Yesterday's Magazette

14 – War Of 1812

The War Of 1812

By Linda Masek

One of my favorite vacation trips as a child was to the Cedar Point region of Lake Erie Islands. There was a gorgeous hotel, The Breakers, pristine beaches, mini-golf and pony rides. The area was also noted for something else: it was the backdrop for the greatest naval battle fought by the fledgling United States against Great Britain in the War of 1812.

Called “the Second American Revolution,” and the “Little Known War,” the War of 1812 was a three year conflict between the United States and Great Britain It involved many of the Native American tribes on what was then the Western Frontier (Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan). Lake Erie was the site of the major naval battle when Oliver Hazard Perry, the American Commodore, defeated the British. Perry’s monument at Putin-Bay marks the spot of that sea battle.

I had studied Ohio History in school and I knew there were three main reasons President James Madison petitioned Congress to declare war against Great Britain in June of  1812.

YM:1812:Masek

The British had been involved in an ongoing conflict with Napoleon Bonaparte and the French that culminated in Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Prior to this, the British resorted to blockading the French and cutting off access to American trade. Far more serious was the impressment of American seaman into the British Royal Navy which was sorely in need of sailors to man the 600 ships involved. When the British boarded American ships and literally kidnapped sailors off the vessels and forced them to sea in the British Navy, the cry of outrage from the Americans could be heard across the Atlantic Ocean.

Neither side was adequately prepared for war. Madison had assumed support of the Canadians which was not forthcoming. The British were involved in the Napoleonic Wars in France and their navy was attempting to hold Napoleon Bonaparte in check. Indeed, the British viewed the American conflict, called the War of 1812, as a “sideshow” to the main event which was taking place in Europe.

The war began on June 18, 1812; the Americans lost ground to the British immediately. In September of 1813, the situation was reversed with the Battle of Lake Erie, bringing Northern Ohio, specifically the Lake Erie Islands directly into the conflict.

The Great Lakes was a “British” lake prior to this battle with the British warships retaining control of the waterway. Twenty-seven year old Oliver Hazard Perry changed this when he took control of the American fleet on Lake Erie.

As a student, I was amazed at the career of the young (fourteen years of age) Oliver Hazard Perry who was born in Wakefield, Rhode Island on August 23, 1785 of a seafaring family. Embarking on a naval career, the ambitious young man was appointed commander by Commodore Isaac Chauncey of the American fleet on the Great Lakes. Perry arrived at Erie, Pennsylvania, to see to the outfitting of the warships and the training of the crew, many of whom had little or no seagoing experience. Indeed, lack of experienced seamen was a constant problem in manning Perry’s fleet. Fortunately, the young commodore received additional reinforcements since the British squadron, under Robert Heriot Barclay, was fast approaching. Perry was on the flagship Lawrence when the British were sighted on September 10, 1813. In spite of the fact that twenty percent of his crew were ill with “lake fever,” Commodore Perry sailed to meet the British fleet.

The two squadrons engaged with the Lawrence absorbing the brunt of the British cannon fire, as one broadside after another literally tore Perry’s flagship to pieces. The young man saw his manpower decimated as the decks “ran red with blood.” His next action seemed extreme but very effective. The resourceful Perry, battle flag in hand, jumped into a small cutter and was rowed to the Niagara, also under his command. From this second vessel, Commodore Perry renewed his attack on the British.

The British were having their own problems; besides suffering a great loss of the crew, two of their ships, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte, collided, giving Perry the advantage he needed. The Niagara unleashed massive cannon fire, deadly at short range. It decimated the British ships. First the Queen Charlotte and then the rest of the British fleet surrendered to the Americans.

Students everywhere learned Commodore Perry’s scribbled message of victory which was carried from his flagship, anchored at the point off of West Sister Island, to 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.” A similar missive was also sent to Secretary of the Navy William Jones.

The importance of the engagement between the British and the Americans cannot be over estimated. The British supply lines across Lake Erie to Canada were cut, destroying their contact with their staunchest ally for the remainder of the war. General William Henry Harrison now had a decided advantage with the American army on land and defeated the British at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, where the Indian leader Tecumseh was killed. Because of this, the Native Americans were driven out of the Northwest Territory, thus making it safe for settlement by the American settlers. Finally, Perry’s victory showed that the fledgling United States was a power to be reckoned with as the British were ultimately defeated in the War of 1812.

Vol. 40 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette – 2013

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