Wheeling’s Little Known Hero of Lake Erie
For a small city, Wheeling can boast a veritable pantheon of legendary figures, from frontier folk like Betty Zane and Samuel McColloch, to modern notables like Eleanor Steber and Walter Reuther. But there was a man from Wheeling whose name and deeds, while deserving of similar legendary status, remain relatively obscure and unknown.
That man’s name was John Joliffe Yarnall (1786-1815), and his heroic deeds helped win the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.
Yarnall was born in Wheeling, Virginia in 1786. Appointed Navy midshipman on January 11, 1809, he sailed the Atlantic coast of the United States on the ships Chesapeake and Revenge from 1809 to 1812, helping to enforce President Madison’s embargo on trade with European adversaries during the Napoleonic Wars. He then served during the War of 1812 (1812-15).
Shortly after being promoted to Lieutenant on July 24, 1813, Yarnall was transferred to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’scommand on the Great Lakes. Perry assigned Yarnall as first lieutenant aboard the flagship Lawrence. One of the navy’s few officers from the trans-Appalachian West and having no naval battle experience, Yarnall was most grateful to Perry for such a choice assignment. While on board the Lawrence, Yarnall participated in the critical Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.
A series of unusual injuries incurred during this battle rather starkly altered Yarnall’s appearance. According to Captain W.W.Dobbins, whose father, Daniel Dobbins, supervised the construction of the Lawrence… “Lieut. Yarnall had his scalp badly torn, and came below [deck] with blood streaming over his face; some lint was hastily applied and confined with a bandanna, with instructions to report for further dressings after battle. He at once returned upon deck. In addition, the cattail contents of hammocks damaged by cannon balls floated in the air like feathers. These gathered upon Yarnall’s blood-covered head, and made it look like a huge owl.” Soon after this, a splinter of wood ripped from the ship’s hull by a British cannon ball pierced Yarnall’s nose. In order to reduce the bleeding, the nose was stuffed with cotton. Understandably, the combined effect of his unusual injuries caused Yarnall’s shipmates to proclaim his appearance “ridiculous!”
Despite these nasty wounds, Yarnall refused to leave his post during the engagement.
Even as the American sailors listened to the strains of “Rule Britannia” emanating from the deck of the large British ship Detroit, the battle was joined. Immediately targeted by three British ships, theLawrence was heavily damaged. Out of its crew of 103 men, 22 were killed and 61 wounded. Usher Parsons, the ship’s Harvard educated surgeon, was kept busy below deck. With the Lawrence disabled, British victory seemed imminent.
Meanwhile, another American ship, the Niagara, commanded by Jesse Elliott, had “held back” and for some reason did not engage in the battle. The Niagara was a ”fresh ship” with no significant damage, and Perry reasoned that if he could board her, the battle could continue. After consulting with Yarnall, Perry departed the Lawrence in a small boat, leaving Yarnall in command of the ship. Once Perry boarded the Niagara, he renewed the attack on the British. In an almost miraculous 15 minutes of fighting, America’s fortunes changed and Perry’s forces prevailed. After the battle, Yarnall took the squadron’s wounded aboard and carried them to Erie, Pennsylvania for medical treatment.
With Yarnall’s help, Perry had defeated the most powerful navy in the world. In fact, it was the first time in history that an entire British fleet was captured. The victory was critical to the United States. Securing vital water transportation routes on Lake Erie helped American forces win the land battle in the Great Lakes region. Had the battle been lost, it’s likely that the states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, as well as the city of Chicago, Illinois would not now be part of the United States.
After the battle, Yarnall was a strong supporter of Oliver Hazard Perry in a verbal dispute between Perry and Jesse Elliott (the original captain of the Niagara who was jealous of Perry’s success). Elliott made a desperate attempt to enhance his own reputation despite the fact that he did not bring his ship into the fight against the British. Professor Emeritus David Curtis Skaggs of Bowling Green State University states… “Perhaps the most condemnatory published statement came in a letter from Lieutenant Yarnall…to a friend in Wheeling, who had it printed in the Ohio Federalist of nearby St. Clairsville, Ohio. In this letter Yarnall questioned how Elliott ‘would account for his conduct for not bringing his vessel to close action when ordered’…’If Captain Elliott had obeyed orders the conflict would not have been so long or as sanguinary.'”
Yarnall had not anticipated that his private letter would be published. When confronted, he refused to retract his words, and in retaliation, Captain Elliott had Yarnall arrested. Fortunately, a delegation of naval officers came to Yarnall’s defense so that he was not brought to trial. Secretary of the Navy William Jones followed Perry’s suggestion and reassigned Lieutenant Yarnall to service aboard the shipJohn Adams. This allowed Yarnall to escape “the clutches” of Elliott.
In the spring of 1815, Yarnall sailed with the famous Stephen Decatur, Jr. aboard the frigate Guerriereto the Mediterranean Sea. Stephen Decatur, Jr. had experienced “hand to hand combat” with pirates during the first Barbary War (1801-1805). Now Decatur and Yarnall would fight the pirates in the second Barbary War (March 3, 1815-July 3, 1815). Near Algeria, Decatur, as commander of the Guerriere(with Lieutenant Yarnall), captured the Meshuda, the flag ship of the Algerian “navy.” Yarnall was again wounded. Decatur gave Lt. Yarnall the duty to bear documents to our government after the treaty was signed. Yarnall’s ship, the sloop of war Epervier, was last seen passing the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean on July 14, 1815. His ship never arrived in the United States and was presumed to have gone down at sea.
For his valor during the Battle of Lake Erie, Yarnall earned Perry’s commendation as well as a gold medal from Congress. Unfortunately, the medal was not given to Yarnall right away. Instead, it was awarded posthumously to his family and accepted by his mother, Phebe Yarnall who was living in Pittsburgh in 1819 (four years after his death).
But the United States Navy did not forget him, naming two destroyers after its heroic Lieutenant John Joliffe Yarnall. The first, destroyer #143, served the United States from 1918-1940. One of the ship’s earliest commanders was William F. Halsey, Jr. who during World War II became U.S. Navy Fleet Admiral “Bull Halsey.” Ironically, in 1940 the Yarnalldestroyer was given to the British Navy to serve in WWII and renamed H.M.S. Lincoln. Later this destroyer was transferred to the Soviet Navy and renamed Druzhny (which means “Friendly” in Russian). The second YarnallU.S. Navy Destroyer #DD-541 was launched on July 25, 1943 and was used to fight the Japanese in the Pacific during WWII. She also saw action during the Korean War.
A painting by Dean Mosher of a wounded Yarnall aboard the Lawrence with Oliver Hazard Perry is on permanent display at Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay, Ohio on Lake Erie. This national monument is the third tallest monument in the United States. Only the St. Louis Arch and the Washington monument are taller. A portrait of Yarnallpainted by Dutch artist Charles Delin (1756-1818) sold during an auction of August 18-19, 2012 for $21,240. During the Bicentennial Reenactment of the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 2013, someone paid $975.00 for the privilege of portraying John J. Yarnall.
John J. Yarnall signed his last will and Testament on November 6, 1813 (less than one month after the Battle of Lake Erie), writing that he made this will “considering the uncertainty of this mortal life.” He wrote affectionately about his mother, brothers Amos and Peter, and his sisters Elizabeth Bolton and Mary Caldwell. Interestingly, he gave only $100.00 to his brother Peter in order to buy a watch, because of “being considered by me so well established in the world as to need no other Bequest.” Indeed that must have been the case, because it was his brother Peter Yarnall that likely helped finance the first bridge in Wheeling, West Virginia, a covered bridge over Wheeling Creek.
John Joliffe Yarnall was truly a hero who served our country bravely and honorably. Since he lost his life at sea and has no tombstone, his remembrance may have faded somewhat with the passing of time. Still, the people of Wheeling, West Virginia should be very proud to call John Joliffe Yarnall “one of their own.”
[Note: We would like for this post to be the launch of a campaign both to increase awareness of John Joliffe Yarnall’s heroism, and to fund a monument to Mr. Yarnall in his hometown at Heritage Port.]
Richard Dillon, We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry: Wilderness
Commodore (New York: McGraw Hill, 1978)
Captain W.W. Dobbins, History of the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10,
1813) and reminiscences of the Flagship “Lawrence” (Erie, PA: Asby &
Vincent Printers, 1876)
David Curtis Skaggs, Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism
In the Early U.S. Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2006)
Annual Marine, China Trade & Historical Americana Auction. August 18-19, 2012. Accessed July 26, 2015.
Lake Erie Heritage Foundation. Accessed August 1, 2013.
Naval History and Heritage Command. U.S. Navy website. Accessed August 4, 2015.
NavSource Naval History. by Paul R. Yarnall. Accessed July 26, 2015.
Wheeling: Birthplace of the American Steamboat, by John Bowman. Archiving Wheeling. Ohio County Public Library. Accessed August 9, 2015.