By Sarah DeClerk
The Commodore Perry battle flag is one of the more popular historic flags. It’s iconic message, “Don’t give up the ship,” embodies the fighting spirit of the United States. It was this spirit that won the War of 1812, in which the U.S. fought against the United Kingdom and Native American allies.
The flag’s story does not start with Perry, but with his dear friend and fellow Captain, James Lawrence. In 1813, Lawrence was captain of the warship, Chesapeake. Off the northeast coast, he engaged in a short, fiery battle with the Royal Navy frigate, Shannon. The Chesapeake was disabled and Lawrence was mortally wounded. As his crew carried him below deck for treatment, he shouted, “Don’t give up the ship!” Sadly, his words were unheeded. A British boarding party captured Chesapeake and directed it to Nova Scotia. During that journey Captain Lawrence died.
When Perry heard about his friend’s death, he ordered a blue flag stitched with Lawrence’s dying command in memorandum. That Septermber under this flag, Perry sailed the aptly-named USS Lawrence into the Battle of Lake Erie. Although Lawrence’s crew did not obey the flag’s slogan, Perry’s crew did.
When the Royal Navy disabled the Lawrence, British Captain Robert Barclay sent over a small boat asking Perry to lower the flag and surrender. Perry denied that request. He and his remaining able-bodied crew fired off a final salvo and rowed a lifeboat a half-mile under heavy fire to the USS Niagara.
He ordered Niagara’s captain, Jesse Elliot, to move the fleet closer to the action while Perry steered Elliot’s Niagara toward the British ships. Perry broke through the opposing line and pummeled the enemy until they surrendered. He returned to the Lawrence and had all of his wounded crew brought on deck to witness the British surrender and validate the sacrifices they had made.
His bravery earned Perry the title “Hero of Lake Erie,” as well as a Congressional Gold Medal and was promoted to Commodore.