We Have Met the Enemy

by Richard Brookhiser

The War of 1812 gets lost in our memory, especially now when its bicentennial coincides with the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. 

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, a battle between American and British fleets at the western end of the lake. The climax came in one of those events we read as ripping yarns in Patrick O’Brian, but which actually do sometimes happen. The American commander, 28-year-old Oliver Hazard Perry, left his burning flagship, the USS Lawrence, and was rowed half a mile under enemy fire to his second ship, the USS Niagara; returning to the attack, he forced the enemy to surrender.

His terse description of the battle – “We have met the enemy and they are ours” — went straight to the log books of immortality.

The battle had two important results. It cleared William Henry Harrison’s flank, allowing him to march into Upper Canada (modern Ontario) and win a rare American victory at the Battle of the Thames (notable for the death of Tecumseh, the only Indian leader with the strategic and political savvy which might have enabled him to stop westward expansion).

America’s control of Lake Erie would also be a key factor the following year when the ministry asked the Duke of Wellington to go to America himself and wrap up the war for Britain. The Duke looked at the map and the lakes and said, no. Peace soon followed.

Memo to 28-year-olds (and to all of us): Keep fighting.