“We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours . . .”
The U.S. Brig Niagara, home-ported in Erie, Pennsylvania, is the reconstructed relief flagship of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. She is the embodiment of the dual mission of the Erie Maritime Museum and the Flagship Niagara League: she is both a historical artifact and a vehicle for sail training, an experiential learning process that preserves the skills of square-rig seamanship.
On September 10, 1813, nine small ships — six of them, including Niagara, constructed at Erie – defeated a British squadron of six vessels in the Battle of Lake Erie. A pivotal event in the War of 1812, it led to regaining Detroit, lost at the war’s outset, and lifted the nation’s morale.
The U.S. Brig Niagara is a two-masted, square-rigged sailing vessel. In 1813, she had a crew of 155 men and boys who manned her sails, 18 carronades and two long guns. The crew was organized into two watch sections (port and starboard) for routine duties while underway. More experienced sailors were stationed aloft, while others under the direction of petty officers manned the rigging which controlled the sails from deck. In battle, men also manned the guns and carronades. Boys carried the black powder charges from the magazine to the guns. Marines and soldiers were assigned to the fighting tops on the masts where they could fire their muskets on the enemy ships. Officers directed setting sails, firing cannon, and maneuvering the brig in response to orders from the captain.
Living conditions for the crew were very poor, leading to the rapid spread of sickness and disease. The berthing deck provided adequate space for all officers and midshipmen, but only minimal hammock space for less than half the enlisted crew. Many probably slept on the open deck. An iron galley stove was located on the berthing deck just aft of the foremast. Sanitary facilities were primitive. Fresh water for cooking, drinking and bathing was obtained by bucket directly from Lake Erie which was, and is, fresh water. After disease broke out in the fleet in 1813, Commodore Perry ordered all lake water to be boiled before use.
On September 10th, 1813, the British under Commodore Robert Heriot Barclay and the Americans under Perry met in battle near Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Perry’s flagship, Lawrence, engaged the British ships Detroit and Queen Charlotte, while the Niagara, for unknown reasons, did not close the enemy.
After the Lawrence was completely disabled, with most of her crew wounded or killed, Perry transferred by boat to the undamaged Niagara, hoisted his battle flag – “DONT GIVE UPTHE SHIP” – sailed her into close action, broke the British battle line, and forced Barclay to surrender. In the aftermath, Commodore Perry wrote his famous report to General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop.”
The current Niagara, the third reconstruction of the original vessel, was launched in Erie in 1988, the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. Niagara sails the Great Lakes, preserving and interpreting the story of the Battle of Lake Erie, and acting as an ambassador in her capacity as the flagship of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. As a Sailing School Vessel, her crew of professionals and trainees actively preserve the skills of square-rig seamanship.