By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
When it comes to memorable flags, they’re not always the Stars and Stripes of the American flag.
Sometimes it can be just a simple piece of cloth with a meaningful message that will be the driving force to victory.
On this celebration of Flag Friday, let’s look at a simple piece of fabric flying from the mast of the USS Lawrence 202 years ago on Sept. 10, 1813. On that flag waved the battle cry of the Lake Erie squadron: Dont Give Up The Ship.
The inspiration for that inspirational statement came from the final command of USS Lawrence’s namesake, Capt. James Lawrence, who was mortally wounded while his ship, USS Chesapeake, battled HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813 in Boston Harbor.
Capt. Lawrence was a friend of Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry, who was the commodore of a squadron of ships on Lake Erie. Perry named his new brig and flagship ‘Lawrence’ after his friend. As he prepared to battle the British, he wanted a special ensign or flag to notify the rest of the squadron when to engage the British. Perry’s purser, Samuel Hambleton, suggested “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” and Perry agreed. Hambleton found seamstresses in Erie, Penn., who made the flags with white lettering, giving them to the captains of Perry’s squadron and on the day of the battle, to Perry himself.
At noon on Sept. 10, Perry and his squadron sailed out of Put-In Bay into Lake Erie as the British sailed from the north and began to line up for battle. HMS Detroit fired first, but out of its range at 1 ½ miles.
As both fleets engaged in battle, USS Niagara lagged behind and was unable to fire over the American ships. USS Lawrence, however, was taking a beating from both Detroit and HMS Queen Charlotte. Of the 27 Americans killed during the battle, 22 came from USS Lawrence. After more than two hours of battle, all of the guns on the enemy’s side of the brig had been shot away and the ship was non-responsive.
And here is where a quick decision changed the course of a battle.
Perry noticed Niagara behind the line of fire. After hailing a small boat, Perry and his brother, Alexander, transferred from Lawrence to the relatively undamaged Niagara.
But the British read Perry’s move wrong. From their vantage point, they thought Perry was surrendering his ship, so they ceased firing. The British’s move was like spiking the football after a game-winning reception just six inches from the finish line when the score is tied 10-10 with no time left on the clock at the Super Bowl.
With the Niagara’s former captain, Jesse Elliott, dispatched to form up smaller ships, Perry commandeered his relief flagship between HMS Lady Prevost and HMS Chippewa on his portside with the tangled-up Detroit and Queen Charlotte on his starboard side.
With both broadsides firing, Niagara racked over the British vessels. By 2:50 p.m., it was over, and Perry sent a message to Gen. William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours – two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”
The Battle of Lake Erie galvanized the U.S. Navy and the nation with its first major victory of the War of 1812. Perry’s squadron would eventually control the upper Canada regions, pushing the British back, which eventually created the northern boundaries of the United States.
Ironically, before Perry left USS Lawrence, he hauled down his personal ensign: “Dont Give Up The Ship.” The battle flag is now a part of the United States Naval Academy Museum’s collection and of course one of the most famous flags in naval history.