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Thousands witness re-enactment of Perry's 1813 Battle of Lake Erie

PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio - The image of what had taken place nearly 200 years ago was a little overwhelming for Oliver Hazard Perry Lloyd, a direct descendant of the famous naval hero of the Battle of Lake Erie.

After witnessing a re-enactment of that decisive confrontation of the War of 1812 play out in the open waters of the lake several miles from here on Monday afternoon, complete with 15 tall ships with their sails wide grabbing the wind and their carronades and long guns blasting away, Mr. Lloyd said the picture of what the actual battle must have been like became very vivid.

"If you take the little bit there was today of the armaments going off, and extrapolate that 10 times or more to get what happened here in 1813, and then add in the fact there were huge cannon balls flying around and chunks of splintered wood and shrapnel everywhere - it really boggles the mind," he said.

The re-enactment and the nearly two-week-long festival of events that coincide with the bicentennial celebration of the battle brought tens of thousands of visitors to South Bass Island, with event organizers estimating that on Monday more than 2,000 private boats were out on the lake forming a huge floating gallery around the actual re-enactment battle site.

"What went on here today was truly amazing - so many ships, so many people - it was really something," said Mr. Lloyd, a California resident who also plans to attend upcoming events commemorating the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie held in Erie, Pa., where the original Niagara was built.

"To see so many people who really appreciate what this battle was all about is wonderful."

The re-enactment of Comm. Oliver Hazard Perry's victory over the vaunted British fleet was initially greeted by a heavy overcast sky, a few intermittent sprinkles of rain and a moderate chop on the lake, served up by north winds of 10 to 15 knots. With the wind as the most elusive variable, the tall ship captains had to improvise.

"When we started planning this battle scenario three months ago, we had no idea what the wind would be," said Wesley Heerssen, the full-time skipper of the Brig Niagara. "We looked at the forecast and had eight possible plans, but when the wind came out of the north this morning, it made for a more challenging time."

Mr. Heerssen said the re-enactment, which sought to very closely duplicate the historical record of the battle "was the largest marine battle re-enactment in maritime history, to my knowledge."

The sun had broken through around the time the first shots were fired about 2 p.m., and the sky cleared to a bright blue. Mr. Heerssen said the large number of spectator boats in the vicinity made the orchestration of the battle even more complex.

"All of the boats being there actually interfered with the battle to some extent, and hampered our ability to fire the guns," he said. "With that said, however, it all worked."

The U.S. Coast Guard stayed busy enforcing a 500-yard safety zone around the 15 tall ships, support vessels, and a fixed pyrotechnic barge participating in the massive undertaking. There were close to 70 security boats working the perimeter of the battle zone.

"With all of those tall ships under sail and the cannons going off, it looked like a movie scene out there," said Julene Market, a native of South Bass Island and one of the owners of the Miller Boat Line, which helped sponsor the appearance by the Brig Niagara. "In my lifetime, this is the biggest event Put-in-Bay and these islands have ever seen."

More than 500 re-enactors in period garb manned the tall ships, along with the permanent crews. The Brig Niagara, the star of the show, had a large American flag from the era filled with the breeze high above her stern during the event.

Following the historical script, at the height of the battle the actor Billy Campbell, playing the role of Mr. Perry, climbed out the starboard side of his flagship the Brig Lawrence, depicted by the tall ship Windy. Mr. Perry had left the Lawrence midway through the actual battle, since it was heavily damaged at that point by British fire.

Following Mr. Perry's move of 200 years ago, Mr. Campbell carried the "Don't Give Up The Ship" flag with him and took a smaller boat to reach the Niagara, which had been in the back of the formation and away from the intense fire. In Monday's stout wind, Mr. Perry's move to the Niagara was assisted by a small motorized boat.

Mr. Campbell as Mr. Perry climbed on board the Niagara on its port side, assumed command, raised the "Don't Give Up The Ship" flag and rejoined the battle. The Niagara tracked to the southwest to line up with the British vessel HMS Detroit, and as its carronades fired several volleys at the Detroit, smoke swallowed the deck of the Niagara.

The U.S. fleet was victorious again Monday, mimicking the way the 27-year-old Mr. Perry had handed the British their most humiliating naval defeat.

The historical record shows that after Mr. Perry accepted the British surrender, he then sent his superior, Gen. William Henry Harrison, one of the most famous dispatches in military history, writing that "We have met the enemy, and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop."

Peter Huston, from the not-for-profit Perry Group and the director of the Battle of Lake Erie Bicentennial, said the celebration, highlighted by the re-enactment, was a difficult but necessary undertaking.

"This is as good as it gets," he said. "This is not a drinking crowd out here - these are historical buffs, re-enactors, and thousands of people who wanted to be part of this bicentennial. One gentleman told me that after watching the re-enactment of the battle, now he could cross this off his bucket list. I think that says it all."

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