When I tell people that I’ve written a book about The Battle of Lake Erie, they very often ask me if I’m from the area, either Detroit or, usually, Erie, Pennsylvania. I’m not.
I’ve been to Detroit once (actually Novi, Michigan) to pack up my step-mother’s belongings after she married my father, and I’ve never set foot in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
No, I have no roots in the area and no ties. Without any connections to the area, why would I decide to take roughly a year of my life to research, write and continuously rewrite a book about that engagement in a nearly forgotten war?
Years ago, in an effort to learn more about American history, I began a project to read at least one biography of every president in order. I began with The First of Men, a biography of George Washington that I considered to be less than stellar. From there, I moved on to more established works around the first Adams (by Page Smith) and Jefferson (the six volume work by Dumas Malone). After that wonderfully written exploration of Jefferson’s life, I collected all six volumes to Irving Brant’s biography of James Madison.
I loved the book. I read it quickly and thoroughly. It’s unfortunately out of print (and potentially a copyright orphan which marks the beginnings of my hatred of modern day copyright law), so I will never part with a single volume. It was in the sixth volume that details the second half of Madison’s presidency through the rest of his life that Brant wrote a page and a half long description of that engagement on Lake Erie.
The description of Oliver Hazard Perry transferring his flag from the Lawrence to the Niagara in the middle of battle thrilled me in those few sentences Brant offered. I simply had to know more, so I began the surface level Internet sleuthing that we all do when we encounter something new that excites us. One of the first things I found was the massive painting of that very crossing that hangs on the Senate side of the Capitol building in Washington D.C..
As you can see, Perry is the focus of that picture and draws the eye squarely onto him, but I found it impossible to miss the young boy desperately grabbing him by the shirt and attempting to drag the standing commodore to the relative safety of the small dinghy.
“No way was there a child there,” I said out loud to myself. I had some knowledge of maritime traditions of the time and knew that children of thirteen often did serve on naval vessels as junior officers, but I simply could no believe that a child was there at Lake Erie. The Senate website has a handy description of the picture which told me that I was wrong. Not only was that child there, but that child was none other than James Alexander Perry, the commodore’s younger brother.
I was gobsmacked. I read more and more and found out that James Alexander was certainly a midshipman on the USS Lawrence during the battle and that he possibly (two main first hand accounts disagree about that detail) was on that dinghy with his brother and sailed to the Niagara in the middle of danger along with his older brother and commanding officer.
It was at that moment that I decided to write a book about the battle.
I read about a dozen books about the war itself, the battle, lives of both Oliver Hazard Perry and Jesse Elliott (the commanding officer of the Niagara), and the conflict that emerged from Elliott’s actions in the battle. And then I wrote. I went through several drafts until I came up with a book that thrilled me and made me happy to read.
I feel like the battle itself, as well as the War of 1812 at large, are far too forgotten by the American public of today, and this is my small effort to help inform the world about one of the most exciting naval engagements America ever took part in.