For years, I’ve walked past a huge painting that hangs in the Statehouse Rotunda without paying attention to the important historical event that it commemorates. That changed yesterday, when I took a seat opposite it and attended special noontime presentation to mark the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie.
During “Don’t Give Up the Ship: The Battle of Lake Erie Through American and British Eyes,” rangers from Parks Canada’s Signal Hill National Historic Site and the National Parks Service’s Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial collaborated to present American and British perspectives on the War of 1812 naval battle that was fought near Put-in-Bay on September 10, 1813.
The team described how 27-year-old Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry initiated the battle from his flagship, the Lawrence. The ship was named after James Lawrence, the commander of the recently captured Chesapeake whose dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” were stitched onto Perry’s battle flag which flew over the Lawrence.
As the battle began, the Lawrence was at the head of Perry’s fleet. The eight other ships that fell in behind were slower, so Perry fought the British fleet’s six ships with just the Lawrence. When the Lawrence caught fire and the crew suffered heavy casualties, Perry and his surviving soldiers climbed into a rowboat and braved heavy gunfire as they rowed toward another American ship, the Niagara. Fifteen minutes after Perry boarded the Niagara and took command, the British surrendered. “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” the lucky Perry wrote General William Henry Harrison in a dispatch recounting the details of the battle.
Perry’s victory not only allowed the United States to secure Lake Erie for the rest of the war, but also showed that the new nation could successfully stand up to foreign threats.
One National Park Service ranger wore the uniform of the Kentucky Mounted Volunteers, while another appeared in a dress and cap favored by ladies of the era. Three Signal Hill staff members wore replicas of the uniforms that captains and privates of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment Fencible Infantry wore while defending against American forces during the War of 1812. With their double-set buttons, tarred waterproof hats, and tufted hackles or plumes that were used to identify soldiers’ ranks at a distance, they reminded me of Cirian Hinds’ depiction of Captain Frederick Wentworth, the British Royal Navy commander and veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who is the hero of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and its 1996 film adaptation.
Click here to watch a recording of the presentation on the Ohio Channel. Hear me ask a question at the 41:53 mark!
Before the program began, I studied the painting that I overlooked for so long.
In 1857, the State of Ohio commissioned Ohio artist William Henry Powell to paint Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. Powell chose as his subject the moment when Perry heroically made his way through enemy fire in a rowboat from the Lawrence to the Niagara. In the painting, Perry is joined by six oarsmen, a helmsman, and Perry’s 13-year-old brother, Alexander, who served as midshipman. With the Stars and Stripes flying from the boat’s bow, Alexander pulls his brother’s coat, while the helmsman gestures for Perry, the picture of confidence and determination, to sit down and avoid being so dangerously exposed.
After completing the painting, Powell tripled the amount of the agreed-upon price, refused to give it up and exhibited it around the country. Eventually, the State of Ohio agreed to pay Powell’s higher price, and it was installed in the Statehouse Rotunda in 1865. The U.S. Congress commissioned Powell for a similar painting, which now hangs at the head of the east stairway in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. I learned about this painting and other items from the Senate’s art collection by starting a really interesting website visit here.
Several Battle of Lake Erie bicentennial commemorations are taking place. To date, the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial celebration has included a fleet of Tall Ships re-enacting the battle, a parade of sail, and port festivals in waterfront cities.
Perry’s Victory and International Peace Monument on Put-in-Bay’s South Bass Island will host a number of events during the next several days. These include a rum tasting, a Regency Era fashion show, a concert by the Royal Newfoundland Regimental Band and the Toledo Symphony Brass Quintet, and a military tattoo, during which Parks Canada and National Park Service re-enactors and will exhibit precision drills. On Tuesday, the official bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, the United States Postal Service will release a commemorative stamp.
Peace Among Nations-The Lasting Legacy of the War of 1812 is an exhibition featuring depictions of the War of 1812 by artists of all ages, as well as artwork and artifacts from the Library of Congress, the Ohio Historical Society, the Ohio Statehouse, the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society, and the Canadian War Museum. The exhibition will be on view at the James A. Rhodes State Office Tower in Columbus weekdays from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. through September 13.
On September 10, Roberta Jones, a former National Park Service Ranger from the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Monument, will give presentations about Ohio’s role in the war of 1812 at noon and at 2:00 p.m. in the Statehouse Rotunda.
Ohio in the War of 1812 is on exhibit through October 7 at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont. The exhibition takes a chronological look at the strategic importance of the Ohio frontier in the struggle for control of the Great Lakes during the war.
The Toledo Museum of Art is commemorating the event with Perry’s Victory: The Battle of Lake Erie. On view through November 10, the exhibition features prints, artifacts, letters, music and paintings, including Thomas Birch’s Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie. Upcoming presentations focus on Native Americans in the War of 1812, the consequences of the Battle of Lake Erie, and concerts of period music, including some performed on the museum’s circa-1840 piano.
Fort Meigs, in Perrysburg, is a War of 1812 battlefield and reconstructed fort. General William Henry Harrison built the fort on the Maumee River in February 1813 as protection against British invasion. This Ohio Historical Society site also has war-related exhibits on display in its adjacent museum and visitor center.
If you’re interested in reading more about the War of 1812, the Ohio War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission offers an extensive annotated bibliography of suggested books and journal articles covering general and naval histories of the War of 1812, together with accounts of the battles fought on land and lake in Ohio and the northwest.
In 1882, 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt published The Naval War of 1812, an account of how the war was fought at sea. The future president’s carefully researched work became the standard book on the subject, influenced subsequent scholarship, and remains a classic.
The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, by Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark, and Walter Lord’s The Dawn’s Early Light describe many of the war’s events, including the attack on Baltimore’s Fort McHenry that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”