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Epic Poem Cover
Courtesy, The Lilly Library, Indiana
University, Bloomington, Indiana.

"Tis what each candid mind expects"

ABOUT "THE Heroes of the Lake"

Published within only a few months of the Battle of Lake Erie, The Heroes of the Lake is an epic poem of one hundred eight pages, broken into two books. Book One is primarily concerned with the Battle of Lake Erie and the second with the later Battle of the Thames. Throughout the poem, Woodworth frequently alters the metric structure of the verse. He switches between iambic pentameter, tetrameter and heptameter, which creates a cadence similar to traditional examples of epic poetry. Woodworth generally accompanies the iambic meters with rhyming couplets.

While this sort of metric scheme is not highly regarded among literary critics it does, as the literary critic Paul Fussell notes, make "poems of this sort remarkably easy to memorize and recite, and perhaps public recitation was what they are designed for."1 Although The Heroes of the Lake is far too long to memorize, the poem was probably intended to be read by a broad audience, and one which surely had a thorough understanding of the content and context of the poem than the modern reader.

The Heroes of the Lake is a curious example of epic poetry. Written during the very war which it describes, Woodworth was able to blend contemporary events with poetic fancy. Woodworth did not merely recount the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames, but commented on a variety of social and political issues which concerned Americans during the War of 1812. The contemporary nature of The Heroes of the Lake placed it at odds with many traditional conceptions of the epic as a genre. The Scottish philosopher Lord Kames, who influenced many American writers, warned in Elements of Criticism (1762) that "after Voltaire, no writer, it is probable, will think of erecting an epic poem upon a recent event in the history of his own country."2 Clearly, Woodworth did not heed Lord Kames' warning.

Conceptually, the poem can be understood as a binary between fact and fiction. In the introduction to the text, Woodworth acknowledges that he "is conscious that, mixing fact with fiction has generally been considered improper in an epic poem." Nevertheless, Woodworth essentially told two different stories in The Heroes of the Lake. While the first was a factual account of the aforementioned battles, the second is a fictional account of two Native American prophecies, which contain the critical meaning of the poem. Aside from being a prolific writer of poetry, plays, and novels, Samuel Woodworth was a noted journalist of his time. In The Heroes of the Lake, the reader can see how Woodworth uses both journalistic and literary techniques to inspire, inform, and engage his audience.

In Book One the poem begins with Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry, the "youthful hero," standing atop the deck of the American fleet’s flagship, the U.S. brig Lawrence, contemplating the magnitude of the war. After losing Lake Erie to the British at the onset of the war, the Americans had quickly set about building a fleet of ships at Presque Isle on Lake Erie with the intent of recapturing this critically strategic position. Perry was appointed commander of the Lake Erie fleet for two specific reasons. As historian David Skaggs notes, Perry "had been the supervisor of the construction of several gunboats, and he had commanded a schooner and a gunboat squadron."3

Woodworth ends the first book of The Heroes of the Lake with an account of the Battle of Lake Erie which occurred on September 10, 1813. In this section, Woodworth pays particular attention to Admiral Perry. Woodworth shows how Perry gallantly led his fleet into battle against the dreaded Royal Navy. Perry's leadership at Lake Erie both in constructing the naval fleet and his military activity during the battle led him to be one of America's great heroes of the War of 1812. The poet dramatically illustrates how Barclay, the British commander on Lake Erie, initially crippled the Lawrence, almost ensuring an American defeat. Then, with great flair, Woodworth depicts Perry abandoning the sinking Lawrence to board the Niagara, a different American ship, to continue the fight.

The tempest's rage – the hail-shot of the foe,
And all but death, unmov'd, had borne him through.
Began his bosom now with hope to glow,
But yet remain'd one final, trying blow!
When, looking back, he saw the Lawrence' pride,
Her gallant flag descend to drink the tide!
-"Hope, tim'rous fugitive! restrain thy flight!
This darkest hour shall usher in the light.

Once on board the Niagara, Perry, either through luck or military genius, was able to force the British ships Detroit and Queen Charlotte into surrendering after their bows became entangled. A victorious conclusion at the Battle of Lake Erie cemented Perry as an authentic American hero and secured America’s control of the lake. Although it was becoming apparent that the Americans would fail to capture Canada, Perry's victory nearly guaranteed that British forces would not re-capture this part of the United States. 

In the second book of The Heroes of the Lake, Woodworth depicts the achievements of the American forces under the command of General William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. If the Battle of Lake Erie was the most significant sea battle in the northern theater during the War of 1812, then the Battle of the Thames was its land counterpart. After defeating the British fleet on Lake Erie, American forces were properly situated to attempt a recovery of Detroit, which they had lost in August 1812. The loss of Detroit and subsequent failure to recapture it at the onset of the war was more than just a strategic loss for the American military; it nearly crippled American morale and proved that victory would not be, as Thomas Jefferson initially proclaimed, "a mere matter of marching."

In The Heroes of the Lake, Woodworth implicitly depicts the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of the Thames as source of redemption for American forces in the Great Lakes region after the initial failures at Detroit. The defeat of Admiral Barclay and the British fleet on Lake Erie left Major-General Henry Proctor, British commander in the Detroit region, in an untenable position. Along with Tecumseh and the pan-tribal alliance, Proctor attempted to make a final stand against the advancing American forces at Moraviantown, a small town along the banks of the Thames River in Upper Canada. In the fifth and sixth scenes of Book Two, Woodworth depicts the Battle of the Thames with as much flair as he previously did for the Battle of Lake Erie.

Lo, down yon steep a swift- wing'd courier flies!
And hark! he shouts with rapture in his eyes!
"The Britons stand! prepare, my friends, prepare!
In yonder glade they from the line with care!
But soon we'll drive them from the dark defile:
Haste, comrades, haste! For now shall end our toil!"

Woodworth poetically describes how Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson, then congressman of Kentucky and future vice president, and Isaac Shelby, the first governor of Kentucky, gallantly led their Kentucky militia into battle against the British Army and the dreaded Indian warriors. With more men, better supplies, and inspired by the recent success at Lake Erie, the Kentucky militia valiantly broke through the British line, defeating the British troops in their final stand along the banks of the Thames.4 When defeat was imminent, General Proctor and the British fleet began retreating, leaving Tecumseh and the native warriors to continue fighting until Tecumseh lost his life in battle. Woodworth concludes his account of the Battle of the Thames by proclaiming:

Shout, freemen, shout the strife of death is done!
The Indians fly, the battle leaves the plain,
And, victory, victory, renders the heavens again!

As historian Donald Hickey claims, "the Battle of the Thames had its most profound and enduring impact in the realm of western mythology."5 In The Heroes of the Lake, Samuel Woodworth uses the Battle of the Thames and the Battle of Lake Erie to bolster an emerging sense of American patriotism. Woodworth portrays the American victory at the Battle of the Thames as a decisive move towards victory for the American forces. Through epic poetry, a literary genre typically associated with Homer's heroic accounts of Achilles and Odysseus, Woodworth strives to elevate the achievements of Perry, Harrison, Shelby, and Johnson to the realm of mythology.

In her book, 1812: War and the Passions of Patriotism, historian Nicole Eustace examines the role of emotions and the emergence of American patriotism during the War of 1812. Eustace articulates how Woodworth used Perry, and to a lesser extent Harrison, Johnson and Shelby, as foils to Hull, whose emotional failures at Detroit resulted in a devastating American defeat.6 As a journalist with literary ambitions, Woodworth utilized the historically accurate portions of The Heroes of the Lake to inform readers of the great American victories at Lake Erie and along the Thames. Additionally, he reminds the American people that the "youthful heroes" of the War of 1812 were as heroic and as worthy of praise as their revolutionary forefathers.

If Woodworth portrays the victorious battles at Lake Erie and the Thames romantically to reinforce an emerging sense of American patriotism and to immortalize the accomplishments of young military leaders, then the other parts of the poem are presented in a different fashion. Intermingled with idealized portrayals of actual battles, Woodworth attempts to convey a much deeper and more serious message within The Heroes of the Lake. Those portions of the poem which concern the Native American warriors Logan and Tecumseh are the fictional aspects Woodworth mentions in his introduction. The reality-based sections of The Heroes of the Lake are tributes of praise to the American efforts in the war, while the fictional sections convey a stern warning regarding America’s uncertain future.

In his essay Reincarnating Samuel Woodworth: Native American Prophets, the Nation, and the War of 1812, literary historian Joseph J. Letter suggests that Woodworth utilizes Chief Logan and Tecumseh as an allegory for the serious political divisions in America during the War of 1812.7 In the years leading up to and during the War of 1812, American politics became increasingly polarized between the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties. The Federalist Party staunchly opposed the War of 1812 from the very beginning. With most of its members living in New England and along the eastern seaboard, Federalists feared that a war with Great Britain would seriously compromise their ability to trade with Europe, endanger their economic livelihood, and put their communities at risk.

Democratic-Republicans, led by James Madison, were generally supporters of the war. Distrustful of the British and their presence in neighboring Canada, Democratic-Republicans believed attacking Canada was not only desirable, but justified and necessary. Democratic-Republicans were strongest in the rural South and Midwest where commitment to expansion ran deep and they were concerned about Native American attacks, which they believed to have been sponsored by the British. For their part, the Federalists, largely based in the Northeast, feared a war with Great Britain would devastate their sea-based economy and leave American vulnerable to attack.  As historian Alan Taylor suggests, "the political partisans were so shrill because the stakes seemed so high: the survival of the republic and its tenuous union of fractious states."8 Nevertheless, it was perceived by many, including Woodworth, that this fierce political division itself seriously threatened the future of the young American republic. 

In The Heroes of the Lake, Woodworth presented two Native Americans in fictitious circumstances to warn the American public about the dangers of a divided nation. In Book One, Woodworth depicted an Indian chief aboard the Lawrence. The Indian chief was brought aboard the Lawrence after crossing Lake Erie during a treacherous storm to warn the American forces of the British presence further down the lake; the Indians journey across the lake left him fatally wounded. This Indian was an embodiment of two actual Native Americans named Logan. Neither Logan was historically associated with the Battle of Lake Erie. However, both Logans at one time had amicable relations with American settlers, only to be betrayed later.

One source of Woodworth's character is Captain James Logan, a Shawnee warrior who was taken in by an American family after his family was killed by American settlers in Kentucky. He served the Americans as a translator and scout until he was falsely accused of working with the British and Tecumseh's pan-tribal alliance. In an attempt to prove his loyalty, Logan set out locate a camp of hostile Indians. He was killed in this attempt. The second historical Logan from which Woodworth constructs his fictional character was the Mingo Chief Logan, who was memorialized in American history for his eloquent 1774 speech which described his friendship with early white settlers until he was later betrayed by American who killed his family. 9

In Book Two, Woodworth presents Tecumseh, the infamous ally of the British. A few years before the war, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, also known as the Prophet, formed the pan-Indian movement. This movement was created with the intent of unifying various Indian tribes to prevent further seizure of their land by American settlers. After Harrison swindled a great deal of land from Native Americans at the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809, Tecumseh and his alliance of Indians made common cause with the British, who sought assistance in defending their North American possessions. Tecumseh and members of other Native American tribes willingly joined forces with the British and proved to be some of their fiercest and most resilient fighters.

Tecumseh was present at two of the most decisive battles in the northwestern theater of the war. He assisted General Isaac Brock when the British captured and later maintained their hold of Detroit. He was also present alongside General Proctor at the British defeat at the Battle of the Thames. In the final scene of The Heroes of the Lake,Woodworth depicts how Proctor and his British soldiers fled into the countryside, leaving Tecumseh behind and effectively betraying their Indian allies. Tecumseh died at the Battle of the Thames after Proctor retreated. The pan-Indian movement then effectively collapsed, sealing the fate of Native Americans in the old Northwest. Woodworth concludes The Heroes of the Lake with a speech from Tecumseh to General Harrison and his soldiers at the Battle of the Thames. This speech is entirely a literary creation; there is no evidence that Tecumseh survived the battle long enough to give it.

The critical message of The Heroes of the Lake is found in the two death-speeches uttered by Logan and Tecumseh; these speeches occur at the end of each respective book as each character is about to pass from the physical world to the afterlife. Indian speeches were a common trope in early American print culture. Indian speeches, such as the actual speech by Logan the Mingo Chief, appeared frequently in school text books, popular magazines, and periodicals. However, it should be noted that American writers consistently fabricated, edited, or censored Indian speeches to fit a specific agenda. When reading The Heroes of the Lake, it is clear that Woodworth used the two Indian speeches to convey a very specific message, one which did not actually concern Native Americans, but rather the past, present and future of the young republic.

In both speeches, Logan and Tecumseh speak of their betrayers. Logan laments the Americas' distrust of him as an ally and subsequent abandonment of his family and tribe to be killed by the British. Tecumseh grieves over the betrayal by Proctor and the demise of Native Americans as they once existed. Letter states, "In The Heroes of the Lake two Native American bodies opposed to one another allegorize a concept, a nation divided by faction."10 In Book One, Woodworth has the fictional Logan prophesize that after victory at Lake Erie, the American forces will be on the brink of capturing Canada. At the end of Book Two, Tecumseh's prophecy negates Logan’s initial prophecy by proclaiming:

Nor yet be Logan's dying words fulfill'd:
Ah! cease to hope, thy country's flag unfurl'd,
Can float in triumph o'er this northern world:
While thus divisions mar Colombia's fame,
Her flag the name of union cannot claim!

Through the voice of fictional Native American characters, Woodworth implores Americans to consider the dangers of political divisions. Woodworth suggests that if such divisions continue to exist, the United States will meet the same fate as Tecumseh and Logan. Only through unity could the aspirations and dreams of the young republic be achieved.

In the aftermath of the War of 1812, a divided union did not come to fruition as Woodworth feared. Almost immediately after the war, the United States experienced one of the most prosperous and unified eras of American history, known as the 'era of good feelings'. Perhaps the fact that the United States did not experience a serious political divide after the War of 1812 is a contributing factor to the historical disregard of The Heroes of the Lake. It is not unreasonable to assume that most readers could find little relevance in a poem which fixated on a political scenario which faded after the war.

As a work of literature, deeply rooted in the contemporary events of its day, The Heroes of the Lake offers great insight to the War of 1812. The early nineteenth century was a critical era of social, economic, political, and cultural development for United States. The War of 1812 was the first true military threat to the young republic's legitimacy. The second generation of American military leaders, politicians, and intellectuals were charged with directing the future of the nation. Samuel Woodworth played an important role in the development of national culture.  

I contend The Heroes of the Lake authentically captures the mythos of the America public during the War of 1812 and sheds light on many of the issues Americans at the time were forced to deal with,  issues which do not exist in a vacuum, but rather span time and are relevant to this day. A close reading of The Heroes of the Lake will illustrate many of the sociopolitical attitudes, principles, fears, desires, and beliefs of 19th century Americans as they grappled with the uncertain future of their young republic. Woodworth's epic poem is placed firmly in the American canon of war related poetry. Like Francis Scott Key's Star Spangled Banner and Oliver Wendell Holmes' Old Iron Sides, Samuel Woodworth's The Heroes of the Lake stands as a bold and romantic tribute to the American heroes who helped form their nation.

1. Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979), 31.

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