Don’t Give Up The Ship

Watercolour by Wendy Harty December 2020 titled “Don’t Give up the Ship”

Wendell asked for his Bible and his daughter Angie brought it to him. His voice still held a German accent as he read the words: “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is not toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Wendell had been granted 92 years and he knew it was time for him to fly away. He had had an abundant life outliving his two wives, Elizabeth Blair and the second Marie King, his wife’s sister-in-law who had been a widower also when Smith Blair died. Wendell had sired a quiver of children, with Elizabeth, 14 of them who had been like olive plants around his table. When Marie died, he’d come to Augusta, Wisconsin from Oxford, to live out his remaining time in the household of Angeline Rachel Miller Smith wife of W.H. Smith. , engaged in grain and general produce. It was to their girls, Gertrude, Edith and Ethel that he had told his stories to and this one was their favorite.

Wendell was the grandson of Christopher Stump. The family had fled from Germany, up to Amsterdam in the Palatine emigration. The wealthy region of the Middle Rhine of the Holy Roman Empire was repeatedly invaded by French troops during the religious wars. They imposed continuous military requisitions, causing widespread devastation and famine. The winter of 1708 was unseasonably cold, resulting in further hardships. From Amsterdam they went to England and in 1710 were transported in ten ships to New York. They were assigned to work camps along the Hudson River to work off their passage. When the camps failed, they trekked into the Schoharie Valley. Grandfather Christopher was friends with Conrad Weiser. Conrad learned the native language and became an interpreter. He invited Christopher to parlay with the natives to come and sign treaties. Caught out in a blizzard the pair nearly lost their lives but Christopher being 6’6″ and strong as an ox was credited with their survival. Grandfather Christopher Stump married twice and had 20 children. He left his children a large legacy having built up farms and mills in the Tulpehocken region of Pennsylvania. To Christopher and his second wife Margaretha (my beloved Gretta) , was born Margaret Stump , Wendell’s mother. There was much rejoicing as they took their new daughter to be baptized on October 18, 1761 when she was only a week old. Margaret had younger brothers for playmates when Christian, Michael, and Henry were born. Her parents were still alive and Christopher walked her down the aisle to marry Michael Lewis Miller on Jun 29, 1779 at Tulpehocken Trinity Church.

Michael Lewis Miller came stomping into the house. He’d been to the grist mill and there learned of politics that had outraged the American as the British navy was seizing merchant ships and impressing seamen as part of its worldwide blockade of Napoleonic France. On the salt waters of the Atlantic the British had 1000 ships. Pro-French Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrested power from the pro-British Federalists led by George Washington and John Adams. Thomas Jefferson had become President in 1801 and relations with the British deteriorated. Jefferson didn’t declare war but enacted the Embargo Act and Michael was fuming as it hurt the American farmers more than the British and French. Michael Lewis died in 1809 leaving Margaret with young children to raise and when she died three years later in 1812, Wendell was 16 years old and an orphan. It was at this time that Wendell heard the preaching of a circuit rider on the frontier where he lived and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church; “there is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every person that cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator”

Wendell joined the army. For three months he was with the infantry and made his way to Erie, Pennsylvania on the shores of Lake Erie. Here on the north west frontier the Americans had been encroaching. The Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatwa (The Prophet) attempted to form a confederation to counteract American expansion. The British Major General Isaac Brock, commander of Upper Canada had orders to avoid worsening the problem but the Americans blamed the British for heightened tensions with the Natives and the Americans started building more forts. Their were raids, assaults, battles and campaigns ending in skirmishes where many were killed. The political War Hawks called for a declaration of hostilities and for an invasion into Canada. The supply lines were non existent in the north south route to Canada. The town of Erie with 76 homes was mostly deserted as people had fled fearful of British raiders accompanied by native allies with scalping knives. Here, we find Wendell along with hundreds of Americans rushing to enlist.

Commodore Perry was sent. He journeyed through a winter wilderness to take over command. When he arrived at the tiny Pennsylvania town of Erie the fleet he had been promised was non-existent. A local ship’s captain had some unfinished skeletons and 1 cannon. The only guards to protect them from a British raid from across the frozen lake were a haphazard company of 60 dispirited militia with no guns or ammunition left. Not in sight were any ropes for rigging or canvas for sails. Perry needed carpenters, caulkers and sawyers. Perry went to work organizing, exhorting and cajoling the government for what he needed. Soon up the river came rope, canvas, lead and cannons and 50 carpenters.

A victory at Fort Erie gave Perry 5 captured merchant ships. 250 sailors and soldiers and teams of oxen drug the ships into Lake Erie against the Niagara Rivers current. It took six arduous days making them extremely fatigued with fever and exhaustion. Three British ships chased them in close pursuit on the lake. Perry fought a headwind. Miraculously a fog descended and saved them.

May-June- July Wendell watched the ship building proceeding with 2 110 foot 500 Ton brigs with 20 guns each and 3 gunboats and a pilot boat being built. Perry had a fleet to outgun the British. But he only had 120 sailors not the 740 needed to man them and most of them were down with “lake fever” similar to typhus. Letters started arriving urging Perry to attack but Perry wrote back, “as soon as the government sends men”.

The women at Erie made Perry a personal battle flag of blue which was embroideried “Don’t Give Up The Ship”. The British sailed back and forth outside the Bay, taunting him with a fleet of 6 sails.

August 1st, his intelligence brought Perry news that the British captain was having a dinner in his honor at Port Dover on the Canadian shore. Perry moved. But first he had to get his 500 Ton brigs across the shallow bar at the mouth of Erie’s Presque’s Isle’s harbour. They needed 9 feet of water and had 6. The Americans had constructed camels – rectangular pontoons and when water was pumped into them they sank, then lashed to the ships, water pumped out and they rose, lifting the ships. The process at first didn’t work and the “Lawrence” was stuck in the muddy sand. Perry off loaded cannon and men tugging heroically on cables the “Lawrence” slid into deep water. The cannons were hastily put back on board. Next was the “Niagara” which stuck. The exhausted Americans heard the cry, “Sail, ho.” The British, Barclay, was back from his dinner.

If Barclay had attacked it would have been slaughter. But just as his fleet drew closer, the wind shifted and the nose’s of Lawrence and Niagara gave the impression that Perry was coming out to fight. Barclay retreated and headed for open water. He was short handed ironically also.

On August 6, still shaky from exhaustion, Perry headed out but could find no trace of the British. Back at the Bay he provisioned his ships. Perry received good news as he was sent 89 experienced seamen. He moved to Put-on-Bay to await the British. Another outbreak of lake fever, had men groaning in their hammocks. By boiling all the water and using mustard plasters they got back on their feet.

On September 9, Perry was ready for action. He summoned his officers for a conference and stressed that they could only win if close to the enemy. His 32 cannons had a range of 250 yards. Barclay had 35 guns that could bullseye at a mile.

At day break a shout woke up the crew of “Sail, ho”. A light southwest breeze was on Perry’s face and the boats needed towed out of the harbor. As the men strained on the oars an eagle hovered above them, a good omen. The wind shifted favorably south east. Grim preparations were made on his nine ships. Decks were sprinkled with sand and then sprayed with water to give footing when they would become slippery with blood. The sailors stacked cutlasses for hand to hand combat if boarding parties came aboard. Beside the guns were piled round shot, canister and grapeshot. The breeze remained light giving an advantage to the British with their long guns. More worrisome were the four plodding merchant ships, Somers, Tigress, Porcupine and Trippe, trailing two miles behind. The British opened a murderous fire on the drifting Americans. The hasty construction and greenwood made the Lawrence vulnerable. The 24 pound shot tore through the hull, tearing off arms and legs and flung deadly splinters into bodies. Still out of range, Perry’s cannons were useless. For two hours Perry strode the deck encouraging but his other ships made no effort to help him. 22 lay dead and 66 wounded, every strand of rigging was cut, mast and spars were in tatters. Perry himself fired the last shot with only 18 of his men still standing.

The British stopped firing expecting Perry to show his colors. No other choice seemed possible. Perry took his personal battle flag, Don’t Give Up The Ship from the mast post. The wounded men and the British thought he was surrendering. He boarded a gig with oarsmen. Perry was shrouded in the battle smoke. Instead of surrendering he headed for the “Niagara” and took over its commmand. Grimy with powder, haggard from exhaustion, up the mast went his flag, the breeze quickened and he ordered all sails employed and bore down on the startled British. A shot tore through the enemies topsails and the ship veered into another entangling the rigging. Perry hurled a blast from his 32 pounders across the decks wreaking an awful destruction. Plowing past the two disabled ships he fired broadside onto 3 others. He blasted again at such close quarters that he left only 1 man alive on deck. The British were overwhelmed. All resistance collapsed. A white handkerchief waved. In 15 minutes Perry had snatched a victory. On the back of a torn envelope he wrote, “Dear Gen’l – we have met the enemy and they are ours, 2 ships, 2 brigs, 1 schooner and 1 sloop.”

To the leader of the Native Confederation, Tecumseh it was like a lightning bolt. He had assured his followers that the British big canoes would defeat the Americans. They fled and made a desperate stand on the Thames River in Upper Canada, where Tecumseh was killed. Near Toronto, the Americans vandalized and looted, then burned the provincial legislation. The burning of the Capitol building in Washington was in retribution.

The war continued until 1814, The War of 1812 in which Wendell was a veteran ended in a stalemate. The Treaty of Ghent was signed, with no boundary changes. The United States invasions of Canada were repulsed and the defeat of Tecumseh’s Confederacy, made it possible for the Americans to head west.

When the war was over, Wendell had become a man. At age 21, he married my great great grandmother, Elizabeth Blair. All of their fourteen children were born in Pennsylvania. Then in the 1850’s the family was on the move west, first to Medina, Wisconsin and then as pioneers at Oxford, Wisconsin when it wasn’t even a state. When Elizabeth died there at age 54 on February 3, 1853 the children were: Alexander 33, married to his mother’s sister’s Rhoda; Chauncy C 31; George Wendell 28 and married to Harriet with 2 boys; Mary Emma 26; James Blair 24; Lucinda Blair 20; David Perry 19; Angeline 16; the twins Joseph G and Josiah C 13; and Elizabeth Lorain 8.

Wendell tripped at the wood pile, still trying to be useful to his daughter who had taken her widowed father into her home. The War that ended in 1814 was now 75 years ago but as David Perry Miller and Angeline Rachel Miller Smith surrounded his bedside for the last three days of his life, he recalled his parts in it often. Rachel had embroidered a handkerchief of blue that read, “Don’t give up the ship”. She used it often to wipe his brow those last few hours. Wendell Valentine Miller died May 14, 1889.

The veterans from other wars lined the way as his casket was carried to his final resting place in Augusta, Wisconsin in the family plot at East Lawn Cemetery, Block A, Lot 67, grave 1.

Wendell V Miller 1796-1889

Many years later in 1916, Angeline Rachel Miller Smith was transported back to the family plot from Winnipeg by her two daughters, Edith and Ethel and laid beside her father; Block A, lot 67, grave 3. Between them lies Wendell Franklin Smith, Angie’s infant son, named after her father.

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