America loves an underdog story. Historians, scholars, and anyone who’s ever taken an American history class knows what I mean by that. I chalk it up to the success of the Revolutionary War: a bunch of ragtag militia men who didn’t even know which was the business end of a musket when they signed up sent that great war machine, the British Army, packing. Our very own David-and-Goliath story.
So when we did it a second time, and sent the even greater war machine of the British Navy packing, well. There are bound to be some great underdog stories in there.
In my humble history-buff opinion, the War of 1812 was essentially just an extension of the Revolutionary War. History textbooks list off all sorts of reasons as to why the war started – the British capturing American trading vessels, forcing American sailors into slave labor on British naval ships, jeopardizing the fledgling American economy – but really, what it all boils down to is that the British Crown just didn’t recognize the newly formed United States as a separate and sovereign nation.
The War of 1812 was by and large a naval war – while some battles were fought on land, most of the action was on the water. And no water was more hotly contested than the Great Lakes.
With British-controlled Canada to the north and the young American states to the south (Ohio gained its statehood in 1803), and with its access to the Atlantic Ocean through Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Seaway, Lake Erie was a must-have for both parties. As such, it was necessary for the United States to have a young daredevil, their own Admiral Nelson, to command the small fleet of ships in the Great Lakes.
Enter Oliver Hazard Perry, who was aptly named for his profession. He’d been chomping at the bit for several years to have his own command, and when the opportunity arose, he requested that he be put in charge of the fleet in Lake Erie. Seeing as ‘fleet’ was a generous term for the handful of rickety, barely-seaworthy ships the Americans had in Lake Erie, and the established strength of the British there, such a command was seen largely as a suicide mission. So it was that a young Perry was promoted to commodore.
When he arrived in the Great Lakes, it was winter – and a miserable one at that. It may very well have been the 19th century’s own polar vortex. No fighting could happen on the lakes in that winter, and so Perry, his misfit crew, and their few ships sought shelter in a small inlet on a small peninsula in Lake Erie: Presque Isle.
With a combination of “Perry’s Luck” (a character trait that helped Perry out of more than one pinch) and his leadership skills, Perry managed not only to keep his crew throughout the winter, but also to have six – count them, six – full-size warships built between September 1812 and March 1813. By September 1813, Perry and his men were ready to defend the Great Lakes.
On September 10, 1813, Perry’s fleet met the British off the shore of Erie, Pennsylvania. Things didn’t look good for the small American fleet, especially when the command ship – the Lawrence, upon which Perry sailed – was just about to be captured by the British. At this point, it was customary for the captain to civilly surrender his ship to the commander who had taken it. But that wasn’t Perry’s style. He had the crew fire off one more round while he snatched his battle flag from its line, and then all of them jumped in a longboat and rowed as fast as the could to the second-in-command ship, where Perry once again hoisted his battle flag and resumed fighting.
Apparently, the British captain hadn’t paid very close attention to Perry’s battle flag. It read,
“Don’t Give Up the Ship”.
At the end of the day, the scrappy Americans were too much for the British fleet, and Perry was able to force the British commander into surrendering – and returning the captured Lawrence. He then fired off what is perhaps the most famous battle report in history to General (later, President) William Henry Harrison:
“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
The inlet on Presque Isle which served as Perry’s command center for the harsh winter of 1812-1813 was dubbed, appropriately enough, Misery Bay after Perry and his men vacated it. Several ships still lay beneath its surface, having been sunk there to protect them for future use (presumably, someone forgot about that last bit). Today, next to that little bay, there’s a monument to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, flying that famous flag: Don’t Give Up the Ship.
Visiting the Commodore Perry Monument on Presque Isle:
Getting there: The best way to get there is to drive. If you’re following your GPS, plug in the address for Presque Isle State Park: 301 Peninsula Dr, Erie, PA 16505. Once in the park, there is one road that loops all the way around the peninsula. There are several parking lots on Presque Isle, including one right next to the monument. There is also a bike path all the way around the peninsula, so if you’re out for a walk or a bike ride, you can still get there!
Opening hours: Presque Isle State Park is open from dawn til dusk every day.
Admission: There is no admission fee for entering Presque Isle State Park.