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Chapter 16

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

by
Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 18

Chapter Seventeen

p200 Perry on Lake Erie

General William Hull's surrender at Detroit in 1812 and General William Henry Harrison's costly and ineffectual efforts to reach the town during the winter of 1813 had one salutary effect. The commanders in the field, the War Department, where John Armstrong had replaced Dr. Eustis as secretary, and an impatient public smarting for revenge at last were convinced that there was no hope of taking and holding Detroit until the Americans should have assured their line of communications by gaining control of Lake Erie. (See Map I, p97)

At this very critical moment a young officer, ambitious to have a part in the glorious deeds of the American Navy, was eating his heart out in comparative obscurity and inactivity as commander of a flotilla of gunboats at Newport, Rhode Island. At the age of 15 Oliver Hazard Perry entered the Navy as a midshipman. He saw service with Preble at Tripoli, and though by accident and to his keen disappointment he missed most of the fighting, he had abundant opportunity to learn the art of his profession from that fine old sailor as well as to broaden his outlook by extensive travel in Italy and other countries bordering on the Mediterranean. In 1810 he had been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Now 27 years old, handsome, bold, and a natural leader, he was ripe for any daring exploit. With rare discernment the Navy Department, looking for a man to do the job on Erie, chose Perry. On February 17, 1813, he received orders to report to Commodore Chauncey at Sackett's Harbor and to take his best men along with him.

Perry lost little time bidding farewell to his gunboats. He selected 150 of his most capable seamen and most promising officers for service on the Lakes. In two days' time the detachment, split up into p201three parties of 50 men each, had left Newport. Perry followed for them, making the trip over the snow-covered roads of a New England winter by sleigh.

Perry's first objective was Lebanon, Connecticut, where his father and mother were living in retirement. There, too, was Perry's younger brother, Alexander, a boy 13. The elder Perry was himself an old Navy man so that Mrs. Perry was quite accustomed to brief reunions and hurried leave-takings. Nevertheless, this one‑night visit of Oliver Hazard was probably the most difficult she had ever had to face. When Alexander saw his brother and heard from his lips the prospect of adventure, he was impatient to go along.

Boys as young as Alexander frequently left home to begin their careers at sea, but Mrs. Perry must have hesitated when she reflected upon the long journey through a frozen wilderness, possible encounters with hostile Indians on the way and, finally, the inevitable battle to wrest Lake Erie from the British. On the other hand, she must have reflected that Alexander could not have a more zealous and trusted protector than Oliver Hazard.

What arguments may have been presented and what objections raised to the proposal we do not know. But when, in the morning, Oliver Hazard was ready to resume his journey, Alexander was in the sleigh with him. The elder Perrys were to have days of anxiety and suspense no doubt, but they had the gratification of knowing that younger generation of perries were breeding true to the old stock.

From Lebanon the brothers journeyed to Hartford where they changed to a mail coach which carried them to Albany. There they awaited the arrival of Commodore Chauncey from Sackett's Harbor and Oliver Hazard met for the first time his new commander. The two men found themselves mutually agreeable and the meeting was entirely amicable, giving no indication of the misunderstandings that were to follow. The worst stretch of the journey still lay ahead of them, from Albany to Sackett's Harbor. It took the travelers through dense forests and over trails and frozen lakes with the temperature well below zero. February had given way to March when they arrived at their destination and Perry had his first dreary view of one of the Great Lakes with which his name was to be forever after associated. There he remained for two weeks before he received p202his final instructions from Chauncey and set out for Presqu' Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) which, his orders told him, was to be his headquarters.

Presqu' Isle was situated on the south shore of Lake Erie. It had a good harbor lying behind the peninsula which gave the place its name. The entrance to it was protected by a sand bar which, while it was effective in keeping large hostile ships out, also provided a serious problem in getting large ships into the open lake. The base had been chosen through the instrumentality of Daniel Dobbins, an experienced lake captain, who made a trip to Washington to convince President Madison that this was the logical place for the building of a fleet. Thanks to the energy of Captain Dobbins two brigs and three gunboats were already on the ways.

Having inspected his new base Perry realized the immensity of the task that lay before him. There was timber in abundance in the neighboring forests, but all other supplies and equipment that go into the building, rigging, and arming of ships and the men to do the building had to be transported at great expense from miles away. Most of the materials to be had were at Pittsburgh, a four days' journey.

To add to his difficulties Perry knew that the British had a fleet on the lake under the command of Captain Finnis and that they knew what was going on at Presqu' Isle. No telling when they might descend on the place, which was virtually defenseless, and destroy it. Perry organized a guard but, because of lack of arms, its effectiveness was highly doubtful. Eventually he obtained the services of some Pennsylvania militia, but the men were undisciplined, ignored the commands of their officers and did a faltering job.

Nevertheless, in spite of all the handicaps and because of the driving power of Perry and Captain Dobbins, work went on apace. Early in May the three gunboats were launched. Finally, on May 24, the two large brigs took the water. Perry, however, was not to attend the launching for he had gone to join Dearborn on the Niagara front and to handle the flotilla in the landing of the troops and the successful attack on Fort George. His important part in that engagement has already been described. It tested him under enemy fire and gave him other valuable experience.

The capture of Fort Erie in the same campaign was vitally important p203from Perry's standpoint because it released five vessels which were on the Niagara River below Black Rock, and which were unable to pass into Lake Erie under the guns of the fort so long as the stronghold was in British hands. One of these five ships was the schooner Caledonia which, six months before, had been taken from under the guns of Fort Erie in the night attack led by Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliott. With the greatest exertion these vessels were warped up the swift waters above the falls to Buffalo. Perry embarked on the Caledonia and the flotilla set sail for Presqu' Isle, keeping a sharp lookout for Captain Finnis and his British squadron on the way.

Finnis would have found Perry's flotilla easy prey. Perry was beginning to get a reputation for good luck and surely it was with him on this occasion. For not until his ships had reached Presqu' Isle and were safely over the bar did Finnis put in an appearance and then he was too late to do any harm. Perry was pleased to find that during his absence construction had gone speedily forward and all the ships building were nearing completion. By July 10 the little fleet was ready. The two 20‑gun brigs were christened respectively the Lawrence, in honor of the commander of the Chesapeake who had been a personal friend of Perry's, and the Niagara.

Now came the question of manning the fleet. The government in Washington and General Harrison at his headquarters at Seneca on the Sandusky River began to grow impatient and wrote to Perry demanding action. Little did they appreciate Perry's predicament. The trouble lay in the fact that men destined for Perry were sent by way of Chauncey at Sackett's Harbor. Chauncey, who was attempting to build upon his naval force to wrest Lake Ontario from Sir James Yeo, the British naval commander in that quarter, was reluctant to send any men on to Perry. Perry wrote Chauncey beseeching letters. In return he got a handful of men who, apparently, were the dregs of Chauncey's forces, without experience and most of them sick into the bargain.

Meanwhile the British had been active assembling a fleet at Fort Malden, on the Detroit River. There the Detroit, a brig of 17 guns which was designed to be the flagship, was nearing completion. In command of the fleet and supplanting Captain Finnis was Captain Robert H. Barclay, a capable officer of the Royal Navy, 32 years p204of age. He had served under Nelson in the battle of Trafalgar and, like his famous commander, had lost an arm in the service. Perry knew that he had a worthy adversary and one who had had more practical experience than he. Barclay several times cruised with his squadron off Presqu' Isle, challenging Perry to come out and fight, but without the necessary complement of men Perry could not accept the challenge.

By the end of July Perry counted only about 300 officers and men, and he needed at least 500. Those he had were a motley group and he was especially short of experienced officers. Nevertheless he concluded that he could wait no longer. On August 1 he learned through spies that Barclay had been invited to attend a dinner given in his honor, and the disappearance of the British fleet from off Presqu' Isle seemed to confirm the report. Perry decided to seize this favorable opportunity to undertake the perilous task of getting his fleet over the bar and into the lake. No difficulty was anticipated in getting the smaller ships across, but the Lawrence and Niagara, when laden, drew nine feet of water and there were but six feet over the bar under normal conditions. On the day chosen an offshore wind sprang up driving the waters of the lake toward the Canadian shore and reducing the depth over the bar by an extra foot or so.

Perry, however, refused to abandon the attempt. Two of the gunboats were crossed and took up a defensive position outside the harbor. It was decided to try the Lawrence first while the Niagara stood by inside the bar with her decks cleared and guns shotted, ready for instant action if the British fleet should appear. But, halfway across, the Lawrence stuck in the mud. Releasing her entailed the laborious task of removing all her guns and ballast. Even that expedient failed to bring the desired result and as a last resort use was made of "camels," airtight floats which were placed on each side of the brig and lifted her when the water in them was pumped out. During this operation the ropes holding the camels broke and the whole operation had to be repeated. Four days were consumed in this laborious work and all the whole Perry felt grave anxiety over the imminent possibility that Barclay would reappear and catch his fleet in this embarrassing situation.

The next task was to get the Niagara over and this was accomplished with less difficulty and delay. Not until then did Barclay p205arrive on the scene. Seeing the two brigs at the mouth of the harbor and mistakenly assuming they were ready for battle and about to attack him he hurriedly made off and missed a splendid opportunity. Barclay was reluctant to fight until the Detroit was with his fleet.

Perry's luck once more asserted itself. On August 10 the long-awaited reinforcements arrived from Sackett's Harbor under Elliott, who now had the rank of captain. The party numbered in all 102, including a half dozen or so officers of whom Perry was in particular need. Perry at once named Elliott as his second in command and gave him the Niagara, permitting him also to select his own personnel from the men he had brought with him.

The fleet set out on a trial cruise to the west end of the lake to try out the ships and give the crews experience in handling them and firing the guns. This practice was to continue for a whole month and it probably had much to do with the eventual outcome of the battle. Perry claimed that he had in his whole company less than 100 first‑class seamen and of these only 40 knew anything about guns. But among them were some veterans of the Constitution who were of vast help in leavening the lump.

This period of training was enlivened by a spirited correspondence with Chauncey. As we have seen, Perry complained bitterly of the difficulty of getting men from the Commodore and of the quality of the men sent him. In a letter dispatched by Elliott the Commodore answered Perry in kind, Perry lost his temper and offered to resign then and there. He probably would have done so had not the Secretary of the Navy urged him to remain while Chauncey wrote another and more sympathetic letter which removed the sting of the first.

At Seneca General Harrison had assembled a force of 8,000 men. He and Perry met and discussed the plan of operations for the invasion of Canada. The proposal was made that the army be put aboard the fleet but this Perry was unwilling to hazard until he had disposed of Barclay. He did, however, agree to make Put‑in‑Bay his base. It lay off what is now Port Clinton, Ohio, and afforded close communication between the fleet and the army.

On August 25 Perry located the enemy fleet in the Detroit River. But at this point he was stricken with what the doctors of the day p206described as "bilious remittent fever" and his plans for immediate attack had to be abandoned. The disease was widespread throughout the fleet. A week later, though still weak from his illness, Perry sailed toward Fort Malden prepared to give battle. But the Detroit was not yet completely fitted so Barclay refused the challenge and retired to the protection of the fort's guns. Perry was now strengthened by 100 Kentuckians, loaned him by Harrison. They had never seen ships of the size of the Lawrence and the Niagara and only a few of them had had experience even with river boats. But they brought their famous rifles with them and were prepared to serve as marines.

Barclay was having even greater trouble than Perry in arming and manning his ships. Sir James Yeo, Barclay's superior on Lake Ontario, followed Chauncey's example by saving the best men available for himself and sending only the castoffs to Barclay. According to Barclay he never had more than 50 regular seamen in his force of a total of about 4450. The remainder were composed of Canadian volunteers and 240 regular soldiers from General Proctor's command. His fleet was composed of six ships of which the four largest were the Detroit, 19 guns; the Hunter, 10 guns; the Queen Charlotte, 17 guns; and the Lady Prevost, 13 guns. The two smaller ships were the Chippawa, one gun and two swivels, and the Little Belt, 3 guns. Because of the difficulties of transportation, similar to those that had handicapped Perry, heavy ordnance was scarce in Upper Canada and Barclay was driven to the extremity of arming the Detroit with land guns stripped from the fort at Malden. The fleet carried a total of 63 guns.

To oppose Barclay, Perry counted primarily on the Lawrence, 20 guns, and the Niagara, 20 guns. His force was completed by the Caledonia, 3 guns, the Ariel, Scorpion, Somers, Porcupine, Tigress and Trippe. His fleet mounted altogether 54 guns to Barclay's 63. Perry enjoyed a superiority in tonnage of about 8 to 7. His broadside at close range was 900 pounds against the British fleet's 460. At long range the respective batteries were more nearly equal though here, too, Perry had an advantage of 288 pounds to the enemy's 195. But that was assuming he could bring all his ships into action among other things.

While the Lawrence and Niagara were armed chiefly with 34‑pound p207carronades which could throw a heavy broadside at close range, they were no match at all for the Detroit and Queen Charlotte at long range since the latter were armed chiefly with long guns. Realizing his overwhelming superiority at close range, Perry planned to come to immediate grips with the enemy and endeavored to impress his strategy upon his subordinates. Barclay, realizing his own strength and weakness, was equally determined to fight the battle at long range.

Through a friend in Malden, Perry came into valuable information. He learned how Barclay planned to dispose his ships and, consequently, could dispose his own accordingly. He also learned that the food supply was growing scarce at Malden, where Proctor had to issue 10,000 rations a day to the Indian warriors and their families. The only way supplies could be brought to Malden was by the lake so Barclay would have to come out and force a decision. Every indication led Perry to the belief that the battle for which he had waited so long was imminent. He continued to keep on the alert in Put‑in‑Bay.

On September 9 Perry called his lieutenants into conference, outlined in detail what each ship would be expected to do and issued written orders. He reserved for his own ship, the Lawrence, the honor of opposing Barclay's flagship, the Detroit. To the Hunter he assigned the Caledonia, to the Queen Charlotte the Niagara and to the Lady Prevost and Little Belt the Somers, Porcupine, Tigress and Trippe. Since he had been told that the Queen Charlotte would lead the British line he directed Elliott to take the corresponding position in the American line. The gunboats Ariel and Scorpion were to flank the Niagara so as to use their long guns until the Niagara could close with the enemy and bring her carronades into play. All the ships were to keep in close order, half a cable length apart.

Perry had seen to the making in Presqu' Isle of a large square flag of blue muslin bearing in large white letters Lawrence's last words, "Don't Give Up the Ship." Before the conference broke up he displayed it before his officers and explained that when it was hoisted to the mainmast on the Lawrence they were to take it as the signal for the whole fleet to go into action.a

Shortly after dawn of September 10 a lookout at the masthead of the Lawrence gave the warning, "Enemy in sight." As the sun p208rose Barclay's fleet was discovered in line of battle silhouetted against the sky at a distance of from five to six miles. A light morning shower cleared the air and was followed by a perfect September day with hardly more than enough wind to ripple the waters of the lake. Perry weighed anchor and tried to pass the islands in the bay and still keep the weather gauge. But when he was told by his sailing master that this might take all day he decided to surrender the advantage to the enemy and sailed boldly out into open water.

Here again the proverbial Perry luck came to the rescue for the wind shifted in his favor and he proceeded to bear down upon the British fleet which, still in line, awaited his coming. Perry then perceived that Barclay had changed his order of battle and that the Detroit was leading the British line. He promptly directed the Niagara to shift position accordingly and placed the Lawrence in the American van. Barclay now moved forward to meet the Americans.

Perry realized that the engagement would likely take place about noon, the hour of the midday meal. With rare thoughtfulness in this moment of excitement and suspense he ordered food to be served his men so that they would fight on full stomachs. When the crews had completed this hasty repast they stood to their guns and awaited the battle.

The suspense did not last long. The fleets now approached to within a mile and a half from each other. At 11:45 A.M. the Americans heard from their stations a bugle on the Detroit sounding the call to action. Immediately thereafter a gunner on the Detroit directed a 24‑lb. shot from one of the long guns at the Lawrence. It fell short. Five minutes later a second shot struck the Lawrence, killing a member of the crew. Perry ordered the Scorpion and the Ariel to fire their long guns, but though the shots reached the Detroit, they were unable to penetrate her stout timbers and did little damage.

Owing to the lightness of the breeze the smaller ships, the Somers, Porcupine, Tigress and Trippe, which brought up the end of the line, had fallen behind until a mile lay between them and the Lawrence at the head of the column. Through his trumpet Perry gave the command to close up and it was relayed from ship to ship. Yet, according to Barclay's later account of the battle, the Caledonia and the Niagara, in disregard of Perry's order, continued to fight at p209long range, the Niagara using only two guns while her powerful broadside of carronades remained idle.

Meanwhile the British fleet, disregarding all the other American ships, centered its fire on the Lawrence. Perry fired one broadside but it fell short. At 12:15 P.M. the Lawrence was within pistol-shot range of the Detroit and her guns began to bear. Alone and unaided save by the Scorpion and the Ariel, which fought valiantly, the Lawrence battled the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte. For two solid hours Perry continued the unequal struggle, pounding the two enemy ships but receiving terrific punishment himself. Throughout the conflict young Alexander remained steadfast beside his brother. He was struck by some flying object but escaped serious injury.

Every minute brought the destruction of the Lawrence nearer. The Queen Charlotte had moved out of line and closer to the Detroit the better to direct her fire on Perry's flagship. But the Niagara did not follow. The Lawrence's rigging was shot away, her sails torn to ribbons by grape and canister, her spars splintered and many of her guns torn from their mountings. Of the crew of 103 which entered the battle, 22 lay on the decks, dead or crying out in their last agonies; 61 were nursing their wounds. The ship's bay was above water and shells tore through it, killing men as they lay on the operating table. All of Perry's officers were killed or wounded. He alone appeared to lead a charmed life. Though with his usual courage he exposed himself freely to enemy fire, not so much as a splinter touched him. The Lawrence was fast becoming a useless, unmanageable hulk. Only 20 whole men remained to work the guns. Defeat appeared inevitable.

At last the Lawrence's guns were silenced. Throughout the heat of battle Perry's men had asked each other what had become of the Niagara and why she had not moved in to the rescue. Now, when hope had all but vanished, they got an answer. From the deck of his ship Elliott had seen the destruction wrought on the Lawrence. As the flagship lay helpless and silent and no orders came from her he must have assumed that Perry was dead. At any rate Elliott acted as though he thought so. He ordered the Caledonia to close with the Hunter and he himself moved the Niagara toward the front of the line.

Even then Elliott did not go to the rescue of the Lawrence but p210put the flagship between him and the enemy. He was to have a startling surprise, for he had reckoned without true knowledge of his superior. As the two ships came abreast at a distance of half a mile a rowboat put out from the Lawrence. Five men were in the boat. Four of them labored at the oars while the fifth stood in the stern. That fifth man was Perry.

Seeing the Niagara, fresh and unscathed, entering the conflict Perry was suddenly seized with an inspiration indicative of his genius and his indomitable will. He would undertake what few commanders before or since have done — transfer his flag to another ship in the very midst of the battle. Perry ordered a boat over the side. One account has intent that he fought the engagement in a dark-blue undress uniform; another that he wore a red flannel shirt. However that may be, he now had on his full-dress uniform and boarded the rowboat which took off for the Niagara. He carried, folded over his arm, the blue flag bearing Lawrence's last words.

When the Lawrence ceased fire Barclay assumed that Perry was about to surrender and chivalrously withheld the fire of his own ships. But, seeing the boat put out, he at once divined Perry's intentions. Immediately the fire of the British fleet was directed against the boat. Though a hail of shells and bullets fell about them, the brave little group made the perilous trip to the Niagara without harm and clambered aboard. There Perry met Elliott face to face.

Whatever may have been Perry's feeling of indignation at Elliott's failure to come to his rescue he did not show it. Elliott suggested bringing up the lagging gunboats and Perry told him to do so. Elliott repeated Perry's gallant action by transferring to the Somers and fought the ship well through the rest of the battle.

On leaving the Lawrence Perry turned over the command to Lieutenant John J. Yarnall with authority to do as he saw fit. Since the guns had been silenced and only a handful of men had survived the carnage Yarnall could see no other course but to surrender. Just as the poor, battered Lawrence struck her colors, Perry in his new ship bore down upon the British line and smashed his way through. To his left lay the Lady Prevost and the Chippawa, to his right the Detroit, the Hunter and the Queen Charlotte. As Perry passed between them his carronades poured broadsides to right and left. The Niagara p211came about and repeated the performance. Inspired by the gallantry of their leader the smaller American ships entered the fray. In maneuvering the Queen Charlotte her sailing master misjudged his distance and ran his ship afoul of the Detroit. At last, after two and a half hours of fighting, Perry succeeded in carrying out his original plan. With the exception of the Lawrence, which was too far gone to take part, he was using the whole of his striking power at close quarters. The Americans now pounded the British more mercilessly than the British had, a short while before, pounded the Lawrence.

Confusion seized the British fleet. Barclay was wounded and his ships were badly crippled by the superior weight of metal hurled against them. Once the tide of battle turned it continued with a rush. Eight minutes after Perry broke the line the Detroit struck her colors. When the rest of the fleet saw the flagship surrender, they too gave up the struggle. That is, all of them except the Chippawa and the Little Belt which tried to escape. They were hotly pursued and soon overhauled and captured.

The battle ended, Perry returned to the Lawrence to receive the surrender. His first question as he put foot on the deck now slippery with blood and strewn with the dead and the wounded was for his young brother. Alexander could not be found and it was feared that he might have been swept overboard. A search of the ship was made and, according to contemporary accounts, the boy at last was found sound asleep in a bunk, completely exhausted by the excitement of the day. He was destined to accompany Oliver Hazard on his triumphal return to Newport and later to pursue a career in the United States Navy.

When the British officers came aboard Perry received them graciously and, with a consideration worthy of a hero, declined their swords. He inquired solicitously for Captain Barclay, the prelude to a lasting friendship between the two men. Then, taking an old letter from his pocket, he scrawled with a pencil the note to General Harrison that has become immortal:

"We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great esteem and respect. O. H. Perry."

Soon the news of the victory had passed from one end of the p212country to the other; and, as usual, served as the occasion for more banquets and illuminations, more oratory, more drinking of toasts and the customary outpouring of song and verse from scores of bad rhymesters. The Legislature of Pennsylvania voted its thanks and a gold medal to Perry, a silver medal to every man who was him in the battle. Congress, not to be outdone, voted its thanks and ordered medals struck to both Perry and Elliott.

The captured fleet was appraised at $225,000, and an equivalent amount of prize money was distributed among officers and men. Perry and Elliott received $7,140 each and all the other officers and hands were rewarded according to rank down to the humblest seaman whose portion was computed at $209. In addition, Congress made a special grant of $5,000 to Perry. To Commodore Chauncey, who wasn't there at all, went a generous slice. As commander on the Lakes he received $12,750.

In his official report of the battle, written in the exultation of victory, Perry spoke well of Elliott and made no direct reference to his failure to support the Lawrence which almost lost the battle. Elliott, however, was not satisfied and commenced a controversy which went on for years and would have resulted in a duel between the two officers had not Perry refused a challenge. Elliott's defense of his action was that he had stood strictly by his orders to keep a half cable length behind the next ship in line. This argument was a poor excuse for his refusing to come to the help of the Lawrence when he saw that ship in trouble.

Before the battle Elliott's reputation was greater than that of Perry. He might well have expected to receive the command of the fleet. When, at the last minute, the order of battle was changed, he was denied the place of honor in the van which might have served further to excite his Irish temperament. Whatever his design may have been it is hard to believe that his actions were not in some part dictated by personal pique. As it turned out they merely provided an opportunity for the enhancement of Perry's glory. It has been remarked that never was there a victory which was owed so much to the will and determination of a single man.

The effect of the victory of Lake Erie was immediate. At last, command of those waters was in the hands of the Americans. We shall see how use they made of it.


Thayer's Note:

a This flag has been preserved and is one of the most precious of American historical artifacts. For two good photographs, see my note to Norris's Annapolis: Its Colonial and Naval Story, p6.


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