Last year, on a beautiful Sunday morning in September, about a hundred history lovers headed out of Put-in-Bay harbor aboard the U.S. Coast Guard Ice Breaker Tug Katmai Bay. Our mission was to put a specially designated buoy at the site where the Battle of Lake Erie took place 199 years prior. We used the logs and scholarly assessments of historians and archeologists to determine the nearly exact location for the buoy. That spot is now charted and published on the official 2013 Coast Guard charts of Lake Erie. (41-44-50.00 N, 083-02-00.00 W)
But another site, a sacred and forgotten one, not far from where the battle played out 200 years ago remains a mystery. The watery burial site of the men who sailed aboard both the American and British vessels September 10th 1813 that lost their lives defending liberty and their country’s honor.
The custom of the day was to place the deceased sailors in their webbed hammock or an old sail loaded down with cannon shot. Bound tightly they were lowered over the side and ceremonially “interred “ in Davy Jones locker. Resting together in an unmarked grave, the men drifted along the bottom, eventually being covered by mud and decomposing algae.
In the years that followed, some random reports later surfaced from Pelee, Marblehead and Cleveland noting that some or (maybe just one) British sailor had washed ashore. According to recorded accounts, the British had not followed such a strict process for sending off their dead perhaps leading to these sightings. Perry had insisted that the 6 officers, 3 British and 3 American, aboard that day be brought into Put-in-Bay and buried in a more traditional style near the present day cannon ball memorial in what would be come DeRivera Park.
No additional substantiated reports of bodies washing ashore from their lake grave were reported again for the next hundred years. In 1913 as part of the Centennial celebration the Brig Niagara was raised from its scuttled grave in Erie, reconstructed and towed to the site of the battle for a solemn remembrance of the lost sailors. In recent years this moving ceremony had been carried out with a wreath laying ceremony on, or around September 10th.
As we know sometimes nature and time have a way of reminding us of what history books have forgotten or left unwritten. A few years back as this summer’s bicentennial approached we started to wonder where the exact whereabouts of those brave and fallen sailors and soldiers might be. Was it possible after such a long time had passed that we might find their actual grave and honor them in a known and marked grave designation?
NOAA reported that on March 8th, “The remains of two unknown USS Monitor sailors, recovered by NOAA and the U.S. Navy in 2002 from the ship’s gun turret, were buried, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery. USS Monitor sank in a New Year’s Eve storm just over 150 years ago, carrying 16 crew members to their deaths.”
This report gave us a glimmer of hope. If these men’s remains could be found and partially identified maybe there was a chance that further research and surveys of the western basin of Lake Erie might yield a similar discovery.
Twenty years ago an island diver had privately identified the spot of the Battle of Lake Erie and dove repeatedly on the site bringing up artifacts and cannon shot which was turned over to the then Superintendent of Perry’s Victory. Unfortunately that diver today is in poor health and no specifics of his dive location were recorded.
According to Jim Wilson of Bay Area Divers (BAD) Tom Kowalczk got a grant through the Ohio Historical society to cover some of expenses that he incurred while running many hours of side scan sonar over the area where we think the battle took place. Tom is part of the CLUE group that had discovered the Anthony Wayne and a few other important shipwrecks that have been featured in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Unfortunately, Tom’s efforts only yielded some ordinance from Camp Perry’s yearly target practice into Lake Erie. So we pursued the US Navy, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). After a flurry of emails and a six-month effort we connected with Dr. Bob Neyland, Head of the Underwater Archeology Branch of NHHC. While he and several experts attached to the NHHC showed a flicker of interest in finding this site the “final” word on this matter came from Dr J.B. Thomas, Assistant Director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, “the US Navy regards burial at sea as an honorable form of interment, the [current known} site serves as a military grave site and should be afforded the utmost respect and honor by remaining undisturbed”.
I am certain that it is only a matter of time, now that the battle site is properly marked, that a fisherman or diver will find that sacred spot again. Meanwhile, ‘Dont give up the ship’.
***Please join us, The Perry Group, The National Park Service and Sandusky Maritime Museum June 15th 10am at the Shelby Street boat basin in Sandusky for the culmination of a year of historic wooden boat building to christen the newly completed Commodore Perry’s longboat.