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On This Day: “Don’t Give Up the Ship”

On This Day: “Don’t Give Up the Ship”

Kevin Naughton

The War of 1812 saw every Clevelander’s worst nightmare come to fruition: warships from Canada poured into Lake Erie, hell-bent on taking control of the major ports on its southern coast. And while Cleveland was not yet a major shipping center at this point in its history, the fledgling settlement may not have survived to become one if not for the courage and cunning of one Oliver Hazard Perry and his crews.

At the outset of the war, the British seized control of our beloved fresh water source without opposition, since the United States did not yet have a sizable enough navy to stage a defense. They rapidly began cobbling together a navy, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry was given command of the few ships available to the defense of Lake Erie. In spite of the fact that several of the ships were nailed together with wooden pegs and woefully undermanned, he determined to wrest the lake from British control.

Perry and his crew engaged the British from aboard the USS Lawrence, which took a terrible pounding from enemy cannon. Under the banner “Don’t Give Up the Ship”, they fought heroically until the last cannon became unusable, suffering the vast majority of the battle’s American casualties in the process. Then, as if one monumentally courageous effort weren’t enough, Perry and the surviving crew transferred their banner to the USS Niagara via lifeboat, where they continued fighting and were finally able to break through the British line and secure control of the lake.

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A group photo of The Cleveland Grays, Cleveland’s independent volunteer militia, from the early 1900s.

Today, Commodore Perry’s efforts are honored in a quintessentially Cleveland fashion by having a beer named after him (and by a rather unflattering but nonetheless impressive statue that resides in Cleveland History Center). As for the heroic crew, nary such a memorial is to be found. However, perhaps it can be said that their motto has become a sort of unconscious, de-facto slogan for we Clevelanders who embrace our city in spite of its trials and tribulations. We haven’t given up the ship yet, nor do we show any intention of doing so.

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