Gateway to the Classics: American History Stories, Volume III by Mara L. Pratt
American History Stories, Volume III by  Mara L. Pratt

Commodore Perry

There was in the navy another brave young captain—Oliver Perry—who had been busy building a fleet of nine vessels to attack the British vessels which had taken possession of Lake Erie.

When these were finished, he named the one which he himself was to command, the Lawrence, in honor of our dead hero.

After the vessels were finished, it was a long time before men could be found to man them. General Harrison—you haven't forgotten General Harrison and the Indian chief, I hope—sent one hundred riflemen from Kentucky, who, dressed in their hunting suits and deer-skin leggings, made a very funny looking crew; and a little later, the New England States collected from their coasts another hundred men. These men were real sailors. They had been in service on the Atlantic,—some of them for long, long years.

When these sailors, some of them gray-headed old seadogs, as they called themselves, were gathered together, it was found their sea-legs, of which they were so proud, and in which the country was putting so much confidence, were entirely unfitted for marching on land. They rolled around like barrels, and had so little idea of military orders and marching, that their commander declared he could do nothing with them.

Much fun did these "jolly tars" have over their attempts to behave like soldiers; and I fancy they were not very sorry when it was decided to send them to Lake Erie in stage-coaches.

So twelve great coaches were fitted out; and with a band on top, flags and streamers flying, these merry sailors started off across the country, singing and shouting, the band playing Yankee Doodle, Hail Columbia, and all the other national airs, as they rattled through the villages.

And now that the vessels were manned, Captain Perry had only to wait for the appearance of the English fleet. Day after day he waited; at last, one bright morning, the cry of "Sail, ho!" was heard from the mast-head. The English were really approaching! Word spread from vessel to vessel, and every officer and every sailor was on the alert.

Perry watched their approach through his glass, and found that there were only six ships, while he had nine; but as they drew nearer, he found that each vessel carried sixty-three guns, while his carried only fifty-four. This convinced him that if his vessels could get close upon the English, the advantage would be upon the American side; but if he allowed an engagement to take place at a distance, the sixty-three guns could do the deadlier work.

Explaining this to his men, it was agreed to advance quickly, and save their fire till they were close upon the English fleet. Then, bringing forth a simple banner, on which were inscribed "Don't give up the ship!" Perry said, "Boys, these were the dying words of the brave Lawrence. Shall we hoist this banner upon our vessel?"

Of course the men understood his meaning at once; and "Aye, aye, sir!" rang forth over the waters, followed by cheer on cheer, until it reached the very shores, and came resounding back, awaking in the hearts of the English crew a dread of what was about to happen.

Then followed a terrible scene of death and bloodshed. For three hours the battle raged. The decks ran blood; the air was filled with fire and smoke; and amid the deafening thunder of the guns, were heard the agonizing cries of the wounded. The men fought as never men fought before, refusing to leave their guns, in spite of wounds upon wounds. At last, the Lawrence lay a battered hulk, at the mercy of the enemy. But Perry was not dismayed. Finding his own ship now helpless, only eighteen of his hundred brave men still standing, he ordered a boat to be lowered.

"To the Niagara! to the Niagara!" cried he; and wrapping himself in the flag, he leaped into the boat, and was rowed across to the Niagara.

Above him, below him, and on either side whizzed the English balls! Reaching the vessel, he hastily climbed her sides and again the terrible battle was renewed.

Bang! bang! went the Niagara's guns; and in fifteen minutes the battle was over. The English ships struck their colors, and the white flag of surrender was hoisted.

Two of the English ships turned to escape, but two of the American vessels gave chase, and soon they were brought back, prisoners.

The English officers, one by one, tendered their swords to Perry; but he generously refused to take them, and treated the prisoners throughout with such kindness that the English captain himself said, "Perry's kindness alone has earned him the name of hero."

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