The Battle of Lake Erie | History | Smithsonian
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The Battle of Lake Erie

We were floundering in the War of 1812 when young Captain Perry delivered the winning motto, 'Don't Give Up The Ship'

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The War of 1812 was the first war the new United States of America declared and arguably the most senseless. It was ill-conceived, ill-conducted, and the country was ill-prepared for it, yet into this morass would come a brave naval officer burning to be a hero.

The man was Captain Oliver Hazard Perry. He was an ambitious and patriotic 27-year old, obsessed with self perfection and self promotion. He had joined the Navy as a 13-year-old midshipman and had served well already in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. In 1813, he was given command of a fleet of ships that was being built on Lake Erie. His task: break the British stranglehold in the Northwest. It was a formidable job, but he drove the shipbuilders hard and within a few months he had a fleet of nine ships ready to oppose the British commander, Robert Barclay for control of the lake.

Adversity would meet him at every turn. The theater commander, for one, refused to give Perry enough men to man the boats. Another, his two largest gunships, the Lawrence and the Niagra, couldn't get out of the shipyard because the water was too shallow. And finally, the British command's ships were just off shore ready to blow his immobile brigs out of the water.

Luck favored Perry though, and the two finally met in battle. Perry's fleet had the advantage of firepower, while Barclay's fleet had the advantage of range. So Perry sailed his ships toward the enemy at full sail, but the American captain of the Niagra backed off, abandoning Perry on the Lawrence and his smaller ships as well. But after the Lawrence had been pounded to a smoking husk, Perry, carrying a blue flag emblazoned with the motto: ‘Don't Give Up The Ship,' leapt into one of the ship's cutters and was rowed across to the Niagra where he demanded the captain go to battle. The American Navy carried the day.

The War of 1812, it is said, ended in a kind of stalemate. The British, weary of war, never again interfered with the young republic. And the young Perry was feted as a hero, as was his due, but it was his battle slogan, "Don't Give Up the Ship," that would forevermore become a national call to rally.

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