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Perry served in the West Indies during the Quasi War of 1798-1800 against France, in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars of 1801-1815, and in the Caribbean fighting piracy and the slave trade, but is most noted for his heroic role in the War of 1812 during the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. During the war against Britain, Perry supervised the building of a fleet at Erie, Pennsylvania. He earned the title "Hero of Lake Erie" for leading American forces in a decisive naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, receiving a Congressional Gold Medal and the Thanks of Congress. His leadership materially aided the successful outcomes of all nine Lake Erie military campaign victories, and the victory was a turning point in the battle for the west in the war. He is remembered for the words on his battle flag, "Don't Give Up the Ship", which was a tribute to the dying command of his colleague Captain James Lawrence of USS Chesapeake. He is also known for his message to General William Henry Harrison which reads in part, "We have met the enemy and they are ours; ..."
Perry became embroiled in a long-standing and bitter controversy with the commander of USS Niagara, Captain Jesse Elliott, over their conduct in the Battle of Lake Erie, and both were the subject of official charges. In 1815, he successfully commanded Java in the Mediterranean during the Second Barbary War. So seminal was his career that he was lionized in the press (being the subject of scores of books and articles). He has been frequently memorialized, and many places, ships and persons have been named in his honor.
Childhood and early life
As a boy, Perry lived in Tower Hill, Rhode Island, sailing ships in anticipation of his future career as an officer in the United States Navy. He was the oldest of five boys born to Christopher and Sarah Perry. Perry came from a long line of accomplished naval men from both sides of his family. His mother taught Perry and his younger brothers to read and write and had them attend Trinity Episcopal Church regularly, where he was baptized by Reverend William Smith on April 1, 1794, at the age of nine. Reverend Theodore Dehon, rector of the church from 1797 to 1810, had a significant influence on the young Perry. He was educated in Newport, Rhode Island.
Early naval career
Through his father's influence, Perry was appointed a midshipman in the United States Navy, at the age of thirteen, on April 7, 1799. Perry sailed aboard USS General Greene, of which his father was commanding officer, on her maiden voyage in June 1799. The ship made its first stop in Cuba, charged with receiving American merchant ships and providing escort from Havana to the United States. Perry's service aboard General Greene continued during the Quasi-War with France. He first experienced combat on February 9, 1800, off the coast of the French colony of Haiti, which was in a state of rebellion.
Beginning in April 1809, he commanded the sloopUSS Revenge, engaging in patrol duties to enforce the Embargo Act, as well as a successful raid to regain an American ship held in Spanish territory in Florida. On January 9, 1811, Revengeran aground off Rhode Island and was lost. "Seeing fairly quickly that he could not save the vessel, [Perry] turned his attention to saving the crew, and after helping them down the ropes over the vessel's stern, he was the last to leave the vessel.":61 The subsequent court-martial exonerated Perry, placing blame on the ship's pilot.[A] In January 2011, a team of divers claimed to have discovered the remains of Revenge, nearly 200 years to the day after it sank. Cannons from Revenge were salvaged by the U.S. Navy in 2017.
Following the court-martial, Perry was given a leave of absence from the Navy. On May 5, 1811, he married Elizabeth Champlin Mason of Newport, Rhode Island, whom he had met at a dance in 1807. They enjoyed an extended honeymoon touring New England. The couple would eventually have five children, with one dying in infancy.
Perry knew battle was coming, and he "consciously followed Nelson's example in describing his battle plans to his captains.":218 Perry's instructions were:
Commanding officers are particularly enjoined to pay attention in preserving their stations in the Line, and in all cases to keep as near the Lawrence as possible. ... Engage your designated adversary, in close action, at half cable's length. [B]
On September 10, 1813, Perry's command fought a successful fleet action against a squadron of the Royal Navy in the Battle of Lake Erie. It was at the outset of this battle that Perry famously said, "If a victory is to be gained, I will gain it." Initially, the exchange of gunfire favored the British. Perry's flagship, USS Lawrence, was so severely disabled in the encounter that the British commander, Robert Heriot Barclay, thought that Perry would surrender it, and sent a small boat to request that the American vessel pull down its flag. Faithful to the words of his battle flag, "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP" (a paraphrase of the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, the ship's namesake and Perry's friend), Perry, with Lawrences chaplain and purser as the remaining able crew, personally fired the final salvo, and then had his men row him a half-mile (0.8 km) through heavy gunfire to transfer his command to USS Niagara. Once aboard, Perry dispatched Niagara commander, Captain Jesse Elliott, to bring the other schooners into closer action while he steered Niagara toward the damaged British ships. Like Nelson's Victory at Trafalgar, Niagara broke the opposing line. Perry's force pounded Barclay's ships until they could offer no effective resistance and surrendered. Although he had won the battle aboard Niagara, he received the British surrender on the deck of the recaptured Lawrence to allow the British to see the terrible price his men had paid. Perry's battle report to General William Henry Harrison was famously brief: "We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop."[C]
Perry's battle flag
This was the first time in history that an entire British naval squadron had surrendered, and every captured ship was successfully returned to Presque Isle.
Although the engagement was small compared to Napoleonic naval battles such as the Battle of Trafalgar, the victory had disproportionate strategic importance, opening Canada up to possible invasion, while simultaneously protecting the entire Ohio Valley. The loss of the British squadron directly led to the critical Battle of the Thames, the rout of British forces by Harrison's army, the deaths of Tecumseh and Roundhead, and the breakup of his Indian alliance. Along with the Battle of Plattsburgh, it was one of only two significant fleet victories of the war.
In fact, Perry was involved in nine battles that led to and followed the Battle of Lake Erie, and they all had a seminal impact. "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 campaign victories:
Capturing Fort George, Ontario in the Battle of Fort George; Destroying the British munitions at Olde Fort Erie (see Capture of Fort Erie); Rescuing five vessels from Black Rock; Building the Erie fleet; Getting the ships over the sandbar; Blocking British supplies for a month prior to battle; Planning the Thames invasion with General Harrison; Winning the Battle of Lake Erie; and Winning the Battle of Thames.
The Battle Flag
"Don't give up the ship", a phrase repeated by Captain James Lawrence during his dying days after being wounded by enemy fire aboard the Chesapeake on June 1, 1813, became the battle cry of Oliver Hazard Perry. Perry learned of Lawrence's demise upon arrival at Presque Isle and commanded that Lawrence would be honored with the name of a brig, which would simply be called Lawrence. A battle flag would also be needed, and the words of Perry's good friend Lawrence would be just the battle cry suited for the coming days. A seamstress named Margaret Foster Steuart, a resident of Erie Pennsylvania, was enlisted to make the battle flag. With the help of her two daughters, three nieces, and a cousin, she had the flag ready for Perry within just a few days. As of July 2009, Perry's flag, Steuart's work, and Lawrence's dying words can still be seen today, as the flag has been placed on display at Bancroft Hall.
Mural: Battle of Lake Erie, 10 September 1813. (1959) by Charles Robert Patterson and Howard B. French, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland. Niagara joins the battle. Detroit and Queen Charlotte at right.
While Nelson had Collingwood, Perry had Jesse Elliott, and was considerably less well served. Elliott, while serving with Isaac Chauncey at Lake Ontario, was tasked to augment Perry's squadron with 11 officers and 91 men, "and none were sent but the worst." Subsequently, detailed by Chauncey to command Niagara, Elliott stated "that if he could have foreseen that he himself should be sent to Lake Erie, his selections would have been different." Elliott then appropriated the "best of the worst" for Niagara; and Perry "in the interest of harmony" accepted the situation, though with growing ill-will.
In his initial post-action report, Perry had praised Captain Elliott's role in the American victory at Lake Erie; and as news of the battle spread, Perry and Elliott were both celebrated as national heroes. Soon after, however, several junior officers publicly criticized Elliott's performance during the battle, charging that Elliott allowed Lawrence to suffer the brunt of the British fire while holding Niagara back from the fight. William Vigneron Taylor, Perry's sailing master, in a letter to Taylor's wife, put it thus:
The Lawrence alone rec'd the fire of the whole British squadron 2 1/2 hours within pistol shot--we were not supported as we ought to have been. Captain Perry led the Lawrence into action & sustained the most destructive fire with the most gallant spirit perhaps that was ever witnessed under similar circumstances.
-- William Taylor, 15 September 1813
The meeting between Elliott and Perry on the deck of Niagara was terse. Elliott inquired how the day was going. Perry replied, "Badly." Elliott then volunteered to take Perry's small boat and rally the schooners, and Perry acquiesced.:49 As Perry turned Niagara into the battle, Elliott was not aboard. Elliott's rejoinder to history's criticism of inaction was that there had been a lack of effective signaling. Charges were filed, but not officially acted upon. Attempting to restore his honor, Elliott and his supporters began a 30-year campaign that would outlive both men and ultimately leave his reputation in tatters.
In Perry's report to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, written three days after the battle, he mentioned Elliott in what, at first, seem to be complimentary terms, but, when read carefully, betray his disdain for Elliott. Perry wrote, "In this action he evinced his characteristic bravery and judgement; and, since the close of the action, has given me the most able and essential assistance."
Obverse - bust of Perry facing right surrounded by Oliverus H. Perry Princeps Stagno Eriense. ~ Classam Totam Contudit.
Reverse depicts a sea battle scene with inscriptions:
Viam Invenit Virtus Aut Facit
Inter Class. Ameri.
Et Brit Die X. Sep.
(Valor finds or makes a way. Between the Fleets of America and Britain September 10, 1813.)
Elliott was also recognized with a Congressional Gold Medal and the Thanks of Congress for his actions in the battle. This recognition would prove to fan the flames of resentment on both sides of the Elliott-Perry controversy.
In recognition of his victory at Lake Erie, in 1813 Perry was elected as an honorary member of the New York Society of the Cincinnati.
Later commands and controversies
United States Navy engraved portrait of Commodore Perry
In May 1814, Perry took command of a squadron of seven gunboats based in Newport. He held this command for only two months as in July he was placed in command of USS Java, a 44-gun frigate which was under construction in Baltimore. While overseeing the outfitting of Java, Perry participated in the defenses of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., during the British invasion of the Chesapeake Bay. In a twist of irony, these land battles would be the last time the career naval officer saw combat. The Treaty of Ghent was signed before Java could be put to sea.
For Perry, the post-war years were marred by controversies. In 1815, he commanded Java in the Mediterranean during the Second Barbary War. While moored in Naples, Perry slapped the commander of the ship's Marines, Captain John Heath, whom Perry considered incompetent and insubordinate. The ensuing court-martial found both men guilty, but levied only mild reprimands. After the crew returned home, Heath challenged Perry to a pistol duel, which was fought on October 19, 1817, on the same field in Weehawken, New Jersey where Aaron Burr shot and killed Alexander Hamilton. Heath fired first and missed. Perry declined to return fire, satisfying the Marine's honor.
Perry's return from the Mediterranean also reignited the feud with Elliott. After an exchange of angry letters, Elliott challenged Perry to a duel, which Perry refused. (While it was normally considered cowardly to refuse a duel, Perry's stature as a hero was such that no one doubted his physical courage and few felt that Perry had wrongly offended Elliott's honor.) He instead, on August 8, 1818, filed formal court-martial charges against Elliott. Perry filed a total of six charges and twenty-one specifications including "conduct unbecoming an officer," and failure to "do his utmost to take or destroy the vessel of the enemy which it was his duty to encounter."
Wishing to avoid a scandal between two decorated naval heroes, Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson and PresidentJames Monroe suppressed the matter by offering Perry a diplomatic mission to South America in exchange for dropping his charges. This put an official end to the controversy, though it would continue to be debated for another quarter century.
Mission to Venezuela and death
In 1818 Perry purchased a large house on Washington Square in Newport which was built in 1750 for merchant Peter Buloid. The house remained in the Perry family until 1865 and now serves as the headquarters for Oliver Hazard Perry, a sail training ship.
Despite the crew's efforts to reach Trinidad for medical assistance, the commodore died on board USS Nonsuch on August 23, 1819, his 34th birthday, as the ship entered the Gulf of Paria and was nearing Port of Spain. He was buried in Port of Spain with great honors while the Nonsuchs crew acted as honor guard.
"Perry's Victory" Quarter
His remains were later taken back to the United States in 1826 and interred in Newport, Rhode Island. Originally interred in the Old Common Burial Ground, his body was eventually moved to Newport's Island Cemetery.
Perry's parents were Christopher Raymond Perry (1761–1818), who was also born in South Kingston, Rhode Island, and Sarah Wallace Alexander (1763–1830). Through his mother, Perry was a direct descendant of the uncle of Scottish nobleman and military leader William Wallace (d. 1305), whose life was the inspiration for the movie Braveheart.
Perry married Elizabeth Champlin Mason in 1811. They had five children, four of whom lived to maturity. They were:
Brigadier General Christopher Grant Champlin Perry, RIM (April 2, 1812 – April 5, 1854), commander of the Artillery Company of Newport from 1845-1854, m. Murial Frances Sergeant of Philadelphia (great-granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin); their daughter Margaret Mason Perry married the artist John LaFarge;
Oliver Hazard Perry II (February 23, 1813 – March 4, 1814), died in infancy;
Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry, Jr., USN (February 23, 1815 – August 20, 1878), m. 1) Elizabeth Ann Randolph (1816-1847) (Virginia Randolph family) and m. 2) Mary Ann Moseley;
First Lieutenant Christopher Raymond Perry, USA (June 29, 1816 – October 8, 1848), never married;
Elizabeth Mason Perry, m., as his 2nd wife, the Reverend Francis Vinton, rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Newport.
Commander John Rodgers was a great-grandnephew of Oliver Hazard Perry
Perry's son Christopher Grant Champlin Perry was a physician, and served as commander of the Artillery Company of Newport from April 1848 until his death in 1854. In May 1849 he was commissioned as a brigadier general in the Rhode Island Militia and given command of the 1st Brigade encompassing Newport and Bristol Counties.
Perry's son Oliver Hazard Perry, Jr. entered the Navy as a midshipman in 1829, rose to the rank of lieutenant and resigned in 1849. He served on the United States Exploring Expedition under Captain Charles Wilkes from 1839 to 1842. Although he is buried in the same cemetery as his parents, for unknown reasons, he is not buried in the same plot with his parents.
Perry's son Christopher Raymond Perry graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1842. He served during the Mexican War and fought at the Battle of Palo Alto on May 8, 1846, and at the Battle of Resaca-de-la-Palma on May 9, 1846. He died on active duty as a 1st lieutenant in 1848.
Although Perry is often referred to as "Commodore Perry", it should be kept in mind that, prior to the American Civil War, commodore was not a rank in the U.S. Navy but, rather, the title of an officer in command of a squadron of two or more ships. Perry first held the title of commodore when he took command of the Lake Erie squadron in 1813.
Midshipman, USS General Greene - April 1799 to May 1801
Acting Lieutenant, USS Adams - June 1802 to November 1803
Second Lieutenant, USS Constellation - May 1804 to July 1805
First Lieutenant, USS Nautilus - July 1805 to December 1805
Acting Lieutenant, USS Constitution - December 1805 to c. July 1806
Second Lieutenant, USS Essex - c. July 1806 to c. October 1806
Officer in Charge of Gunboat construction in Newport and Westerly, RI - October 1806 to April 1809
Commanding Officer, USS Revenge - April 1809 to January 1811
Commanding Officer, Gunboat Squadron, Newport, RI - c. 1811 to January 1813
Commanding Officer, Lake Erie Squadron - March 1813 to c. October 1813
Commanding Officer, Gunboat squadron, Newport, RI - May 1814 to July 1814
Commanding Officer, USS Java (under construction) - July 1814 to August 1815
Commanding Officer, USS Java (in commission) - August 1815 to c. May 1817
Senior Naval Officer, Newport, RI - c. May 1817 to May 1819
Commanding Officer, Venezuelan diplomatic mission - June 1819 to August 1819 (deceased)
Note - Time gaps between assignments were probably in a "waiting orders" status.
Many locations, both in Rhode Island and near Lake Erie, are named in his honor, including:
The village of Perryville in the town of South Kingstown, Rhode Island. The portion of U.S. Route 1 near Perryville is named the Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry Highway. Perry Street in Newport is also named after him.
Memorial plaque, Trinity Episcopal Church, Newport, Rhode Island, dedicated by Perry's widow on August 23, 1855, the 36th anniversary of his death.
Perry Monument, Public Square, Cleveland, Ohio, monument and statue by William Walcutt, dedicated on September 10, 1860, the 47th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie. Walcutt's marble statue was replaced with a bronze copy in 1929. The monument was relocated to Fort Huntington Park in 1991.
Walcutt's marble Perry statue is on long-term loan to the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.
USS Commodore Perry, an armed side-wheel ferry built in 1859 by Stack and Joyce, Williamsburg, New York and purchased by the Navy on October 2, 1861; and commissioned later in the month, Acting Master F. J. Thomas was in command
^His progression from being the subject of a court-martial for running aground to being a formidable commander who made a real difference has a striking parallel to the career of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
^A "cable" is 720 feet in the Royal Navy, 600 feet (183 m) in the U.S. Navy. "Half cable's length" would be less than 330 feet (100 m).
^The British order of battle was actually two ships, one brig, two schooners and one sloop.:260-261 "Perry's message was inaccurate." :Note 129, p. 97.
^There is a monument of him on the river near the PYC (Perrysburg Yacht Club). This town also is the home of Fort Meigs
^Copes, Jan M. (Fall 1994). "The Perry Family: A Newport Naval Dynasty of the Early Republic". Newport History: Bulletin of the Newport Historical Society. Newport, RI: Newport Historical Society. 66, Part 2 (227): 49-77.