Posts Tagged 'Valor'

Jessie Elliott, villain or victim?

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Jessie Duncan Elliott

Now that all the festivities are over, related to the Battle of Lake Erie, I wanted to take one last look at the controversy surrounding Captain Jessie Duncan Elliott, who captained the Brig Niagara during most of the Battle of Lake Erie. Born in Hagerstown Maryland in 1782, Elliot enlisted as a midshipman in 1804 at the age of 22. He rose through the ranks quickly to Lieutenant and in 1810 was given charge of building up a fleet on Lake Erie. In October of 1812, serving under Captain Nathan Towson, Elliott distinguished himself in an intense battle with the British fleet near Fort Erie. Together, Elliot and Towson captured both the HMS Caledonia and Detroit. (The Caledonia would later be an important part of Perry’s fleet.)

Jessie Elliott was decorated by congress for his actions and promoted to Commandant. Unfortunately for him, Oliver Hazard Perry had been given the same promotion only a month earlier and was given command of the Lake Erie Fleet construction effort. Elliot was then made Perry’s second in command. Upon completion of the two identical brigs, Elliot was given command of the Niagara.

On the day of the battle, Perry issued three commands to his fleet’s captains; stay in line, don’t overtake the boats ahead of you, and don’t engage with the enemy until you’re in range. The wind was light as the battle began, but increased and shifted favoring the US fleet. Perry, aboard the Lawrence led the attack, while Elliott on the Niagara brought up the rear. British artillery pummeled the Lawrence while the Niagara remained largely out of range until Perry transferred his command to the Niagara and won the day.

Looking back on the outcome of the battle, we need to remember that Perry and Elliot took quite different paths on the way to the 10th of September 1813. Of course we know Oliver Hazard Perry came from a privileged Rhode Island family with a long line of distinguished Naval service. Young Perry’s unconventional approach to command had branded him as brash, yet brave. His family’s political and financial connections assured him of command even after his fateful loss of the USS Revenge and subsequent court martial proceedings.

Meanwhile, already fighting the British here on the Great Lakes, Jessie Elliot continued to distinguish himself in a series of key battles and skirmishes. According to Wikipedia, he was transferred to Lake Ontario, and served under Commodore Isaac Chauncey on board the flagship USS Madison and took part in the Battle of York in April of 1813 and the Battle of Fort George later that May. This all led up to his assignment as second in command under Perry in July of 1813. Elliott had earned his way up through the ranks. He had extensive combat experience but was publicly critical of Perry’s decision to use Presque Isle to construct the fleet. Being second in command to OH Perry may have been a very tough pill to swallow for Elliott.

So when Perry rowed from the Lawrence to the Niagara and relieved Elliott of his command late in the Battle that September 10th, what ensued was a 30 year controversy over the exact reasons why Elliott hung back during the battle. Was it insubordination, lack of communication, or was Elliott simply following orders? We know Elliott continued to distinguish himself in service well after the Battle of Lake Erie. He was later commended, in writing, by Perry for his efforts during the battle.

In 1833 Elliott was appointed Commander of the Boston Navy Yard and then the Mediterranean Fleet in 1835. He had some issues with junior officers in 1838, (he may not have been that popular back in Washington), but in 1843 President John Tyler still thought highly enough of Jessie Elliott to appoint him Commander of the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Elliott died in December of 1845 and was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, near the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

In 2012 Jessie Duncan Elliott’s unmarked grave was rediscovered. Marc Burr, President of the Perry Group, and funeral director, happened onto the interesting story of Elliot’s final resting spot. According to Samuel Ricks, Graves Registrar Pennsylvania Division Sons of Confederate Veterans, he is in an unremarkable grave, part of a Naval Asylum plot in Pennsylvania.

Interestingly, the Naval Asylum Plot is a National Cemetery plot owned and “maintained” by the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) inside an abandoned private cemetery, Mount Moriah.  The Naval Plot has 5 sections with approximately 1,900 Navy and Marine graves from the Revolutionary War (Continental Navy) through the Korean War.

The Naval Asylum Plot is situated in the back of an abandoned cemetery, an “oasis surrounded by jungle”.  The VA cuts the grass.  There is not even a flagpole with a US Flag flying.  Many of the grave markers are illegible.  Elliot is buried in the “Officer’s Plot,” Naval 5, Grave 1(GPS: 39.93687 N, -75.23899 W) at the Naval Asylum Plot inside the Yeadon, Delaware County side of Mount Moriah Cemetery (which spans two counties).

 

Marc Burr and the Perry Group think that regardless of what you may believe about Jessie Duncan Elliott, he deserves a proper marker for his grave. Marc has begun the process to get approval to have a new grave marker commissioned and installed at Elliott’s grave. Members of The Perry Group are making plans to visit Mount Moriah, to oversee the installation of the gravestone on the way to the Bicentennial events at Fort McHenry (Baltimore) September 12-14. If you would like to join us on this once in a lifetime trip email me at battleoflakeerie@gmail.com

 


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