Benjamin Fleming: African-American Veteran
of the Battle of Lake Erie

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Benjamin Fleming in later life

The building of Commodore Perry’s fleet and the Battle of Lake Erie were high points in the early history of the Erie area. Most of the participants in these great events left the area after the war had ended. A few, like Daniel Dobbins, stayed in the region and became prominent members of Erie society. One of the sailors who served in the battle, and remained in Erie, was an African-American named Benjamin Fleming.

Benjamin Fleming was born a free man on July 20, 1782 in Lewistown, Sussex County, Delaware. He was of African-Scotch descent and was considered a “mulatto” (one of mixed black and white ancestry) in the language of the time.

In his early life, Fleming was a seaman aboard coasting vessels and Delaware pilot boats. African-Americans were active in the maritime trades, often finding more opportunity and acceptance at sea than they did on land. Many African-Americans also served in the fledgling United States Navy. Fleming joined the Navy in 1811 and served under Captain David Porter aboard the frigate Essex. After war was declared against Great Britain in 1812, Fleming was among the sailors at New York to volunteer for service on the Great Lakes.

Fleming served with Lieutenant Jessie Elliot’s forces during a daring raid on October 8-9th, 1812. Elliot and 100 men captured the British ships Detroit and Caledonia anchored in the Niagara River near Fort Erie, Ontario.

Benjamin Fleming was later among the men transferred to the fleet being built in Erie. As an experienced seaman, Fleming was rated as main-top-man and assigned to the US Brig Niagara, under his old commanding officer, Lt. Jessie Elliot. During the Battle of Lake Erie, September 10, 1813, Fleming was reportedly among the first to cheer the arrival of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry as he transferred his command from the damaged Lawrence.

In the spring of 1814, Fleming was discharged from the Navy when his term of service expired. Fleming remained in Erie after his discharge, possibly because of a Delaware law preventing freed Blacks from returning to that state. Fleming would live in Erie for the rest of his life.

On March 4, 1814, Fleming married Catherine McKinney, one of the daughters of a “halfbreed Negro” fisherman from Erie. Mr. McKinney lived at the head of Presque Isle bay, at the site of an old Seneca Indian village. He fished in the bay from a log canoe and sold the fish at the docks in Erie. He died in 1815, reportedly by choking on a fish bone.

His son-in-law, Benjamin Fleming, took over the McKinney fishing business and expanded it by selling the fish door-to-door for a nickel. It was this occupation that earned him the nickname “Bass” Fleming. He is also noted to have done “a great deal of hunting about the Peninsula.”

Fleming became a well-known Erie character who was visited by dignitaries who wished to meet the “last survivor of Perry’s command.”  He was considered “an important witness in the controversy between Perry and Elliott” although we are unfortunately unaware of what Fleming’s opinions were of the two officers and of Elliot’s conduct during the battle.  Fleming was a guest at the dedication of the Perry Monument in Cleveland in 1860, where he “described the Battle of Lake Erie in a vivid manner.”

Ben and his wife Catherine had a number of children including three sons that served in the Civil War.  Two served in Erie’s 83rd Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment and both were wounded in action at Richmond.  A third son served in the 150th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry.   The Flemings lived a meager life, the children were often listed as “poor children,” their schooling paid for by the county.   In old age, Ben subsisted upon charity and “received a small pittance from the State.”  He also was denied his prize money for his role in the capture of the Caledonia until shortly before his death.

Benjamin Fleming died at his home in Erie on May 9, 1870, which would have made him 88, although a number of accounts list him at 96 years old at the time of his death.  An obituary was published proclaiming: “The Last of Perry’s men—Uncle Ben Fleming is no More!  Good old Uncle Ben!   Many a Northwester hath he buffeted, and stood firm amid the roar of battle—the crash of shot, as they dealt their work of death and destruction round him.  But his ‘voyage of life is up;’ he is at last ‘moored for a full do,’ in that quiet haven where all is peace—there his weather-beaten form to molder and decay, until ‘all hands are called’ to judgment.”  Another obituary read “…his wants have ended, and, at a ripe old age, he has gone to rest; and, ‘though his body is under hatches, may his soul have gone aloft.’”  The Erie community banded together to give Fleming a hero’s burial.

The funeral services of Ben Fleming, the last of Perry’s men, took place on Wednesday, and were very impressive. The body, in a costly coffin, was taken from the deceased hero’s home to the portico of the Court House, where, in the presence of a vast audience, religious services were conducted by Rev. J.F. Spaulding, of the Episcopal Church, and a brief address was read by Judge Vincent. The ceremonies took place under the auspices of a committee of City Councils, by whose invitation the officers and crew of the USS Michigan were given special charge of the remains. As the funeral cortege, which was quite lengthy and imposing, and included many of our city and county officials, proceeded to the [Erie] cemetery, where a lot had been donated for the reception of the body, the Court House bell was tolled, and marks of respect were everywhere shown. Flags were suspended at half mast from a number of buildings. Poor Ben Fleming, left to the struggle with poverty during life, in death had honors paid to his memory such as few secure.

Shortly after the funeral, an editorial appeared in the Erie Observer that noted the irony of the elaborate funeral given to the pauper.

Editorial on the life and death of Ben Fleming

It would be funny, if it were not pitiable, to see the inconsistency of human nature, as exhibited in the treatment of those who have entitled themselves to honor in the national service.   Poor Ben Fleming, when living, was compelled to depend on charity for supports, and for years received hardly enough to maintain a half-starved existence for himself and family.  He dies at last, in advanced years, and instantly becomes an object of public attention.  Councils pass resolutions to his memory, naval and civil honors are paid to his remains, and men who never bestowed a thought upon him in life are lavish in eulogy of his patriotism and daring.   We would not detract one title from the justly deserved tributes bestowed upon the deceased hero, but oh, how much more pleasant it would be if we could say that his declining years were blessed with abundance, and cheered by the practical and bountiful sympathy of the community which he fought to protect.

The outpouring of feelings for Ben did nothing to help his indigent family.  His 77 year-old widow, Catherine, applied in vain for a War of 1812 widow’s pension.  She was denied the $8.00 a month pension in 1872 “for want of proof of marriage and death of soldier.”  Certainly it seems that one of the prominent citizens who eulogized Fleming could have helped his widow in securing her claim.  Benjamin Fleming stands as an example of the courage and patriotism of the African-Americans who made up 15-20% of the enlisted sailors who served in the War of 1812.  As the Pennsylvania State historical marker located by the Brig Niagara’s berth reads: “These skilled seamen were among those who enabled Oliver Hazard Perry to defeat & capture a British squadron, Sept. 10, 1813.   Their participation—critical to victory—secured a place for African Americans in the region’s history.”

*Special thanks to local historian Karen James for providing her research on Benjamin Fleming for the preparation of this article.

For additional reading we recommend:

Altoff, Gerard T., Amongst My Best Men: African-Americans and the War of 1812 (The Perry Group, 1996)

Thompson, Sara and Karen James, Journey From Jerusalem: African Americans in Erie, Pennsylvania (Erie County Historical Society, 1996)


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15-20% of the US Navy’s enlisted sailors during the War of 1812 were African-Americans.

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Catherine Fleming’s Pension Application

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