History
2:04 am
Tue September 10, 2013

Remembering A 'Brave,' 'Lucky' Hero In The War Of 1812

Originally published on Tue September 10, 2013 6:08 am

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.

Copyright 2013 WKSU-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wksu.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

On this date 200 years ago, a young U.S. Naval captain penned the words: We have met they enemy and they are ours, the words of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry whose remarkable victory over the British changed the course of the War of 1812.

A full-scale reenactment was held over Labor Day weekend to commemorate the Battle of Lake Erie. And Jeff St. Clair of member station WKSU was there.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT IN WATER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Row, feather, rope.

JEFF ST. CLAIR, BYLINE: 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. Practice for reenacting the second Battle of Lake Erie isn't going well either. The crew of volunteer rowers here, in Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie's South Bass Island, is having a hard time getting their 19th century longboat to cooperate in the waves.

Finally, we pull alongside a reconstructed ship from Perry's fleet packed with tourists. The Niagara is a fully fitted early 19th century Great Lakes warship. It was from here, among these remote islands of western Lake Erie, that Perry sailed out to meet the British on September 10, 1813.

Senior captain and historian Walter Rybka says the 28-year-old Perry threw himself into battle.

WALTER RYBKA: Perry was phenomenally brave and determined, but he was damn lucky.

CLAIR: Somehow Perry survived two hours of hellacious fire that killed or maimed 75 percent of the crew on his ship, the Lawrence.

RYBKA: 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.

CLAIR: And that's when Perry hopped into his longboat, and under heavy fire, rowed to the Niagara. Rybka says Perry brought along his battle flag, emblazoned with the words: Don't Give Up the Ship.

RYBKA: But the only way to do that was to give up the ship and go to the next one. The real motto was: Don't Give Up.

CLAIR: It's now the day of the battle. Fifteen tall ships sail out to the spot where the struggle took place 200 years ago. From the Niagara, Captain Wesley Heerssen hails the fleet.

CAPTAIN WESLEY HEERSSEN: All tall ships in this battle reenactment, please standby for roll call. Switch to channel...

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON EXPLOSIONS)

CLAIR: And the battle begins. Six ships make up the British line. The American fleet has nine.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON EXPLOSION)

CLAIR: This is the largest sailing reenactment ever attempted in the U.S. And the Coast Guard has its hands full clearing a path for the tall ships amid a swarm of more than 2,000 speed boats and pleasure craft.

(SOUNDBITE OF A HORN)

CLAIR: 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 reenactment.

HEERSSEN: All right. To the British fleet, we're going to pass two whistles, starboard to starboard passage...

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON EXPLOSION)

CLAIR: The Niagara cuts nimbly across the British line, fires its last set of broadsides, and as smoke fills the air...

(SOUNDBITE OF CANNON EXPLOSIONS)

CLAIR: ...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.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Yay, we won the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

CLAIR: The battle was a turning point in the War of 1812. America had lost Detroit and much of the Northwest Territory. Historian Walter Rybka says if Perry had given up the ship, the Canadian border would have been much further south.

RYBKA: I think Michigan probably would have been lost to us and maybe Wisconsin, as well.

CLAIR: A wreath is being laid today on the site of Perry's victory. A buoy serves as a permanent marker in the peaceful waters of western Lake Erie.

For NPR news, I'm Jeff St. Clair.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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