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Summary Article: Lake Erie, Battle of from Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Event Date: September 10, 1813

The U.S. Navy's first squadron-to-squadron victory and a critical naval engagement on the Great Lakes. After the American surrender of Detroit on August 16, 1812, the U.S. Navy Department ordered the construction at Erie, Pennsylvania, of a squadron to counter British naval dominance of Lake Erie. Under Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry's direction, the Americans built two brigs and four gunboats at Erie and added three armed merchant vessels, while at the same time the British could build only one large brig at Amherstburg, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario).

Its sails holed by British shot, the U.S. Navy 20-gun brig Niagara engages ships of the British squadron on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, giving the United States control of the lake. This mural is in Memorial Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy. (United States Naval Academy)

On Lake Erie, British Commander Robert H. Barclay commanded six Royal Navy ships with a total of 64 guns with a broadside firepower of 496 pounds and a total weight of metal of 905 pounds. The nine American vessels mounted 54 guns with a broadside capability of 936 pounds of shot and a total weight of metal of 1,536 pounds. The two identical American brigs—the Lawrence and Niagara of 20 guns each—were armed with short-range carronades. The other ships in Perry's squadron were the brig Caledonia (3 guns), the schooner Somers (2 guns), the sloop Trippe (1 gun), and four gunboats: the Tigress, Porcupine, Scorpion, and Ariel (each mounting 1 to 4 guns). The two largest Royal Navy brigs—the Detroit (21 guns) and Queen Charlotte (17 guns)—were differently armed. The Detroit, Barclay's flagship, mounted long guns, while the Queen Charlotte was fitted with carronades. This decidedly mixed armament seriously complicated Barclay's tactical options. The other ships in the British squadron were the schooner Lady Prevost (13 guns), the brig General Hunter (10 guns), the sloop Little Belt (3 guns), and the schooner Chippewa (2 guns).

The resulting battle was a test of experience versus firepower. British officers had more combat experience than their American counterparts, none of whom had ever been in a squadron battle, and the British probably shipped more men. The Americans had more experienced sailors and more gunnery practice. Both sides augmented their crews with soldiers. Perry ordered his novice captains to engage their designated foe and to maintain their place in the line of battle.

On the morning of September 10, 1813, the Americans at Put-in-Bay on Ohio's South Bass Island sighted Barclay's squadron emerging from the Detroit River. Barclay kept his line close together, while Perry approached with his squadron strung out over a span of two miles. Instead of waiting for the trailing vessels to close up, Perry impetuously headed straight for the Detroit.

Instead of closing with the Queen Charlotte, however, Perry's second-in-command, Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott, kept the Niagara behind the Caledonia and did not engage the Queen Charlotte. That ship's commander brought his brig forward to assist the Detroit in the attack on Perry's Lawrence. In two hours of heavy fighting the Lawrence sustained 80 percent casualties and struck before Perry transferred his flag to the Niagara, ordered Elliott to bring up the trailing gunboats, and brought the Niagara through the British line, forcing all the ships in the British squadron to surrender one after another.

In the battle the Americans lost 27 killed and 96 wounded, the majority of them on the Lawrence, which had taken a terrible pounding. British personnel losses were 41 killed and 94 wounded, Barclay among the latter.

Battle of Lake Erie, September 10, 1813

United States

Great Britain

* Includes wounded.

United States

Great Britain

Men

450

565

Ships

  9

  6

Ship Guns

 54

 64

Casualties

Killed

 27

 41

Wounded

 96

 94

Prisoners

  0

 524*

The Battle of Lake Erie marked a rare time in history when an entire British squadron surrendered. Perry's ships then transported U.S. ground forces across Lake Erie, kept them supplied, and made possible the defeat of the British and their allied Indian forces there. The subsequent October 5, 1813, Battle of the Thames broke British power west of Niagara.

The Battle of Lake Erie left a lasting legacy in Americans’ memory of the War of 1812. First there is Perry's after-action message “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” and second is Perry's battle flag emblazoned with “Don't Give Up the Ship,” the alleged dying words of Captain James Lawrence that have been enshrined at the U.S. Naval Academy. The controversy over why Elliott did not bring the Niagara forward earlier also engendered considerable debate among the naval officer corps that lasted until Elliott's death in 1845.

See also

Barclay, Robert Heriot; Carronade; Elliott, Jesse Duncan; Perry, Oliver Hazard; Thames, Battle of the

Further Reading
  • Palmer, Michael A.A Failure of Command, Control, and Communications: Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie.” Journal of Erie Studies 17 (Fall 1988): 7-26.
  • Skaggs, David Curtis. Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press Annapolis MD, 2006.
  • Symonds, Craig. Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles That Shaped American History. Oxford University Press New York, 2005.
  • David C. Skaggs
    Copyright 2012 by Spencer C. Tucker

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