Oliver Hazard Perry: 'Hero of Lake Erie'

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Oliver Hazard Perry was known as the 'Hero of Lake Erie' for his role in winning an important naval victory during the War of 1812.

He was born on Aug. 23, 1785 in Rhode Island, near the village of Wakefield. His mother, Sarah, taught him to read and write.

Oliver Hazard Perry

When he was 13, young Oliver decided that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle and pursue a career in the navy. He gained a midshipman's warrant in 1799 and saw early combat action in the war against the Barbary Pirates. He served aboard a few famous ships, among them the Constitution and the Nautilus.

His next naval assignment was to oversee the building of a handful of new small boats. Thirsting for action at sea, he found this assignment boring. In April 1809, he got his wish of command, at the head of a schooner named the Revenge.

Things did not turn out to be as adventurous as Perry had hoped. He patrolled in both the north and the south, suffered through a severe storm and severe illness, and was in command when the ship struck a reef and sank. The court-martial that followed all such sinkings exonerated the young captain, and he got time off.

He married Elizabeth Mason on May 5, 1811, in Newport, R.I. They had met four years earlier. They eventually had five children.

Perry saw military action again with the beginning of the War of 1812, although it was initially the kind of low-profile assignment he dreaded. His appeals for combat assignments fell on deaf ears; in desperation, he wrote a letter to an old friend, Isaac Chauncey, who was commander of naval operations in the Great Lakes region.

On Feb. 8, 1813, Perry got he wanted: orders to ship out to serve under his old friend. At first, he had to oversee construction of more ships; then, he got his chance.

Battle of Lake Erie

The British commander in the area was Robert Barclay. Both he and Perry engaged in an arms race of sorts, each working hard to build more fighting ships than the other. Perry eventually had two battle-ready ships, the Lawrence and the Niagara. He had other, smaller ships as well. Perry had as his flagship the Lawrence, which was named for his colleague Captain James Lawrence, whose dying command was "Don't Give Up the Ship"; Perry had those words emblazoned on his battle flag.

Barclay and the British were expecting an easy victory when the two forces engaged on Lake Erie on Sept. 10, 1813. Initially, it looked that was exactly was going to happen. A British bombardment destroyed the Lawrence, and Perry grabbed the ship's flag and, along with some of the survivors, rowed in a small boat to the Niagara. During the battle, Perry's executive officer, Jesse Elliot, had commanded the Niagara Battle of Lake Eriebut had not entered the fray right away, despite Perry's orders to do so. Perry eventually ordered his ship to sail right in amongst the British ships and ram the British flagship. In the confusion, two British ships, the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte collided. Perry made the most of the confusion, which resulted in the capture or sinking of all the British ships and the killing or wounding of all of the British commanders and seconds-in-command. Although the dead and injured totals were roughly equal (Americans 27 and 96, British 46 and 94), Perry and his forces had won the day.

Exulting in his victory, Perry cabled General William Henry Harrison with the now famous report: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." The victory gave American forces control of Lake Erie, giving them the upper hand in the northwestern front of the war.

Perry later joined Harrison in another American naval victory, the October 5 Battle of the Thames, and in the American reoccupation of the city of Detroit. He also lent naval support to Winfield Scott in the capture of Fort George.

Oliver Hazard Perry

After that pair of successes, Perry requested a transfer back to Rhode Island. He returned there in November and was promoted to captain. Granted a new command in July 1814, he oversaw the construction of a large ship named the Java. Forced into action in response to an imminent threat, he took part in the defense of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., that summer, as British troops threatened both cities and succeeded in burning the White House and other buildings in the nation's capital. Before the Java was fully built, the war was over.

He and the Java sailed to the Mediterranean in 1815 to contain renewed aggressive action by the Barbary Pirates. It was there, while the ship was anchored at Naples, that Perry slapped one of his officers, the Marine John Heath. Both men were court-martialed when they got home, and Heath challenged Perry to a duel. Pistols at the ready, they fought in 1817 on the same field on which Aaron Burr had killed Alexander Hamilton 13 years earlier. Neither man was killed.

Perry was once again at the center of a controversy involving Jesse Duncan Elliott, with whom he had tangled on Lake Erie. This time, Perry sought to court-martial Elliott. The Navy refused to take action, sending the case on to President James Monroe, who as well opted not to prosecute. Instead, Monroe sent Perry on a diplomatic mission to South America.

As captain of the USS Nonsuch, he sailed to Angostura, the Venezuelan capital, where yellow fever was raging. Perry initially survived where others of his crew did not. However, he did eventually catch the dread disease and died from it on Aug. 23, 1819–it was his 34th birthday.

Oliver Hazard Perry

Perry was hailed as a hero after the Battle of Lake Erie and received a Congressional Gold Medal. Also of note: His younger brother was Commodore Matthew Perry, whose fleet helped convince Japan to open its ports to the West in 1853.

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