by Thomas Birch
Library of Congress
Perry needed to tack towards Barclay, but the wind’s lightness made the process slow. When Perry got into range of Barclay’s long guns at 11:45 a.m., the wind shifted in Perry’s favor, giving him what mariners call the weather gage. The calm lake water allowed his gunboats to maneuver far better than his larger vessels, yet he placed them at the end of his line rather than in more effective positions.
Now came the most amazing part of this whole encounter. After Perry signaled an attack, only the Lawrence, Caledonia, Ariel, and Scorpion moved into battle. The Niagara started toward the Queen Charlotte, but when fired upon, suddenly held back and fired ineffectually at long range. The other four other vessels, the gunboats Somers, Porcupine, Tigress, and Trippe, all stalled due to lack of wind, keeping them out of the battle as well.
Of Barclay’s squadron, only the Detroit and Queen Charlotte had experienced officers in charge as well as a mere sixteen experienced gunners who knew how to fight with cannon on the water. Barclay had made the Detroit his flagship, leaving the Queen Charlotte under the charge of a lieutenant in command ten officers and 110 men, far too few for her to fight effectively. In the opening volleys of the battle, she lost her two senior officers, leaving an inexperienced provincial lieutenant in charge of, beyond ordinary and able seamen, one master’s mate, two extremely young acting midshipmen, two warrant officers, a boatswain, and one professional gunner. Despite the deficiency, she and the Detroit relentlessly pounded at the Lawrence for two hours, blasting the Lawrence’s rigging to pieces and killing eighty of the 119 men on board, although Perry himself remained unscathed. During this time Elliott never ordered the Niagara to assist.
Barclay suffered from a grievous wound to his thigh and another to his remaining arm, forcing him to go below for surgery. During his absence the inexperienced officer in charge of his flagship tried to move her away and instead collided with the Queen Charlotte, leaving the two ships entangled and relatively helpless. Now Perry’s gunboats had an easy target.
When the Lawrence’s maneuverability became impossible, Perry decided to change flagships. He turned command over to a Lieutenant Yarnall and told him to fight on while he and several others boarded a longboat and rowed to the Niagara. Although the Detroit’s crew saw Perry’s departure, it had no way to give chase as its own boat had suffered destruction. Despite his order to the contrary, Lieutenant Yarnall surrendered the Lawrence, but the crew of the trapped Detroit could not board because her prey lay too far away.
At this point Barclay had the advantage. Unlike Perry, he had lost no ships, and if he could get the rest of his force to bear down on the strangely idle Niagara, he had a very good chance of winning. Much controversy surrounds why Elliott refused to sail into battle. One account stated that when Perry boarded the Niagara, Elliott had already left, having rowed to those vessels still lagging behind to get them into the battle. Another version claimed Perry spat some harsh words at Elliott, then ordered him to rally the lingering vessels.
In his own account, Elliot stated that Perry had said to him: “‘I believe the damned gun boats [sic] have lost me the day.’” To this Elliott replied, “I hope not sir; my ship is now in a judicious position; take charge of my battery, and I will bring up the small vessels and save the day!” Elliott further claimed that he had moved the Niagara into her position to allow the Caledonia to pass. Some of his supporters also maintained he had not wanted to break from the line as originally ordered.
In an 1839 book entitled Battle of Lake Erie with Notices of Commodore Elliot’s [sic] Conduct in That Engagement, historian Tristam Burges damned Elliott’s conduct and proved beyond a doubt (in his mind, at least) that Elliott had stayed put due to cowardice and neglect of duty. Perry himself, not wanting to mar the “glory” of his victory with in-fighting, ordered his men to keep silent about the matter. Elliott continued to insist on his own heroism. After several years of hearing this, a disgusted Perry organized a court martial charging Elliott with, among other things, cowardice and neglect of duty. The Navy refused to allow the trial to proceed because it did not want two of its most esteemed officers fighting so publicly.
After taking command of the Niagara, Perry sailed her into battle. Had Barclay not lost his competent officers which resulted in the entanglement of his two ships, he might have stood a chance at defeating the oncoming attack from the Niagara. But the Detroit and Queen Charlotte became free of one another far too late. Facing both the Niagara and the four fresh American gunboats proved too much for his squadron. He surrendered. British writer and Barclay contemporary William James complained bitterly about Perry keeping the Niagara out of action for so long—how unfair! During Barclay’s court martial, many officers who had participated in the battle had this same sentiment.
Two of Barclay’s vessels tried and failed to escape. Perry took his prizes and prisoners back to Put-in-Bay, where he allowed them to rest, attend to their wounded, and write reports to their superiors. Parsons, the only surgeon active on the American side because all other medical personnel had suffered from an unnamed sickness (probably malaria), found himself overwhelmed by the wounded, but he persevered, receiving praises from Perry and a promotion to the rank of surgeon. Barclay’s court martial cleared he and his men of any misconduct and considered them heroes for nearly winning the battle despite having insufficient men and materials.
With the battle won, Perry wrote this famous note the General William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours: Two Ships, two Brigs, one Schooner & one Sloop. Yours, with great respect and esteem. O.H. Perry.” Perry’s famous message also has an infamous mistake: he misidentified the schooner Lady Provost as a brig, meaning he had actually taken one brig and two schooners. He notably made no claim in this nor any other correspondence of a spectacular victory. He won by failing to lose.