When many of us think of The Battle of Lake Erie, we typically conjure images of Commodore Perry making his famous longboat crossing from the Lawrence to the Niagara, through a hailstorm of cannon and musket fire, his motto flag draped across his shoulder. Dont Give Up The Ship. We see this blue flag flying all across the South Bass Island today, but do any of us really know the origin, or the myth, behind it? The truth may surprise you.
The phrase originated on June 1, 1813, when Captain James Lawrence was mortally wounded aboard the USS Chesapeake in a ship to ship action against the HMS Shannon on the Atlantic. As the wounded officer was being carried below, Captain Lawrence was heard to say “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her until she sinks.” His wishes were that the British not capture the Chesapeake, for if they did, it would become theirs and they could use it against the American navy. Unfortunately, his crew was unable to comply with these wishes and surrendered the Chesapeake minutes later. After languishing for three days, Captain James Lawrence died, but his final orders were echoed across nearly every newspaper in the U.S.
To Honor the fallen officer who’d been a friend of Commodore Perry, Perry’s flagship, being constructed in Erie, PA, was christened Lawrence.
On July 30, 1813, Samuel Hambleton, the purser for the Lawrence, recorded in his journal:
“I have just been given private orders for the making of a flag for the Lawrence, to be hoisted when we sail or when we go into action. I suggested the motto, which Capt. Perry, after a night’s reflection, approved – Don’t give up the ship. These are said to have been the last words of the gallant officer whose name our ship bears & they struck me as peculiarly appropriate to the purpose.”
Margaret Foster Steuart of Erie, PA, her sister Dorcas Bell, and their daughters are credited as being the women who stitched the motto flag, which measures 8’6” x 10’ and is made of wool.
At Put-in-Bay, a few nights before the Battle of Lake Erie, Commodore Perry summoned his commanders to the Lawrence, where he gave his final battle plans. Also revealed was his motto flag, which had been kept a secret until that time. This, he told them, would be his signal for close action.
On the morning of the battle, after finally catching a fair wind that would give his fleet the advantage, Perry had his flag brought to the quarter-deck of the Lawrence and unfurled it saying:
“My brave Lads! This flag contains the last words of Captain Lawrence! Shall I hoist it?”
At this, the crew burst into cheers and the flag was raised on the fore-royal mast of the Lawrence. From there, it rallied the American squadron to a legendary victory over the British.
Following the battle, the Lawrence was converted into a medical vessel and was sent back to Erie, PA with the sick and wounded. The schooner Ariel became Perry’s new flag ship and his motto flag was transferred to that vessel, where it remained until Perry left the lakes and returned east. At this, the motto flag and captured British flags were sent to Washington D.C.
In 1849, these flags were put on display at the Naval School Lyceum in Annapolis, MD. In 1912, a blue fabric treatment was added to the flag and it was briefly displayed at the Toledo Museum of Art. Upon its return to Annapolis, it was folded, set in a glass case, and put on display in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy. It remained there until 2002, at which time it was again restored and moved to Preble Hall at the Naval Academy. A replica of the flag hangs in Memorial Hall.
Interestingly, during the most recent restoration, the blue treatment was removed from one side of the flag. It was discovered that the original wool flag beneath had faded to brown. A test was done of the fabric and no trace of indigo, which would have been used to dye the flag blue, could be detected. It was determined that the flag had been black all along, and not blue. This fact is reinforced by a newspaper article that describes the flags when they first went on display at the Naval School Lyceum in 1849. That article describes the flag by saying:
“It is black (the death color) with Lawrence’s last words ‘Dont Give Up The Ship’ inscribed on it in white letters.”
Something else that we accept as fact is the idea that Commodore Perry transferred his motto flag to the Niagara when he made his famous crossing during the Battle of Lake Erie. This, surprisingly, may not have been so.
Following the Battle of Lake Erie, a bitter controversy arose over the conduct of Commodore Perry’s second in command, Jesse Duncan Elliott, during that battle. Elliott had been placed in command of the Niagara and was to have engaged at close action the HMS Queen Charlotte. For reasons still debated to this day, Elliott kept his vessel more than a mile away for most of the battle.
Eventually, Commodore Perry brought Elliott up on charges, most of which were in regards to Elliott’s positioning of his vessel during the battle and his conduct that followed.
In the third specification of his first charge, Perry states that Elliott was making claims in Erie, PA that in a fit of fear or despair, Perry had thrown his motto flag overboard and that another officer had saved it. This, Perry states, Elliott knew to be false, as “said flag was still flying on board of the Lawrence when Capt. Perry left that vessel.”
This claim is reinforced by a man named Ezekiel Fowler.
Following the Battle of Lake Erie, many men were seeking extra notoriety by claiming that, not only had they been at the famous battle, but they had also been one of the men who rowed Perry from the Lawrence to the Niagara. These claims reaching Perry’s ears, he set the record straight by naming the five men who actually rowed him. These names were left with his family and are preserved in the Perry Papers. Ezekiel Fowler was one of these men claimed by Perry.
Mr. Fowler passed away in September of 1852 at the Alms House on Blackwell’s Island in New York and was buried in a potter’s field on Ward’s Island. Fortunately, three months before he passed away, Ezekiel Fowler recorded his account of the battle. This account was only recently discovered hidden away at the Buffalo History Museum in Buffalo, NY.
The account is titled Memorandum on the Battle of Lake Erie and is four pages long. In it, Fowler describes the morning of the battle, what time the vessels sailed from Put-in-Bay, and even describes what Perry was wearing, that being a regular plain blue jacket, dark pants, and his tourniquet (or cravat) tucked into his pocket.
Ezekiel Fowler states further that: “The Comd. reached the Niagara – but the Comd. carried no fighting or other flag with him.”
Initial reports stated that Commodore Perry transferred his flag from the Lawrence to the Niagara. This was a figure of speech. Transferring one’s flag means simply that they transferred their command. The phrase was taken literally.
The fact that Perry may not have brought his battle flag with him to the Niagara doesn’t lessen its significance. In all honesty, after the large U.S. Flag that flew over Fort McHenry, which inspired The Star Spangled Banner, the Dont Give Up The Ship flag is regarded as the most revered flag in the government’s possession. After all, it was that flag that inspired and rallied the American sailors in Perry’s squadron to a victory over the British that glorious September day, which we still honor more than 200 years later.