kunc-header-1440x90.png
Our Story Happens Here
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
NPR News

Remembering A 'Brave,' 'Lucky' Hero In The War Of 1812

The  U.S. Brig Niagara is a replica of the ship Oliver Hazard Perry sailed to victory. The Niagara carries four carronades, or short-range cannons. The original ship was outfitted with 18 carronades that could shoot a 32-pound ball about half a mile.
The U.S. Brig Niagara is a replica of the ship Oliver Hazard Perry sailed to victory. The Niagara carries four carronades, or short-range cannons. The original ship was outfitted with 18 carronades that could shoot a 32-pound ball about half a mile.

Two hundred years ago today, a young U.S. naval captain named Oliver Hazard Perry penned the words, "We have met the enemy and they are ours ..."

Perry's remarkable victory over the British changed the course of the War of 1812, and a full-scale re-enactment — the largest sailing re-enactment ever attempted in the U.S. — recently commemorated the anniversary of the win in the Battle of Lake Erie.

A Bit Of History

America had brashly declared war in 1812 to stop the British from kidnapping U.S. sailors to man the Royal Navy and to settle trade issues. A year later, the war against the world's leading superpower wasn't going well.

It was from Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie's South Bass Island that Perry sailed out to meet the British on Sept. 10, 1813.

Around 2,000 pleasure craft surrounded the tall ships at the re-enactment of the Battle of Lake Erie on Labor Day weekend. The U.S. Brig Niagara can be seen in the far back.
/ Courtesy of Sol St. Clair
Around 2,000 pleasure craft surrounded the tall ships at the re-enactment of the Battle of Lake Erie on Labor Day weekend. The U.S. Brig Niagara can be seen in the far back.

Historian Walter Rybka — one of the planners of the re-enactment — says the 28-year-old Perry threw himself into battle. "Perry was, first off, phenomenally brave and determined, but he was damn lucky," Rybka says.

Somehow Perry survived two hours of hellacious fire that killed or maimed 75 percent of the crew on his ship, the Lawrence.

"His last gun had been knocked out of action on the starboard side, his rigging was cut to pieces, he could not maneuver, he could no longer fight. There was no point in maintaining an action because his men were just going to get slaughtered the rest of the way," Rybka says. "Right at the moment the wind fills in ..."

And that's when Perry hopped into his longboat and under heavy fire, rowed to the Niagara, a Great Lakes warship. Rybka says Perry brought along his battle flag, emblazoned with the words, "Don't Give Up The Ship."

"But the only way to do that was to give up the ship and go to the next one," Rybka says. "The real motto was, 'Don't Give Up.' "

A Turning Point

Fifteen tall ships sail out to the spot where the struggle took place 200 years ago. From the reconstructed Niagara, Capt. Wesley Heerssen hails the fleet.

"All tall ships in this battle re-enactment please stand by for roll call," Heerssen says.

And the battle begins.

Walter Rybka is senior captain of the Niagara and author of <em>The Lake Erie Campaign of 1813: I Shall Fight Them This Day.</em> He has been with the U.S. Brig Niagara since 1991 and is also director of the Erie Maritime Museum in Erie, Pa.
/ Courtesy of Sol St. Clair
Walter Rybka is senior captain of the Niagara and author of <em>The Lake Erie Campaign of 1813: I Shall Fight Them This Day.</em> He has been with the U.S. Brig Niagara since 1991 and is also director of the Erie Maritime Museum in Erie, Pa.

Six ships make up the British line. The American fleet has nine. The Coast Guard has its hands full clearing a path for the tall ships amid a swarm of more than 2,000 speedboats and pleasure craft. The sea of boats has churned the lake, so in this version of the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry, portrayed by an actor sporting enormous sideburns, is motored from his ship onto the Niagara.

Then Heerssen hails the enemy fleet for the final maneuver of the re-enactment.

"To the British fleet we're going to pass two whistles, starboard to starboard passage," he says.

The Niagara cuts nimbly across the British line and fires its last set of broadsides. And as smoke fills the air, for a second, despite all the distractions, one of America's most famous sea battles vividly comes to life.

And suddenly, it's over.

The smoke clears, and it just another day on the lake, perfect conditions for sailing.

The battle was a turning point in the War of 1812. America had lost Detroit and much of the Northwest Territory. Rybka says if Perry had given up the ship, the Canadian border would have been much farther south.

"I think Michigan probably would have been lost to us and maybe Wisconsin as well," Rybka says.

Heerssen, as captain of the Niagara, has imagined this day for more than a decade. He says the re-enactment is a tribute to America's fighting spirit.

A wreath is being laid Tuesday on the site of Perry's victory. A buoy serves as a permanent marker in the peaceful waters of western Lake Erie.

Copyright 2020 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Related Content
  • Sailing ships re-enacted the victory over the British 200 ago during the War of 1812. The Port Clinton News Herald says the 2013 battle turned out the same, but with better technology: people captured battle scenes on cell phones.
  • Francis Scott Key wrote the words to the ballad after witnessing the Battle for Baltimore in 1814. According to author Steve Vogel, after it was published, Key's composition took the country by storm. But it didn't become the national anthem until more than 100 years later.
  • Author Robert Sullivan retraces the steps of George Washington and his troops in his new book, My American Revolution: Crossing the Delaware and I-78. It recounts the 30-mile trek north from the Delaware River.
  • The first shots of the Civil War were fired 150 years ago Tuesday at Fort Sumter in South Carolina. The state was the first to secede from the Union; now, it's treading carefully as it commemorates a war that left more than 600,000 soldiers dead.