June 1st, 1813: Captain James Lawrence fell, mortally wounded, on the deck of the frigate Chesapeake, in an engagement with the British ship, Shannon. As he was being carried below, he utters the memorable words, “Don’t give up the Ship!” Five days later he died on board the Chesapeake, having lost the battle and the ship.
Fast forward to a lovely late summer morning among the islands off Malden, September 10th, 1813. At half-past nine o’clock, the ship cleared for action, Oliver Hazard Perry came on deck of Lawrence with a flag, and, unfurling it, said, “My brave lads, this flag contains the last words of Captain Lawrence. Shall I hoist it?” “Aye, aye, sir,” was the prompt response, and within a half hour, at the blast of a bugle sounded from HMS Detroit, the Battle of Lake Erie began. During the action the Lawrence was disabled, and in an open boat under enemy fire, Perry transferred this same flag to Niagara. While he, indeed, gave up the flagship Lawrence, he won the day, and ultimately received the surrender of the British officers on Lawrence’s bloody deck.
Few people remember that this flag was created in Erie, Pennsylvania. Perry’s purser, Samuel Hambleton, commissioned the flag to be made in July of 1813. The handwork was done in the home of Thomas Steuart, by his wife Margaret. Helping her was her sister, Dorcas Bell and her daughters Jane and Elizabeth, along with their nieces Elizabeth Rachel, Mary, and Catherine, all daughters of their brother, Col. Thomas Forster, who commanded the local militiamen who guarded Perry’s shipyards.
The Steuart House stood on Fourth Street near French, facing the lake, and was a double one-storied log and frame building. The room where they worked was well-lit and heated by a wood fireplace. There were few adornments to the home; simplicity in furniture and furnishing was the rule in a frontier home. For the entire Spring and Summer of 1813, a British advance by land or water was expected and feared, and all was kept in readiness for removal by wagon, south to Waterford. All of these women worked, knowing husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers served in the army and militia, both in regiments along the Niagara frontier as well as guarding the fleet under construction in Erie Harbor.
After the Battle of Lake Erie, Oliver Hazard Perry sent all of the ensigns, jacks, and pennants of the captured British squadron, as well as his own “DONT GIVE UP THE SHIP” flag, to Washington, DC. In 1849, President James Polk ordered the trophy flags captured by American Naval forces to be sent to the Naval School in Annapolis, Maryland, to be preserved and displayed. Graduates of the U. S. Naval Academy have taken their service oath beside Perry’s battle flag every year, until recently, when the flag was moved to be displayed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum.
The U.S. Brig USS Niagara can be seen at the Erie Maritime Museum. The ship is a reconstruction of the ship that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. It is one of the last two ships – the other is the U.S.S Constitution in Boston – surviving from the War of 1812. For more information about the Museum and its exhibits visit: http://www.eriemaritimemuseum.org/
Bill Knowlton, longtime host of WCNY’s popular Bluegrass Ramble radio show, discovered he’s a direct descendent of the sister, Ruth (1741-1832), of Martin Aiken. Martin was a member of Aiken’s Volunteers, a small company that fought in the War of 1812. On May 20, 1826, Congress passed a resolution that rewarded Aiken’s Volunteers for their bravery during the Battle of Plattsburg in September, 1814. The reward: one rifle for each of the company. This is the only time in American history that military service involved the rewarding of firearms.