Oliver Hazard Perry, one of the great American Heroes that made his name in the War of 1812. A navy man through and through and the man who beat the Royal Navy at their own game. Born in August 23rd, 1785 in South Kingston, Rhode Island entered the fledgling United States Navy at age 15 as a mid-shipman. He saw his first action during the First Barbary war in Tripoli under Commodore Preble. By 1802 he was promoted to Lieutenant and offered the post of master and commander of the Schooner Revenge with Commodore John Roger’s squadron. As it was a time of peace, Perry was given the task of surveying the harbors along the coast of Rhode Island. During the survey the Revenge was wreaked on a reef, the court marshal found Perry not at fault for the wreak of the Revenge, in fact his actions both saved the life of his crew and civilian property. Perry was granted an extended leave, giving him the opportunity to marry Elizabeth Champlain Mason on May 5th 1811. They were to have five children together.
Perry returned to the service on May 1812, a month before war was declared against England. He was promoted to the rank of Commander and given command of a group of gunboats tasked with the defense of Rhode Island’s coast. The command soon lost interest to Perry who petitioned for a transfer to the Great Lakes or the high seas. His request was granted and he reported to Commodore Chauncey in Sacket’s Harbor in February of 1813. Chauncey recognizing Perry’s skill kept him on Lake Ontario for two weeks before transferring him to Lake Erie to take command of the new squadron being constructed there. Perry’s first task was to actually build the squadron. Presque Isle was the new US Navy base on Lake Erie. Despite the setbacks in lack of supplies and manpower, Perry managed to get his new squadron built. By July 1813 he had a squadron of six ships. His flagship the USS Lawrence, her sister ship the USS Niagara, the Tigress, Ariel, Porcupine, and the Scorpion. Perry arranged for the USS Somers, Ohio, and Caledonia to join them after a daring rescue from the Black Rock Naval base near Buffalo.
With his squadron built, Perry set out for his greatest victory of his career. With the British pulling back their blockade, Perry sailed from Presque Isle on September 1813 for training maneuvers on the lake. On the 10th of the month Perry’s squadron engaged the British squadron off Put-In-Bay. The Lawrence soon smashed through the British Squadron, itself receiving major damage, Perry, carrying his battle Flag emblazed with the famous phrase “Don’t Give Up the Ship” transferred Command to the USS Niagara which had held back during the engagement. With the British squadron floundering, took the remaining ships of his squadron in hand and forced the British to strike their colours and surrender within fifteen minutes. We have met the enemy and they are ours he penned to General William Henry Harrison on his victory over the British on Lake Erie. He had ensured the British would never have control over the lake over the rest of the war, having taking their entire squadron as a prize and opened up the west to General Harrison’s Army. Perry was regarded as a national hero, promoted to Post-Captain he was given command of the USS Java, a 44-gun frigate under construction in Baltimore. Perry stood by his ship during the failed British attack against Fort McHenry, himself ready to order the destruction of the Java should the need arise.
Perry finally sailed with the Java after the war in 1815 in the Mediterranean for the second Barbary war. The conflict was not without incident for Perry. He clashed with the commander of the marines on the Java, John Heath. During the conflict, Perry was goaded into challenge Heath to a dual, although both men were court marshaled they were released with only a reprimand, when they finally met on the field, neither men were injured, but honour was satisfied. It was at the same time that Perry and his former executive officer, Jesse Elliot, whom commanding the Niagara during the Battle of Lake Erie came into conflict with each other. Elliot challenged Perry, who responded by laying charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer in the face of the enemy. President Madison, rather than let two national heroes disgrace themselves in the public eye, gave Perry a promotion to Commodore and gave him a squadron. With command of the USS John Adams he sailed for South America in 1819. Perry was assigned with conducting high level negotiations with Simon Bolivar. Perry on the voyage home was struck with the yellow fever and passed away on August 23rd, 1819. His remains were transported and buried in Newport Island, Rhode Island. Perry’s legacy remains strong within the United States especially connected with the navy. He even has a class of guided missile frigate named after him, his battle flag “Don’t Give Up the Ship” remains a staple of pop culture even two centuries after the conflict.
Written with files from:
Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 Second Edition by Gilbert Collins – 2006 The Dundurn Group Publishers
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