Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Most Important Battle Ever Fought on Lake Erie

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, a short but intense* shoot-out between American and British naval squadrons that killed or wounded 260 people and resulted in the disabling or capture of six British ships.  The battle made American commandant Oliver Hazard Perry a war hero - one of the few that the obscure and inglorious War of 1812 produced - with a popular tagline, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."

It was also, however, an important episode in Native American history, even though no Indians fought in the naval engagement.  Prior to the battle of September 10th, British ships controlled most of the Great Lakes and used this control to seize American forts in the region and to supply His Majesty's Native allies.  After the Battle of Lake Erie, the Americans were able to ship 5,000 men across the west end of Lake Erie to Detroit, which they retook from British forces before marching into southwestern Ontario.  It was there that the Indian confederation of Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa made their wartime headquarters, and there that American forces smashed the confederacy on October 5th, at the Battle of Moraviantown. Native American casualties in the battle were light, but they included Tecumseh, whose death fatally demoralized his already exhausted confederates. 

In this case, it wasn't just superior American numbers that mattered, but also superior American mobility, without which the United States would not have been able to move so many men so far away from their supply base.  The fall of Tecumseh's confederacy thus resulted, part, from a fateful imbalance between U.S. and Northwest Indian forces: one side had a navy, and the other did not. (H/t to Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance [1992], 184-185.)


* British sailors who'd fought in both the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Lake Erie said that the 1813 engagement was more vicious and violent.

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