“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

Oliver Hazard Perry by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1813

Oliver Hazard Perry by Rembrandt Peale, ca. 1813

Today is the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, 27-year old Oliver Hazard Perry’s unlikely victory over the British fleet in Lake Erie during the War of 1812.  The fact that the commander of the U.S. Navy in Lake Erie was 27 years old is a sign of just how desperate and underdeveloped the Navy was in 1813!  Nevertheless, his confident (and only slightly boastful) statement that “we have met the enemy, and they are ours,” is remembered today, especially by people who live near Lake Erie.  And, it was probably for the best that the Navy got its use out of him while young, as it did with most of its seamen, as he died of yellow fever at the age of 34 in 1819.

You can read more about the battle and its re-enactment on Labor Day this year at The Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial webpage, complete with a video of the replica of Perry’s ship The Niagra.  (Unfortunately, it’s marred by using that hideously ubiquitous song by “F.U.N.,” which is pretentious and overplayed.)  They’ve set up a Twitter account for the old commodore, and there’s more information about the battle at “The” Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory, a freshwater research lab on Gibraltar Island in Lake Erie.

OHP by Jane Stuart, ca. 1857

OHP by Jane Stuart, ca. 1857

It’s interesting to note that Perry’s portrait was done by two early American artists, by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860) in life shortly after Perry’s victory, and by Jane Stuart (1812-88), daughter of Gilbert Stuart, posthumously in the late 1850s.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stuart’s posthumous portrait is much more popular on the interwebs, as it portrays Perry much more effectively (if less accurately) as a Regency naval hero who looks like he could have stood for Jane Austen’s Captain Wentworth in Persuasion.

7 thoughts on ““We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

  1. There was a BBC History Extra podcast a couple of years ago where a British historian said, “War of 1812 wasn’t a war, really: we were occupied with a real war on the continent and you Yanks just lucked out by blowing holes in a couple of our ancient, creaking battleships. We could have licked you if we’d really tried.” (I’m paraphrasing.)


  2. Well, yeah: they could have won the Revolution if they had waged war at all costs, but they had just done that in the Seven Years’ War, and then there was that Napoleon guy they had to dispatch before turning westward. . .

    The War of 1812 is a mostly forgotten war because 1) it was a re-run of the Revolution, 2) it was mostly a stalemate, except that burning Washington D.C. was a much bigger deal than burning down Toronto in 1812, and 3) it was always understood as a partisan war pushed by the Democrats & opposed and resented by the Federalists/Whigs. So, in spite of the burning down of the U.S. Capitol (!) no national unity, no stirring moments aside from relatively minor battles in the Great Lakes like Lake Erie.

    Plus, let’s not forget the three biggest reasons to forget the War of 1812: it gave us William Henry Harrison, Andy Jackson, and the national anthem, all of which we really could have done better without. (Well, give credit to Harrison: he dropped dead before he could do much damage as president.)

    One cool story that comes out of the War of 1812 is that Zebulon Pike, the mostly inept U.S. explorer who stumbled into Colorado and up the Peak to which he gave his name? That guy was killed in the taking of Fort York (Toronto), but as an officer his body was pickled in a vat of rum or whiskey (I can’t forget–it was drinkable stuff) so that he could be ferried across the lakes back to be buried in the U.S. EEEEWwwwwww! (Courtesy of my colleague Jared Orsi, who will soon publish his biography of Pike.)


  3. Pike was friends, or at least colleague-acquaintances, with a guy who I track who never got to the mountaintop, but who did get his 15 minutes of national facetime at the Battle of New Orleans, and will take a lot longer to excavate from the record than did Old Zeb. (Who went to school in a town that I flunked out of a school in once).

    But this reminds me of Walter S. Newberry, who died on a steamer off the coast of France the morning before landing. The much disappointed Mrs. N. ordered him to be marinated in a 1000 gallon bbl of the best French brandy, and shipped back to New York on the next leg. From there one of Mr. Vanderbilt’s trains took him to Chicago, where he was buried in a cemetery just north of Wrigley Field, I think. I sort of remember seeing pictures of the workmen rolling the huge barrel toward the open grave. And the Cubs have only won a few post-season series since that day. (This account can be corrected by anyone who knows any of the actual facts).


  4. p.s. Not to be confused with, or rather *to* be conflated with, Walter Loomis Newberry, who was the actual and intended subject of the previous comment. They can lead you to a Great Lake–with a fellowship–but they can’t make you think! 🙂


  5. Wasn’t the rum treatment common? I recall the same story about Pakenham after the battle of New Orleans, except I think the sailors allegedly drank the rum on the way home.


  6. I’m sure you’re right. I’ve never written about naval warfare, so I’m no expert on how officers’ bodies were treated. I think in most 17th and 18th C land wars in North America, people were for the most part buried where they fell, or nearby. Remember, fighting usually took place in the warmer months (May or June through early October), so they were up against the clock of decomposition.

    As for drinking the booze anyway: that’s basically the story of Pike’s pickling, too. Again, eeeewwwwwww!!!!! Bleah. Phfff-tooey.


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