gunboats, at Newport, Rhode Island, finding no immediate prospect of getting to sea in a sloop of war, volunteered for the lake service. Captain Perry brought on with him a number of officers, and a few men, and Commodore Chauncey gladly availed himself of the presence of an officer of his rank, known spirit, and zeal, to send him on the upper lakes, in command, where he arrived in the course of the winter. From this time, until the navigation opened, Captain Perry was actively employed, under all the embarrassments of his frontier position, in organizing and creating a force, with which he might contend with the enemy for the mastery of those important waters. Two large brigs, to mount twenty guns each, were laid down at Presque Isle,2 and a few gun-vessels, or schooners, were also commenced. The spring passed in procuring guns, shot, and other supplies; and, as circumstances allowed, a draft of men would arrive from below, to aid in equipping the different vessels.
As soon as the squadron of Commodore Chauncey appeared off the mouth of Niagara, Captain Perry, with some of his officers, went to join it, and the former was efficiently employed in superintending the disembarkation of the troops. The fall of Fort George produced that of Fort Erie, when the whole of the Niagara frontier came under the control of the American army.
Captain Perry now repaired to his own command, and with infinite labor, he succeeded in getting the vessels that had so long been detained in the Niagara, by the enemy's batteries, out of the river. This important service was effected by the 12th of June, and preparations were immediately commenced for appearing on the lake. These vessels consisted of the brig Caledonia (a prize), and the schooners Catherine, Ohio, and Amelia; with the sloop Contractor. The Catherine was named the Somers, the Amelia the Tigress, and the Contractor the Trippe. At this time, the enemy had a cruising force under the orders of Captain Finnis, which consisted of the Queen Charlotte, a ship of between three and four hundred tons, and mounting 17 guns; the Lady Prevost, a fine warlike schooner, of about two hundred tons, that mounted 13 guns; the brig Hunter, a vessel a little smaller, of 10 guns, and three or four lighter cruisers. He was also building, at Malden, a ship of near five hundred tons measurement, that was to mount 19 guns, and which was subsequently called the Detroit.
It was near the middle of June before Captain Perry was ready to sail from the outlet of Lake Erie,3 for Presque Isle. There being no intention to engage the enemy, and little dread of meeting him in so short a run, as she came in sight of her port each vessel made the best of her way. The enemy had chosen this moment to look into Presque Isle, and both squadrons were in view from the shore, at the same time, tho, fortunately for the Americans, the English did not get a sight of them until they were too near the land to be intercepted. As the last vessel got in, the enemy hove in sight, in the offing. The two brigs laid down in the winter, under the directions of Commodore Chauncey, had been launched toward the close of May, and were now in a state of forwardness. They were called the Lawrence and the Niagara.
Presque Isle, or, as the place is now called, Erie, was a good and spacious harbor; but it had a bar on which there was less than seven feet of water. This bar, which had hitherto answered the purposes of a fortification, now offered a serious obstruction to getting the brigs on the lake. It lay about half a mile outside, and offered great advantages to the enemy for attacking the Americans while employed in passing it. So sensible was Captain Perry of this disadvantage, that he adopted the utmost secrecy in order to conceal his intentions, for it was known that the enemy had spies closely watching his movements. . . .
The American squadron now consisted of the Lawrence, 20, Captain Perry; Niagara, 20, Captain Elliott; Caledonia, 3, Mr. McGrath, a purser; Ariel, 4, Lieutenant Packett; Trippe, 1, Lieutenant Smith; Tigress, 1, Lieutenant Conklin; Somers, 2, Mr. Alney; Scorpion, 2, Mr. Champlin; Ohio, 1, Mr. Dobbins; and Porcupine, 1, Mr. Senatt. On the 18th of August this force sailed from Erie, and off Sandusky, a few days later, it chased, and was near capturing, one of the enemy's schooners. The squadron cruised for several days, near the entrance of the strait, when Captain Perry was taken ill with the fever peculiar to these waters, and shortly after the vessels went into Put-in Bay, a harbor, among some islands that lay at no great distance. . . .
While in port, on this occasion, Captain Perry contemplated an attack on the enemy's vessels, by means of boats; and orders were issued accordingly, to drill the people with muffled oars. The squadron was still lying at Put-in Bay on the morning of the 10th of September, when, at daylight, the enemy's ships were discovered at the northwest from the mast-head of the Lawrence. A signal was immediately made for all the vessels to get under way. . . .
The English vessels presented a very gallant array, and their appearance was beautiful and imposing. Their line was compact, with the heads of the vessels still to the southward and westward; their ensigns were just opening to the air; their vessels were freshly painted, and their canvass was new and perfect. The American line was more straggling. The order of battle required them to form within half a cable's length of each other, but the schooners astern could not close with the vessels ahead, which sailed faster, and had more light canvass, until some considerable time had elapsed.
A few minutes before twelve, the Detroit threw a twenty-four-pound shot at the Lawrence, then on her weather quarter, distant between one and two miles. Captain Perry now passed an order by trumpet, through the vessels astern, for the line to close to the prescribed order; and soon after the Scorpion was hailed, and directed to begin with her long gun. At this moment, the American vessels in line were edging down upon the English, those in front being necessarily nearer to the enemy than those more astern, with the exception of the Ariel and Scorpion, which two schooners had been ordered to keep well to windward of the Lawrence. As the Detroit had an armament of long guns, Captain Barclay manifested his judgment in commencing the action in this manner; and in a short time, the firing between that ship, the Lawrence, and the two schooners at the head of the American line, got to be very animated.
The Lawrence now showed a signal for the squadron to close, each vessel in her station, as previously designated. A few minutes later the vessels astern began to fire, and the action became general but distant. The Lawrence, however, appeared to be the principal aim of the enemy, and before the firing had lasted any material time, the Detroit, Hunter, and Queen Charlotte were directing most of their efforts against her. The American brig endeavored to close, and did succeed in getting within reach of canister, tho not without suffering materially, as she fanned down upon the enemy. At this time, the support of the two schooners ahead, which were well commanded and fought, was of the greatest moment to her; for the vessels astern, tho in the line, could be of little use in diverting, the fire, on account of their positions and the distance. After the firing had lasted some time, the Niagara hailed the Caledonia, and directed the latter to make room for the former to pass ahead. Mr. Turner put his helm up in the most dashing manner, and continued to near the enemy, until he was closer to his line, perhaps, than the commanding vessel; keeping up as warm a fire as his small armament would allow. The Niagara now became the vessel next astern of the Lawrence. . . .
Captain Perry, finding himself in a vessel that had been rendered nearly useless by the injuries she had received, and which was dropping out of the combat, got into his boat, and pulled after the Niagara, on board of which vessel he arrived at about half-past 2. Soon after, the colors of the Lawrence were hauled down, that vessel being literally a wreck . . . .
When the enemy saw the colors of the Lawrence come down, he confidently believed that he had gained the day. His men appeared over the bulwarks of the different vessels and gave three cheers. For a few minutes, indeed, there appears to have been, as if by common consent, nearly a general cessation in the firing, during which both parties were preparing for a desperate and final effort. The wind had freshened, and the position of the Niagara, which brig was now abeam of the leading English vessel, was commanding; while the gun-vessels astern, in consequence of the increasing breeze, were enabled to close very fast.
At 45 minutes past 2, or when time had been given to the gun-vessels to receive the order mentioned, Captain Perry showed the signal from the Niagara, for close action, and immediately bore up; under his foresail, topsails, and topgallantsail. As the American vessels hoisted their answering flags, this order was received with three cheers, and it was obeyed with alacrity and spirit. The enemy had attempted to wear round, to get fresh broadsides to bear, in doing which his line got into confusion, and the two ships for a short time were foul of each other, while the Lady Prevost had so far shifted her berth as to be both to the westward and to the leeward of the Detroit.
At this critical moment, the Niagara came steadily down, within half pistol-shot of the enemy, standing between the Chippewa and Lady Prevost, on one side, and the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Hunter, on the other. In passing, she poured in her broadsides, starboard and larboard, ranged ahead of the ships, luffed athwart their bows, and continued delivering a close and deadly fire. The shrieks from the Detroit proclaimed that the tide of battle had turned. At the same moment, the gun-vessels and Caledonia were throwing in close discharges of grape and canister astern. A conflict so fearfully close, and so deadly, was necessarily short. In fifteen or twenty minutes after the Niagara bore up, a hail was passed among the small vessels, to say that the enemy had struck, and an officer of the Queen Charlotte appeared on the taffrail of that ship, waving a white handkerchief, bent to a boarding-pike. . . .
In this decisive action, so far as their people were concerned, the two squadrons suffered in nearly an equal degree, the manner in which the Lawrence was cut up being almost without an example in naval warfare. It is understood that when Captain Perry left her she had but one gun on her starboard side, or that on which she was engaged, which could be used, and that gallant officer is said to have aided in firing it in person, the last time it was discharged. Of her crew, 22 were killed and 61 were wounded, most of the latter severely. When Captain Perry left her, taking with him his own brother and six of his people, there remained on board but 14 sound men. The Niagara had 2 killed, and 25 wounded, or about one-fourth of all at quarters. This was the official report; but, according to the statement of her surgeon, her loss was 5 killed and 27 wounded. The other vessels suffered relatively less. . . .
It is not easy to make a just comparison between the forces of the hostile squadrons on this occasion. In certain situations the Americans would have been materially superior, while in others the enemy might possess the advantage in perhaps an equal degree. In the circumstances under which the action was actually fought, the peculiar advantages and disadvantages were nearly equalized, the lightness of the wind preventing either of the two largest of the American vessels from profiting by its peculiar mode of efficiency, until quite near the close of the engagement, and particularly favoring the armament of the Detroit; while the smoothness of the water rendered the light vessels of the Americans very destructive as soon as they could be got within a proper range. The Detroit has been represented, on good authority, to have been both a heavier and stronger ship than either of the American brigs, and the Queen Charlotte proved to be a much finer vessel than had been expected; while the Lady Prevost was found to be a large, warlike schooner. It was, perhaps, unfortunate for the enemy that the armaments of the two last were not available under the circumstances which rendered the Detroit so efficient, as it destroyed the unity of his efforts. In short, the battle, for near half its duration, appears to have been fought, so far as efficiency was concerned, by the long guns of the two squadrons. This was particularly favorable to the Detroit and to the American gun-vessels; while the latter fought under the advantages of smooth water, and the disadvantages of having no quarters. The sides of the Detroit, which were unusually stout, were filled with shot that did not penetrate. . . .
For his conduct in this battle, Captain Perry received a gold medal from Congress. Captain Elliott also received a gold medal. Rewards were bestowed on the officers and men generally, and the nation has long considered this action one of its proudest achievements on the water.
1 From Cooper's "History of the Navy of the United States"
2 Now Erie, Pa.
3 That is, from where now stands the city of Buffalo.