Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry
My Father’s father’s family name is Siverling. They originated in the state of Baden, Germany, and the family history has been traced to around 300 B.C. The branches that are known have historically been farmers and tradesmen. Two families migrated to North Americain the 18th Century, one line in 1741, and my direct ancestor Christopher, in 1753. Both sailed into Philadelphia and took up residence in the regions surrounding that city. My 7th great-grandfather Christopher moved his family west to a region of southwest Pennsylvania north and east of Pittsburgh, and a few years later, decided to move them to a new territory that had opened up in the northwest part of the state. The land was wild and untamed, and for a farmer, it offered an opportunity to settle in a region unencumbered by the complexities of society.
Crawford County is a mountainous area, abundant with deer, bear, rabbit, trout, and at that time, Indians. Christopher had actually obtained the rights to 400 acres of land in 1794, but had delayed moving his wife and children there until the Army could bring the Iroquois Indians under control a bit. The land was fed by two creeks, the French and the Conneaut, and several small tributaries, which flow southeasterly through sloping gullies fifty to a hundred feet deep. Above these the land is comparatively level. It is roughest in the northwestern part, and in the northeast, along the banks of Conneaut Creek, it is somewhat marshy. The soil is a gravelly and in a few places sandy loam, except in the northwest where clay predominates. The timber is hemlock, white oak, black oak, butternut, and on higher ground hickory, chestnut, sugar, and beech.
David Mead, a hearty frontiersman of the time, had come upon the region with eight of his fellows in 1788, and had stayed to carve out an existence there. His company endured incredible hardship and several were killed or captured by hostile indians. One of those captured was Cornelius VanHorn, who managed to escape and travel toCanada, and hence to his home inPittsburgh. In 1794, an Army company was formed, and VanHorn was chosen as Captain. It was he who travelled back to Crawford Countyand tamed the Indians, making it safe enough to settle.
The Siverlings had scant provisions to sustain themselves through the first hard winter. A couple bushels of corn, a little beef and some turnips constituted their entire stock of provisions, besides what they could wrestle from the forest and rivers. Pittsburgh was the nearest trading point, roads were non-existent, and wild animals abounded. Bears were ever ready to pounce on the few pigs the settlers and brought with them, and wolves were abundant and eager to dispose of any sheep that grew unwary. Bounties were soon offered on wolf hides, and ridding the forest of these dangerous predators afforded sport and extra cash to any who sought them out.
It was a simple, if dangerous life, and the Siverlings, like their neighbors, only wished to live in peace. Their wish, however, was set aside by events set in motion by a nation that had grown angry and bitter in defeat. The following is a brief accounting of the causes of the War of 1812, the Battle of Lake Erie, and the role that Christopher’s sons, Christopher Jr., Daniel, and John Christopher Siverling had in that battle, while serving in Captain Christian Blystone’s Company, 137th Regiment, 16th Pennsylvania Militia.
After the United States had defeated England in the Revolutionary War, the British had agreed to withdraw from their fortifications near the Great Lakes region; however, it took years for them to do so. They also continued to sell supplies to Indian tribes in the Northwest Territories, who were still at war with the United States. The British Navy, constantly at odds with the problem of manning their vast flotilla of ships, began thoroughly searching every neutral ship they came upon for British deserters. If they encountered sailors of foreign navies (including the United States) during these searches, the unfortunate sailors were impressed into service in His Majesty King George’s Navy. Meanwhile, France and Great Britain had implemented embargoes that made international trade precarious, and when President Jefferson responded with the Embargo act of 1807, trade into and from theUnited States was almost at a standstill. British ships also continued to blockade American ports at every turn.
In the U.S. presidential election of 1812, U.S. President James Madison argued for war against Britain. The War of 1812 was thus the first war “sold” to the American public via popular appeal. The Congressional House was called to vote, and approved war on June 4th, 1812, the vote standing at 79 to 49. The Senate concurred, voting for war on June 17, 1812, by a vote of 19 to 13. The conflict formally began with the American declaration of war on June 18, 1812. This was the first time that the United States had declared war on another nation.
When the war broke out, the British immediately seized control of Lake Erie. They already had a small force of warships there: the sloop of war “Queen Charlotte” and the brig “General Hunter”. The brig “Lady Prevost” was under construction and was put into service a few weeks after the outbreak of war. By August of 1812, Detroit had fallen under their might. This victory gave them full sway over Lake Erie and its shipping channels. Therefore, it was of paramount importance that control of the Great Lakes was wrestled from the British, in order to free up the shipping lanes for military supplies.
In an effort to regain naval superiority back from the British in this territory, a plan was devised to construct two war vessels at Presque Isle near Erie. Designed by New York ship builder Noah Brown, these vessels were intended to be the foundation of the new American fleet. In March 1813, the new commander of American naval forces on Lake Erie, Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, arrived at Presque Isle. Assessing his command, he found that there was a general shortage of supplies and men.
While two brigs, the USS Lawrence and USS Niagara, were being built, Perry traveled to Lake Ontario in May 1813, to obtain additional seamen from Commodore Isaac Chauncey. While there, he took part in the Battle of Fort George (May 25-27), and was able to acquire several gunboats for use on Lake Erie. Upon his departure from Fort George, he was nearly captured by the new British commandant on Lake Erie, Commander Robert H. Barclay.
On July 19, 1813, the British fleet appeared off Presque Isle, evincing a determination on their part to not only bring about the destruction of the half-finished American fleet, but to invade the state itself. Commodore Perry, immediately grasping the gravity of the situation and the necessity for prompt resistance, sent a courier to General Mead (the same David Mead who had settled the area) of Meadville, the Commandant of the 16th Division of the Pennsylvania Militia, asking for reinforcements. The next day, General Mead sent the following circular into every settlement within the Sixteenth Militia district:
CITIZENS TO ARMS
Your State is invaded. The enemy has arrived at Erie, threatening to destroy our navy and the town. His course, hitherto marked with rapine and fire wherever he touched our shore, must be arrested. The cries of infants and women, of the aged and infirm, the devoted victims of the enemy and his savage allies, call on you for defense and protection. Your home, your property, your all, require you to march immediately to the course of action. Arms and ammunition will be furnished to those who have none, at the place of rendezvous near to Erie, and every exertion will be made for your subsistence and accommodations. Your service to be useful must be rendered immediately. The delay of an hour may be fatal to your country, in securing the enemy in his plunder and favoring his escape.
David MEAD, Maj. Gen. 19th D. P. M.
The response was immediate. The men of the 16th Pennsylvania Militia under General Mead’s command came from the four corners of Crawford and Venango County, and bivouacked outside of Meadville, until it was determined that the full complement of troops had arrived. On July 23rd (proudly, my birthday), they began the march to Erie, travelling overnight and arriving on the 24th. They joined the encampment at Erie, and the militia, along with regular troops, began the task of guarding the ships under construction until they could be made ready for battle.
By mid-July, the American squadron was almost complete, although not yet fully manned (Perry claimed to have only 120 men fit for duty). The British squadron maintained a blockade of Presque Isle for ten days from 20 July to 29 July. The harbor had a sandbar across its mouth, with only 5 feet of water over it, which prevented Barclay from sailing in to attack the American ships (although Barclay briefly skirmished with the defending batteries on 21 July), but also prevented the Americans from leaving in fighting order. Barclay had to lift the blockade on 29 July because of shortage of supplies and bad weather. On the 3d of August the squadron moved down the bay, and the work of getting the vessels over the bar began. This was an exhausting task. The guns had to be removed from all the boats, and the largest ships had to be raised between “camels” (ballast tanks which were filled with water, placed under the ships, and then emptied, making them buoyant). When Barclay returned four days later, he found that Perry had nearly completed the task. Perry’s two largest brigs were not ready for action, but the gunboats and smaller brigs formed a line so confidently that Barclay withdrew to await the completion of his flagship, the Detroit.
With his two brigs now ready for service, Perry took control of the lake. From this position, he was able to prevent supplies from reaching Commander Barclay’s encampment at Amherstburg. As a result, Barclay was forced to seek battle in early September. Sailing from his base, he flew his flag from the recently completed Detroit, and was joined by HMS Queen Charlotte, HMS Lady Prevost , HMS Hunter , HMS Little Belt , and HMS Chippawa .
Perry countered with Lawrence, Niagara , USS Ariel , USS Caledonia , USS Scorpion , USS Somers , USS Porcupine , USS Tigress , and USS Trippe . Commanding from Lawrence, Perry’s ships sailed under a blue battle flag emblazoned with Captain James Lawrence’s immortal command, “Don’t Give up the Ship.” Departing Put-in-Bay (Ohio) harbor at 7:00 a.m. on September 10, 1813, Perry placed Ariel and Scorpion at the head of his line, followed by Lawrence, Caledonia, and Niagara. The remaining gunboats trailed to the rear.
When the smoke settled, Perry had captured the entire British squadron and secured American control of Lake Erie. Writing to General William Henry Harrison, in a dispatch that became the most-quoted phrase of the war, Commodore Perry related:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
American casualties in the battle were 27 dead and 96 wounded. British losses numbered 41 dead, 93 wounded, and 306 captured. Following the victory, the British abandoned their fortifications at Amherstburg, and withdraw to the Thames Valley. Perry ferried General Harrison’s Army of the Northwest to Detroit where it began its advance into Canada. This campaign culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, and ultimately, to a victory for the United States in the war. It was also the first time in history that an American Commander had captured an entire British fleet.
On January 1, 1814 Captain Blystone’s men were called again to the defence of Erie by General Mead, in anticipation of an attack on the fleet. Erie had become a naval station, and the British were once again collecting troops and ships on the opposite shore. Nothing of interest transpired, however; the troops were only employed in guard duty and drill. They were relieved of their duties on February 6th, and returned to their homes. Thus ended my family’s involvement; farmers and settlers who had dropped their ploughshares and come to the defence of their new home in America.