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War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

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War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Oliver Hazard Perry - Early Life & Career:

Born August 23, 1785 at South Kingstown, RI, Oliver Hazard Perry was the eldest of eight children born to Christopher and Sarah Perry. Among his younger siblings was Matthew Calbraith Perry who would later gain fame for opening Japan to the West. Raised in a seafaring family, Perry's father had served aboard privateers during the American Revolution and was commissioned as a captain in the US Navy in 1799. Given command of the frigate USS General Greene (30 guns), Christopher Perry soon obtained a midshipman's warrant for his eldest son.

Oliver Hazard Perry - The Quasi-War & Barbary Wars:

Officially appointed a midshipman on April 7, 1799, Perry reported aboard his father's ship and saw extensive service during the Quasi-War with France. Largely conducting patrols and escort duty in the Caribbean, General Greene also aided the Haitian Revolution. With the end of hostilities in September 1800, the elder Perry prepared to retire. Pushing ahead with his naval career, Oliver Hazard Perry saw action during the First Barbary War (1801-1805). Assigned to the frigate USS Adams (28), he traveled to the Mediterranean.

An acting lieutenant in 1805, Perry served aboard the schooner USS Nautilus (12) in support of William Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon's campaign ashore which culminated with the Battle of Derna. Returning to the United States at the end of the war, Perry was placed on leave for 1806 and 1807 before receiving an assignment to construct flotillas of gunboats along the New England coast. Bored by this duty, he was pleased to receive command of the schooner USS Revenge (12) in April 1809. For the remainder of the year, Revenge cruised in the Atlantic as part of Commodore John Rodgers' squadron.

Oliver Hazard Perry - The War of 1812 Begins:

Ordered south in 1810, Perry had Revenge refitted at the Washington Navy Yard. Departing, the ship was badly damaged in a storm off Charleston, SC that July. Working to enforce the Embargo Act, Perry's health was negatively affected by the heat of southern waters. That fall, Perry was ordered north to conduct harbor surveys of New London, CT, Newport, RI, and Gardiner's Bay, NY. On January 9, 1811, Revenge ran aground off Rhode Island. Unable to free the vessel, it was abandoned. A subsequent court-martial cleared Perry of any wrongdoing in Revenge's loss.

Taking some leave, Perry married Elizabeth Champlin Mason on May 5. Returning from his honeymoon, he remained unemployed for nearly a year. As relations with Great Britain began to deteriorate in May 1812, Perry began actively seeking a sea-going assignment. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 the following month, Perry received command of gunboat flotilla at Newport, RI. Over the next several months, Perry grew frustrated as his comrades aboard frigates such as USS Constitution and USS United States gained glory and fame.

Oliver Hazard Perry - To Lake Erie:

Though promoted to master commandant in October 1812, Perry wished to see active service and began relentlessly badgered the Navy Department for a sea-going assignment. Unable to achieve his goal, he contacted his friend Commodore Isaac Chauncey who was commanding US naval forces on the Great Lakes. Desperate for experienced officers and men, Chauncey secured Perry a transfer to the lakes in February 1813 and directed him to take command of the small fleet being built on Lake Erie.

Oliver Hazard Perry - "We have met the enemy and they are ours":

Arriving at Erie, PA, Perry commenced a naval building race with his British counterpart Commander Robert Barclay. Working tirelessly through the summer, Perry ultimately constructed a fleet that included the brigs USS Lawrence (20) and USS Niagara (20), as well as seven smaller vessels. Departing Erie in early September, Perry commanded the squadron from Lawrence which flew a blue battle flag emblazoned with Captain James Lawrence's immortal command, "Don't Give Up the Ship." Lieutenant Jesse Elliot, Perry's executive officer, commanded Niagara.

On September 10, Perry's fleet engaged Barclay at the Battle of Lake Erie. In the course of the fighting, Lawrence was nearly overwhelmed by the British squadron and Elliot was late in entering the fray with Niagara. With Lawrence in a battered state, Perry boarded a small boat and transferred to Niagara. Coming aboard, he ordered Elliot to take the boat to hasten the arrival of several American gunboats. Charging forward, Perry used Niagara to turn the tide of the battle and succeeded in capturing Barclay's entire squadron.

Writing to General William Henry Harrison ashore, Perry reported "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Following the triumph, Perry ferried Harrison's Army of the Northwest to Detroit where it began its advance into Canada. This campaign culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. In the wake of the action, no conclusive explanation was given as to why Elliot delayed in entering the battle. Hailed as hero, Perry was promoted to captain and briefly returned to Rhode Island.

Oliver Hazard Perry - Postwar Controversies:

In July 1814, Perry was given command of the new frigate USS Java (44) which was then under construction at Baltimore, MD. Overseeing this work, he was present in the city during the British attacks on North Point and Fort McHenry that September. Standing by his unfinished ship, Perry was initially fearful that he would have to burn it to prevent capture. Following the British defeat, Perry endeavored to complete Java but the frigate would not be finished until after the war ended.

Sailing in 1815, Perry took part in the Second Barbary War and aided in bringing the pirates in that region to heel. While in the Mediterranean, Perry and Java's Marine officer, John Heath, had an argument that led to the former slapping the latter. Both were court-martialed and officially reprimanded. Returning to the United States in 1817, they fought duel which saw neither injured. This period also saw a renewal of the controversy over Elliot's behavior on Lake Erie. After an exchange of angry letters, Elliot challenged Perry to a duel. Declining, Perry instead filed charges against Elliot for conduct unbecoming an officer and failure to do his utmost in the face of the enemy.

Oliver Hazard Perry - Final Mission

Recognizing the potential scandal that would ensue if the court-martial moved forward, the Secretary of the Navy asked President James Monroe to address the issue. Not wishing to sully to the reputation of two nationally-known and politically-connected officers, Monroe diffused the situation by ordering Perry to conduct a key diplomatic mission to South America. Sailing aboard the frigate USS John Adams (30) in June 1819, Perry arrived off the Orinoco River a month later. Ascending the river aboard USS Nonsuch (14), he reached Angostura where he conducted meetings with Simon Bolivar. Concluding their business, Perry departed on August 11. While sailing down the river, he was stricken with yellow fever. During the voyage, Perry's condition rapidly worsened and he died off Port of Spain, Trinidad on August 23, 1819 having turned thirty-four that day. Following his death, Perry's body was transported back the United States and buried in Newport, RI.

Selected Sources

  • National Park Service: Oliver Hazard Perry
  • Ohio History: Oliver Hazard Perry

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