Oliver Hazard Perry became a sailor on his father’s 32-gun General Greene at age thirteen. He spent his adult life fighting in both sea and land battles from the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Great Lakes to Canada and Maryland. He fought before, during, and after the War of 1812. The ships he commanded changed, but the shelves of his captain’s cabin were always filled with books on history, foreign languages, battle plans, letters from his wife and four children, his own letters, journals and his flute. Few if any officers fought on the front lines of so many battles and lived. Perhaps if Perry hadn’t left the tale telling to others, he would be even more famous today.
Perry’s style of leadership is hard to describe. His work challenged him to find solutions to dangerous, divisive, complex issues. He blazed roads to establish interstate trade routes, new trade sources and funding streams; he reestablished intermilitary service cooperation; resolved issues of class, gender, race and rank; trained farmers to be sailors; and simultaneously demonstrated logistical and strategic brilliance along with incredible physical stamina and courage. Those who worked closely with Perry said the Battle of Lake Erie, where he “walked in the valley of the shadow of death,” was a mere walk in the park compared to the complex personal diplomacy and strategy needed to build, man, and lead his fleet to victory.
What is often overlooked when studying Perry is how his physical participation and brilliant strategic leadership influenced the outcomes of all nine Lake Erie military
- Capturing Fort George
- Destroying the British ammunitions at Fort Erie
- Rescuing five vessels from Black Rock
- Building of the fleet at Erie
- Getting the ships over the sandbar
- Blocking British supplies on Lake Erie for a month prior to battle
- Planning the Thames invasion with General Harrison
- Winning the Battle of Lake Erie
- Winning the Battle of Thames
For more details select: <Battle of lake Erie - fleet building - building alliance
The People’s Hero
After the fighting was over, Perry became the people’s hero, and crowds formed to cheer him wherever he went. According to Lynn Beman, “Perry received more public acclaim than any other naval hero, even John Paul Jones.” Ultimately, however, Perry was moved by the show of
unity, not the accolades. He had won the hearts and minds of common soldiers, sailors, marines, farmers and the families they fought to protect. He was given keys to cities; schools were closed so children could see him pass; bonfires and parades welcomed his arrival. From Maine to what is now Idaho, cities, towns and streets were named to honor him, and the best-known artists painted large canvasses to commemorate a nation’s pride in “Perry’s Victory in The Battle of Lake Erie.” Most notable among these were works by Julian O. Davidson and Thomas Birch. In spite of continued attempts to “swift-boat” him, Perry remains one of America’s great naval leaders and patriots. The joint US-Canadian Border Peace Monuments bear Perry’s name, attesting to the longest uncontested border in the world.
|Perry's Victory & International Peace Monument
Photo ©Eastern National Parks &Mon. assn.
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Perry Biography 1785-1819
- 1785: Oliver Hazard Perry born on August 23, in South Kingston, Rhode Island.
- 1786-98: Raised in Newport, Rhode Island, primarily by his mother during his father’s long absences at sea. Perry develops a lifelong passion for books at a very young age.
- 1799: At age thirteen, Perry becomes a midshipman assigned to his father’s (Captain Christopher Perry’s) U.S. Frigate General Greene. For the next six years, Perry gains practical and tactical nautical experience on ships fighting in the Quasi-War with France and the Tripolitan War against the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean.
- 1807: Perry returns home and superintends construction of a flotilla of small gunboats in Rhode Island.
- 1807: Perry returns home, and superintends construction of a flotilla of small gunboats in Rhode Island.
- 1809: Receives his first seagoing command, the fourteen-gun schooner Revenge. A pilot’s error occurs one stormy night in a dense fog, causing Perry’s ship to be wrecked on a reef. He resigns his command until a military hearing clears his name.
- 1811: Marries Elizabeth Champlin Mason at Newport, Rhode Island. Eventually, they have four children.
- March 1812: Perry commands a squadron of tiny gunboats at Newport, Rhode Island, and receives a promotion to master commandant. He also developed his natural ability to turn ordinary men into teams of sailors.
- October 1812: Contacts Isaac Chauncey prior to the American victory at the Battle of York, Canada (now Toronto), and requests a more responsible command.
- February 1813: 27 year old Perry is given command of U.S. Naval forces on Lake Erie where he supervises the construction of the first American Fleet.
- July 1813: Voluntarily travels to aid Chauncey, plans the landing of troops, resulting in the capture of Fort George. The British explode their ammunition at Fort Erie, Canada rather than surrendering it, which frees five trapped vessels at Black Rock. Perry refurbishes these and drags them upstream loaded with building materials, food, supplies and 55 seamen. He then sails back to Erie narrowly escaping capture by the British Naval patrol. These five vessels add 35% to the viability of Perry’s fleet.
By the beginning of August, Perry completes the building of the fleet and engineers the lifting of two 250-ton brigs over an impassable sand bar. Before the rigging and arming of the nine vessels are complete, Perry successfully bluffs the British navy to withdraw by feigning an attack.
- August 23: Sails to visit Harrison in Sandusky to plan the superintending of troops for the Battle of Thames, but first he must win Lake Erie. Returns to Erie with 1500 men, including Kentucky sharpshooters.
- September 10, 1813: Perry wins the Battle of Lake Erie and is then promoted to Captain.
- September 27, 1813: Perry plans the strategic deployment of 3,500 troops, 16 war vessels and 100 landing craft for William Henry Harrison’s army in the successful land engagement known as the Battle of Thames River, in which the great Indian leader Tecumseth is killed and Fort Detroit is freed.
- November 1813: Perry is given command of the Java, a 44-gun frigate under construction in Baltimore. While in Baltimore, Perry volunteers to fight in land battles defending Washington and Baltimore from the British invasion.
- 1814:Peace of Ghent declared, ending the War of 1812. Construction of the Java is still incomplete.
- 1815: Captain Perry and the Java sent to the Mediterranean to again help stop the Barbary Pirates..
- 1817: Perry survives a duel with his Marine officer, John Heath. After Heath’s shot misses, Perry refused to shoot back.
- 1817: Perry declines former Niagara officer, Lt. Jesse Duncan Elliot’s challenge to duel, preferring to initiate a court-martial procedure against Elliot for disobeying orders, disregarding the honor of the American flag, and failing to do his utmost to take, destroy or encounter, the enemy’s vessel. President James Monroe appoints Perry to an important diplomatic mission in Angostura, Venezuela, in an attempt to persuade Perry to drop the court-marshal of Elliot.
- 1819: After successfully completing his mission in Venezuela, Perry becomes ill with yellow fever and dies, on August 23, his 34th birthday. He is survived by his wife and four children, and is buried in Island Cemetery, Newport, Rhode Island.
For additionarl information, refer to Internet links
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In his short lifetime, Perry narrowly escaped capture, defeat and death innumerable times. One cannot help but wonder whether it was “Perry’s Luck,” a combination of genius and hard work or, perhaps, Divine Intervention that so often worked in his favor. After reading the list below, please contact us to register your opinion.
- In 1795, Perry was thirteen-year old midshipman aboard his father’s war ship patrolling the Caribbean waters. Five men died of malaria on board; Perry also contracted the illness but survived.
- In April 1813, while building the fleet, Perry contracted “lake fever” -- typhoid – in addition to relapses of malaria. He became “as shaky as an aspen” and exhausted from working days without sleep. Yet while more than a hundred other men died, Perry somehow lived.
- In June, General Isaac Chauncey requested help in recapturing Fort George, so Perry went to Sackett’s Harbor. Chauncey acknowledged Perry’s “volunteering his services… in arranging and superintending the debarkation of the troops. He was present at every point where he could be useful, under showers of musketry, but fortunately escaped unhurt.” Colonel Scott summed it up by saying, “It was as if the young Navy officer was a Stranger to Fear” (Dillon 92ff).
- While superintending the debarkation of the troops to recapture Fort George. Perry wrote, “When observing that [our] schooners did not fire briskly [at the enemy, to protect our troops’ landing] from apprehension of injuring our own troops, I went on board the schooner Hamilton of nine guns, commanded by Lieutenant McPherson, and opened a tremendous fire of grape and canister which made the ravine too hot a defensive position and with LUCK, not killing any of our own troops.”
- The army then took control of Fort George, and the following evening the British were forced to evacuate. Fort Erie, then being routed by Scott’s forces, blew up their magazines from Chippewa to Point Abino; The Queen Charlotte and two other war vessels fled westward up Lake Erie.
- On the last day of July 1813, “Perry’s Luck” produced a minor miracle. The British General Barclay, bored with blockading Perry’s hapless flotilla, accepted a dinner invitation for himself and his officers made by the citizens of Port Dover, and sailed his five ships away, lifting the blockade (Dillon, 106). Perry took advantage of this unforeseen break by working all night to launch the ships over the sandbar.
- On August 4,1813, Perry aggressively bluffed the British patrol ships into thinking that he had gotten his fully equipped, rigged, armed fleet over the sandbar, and had started to attack them. Luckily, the retreating British ships sailed far away from Erie, Pennsylvania, giving Perry a month more to prepare for the attack.
- Once the Battle of Lake Erie began, Perry’s flagship and crew endured two hours of death and destruction that the British inflicted on the Lawrence, but Perry was unhurt.
- While Perry was talking to John Brooks, the lieutenant in charge of the Marines, a cannonball struck Brooks in the hip, sending him to die in agony below deck. Perry was unhurt.
- Perry stopped to aid a gun captain who was suddenly torn in two by a 24-pound cannonball. Perry was untouched.
- With 80% of his men dead or wounded and the Lawrence nearly blown apart, Perry boarded one of the few rowboats that was still afloat, being towed astern. A hole had been shot through it just above the water line. There is speculation that the romantic image of Perry standing in the boat may in fact be accurate: he may have stood, leaning to the other side, to keep the hole out of the water. With four of his surviving men as crew, Perry hauled down his battle flag “Don’t Give up The Ship”…. and they rowed for a half mile, amidst a hail of cannon and shrapnel toward the Niagara without being killed.
- Once aboard the Niagara, Perry took command. Luckily, the wind changed direction, the breeze “freshened,” and Perry was able to turn the ship at right angles and sail his new flagship, with its battle flag raised, right into the middle of the British line of battle. In less than fifteen minutes, Perry had achieved the ultimate goal in any naval battle- to “cross the T” – i.e. to pass the broadsides of one’s ship between two facing enemy ships’ sterns or bows, so as to minimize their ability to fire at him while raking broadsides at (their) two ships from either side of his own.
- After the battle of Lake Erie, Perry volunteered to aid General Harrison by superintending the debarkation of the troops and as a mounted cavalryman. At the Battle of Thames, Tecumseth, the great Shawnee Indian Chief, was killed and General Packard surrendered. “Once, while he (Perry) was carrying an order from Harrison to another officer, Perry’s horse sank up to its chest in a swampy area. He dismounted by pressing his hands against the pommel of his saddle and catapulted himself over the horse’s head to solid ground. Released of his weight, the animal struggled out of the grip of the morass and bounded forward. With newfound skill, or more likely his vaunted luck, Perry clutched the horse’s mane as it brushed past him. With this bit of leverage, he was able to vault into the saddle again, more like a veteran dragoon than a sailor…he was off again on his mission”( Dillon 177).
- While Perry was in Maryland, overseeing the outfitting of the Java, he volunteered to defend Washington, D.C. and Baltimore in land battles and again survived unharmed.
- After the War of 1812 was over, Perry was sent again to the Mediterranean to quell the resurgence of Barbary pirates. A discipline problem arose; Perry slapped his rowdy subordinate’s face, and a duel followed. Perry’s opponent fired his pistol first from only four feet away and missed him. Perry then refused to shoot back, and honor was restored.
- Perry was successful in his diplomatic mission to Venezuela, but took ill and died on his return voyage. While there are those who say it was lucky for America that Perry’s death aborted his pending court marshal of Elliot and avoided a political wildfire, there are others who say it was unfortunate that Perry was not able to stop Elliot’s persistent efforts to “swiftboat” him.
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A Challenge to Hollywood
Perry’s life has all the drama needed for a real-life, action-filled serial adventure featuring a superhero no older than Clark Kent or Indiana Jones. Perry was an avid reader, an excellent writer, a musician, a loving husband and a father of four. Yet he lived a life replete with duels, one-armed enemy captains, and narrow escapes. We see him as a navy officer on horseback brandishing a saber against tomahawks; disciplining city men fearful of night forest patrol; pontooning huge ships over impassable sandbars; taking hundred mile sleigh rides on frozen lakes; fighting off yellow fever and facing a jealous, swift-boating antagonist. His military exploits brought greater homeland security and national prosperity; the circle of his life closed on his 34th birthday.
We challenge Hollywood – or perhaps an indy filmmaker – to produce a series worthy of Perry’s heroism and greatness of character.
Beman, L.S. Julian O. Davidson (1853-1894): American Marine Artist. New City, NY: Historical Society of Rockland County. 1986.
Dillon, R. We Have Met the Enemy: Oliver Hazard Perry: Wilderness Commodore. NY: McGraw Hill. 1978.
Ernst, R.E. Map of the Battle of Lake Erie. Lakeside, Ohio. 1972.
Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. NY: Christies, Manson, and Woods International, Inc. 1992.
Lossing, B. Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812. NY: 1868, pp.524-527. Quoted in Important American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture of the 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries. NY: Christies, Manson and Woods International, Inc. 1992.
“Niagara.” Pamphlet published by the Flagship Niagara, Erie, Pennsylvania. 1990.
Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. United States Brig Niagara Restoration. 1988.
Rosenberg, M. The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie: 1812 – 1813. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. 1997.
Seitz, R. and B. Pennsylvania’s Historic Places. Intercourse, PA: Good Books. 1989.
Vaillant, J. The Golden Spruce. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
Wilmerding, J. American Marine Painting, Second Edition. NY: Harry Abrams. 1987.
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