A Biography of Oliver Hazard Perry

A Biography of Oliver Hazard Perry, by Dave Evans


Before we get into the biography of Oliver Hazard Perry. This author believes it would be prudent to introduce some causes of the War of 1812 and two related incidents of the Chesapeake. I believe this will give a fuller understanding of the actions of Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie.

England was at war with Napoleon, and in their judgment fighting the Devil himself. They felt they were in the right and were fighting for the freedom of all mankind. There should not, and could not, be any neutral countries. You were either on the English side or Napoleon's. The British owned the Seas and Napoleon and his armies ruled most of the European continent. During this great conflict, the British had declared a series of Orders-in-Council, which endeavored to keep any items that may aid Napoleon, from landing in Europe. Napoleon responded in kind with his Milan Decree of December 17, 1807. These orders were to be carried out by the search of ships on the seas and in port. American merchants were libel to be stopped and their ships subject to capture, by either British or Napoleon laws.

Along with this economic issue, was the more emotional problem concerning the impressment of American seaman into the British Navy. Although this is the time of Nelson, the lot of a British seaman was poor indeed. His life included extreme discipline, dangers, poor food, and long hours to name a few. The last thing an American mariner wanted was to find himself impressed into the British Navy, but the British with many empty berths on their ships, were forced to recruit men anyway they could. Besides weren't the Americans English? Once an Englishman always an Englishman. British naval ships would stop an American ship and apprehend a number of men and impress them into service aboard their own ships.

The first incident of the U.S. Navy frigate Chesapeake happened five years before the War of 1812. The Chesapeake, commanded by Commodore James Barron, left Hampton Roads, Virginia on June 22nd 1807. With her decks heaped with provisions, yet to be stowed, she was ten miles out to sea when she was hailed by the Leopard, a British ship of 50 guns. The Leopard reported to have a dispatch for Commodore Barron. When the ships were in range a Lieutenant of the Leopard was received aboard the Chesapeake and the dispatch given to Barron. The dispatch was an order to the captain of the Leopard to search the Chesapeake for deserters from the Royal Navy. When Commodore Barron refused, the Leopard fired upon the American ship killing or wounding twenty-one men. With all the provisions on deck the men of the Chesapeake could not find the powder or matches for their cannon, so not a shot could be fired in return. She was boarded and four American seaman were removed to the British ship. Of these four, only two lived to be returned to the Chesapeake in 1812.

The second incident of the Chesapeake happened after war was declared. The Chesapeake, now commanded by Captain James Lawrence, was at Boston harbor getting ready to sail to blockade the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Out at sea waiting for him was the Royal Navy ship the Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke. Captain Broke, being a very confident man, sent a letter to Captain Lawrence challenging an engagement against both ships. Lawrence never received the letter but when the Chesapeake sailed on June first, 1813 he made no attempt to avoid the Shannon. Out to sea at a distance of fifty yards the British ship opened fire, with the Chesapeake returning in kind. During this great duel captain Lawrence was mortally wounded by a musket ball through his body. His last command as he was carried below were the immortal words "Don't give up the ship, fight her until she sinks." His sailors followed his command and in this battle no American ever did haul down the flag. Lawrence was loaded aboard the Shannon where he died of his wound. Once war was declared on June 18, 1812, the American naval battle cry became, "Remember the Chesapeake"!


Oliver Hazard Perry was born on August 20, 1785 in South Kingston, Rhode Island. His father, Captain Christopher Raymond Perry (1761-1818), was a fighting Quaker. At the age of fourteen, Christopher Raymond Perry joined the American Navy during the Revolutionary War where he served with distinction. Five of the captain's sons became American Naval officers.

Young Perry went to sea at the age of thirteen as a midshipman on his fathers sloop-of-war the General Greene. The General Greene sailed to the Caribbean during the undeclared war with France where they proceeded to attack French shipping and support the Haitian revolutionaries. Afterward, Perry served aboard the frigate Adams blockading the Barbary port of Tripoli. After peace was declared he served aboard the Constellation and Constitution as an acting second lieutenant. In the Mediterranean at the age of nineteen, he received his first command, the schooner Nautilus. Returning home aboard the frigate Essex, as second lieutenant, he was promoted to permanent lieutenancy in April 1807.

Upon arrival in America, Perry accepted command of a gunboat flotilla enforcing Jefferson's embargo in Rhode Island. After the embargo, he assumed command of the 14-gun schooner Revenge and sailed with his younger brother, Midshipman Matthew Calbraith Perry. Later Matthew would become America's great diplomat to Japan. Perry, with his brother, sailed the eastern seaboard. In this voyage, Perry courageously fought a Spanish ship. The Spanish ship had earlier captured the American Vessel Diana. Perry brought the Diana home with a prize crew. Afterwards, Perry and the Revenge ran aground during a fog while surveying the New England coast. Perry fought to save the ship but she was soon abandoned. Perry immediately relieved himself from command, requested inactive status, and a board of inquiry to review his actions. The court found him blameless and complimented him for his struggle to save the ship. The Navy showing their faith in Perry, gave him command of the gunboat headquarters at Westerly, RI and Norwich Conn. After 18 months duty he was promoted to Master Commandant. Disliking the command of a desk, in September 1812 he sent a letter to Captain Isaac Chauncey requesting to serve under him and be employed so he could meet the enemies of his country. Chauncey was in command of the American fleet on Lakes Erie and Ontario. Delighted, Chauncey wrote back, "You are just the man I have been looking for,". Perry arrived upon Lake Erie, at Presque Isle bay, with another younger brother Alexander, age thirteen, and 150 seaman on March 27, 1813.

Already at Presque Isle bay, put to work by Captain Chauncey were Daniel Dobbins, a lake trader, and Noah Brown, the New York shipwright. Chauncey had commissioned them to build two fifty-foot brigs and four schooner rigged gunboats. In addition, near Niagara, at Black Rock, were five more vessels intended for the American fleet upon Lake Erie. These ships were under the command of Lieutenant Elliott. Perry's job was to complete all vessels and move the ones at Black Rock to Presque Bay.

Completing the ships at Presque Bay was a dilemma. There was plenty of timber available but there was not time to have it seasoned properly. In addition, armament, nails, and other equipment had to be hauled through miles of thick forest and spring mud, from Pittsburg. These included thirty-seven 32-pounder cannonades, from the Columbia Foundry, that was waiting for them there.

The British held control of Lake Erie and any movement of the ships at Black Rock would involve the towing by oxen of the ships up the swift current of the Niagara river. While this was being accomplished, the ships would be sitting ducks for the British cannons at Fort Erie on the opposite side of the river. The Americans raided York (Toronto), where the British burnt their 30 gun frigate Sir Isaac Brock to avoid its capture, and a month later attacked and captured Fort George. This forced the British to evacuate Fort Erie. With Fort Erie no longer, a danger, on May 27, Perry and his men pulled the Black Rock ships up the rapids of the Niagara River.

The ships from Black Rock reached Lake Erie on June 12. Here upon the Lake, there was the constant danger of discovery by the British ship under the command of Captain Robert Heriot Barclay. Barclay appeared off of Presque Isle on June 15 and continued to cruise between it and Black Rock in search of the Americans. Perry kept his ships as close as possible to the shore and passed Barclay unseen in the fog. The Black Rock fleet reached Presque Isle on June 18.

By July 10 the ships under construction at Presque Isle had been completed. Perry in receiving the news of the fate of the Chesapeake and the last command of its captain named one of the new brigs the Lawrence after Captain Lawrence. Perry also had a blue flag made with the words "Don't give up the ship" sewn on in white. Now that the American fleet was safely inside Presque Isle Bay the problem of manning, these ships needed to be resolved. Perry's superior, Chauncey, sent some of his own men to Perry. On July 26 Perry sent a letter to Chauncey stating that "The men that came by Mr. Champlin are a motley set, blacks, soldiers, and boys. I cannot think you saw them after they were selected."

Chauncey answered back with, "I regret you are not pleased with the men sent you; for, to my knowledge, a part of them are not surpassed by any seaman we have in the fleet; and I have yet to learn that the color of the skin, or the cut and trimmings of the coat, can affect a man's qualifications of usefulness.... As you have assured the secretary that you should conceive yourself equal or superior to the enemy, with a force in men so much less than I had deemed necessary, there will be a great deal expected from you by your country, and I trust they will not be disappointed in the high expectations formed of your gallantry and judgment. I will barely make an observation, which was impressed upon my mind by an old soldier; that is, Never despise your enemy." In the Navy, this is called a Dressing Down, and it was a good one. Remember that Perry is only 28 years old. After this, no more help could be expected from his superior. In fact, Perry wrote a letter of resignation that luckily for us Americans, was not received until after the Battle.

One of the reasons that Presque Isle Bay was chosen for the building of the American fleet, was a shallow sand bar that completely enclosed the mouth of the bay. This sand bar provided a natural protection from the British ships while they were under construction. Now that construction of the ships was complete, it became a curse. To get the American 500-ton brigs over the bar, all of its armament had to be removed and the ship lifted upon camels.

Camels, a Dutch invention, were large wooden floats coated with tar. These camels were filled with water until submerged and then attached to a ship. With the help of bellows, the water was then removed and air entered the camels. The greater buoyancy of the camels would lift the ship much higher out of the water.

Perry knew that any prolonged preparation for the movement of his ships over the bar would cause the information to reach Barclay. Barclay, naturally, would arrive with his British fleet at a very bad time. Knowing this, when Barclay's ships that were watching outside of the bay left on Friday the 30, Perry waited his chance and watched for good weather. It came early that Sunday. Perry let his men go into town as normal. Once the men were in town he called them back and they moved the vessels near the bar. The water depth over the bar was normally from five to seven feet, and eight tenths of a mile wide. For protection during the crossing of the bar, Perry set up three 12-pound long guns at the beach, not far from the bar, and sent the five smaller ships that could cross easily into the outer channel. With the five ships and the long guns on the beach, Perry would have some protection if the British fleet showed up. He also readied the Niagara's cannons for a fight. The Lawrence was then striped of any heavy items, including cannons, and readied with the camels.

Thoroughly prepared, the Lawrence started crossing the sand bar on Monday morning August 2. However, getting the 500-ton brig over the bar, did not go well. The water over the bar was only four feet. While everyone was helping pull and push the Lawrence over the bar, leaving the beach guns and the outer ships unmanned, Barclay's ships appeared over the horizon. The timing could not have been better for the British or worse for the Americans. All hands were at the unarmed Lawrence but Lady Luck was with Perry and when Barclay saw all the activity and the ships in the channel, he thought the Americans were ready for a fight. Barclay being outnumbered and his ship the Detroit not yet finished left the area. Before his Court Martial, held by the British after the Battle of Lake Erie, Barclays' explanation of this was "I blockaded as closely as I could, until I one morning saw the whole of the enemy's force over the bar, and in a most formidable state of preparation."

The "Lawrence" was in the channel over the bar by the morning of the third and the Niagara went much easier. In a letter dated August 4, 1813 9 pm. Perry wrote to the Naval department, "I have great pleasure in informing you that I have succeeded in getting over the bar the United States vessels, the Lawrence, Niagara, Caledonia, Ariel, Scorpion, Somers, Tigress and Porcupine. The enemy have been in sight all day."

On August 10th Perry on his flag ship Lawrence, along side his fleet sailed westward with a total of nine ships and an extra one hundred experienced seamen brought by his second in command, Jesse D. Elliott. With Elliott in command of the Niagara they arrived at Put-in-Bay. Put-in-Bay was a good place to watch for Barclay's British fleet.

Barclay was at Amherstburg inspecting his completed flagship the Detroit. Things were not going as well with the British, chiefly their supplies were running out. Barclay wrote, "So perfectly destitute of provisions was the port, that there was not a day's flour in store, and the crews of the squadron under my command were on half allowance of many things, and when that was done there was no more." Deciding to leave port with out the extra men that had been promised him, the British fleet upon Lake Erie, left Amherstburg on September 9th to face the Americans.

The Americans off Put-in-Bay first sighted the British fleet at 5 am on September 10. The wind was light and behind the British, blowing them toward the American fleet. The Americans tacking into the wind were getting no where. Perry's plan of action against Barclay was to close to within carronades range as quickly as possible. He knew that he had superior firepower only if he was within 260 yards of the enemy so he could reach them with his carronades.

Just before the battle Perry called all hands on deck and presented to them his blue pendent. He told his men the story of the Chesapeake, and the last words of her captain that were inscribed upon the blue flag. Perry asked, "Shall I hoist her men?" The unanimous reply was "Aye sir!"

The British had a large number of long guns that could fire accurately at much greater distance then Perry's carronades. Perry needed to be able to run with the wind to reach carronade range as quickly as possible. Here lady luck smiled upon Perry again. The wind, still very light, shifted completely and started blowing from behind the Americans. At 11:45 am the British opened up with their long guns at a distance of around a mile. As the wind brought the Americans closer, and into more accurate range of the British long guns, the wind died almost completely. This left Lawrence, Perry's flag ship, in a very dangerous position. The other American ships with their smaller and shorter sail area were far aback, not even in range of the British long guns. Moreover, the Lawrence's sister ship, Niagara, commanded by Elliott was still in position behind the Caledonia. In fact, the Niagara had a sail aback to keep the Niagara from over running the small brig ahead of her. The British ship the Queen Charlotte, was impatiently waiting for the Niagara to come into the battle. Finally reasoning that it would not, decided to join with the Detroit, sailed out of position, around the Hunter, and commenced firing upon the Lawrence.

Perry, on the Lawrence was taking an incredible amount of fire, from 17 long guns of the Detroit, 3 long guns of the Queen Charlotte and a number of guns from the smaller British ships. Not able to fire back except for her two long guns, the Lawrence had to with stand this fire until the wind could blow her closer to where she could hit the Detroit with her 32 lb. carronades. Weather it she did for half an hour.

By the time the Lawrence was within carronade range, she was almost uncontrollable. All her lines were shot away, rigging destroyed, and most of the officers and men wounded. At 12:15 with the Lawrence within pistol shot of the Detroit, Perry opened fire. Most of the shot bounced off the thick sides of the British ship. [Image] For two hours, the Lawrence fought the British almost completely alone. With the wind freshening, and hardly a gun on the Lawrence still on its mount or enough unwounded crew to fire back, Elliott and the Niagara finally came into the fray. When Perry noticed the Niagara he lowered his blue "Don't give up the ship" pendent, and with 5 crew men, left the Lawrence in a long boat for the Niagara. The British observing the lowering of the pendent and reasoning that the Lawrence was surrendering stopped firing upon her. Later noticing that the American flag was still flying and Perry in the long boat making for the Niagara, the men realized that there would be no surrender from the Americans yet. The British again opened fire upon the Lawrence and this time also upon Perry's long boat. Once the men watching from the battered Lawrence saw that Perry was aboard the Niagara and his pendent flying from the mast, they finally lowered the American Flag. Taking command of the Niagara Perry engaged a damaged enemy with a very fresh ship, the twin of his flagship, thereby winning the battle.

After the battle, on the back of an old letter, Perry wrote to General Harrison these famous words, " We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop."

After the Battle of Lake Erie was over, Perry and his crew received prize money for all the British ships they captured. Perry was also promoted to permanent captaincy, and Congress awarded him a metal.

Although the Battle of Lake Erie was Oliver Hazard Perry's finest hour, his active life didn't stop there. In 1816, then in command of the ship Java he "dressed down" his captain of the Marines, John Heath, for an indolent response to an order he had given. Captain Heath still smarting from the dressing down requested an interview with Perry. During the interview, Heath did not show the correct respect to his commanding officer and in anger, Perry struck him. Both Perry and Heath were court-martialed, given a slap upon the wrist, and returned to duty. Heath could not let this incident go. He felt that he must reclaim his repute. In those days, a common way was upon the field of honor. After receiving notice of this Perry, realizing the necessity of facing Heath wrote to Commodore Stephen Decatur, asking him to act as his second in a duel with Heath. At noon on October 19, 1818, Commodore Perry accompanied by Decatur and Major James Hamilton, met Captain Heath and Lieutenant Desha. A matched pair of Navy pistols was divided between the two men. With the seconds standing vigil they stood back to back, whereupon they commenced walking with measured steps, all the while timed by the words of the seconds. At ten paces they turned and faced each other. Heath fired and missed. Perry did not return the fire but requested Decatur to read a letter that he had earlier written. In the letter, Perry stated his determination not to return Heath's fire for any reason. Hearing this Captain Heath acquiesced and declared his honor restored.

In 1819 Perry took command of the John Adams, and was sent to Venezuela. There he contracted yellow fever. Perry died at sea near Trinidad on August 23, 1819 where he was buried. He was just 34 years old. Later in 1826, his remains were moved to his hometown of Newport, RI.

The life of Oliver Hazard Perry was very fascinating to this author, not only because of the Battle of Lake Erie, but because of his incredible bravery under fire. What I did not report until now was during the long hours of the Battle of Lake Erie Perry walked the deck while he was under fire at all times. There are stories that state numerous times he was almost killed by one shot or the other. In fact a number of men, were mowed down by cannon fire in mid conversation with him. There were so many stories of this, that if I were one of his sailors, I would have thought it prudent to not stand anywhere near him. This tremendous bravery was also later shown when he stood and took Heath's shot at him in the field of honor.

In conclusion, Perry's conquest at the Battle of Lake Erie led directly to the fall of the British in the northwestern portion of North America. For after the battle, the Americans had undisputed control of Lake Erie, with the British trapped on the wrong side. Detroit and Michigan territory fell back into American hands. Furthermore, the British allegiance with the American Indian was exterminated, with the death of Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. Remarkably, all this was entirely caused by the British defeat at Lake Erie.


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