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War of 1812: Part III - American Ships

The War of 1812 changed lives all along the Niagara Frontier.  It was savage on land and on the water where British and American warships fought for control of the Great Lakes.  WBFO News contributor Rich Kellman reports on this bicentennial of the War of 1812.

Back on September 12, 2012 around 200 Western New Yorkers gathered at Canalside in the Buffalo harbor. It was a bright sunny day, and emerging from the trees, rounding the bend from Lake Erie, was a reconstruction of the historic tall ship Niagara.

Reconstruction of the Niagara which visited Buffalo in September

“Most of the battles were fought along the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes region,” says historian Douglas DeCroix of Western New York Heritage Press. “The Great Lakes were really the most viable transportation route from the Atlantic seaboard into the heart of North America.”

The Niagara was the victory flagship for Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in the War of 1812. Guiding this Niagara into Buffalo last September was Senior Captain Walter Rybka. “The Niagara was responsible for carrying Perry to victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, September 10, 1813,” he tells us.

Perry transferred to the Niagara from the Lawrence, that was heavily damaged. It was on the newly designated flagship Niagara that Perry proclaimed his now-famous, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Perry’s personal battle flag read, “Don’t give up the ship.”

But what ships were these?  “You couldn’t bring Atlantic seagoing vessels into the lake and have them operate, and particularly Lake Erie,” DeCroix. “We couldn’t get them around Niagara Falls.” So both sides had to build new ships on the shores of the lakes themselves. “You had to build your navy on these inland seas, as it were, to try to build a bigger fleet, and then to try to gain superiority on the lakes.”

Painting of a British and an American ship in action in the Battle of Lake Erie

In the end, nine American ships  defeated six ships of the British Royal Navy. The Americans controlled Lake Erie for the rest of the war.  

On land, meanwhile, the Americans burned York, now Toronto, and Newark, which is now Niagara-on-the-Lake. The British and Canadians retaliated. DeCroix says, “They burned essentially the entire American side of the Niagara Frontier, starting with Fort Niagara and Youngstown, and working their way down to Buffalo by the end of the year.”

In 1814, the British burned the White House, the Capitol building, and the Library of Congress. They bombarded  Fort McHenry in Baltimore, where Francis Scott key wrote what became the US national anthem. The poem was later set to the tune of an English drinking song called "To Anacreon in Heaven."

Amherst Town Historian David Sherman points out that the 15-star flag was the one the anthem was about. Sherman flies such a flag from his own house on Columbia Drive in Williamsville. “My goal is to have every public building in Buffalo and Erie County fly the 15-star flag on December 30, 2013, the 200th anniversary of the day that British burned Buffalo,” he says.  He flies the flag, he says, to show respect for the military, the civilians, for everyone involved, who had a stake in the War of 1812.  

Regarding the naval battles on the great lakes, Captain Walter Rybka says they sent a message to world powers that the infant nation in North America was a force to be reckoned with. “We fought to get Britain to take us seriously”, he says,  “and in the end, they did. And we learned to take ourselves seriously.”

The Canadians also took themselves seriously, for the first time, which put them on the road to nationhood in 1867.

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