‘Don’t give up the ship’

“Don’t give up the ship” speaks of perseverance in completing a task or mission, particularly in the face of great challenges. A common phrase, its roots date back to exactly 200 hundred years ago in this month of June. The year was 1813 and the United States was in the midst of a war against Great Britain. Captain James Lawrence, mortally wounded in a battle on his ship the USS Chesapeake off the Atlantic coast, reportedly gave this command to his men. Oliver Hazard Perry, soon thereafter used this phrase as his personal battle flag to honor his deceased colleague and friend. Of great fame, Perry played a decisive role in several naval battles, proving that our young new nation had the capability to stand up to a country of great naval strength.

Many may think of history as dry or far removed in time or place. A little digging and research shows that this is certainly not the case. This is what a local fourth grade class discovered in the last few weeks as they studied the War of 1812. There were battles along the coast, but there were also ones that were right along our shoreline of Lake Erie. Mrs. Susan Wells’ class of Fredonia Elementary School learned this local history as part of their social studies curriculum, along with interdisciplinary enrichment extensions in mathematics, science, and art.

Beginning with basics, this class learned the background and context of the war with Great Britain. The British, also at war with France, had been harassing and stopping American merchant ships at sea from trading with the French and even forcing sailors off of ships and making them work on British navy ships. They also blockaded the American coastline and ruled the Great Lakes with their armed ships from across the border in Canada. It was at this time that the United States had a very small navy of only 16 ships!

It is at this point in history where Mrs. Wells’ class picked up the pace well beyond the typical New York State’s curriculum – both old and the newly adopted core – and learned of an exciting time in our nation’s past with local connections in the context of challenging and collaborative learning experiences. A field trip to Old Fort Niagara near Niagara Falls would show how Oliver Hazard Perry in May 1813 assisted in the capture of Fort George (across the river in Canada), but more importantly, after a night in our own Chadwick Bay, made his way towards Erie and Presque Isle to help supervise in the building of ships and take charge our new naval fleet. Among these ships were the USS Lawrence and USS Niagara, both of which played an important role in the Battle of Lake Erie in September of that year. Perry, flying his flag, “Don’t Give Up the Ship” on the USS Lawrence soon came under fire and the ship was quickly disabled. Rowing under fire to the USS Niagara and taking charge, Perry was able to destroy two enemy ships and force the British to surrender their naval squadron. Called the “Hero of Lake Erie,” this victory showed that we could protect ourselves, have commerce on the Great Lakes, and that Canada was vulnerable. It also led to other important victories of the war. In fact, Perry’s words to General William Harrison were, “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

The fourth grade unit was called “200 Years Out of the Fog” because the students learned that fog on the lake often played an important role in keeping Perry and the naval ships out of sight of the British navy. As part of the unit, books were donated by the Jefferson Educational Society in Erie, Pennsylvania. Timelines were created of important events that occurred throughout the war. Science and math were incorporated by learning about displacement of water by the USS Niagara. Art and design were also integrated by building replica ships with papier mache. Masts were raised and rigging was strung. The ships were put on display in the school’s hallways for all to see and enjoy.

History is not dry. It is exciting and when we see the past, we can understand current and future events. Consider visiting the Dunkirk Historical Lighthouse and Veterans Park Museum where signs and tour guides will share local history of the War of 1812. See Perry’s monument in Front Park, Buffalo. As noted in “The Hero of Lake Erie,” dated March 3, 2013 in The Buffalo News, there is interest in moving it to a more prominent location such as the foot of Perry Street at the inner harbor. For poignant inspiration, consider a field trip to the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where both the original and a replica of Perry’s flag are displayed.

Make it a good week and for whatever is important, “Don’t Give up the Ship.”

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