The Battle of Lake Erie and the War of 1812
During the early part of the 19th century, there was significant discord between Great Britain and the infant democracy now known as the United States. Great Britain, already entangled in the Napoleonic Wars with France, attempted to utilize America as a pawn against their European adversary in several ways: impeding American commerce with the French; kidnapping American sailors and then forcing them to serve on British naval vessels; and conspiring with Native American tribes to obstruct westward expansion in America. The drumbeat of war was faint, but persistent.
On June 18, 1812, years of minor antagonism progressed to major change when President James Madison signed into law a measure declaring war on Great Britain. At that time, Erie, Pa., was but a quiet, arboreal frontier town consisting of a few major structures and a few hundred people. That would quickly change, however, as this quiet lakeside town immediately found itself humming with activity on the front lines of an international conflict. The drumbeat of war was now clear in Erie.
During the opening strains of the war, Erie resident and sailor Daniel Dobbins was captured twice by the British in Michigan and narrowly escaped execution; when he travelled to Washington, D.C. to brief the Secretary of the Navy about the British Navy’s assertiveness on the Great Lakes, he quickly suggested Presque Isle Bay as the ideal location to construct a prompt rebuttal with a ready supply of hardy oak and a protective peninsula would hasten completion of the fleet. Dobbins returned home with a plan and a budget and immediately began working on a project that would change Erie forever – the construction of a fleet of badly-needed U.S. warships.
The drumbeat of war was now pounding furiously in Erie, matching the vigor with which Erie responded. With Dobbins – and his budget – came jobs. Loggers, carpenters, and shipbuilders came, along with their families, who needed services. Butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers came, along with their families, who needed services. Bankers, builders, and barons came too, advancing Erie from second fiddle – Waterford was more important, in terms of size and regional import – to first chair.
On the morning of September 10, 1813, Dobbins’ fleet sailed into history. Commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry aboard the U.S. Brig Lawrence, this flotilla of five schooners, three brigs, and one sloop would engage Robert Heriot Barclay’s six-vessel task force near Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Initially, fortune favored the British; after the near-decimation of the Lawrence’s sailors, Commodore Perry and remnants of his crew rowed through a nightmarish percussion of gunfire to assume command of the U.S. Brig Niagara.
Immediately following this singular, heroic act, fortune no longer favored the British. Breaking through the enemy lines, the Niagara pounded away Heriot’s ships to the point of futility with sharp volleys of concentrated heavy metal.
The hushed, grey mists of time conceal the true nature of what happened next, but it is supposed that Commodore Perry accepted the British surrender aboard the blood-soaked decks of the Lawrence, a poignant admission of the cost of war for all who were there – both Briton and American. No one will ever really know if it happened in that exact way; what is known, however, is that Commodore Perry’s victory solidified American control of Lake Erie until the end of the War of 1812.
Consequently, this newfound security provided a platform from which the United States would launch efforts to recover Detroit and neutralize Britain’s Native American allies, led by Tecumseh. While the drumbeat of war would continue for another 20 months after the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Perry’s victory signaled a reduction in both the volume and intensity of the conflict.
Two years and seven months to the day after it began, the drummer beating that drum of war finally reached his rest. The treaty of Ghent called for status quo ante bellum, effectively making almost everything the same as it was before the War of 1812 began. What would never be the same were the relations between the United States Canada, and Great Britain.
This year marks the 200-year anniversary of the War of 1812 – the first war America ever declared, and the last war America ever fought against Great Britain. More importantly, 2012 also marks the 200-year anniversary of peaceful accord with Great Britain, and, subsequently, Canada. America’s harmonic relationship with these former foes has shaped the world as we know it today – from World War I through World War II, the Cold War, and today’s ever-evolving War on Terror – just as Daniel Dobbins and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry forever changed the quiet, arboreal, lakeside frontier town of Erie.
Information courtesy of Erie Maritime Museum