James Holmes

“Don’t Give Up the Ship,” 200 Years On

Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, and Americans still struggle with geography.

Today marks the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, the legendary 1813 clash between British and American naval squadrons along the U.S.-Canadian border. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, one of Rhode Island's favorite sons, led "'scratch' crews," to borrow Theodore Roosevelt's term, in a duel against a Commander Robert H. Barclay's Royal Navy flotilla. Both fleets were built on the lakes using local timber along with guns and equipment shipped in from afar. A hastily assembled hodgepodge of seamen, frontiersmen, Indian tribesmen, and, reportedly, one Russian unable to speak English made up the U.S. Navy crews.

On September 10, Perry shepherded his fleet into a column and maneuvered for the weather gage, the upwind position that bestows the advantage in an engagement between sail-driven men-of-war. His vessels closed to gun range. Flagship USS Lawrence, Perry's DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP flag flying from its masthead, took a pounding from heavy British ships, prompting the commodore to transfer his flag to the brig Niagara (a replica of which you occasionally see in Narragansett Bay), return to the fight, and blast Barclay's fleet into submission. "We have met the enemy and they are ours," reported Perry to General William Henry Harrison afterward. Huzzah!

Let's keep our triumphalism in check, though — at least a little bit. Neglect of their strategic geography evidently isn't solely a failing of modern Americans. Historians Margaret and Harold Sprout castigate the "War Hawks" who bayed for war for incredible naïveté about waterborne strategy. They overlooked the oceanic dangers posed by the Royal Navy at a time when Americans relied on imports and exports, and when coastwise shipping was the only convenient method for moving people and goods along the North American east coast and the Gulf coast east of the Mississippi. A blockade could interrupt the external routes that substituted for overland transport until highways and railroads made their debut. This appeared lost on War Hawks. And sure enough, British mariners stifled American commerce, cutting imports and exports by upwards of ninety percent during the war.

Nor did war proponents comprehend the dangers and opportunities inherent in inland naval warfare. The Great Lakes constituted a critical maritime frontier between the United States and Canada during the War of 1812. Had the British won command of north/south-oriented Lake Champlain, they may have been able to march south and split New England off from the rest of the country — much as Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne and his army had sought to do during the War of American Independence. Hawks appeared indifferent to such perils. From an offensive standpoint, if U.S. forces could cut British communications along the St. Lawrence Waterway — say, at Montreal — they could compel British troops west of there to quit the campaign for lack of supplies. The British military position to the northwest would have collapsed had the Americans gained control of Lake Champlain. Few saw this potential.

As it happened, the belligerents ended up facing off on Lake Erie in 1813 and Lake Ontario in 1814. Perry's victory forced the enemy to retire from the frontier near Detroit. Commodore Thomas Macdonough's triumph on Lake Ontario arrested the southward British advance while exposing Lower Canada to American counterattack. Oddly for a war against the world's supreme sea power, writes Samuel Eliot Morison, the strategically decisive naval fights took place in fresh water.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The course of Great Lakes combat supplies a reminder that an inferior power can nonetheless amass superior strength where it counts most. A curious postscript to a curious conflict: after the guns fell silent in 1815, both sides kept sizable squadrons on the lakes. For a time, in fact, a freshwater naval arms race loomed. The United States soon disarmed, tilting the balance toward Great Britain by default. London nonetheless realized that the United States would remain strategically preponderant along the U.S.-Canadian frontier. It was increasingly populous and enjoyed vast resources, whereas Canada was thinly populated and the British Isles were far, far over the horizon. Why go to the trouble and expense of facing down America in its own backyard?

Instead the two sides agreed to demilitarize the border. That's something to celebrate while praising famous men.