Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry

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"We have met the enemy and they are ours."

Battle of Lake Erie hero Oliver Hazard Perry is characterized as being an all around patriot who saved the American cause during the War of 1812. While his mother had an impact on his spirit, Perry’s interest in sailing and fighting can be attributed to his father, Captain Christopher Raymond Perry who served within the Navy and gave Oliver his first sea commission. His naval career began under the eye of his father, but he eventually grew up and began his own missions. His biggest assignment would come when America declared war with Britain in 1812. The following year, Perry received command of the ships on Lake Erie and led them to victory, which provided the turning point that the US needed in order to win the war against Britain and assert the rights of its citizens. After this heroic victory, Perry was celebrated around the expanding country. His hometown of Newport, Rhode Island was proud of its local hero and has continued to keep his legacy alive.

At the young age of thirteen, Perry wrote to his father, then a captain with his own ship, asking to join the navy.  Christopher Raymond Perry replied that Perry should identify his reasons for wanting to enlist. Perry’s reasons deemed good enough, Christopher allowed his thirteen-year-old son to become a naval midshipman on his ship, the General Greene. The average age of a midshipman was seventeen. While at sea young Perry learned maritime navigation and also saw his father’s fierce “honor, courage, and patriotism.” During his father’s term as captain, a conflict arose, which resulted in Christopher being court martialed and suspended for three months. During this time President Jefferson was downsizing the Navy; as a result of this, all of the crew was discharged except young Perry.

Perry continued to serve in the Navy and completed various assignments in the subsequent years. In 1809, Perry received command of the schooner USS Revenge, which would sail in the Atlantic Ocean.  This mission was a major moment in Perry’s career because it was the first time that Perry would have command over a ship; however, matters took a turn for the worse when the ship hit a reef off the coast of Rhode Island and sunk.  Although the Court found that the loss of the Revenge was due to pilot error, Perry was distraught over the situation.  Perry decided to take a year’s leave.  During this time, he married the young Elizabeth Champlin Mason, in Newport in 1811.  They would go on to have four surviving children; unfortunately, one died during infancy.

Around this time, war was on the horizon for America. Growing conflicts with Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in Europe had consequences for America as well. Both Britain and Napoleon’s France attempted to deter trade with the United States. This act outraged Americans. For years Britain had been violating America’s maritime rights by disrupting trade relations and removing sailors from U.S. vessels and forcing them to join the Royal Navy. Americans were unhappy with the British not only on the seas, but also on land—and that displeasure extended north to Canada.  Since 1763, Britain controlled the territory of Canada. Canada was home to many Indian tribes who proved themselves to be allies with Britain. Previous Indian attacks on Americans led the U.S. to believe that the British government initiated these attacks. Tribes like the Shawnee and Oijbwe allied with the British during the war. 

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed a declaration of war with Britain. The very same day that Madison signed the declaration of war, twenty-six year old Oliver Hazard Perry was ordered for duty and gained command of the vessels in Newport. Perry was then assigned to the defense of Lake Erie in January 1813. Perry quickly made the necessary arrangements for the construction of a small fleet on Lake Erie. Then on September 10, 1813, the British navy attacked in what became known as the Battle of Lake Erie. Perry’s victory over the British navy turned the tide of the war and opened the door for American soldiers to reclaim Detroit and defeat the Native Americans fighting for the British. Perry resigned his command of Lake Erie in October 1813 and Master Commandant Jesse Elliott received the position.  In November of 1813, Perry finally returned home to Newport and received command there.  He was greeted as a hero and his victory was celebrated across the states; he would partake in various victory tours to the nation’s foremost cities.

Perry continued to participate in the war but his involvement was limited and no longer in the Great Lake regions. In July of 1814, he was granted command of the Java. This ship in a few months’ time would be used to defend Baltimore and Washington DC against the British. The War of 1812 did not end until February 17, 1815 with the ratification of the Peace of Ghent. Perry’s naval career continued for a few more years until his death. Perry received a mission to South America. He was to carefully dispel piratical privateers in Venezuela and Buenos Aires. He sailed with the John Adams and the Nonsuch during the spring of 1819. That summer Perry was successful in his mission but he didn’t leave unaffected. Many of the sailors contracted yellow fever from the warm climate of South America, Perry being one of them. He wasn’t able to fight off the illness and eventually fell victim to it. Oliver Hazard Perry died on August 23, 1819, at the age of 34. He was eventually interred in his hometown of Newport, RI at Island Cemetery.