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Oliver Hazard Perry - Naval Hero

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Oliver Hazard Perry is one of the most famous naval heroes in American history, remembered for winning the Battle of Lake Erie.

Oliver was born on 23 August, 1785 in South Kingston, Rhode Island to Sarah and Christopher Raymond Perry. He took his name from his great grandfather Oliver Hazard, as well as his uncle, who had died at sea, Oliver Hazard Perry. He was the first born of eight children (five sons and three daughters). His family had a naval tradition, but only in his teens did he decide he would go into the navy.

Early Career

His first position was as a midshipman1 in a sloop of war named General Greene. The ship was stationed in the Caribbean under the captaincy of Perry's father. Christopher Perry had recommended Oliver for the position, and he began his service in the navy on 7 April, 1799. For six years, Oliver fought with the US in the 'quasi-war' with France and helped hold back the Barbary Pirate raids.

From 1806 to 1807, Perry took a long leave from the navy. After this, he watched over the construction of a small group of ships in Rhode Island and Connecticut. This was not a job that Perry enjoyed, and he was eventually given command of a schooner named Revenge, equipped with 14 guns.

A String of Bad Luck

Perry, aboard the Revenge, formed part of a squadron patrolling the north in 1809. The next year, orders sent his ship south for a patrolling job. On the way to South Carolina, Perry's ship suffered damage from a storm and Perry became ill from the hot and humid southern weather. On 21 July, 1810, Perry requested a transfer, but before he could get one, the Revenge struck a reef and was sunk. A court martial cleared Perry of any wrongdoing. In fact, Perry received praise for attempting to save the vessel, the only piece of good fortune in Perry's whole association with the Revenge.

Perry then took a long leave of absence, and on 5 May, 1811, he was married to Elizabeth Champlin Mason. Oliver and Elizabeth would eventually have five children, though only four survived. Perry continued to be inactive until the War of 1812 loomed, with America's relations with Great Britain straining. He was promoted to Master-Commandant, and given command of a dozen boats at Newport, Rhode Island.

Perry did not like this post much, because he felt it was insignificant. He requested a command on the sea or on the Great Lakes. As a result, in February, 1813, Perry received reassignment to Lake Ontario under Commodore Isaac Chauncey. Chauncey expected the British to attack on Lake Ontario soon, so Perry stayed there for a couple of weeks. When no attacks came, Perry was sent to Erie, Pennsylvania to build a group of ships to rival a British squadron on Lake Erie.

The Battle of Lake Erie

Perry supervised the building of his ships, struggling against a lack of resources. Through various means, he had built up a fleet of nine ships. There were two twenty-gun brigs, the Lawrence and Niagara2, the three-gun brig Caledonia, schooners Porcupine, Scorpion, Ariel, Somers and Tigress, and the sloop Trippe. The Lawrence was the flagship, which Perry set out on. The flagship's flag had the last words of James Lawrence on it, 'Don't Give up the Ship.'

The British squadron had six ships, but a few more sailors than the Americans did. Captain Robert Barclay commanded this group.

Perry and his ships left his headquarters at Put-in-Bay (off the coast of Ohio) on 10 September, 1813. The British ship Detroit fired the first shot, missing Lawrence, but the second shot did not miss. The Lawrence took most of the attack from the British, and the Niagara, the best prepared and manned of the ships, kept out of fighting.

Since the Lawrence had received so much damage and the Niagara avoided fighting, it seemed like the British would triumph, though two of her best ships were damaged as well. On the Lawrence, 83 of 103 men were unable to fight, and most of the officers were unable to command. Perry survived, and fired the last shot of his flagship himself, before it was so disabled that it could not fight.

Perry was determined to be victorious and changed his strategy. He got into a rowboat and (quite riskily) sailed to the Niagara, which he took control of. He led the barely harmed Niagara to break the British line, which he was able to do because the strongest of the enemy’s ships were unable to fight. He positioned himself in the middle of the line and fired on three ships on both sides. Barclay, cornered by his enemy, surrendered to Perry after more than three hours of fighting. The Americans won the Battle of Lake Erie and captured each of the six British ships.

Nearly equal numbers of Americans and British numbered amongst the 250 or so who died in the battle. Most of the dead were from the Lawrence or the British ships Detroit and Queen Charlotte. In his message to William Henry Harrison (commander of the western US forces and future President) Perry said 'We have met the enemy, and they are ours.'

Perry was the first American ever to capture a British fleet. The achievement importantly assured American superiority on the Great Lakes. It gave a moral boost to the Americans and security against invasion from the north. The bravery and sacrifice of the men under Perry is often mentioned, though it should be noted that the British were at least equally as brave in combat, and they had a disadvantage after all, in having three fewer ships than the Americans.

However, Perry did show great skill in building up his fleet, getting them into combat and changing ships in the heat of battle. In this sense, he was very much an American hero.

After Erie

At the age of 28, Perry was a national hero. In 1815, Perry sailed the Mediterranean having taken control of the frigate Java. While the ship was in Italy, Perry slapped a marine officer, John Heath. A court martial reprimanded the two, but when they got home Heath challenged Perry to a duel. They fought at the same place where former Vice President Aaron Burr famously duelled and killed Alexander Hamilton. Heath fired first and missed, but Perry refused to fire.

President James Monroe chose Perry to make a diplomatic journey to Venezuela in 1819 on the John Adams. From the mouth of the Orinoco River on, he went on the Nonsuch. In Venezuela, 20 of his crew members contracted yellow fever, though Perry kept his health. Having escaped contracting the disease Perry wanted to get out of South America quickly. However, on 17 August, he woke up in the middle of the night with a fever. The crew tried its best to get Perry into safety, but he died on 23 August (his 34th birthday) just a few miles short of Port of Spain, Trinidad. He was buried there with military honours, and his body was moved to Newport, Rhode Island where a monument for him stands.

Like many great heroes, Perry had many things named after him. From a High School to a county in Pennsylvania and perhaps most notably, the Oliver Hazard Perry class Frigate.

1A student officer2Now the official state ship of Pennsylvania.

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