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A somewhat romanticized 1911 painting depicts Oliver Hazard Perry transferring his flag from the badly damaged Lawrence to Niagara at the height of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. (Library of Congress)

The lookout aboard the brig USS Lawrence peered into the distance, looking for signs of the enemy in the pale light of dawn. He was stationed at the masthead, and from his high perch could see the great blue expanse of Lake Erie stretching east to the horizon. It was the morning of Sept. 10, 1813, and Lawrence was the flagship of a nine-vessel U.S. Navy squadron anchored at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. The Americans had been playing a deadly game of hide and seek with their British enemy, and most were eager for action.

‘The real miracle of the American victory on that remote body of water was that just months earlier the ships of Perry’s flotilla had been nothing more than standing trees’

But where was the Royal Navy squadron? The lookout thought he saw a shape in the distance. “Sail, ho!” he cried. “Where away?” asked the officer of the deck. “Off Rattlesnake Island!” came the swift reply. Before the officer could ask for details, the lookout again shouted, “Sail, ho! Sail, ho! Six sail in sight, sir!” There was no doubt—it was the British squadron commanded by Captain Robert Heriot Barclay, a veteran of Trafalgar.

The American ships were an impressive sight as they emerged north past Rattlesnake Island and moved into Lake Erie waters, now gilded by a rising sun. The tiny flotilla—led by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, already a seasoned mariner at 28—would that day celebrate one of the few clear-cut American triumphs of the War of 1812. But while the U.S. Navy’s victory in what came to be known as the Battle of Lake Erie resulted from Perry’s leadership and his sailors’ skills, it would not have been possible without the efforts of men more accustomed to working with broadaxes and mallets than muskets and cannon.

The real miracle of the American victory on that remote body of water was that just months earlier the ships of Perry’s flotilla had been nothing more than standing trees. The U.S. fleet had literally been fashioned directly from the forest.

The United States went to war with Britain in 1812 for several reasons, among them London’s increasingly restrictive trade policies and its support of Indian attacks on American settlers on the nation’s Western frontiers. But it was Britain’s disregard for U.S. sovereignty at sea that most aroused American indignation and patriotic fury. Engaged in a titanic struggle with Napoléon Bonaparte’s France and in need of both ships and sailors, London had begun seizing U.S. vessels and “impressing”—involuntarily drafting—American seamen into Royal Navy service.

While American President James Madison and his cabinet sought to resist what they saw as gross British arrogance, they also saw the conflict as an opportunity. British Canada seemed vulnerable, a rich prize ripe for the plucking. Once war was declared, it seemed only a matter of time before Canada—or at least a major portion of it—would be in American hands.

But U.S. invasion attempts proved embarrassing fiascos. There was too much reliance on ill-disciplined militia, and too many of the officers were old, having learned their trade in the Revolution. Others were simply incompetent. Perhaps the bitterest blow came on Aug. 16, 1812, when a befuddled Brig. Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit to an inferior force of Redcoats and Indians under Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock.

The tables were now turned. Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) was safe from American invasion, and Detroit could serve as a base of operations against American forts and supply depots. Even more important, the British gained control of Lake Erie. With the Great Lakes region still mostly wilderness, and the few roads primitive, ships were the most efficient mode of travel. Thus the country that controlled shipping on the lakes controlled the entire area. British naval forces on Lake Erie were modest, initially comprising just four vessels—one of which, the U.S. brig Adams, had been captured in Detroit. But in September 1812 the Americans had not one serviceable ship on the lake. Something had to be done, quickly.

Soon after the fall of Detroit, one of the captured Americans slipped away from British custody and ultimately made his way to Washington. The man was Daniel Dobbins, a merchant captain with years of experience on Lake Erie, and during a cabinet meeting, he gave President Madison a full account of the situation in the Great Lakes. He strongly advocated the creation of a U.S. naval force on the lakes.

Madison realized the urgency of the situation and agreed that American warships must be constructed on Lake Erie. Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory and commander of the Army of the Northwest, was ready to move against the resurgent British enemy. American control of Lake Erie was a key ingredient in Harrison’s plan to retake Detroit and push on into Upper Canada.

Once the president agreed to the shipbuilding plan, Dobbins met with Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton to work out the details. Hamilton accepted Dobbins’ arguments that Presque Isle (modern-day Erie, Pa.) was the best place to build ships on the lake and ordered the captain to proceed there and immediately begin construction of four gunboats. Dobbins was allocated a budget “not exceeding $2,000” and appointed a sailing master in the U.S. Navy.

Presque Isle was a recent settlement, a cluster of some 50 houses and log cabins hacked from the wilderness. Dobbins nevertheless believed the little island of rough civilization on the edge of a seemingly endless forest was the right place to establish a shipyard, for in addition to an ample supply of timber, it had both a sawmill and a blacksmith’s shop. More important was its strategic setting. The Presque Isle peninsula juts out from shore, flanking an 8-square-mile bay perfect for sheltering a fleet and offering the only good natural harbor on 241-mile-long Lake Erie. Blocking the bay entrance was a sandbar, stretching about a mile from the tip of the peninsula to the lakeshore. A 9-foot-deep channel snaked though this bar, and only a skilled pilot could navigate its tortuous curves. Effectively barred from entering, the British warships could not interrupt the building project.

Work on the Lake Erie fleet began in late September 1812. Tradition holds that Dobbins himself felled the first tree, a sturdy black oak. He hired local loggers, and the forests soon rang with the sounds of blades biting deep into tree trunks. Skilled carpenters came from such far-flung places as New York, Philadelphia and Newport, R.I., calling for long and arduous treks though the wilderness. The men hired in Pennsylvania, for example, took five weeks to cover the 400 miles between the Quaker City and Presque Isle—a journey made worse by an incompetent guide. Estimates vary, but at the height of the shipbuilding effort some 300 workers labored in the two yards at Presque Isle—one at the mouth of Cascade Creek and the other at Lees Run. Two 110-foot, 493-ton brigs were built at the former, where the water was deeper, while workers at the latter constructed smaller vessels. Another shipyard—on Scajaquada Creek at Black Rock, some 93 miles northeast of Presque Isle on the Niagara River—was less useful, as it lay well within range of British guns just across the river at Fort Niagara.

Wooden ship construction was not a casual undertaking, and care had to be taken in choosing trees from among Presque Isle’s abundant oak and ash. Shipwrights were particularly interested in finding curved or gnarled trees, whose bent timber was ideal for such important curved structural pieces as catheads (the shafts from which anchors were suspended) and knees (used to support deck beams).

Horse or ox teams dragged the cut timber to the construction sites. An oak that had been standing in the forest in the morning might be part of a ship’s hull by afternoon, but therein lay a problem: The shipwrights had no time to properly dry, or “season,” the timber, so the ships were made largely of green wood. And the need to produce vessels quickly in a remote area caused other problems as well: Treenails—wooden pegs—initially substituted for hard-to-obtain iron spikes and nails. And seams along the ships’ hull planking had to be caulked in lead, for want of proper oakum.

Dobbins hired master shipwright Ebenezer Crosby of New York to supervise the laying-down process. Crosby was replaced in February 1813 by Noah Brown, another experienced New York shipwright, who designed the two brigs as well as the smaller sloop and gunboats. While they were at it, Brown and his crew of carpenters built more than a dozen fleet boats and all the gun carriages, plus all the buildings for the two shipyards, including a blockhouse, kitchen, mess building, barracks, a guardhouse and an office. Theirs was a busy winter.

With the construction effort in expert hands, Dobbins could turn his attention to other issues—such as labor problems. Men worked from dawn to dusk, but that was normal for the period. Wages were high. The trouble started when Perry arranged for some 1,500 Pennsylvania militiamen to protect Presque Isle and its shipyards. Called by one disgusted officer “as great a set of ragamuffins as ever a dog barked at,” the troops were a mixed blessing at best. Worse, the sudden influx of additional consumers caused prices to skyrocket, making Presque Isle a miniature boomtown.

Though wild game was fairly plentiful, the overcrowding meant scarce rations, and shipwright Brown recalled that his men “raised” (struck) and “declared they would work no longer if they could not have better fare.” Brown wisely made no attempt to force them back to work. He instead let them forage for themselves, and when they came back empty-handed, they understood he was doing his best for them and went back to work.

Yet the biggest problem for the shipbuilding effort was simply Presque Isle’s remote location. Roads to and from the settlement were little more than rutted dirt tracks though dense woodland. In wet weather the roads turned into bogs, and the Conestoga wagons used for overland transport—swaybacked giants pulled by six horses and capable of carrying two tons of cargo—often sank to their axles in the ooze. Freight charges were correspondingly high, even if delivery times were slow. Flour was $100 per barrel, and it could cost $1,000 to transport a cannon from Albany to Lake Erie.

Hard work and resourceful improvisation allowed the shipwrights to make steady progress despite the many challenges. When Perry arrived in late March to take command of the growing fleet, he pinned his hopes on Pittsburgh as a major source of the supplies needed to complete the ships. A bustling town of 6,000, Pittsburgh boasted foundries, rope walks, metal shops and forges that collectively could produce most everything needed. One hundred thirty miles of the usual nightmarish wilderness track separated Pittsburgh and Presque Isle, but Perry knew of an alternate route. Shallow-draft keelboats could carry materials from Pittsburgh up the Allegheny River to French Creek, then up the French to Waterford. It was 14 miles from there to Erie via a new graveled toll road that was corduroyed—surfaced with half logs—where it crossed swampy areas.

With Perry’s plan in place, work proceeded rapidly through the spring—until an outbreak brought construction to a halt. A “lake fever”—possibly typhoid—killed one worker and made many others sick. Perry himself became feverish for a time. The enforced boiling of drinking water finally eased the problem, and the furious work pace resumed.

By July 1813 the American lake flotilla was nearly complete. At Presque Isle lay the two 20-gun brigs, Lawrence and Niagara; the three-gun schooners Ariel and Porcupine; and the two-gun schooner Scorpion. Soon joining them were five more ships—the captured British three-gun brig Caledonia; the two-gun schooner Somers; the single-gun schooners Ohio and Tigress; and the single-gun sloop Trippe. These ships had slipped through a British blockade at Black Rock to join the force at Presque Isle. Perry’s decision to send Dobbins on Ohio for food and additional munitions reduced his fleet to nine vessels.

Perry may have been ready for battle, but Barclay’s British squadron arrived on July 20 and blockaded Presque Isle. Bad weather and short supplies forced them to withdraw on July 29. With the British gone, Perry hastened to get his flotilla over the sandbar, which had protected the vessels during construction but would now only hinder their departure. To ease the ships over the sandbar, the Americans used ballast-filled “camels”—specially designed barges that closely hugged a vessel’s hull. As men removed the ballast, both camels and vessel rose. In this manner, even the heavy flagship Lawrence cleared the bar. His fleet free, Perry went looking for a fight.

The long months of hard work in the wilderness came to a head on Sept. 10, 1813, when Perry and his flotilla finally met the enemy in battle near the American base at Put-in-Bay. The British fleet comprised six vessels—the 19-gun brig Detroit, Barclay’s flagship; the 17-gun ship-rigged sloop Queen Charlotte; the 13-gun schooner Lady Prevost; the 10-gun brig Hunter; the two-gun schooner Chippeway; and the two-gun sloop Little Belt. Barclay’s ships had superiority in long guns, traditional ordnance that could hurl a cannonball about a mile. By contrast, most of the American guns were shorter-range but more destructive carronades.

At first the British had the weather gauge—the wind at their backs and in their favor—forcing Perry to tack slowly to gain headway. At midmorning the wind turned in Perry’s favor but remained light, so moving into range of the enemy was difficult, and his smaller vessels—the schooners and sloop—lagged behind. But Barclay had his own troubles. His supplies were low, and a shortage of skilled seamen meant he’d had to fill out his depleted ranks with poorly trained British soldiers and Canadian militiamen.

The battle opened just before noon when Detroit fired a 24-pounder at extreme range. The shot fell short, but a second round holed Lawrence’s hull. The resulting shower of wooden splinters shredded a nearby sailor, his body falling to the sand-strewn deck. He was the first American casualty, but he would soon have company.

With Lawrence still out of firing range, Perry signaled Scorpion and Ariel to open fire, and the smaller vessels did their best. But Perry was puzzled to see Master Commandant Jesse Elliott’s Niagara lagging behind. Elliot was certainly no coward, but his actions suggested an unwillingness to engage the enemy.

As the minutes dragged on, Detroit, Hunter and Queen Charlotte poured broadsides into Lawrence. The American flagship endured a hailstorm of cannonballs, grapeshot and canister, the iron shrapnel smashing the brig from stem to stern. The carnage was terrible, yet Perry seemed to lead a charmed life. He stood in the thick of the fire, with men falling on all sides, yet remained unscathed.

Lawrence finally closed within carronade range and struck out at her tormentors, but the contest remained unequal. The American flagship was a wreck, its bulkheads splintered, lines cut and sails so badly holed the ship could no longer maneuver. Perry decided to transfer his flag to Niagara, which remained on the fringes of the action. If he could bring Niagara into the fight, there was still hope of victory. Perry climbed into Lawrence’s undamaged launch and set off with four men at the oars. The half-mile passage under fire to Niagara exemplified Perry’s extraordinary luck, as British musket rounds whistled overhead and near-miss cannonballs churned the water all around the launch.

Perry carried his personal flag with him, a banner that bore the legend Don’t Give up the Ship. Romantic painters depict him in full uniform, but he was dressed in an ordinary seaman’s jacket. He was battle-grimed, his clothes likely splattered with the blood of his fallen crewmen.

But Perry’s gamble paid off. Upon reaching Niagara he took command and brought the brig into the battle, ordering Elliott to take Lawrence’s launch and urge the gunboats into closer action. Niagara’s carronades soon had a telling effect on the British fleet, though even before the American brig’s appearance, the British were in serious trouble. They had reduced Lawrence to a splintered wreck, but their own ships had taken severe punishment. Barclay was gravely wounded, as eventually were the captains and first lieutenants of every British vessel. Command thus fell to junior officers with much less experience.

Noting Niagara’s grim advance, the British tried to bring their vessels’ undamaged starboard guns to bear. But the inexperienced officers botched the maneuver and entangled Detroit and Queen Charlotte. Sensing his opportunity, Perry pounced, and Niagara poured withering fire into the two immobilized British ships. Though Detroit and Queen Charlotte managed to free themselves, flesh and blood could stand no more. The British fleet surrendered. Some of the smaller ships tried to flee but were caught and captured. The battle of Lake Erie was over.

Each side suffered more than 100 dead and wounded, but the significance of this strategic victory could not be measured by casualty lists. The Americans had secured their nation’s boundaries and its Western territories. British hopes of an Indian buffer state between Canada and an increasingly powerful—and assertive—United States had vanished in the gun smoke on Lake Erie.

For further reading, Eric Niderost recommends: Oliver Hazard Perry, by David Curtis Skaggs, and The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812–1813, by Max Rosenberg.