Two hundred years ago today, a young U.S. naval captain named Oliver Hazard Perry penned the words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours …”
Perry’s remarkable victory over the British changed the course of the War of 1812, and a full-scale re-enactment — the largest sailing re-enactment ever attempted in the U.S. — recently commemorated the anniversary of the win in the Battle of Lake Erie.
A Bit Of History
America had brashly declared war in 1812 to stop the British from kidnapping U.S. sailors to man the Royal Navy and to settle trade issues. A year later, the war against the world’s leading superpower wasn’t going well.
It was from Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island that Perry sailed out to meet the British on Sept. 10, 1813.
Historian Walter Rybka — one of the planners of the re-enactment — says the 28-year-old Perry threw himself into battle. “Perry was, first off, phenomenally brave and determined, but he was damn lucky,” Rybka says.
Somehow Perry survived two hours of hellacious fire that killed or maimed 75 percent of the crew on his ship, the Lawrence.
“His last gun had been knocked out of action on the starboard side, his rigging was cut to pieces, he could not maneuver, he could no longer fight. There was no point in maintaining an action because his men were just going to get slaughtered the rest of the way,” Rybka says. “Right at the moment the wind fills in …”
And that’s when Perry hopped into his longboat and under heavy fire, rowed to the Niagara, a Great Lakes warship. Rybka says Perry brought along his battle flag, emblazoned with the words, “Don’t Give Up The Ship.”
“But the only way to do that was to give up the ship and go to the next one,” Rybka says. “The real motto was, ‘Don’t Give Up.’ “
A Turning Point
Fifteen tall ships sail out to the spot where the struggle took place 200 years ago. From the reconstructed Niagara, Capt. Wesley Heerssen hails the fleet.
“All tall ships in this battle re-enactment please stand by for roll call,” Heerssen says.
And the battle begins.
Six ships make up the British line. The American fleet has nine. The Coast Guard has its hands full clearing a path for the tall ships amid a swarm of more than 2,000 speedboats and pleasure craft. The sea of boats has churned the lake, so in this version of the Battle of Lake Erie, Perry, portrayed by an actor sporting enormous sideburns, is motored from his ship onto the Niagara.
Then Heerssen hails the enemy fleet for the final maneuver of the re-enactment.
“To the British fleet we’re going to pass two whistles, starboard to starboard passage,” he says.
The Niagara cuts nimbly across the British line and fires its last set of broadsides. And as smoke fills the air, for a second, despite all the distractions, one of America’s most famous sea battles vividly comes to life.
And suddenly, it’s over.
The smoke clears, and it just another day on the lake, perfect conditions for sailing.
The battle was a turning point in the War of 1812. America had lost Detroit and much of the Northwest Territory. Rybka says if Perry had given up the ship, the Canadian border would have been much farther south.
“I think Michigan probably would have been lost to us and maybe Wisconsin as well,” Rybka says.
Heerssen, as captain of the Niagara, has imagined this day for more than a decade. He says the re-enactment is a tribute to America’s fighting spirit.
A wreath is being laid Tuesday on the site of Perry’s victory. A buoy serves as a permanent marker in the peaceful waters of western Lake Erie.