War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

Oliver H. Perry, USN
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. US Naval History & Heritage Command

Early Life & Career

Born August 23, 1785 in South Kingstown, RI, Oliver Hazard Perry was the eldest of eight children born to Christopher and Sarah Perry. Among his younger siblings was Matthew Calbraith Perry who would later gain fame for opening Japan to the West. Raised in Rhode Island, Perry received his early education from his mother including how to read and write. A member of a seafaring family, his father had served aboard privateers during the American Revolution and was commissioned as a captain in the US Navy in 1799.

Given command of the frigate USS General Greene (30 guns), Christopher Perry soon obtained a midshipman's warrant for his eldest son.

The Quasi-War

Officially appointed a midshipman on April 7, 1799, the thirteen-year old Perry reported aboard his father's ship and saw extensive service during the Quasi-War with France. First sailing in June, the frigate escorted a convoy to Havana, Cuba where a large number of the crew contracted yellow fever. Returning north, Perry and General Greene then received orders to take station off Cap‑Français, San Domingo (present-day Haiti). From this position, it worked to protect and re-capture American merchant ships and later played a role in the Haitian Revolution. This included blockading the port of Jacmel and providing naval gunfire support for General Toussaint Louverture's forces ashore. 

Barbary Wars

With the end of hostilities in September 1800, the elder Perry prepared to retire.

Pushing ahead with his naval career, Oliver Hazard Perry saw action during the First Barbary War (1801-1805). Assigned to the frigate USS Adams (28), he traveled to the Mediterranean. An acting lieutenant in 1805, Perry commanded the schooner USS Nautilus (12) as part of a flotilla assigned to support of William Eaton and First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon's campaign ashore which culminated with the Battle of Derna.

USS Revenge

Returning to the United States at the end of the war, Perry was placed on leave for 1806 and 1807 before receiving an assignment to construct flotillas of gunboats along the New England coast. Returning to Rhode Island, he was soon bored by this duty. Perry's fortunes changes in April 1809 when he received command of the schooner USS Revenge (12). For the remainder of the year, Revenge cruised in the Atlantic as part of Commodore John Rodgers' squadron. Ordered south in 1810, Perry had Revenge refitted at the Washington Navy Yard. Departing, the ship was badly damaged in a storm off Charleston, SC that July.

Working to enforce the Embargo Act, Perry's health was negatively affected by the heat of southern waters. That fall, Revenge was ordered north to conduct harbor surveys of New London, CT, Newport, RI, and Gardiner's Bay, NY. On January 9, 1811, Revenge ran aground off Rhode Island. Unable to free the vessel, it was abandoned and Perry worked to rescue his crew before departing himself. A subsequent court-martial cleared him of any wrongdoing in Revenge's loss and placed blame for the ship's grounding on the pilot. Taking some leave, Perry married Elizabeth Champlin Mason on May 5.

Returning from his honeymoon, he remained unemployed for nearly a year.

The War of 1812 Begins

As relations with Great Britain began to deteriorate in May 1812, Perry began actively seeking a sea-going assignment. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 the following month, Perry received command of gunboat flotilla at Newport, RI. Over the next several months, Perry grew frustrated as his comrades aboard frigates such as USS Constitution (44) and USS United States (44) gained glory and fame. Though promoted to master commandant in October 1812, Perry wished to see active service and began relentlessly badgering the Navy Department for a sea-going assignment.

To Lake Erie

Unable to achieve his goal, he contacted his friend Commodore Isaac Chauncey who was commanding US naval forces on the Great Lakes.

Desperate for experienced officers and men, Chauncey secured Perry a transfer to the lakes in February 1813. Reaching Chauncey's headquarters at Sackets Harbor, NY, on March 3, Perry remained there for two weeks as his superior was expecting a British attack. When this failed to materialize, Chauncey directed him to take command of the small fleet being built on Lake Erie by Daniel Dobbins and noted New York shipbuilder Noah Brown.

Building a Fleet

Arriving at Erie, PA, Perry commenced a naval building race with his British counterpart Commander Robert Barclay. Working tirelessly through the summer, Perry, Dobbins, and Brown ultimately constructed a fleet that included the brigs USS Lawrence (20) and USS Niagara (20), as well as seven smaller vessels, USS Ariel (4), USS Caledonia (3), USS Scorpion (2), USS Somers (2), USS Porcupine (1), USS Tigress (1), and USS Trippe (1). Floating the two brigs over Presque Isle's sandbar with the aid of wooden camels on July 29, Perry commenced fitting out his fleet.

With the two brigs ready for sea, Perry obtained additional seamen from Chauncey including a group of around fifty men from Constitution which was undergoing a refit at Boston. Departing Presque Isle in early September, Perry met with General William Henry Harrison at Sandusky, OH before taking effective control of the lake. From this position, he was able to prevent supplies from reaching the British base at Amherstburg. Perry commanded the squadron from Lawrence which flew a blue battle flag emblazoned with Captain James Lawrence's immortal command, "Don't Give Up the Ship." Lieutenant Jesse Elliot, Perry's executive officer, commanded Niagara.

"We have met the enemy and they are ours"

On September 10, Perry's fleet engaged Barclay at the Battle of Lake Erie. In the course of the fighting, Lawrence was nearly overwhelmed by the British squadron and Elliot was late in entering the fray with Niagara. With Lawrence in a battered state, Perry boarded a small boat and transferred to Niagara. Coming aboard, he ordered Elliot to take the boat to hasten the arrival of several American gunboats. Charging forward, Perry used Niagara to turn the tide of the battle and succeeded in capturing Barclay's flagship, HMS Detroit (20), as well as the rest of the British squadron.

Writing to Harrison ashore, Perry reported "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Following the triumph, Perry ferried Harrison's Army of the Northwest to Detroit where it began its advance into Canada. This campaign culminated in the American victory at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. In the wake of the action, no conclusive explanation was given as to why Elliot delayed in entering the battle. Hailed as hero, Perry was promoted to captain and briefly returned to Rhode Island.

Postwar Controversies

In July 1814, Perry was given command of the new frigate USS Java (44) which was then under construction at Baltimore, MD. Overseeing this work, he was present in the city during the British attacks on North Point and Fort McHenry that September. Standing by his unfinished ship, Perry was initially fearful that he would have to burn it to prevent capture.

Following the British defeat, Perry endeavored to complete Java but the frigate would not be finished until after the war ended.

Sailing in 1815, Perry took part in the Second Barbary War and aided in bringing the pirates in that region to heel. While in the Mediterranean, Perry and Java's Marine officer, John Heath, had an argument that led to the former slapping the latter. Both were court-martialed and officially reprimanded. Returning to the United States in 1817, they fought duel which saw neither injured. This period also saw a renewal of the controversy over Elliot's behavior on Lake Erie. After an exchange of angry letters, Elliot challenged Perry to a duel. Declining, Perry instead filed charges against Elliot for conduct unbecoming an officer and failure to do his utmost in the face of the enemy.

Final Mission

Recognizing the potential scandal that would ensue if the court-martial moved forward, the Secretary of the Navy asked President James Monroe to address the issue. Not wishing to sully to the reputation of two nationally-known and politically-connected officers, Monroe diffused the situation by ordering Perry to conduct a key diplomatic mission to South America. Sailing aboard the frigate USS John Adams (30) in June 1819, Perry arrived off the Orinoco River a month later. Ascending the river aboard USS Nonsuch (14), he reached Angostura where he conducted meetings with Simon Bolivar. Concluding their business, Perry departed on August 11. While sailing down the river, he was stricken with yellow fever. During the voyage, Perry's condition rapidly worsened and he died off Port of Spain, Trinidad on August 23, 1819 having turned thirty-four that day. Following his death, Perry's body was transported back the United States and buried in Newport, RI.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry." ThoughtCo, Nov. 6, 2017, thoughtco.com/commodore-oliver-hazard-perry-2361132. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, November 6). War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/commodore-oliver-hazard-perry-2361132 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/commodore-oliver-hazard-perry-2361132 (accessed January 23, 2018).