Buffalo’s inner harbor is certainly developing in a positive direction, however, it is still missing its leading man: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and his involvement in the most dramatic events in the region’s history – those surrounding the decisive Lake Erie Campaign in the War of 1812.
The Lake Erie Campaign of 1812-1813 essentially took place in three areas: Erie, Pa., where the largest American ships were built in the wilderness and successfully launched into the lake despite the threat of the superior British naval squadron; the western Lake Erie area, where the battles of Lake Erie and the Thames were fought; and just as significantly, in Western New York, where the Lake Erie odyssey of Perry began and ended.
In Buffalo, the campaign commenced after midnight on Oct. 9, 1812. Upon the suggestion of an 80-year-old Seneca Indian chief, Farmer’s Brother, and with the cooperation of Army Col. Winfield Scott (future hero of the Mexican-American War), Navy Lt. Jesse Duncan Elliott led two boats in a “cutting out” mission from what is now Buffalo’s inner harbor across to Fort Erie. There he and his 100 men captured two British brigs, burning one and bringing the other, the Caledonia, to the safety of the Black Rock Naval Station at the mouth of the Scajaquada Creek on the Niagara River.
The U.S. Congress later proclaimed: “The judgment, skill and courage of Lt. Elliott has never been surpassed.” The Caledonia and other ships at Black Rock would be the nucleus of the U.S. Navy on Lake Erie, but the British guns at Fort Erie still prevented them from moving upriver to the lake.
Ordered to take command of the Lake Erie Squadron and build additional ships at Erie, Perry arrived in Buffalo on March 24, 1813. After an inspection of the Black Rock Naval Station, Perry and his 13-year-old brother traveled by sleigh along the frozen lakeshore, spending the night in Chadwick Bay (modern Dunkirk) before moving on to Erie.
Perry vigorously undertook the shipbuilding tasks in Erie, but in late May 1813 he had the opportunity to participate in the American invasion of Canada from Fort Niagara. After rowing in an open boat some 100 miles from Erie to Niagara County, avoiding the British along the way, Perry took command of the American Naval units leading Scott’s amphibious landings near Newark (modern Niagara on-the-Lake). His immunity to enemy gunfire there became the first instance of what would be known as “Perry’s luck.” His commanding officer noted that Perry “… was present at every point where he could be useful, under showers of musketry, but fortunately escaped unhurt.”
The successful American attack captured Fort George and forced the British to abandon Fort Erie – opening the way for the American ships at Black Rock to reach Lake Erie. Perry then led his men in the grueling two-week process of literally dragging the ships up the Niagara River to Buffalo.
Upon taking command of this squadron of ships off Buffalo, Perry effectively became “Commodore” Perry and proceeded to sail toward Erie in the face of the much superior British squadron. From the hills of Chautauqua County, the impending British interception of the American ships could be seen. The locals rowed out to Perry to warn him of the danger. The American squadron took refuge in a fog bank that suddenly appeared – another example of “Perry’s luck” – before reaching the security of Erie’s Presque Isle Bay.
Perry’s actions in the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813, are legendary. His ships were manned by a cross-section of Americans, of which about 20 percent were black. He charged the British line of battle with his flagship and fought the British squadron almost single-handedly while Elliott and his ship held back from the fight. When the last gun on his ship was out of action and most of his crew dead or wounded, the unscathed Perry (Perry’s luck again) was rowed in the face of cannon fire to Elliott’s ship where he took command and won the battle. It has been said of Perry that, “More than any other battle of the time, the victory on Lake Erie was won by the courage and obstinacy of one man.”
After the battle, Perry befriended the severely wounded British commander, Robert Barclay. With Gen. (and future U.S. President) William Henry Harrison, victor of the Battle of the Thames, Perry brought his squadron of ships and Barclay back to Buffalo. It was here Perry repatriated his former enemy and allowed him to cross the Niagara River back into Canada and return home to Scotland. Barclay later wrote: “The treatment I received from Captain Perry was noble indeed. It can be equaled only by his bravery and intrepidity in action. Since the battle he has been like a brother to me …”
In Buffalo, Elliott’s conduct in the battle was confirmed by his fellow officers to be wanting. Elliott would spend the rest of his life defending his actions in the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry, on the other hand, after a celebration in Buffalo, would go on to great acclaim throughout the United States. Perrysburg and Perry in Western New York and Perry Street and Perry Boulevard in Buffalo are just some of the numerous towns and streets named for Oliver Hazard Perry all over the country.
Perry’s magnanimity in victory, shown to the vanquished British sailors, set a tone for almost two centuries of peace between Britain, Canada and the United States.
Today in Ohio stands Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial Tower. Note that it is a peace memorial, not a war memorial. It will soon serve to commemorate 200 years of peace between the United States, Great Britain and Canada. That peace is the positive legacy of the War of 1812 – a seemingly indecisive and divisive war.
However indecisive the War of 1812 was, Perry’s Lake Erie Campaign was decisive, particularly for Western New York. Michigan and other Great Lakes territories of the “Old Northwest” could have been lost in the War of 1812. Perry’s victory on Lake Erie meant that the Great Lakes would be open to the United States for immigrants and commerce. It meant that the Erie Canal would have a reason to be built.
Major bicentennial commemorations of the 1813 Lake Erie Campaign are planned in Erie, Pa., and Put-in-Bay, Ohio, especially this coming Sept. 10. Western New York’s place in the story likewise warrants an appropriate celebration.
There are a number of prominent statues of Perry – in his home state of Rhode Island, in Pennsylvania and in Ohio – but none is more heroic than the Perry Monument in Buffalo’s Front Park. Placed there in 1915 as part of the 100th anniversary of the battle of Lake Erie, the subsequent building of the Peace Bridge and the Thruway have diminished the park and have left the Perry Monument isolated and forgotten.
The City of Buffalo, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and interested history and civic groups should consider relocating the Perry Monument, perhaps to the foot of Perry Street at the inner harbor. A rededication of the monument at the inner harbor would be a bicentennial event worthy of our greatest naval hero. It would enable Oliver Hazard Perry to serve again as part of Buffalo’s future – and return him to the forefront of Western New York’s history.
John M. Kuzdale is part of a team working with Hollywood professionals to transform Oliver Hazard Perry’s compelling saga into a major motion picture or TV mini series. The information presented here is based on the team’s seven years of research and extensive visits to the campaign’s battle sites in the United States and Canada.