As the second summer of the War of 1812 was drawing to a close, the sea war with Britain that had enjoyed such notable success in its early months, had shifted from the open ocean to the Great Lakes. There were two reasons for this. Stunning victories by USS Constitution over HMS Guerriere, the United States over the Macedonian and Constitution against Java had shocked the British.
The Admiralty’s response to the American frigate victories was to use overwhelming numbers to control the seas. Orders were issued forbidding any more single ship engagements, and the British established blockade squadrons off the coast all the way to New Orleans. The British blockade on America had tightened, with 100 ships on station off the coast.
And, while it was possible for an American ship to run the blockade, especially during foul weather, naval supplies were being diverted to a different theater of war – the Great Lakes.
With the declaration of war, the British had quickly seized the 58-man garrison at Fort Mackinac, on an island guarding the straights between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Fort Dearborn – present-day Chicago – was ordered evacuated, leading to a massacre of most of the evacuees by a force led by Tecumseh, and Detroit was surrendered to the British.
In less than two months, the British had seized control of the vast interior of the American continent. But to maintain that control, the British had to also control the vast interior waterways which were the only highway available by which to supply their far-flung forces.
While the British and American forces had settled into an uneasy standoff on Lake Ontario, forces were building for a confrontation farther west.
Oliver Hazard Perry had successfully assembled a small fleet of nine vessels at the shipyard at Presque Isle Pennsylvania. But sailors to man those ships were in short supply.
He wrote Commodore Isaac Chauncey at the naval base at Sackets Harbor, pleading for more men. When seventy men sent by Chauncey did arrive, Perry complained that they were “a motley set of Negroes, soldiers and boys.”
Chauncey made his position clear – “I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or the cut or trimming of the coat, can affect a man’s qualifications or usefulness. I have nearly fifty blacks on board of this ship, and many of them are among my best men.”
For those of us schooled on the fact that President Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, it may come as a surprise. But free African-Americans were regularly members of the armed forces, particularly the Navy, during the War of 1812.
In any case, Perry could not refuse the men he had been sent. He was going to need them.
Perry put out onto Lake Erie in his flagship, the Lawrence, named in honor of his dead friend, Captain James Lawrence, who had been mortally wounded when his ship, the Chesapeake, was captured by HMS Shannon in June. In battle, Perry intended to fly a navy blue and white battle pennant proclaiming Lawrence’s final command – “Don’t Give Up The Ship!”
Sailing his small fleet to within a few miles of the British fort at Amherstburg, he anchored at Put In Bay Ohio. Word of the nearby American fleet, caused the British naval commander, Robert Barclay, to seek them out. On September 10, 1813, they engaged.
The British concentrated their fire on the Lawrence and within two hours, the flagship was no longer able to fight, with 80% of her crew either killed or wounded, and every cannon on her engaged side destroyed.
Unwilling to surrender, Perry lowered his battle pennant but left the American flag flying, got in a rowboat with eight crew members, and had himself rowed to the Niagara, his next largest ship. Cannon balls fell all around as they crossed the half mile of open water.
Taking command of Niagara, Perry sailed her right into the middle of the British fleet, where he could fire broadsides at the enemy from both sides of his vessel. The smaller vessels in Perry’s fleet were also able to engage, as a more favorable wind came up. Within half an hour, the British fleet surrendered.
As his sailors began repairing their damaged ships and tending the wounded from both sides, Perry jotted a note on the back of an old envelope, to General William Henry Harrison. “Dear General,” it read; “We have met the enemy, and he is ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry.”
A fleet of nine small American ships had defeated a fleet of six British ships, on a freshwater lake about a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. But no British fleet, no matter the size, had ever been surrendered to the enemy before.
The British position on the Western end of Lake Erie could no longer be supplied, and was untenable. General Harrison did not hesitate. Immediately after receiving Perry’s note, Harrison began to move on Detroit. It was abandoned by the British and they began a retreat up the Thames River, along with their Indian allies, led by Tecumseh. On October 5, Tecumseh convinced the retreating British forces to make a stand along the river, near Moraviantown.
Harrison’s forces broke the British lines, taking more than 600 prisoners, and killing Tecumseh. With Tecumseh dead, and Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the Red Stick rebellion in the south, the unified Indian forces dissolved.
Perry’s daring decision to transfer ship in the middle of a raging battle is a scene so famous in naval history, it was immortalized in a painting which hangs at the head of the east stairway in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. Sitting at one of the oars is an African-American.
As Commodore Chauncey had already observed – the color of a man’s skin has no bearing when all hands are needed.