The battle that turned the War of 1812

Perry's Victory on Lake Erie

Thomas Birch, Perry's Victory on Lake Erie, c. 1814, oil on canvas, 167.64 x 245.11 cm (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), a Seeing America video speakers: Dr. Anna O. Marley, Curator of Historical American Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Birch, Perry's Victory

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Key points

  • Admiral Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie was a turning point in the War of 1812 and the development of the American empire. The American forces defeated the powerful British navy, demonstrating the growing international strength of the United States.
  • Connecting British Canada and the U.S., Lake Erie was strategically important, especially in a larger war that centered on controlling the conduits of international trade. The victory also enabled American expansion westward, beyond the original colonies along the eastern seaboard. This was a tragic development for Native Americans in the region, especially after Tecumseh, who had organized a confederacy of native peoples in alliance with the British, was killed in a subsequent battle.
  • Thomas Birch relied on reports and military sketches to capture the details of the battle with great precision. Building on a tradition of Dutch marine painting, he depicts the confusion and chaos of the battle, but also signals America’s ultimate victory.

Go deeper

Read a short biography of Thomas Birch

See this painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

See a timeline of the War of 1812 at the Indiana University Bloomington Libraries

Learn more about the War of 1812

Explore primary source documents about the War of 1812

Read about the Battle of Lake Erie at the National Park Service

More to think about

The decisive victory at the Battle of Lake Erie was also celebrated in a painting by William Henry Powell. Compare the depictions of the battle by Powell and Thomas Birch. What are some of the differences in how each artist chose to represent the American victory? How do those choices impact your response to each painting?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.