Samuel R. Brown has been described as a “forgotten veteran” of the War of 1812, during which he served in Captain James A. McClelland’s company of Volunteer Light Dragoons. He was an eyewitness to the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, where an American fleet led by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry routed a British squadron. Perry became a national hero overnight, and a month later the United States ended the campaign by defeating British and American Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada.
After the war Brown settled in Auburn, New York, where he published the Cayuga Patriot. Described by his apprentice printer as “an honest, amiable, easy, slip-shod sort of man,” Brown immediately branched out into writing books, three of which were about the conflict he called “the Second War of Independence.” He was amazingly prolific in this field but died in 1817 at age 42. “On the tented field he was a patriotic soldier,” his obituary said. “In the heat of battle, he stood a hero, undismayed by the crash of arms, unappalled by the sight of blood, and proud and fearless in the front of danger.”
The following narrative is drawn from Brown’s 1814 book, Views on Lake Erie: Comprising a Minute and Interesting Account of the Naval Conflict on Lake Erie.
Commodore Perry arrived at Erie in June, with five small vessels from Black Rock. The Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost were cruising off Long Point to intercept him—he passed them in the night unperceived. The Lawrence and Niagara were then on the stocks—every exertion was made to expedite their building and equipment, and early in August they were ready to sail. But it was necessary to pass the bar at the entrance of the harbor, over which there was but six feet water, and the brigs drew nine. The British fleet appeared off the harbor, for the purpose of preventing ours from going to lake! The means employed by our officers to take the brigs over the bar were ingenious and deserve mention. Two large scows, 50 feet long, 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep, were prepared—they were first filled with water and then floated along side one of the vessels in a parallel direction; they were then secured by means of large pieces of hewn timber placed athwart ship, with both ends projecting from the port holes across the scows: the space between these timbers and the boat, being secured by other pieces properly arranged; the water was then bailed from the scows, thereby giving them an astonishing lifting power. It was thus that the bar was passed, before the enemy had taken the proper steps to oppose it. One obstacle was surmounted, but the fleet was not in a condition to seek the enemy at Malden. There were not at this time more than half sailors enough to man the fleet. However, a number of Pennsylvania militia having volunteered their services, the commodore made a short cruize off Long Point, more perhaps, for the purpose of exercising his men than seeking an enemy.
About the last of August Commodore Perry left Erie, to co-operate with General [William Henry] Harrison in the reduction of Malden. He anchored off the mouth of Sandusky River and had an interview with General Harrison, who furnished him with about 70 volunteers, principally Kentuckians, to serve as marines on board the fleet. Captain [Daniel] Dobbin[s], in the Ohio, was ordered to return to Erie for provisions. The Amelia had been left there for want of men to man her. Exclusive of these he had nine sail, mounting in all 54 guns. The British fleet at Malden consisted of six sail and mounted 66 guns.
Commodore Perry appeared before Malden, offered battle, reconnoitered the enemy and retired to Put-in-Bay, 35 miles distant from his antagonist. Both parties remained a few days inactive; but their repose was that of the lion.
On the morning of the 10th of September, at sunrise, the enemy were discovered bearing down from Malden for the evident purpose of attacking our squadron, then at anchor in Put-in-Bay. Not a moment was to be lost. Our squadron immediately got under way and stood out to meet the British fleet, which at this time had the weather gage. At 10 A.M. the wind shifted from S.W. to S.E. which brought our squadron to windward. The wind was light, the day beautiful—not a cloud obscured the horizon. The line was formed at 11, and Commodore Perry caused an elegant flag, which he had privately prepared, to be hoisted at the mast head of the Lawrence; on this flag was painted in characters, legible to the whole fleet, the dying words of the immortal [Captain James] Lawrence:—“Don’t give up the ship.” Its effect is not to be described—every heart was electrified. The crews cheered—the exhilarating can was passed. Both fleets appeared eager for the conflict, on the result of which so much depended. At 15 minutes before 12, the Detroit, the head-most ship of the enemy, opened upon the Lawrence, which for 10 minutes was obliged to sustain a well directed and heavy fire from the enemy’s two large ships, without being able to return it with carronades, at five minutes before 12 the Lawrence opened upon the enemy—the other vessels were ordered to support her, but the wind was at this time too light to enable them to come up. Every brace and bowline of the Lawrence being soon shot away, she became unmanageable, and in this situation sustained the action upwards of two hours, within canister distance, until every gun was rendered useless, and but a small part of her crew left unhurt upon deck.
At half past 2 the wind increased and enabled the Niagara to come into close action—the gun-boats took a nearer position. Commodore Perry left his ship in charge of Lieutenant [John Joliffe] Yarnel and went on board the Niagara. Just as he reached that vessel, the flag of the Lawrence came down; the crisis had arrived. Captain [John] Elliot at this moment anticipated the wishes of the commodore, by volunteering his services to bring the schooners into close action.
At 45 minutes past 2, the signal was made for close action. The Niagara being very little injured, and her crew fresh, the commodore determined to pass through the enemy’s line; he accordingly bore up and passed ahead of the Detroit, Queen Charlotte, and Lady Prevost, pouring a terrible raking fire into them from the starboard guns, and on the Chippeway and Little Belt, from the larboard side, at half pistol shot distance. The small vessels at this time having got within grape and canister distance, kept up a well directed and destructive fire. The action now raged with the greatest fury—the Queen Charlotte, having lost her commander and several of her principal officers, in a moment of confusion got foul of the Detroit—in this situation the enemy in their turn had to sustain a tremendous fire without the power of returning it with much effect; the carnage was horrible—the flags of the Detroit, Queen Charlotte and Lady Prevost were struck in rapid succession. The brig Hunter and schooner Chippeway were soon compelled to follow the example. The Little Belt attempted to escape to Malden, but she was pursued by two of the gun-boats and surrendered about three miles distant from the scene of action.
The writer of this account, in company with five others, arrived at the head of Put-in-Bay island on the evening of the 9th, and had a view of the action at the distance of only 10 miles. The spectacle was truly grand and awful. The firing was incessant for the space of three hours, and continued at short intervals 45 minutes longer. In less than one hour after the battle began, most of the vessels of both fleets were enveloped in a cloud of smoak, which rendered the issue of the action uncertain, till the next morning, when we visited the fleet in the harbor on the opposite side of the island. The reader will easily judge of our solicitude to learn the result. There is no sentiment more painful than suspense, when it is excited by the uncertain issue of an event like this.
If the wind had continued at S.W. it was the intention of Admiral [Robert Heriot] Barclay to have boarded our squadron; for this purpose he had taken on board his fleet about 200 of the famous 41st Regiment; they acted as marines and fought bravely, but nearly two thirds of them were either killed or wounded.
The carnage on board the prizes was prodigious—they must have lost 200 in killed besides wounded. The sides of the Detroit and Queen Charlotte were shattered from bow to stern; there was scarcely room to place one’s hand on their larboard sides without touching the impression of a shot—a great many balls, canister and grape, were found lodged in their bulwarks, which were too thick to be penetrated by our cannonades, unless within pistol shot distance. Their masts were so much shattered that they fell overboard soon after they got into the bay.
The loss of the Americans was severe, particularly on board the Lawrence. When her flag was struck she had but nine men fit for duty remaining on deck. Her sides were completely riddled by the shot from the long guns of the British ships. Her deck, the morning after the conflict, when I first went on board, exhibited a scene that defies description—for it was literally covered with blood, which still adhered to the plank in clots—brains, hair and fragments of bones were still sticking to the rigging and sides. The surgeons were still busy with the wounded—enough! horror appalled my senses.
Among the wounded were several brave fellows, each of whom had lost a leg or an arm—they appeared cheerful and expressed a hope that they had done their duty. Rome and Sparta would have been proud of these heroes.
It would be invidious to particularize instances of individual merit, where every one so nobly performed his part. Of the nine seamen remaining unhurt at the time the Lawrence struck her flag, five were immediately promoted for their unshaken firmness in such a trying situation. The most of these had been in the actions with the Guerrière and Java.
Every officer of the Lawrence, except the commodore and his little brother, a promising youth, 13 years old, were either killed or wounded.
The efficacy of the gun-boats was fully proved in this action, and the sterns of all the prizes bear ample testimony of the fact. They took raking positions and galled the enemy severely. The Lady Prevost lost 12 men before either of the brigs fired on her. Their fire was quick and precise. Let us hear the enemy. The general order of Adjutant General [Edward] Baynes contains the following words: “His [Perry’s] numerous gun-boats, [four] which had proved the greatest annoyance during the action, were all uninjured.”
The undaunted bravery of Admiral Barclay entitled him to a better fate; to the loss of the day was superadded grievous and dangerous wounds: he had before lost an arm; it was now his hard fortune to lose the use of the other, by a shot which carried away the blade of the right shoulder; a canister shot made a violent contusion in his hip: his wounds were for some days considered mortal. Every possible attention was paid to his situation.
When Commodore Perry sailed for Buffalo, he was so far recovered that he took passage on board our fleet. The fleet touched at Erie. The citizens saw the affecting spectacle of Harrison and Perry supporting the wounded British hero, still unable to walk without help, from the beach to their lodgings.
On board of the Detroit, 24 hours after her surrender, were found snugly stowed away in the hold, two Indian Chiefs, who had the courage to go on board at Malden, for the purpose of acting as sharp shooters to kill our officers. One had the courage to ascend into the round top and discharged his piece, but the whizzing of shot, splinters, and bits of rigging, soon made the place too warm for him—he descended faster than he went up; at the moment he reached the deck, the fragments of a seaman’s head struck his comrade’s face, and covered it with blood and brains. He vociferated the savage interjection “quoh!” and both sought safety below.
The British officers had domesticated a bear at Malden. Bruin accompanied his comrades to battle, was on the deck of the Detroit during the engagement, and escaped unhurt.
The killed of both fleets were thrown over board as fast as they fell. Several were washed ashore upon the island and the main during the gales that succeeded the action.
Commodore Perry treated the prisoners with humanity and indulgence; several Canadians, having wives at Malden, were permitted to visit their families on parole.
The British were superior in the length and number of their guns, as well as in the number of men. The American fleet was manned with a motly set of beings, Europeans, Africans, Americans from every part of the United States. Full one fourth were blacks. I saw one Russian, who could not speak a word of English. They were brave—and who could be otherwise under the command of Perry? MHQ