When the War of 1812 began, Oliver Hazard Perry became commander of American forces on Lake Erie, stationed in Presque Isle, now Erie, Pennsylvania. He commissioned the building of nine ships, recruiting shipbuilders, blacksmiths, and other workers from throughout the region. By late July 1813, the ships were ready and 500 men had been trained to serve on them. In September, the crew set off to confront the British fleet in Put-in-Bay, stopping by Ballast Island, purportedly, to gather stones to use as ballast in the ships.
On the morning of September 10, Perry spotted the British fleet advancing from his lookout on Gibraltar Island, and the battle soon began. Early in the fighting, the six British ships exacted a significant toll on the Americans, largely because of the long-distance accuracy of the British cannons, and the Lawrence, Perry’s flagship, was soon destroyed with four-fifths of her crew killed or wounded. Perry then transferred his flag to the Niagara, rowing half a mile in heavy cannon fire to arrive at the ship. Shortly thereafter, the battle began to turn in favor of the Americans.
Before Perry’s arrival, the Niagara had done little to engage the British fleet, leaving her in good condition to inflict heavy cannon fire. In addition, the commander of each British ship had been killed or wounded, leaving less experienced junior officers in control. Perry rammed the Niagara into the lead British ship while his crew fired on the British sailors. Shortly thereafter, the British surrendered.
It was after the surrender that the 27-year-old Perry penned his most famous words to General William Henry Harrison:
“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
The victory at Lake Erie severed British supply lines to Detroit, forcing them to abandon the city. The American fleet controlled Lake Erie for the remainder of the war.