"We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours": Perry's Victory on Lake Erie
May 24, 2011
This print depicts a signal moment in the career of Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819), the commander of the U.S. naval fleet on Lake Erie during the War of 1812, a conflict which ended in 1815. On the morning of September 10, 1813, British Naval Commander Robert Barclay fired the first shots of what would become one of the most important naval battles in the war. The confrontation took place on the western end of Lake Erie, near what is now Sandusky, Ohio. You can see a map of its location here. After hours of fighting, Perry abandoned his badly damaged flagship, the USS Lawrence, and took command of a relatively unscathed vessel, the Niagara, from her less-experienced commander, Lieutenant Jesse Elliott. The battle began anew, and the British ships—whose senior officers had been wounded or killed—soon surrendered. Perry informed U.S. General William Henry Harrison (1773–1841) of the victory with the now-famous words, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This strategic triumph ensured American control of the Great Lakes and secured Perry the name, “The Hero of Lake Erie.”
Although publishers Kurz and Allison did not identify the original painting that inspired this print, two monumental paintings by William Henry Powell (1823–1879) clearly served as a jumping-off point for the engraver. The legislature in Ohio, Powell’s home state, commissioned one in 1857. Completed in 1865, it now hangs in rotunda of the State House. The U.S. Senate's Joint Committee on the Library commissioned the other, larger version in the months after the first painting went on view. It has hung in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol since 1873.
Like many historic prints, this image reflects the era in which it was made as much as the event it depicts. For example, both Perry’s heroic stance in the boat and the flag behind him recall Emanuel Leutze's iconic 1851 painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware, an image that a far-reaching audience found familiar, thanks to a widely available 1853 print. In addition, although a number of the sailors in Perry’s fleet were African American, Powell may have included the black sailor in his 1857 painting to highlight the issues of slavery and race during the years leading up to the Civil War. Several decades later, during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Kurz and Allison followed suit when making their copy of the image.
You can see both Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie and Washington Crossing the Delaware in the exhibition, “The Art of American History: Prints from the Collection,” now on view in the Museum’s newly renovated lobby area.
Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, late 1800s. Kurz and Allison (1880–1903), publishers, Chicago, Illinois. Special Acquisitions Fund, 74.3.2.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1853. Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868), artist; Paul Girardet (1821–1893), engraver; M. Knoedler (1823–1878), publisher, New York, New York. Special Acquisitions Fund, 74.2.13.