Photo Credit:  Peter Hellberg

Photo Credit: Peter Hellberg

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Few people outside the U.S. Navy today recognise the name Oliver Hazard Perry (1785–1819), or as he was known in his own day, the Hero of Lake Erie. One reason for his obscurity is that he died comparatively young. The accomplishment for which he is best known, while strategically critical in its own right, was fought in a remote theater—on fresh water, no less—of an obscure war. Finally, his name is overshadowed by that of his younger brother, Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794–1858), who is credited with "opening" Japan in 1853, an event that heralded the United States’ geopolitical debut in Asia.

The son of a naval officer under whom he sailed in the Quasi-War with France, Oliver Hazard Perry took part in the Tripolitan War (1801–1805). He commanded the sloop-of-war Revenge in a variety of activities from 1809 to 1811. During the winter of 1810–11, his ship grounded off Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and though a court-martial exonerated Perry—blame was assigned to the pilot—he took a leave of absence to marry Elizabeth Champlin Mason, by whom he had five children.

The start of the War of 1812 reanimated Perry’s career, and though he hoped for an assignment with the blue-water fleet, he was seconded to the Great Lakes, where he served as master commandant under the command of Isaac Chauncey, who was based at the Lake Ontario port of Sackett’s Harbor, New York. Perry was assigned to Lake Erie, which thanks to the extreme difference in elevation (there were as yet no canals around Niagara Falls) was a distinct command.

Chief credit for bringing this fleet into being fell to the New York shipbuilder Noah Brown, whom the Navy Department had sent to Presque Isle (now Erie), Pennsylvania, from New York City. Although skilled labor, naval stores, and guns all had to come overland, by July 1813 Brown had built the brigs Niagara and Lawrence, two schooners, and a handful of other vessels. In the words of maritime historian Howard Chapelle, “The amount of work that Brown accomplished with about 200 men, without power tools, and in a wilderness during the worst winter months, makes some of the modern [World War II] wartime production feats something less than impressive.”

Perry's aim was to contain the British in Canada. When his counterpart Robert Barclay lifted the British blockade of Presque Isle, Perry sailed his nine ships to the western end of Lake Erie, where he anchored at Put-in Bay in the Bass Islands north of present-day Sandusky, Ohio. With his supply lines from Lake Ontario cut, Barclay was forced to bring Perry’s numerically superior fleet to battle, and on September 10 he met Perry at Put-in Bay. Perry’s flagship was the USS Lawrence, named for his good friend James Lawrence, whose dying word at the battle between USS Chesapeake and HMS Shannon three months earlier, “Don’t give up the ship,” Perry had emblazoned on a pennant he flew from the masthead.

Approaching each other in parallel battle lines—the engagement was the only traditional fleet action of the war—the squadrons engaged. Lawrence took the brunt of the fighting from Detroit and Queen Charlotte and after nearly three hours had suffered eighty-four dead and wounded. With nineteen of his crew, Perry transferred his flag to the Niagara, which was thus far unscathed. Perry immediately sailed through the centre of the British line, crossing the “T” and sending raking broadsides the length of Barclay’s two biggest ships. Forced to strike, Barclay became the first British commander in history to surrender an entire squadron.

As Perry wrote to General William Henry Harrison, “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two Ships, two Brigs one Schooner & one Sloop.” The battle of Put-in Bay (or Lake Erie) was a turning point in the War of 1812, for Perry’s victory secured American dominance in Ohio and Michigan, and less than a month later, General William Henry Harrison was able to overwhelm a British army at the battle of the Thames near Chatham, Ontario. Congress authorised $250,000 in prize money to be shared by Perry, his officers, and his men, and Perry used his share to purchase a house for his growing family in Newport, Rhode Island.

Perry’s subsequent career was not without controversy, partly to do with the conduct of Jesse D. Elliott, a more battle-tested officer whom Perry had superceded as commander on Lake Erie. Although Perry initially praised Elliott for his actions, and both men received the Congressional Medal of Honor, Perry later claimed that his second-in-command had deliberately kept the Niagara out of the battle, while Elliott countered that Perry had failed to signal his intentions clearly.

During the Second Barbary War in 1816, Perry came under scrutiny for slapping John Heath, commander of the Marine guard aboard his ship, the USS Java, ostensibly for “insolent, disrespectful, and contemptuous” behavior. Heath published a pamphlet in which he accused Perry of “cruelty, oppression, and ungentlemanly conduct.” Courts-martial resulted in guilty verdicts for Perry and Heath, both of whom were reprimanded. Displeased with this outcome, Heath challenged Perry to a duel during which he fired from four paces and missed, while Perry declined to shoot, thus satisfying Heath’s honor.

Perry’s return to the United States also prompted Elliott to reopen the debate over his conduct of the battle of Lake Erie. Declining a duel, Perry filed court-martial charges against Elliott. Rather than risk the spectacle of two national heroes waging a divisive and very public proceeding, President James Monroe tapped Perry to lead a mission to discuss privateering and piracy by people loyal to Simón Bolivar’s revolutionary government in Venezuela. While negotiating at Angostura, on the Orinoco River, Perry contracted yellow fever, from which he died while en route back to Trinidad, on August 23, his thirty-fourth birthday.

However contentious Perry’s subsequent career may have been, there is no gainsaying the significance of his tactical, strategic, and psychological victory over the British at Put-In Bay. The U.S. Navy has named eight ships for him, most recently the first of fifty-one Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigates, commissioned in 1977. The last of this class, twenty-four of which were built at Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine, will be decommissioned this year.

Further reading
Heath, John. Serious Charges against Captain O. H. Perry of the United States Navy. Washington, 1817.
Paine, Lincoln P. Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial, South Bass Island, Put-in-Bay, Ohio.
Skaggs, David Curtis. Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006.

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Maritime historian Lincoln Paine’s books include The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World and Down East: A Maritime History of Maine. A resident of Portland, he serves on the board of directors of the Maine Maritime Museum, in Bath, and The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing center serving students in the greater Portland area.