On the occasion of the 230th anniversary of his birth, a reprisal of my Exceptional Americans profile of Oliver Hazard Perry.
On September 10, 1813, a 28-year-old captain who lost his last ship off the coast of Rhode Island, prepared his fleet to take on the mightiest navy in the world in the Battle of Lake Erie near Put-in-Bay, Ohio, with a small fleet, and little cooperation from a fellow captain. His victory that day would secure Lake Erie, enable the recapture of Fort Detroit, and clear the path for General William Henry Harrison's victory in the Battle of Moraviantown in Canada over Tecumseh and the Indian confederation allied with the British.
In fact, it was Perry's heads-up message to Harrison that enshrined the captain's name in American history: "We have met the enemy and they are ours."
Born into a naval family on August 23, 1785, in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, his father U.S. Navy Captain Christopher Raymond Perry groomed Oliver and his four brothers to be naval officers, including younger brother Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, a hero of the War of 1812 and the Mexican War, as well as the Father of the Steam Navy. Their father had been a privateer in the Revolutionary War. The British twice captured him. He met his future wife, Sarah Wallace Alexander, while imprisoned in Ireland. Chicks dig swashbucklers.
His father had retired at 40 after the Quasi War in which the French Republic sought repayment of money the Kingdom of France had loaned the colonies during the Revolutionary War. The Americans argued that the money was owed the royals, not Napoleon. The Convention of 1800 ended the war, which allowed America to remain neutral in the French wars with Britain. This meant the Americans could ship grain to France. This also rid the French of supporting a weak ally. The French figured, rightly so at the time, that going to war with the Americans on their side was like going deer hunting with an accordion player.
Oliver Perry's life at sea began at 12 as a cabin boy aboard his father's ship. As a young officer, he participated in the Battle of Derne in which Marine Lieutenant Presley Neville O'Bannon led a battalion of mercenaries to the shores of Tripoli, a victory in America's first overseas battle. But on January 9, 1811, Perry's ship, the Revenge, ran aground off Rhode Island and was lost. While a court-martial exonerated him -- it was a pilot's error and Perry heroically saved the crew and was the last to abandon the ship -- he took a leave of absence and married Elizabeth Champlin Mason. They had five children. One son died in infancy, one son graduated from West Point and died in the Mexican War, and two sons became U.S. Naval officers, despite the rather large shoes their father left the to fill. Their daughter married a minister.
When the War of 1812 began, Perry returned to active duty. The British controlled the Great Lakes, which allowed them to wreak havoc on the Americans. The Navy placed Perry in charge of building a fleet on Presque Island. He had a rival, Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott. U.S. Senator Jeremiah B. Howell of Rhode Island had succeeded in securing Perry's appointment as commandant over Elliot
On September 10, 1813, as they squared off against Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, Perry commanded the USS Lawrence and Elliott the USS Niagara. Perry's boat bore the brunt of the battle, as Elliott was slow to engage the enemy. Four-fifths of the Lawrence's crew died, were wounded or were sick. Perry surrendered that ship and commandeered the Niagara, dispatching Elliott to bring the schooners closer. The British thought the battle was over. They thought wrong.
"I made sail, and directed the other vessels to follow, for the purpose of closing with the enemy. Every brace and bowline being soon shot away, she became unmanageable, notwithstanding the great exertions of the sailing master. In this situation, she sustained the action upwards of two hours within canister distance, until every gun was rendered useless, and the greater part of her crew either killed or wounded. Finding she could no longer annoy the enemy, I left her in charge of lieutenant Yarnall, who, I was convinced, from the bravery already displayed by him, would do what would comport with the honor of the flag. At half past two, the wind springing up, captain Elliot was enabled to bring his vessel, the Niagara, gallantly into close action. I immediately went on board of her, when he anticipated my wish by volunteering to bring the schooner which had been kept astern by the lightness of the wind, into close action. It was with unspeakable pain that I saw, soon after I got on board the Niagara, the flag of the Lawrence come down, although I was perfectly sensible that she had been defended to the last, and that to have continued to make a show of resistance would have been a wanton sacrifice of the remains of her brave crew. But the enemy was not able to take possession of her, and circumstances soon permitted her flag again to be hoisted," Perry wrote in his official report.
The victory was stunning and captured the young nation's imagination. They had beaten the British in a naval battle. America now controlled the Great Lakes. On the back of an old envelope, Perry wrote a message to General Harrison, knowing the Army was headed for battle in Canada. His message read:
Dear General:In his report, Perry praised the valor Elliott despite the latter's lack of support in the battle. Both men received congressional gold medals, but acrimony rose over the years. Elliott was jealous. Perry received the main acclaim, as 10 counties are named in his honor as well as Hazard, the seat of Perry County, Kentucky. Elliott became an unpopular figure because of his feud with Perry and was suspended from the Navy for four years in 1838. However, John Tyler who succeeded Harrison as president appointed Elliot as commander of the Navy Shipyard in Philadelphia, where he died on December 10, 1845 at 63.
We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.
Yours with great respect and esteem,
As for Perry, he too remained in the Navy after the war but died in Trinidad of yellow fever on August 23, 1819, his 34th birthday.
His personal flag read: "Don't Give Up The Ship," in white lettering on a field of blue. On September 10, 1813, he did exactly that -- and it won the day for him and the United States.
My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.
Volume 2's publication will be on September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.