James Bird - the Battle of Lake Erie, the Execution, The Ballad
Battle of Lake Erie-Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
The story of James Bird began before the Battle of Lake Erie ended in September 1813, and the “Ballad of James Bird” began to be sung shortly after his execution in 1814. For decades after the Battle of Lake Erie, people throughout the hills and dales of Pennsylvania and Ohio sang “The Ballad of James Bird”.
James Bird is a Prisoner on the Niagara
The brig Niagara and the rest of Admiral Perry’s fleet returned to Erie, Pennsylvania, after Perry defeated the British fleet. In the early spring of 1814, a sour note marred the victory songs echoing through the streets. James Bird, Edwin or John Rankin, and a sailor named John Davis were taken prisoner on the Niagara. The controversy about their fate is still a discordant note in Lake Erie history.
Lydia Ryall’s Version of the James Bird Story
There are almost as many versions of the James Bird story as there are of the “Ballad of James Bird”. In her book, Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands, Lydia J. Ryall says that James was a marine from Kingston, Ohio, and he had fought valiantly on the Niagara with Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie.
All of the versions of the James Bird story seem to agree that he did, indeed, fight bravely on Perry’s flagship the Lawrence.As the ballad describes the story, James Bird is wounded and although Perry implores him to leave the deck and save himself, Bird fights on.
The lyrics of the ballad, according to Laura Sanford, are fraught with emotion, but nineteenth century ballad singers enjoyed story songs with emotional touches. The emotional touches enhanced the story and the embellishments provided much of the singing fun.
Ay, behold! a ball has struck him,/See the crimson current flow/”Leave the deck,” exclaimed brave Perry/”No,” cries Bird, “I will not go”/”Here on board I tuck my station,Ne ‘er will Bird his colors fly/I’ll stand by you, gallant captain,Til we conquer, lest we die.
Standing by Oliver Hazard Perry proved to be a fatal mistake for James Bird. Although wounded, James didn’t return with the fleet to Erie. Instead, he set out for his home at Kingston, anxious to see his family, friends, and sweetheart. He hired out to a man in his neighborhood and started to work clearing timber. He never thought that he would be considered a deserter. He talked at length to his employer about his experiences under Perry’s command. During the conversation he revealed that he had not waited to obtain a formal discharge from Perry’s fleet.
Ryall’s version of the story has it that Bird’s employer also had his eye on Bird’s sweetheart and that she had turned aside his advances in favor of James Bird. The employer saw a way to get even with James. He reported him as a deserter.
Laura Sanford’s Version of the James Bird Story
Laura G. Sanford in her History of Erie County tells another version of the story. She says that James Bird belonged to a volunteer company from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, and that the company occupied a small blockhouse at the Cascade in Erie.
According to Sanford, the men were not used to military discipline and they became impatient with orders. They mutinied by barricading themselves and refusing others admission to the fort. Lieutenant Brooks of the Marines desperately needed men before the battle, so he told them that he would pardon them if they would enlist with him. He made James Bird a sergeant and put him in charge of a storehouse at the mouth of Mill Creek. Sanford says that he deserted from there.
Captain Dobbins Tells the James Bird Story
Two other sources contradict Ryall and Sanford. The Muster Roll of Perry’s fleet reveals that James Burd, marine, was wounded on the Brig Lawrence in Perry’s fleet. Captain W.W. Dobbins in his History of the Battle of Lake Erie and Reminiscences of the Flagships Lawrence and Niagara, states that among the wounded was James Bird, sergeant marine.
W.W. Dobbins offers another version of the James Bird story. He wrote that he and his father, Daniel, heard frequent conversations between the officers about Bird. The Dobbins version of the Bird story said that Bird came to Erie with a brigade of volunteers from the Pennsylvania interior. He and a squad of men guarded stores in a small block house at the Cascade where the large vessels were built. Although Bird supervised the stores, he also helped steal them. When the military commander discovered the thefts, the squad mutinied, but the commander arrested and imprisoned the rebels.
Lieutenant Brooks of the marines next appeared on the scene. He perceived that James Bird was a brave man and told him and some others that their offense would be overlooked, “provided they would enlist as marines.” They enlisted, and James Bird served bravely on the Lawrence was wounded. Then the squadron prepared for the Mackinac expedition and the marines placed Bird and other marines to guard the government stores at Erie. He deserted from there, taking John Rankin, one of the guards with him.This proved to be a fatal mistake for James Bird and paved the way for events that would produce a ballad that would carry his story into history.
One Shot Away from Rescue
James Bird and John Rankin were caught while deserting because an Erie boy had spent his vacation at home and rode back toward his school at Washington, Pennsylvania. He passed Bird and Rankin at a tavern near Butler. He had seen the men on duty at the store and he recognized them.
The boy continued on his journey and eventually met Sailing Master Colwell and a group of seamen in wagons. They were on their way to Erie to join the squadron. The boy told them about Rankin and Bird. Sailing Master Colwell disguised a party of men and sent them after Bird and Rankin. They captured Bird and Rankin and brought them to Erie.
President James Madison Refuses to Pardon James Bird
The military held a court martial on board the Niagara, which was on its way with the squadron to Detroit. John Davis, a sailor who had deserted and committed other offenses, and James Bird and John Rankin were found guilty and condemned to death.
Some officials tried to have Bird’s sentence commuted to imprisonment because of his gallant actions on the Lawrence on September 10, 1813. President James Madison refused. He said that Bird “had deserted from off his post while in charge of a guard, in time of war, and therefore, must suffer as an example for others.”
James Bird is Executed Before Word of Perry’s Pardon Arrives
James Bird, John Davis, and John Rankin were executed on board the Niagara while it lay at anchor at Erie in October 1814.Legend says that a rider and his horse galloped to Presque Isle Bay where the Niagara rode at anchor. He waved a piece of white paper at the men aboard the Niagara and shouted for them not to shoot. The crackle of rifle fire answered him. He had arrived at the Niagara with Admiral Perry’s pardon for James Bird a minute too late!
This part of the story may be just legend, because it would be difficult for Perry to countermand a presidential order, but this version of the story and ballad says that Perry did pardon James Bird, but he was shot before word of the pardon reached the Niagara.
The Ballad of Bird’s Farewell
A ballad called “Bird’s Farewell” describes the fate of James Bird and his comrades. Lydia Ryall quotes the entire balled in her Sketches and Stories of the Lake Erie Islands. The ballad describes the execution scene this way:
“Dark and gloomy was the morning/Bird was ordered out to die..”.
The ballad vividly describes Bird kneeling by his coffin and the words overflow with sentiment. “Spare him, his death can do no good,” the words cry. Then Bird is shot and his “bosom streams with blood.” The language of the ballad may seem overblown and sentimental to modern ears, but the emotions and story telling of the ballad keep James Bird alive.
Laura Sanford Decries The “Gory” Style of The Ballad
Laura Sanford concludes her version of the James Bird story by saying, “A ballad on the theme of not less than twenty verses in the “gory” style, rehearsed or rather screeched by a servant girl with a doleful countenance, and made a decided impression on a group of children.”
The Bones and Ballad of James Bird
Add another historical record to the popular history, the naval record, and the “gory” ballad of James Bird. An item in the Union City Times, published in the small town of Union City about twenty miles from Erie, takes up the James Bird story 68 years later. The item, dated March 9, 1882, said that the gale of Wednesday of last week uprooted a tree on Presque Isle, Erie, and the roots dragged up two skeletons.
One of the skeletons was that of James Bird, who had been the subject of cheap, sensational poetry throughout Pennsylvania for the last 75 years. The story continued that during the War of 1812, James Bird and John Rankin were shot on board the Niagara for desertion and were buried on the spot over which the tree grew and flourished.
The newspaper story concluded by saying that “Bird’s death was invested with heroic and martyr qualities as he is reported to have fallen with a dozen bullets through him a moment before his pardon arrived.”
Servant girls no longer sing the “Ballad of James Bird”, but there are still versions of it in folk song books, including Traditional American Folk Songs from the Anne & Frank Warner Collection, James Bird #17.
On fog swept mornings on the beaches of Presque Isle, imaginative beach walkers and fishermen say that they can hear the faint strains of:
“Dark and gloomy was the morning/Bird was ordered out to die..”.
Union City Times
Laura G. Sanford. History of Erie County