Oliver Hazard Perry
Oliver Hazard Perry
Born August 20, 1785
South Kingstown, Rhode Island
Died August 23, 1819
At sea near Venezuela
The War of 1812 was a relatively short conflict with few clear battle victories for either side, yet the United States emerged from it with a new feeling of pride and confidence. Naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry helped to create that feeling through his bold leadership and personal courage, especially during the Battle of Lake Erie. In his book titled Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812, historian John R. Elting writes about this battle: "It had been a small clash on the edge of nowhere between two improvised fleets with mostly greenhorn [inexperienced] crews.… [yet no] major sea battle was ever more valiantly and sternly fought." Perry's starring role in this small but important clash was the highlight of his brief career.
An early love for the sea
Born in 1785 in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, Oliver Hazard Perry was the son of naval officer Christopher Raymond Perry. Perry's mother, Sarah Wallace Alexander Perry, instilled an early love of books and learning in her son, but his greatest passion, even when he was still a young boy, was for the sea.
In 1798 during what was later called the Quasi War, France began attacking U.S. merchant ships in the Caribbean Sea (the body of water that lies between the southern coast of the United States and the northern coast of South America). The United States responded by sending its own navy to the region. Perry's father was given command of the warship General Greene and assigned to defend U.S. shipping in the Caribbean. A year later, fourteen-year-old Perry wrote to his father to request permission to join the navy. The elder Perry appointed his son a midshipman (a junior sailor who is still in training) on the General Greene. The ship cruised around Cuba and Haiti, and Perry began to gather the seagoing experience that would help him build his naval career.
The Quasi War ended in 1800, but the next year the United States became involved in another conflict in the Mediterranean Sea (the body of water that lies south of Europe and north of Africa). For years, pirates from the North African countries known as the Barbary States (Tripoli [now Libya], Algeria, and Tunisia) had forced European countries to pay tribute (a cash payment) or face having their ships captured. The United States sent its navy to the region to put an end to this practice.
Serving in the Mediterranean
In 1802 Perry—just seventeen but already a lieutenant—sailed for the Mediterranean aboard the John Adams. He spent the next eighteen months assisting in such duties such as escorting convoys (merchant ships that sailed in groups for protection), enforcing the blockade, and general patrolling of the area. After returning to the United States, Perry lived in Newport, Rhode Island. Perry continued his studies, pursuing mathematics and astronomy with the same enthusiasm he brought to his fencing, marksmanship (shooting guns), and horseback riding. He was tall, handsome, and very polite, and he became a popular figure in the Newport social scene.
Commander of a gunboat squadron
In 1807 twenty-two-year-old Perry was given the job of supervising the building of seventeen gunboats for the U.S. Navy. Gunboats were small, armed ships used mostly for patrolling rivers and harbors. When construction was completed, Perry became the commander of the gunboat squadron (a group of ships assigned to a special duty) based at New York City. He was soon dissatisfied with this coastal duty, however, and in 1809 he was thrilled to be given command of the schooner (a type of ship with two or more masts at its front and back ends) Revenge.
At sea on the Revenge
At this time Great Britain and France were at war with each other and carrying on the practices that would soon bring about the War of 1812, including the harassment of U.S. shipping and the impressment or forcing of soldiers into military service. The British had seized the U.S. merchant ship Diana, and in July 1810 Perry led a mission to the coastal waters off southern Georgia, near the border with Spanish-held Florida, to recover her. While making off with the Diana, the Revenge was approached by a British warship called the Goree. In a show of boldness that he would exhibit throughout his career, Perry prepared to fight. The Goree backed off, and Perry won the admiration of those who heard about the encounter.
Perry now received orders to return for coastal duties in the north. Assigned to conduct a survey of some Rhode Island harbors, Perry was, on February 2, 1811, cruising in a thick fog when the Revenge ran aground (got into water that was too shallow and hit the bottom of the ocean), causing damage to the ship. The Revenge eventually sank, but Perry managed to save the crew and some of the property aboard the ship. Since a valuable ship had been lost, the Navy investigated the incident, but Perry was found to be blameless and was even praised for his actions.
Since he was now without a ship, Perry requested a leave of absence from naval duty. He took this opportunity to get married, wedding Elizabeth Champlin Mason on May 5, 1811 (the couple would go on to have a daughter and three sons). Perry's domestic tranquility was soon interrupted, however, by the coming of war between the United States and Great Britain.
At war with Great Britain again
For several years the United States had tried to avoid war, countering the practices it condemned through economic rather than military means. But measures like the Embargo Act of 1807, which prevented ships from entering or leaving American ports and thus put an end to shipping, had only hurt the United States more. Americans were especially angry about U.S. citizens being impressed into the British navy. In addition, many U.S. citizens believed that Great Britain was arming and encouraging Native Americans to attack whites, and some thought that war with Great Britain would offer a chance to expand U.S. territory into Canada and Florida. All of these factors led to the June 18, 1812, declaration of war against Great Britain.
Convinced that war would be declared, Perry had requested sea duty in May 1812. Instead, he was given command of the same squadron of gunboats whose construction he had previously supervised. Perry's job was to defend the city of Newport and, despite his disappointment at serving so close to shore, he devoted himself to his task. In August he was promoted to the rank of Master Commandant.
A special task on Lake Erie
Still unwilling to give up his dream of more active service, Perry wrote to Commander Isaac Chauncey (1772-1840), who was in charge of U.S. naval actions on the Great Lakes (including lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan, and Superior). These bodies of water held great strategic importance, for whoever controlled the lakes—especially Ontario and Erie—controlled the only efficient supply and transport routes in the northwest. Chauncey wrote back that he had a special job in mind for Perry, who was soon ordered to report to Chauncey's headquarters at Sacket's Harbor, New York, on Lake Ontario.
Perry arrived at Sacket's Harbor on February 17, 1813, and a little less than a month later he left to begin the special job that Chauncey had assigned him. He was to go to the new U.S. naval base at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania) to supervise the construction of a fleet of ships for duty on Lake Erie (working with a talented shipbuilder named Noah Brown) and also collect the smaller boats that were already there. He also was to lead the United States in taking control of Lake Erie. Chauncey, meanwhile, would concentrate his own efforts on Lake Ontario.
Overcoming obstacles to ready the fleet
Perry tackled the assignment with his usual determination, but he faced many problems, including bitterly cold weather and the difficulty of gathering the wood needed to build ships. Another major obstacle to overcome was the lack of able seamen to serve on the ships. As the spring and early summer progressed, Perry found that he had only about 120 sailors who were fit for service, since many of the men were suffering from an illness called lake fever. Chauncey had agreed that Perry would need about 750 men to carry out his mission. However, Perry maintained that Chauncey was unwilling to send enough to attain that level and also kept the most experienced and capable soldiers for his own fleet. The bad feelings between the two men almost resulted in Perry's resignation, but Chauncey and other officers convinced him to stay. Eventually, with the arrival of some volunteers from the Pennsylvania militia (small armies made up of troops residing in a particular state) and from the army of Major General William Henry Harrison (1773-1841; see biographical entry), Perry was able to put together an adequate force.
Another big problem still remained though. There was a sand bar at the mouth of the Presque Isle harbor that lay only about seven feet beneath the surface of the water. That was too shallow to allow passage of Perry's two largest ships, the Lawrence and the Niagara. Also, Perry needed to move five other ships a distance of eighty miles upstream from the town of Black Rock (located down the Niagara River, which connects lakes Ontario and Erie) in order to reach Presque Isle. En route the ships would have to pass by British-held Fort Erie. The British also had a squadron of ships stationed on Fort Erie, under the command of Robert Barclay (1785-1837), a one-armed veteran of Great Britain's war with France. This fleet was waiting outside the Presque Isle harbor to prevent the Perry's ships from entering.
The task might have been impossible without the help of what came to be known as "Perry's luck." During the late spring and early summer of 1813, the U.S. Army had made progress against the British along the Niagara River, and the British were forced to evacuate Fort Erie. Thus the ships were able to proceed up towards Presque Isle, and when they reached the harbor, Barclay's fleet was gone. Although it was rumored that Barclay had left to attend a dinner banquet, it is more likely that he had gone for provisions. In any case, the U.S. ships arrived safely at Presque Isle.
Perry would need more luck to get the Lawrence and Niagara across the sand bar and into the open lake. Their heavy guns were removed, and a device called a camel—large boxes or barges filled with water which were positioned partly under the ship, then emptied to become buoyant—was used to lift the ships enough to allow them to pass over the sand bar. The Lawrence got clear, but the Niagara became stuck in the sand.
Just at this moment, with the Niagara disabled and the Lawrence completely unarmed, Barclay's squadron appeared about a mile offshore. Perry called on his famous luck again and made an incredibly bold move: he sent two of his smaller ships toward the British, firing their guns. Barclay had no idea that the U.S. squadron was not really battle-ready and, assuming that he was outgunned, turned his ships around and left the area for his base at Amherstburg in what is now Ontario, Canada.
Plans and preparations for a battle
In mid-August, Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliott (1782-1845) arrived with 100 men. The Americans now had 530 crew on their ships, while the British had 440 (only 10 per British ship were trained seamen; all in all the U.S. had more experienced sailors). Perry's flagship (the ship that carries the battle's top commander) would be the Lawrence, and Elliott would command the Niagara. Each of these ships was equipped with twenty guns.
Also participating in the battle were the Caledonia (three guns); the Somers (two guns); the Trippe (one gun); and the gunboats Tigress, Porcupine, Scorpion, and Ariel, each with one to four guns. Barclay's six-ship opposing squadron included the HMS Detroit (eleven guns), the HMS Queen Charlotte (seventeen guns), the Lady Prevost (thirteen guns), the General Hunter (ten guns), the Little Belt (three guns), and the Chippeway (one gun).
His squadron complete—and with the Lawrence flying a blue flag with white lettering that read, "Don't Give Up the Ship," the last words uttered by Captain James Lawrence (1781-1813), who had died in an earlier sea battle—Perry sailed west, ready to disrupt the British supply lines and engage them in battle if possible. The U.S. fleet set up their base at Put-in-Bay on Bass Island. Perry ordered that sand be spread on the decks of the ships, so that in the event of a brutal battle the sailors would not slip on the blood that was bound to be spilled.
Meanwhile, Barclay was under pressure to engage the U.S. fleet in battle. His supplies were running dangerously low, his men had not been paid, and he also had to support a huge group of Native American allies, who were camped with their families at Amherstburg. A victory on Lake Erie would secure his supply lines. In addition, Sir George Prevost (1767-1816), the overall commander of the British troops in Canada, was urging Barclay to confront the Americans.
The Battle of Lake Erie
On September 10 the British squadron was sighted about nine miles west of Put-in-Bay and the U.S. fleet sailed out to meet it, the Lawrence in the lead. The battle began just before noon. The plan had been for the Lawrence to close in quickly on the British, because it did not have the long-range guns needed to attack from a distance. The Niagara was to follow closely and engage the Queen Charlotte, while the smaller vessels took on the enemy's smaller ships. For reasons unknown, Elliott failed to bring the Niagara close and instead hung back, ignoring signals to proceed.
The British concentrated most of their guns on the Lawrence, which suffered heavy damage. During the first two hours or so of the battle, eighty per cent of the Lawrence's crew was killed or wounded, although Perry remained essentially unhurt. In the middle of all the chaos, Perry's pet dog stuck its head out of a hole that had been shot in his cabin and yelped in terror. Eventually Perry had to order wounded men who were not too severely disabled to return to their battle positions because there were not enough uninjured men to continue the fight.
A daring transfer
Finally all of the guns on the Lawrence had been put out of commission. This is the point at which most commanders would have given up the battle, but Perry was no ordinary commander. Instructing his crew to surrender theLawrence to the British as soon as he was clear of the ship, Perry climbed into a rowboat with five seamen and headed through a steady rain of bullets and fire toward the Niagara, which had finally moved closer and was about a quarter mile away. At first Perry stood in the rowboat, hoping that by doing so he would encourage his men to keep fighting, but finally his crew convinced him to sit down.
Perry boarded the Niagara and immediately took over the ship's command, sending Elliott to rally the smaller vessels. Perry brought the Niagara right through the middle of the formation of British ships, raking them with broadsides (all guns on one side of a ship firing at more or less the same time) from both sides of the Niagara. The British were surprised by this move and in the confusion of trying to get into a better position, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte collided.
Within fifteen minutes the battle ended. All of the British ships had been captured or sunk, and all of the British commanders and deputies (second-in-command officers) had been killed or wounded, so the British had no choice but to surrender. In a battle that lasted about three hours, the British had lost 140 men (46 killed and 94 wounded) while the Americans lost 123 (27 killed and 96 wounded), two-thirds of them from the crew of the Lawrence.
Following the battle, Perry sent two messages informing his superiors of the U.S. victory, and both soon became famous. His message to Secretary of the Navy William Jones (1760-1831) read, "It has pleased the almighty to give to the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this lake." To Harrison, he wrote "We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner and a sloop."
Showered with praise and rewards
The Battle of Lake Erie represented the biggest U.S. victory of the war to that date, and the first time the U.S. Navy had defeated an entire British squadron rather than just one ship. It also changed the course of the war, for it left Canada vulnerable to invasion from the west. In fact, Perry was soon occupied with ferrying Harrison's army of thirty-five hundred men across Lake Erie to recapture Detroit, which had been surrendered to the British during the first year of the war. From there, the U.S. troops chased the retreating British to Moraviantown on the Thames River. There also the Americans were victorious, even managing to kill Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813; see biographical entry), the great Shawnee leader whose attempt to form a Native American alliance had threatened white settlement.
Within a few weeks, Perry gave up his command and headed for the East Coast. Along the way, he found that people had already heard about the Battle of Lake Erie and that they were eager to praise and reward him. In addition to earning a promotion to captain and an extra $5,000 in prize money, Perry was recognized by Congress and received awards from various state legislatures and city governments. The officers and other men who had served with him also received awards: three months' pay for officers and swords for ordinary sailors.
Perry was assigned command of the Java, which was still under construction. The finished Java soon proved to have structural problems and had to be refitted, which was a major disappointment to Perry. Meanwhile, he led the effort to harass the British as they retreated down the Potomac River following their invasion of Alexandria, Virginia (which occurred a few days after their August 24, 1814 sacking of Washington, D.C.). He also participated in the Battle of Baltimore on September 12 through 14, at which the U.S. forces turned back an attempted British invasion.
Conflicts with his fellow officers
After the war, Perry went back to sea in command of the Java, but this would prove an ill-fated cruise. Tension arose between Perry and another officer, John Heath, and Perry hit Heath, which violated naval rules condemning striking a fellow officer. A court-martial (military court) ruling found both parties guilty, but they were punished only with private scoldings. This outcome did not satisfy Heath, who felt that the injury to his honor called for a duel with Perry. Although he agreed to the duel, Perry refused to fire a weapon and simply stood with his hands by his sides when Heath fired. Fortunately, the shot missed Perry, and Heath did not push the matter further.
Perry also was involved in a battle of words with Jesse Elliott, who had been widely faulted for failing to bring the Niagara into action properly at the Battle of Lake Erie. Some said Elliott had deliberately backed away from the fight. In his official report on the battle, Perry had avoided criticizing Elliott and had even praised him, but Elliott felt that Perry should do or say more to restore Elliott's reputation. He even implied that it was he, and not Perry, who had saved the day at the Battle of Lake Erie. Convinced that he had been more than generous to Elliott, Perry refused to defend him further. Elliott challenged Perry to a duel but Perry refused to participate, instead making official charges of his own against Elliott (nothing was to come of these charges).
In 1819 Perry was put in command of the John Adams and the Nonesuch and sent on a diplomatic mission to the South American country of Venezuela, which had recently gained its independence from Spain. After he had completed his mission, Perry contracted yellow fever—a tropical disease then common in the region—and died aboard the Nonesuch a few days after his thirty-fourth birthday. Perry was buried at Port of Spain, Trinidad, but in 1826 his body was moved to Newport, Rhode Island. His home state erected a handsome granite marker to commemorate his deeds in service of the United States.
For More Information
Dillon, Richard. We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry, Wilderness Commodore. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. Da Capo Press, 1995. Reprint. Originally published by Algonquin Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
"Oliver Hazard Perry." Ohio History Central. [Online] http://www.ohiohkids.org/ohc/history/h_indian/people/ohperry.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
"Oliver Hazard Perry." U.S. Brig Niagara, Erie, Pennsylvania. [Online] http://www.brigniagara.org/perry.htm (accessed on November 26, 2001).
War of 1812. [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
George Prevost: Competent but too cautious
Sir George Prevost served competently as Canada's governor and as overall commander of British military forces in Canada during the War of 1812, but his career ended in shame after he was blamed for the British defeat at Lake Champlain.
The son of a Swiss-born officer in the British army, George Prevost was born in 1767 in New Jersey, where his father was then stationed. He was educated mostly in England, and always groomed for a military career. Prevost entered the army in 1779 and rose steadily through the ranks, becoming a brigadier general in 1798. He served for several years in the British colonies of Barbados, St. Lucia (where he also was the lieutenant governor), and Dominica in the Caribbean region, where he was much respected for his leadership.
Prevost returned to England in 1805 and stayed until 1808, when he returned to Canada to serve as both lieutenant governor and lieutenant general in Nova Scotia. In this position Prevost achieved both political and military success, building a reputation as a skilled and decisive leader. Thus he seemed well qualified to take command of all the British forces in North America, an assignment he assumed on July 4, 1811. In October, he also was sworn in as Canada's head colonial administrator. Prevost's ability to speak French fluently allowed him to gain the confidence and support of Canada's influential French-Canadian leaders.
When the War of 1812 began, the British had only about nine thousand regular troops stationed in Canada, which comprised many thousands of square miles of territory to defend from a possible U.S. invasion. At this time the Canadian population was only about three hundred thousand, compared to a U.S. population of about eight million. In addition, Great Britain was too busy fighting Napoleon (the leader of France, with whom Great Britain had been at war since the 1790s) in Europe to devote many resources to the new conflict in North America.
In view of these factors, Prevost adopted a defensive strategy for Canada that involved waiting for the enemy to attack, delaying confrontations, and avoiding mistakes. Gradually Prevost became known as a leader who was nonaggressive to the point of timidity, and who did not like totake any risks. Almost immediately after the start of the war, Prevost began negotiating a truce (a halt in the war) with Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), the overall commander of the U.S. troops. But this proved to be only a short ceasefire.
Prevost's cautious approach worked fairly well during the first two years of the war. But in early 1814, Great Britain defeated France and was able to send many more troops to North America. British leaders felt that a more aggressive approach was now possible, but Prevost had trouble adjusting to this change. His over-cautiousness would soon prove disastrous.
In September 1814 Prevost was ordered to take control of Plattsburg, New York, a town strategically located on Lake Champlain (which formed a border, on the north, with Canada). Prevost headed there with ten thousand troops but halted before he reached the town and settled down to wait for the arrival of the British fleet on Lake Champlain. When the fleet did arrive, Prevost pushed its commander, Captain George Downie, to attack the U.S. fleet. Meanwhile, the U.S. commander, Captain Thomas Macdonough, had wisely anchored his ships inside Plattsburg Bay, where their short-range guns would be most effective. Downie's hastily prepared ships were at a disadvantage, and the battle ended in the complete destruction of the British fleet, as well as the death of its commander.
Prevost was supposed to launch a simultaneous land attack, but he waited until the battle was almost over to order it. As soon as he heard the news of the naval defeat, he ordered his troops to retreat, even though his top officers felt the army could easily take Plattsburg.
As a result of his cautiousness, Prevost's career ended under a cloud of shame. He was recalled to England, where a naval court of inquiry that investigated charges brought against him by James Yeo, the commander of British naval forces on the Great Lakes, blamed Prevost for the defeat on Lake Champlain. Prevost requested a second hearing to clear his name, but he died on January 5, 1816, before the hearing could be held.
Sources: Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 1997; War of 1812. [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
Oliver Hazard Perry
Oliver Hazard Perry
Oliver Hazard Perry was born in South Kingston, R.I., on Aug. 20, 1785. He received his elementary education there. In 1799 he served as midshipman with his father, Capt. Christopher Raymond Perry, in the West Indies during the quasi-war with France. He also served in the Mediterranean during the Tripolitan War, performing creditably.
Perry was in command of a flotilla at Newport, Va., when war broke out in 1812, but he was given command of American naval forces on Lake Erie in March 1813. Perry built a small fleet under conditions of extreme difficulty. By August he had 10 ships, the brigs Lawrence and Niagara being the largest. Perry could not get his largest ships across the Erie bar in the presence of the enemy fleet led by Comm. Robert H. Barclay until the latter relaxed his blockade for unknown reasons.
Barclay finished a large new ship, the Detroit. Desperately short of supplies, he challenged the Americans. The fleets met on Sept. 10, 1813. The Americans had superior firepower, but there was little difference in manpower. At 10 A.M. the Lawrence was cleared for action and hoisted its battleflag, "Don't give up the ship." Action lasted from 11:45 A.M. until 3:00 P.M. After all the Lawrence 's guns were disabled, Perry rowed to the Niagara. Fifteen minutes after the Niagara moved into the heavy action, the British fleet surrendered. American casualties numbered 27 killed and 96 wounded, and British losses were 41 killed, 94 wounded. Perry dashed off his famous dispatch following the victory, "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
The victory was of major significance, for America now controlled Lake Erie until the war ended. Also, Gen. William Henry Harrison was enabled to capture much of Upper Canada, and the American peace negotiators were able to assert American claims to the Northwest.
Perry was promoted to captain in September 1813 and shortly thereafter received the thanks of Congress. Following the war he served in the Mediterranean. He died of yellow fever on Aug. 23, 1819, after completing a diplomatic mission to Venezuela and Buenos Aires. His body was interred at Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Charles J. Dutton, Oliver Hazard Perry (1935), is an adequate biography, but minor factual errors abound. The best discussions of the Battle of Lake Erie in terms of strategy and significance can be found in Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relation to the War of 1812 (2 vols., 1905). Also useful is Olin H. Lyman, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the War on the Lakes (1905), and Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (1965).
Dillon, Richard, We have met the enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry, wilderness commodore, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978. □
Perry, Oliver Hazard
[See also Navy, U.S.: 1783–1865.]
Alexander S. Mackenzie , The Life of Commodore Oliver H. Perry, 2 vols., 1840.
Charles J. Dutton , Oliver Hazard Perry, 1935.
David Curtis Skaggs and and Gerard T. Altoff , A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812–1813, 1997.
Donald R. Hickey