Battle of Lake Erie 200 Years Later: Lessons Learned

Earlier today, Vice Adm. Michelle Howard gave a speech at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s National Museum of the U.S. Navy about the importance of remembering the Battle of Lake Erie.

Sept. 10, 2013, marks the battle’s 200th anniversary. While our ships, allies and platforms are different, our Sailors’ spirit remains the same as it did under the guidance of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Below is an excerpt from her speech.

A painting shows a scene from the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813. The battle took place between the opposing forces of the U.S. and Britain on the contested waters of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie was one of the pivotal points of the war, with the United States trying to invade parts of Canada to use as a bargaining chip against the British in order to gain Sailor's rights and Free Trade.

A painting shows a scene from the Battle of Lake Erie, Sept. 10, 1813. The battle took place between the opposing forces of the U.S. and Britain on the contested waters of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. The Battle of Lake Erie was one of the pivotal points of the war, with the United States trying to invade parts of Canada to use as a bargaining chip against the British in order to gain Sailor’s rights and Free Trade.

Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection.

Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection.

There are multiple lessons to be learned from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the campaign of the Great Lakes; I’d like to highlight a few thoughts that I believe are relevant.  Since I’m the Plans, Operations, and Strategy leader for the chief of Naval Operations, I’ll couch my lessons in the tactical, operational, and strategic implications in the Battle of Lake Erie.

At the tactical level; although much has changed in ships and ship building, we still have the United States Sailor as the lifeblood of the crew. We are a capital intensive service, but it is our people who bring the ship to life; operate the gear, and transform a hull into a war fighting prowess.

The battles on the Great Lakes took place at the very edge of our nation. For Commodore Perry, who had to build his ships first, resourcing at the end of a long and vulnerable logistic trail was an immediate problem. His lack of supplies hampered his ship building, but of greater concern to him was the lack of Sailors and Marines. His frustration over the lack of manpower led to a series of bitter letter exchanges between him and his immediate boss, Commodore Chauncy. He ended up taking his appeals for people directly to the Secretary of the Navy. He was forced to publish handbills and was able to raise volunteers from the local militia; and frontiersmen.

Then there was a joint solution. Failing to achieve sufficient numbers through volunteers, Perry appealed to Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison, the local Army commander. Harrison sent to Perry all Soldiers who would admit to having some sea experience, as well as 100 sharpshooters.1

An operational lesson comes as a result of being at the long end of the logistic trail for the British Navy. The British did not have enough materiel. Cannons, shot and gunpowder were in short supply. Both navies were familiar with the need to train the way you fight. British Commander Barclay exercised his crews several hours a day. Mindful of the need to store gunpowder for actual battle, he had his crews simulate the steps of firing cannon.

This proved to be a disadvantage on the day of the fight. The long guns of his flagship Detroit had not been exercised. The big guns require a slow match to produce the spark. With simulation, the crews had not been required to ignite the powder; and his gun captains found themselves without the long slow matches as they prepared for imminent battle. There was no time to make substitute matches and the gunnery teams were reduced to loading and firing pistols into the vents of the cannon to make them fire. It’s clearly difficult to quantify how the additional time it took to fire the cannon impacted the battle.  But it is clear to me that all friction that comes from the physics of warfare adds to the scales that could mean defeat or victory.

There are shortfalls that teams only learn through the actual act of doing. The reliance on 100 percent simulation covers up vulnerabilities that if found before the fight, can be mitigated.

I’m now in a job that underpins the train, equip and man responsibilities of the Navy. Regardless of the reason, when resources are scarce, leaders will attempt to husband means to reduce expenditure of assets. Simulation will appear to be the panacea for efficient and less costly war fighting preparation. We will need to keep in mind the requirement to preserve live training for our Sailors and fleets in order to be ready when our Nation needs us.

Logistic limitations affected both sides of the war. Operational shortfalls impact the way we fight. All vulnerabilities force you to be innovative. One tactic that comes to the forefront frequently in wars is operational deception. When you don’t have enough, you work to deceive your adversaries about where you are and how many of you there are. At the start of the War of 1812, the Siege of Detroit led to the withdrawal of American forces. British Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock and Native American Chief Tecumseh used operational deception to fool General Hull into believing he faced overwhelming forces.

Letters meant to be intercepted exaggerated the size of British and Native forces.  Tecumseh ran the same group of braves past a wooded opening several times to fool Americans holed up in the fort on enemy numbers. Fearing a massacre Hull surrendered. The British captured the Northwest bringing strategic importance for both American and British governments to gain control of the Great Lakes.

For us today, coming out of the post-9/11 conflicts, our challenge will be to create the environment where we are innovative without the crucible of war galvanizing us.

We will have smaller armed forces. We’ll need to reinvigorate operational deception across all domains of warfare. In addition to the maritime domain of 1813, we now have space, air and cyber. Spoofing, causing the enemy to distrust his sources or hesitate in the fight, will give us an asymmetrical advantage. Fostering opportunities for our Sailors to think about the newer domains in warfighting context will pay dividends later.

Strategically, the Battle of Lake Erie has much to say as we move into the next few decades and create our own defense strategies. The lessons come not only recognizing the heroics of Perry and his crews, but from understanding the war from our previous adversary’s perspective.

We are closer now to the Red Coats in the strategic implications of the War of 1812.

We have the Navy that dominates the seas. Our Navy can project power across the oceans. Our ships and people are considered a standard for other navies to emulate.

The geography of the world has remained constant. Many of the principles of warfare highlight the need to concentrate mass and to understand the landscape before the fight begins. Distance challenges both of these precepts. However, both political and physical will can be found in allies. The cultural understanding of both the environment and adversaries comes from partners who live in that part of the world.

Indeed, our current defense strategy recognizes the importance of partners and allies in working to prevent war and the strength of fighting together should it come to war.

The 1813 British also recognized the need for partners. They relied on Canadian frontiersmen and Native Americans to fill out their crews; and to fight ashore. A closer look at the relationship provides food for thought. When we fight overseas, our partners will have different perspectives and end goals. They live in the area, and conflict will impact their families and lives. If our friends lose territory, there is no place to “fall back” to. Conflict to the home team means the risk of losing their country. Winning the conflict is tied to survival.

Timing becomes a strategic issue. There is pressure to defeat the adversary quickly. Long campaigns can run against the partnership as the will to fight together is tested.

The British found many of these issues to be true in their partnership with American Indians. Promises were made to ensure wives and children would be housed and fed, to free up braves to fight. Food, shelter, and arms did not come through as the British found it hard to generate enough resources to be self-sufficient at a great distance from home, let alone provision for partner’s families.

With lack of means and with concerns over the welfare of survival for their families; planning sessions turned to squabbles. Disgust and distrust were factors that broke the alliance as much as failure to win battles.

Another reality about partnerships is personality and individual relationships gain importance in conflict. It’s hard to imagine many of the wars our nation has fought without placing appropriate focus on leaders like Lafayette, or Winston Churchill and their relationships with their American counterparts.

Tecumseh was just such a person for the British. A charismatic leader, he persuaded other tribes to join the British in the fight. Understanding our peers and partners, who they are; what they stand for; where we have common ground; is essential to the prevention of war and to the success of a fight. Relationships must be cultivated in the time between conflicts; to minimize misunderstanding and miscalculation during the conflict.

Relationships are perhaps a good place to end my talk. As much as we can apply lessons to the levels of war; there are some fundamental perspectives that resound through navies, nations and time. The bonds of service are strong. It is our fellow Sailor, Soldier, Airman, or Marine, or Coast Guardsman that inspire us in the fight.  I suspect that every time Master Commandant Perry pulled out his pocket watch, he thought of his good friend James Lawrence.

"Don't give up the ship."

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s “Don’t give up the ship”

On a personal level, the Battle of Lake Erie was more than a glorious victory. The Battle of Lake Erie was vindication for his friend’s sacrifice. Perry hauled up the flag with his friend’s dying words on the morning of the battle.  “Don’t give up the ship” was tribute and rally cry for the Sailors, frontiersmen, Indians, and Soldiers who made up Perry’s flotilla. Those men’s deeds on Sept. 10, 1813, gave us the U.S. Navy of today.  Our Sailors will give us the U.S. Navy of tomorrow. It is worthwhile to remember Perry’s crews; those words; that timely victory as we sail into the future. Thank you.

1 The Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy, Craig L. Symonds, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1995

See the original post – 

Battle of Lake Erie 200 Years Later: Lessons Learned