Good morning, it’s Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, the anniversary of one of the most memorable events in U.S. naval history. On this date in 1813, Oliver H. Perry, commanding a small American squadron, faced a formidable Royal Navy force of six warships on Lake Erie led by Cmdr. Robert Barclay.
The battle would determine control of the Great Lakes, as Oliver Perry knew. On the eve of the battle he told his superiors, “If a victory is to be gained, I will gain it.” There was, and he did, as we’ll see in a moment.
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Although he’s known as “Commodore Perry” and he was promoted to captain in the successful aftermath, Oliver Perry’s official rank on the eve of the Battle of Lake Erie was “master commandant.” Today he’d be called “Commander Perry.” The term “commodore” was akin to the distinction of a “flag ship,” meaning that he was the senior officer among the American warship personnel on the scene.
But the important thing isn’t what Perry was called, it’s what he said, and did, 207 years ago today that placed him among the immortals in U.S. military history. Earlier that year, a young U.S. Navy captain named James Lawrence sailed his frigate, the USS Chesapeake, out of Boston Harbor where she was attacked by the British frigate HMS Shannon. Wounded by small arms fire and his ship severely damaged, Capt. Lawrence beseeched his men as they carried him below decks, “Don’t give up the ship!”
The crew members fought valiantly, but were overwhelmed. The ship was taken and Lawrence died of his wounds three days later. But his exhortation became a rallying cry among American seamen. Cmdr. Perry had the words emblazoned on a blue battle flag he flew on the USS Lawrence, named after the fallen hero. In the Battle of Lake Erie, that ship was also rendered inoperable by British guns. Perry was forced to give up his ship, but only temporarily. In a brave gambit, he ferried himself via rowboat to another American ship, the USS Niagara. From her decks, Perry rallied a flotilla of American gunboats into the fray, routing the enemy and ultimately capturing the entire British squadron.
Although the victory was hardly foreordained, it was made possible by preparation. Earlier that year, Perry had been put in charge of assembling the U.S. fleet then being built on the shores of Lake Erie. What ensued that spring and summer was nothing less than an arms race between Perry and his British counterpart, Barclay. Working feverishly through the summer, Perry and his boatbuilders won that competition. On Sept. 10, 1813, the Royal Navy sent forth a fleet six vessels. But the Americans had nine, an advantage that helped turn the tide.
To this day, Perry is remembered for the terse and eloquent words he used to announce his victory. In a note to Gen. William Henry Harrison, a future U.S. president, Perry wrote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
It’s a great line, far more memorable than it would have been had he chosen to emphasize another, less glamorous reason for his success, which was that hard work and good planning pay off.
Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics