(Photo credit: Aerial view of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, Put-in-Bay, Ohio, courtesy NOAA’s National Ocean Service, Flickr Creative Commons)
Today marks the 200th anniversary of Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory over the British at the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813—part of the ultimately futile War of 1812 (which lasted through 1813, 1814, and, unofficially, early1815). This battle is probably best remembered for the words on Perry’s battle flag: “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP.” Perry’s other best-remembered quote relates to the report he gave his commander, future president William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” It all sounds very dashing. And indeed, Perry was a bit of a naval hero, which helps explain why so many U.S. Navy ships have been named after him over the years—another form of memorializing, if you will. (Actually, at some point I’ll have to return to this practice of naming ships, buildings, bases, roads, etc. after famous people. I think that’s a part of the conversation I should be having about memorializing people and places and things in the public space.)
Anyway, Perry’s besting of the Brits is commemorated at the Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, located at the Ohio village of Put-in Bay, on the southwestern shore of Lake Erie. It’s a National Park Service site, so there’s the usual round of tours and interpretive talks organized by the park rangers there (mostly during the summer). Today there’s lot going on, not surprisingly, starting with a special ceremony by the U.S. Postal Service, which is releasing a stamp commemorating the battle. Then there’s a wreath-laying ceremony, followed by a Battle of Lake Erie Commemorative Procession (including U.S. Sea Cadets, Parks Canada re-enactors, and Native American and First Nations representatives); a commemorative program to honor all the men who fought in the battle; and finally, a peace concert.
As its name suggests, the site is dedicated to peace between the belligerent nation-states, though only after making it clear that the United States—huzzah!—actually won this one quite decisively. Thus three flags, those of the United States, Britain, and Canada, are placed on flagpoles of equal height, symbolizing peace between the former belligerents. (According to the Flag Code the Stars and Stripes should normally always be in a position of prominence over any other flag). But towering over these peace-loving flags is the 352-foot Perry Monument, symbolizing American victory.
In fact the Americans did do rather well in engagements at sea, even while their armies were pretty hopeless on land (with the exception of Jackson’s stunning, last-minute victory at the Battle of New Orleans). This brings us to an awkward fact about the War of 1812: Nobody won outright. It was essentially a tie, as evidenced by the fact that the Treaty of Ghent returned the situation to the status quo ante. (The park also commemorates the demilitarization of the Great Lakes after the war.) Having said that, many Canadians consider the War of 1812 a sort of victory because they helped throw back the rapacious Americans to keep Canada in the British Empire, while also giving birth to an early sense of Canadian identity and national consciousness. Still, overall, it was a tie. That probably explains why so many Americans know almost nothing about the war overall. We’re in the middle of the bicentennial celebrations for the War of 1812, but you probably haven’t noticed, unless you live in Maryland, where it’s on the license plates. Thanks, Fort McHenry!