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“A Signal Victory”: The Battle of Lake Erie

Our new Featured Document–Oliver Perry’s letter to the Secretary of the Navy–will be on display from September 10 to 19, 2014, at the National Archives in Washington, DCToday’s blog post was written by former student employee Meghan O’Connor.

Early in the War of 1812, the Americans lost control of Detroit and Lake Erie to the British and their Native American allies. The U.S. Navy sent 28-year-old Oliver Hazard Perry to Lake Erie to build a squadron and retake that important waterway.

On September 10, 1813, the Americans defeated the British on Lake Erie. Commodore Perry declared the naval battle “a signal victory.” In a war marked by early failures, this victory secured Ohio and the territories of Michigan and Indiana. It also provided a needed boost in national morale and marked a rare surrender of a complete Royal Navy squadron.

Letter from Commodore Oliver Perry to Hon. Wm. Jones, Secy. of Navy, September 10, 1813(National Archives)

Oliver Perry’s letter to Secretary of the Navy, September 10, 1813 (National Archives)

Letter from Commodore Oliver Perry to Hon. Wm. Jones, Secy. of Navy, September 10, 1813

With a crew that Perry once described as “a motley set, blacks, soldiers and boys,” the Americans met Britain’s powerful Royal Navy on Lake Erie. A flag flew above Perry’s ship, the Lawrence, emblazoned with the words “Don’t Give Up the Ship.” This battle cry was the dying command, in an earlier battle, of Perry’s friend Capt. James Lawrence (for whom the ship was named).

In the middle of the battle, however, Perry abandoned the Lawrence because it had become disabled and two-thirds of its crew were casualties. Refusing to surrender, Perry was rowed to the Niagara and then commanded his squadron to an unprecedented victory. After the battle was won, Perry wrote a short report about the victory in a letter to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, shown above.

“U.S. Brig Niagara off the Western
Sister Head of Lake Erie, Sept. 10th, 1813
4 p.m.

Sir
It has pleased the Almighty to give to the arms
of the United States a signal victory over their enemies
on this Lake. The British squadron consisting of
two ships, two brigs, one schooner & one sloop
have this moment surrendered to the force under
my command, after a sharp conflict.

I have the honor to be
Sir
Very Respectfully
Your Obed. Servt.
O.H. Perry”

Oliver Perry’s letter to the Secretary of the Navy will be on display from September 10 to 19, 2013, at the National Archives in Washington, DC. 

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