The War of 1812, largely forgotten today, plays a significant role in my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonsparte, and today is the anniversary of a significant event in the war. Two hundred years ago on this date, the United States Navy won one of the first great victories of its existence. Let me provide a little background.
In June 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain for several reasons:
• First, the British navy had been stopping American ships and impressing any sailors it found who had been born in Britain—even if they had since become U.S. citizens. This was a violation of U.S. rights as an independent nation.
• Second, Britain was at war with France, and to weaken its enemy, the British navy was trying to stop the United States from trading with France.
• Third, there had been conflicts between the United States and Native Americans of the Northwest Territory, and many Americans suspected that Britain was egging the natives on.
• Fourth, some Americans had their eye on conquering Canada and adding it to our territory.
Even though the United States was the one to declare war, it was a young nation that was woefully unprepared for conflict. The army had fewer than 12,000 men, and the navy had roughly 20 ships. In July 1812, when an American force under General William Hull (no relation as far as I know) invaded Ontario, they were driven out of Canada and forced to surrender, thus losing Detroit.
The U.S. navy went on a ship-building spree to try to gain control of the Great Lakes. On September 12, 2013, Oliver Hazard Perry led a fleet of nine small ships into Lake Erie. Perry’s flagship was the Lawrence, which he had named after his friend James Lawrence, a naval officer who was killed in battle earlier in the war. (Lawrence’s gift to history was the saying, “Don’t give up the ship,” which he commanded his crew as he lay dying.) The other large ship of the U.S. fleet was the Niagara.
The U.S. fleet began the battle by attacking the two largest vessels of the six ships in the British fleet. The Lawrence was badly damaged, and Perry rowed to the Niagara to continue the attack. The Niagara sailed right at the British ships, raking them with broadsides. Within 15 minutes, the British fleet surrendered. Perry sent a famous message to William Henry Harrison, the army commander:
“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
The Battle of Lake Erie allowed the United States to retake Detroit, control Lake Erie, and even conquer part of Canada.
For his part, Oliver Hazard Perry became a national hero. He was promoted and given a gold medal. Six years later, he caught yellow fever while on a mission to South America and died at the age of 34.