WHEN THE BRITISH WERE COMING!
Dunkirk, Point Gratiot was a battleground more than 200 years ago in War of 1812
The recent movie, “Dunkirk,” which recreates the Allied evacuation from Dunkerque, France in World War II, gives the impetus to look back on Dunkirk, N.Y.’s own role as the backdrop to military history. Like Dunkerque France in World War II, Dunkirk, N.Y., was once a key wartime location.
The shores of Lake Erie were continuously the front lines of the War of 1812 and the Lake Erie Campaign of 1813 was the most dramatic series of events in our region’s history. Today marks the 204th anniversary of the most decisive battle of that war – The Battle of Lake Erie. Of that battle it was said, “… the victory on Lake Erie was won by the courage and obstinacy of one man.” That “one man” was Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
However, Perry did not just display his courage and obstinacy at that battle in Lake Erie near Put-In-Bay, Ohio, in September. His character was also demonstrated earlier that year off Dunkirk’s Point Gratiot.
Perry’s first contact with what is now Dunkirk was in March that year when he arrived by sleigh along the frozen lake en route from Buffalo to Erie. He spent a cold night at one of the few houses in Chadwick Bay (near Bart’s Cove) before continuing on to Erie to take command of U.S. Navy forces there.
Later in June, after he fought in the battle of Fort George (at modern Niagara-On-The-Lake) Perry attempted to take a flotilla of ships from Buffalo, through 100 miles of enemy controlled waters, to join the squadron he was building in Erie. Setting out on June 13, Perry’s five sailing ships and 255 men had to face not only the enemy but also Lake Erie’s weather.
That day winds were so strong against them that Perry and his crews were forced to turn back to Buffalo. On the evening of June 14 they set sail again. Tacking westward they passed the Canadian shore near what is now Port Colborne, but only traveled 25 miles in 24 hours. Then Perry became so ill and feverish he was confined to his cabin and needed doctor’s care. The third day started pleasant but the winds kicked up to gale force. The flotilla sought refuge along the American side of the lake near the promontory that forms Chadwick Bay.
Located almost equidistant between Buffalo and Erie, that promontory is now called Point Gratiot (named after a U.S. Army engineer from the War of 1812). With its 20 foot cliffs, it offers the best lookout post along the southeastern shoreline of Lake Erie. Even today from near the Dunkirk Lighthouse, on clear days, the skyline of Buffalo can be seen to the east and Erie’s Bicentennial Tower can be seen to the west. In 1813 local sentinels were posted along northern Chautauqua County to watch for the British ships that were known to raid the American shore.
On a hazy June day with light winds from the west, Perry vessels were anchored out of sight on the eastern side of Point Gratiot. The sentry stationed on Point Gratiot signaled Perry’s ships from the shore (probably at today’s Cedar Beach). From his sick bed Perry was called on deck. After a boat was sent to bring him aboard, the sentry warned Perry that a British squadron was lurking further westward.
Eager to intercept Perry’s ships were four larger British ships with six times more firepower than the Americans. They had been threatening the U.S. Naval station at Erie since late May and were now hunting for Perry’s smaller force. With decks strewn with naval stores, supplies and soldiers, Perry’s untrained crews would have no real chance in a naval gun duel with the British.
His orders were to finish building the fleet in Erie so it could gain control of the lake that summer. Should he now risk the loss of five ships and the lives of 255 men under his command? Defeat on Lake Erie could have dire consequences for the U.S. – the loss of its vast Northwest Territories and a possible breakup of the United States itself.
Two years earlier Perry had made a fateful decision to sail his ship USS Revenge in poor weather. In the ensuing fog the ship crashed into a reef and sank off the coast of Rhode Island. That event almost ruined his career and forced Perry to seek a command on the less prestigious Great Lakes.
Now off Dunkirk, Perry was faced with a similar dilemma: sail on toward Presque Isle and risk everything, or turn back to the safety of Buffalo without fulfilling his mission of uniting the fleet at Erie.
With the destiny of the nation at stake, somewhere just off Point Gratiot, Oliver Hazard Perry decided to risk all and head to Erie. He gave orders for all vessels to prepare for action. Perry and his men would attempt to board the enemy ships if they got near. This was a desperate tactic but Perry’s only real hope in a fight.
What happened next became part of the lore of what would become known as “Perry’s Luck.” As the flotilla proceeded westward it suddenly became enshrouded in a fog – this time a fortuitous fog that would make Perry’s ships invisible to the enemy. At one point the two opposing squadrons were less than a mile apart – it was said that from shore both squadrons were clearly visible yet the ships themselves could not see each other. With this instance of Perry’s Luck, his ships worked their way west undetected by the British and slipped quietly into the safety of Presque Isle Bay at Erie.
It was said of Perry, “That decisiveness of mind which has ever been a prominent feature in the character of Perry was particularly marked in this instance, without shrinking from the appalling force of the enemy he resolved to meet them, relying upon himself alone to obviate all difficulties.”
Perry would complete the construction of his fleet in Erie and would go on to defeat the British in dramatic fashion off Put-In-Bay, Ohio, in the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813. After the battle, Perry’s compassionate treatment of his British prisoners set the tone for the two centuries of peace between the U.S., Canada and Great Britain.
Perry’s story is part of Dunkirk’s history and a part of our region’s cultural legacy. It is a source of pride which should never be forgotten.
John M. Kuzdale is a Dunkirk city court judge.