“We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”—Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s dispatch to Gen. William Henry Harrison
This year begins the bicentennial commemoration of one of our least understood conflicts, the war we call The War of 1812. That war goes by other names in other countries, as the British and several other European countries were also fighting French Emperor Napoleon and there were other wars raging around the world at the time. Some consider 1812 the culmination of the Sixty Years’ War (French and Indian War in American history books), which included the Shawnee Nation’s long war to prevent European expansion into Ohio and other Midwestern states. Most of the war’s battles were fought at sea, as the British Navy had blockaded the east coast, and on the St. Lawrence River. Most fighting on land, except for the Battles of the Thames and of New Orleans (which was fought in 1814 after the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent) and the burning of Washington, D.C., by the British, involved skirmishes with the Indians, who had become British allies after the French fur traders retreated from Canada.
Next year there will be a re-enactment of Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over a British fleet in the Battle of Lake Erie at Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island. The Battle of Lake Erie was crucial to the outcome of the war, as it gave the Americans control of the lake and the entire Ohio valley, and led directly to Gen. William Henry Harrison’s victory over the British army at the Battle of the Thames in southern Ontario, during which the great Shawnee war chief Tecumseh was killed, effectively ending Indian wars in the east.
We’re familiar with the decisive Battle of Lake Erie partly due to the towering monument on South Bass Island. Less well known is the fascinating tale of how Perry’s squadron of ships was built and launched. Sheffield Village Historical Society Director Dr. Charles “Eddie” Herdendorf will tell that tale at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 1, at the Avon Historical Society, Old Town Hall, on the southeast corner of Routes 254 and 611 in Avon. Herdendorf will present “The War of 1812 on Lake Erie: How Geology Influenced the Battle of Lake Erie.” The program is free.
“When the War of 1812 broke out, the United States didn’t have a navy on Lake Erie, and the British controlled the lake,” Herdendorf said. “The Americans decided to build a fleet in Presque Isle Bay at Erie, Pa. A shallow sandbar existed across the mouth of Presque Isle Bay then that limited the draft of vessels that could cross the barrier and enter the harbor. That meant the warships of the British fleet, with their heavy canons, were unable to enter the bay and disrupt construction of the fleet.
“During the building of Perry’s fleet, British Capt. Robert H. Barclay kept watch on the progress and maintained a blockade outside the spit,” Herdendorf said. “Perry knew he must also cross the sandbar, but this would have to be done before the heavy armaments were on board. Once the fleet was completed, Perry waited for his chance. When Barclay crossed the lake to reprovision at Port Dover on July 31, 1813, Perry made his move. Perry successfully moved his fleet over the bar by noon on Aug. 6, but without canons on his brigs. That afternoon, Barclay’s sails were spotted on the horizon. Perry decided to line his vessels up as if he intended to attack. Amazingly, the bluff worked, and the British fleet retired to Long Point on the north shore.
“Some five weeks later, on Sept. 13, the British and American fleets met in battle near West Sister Island, and Perry emerged victorious,” Herdendorf said. His illustrated presentation on Feb. 1 will discuss the geological processes that formed the Presque Isle sand spit and the barrier, as well as the influence these geomorphic features had on the War of 1812.
Herdendorf, OSU emeritus professor of physical sciences and geology and founder of Ohio Sea Grant, will also conduct a two-hour continuing education adult “minicourse” at Lorain County Community College from 1 to 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 20, in LCCC’s Spitzer Center Room 113. (There is a $14 fee payable to the college for attendance.) Call 440-366-4067 or 800- 995-5222, ex.t 4067 or 4032, for registration information (Course No. NSCI 131C, Section DE01, Class No. 4628. The course is entitled, “Volcanoes to glaciers—3 billion years of spectacular Great Lakes scenery in the making,” and traces the geological evolution of the Great Lakes from molten rocks of the pre-Cambrian Era, through the tropical seas of the Paleozoic Era (when Dunkleosteus terrelli ruled the waters), to the glacial advances of the Pleistocene Epoch through contemporary geological processes that continue to shape the Great Lakes.