“And his flag was still there”

Don't Give Up The Ship

Perry’s legacy

If we remember just one thing about the War of 1812 from grade school hopefully it is that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner, actually just the lyrics, in the form of a poem called “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. So while Fort McHenry was being bombarded by British Royal Navy ships in the Chesapeake in 1814, Key penned what would be come our most identifiable American song. (Ironically the tune for the national anthem would come from a British Social Club song called “”To Anacreon in Heaven”.) It was several years later before the lyrics he scrawled on the back of an envelope would become an anthem and it was not until 1931 when Herbert Hoover declared it our national anthem. Today every school kid in America should know the stirring words “And the rockets red glare, bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”.

To me, Key’s lyrics evoke an image of survival, perseverance and an emotional victory that in many ways reminds us of the second most notable event of the war (my opinion), Perry’s transfer of command from the Lawrence to the Niagara with his iconic flag. If just one idea lingers in our memory after this Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial is over it has to be “Don’t Give Up the Ship”. This slogan and flag is Commodore Perry’s most important contribution to our collective historic consciousness.

Perry’s flag story in simplest terms… Oliver Hazard Perry was a young, smart, impressionable sailor from Rhode Island, from a family of brave sailors. Oliver went off to serve his country filled with patriotism and guile for the British. He was aboard the USS Chesapeake when his commanding officer, Captain James Lawrence, was mortally wounded during a confrontation with the British ship “HMS Shannon”. Young Perry was influenced and guided by his service with Lawrence. As Lawrence lay dying he implored young Perry to not give up the ship. Perry was so moved by the moment soon after he went and had a personal flag with “Don’t Give up the Ship” made which he carried with him into battle on several occasions and most notably during the Battle of Lake Erie.

We may not remember or even know the back-story that propelled Perry to create his flag or carry it with him into battle, but I can tell you first hand that maritime gift shops from Boston to Put-in-Bay, Virginia to San Diego have “DGUTS” flags for sale. Many of the shop owners and clerks may be challenged to explain where the slogan came from exactly, but there is no other more important and identifiable Naval slogan today that I know of.

Like so many stories that make up the fabric of our national history, they become just fragments of a larger story that survives to become part of our collective American memory. And because the US Navy uses, promotes and displays the “DGUTS” flag, and the slogan is prominently featured throughout our country’s Naval Bases, ships and recruiting stations, we see it and recognize its’ importance. It rings true not just for our Navy, but for all boaters and patriots I believe.

In late August, Navy week comes to the Cleveland waterfront to commemorate the War of 1812. And so in the late afternoon of Thursday August 30th one of Commodore Perry’s direct descendants will be aboard the longboat we have built to ceremonially recreate that iconic transfer of command. As the longboat embarks on a short journey across the harbor from the Brig Niagara to the USS De Wert, it symbolically connects us to this important moment in time, the afternoon of September 10th, 1813 when Oliver Hazard Perry changed the outcome of the war and American history.

Hopefully thousands will be on hand as this important event unfolds. Perhaps providing the visual reference we so often need to understand the importance of great days in history and why the flag Perry created was such a big part of that moment. I look forward to that moment as we witness again that Oliver Hazard Perry’s flag “is still here”.

3 Responses to ““And his flag was still there””

  1. 1 David Wallace June 30, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Perry was not on board the Chesapeake at the time it fought Shannon June 1st 1813. He was in Erie trying to get his fleet finished so he could take on Robert Barclay. James Lawrence was a friend and fellow officer but certainly not any kind of a mentor. The flag was hastily made and his flagship named after his fallen friend when Perry got the news. Had Perry been aboard Chesapeake as you say he would have been a prisoner of war and never fought the Battle of Lake Erie.

    • 2 hiddenarts July 1, 2013 at 8:54 pm

      Thanks for that correction. I wondered about the story and the date when I had heard that.

      • 3 David Wallace July 2, 2013 at 11:03 am

        Hiddenarts, thanks for putting up this interesting page I haven’t got the chance to read all the articles but will do so as time permits. A google search for other stories about the Battle of Lake Erie led me to your blog.
        I too also have an intrerest in these lesser known stories.
        Here ia a quick list of some I have heard.
        The cave water story
        the anchor story
        Scorpion chasing Ottawa
        Barclay raiding Cleveland
        The willow story
        The 12lb carronade at Port Clinton
        The pennant in the L.E.H.S. museum

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