War of 1812: " A Minute and Interesting Account of the Naval Conflict on Lake Erie"

At the start of the War of 1812, the British army and navy took control over Lake Erie and went unchallenged until the early fall of 1813. During this time, American Admiral Oliver H. Perry was tasked with organizing and creating an American fleet to challenge the British presence and reclaim the lake and possibly the Detroit frontier. The Battle of Lake Erie, fought on September 10, 1813, resulted in an American victory. Perry's small fleet attacked Robert H. Barclay’s British fleet, and Perry’s forces claimed supremacy over the lake, causing the British to evacuate Fort Detroit. 

The following account was published in 1814, and this transcription includes the original spelling, grammar, and emphasis italics. (This primary source contains brief descriptions of battle casualties.)


Commodore Perry arrived at Erie in June with five small vessels from Black Rock.—The Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost, were cruising off Long Point to intercept him—he passed them in the nigh unperceived. The Lawrence and Niagara were then on the stocks—every exertion was made to expedite their building and and equipment, and early in August they were ready to sail. But it was necessary to pass the bar at the entrance of the harbor, over which there was but six feet week, and the brigs drew nine. The British fleet appeared off the harbor, for the purpose of preventing our's from going to lake!— The means employed by our officers to take the brigs over the bar, were ingenious and deserve mention. Two large scows fifty feet long, ten feet wide and eight feet deep, were prepared—they were first filled with water and then floated along side one of the vessels in a parallel direction; they were then secured by means of large pieces of hewn timber placed athwart ship, with both ends projecting from the port holes across the scows; the space between these timbers and the boat; being secured by other pieces properly arranged; the water was then bailed from the scows, thereby giving them an astonishing lifting power. It was thus that the bar was passed, before the enemy had taken the proper steps to oppose it. One obstacle was surmounted but the fleet was not in a condition to seek the enemy at Malden. There were not at this time more than half sailors enough to man the fleet. However, a number of Pennsylvania militia having volunteered their services, the commodore made a short cruize off Long Point, more perhaps, for the purpose of exercising his men than in seeking an enemy.

About the last of August commodore Perry left Erie, to co-operate with gen. Harrison in the reduction of Malden. He anchored off the mouth of Sandusky river, and had an interview with gen. Harrison, who furnished him with about seventy volunteers, principally Kentuckians, to serve as marines on board the fleet. Capt. Dobbin, in the Ohio, was ordered to return to Erie for provisions. The Amelia had been left there for want to men to man her. Exclusive of these he had nine sail, mounting in all fifty-four guns. The British fleet at Malden, consisted of six sail, and mounted sixty-six guns.

Com. Perry appeared before Malden, offered battle, reconnoitered the enemy and retired to Put-in-Bay, thirty-five miles distant from his antagonist. Both parties remained a few days inactive; but their repose was that of the lion.

On the morning of the 10th of September, at sunrise, the enemy were discovered bearing down from Malden for the evident purpose of attacking our squadron, then at anchor in Put-in-Bay. Not a moment was to be lost. Our squadron immediately got under way and stood out to meet the British fleet, which at this time had the weather gage. At 10 A.M. the wind shifted from S.W. [southwest] to S.E. [southeast] which brought our squadron to windward. The wind was light, the day beautiful—not a cloud obscured the horizon. The line was formed at 11, and com. Perry caused an elegant flag, which he had privately prepared, to be hoisted at the mast head of the Lawrence; on this flag was painted in characters, legible to the whole fleet, the dying words of the immortal LAWRENCE:—"DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP." Its effect is not to be described—every heart was electrified. The crews cheered—the exhilarating can was passed. Both fleets appeared eager for the conflicts, on the result of which so much depended. At 15 minutes before 12, the Detroit, the head-most ship of the enemy, opened upon the Lawrence, which for ten minutes was obliged to sustain a well directed and heavy fire from the enemy's two large ships, without being able to return it with carronades, at five minutes before twelve the Lawrence opened upon the enemy—the other vessel were ordered to support her, but the wind was at this time too light to enable them to come up. Every brace and bowline of the Lawrence being soon shot away, she became unmanageable, and in this situation sustained the action upwards of two hours, within canister distance, until every gun was rendered useless, and but a small part of her crew left unhurt upon deck.

At half past two the wind increased and enabled the Niagara to come into close action—the gun-boats took a nearer position. Com. Perry left his ship in charge of Lt. Yarnel, and went on board the Niagara. Just as he reached that vessel, the flag of the Lawrence came down; the crisis had arrived. Capt. Elliot at this moment anticipated the wishes of the commodore, by volunteering his services to bring the schooners into close action.

At forty-five minutes past two, the signal was made for close action. the Niagara being very little injured, and her crew fresh, the commodore determined to pass through the enemy's line; he accordingly bore up and passed ahead of the the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Lady Prevost, pouring a terrible raking fire into them from the starboard guns, and on the Chippeway and Little Belt, from the larboard side, at half pistol shot distance. The small vessels at this time having got within grape and canister distance, kept up a well directed and destructive fire. The action now raged with the greatest fury—the Queen Charlotte, having lost her commander and several of her principal officers, in a moment of confusion got foul of the Detroit—in this situation the enemy in their turn had to sustain a tremendous fire without the power of returning it with much effect; the carnage was horrible—the flags of the Detroit, Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost were struck in rapid succession. The brig Hunter and schooner Chippeway, were soon compelled to follow the example. The Little Belt attempted to escape to Malden, but she was pursued by two of the gun-boats and surrendered about three miles distant from the scene of action.

The writer of this account, in company with five others, arrived at the head of Put-in-Bay island on the evening of the 9th, and had a view of the action at a distance of only ten miles. The spectacle was truly grand and awful. The firing was incessant for the space of three hours, and continued at short intervals forty-five minutes longer. In less than one hour after the battle began, most of the vessels of both fleets were enveloped in a cloud of smoak [smoke], which rendered the issue of the action uncertain, till the next morning, when we visited the fleet in the harbor on the opposite side of the island. The reader will easily judge of our solicitude to learn the result. There is no sentiment more painful than suspense, when it is excited by the uncertain issue of an event like this.

If the wind had continued at S.W. [southwest] it was the intention of admiral Barclay to have boarded our squadron; for this purpose he had taken on board his fleet about 200 of the famous 41st regiment; they acted as marines and fought bravely, but nearly two thirds of them were either killed or wounded.

The carnage on board the prizes was prodigious—they must have lost 200 in killed besides wounded. The sides of the Detroit and Queen Charlotte were shattered from bow to stern; there was scarcely room to place one's hand o their larboard sides without touching the impression of a shot—a great many balls, canister and grape, were found lodged in their bulwarks, which were too think to be penetrated by our carronades, unless within pistol shot distance. Their masts were so much shattered that they fell overboard soon after they got into the bay.

The loss of the Americans was severe, particularly on board the Lawrence. When her flag was struck she had but nine men fit for duty remaining on deck. Her sides were completely riddled by the shot from the long guns of the British ship. Her deck, the morning after the conflict, when I first went on board, exhibited a scene that defies description—for it was literally covered with blood, which still adhered to the plank in clots—brains, hair and fragments of bones were still sticking to the rigging and sides. The surgeons were still busy with the wounded—enough! horror appalled my senses.

Among the wounded were several brave fellows, each of whom had lost a leg or an arm—they appeared cheerful and expressed a hope that they had done their duty. Rome and Sparta would have been proud of these heroes.

It would be invidious to particularize instances of individual merit, where every one so nobly performed his part. Of the nine seamen remaining unhurt at the time the Lawrence struck her flag, five were immediately promoted for their unshaken firmness in such a trying situation. The most of these had been in the actions with the Guerriere and Java.

Every officer of the Lawrence, except the commodore and his little brother, a promising youth, 13 years old, were either killed or wounded, a list of whose names are given at the close of the account.

The efficacy of the gun boats was fully proved in this action, and the sterns of all the prizes bear ample testimony of the fact.—They took raking positions and galled the enemy severely. The Lady Prevost lost twelve men before either of the brigs fired on her.—Their fire was quick and precise. Let us hear the enemy. The general order of Adjutant General Baynes, contains the following words: "His [Perry's] numerous gun boats, [four] which had proved the greatest annoyance during the action, were all uninjured."

The undaunted bravery of admiral Barclay entitled him to a better fate; to the loss of the day was superadded grievous and dangerous wounds: he had before lost an arm; it was now his hard fortune to lose the use of the other, by a shot which carried away the blade of the right shoulder; a canister shot made a violent contusion in his hip; his wounds were for some days considered mortal. Every possible attention was paid to his situation.—When com. Perry sailed for Buffalo, he was so far recovered that he took passage on board our fleet. The fleet touched at Erie. The citizens saw the affecting spectacle of Harrison and Perry supporting the wounded British hero, still unable to walk without help, from the beach to their lodgings.

On board of the Detroit, twenty-four hours after her surrender, were found snugly stowed away in the hold, two Indian Chiefs, who had the courage to go on board at Malden, for the purpose of acting as sharp shooters to kill our officers. One had the courage to ascend into the round top and discharge his piece, but the whizzing of shot, splinters, and bits of rigging, soon made the place too warm for him—he descended faster than he went up; at the moment he reached the deck, the fragments of a seaman's head struck his comrade's face, and covered it with blood and brains. He vociferated the savage interjection "quoh!" and both sought safety below.

The British officers had domesticated a bear at Malden. Bruin accompanied his comrades to battle—was on the deck of the Detroit during the engagement, and escaped unhurt.

The killed of both fleets were thrown over board as fast as they fell. Several were washed ashore upon the island and the main during the gales that succeeded the action.

Com. Perry treated the prisoners with humanity and indulgence; several Canadians, having wives at Malden, were permitted to visit their families on parole.

The British were superior in the length and number of their guns, as well as in the number of men. The American fleet was manned with a motly set of beings, Europeans, Africans, Americans from every part of the United States. Full one-fourth were blacks. I saw one Russian, who could not speak a word of English. They were brave—and who could be otherwise under the command of Perry!

The day after the battle, the funeral obsequies of the American and British officers, who had fallen in the action were performed, in an appropriate and affecting manner. An opening on the margin of the bay was selected for the interment of the bodies. The crews of both fleets attended. The weather was fine—the elements seemed to participate in the solemnities of the day, for every breeze was hushed and not a wave ruffled the surface of the water. The procession of boats—the neat appearance of the officers and men—the music—the slow and regular motion of the oars, striking in exact time with the notes of the solemn dirge—the mournful waving of the flags—the sound of the minute guns from the different ships in the harbor—the wild and solitary aspect of the place—the stilness of nature, gave to the scene an air of melancholy grandeur, better felt than described—all acknowledged its influence—all were sensibly affected. What a contrast did it exhibit to the terrible conflict of the preceding day! Then the people of the two squadrons were engaged in the deadly strife of arms. Now they associated like brothers, to pay the last sad tribute of respect to the dead of both nations.

Five officers were interred, two American and three British. Lt. Brooks and midshipman Laub of the Lawrence; capt. Finnis and lt. Stokoe of the Queen Charlotte, and lieut. Garland of the Detroit. The graves are but a few paces from the beach, and the future traveller of either nation, will find no momento whereby he may distinguish the American from the British hero.

The marines of our fleet were highly complimented by the commodore, for their good conduct; although it was the first time the most of them had seen a square rigged vessel, being fresh from Harrison's army. The Kentuckians proved, on this occasion, as has the commodore since, that they can fight on both elements.

Capt. Elliot certainly deserves great praise for his bravery—it is to be regretted, however, that he overacted his part. when he went on board the Scorpion to order her to take a nearer position to the enemy, he ordered captain Almy below and struck several of the men in their faces with his speaking trumpet, by which means he gave them much pain and indelible scars, without accelerating a moment, her motion or her fire. Such freaks of passion and tyranny must be exposed, however painful the task. The Scorpion had been well fought, and neither her captain or crew deserved the treatment they received. After the action, commodore Perry offered captain Almy the command of the Lady Prevost, but he declined the honor, and requested that a court martial might decide on his guilt or innocence.

Capt. Turner, of the Caledonia, signalized himself—he brought his ship into action in an able manner, and contributed, no doubt, his full share towards the success of the day. He is an officer of courage and skill; but the manner in which he treats his men, detracts much from his merit as a naval commandeer. Where humanity is wanting, all other virtues shine with diminished lustre. The men who fought so gloriously on the ever memorable 10th of September—who risked their lives and received honorable wounds—who generously volunteered their services, and whose heroism will be celebrated through distant ages, ought not to be flogged, cruelly flogged like dogs, for trivial, or rather for no offences at all.—Men whose services are greater than the national gratitude or recompense can requite, ought not to languish in sickness—to sink in death without one effort to save them—without the least attention to alleviate their sufferings.

The following pertinent motto has excited unbounded enthusiasm:—"Free trade and Sailor's rights." Let then the "rights" of the "Sailor" be respected, as well by our own officers as by those of the enemy. It is something worse than folly to talk of "Sailor's rights," while our naval officers are permitted to flog, beat, and otherwise maltreat their men. The officers acquire their glory, in most cases, at the expense of the lives and the blood of their men. How great then is the obligation to treat them with kindness and humanity! But it may be objected that a lenient system of discipline will not answer for the naval service—that we must imitate the British in severity. Nothing is more fallacious—I will only cite one case to prove my position: the crew of the Essex are as obedient to command as that of any ship in the navy; yet the gallant captain Porter, who is as humane as he is brave, never inflicts corporal punishment. If the limits of this work permitted, I could give facts, names, and circumstances that would astonish the reader and excite his indignation.

Statement of the force for the British Squadron.

Ship Detroit —19 guns, 1 on pivot and 2 howitzers

Ship Queen Charlotte — 17 guns, 1 on pivot

Schooner Lady Prevost — 13 guns, 1 on pivot

Brig Hunter — 10 guns

Sloop Little Belt — 3 guns.

Schooner Chippeway —1 gun and 2 swivels

Total 63 guns

Statement of force of the United States Squadron.

Brig Lawrence — 20 guns

Brig Niagara — 20 guns

Brig Caledonia — 3 guns

Schooner Ariel — 4 guns (1 burst early in the action)

Schooner Scorpion — 2 guns

Schooner Somers — 2 guns and 2 swivels

Sloop Trippe — 1 gun

Schooner Tigress — 1 gun

Schooner Porcupine — 1 gun

Total 54 guns



Samuel R. Brown, Views on Lake Erie, comprising a minute and interesting account of the conflict on Lake Erie, published in 1814. Accessed through www.archive.org, Pages 1-21

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