Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Oliver Hazard Perry



The victory won by Perry on Lake Erie, September 10, 1813, has ever been one of great popular renown. It was won in the sight and knowledge of the American people; it was the first success the American navy ever won in squadron; the consequences were important; and the fact that the battle was won on the Canadian line, where the American army had met with reverses, was gratifying to the national vanity.

Perry's youth—he was barely eight-and-twenty—was a captivating element in his success, and as the victory was due in a great measure to his personal intrepidity, he was justly admired for it. He cannot be classed with those American commanders, like Paul Jones, Preble, Decatur, and Hull, who, either in meeting danger or escaping from it, seemed able to compass the impossible; but he was a man of good talents, of admirable coolness and courage, and prone to seek active duty and to do it.

Perry was born in Rhode Island in 1785. His father was a captain in the infant navy of the country, as it was reorganized at the time of the French aggressions. Captain Perry's first duty was to supervise the building of a vessel of war at Warren, Rhode Island, some distance from his home. He found it necessary to remove to Warren, and took with him Mrs. Perry, leaving the home-place in charge of Oliver, then a boy of thirteen. He was, even then, a boy of so much steadiness and integrity that he was found quite equal to this task. The fever for the sea, though, seems to have seized him about that time, and in 1799, his father having command of a small frigate, the General Greene, Oliver was given a midshipman's commission, and joined his father's ship. Captain Perry was an officer of spirit and enterprise, and Oliver saw some real, if not war-like, service in the General Greene.

His next cruise was in the Adams, frigate, which was sent out in 1802 to join Commodore Morris's squadron at Gibraltar. The orders of the squadron were to watch the ships of the Barbary powers, and to prevent as far as possible their aggressions upon American commerce. This was hard and thankless work, and most of the younger officers who made the Mediterranean cruise in 1802—3 considered themselves as peculiarly unfortunate, as they were generally ordered to return to the United States just at the time that the active hostilities began, in which their successors reaped so much glory. Perry was one of those who made the uneventful cruise of 1802. He enjoyed great advantages, though, in sailing on a ship of which Isaac Hull, afterward the celebrated commodore, was first lieutenant. Hull's admirable seamanship in navigating the narrow straits of Gibraltar in all weathers, and the blockading of Tripoli for eight months during an inclement season, upon a dangerous coast, without pilots and with insufficient charts, was a subject of general commendation from the officers of the squadron. Perry improved his opportunities so well that he was given an appointment as acting lieutenant the day he was seventeen years old. It is believed that this is the most rapid instance of promotion in the American navy.

Perry returned home in the Adams in the autumn of 1803. The next summer it was known that a determined attempt would be made by Preble's squadron to reduce the Barbary powers, and Perry was extremely anxious to be on the scene of action. He found himself ordered to the Constellation, in the squadron under Commodore Barron which was sent out to assist Preble; but the Constellation  and the President, forty-four guns, did not reach Tripoli until Preble had practically completed the work. Perry remained in the Constellation  several months; but as she was too large to be of much service on that coast, Perry thought himself fortunate to be ordered to the schooner Nautilus, of fourteen guns, as first lieutenant. This was his first duty in that responsible capacity, and he acquitted himself well, although only twenty years old. He had a beautiful and penetrating voice, and this, in addition to his other qualifications, made him a brilliant deck officer.

He took part in the operations off Derne, and was highly commended for his conduct. In the autumn of 1806 he returned home, and served at home stations until 1809, when he got his first command. This was a smart little schooner, the Revenge, of fourteen guns.

At that time the occurrences which led to the war of 181215 were taking place, and Perry soon had a chance to show his determination to maintain the dignity of the flag he flew. An American vessel had been run away with by the English captain who commanded her and who had hoisted British colors over her. Perry determined to take possession of her, although two small British cruisers lay near her. This he did, supported by three gunboats. The British cruisers, appreciating the justice of his conduct, did not interfere, although Perry had no means of knowing whether they would or not and took all the chances. As he was carrying the vessel off, he was met by a British sloop-of-war, and her captain sent a boat, with a request that Perry should come aboard. This Perry flatly refused, and, determined that his ship should not be caught unprepared as the Leopard  caught the Chesapeake  in 1807, he sent his men to quarters, and made every preparation to resist; but the British ship passed on, and no collision occurred. In January, 1811, Perry had the misfortune to lose the Revenge by shipwreck off Watch Hill, in Rhode Island; but the court of inquiry which investigated it acquitted him of blame, and praised his conduct at the time of the accident.

When war was declared with Great Britain, Perry was in command of a division of gunboats at Newport; but finding there was little chance of seeing active service in that duty, he asked to be sent to the lakes, where Commodore Chauncey was preparing to dispute the possession of those great inland seas with the British.

In the spring of 1813 Perry arrived at Lake Erie, and entered upon his duties. The small fleet to oppose the British had to be constructed in the wilderness, on the shores of the lake; and men and material had to be transported at great labor and cost from the seaboard.

Perry showed the utmost skill, energy, and vigilance in his arduous work, and built and equipped his little squadron in a manner most creditable to himself and his subordinates.

The land forces, operating together with the seamen and marines, got command of the Niagara River; but a little British squadron guarded the mouth of the river, at which there was a bar which it was thought unlikely the Americans could pass and so get into the lake itself. Perry, however, watched his chance, and on a Sunday afternoon in August, 1813, to his surprise, he found the British squadron had disappeared. It was said that the British commander, Barclay, had gone over to the Canadian side to attend a dinner, thinking the Americans could not possibly get over the bar before his return. But Perry and his officers and men went to work, and by the most arduous labor they got all the vessels into the lake before Captain Barclay returned. Once in the lake, the Americans were much stronger than the British, and Perry determined to go in search of the enemy. He had much sickness on his little squadron, and was ill himself, so that it was not until early in September that he was prepared to fight. Meanwhile the British, although having only six vessels to oppose to Perry's nine, undauntedly sought the conflict, and on the morning of the 10th of September, while Perry was in Put-in-Bay, he saw the little British squadron standing in the offing. Perry had two brigs, the Lawrence,—his own flagship, named for the brave Lawrence,—and the Niagara, each of which carried twenty guns; and he had five smaller vessels. Captain Barclay had the Detroit,—his flagship, of nineteen guns,—the Queen Charlotte, of seventeen guns, and four smaller vessels.

The wind was light and variable, so that the American vessels came out slowly; but the little British squadron waited with their topsails to the mast, until a quarter to twelve, when the first shot was fired by the Detroit. In a very little while the action became general, each American and British vessel bravely doing its best to get alongside its enemy. It was the effort of the gallant commanders of the American and British squadrons to fight flagship to flagship; and in doing this, Perry, in the Lawrence, drew ahead of his column, and concentrated upon his ship the fire from the Detroit and two other vessels. The British fought their batteries with unusual skill, and the result soon was that a dreadful slaughter took place on the Lawrence's decks, her guns were silenced, and she was so much cut up that she was totally unmanageable. But Perry, with indomitable courage, continued the fight. He himself, with the help of the purser and the chaplain, fired the last gun available on the Lawrence. Her consort, the Niagara, approached about this time, the wind sprang up, and Perry, seeing that the battle was passing ahead of him, determined to abandon his own unfortunate ship and make for the Niagara. He ordered a boat lowered, and, taking with him his brother, a little midshipman of thirteen years old, he was rapidly pulled to the Niagara. Once on board of her, he bore up, and soon got her into a position to rake both the Detroit and the Queen Charlotte with fearful effect. These two vessels, after an heroic defence, were compelled to strike, while the seven smaller American gunboats soon overpowered the four British ones. The Detroit, however, before striking had forced the Lawrence to haul down her colors; and the fight, as all the others during this war, was as creditable to British as to American valor.

The first news of the victory was in Perry's celebrated despatch: "We have met the enemy, and they are ours." The news from the Canadian border had not always been gratifying, and on that account the American people were the more delighted at this success. Perry was given a gold medal and promoted to be a post-captain; for although he had been called commodore by courtesy, such was not his real rank at the time.

Perry had no further opportunity of distinguishing himself before peace was declared, in January, 1815. He obtained afterward some of the best commands in the navy, and in March, 1819, he became a commodore in fact, by being given the command of a squadron in South America destined to protect American trade in those quarters. He hoisted his broad pennant on the John Adams, and sailed in June. He reached the mouth of the Orinoco River in August, and, although it was in the midst of the sickly season, he determined to go up the river to Angostura. He shifted his flag to the Nonesuch, schooner, and sent the frigate to Trinidad.

After reaching Angostura he remained twenty days. Yellow fever was raging, and Perry seems to have been singularly indifferent to this fact. Fever broke out on the schooner, and it was then determined to get back to the sea as soon as possible. As they dropped down the river with the powerful current two days after leaving Angostura, Perry got into his gig, and amused himself shooting wildfowl on the banks. He was exposed to the sun, and that night, after going aboard the schooner, which was anchored on the bar at the mouth of the river, the weather grew bad, with a heavy sea, which washed over the side and leaked down into Perry's cabin, drenching him. Next morning he was very ill.

From the first he felt that he should not recover, and, although calmly preparing for death, spoke often of his young wife and little children at home. He was very anxious to live until the schooner could reach Trinidad and he could, at least, die upon his ship. At last, on the 23rd of August, the Nonesuch reached Port Spain, Trinidad, where the John Adams was at anchor. A boat put off at once from the frigate carrying the first lieutenant and other officers, in response to the signal from the schooner. They found Perry in the agonies of death on the floor of the little cabin. He survived long enough to show satisfaction at seeing them, and asked feebly about the ship; but in a little while the anxious watchers on the frigate saw the flag on the Nonesuch slowly half-masted,—Perry was no more.

He was buried at Trinidad with full military honors. Some years afterward a ship of war was sent by the government to bring back his remains to his native country. He sleeps at Newport, Rhode Island, near the spot where he was born; and the reputation he left behind him is that of a gallant, capable, and devoted officer.