On this day in 1813 Captain Oliver Hazard Perry leads the first unqualified victory over a British naval squadron in history. His U.S. fleet of nine American ships out-maneuvered and out-gunned a squadron of six British vessels at the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
The War of 1812 itself was a conflict fought between the United States, the United Kingdom, and their respective allies from June 1812 to February 1815. Historians in Britain often see it as a minor theater of the Napoleonic Wars; in the United States and Canada, it is seen as a war in its own right.
From the outbreak of war with Napoleonic France, Britain had enforced a naval blockade to choke off neutral trade to France, which the US contested as illegal under international law. To man the blockade, Britain impressed American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy. Britain also shrewdly supplied Native Americans who raided settlements on the frontier, hindering American expansion and provoking resentment.
Historians debate whether the desire to annex some or all of British North America (Canada) contributed to the American decision to go to war; regardless on June 18, 1812, US President James Madison, after heavy pressure from the War Hawks in Congress, signed the American declaration of war into law. Sadly, America’s tiff with her kindly cousins to the North had come to blows.
The USN had 7,250 sailors and Marines in 1812. The American Navy was a well trained and a professional force which fought effectively against the Barbary pirates and France in the Quasi-War. The USN had 13 ocean-going warships, three of them “super-frigates,” and its principal issue was a lack of funding as many in Congress did not see the need for a strong navy. In essence, notwithstanding quality seamen, the Navy entered the fray under-manned and under-gunned.
On the high seas, the Americans could only pursue a strategy of commerce raiding, taking British merchantmen with their frigates and privateers. Before the war, the USN was largely concentrated on the Atlantic coast; at the war’s outbreak they had only two gunboats on Lake Champlain, one brig on Lake Ontario and another brig in Lake Erie.
Returning to the fray in question, The Battle of Lake Erie was closely contested for hours, and Perry’s flagship Lawrence was reduced to a defenseless wreck. He then transferred to the Niagara and sailed directly into the British line, firing broadsides and forcing the British to surrender. Perry’s triumph bore the cost of 27 Americans killed and 96 wounded; British casualties were 40 dead and 94 wounded.
After the battle, Perry sent a famous dispatch to US General William Henry Harrison that read, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” The Battle of Lake Erie forced the British to abandon Detroit, ensuring US control over Lake Erie and the territorial northwest.