If ever a name given to an infant was prophetic for the life he would lead, it was certainly so of the infant christened Oliver Hazard Perry. Born on August 23, 1785 to Christopher Raymond Perry and Sarah Wallace Perry, from earliest childhood his ambition was to be a US naval officer. He came by this naturally as his father had served aboard a privateer in the American revolution, meeting Perry’s mother while he was a prisoner of war in Ireland. In 1799 Christopher Perry was appointed a Captain and place in command of the US Navy frigate General Greene. 13 year old Oliver went with him as a midshipman, beginning his naval career.
During the First War Against the Barbary Pirates, he served aboard the USS Adams. At the age of 17 he was promoted to Lieutenant. In 1804 when the pirate stronghold at Derna was taken, he commanded the schooner, the USS Nautilus.
After the Barbary War, he supervised the construction of a flotilla of small gunboats during 1806-07 in Rhode Island and Connecticut, a task he found tedious at the time, but which would serve him in good stead later.
In April he obtained the sea command he had been eager for and was appointed to command the schooner USS Revenge. Perry’s command aboard the Revenge turned out to be the low point of his career. The Revenge suffered extensive damage in a storm in June of 1810, Perry was plagued with illness, and on January 8, 1811, the schooner struck a reef off Block Island Sound off the coast of southern New England and sank. Perry was cleared in the ensuing courtmartial, but he could be excused if he suspected that his naval career was coming to an abrupt end.
Taking an extended leave, he married Elizabeth Champlin Mason. The union proved a happy and fruitful one, with five children to show for it.
Perry remained unemployed by the Navy until the outbreak of the War of 1812. On June 18, 1812, he was assigned to command a flotilla of gunboats at Newport, Rhode Island. Perry desperately wanted a sea command, and sent several requests off to the War Department. An old friend of his, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, was in charge of all navy units on the Great Lakes. Contacting him, Chauncey was pleased to oblige his friend. He needed an experienced officer to command the flotilla under construction at Lake Erie. Perry took command in March of 1813.
The British had seized control of Lake Erie early in the War of 1812. Perry’s mission was simple: take Lake Erie back. On May 25, 1813, Perry’s ships helped take Fort George on Lake Ontario. The British as a result abandoned Fort Erie. Perry was then able to sail several armed schooners into Lake Erie, ships which would prove of crucial significance in the upcoming Battle of Lake Erie.
By mid-July of 1813 Perry almost had his squadron completed. His problem now was to find men to man his ships. Scrounging up sailors, Pennsylvania militia, and volunteers from William Henry Harrison’s Army of the Northwest, Perry anchored his ships at Put-in-Bay Ohio, effectively blockading the British fleet under Commander Robert Barclay at Amherstburg.
After five weeks, Barclay’s supplies were running out, and he had no choice but to sail out and give battle to the American fleet. On the morning of September 10, 1813, the Americans spotted the oncoming British fleet. The weather gauge shifted to the Americans. The two fleets met in parallel lines of battle and pounded away at each other.
The flagship of Perry’s fleet, was the brig Lawrence, named after Perry’s friend Captain James Lawrence, who had uttered while dying the immortal phrase “Don’t give up the ship!” on June 1, 1813 during the courageous but losing fight of the USS Chesapeake against HMS Shannon. The Lawrence came under concentrated fire from the British fleet, four-fifths of the crew being killed or wounded. After the last gun on the Lawrence was put out of action, Perry took his personal flag bearing the inscription “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” and traveled half a mile by rowboat, under heavy enemy fire, to the brig Niagara and resumed command of his fleet. The Lawrence surrendered.
While this was going on, the rest of the American fleet had been inflicting heavy damage on the British. The two largest ships in the British fleet, the corvette Detroit and the sloop Queen Charlotte collided, the ships having been rendered unmanageable by damage they had sustained from the American cannonade.
In the brig Niagara, Perry led the five American schooners against the shaken British battle line. The Niagara crossed the T of the British line and poured broadsides into the Detroit and Queen Charlotte. The British had enough and surrendered. Perry and his men had captured the entire British fleet.
Perry sent out two post battle communiques, the first to General William Henry Harrison and the second to the Secretary of War:
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
Brig Niagara, off the Western Sister,
Head of Lake Erie September 10, 4 P. M.
Sir:- It has pleased the Almighty to give to the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this lake. The British squadron, consisting of two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop, have this moment surrendered to the force under my command after a sharp conflict.
I have the honor to be, Sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
O. H. Perry
Perry was now a national hero and the man of the hour. He was promoted to captain with his seniority dating from the date of the Battle of Lake Erie. In November 1813 he resumed duty with the gunboat flotilla at Newport, but he quickly was given command of a new frigate being constructed in Baltimore, the USS Java. While fitting out the Java, Perry participated on land in the defense of Washington and Baltimore. The war ended before the Java could get to sea.
In 1815 Perry took the Java to the Mediterranean to participate in the Second War Against the Barbary Pirates. While anchored at Naples, a dispute between Perry and the commander of the marines on the Java, John Heath, resulted in Perry slapping him. Both men were court-martialed and received mild reprimands. After the Java returned to the US, Heath and Perry fought a duel on the same field where Hamilton and Burr fought their duel. Heath fired and missed. Perry refused to fire and the conflict ended between the two men.
During a diplomatic naval mission to Venezuela on August 23, 1819, his 34th birthday, Perry died of yellow fever. As long as there is a United States Navy, he will never be forgotten.