“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Throughout American history, the tough got going motivated by phrases born of courage, tragedy, and triumph experienced during wartime. Some of these phrases include “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” “For the want of a horse, a battle was lost,” “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” “Over there,” and “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Of these rallying cries, two of the most famous are “Don’t give up the ship” and “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” What is less known is how these words helped to turn the tide in the Battle of Lake Erie, during the War of 1812.
Under Commodore Robert H. Barclay, a British fleet of six vessels controlled a strategic waterway: Lake Erie. Although the American fleet commanded by Captain Oliver H. Perry boasted nine ships, it was outweighed and outgunned by the British. The two armadas consisted of the following:
The Lawrence (Flagship) The Detroit (Flagship)
The Niagara (Brig) The Hunter (Brig)
The Ariel (Schooner) The Chippewa (Schooner)
The Caledonia (Brig) The Queen Charlotte (Ship)
The Somers (Schooner) The Lady Provost (Brig)
The Porcupine (Schooner) The Little Belt (Sloop)
The Scorpion (Schooner) The Tigress (Schooner)
The Trippe (Sloop)
Under a mild breeze on the morning of September 10, 1813, at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, Captain Perry, from the deck of The Lawrence, launched his attack against the British. Within 15 minutes, The Detroit responded with long-range cannon fire, narrowly missing the American flagship. It would be a mistake that the British would not repeat.
Advancing upon the enemy, Perry noted that The Niagara, under Jesse Elliot’s command, was falling behind the rest of the armada. As the American fleet closed the gap, the Lawrence took direct hits. With most of her crew killed or wounded, Perry made a command decision to surrender his flagship. Before he did so, the tenacious captain snatched his battle flag embroidered with the motto, “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” With the surviving crew, Perry rowed back one mile to where the Niagara was positioned. Because of her slow speed, the Niagara had been spared the fate of the Lawrence. Perry then commissioned the Niagara as his new flagship.
During the ensuing battle, the American forces retaliated for loss of The Lawrence. They seriously damaged the British ships, wounding Commodore Barclay and senior officers aboard other vessels. The British fleet was left in the hands of less experienced junior officers. Under their lead, The Detroit and The Queen Charlotte collided and became dead in the water.
With the capture of the American flagship, the British had assumed that Perry would withdraw from combat; they had not banked on American ingenuity or courage. Seizing the moment that the two enemy ships collided, Perry broke through British lines, positioning his navy between the British vessels to divide and conquer. With all guns blazing, he forced the British to surrender aboard the heavily damaged Lawrence, thus sweetening the victory.
The battle on Lake Erie was further commemorated with the famous quote to General William H. Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” The defeat at Lake Erie caused the British Army and its Native American allies to abandon Fort Malden and retreat up the Thames River to Canada. There, Harrison’s army defeated the British in the battle in which the great Native American Chief Tecumseh was killed. Subsequently, the British entered into peace talks with America, enabling us to secure the Northwest Territory.
After the war, The Niagara served as a station ship in Lake Erie and was later scuttled in the aptly named Misery Bay. On the centennial anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, the Niagara was raised for restoration. Upon inspection, it was noted with surprise that the cradle on which the ship had been built was still attached to the hull. This explained the account for why it was so slow arriving at the scene of battle, and why it was instrumental in turning defeat into victory!
And, in the words of the late legendary broadcaster Paul Harvey, “now you know the rest of the story.”