Perry, Oliver Hazard

Oliver Hazard Perry, American naval officer, known as the hero of Lake Erie (b at South Kingston, Rhode Island, 23 Aug 1785; d at sea near Trinidad and Tabago, 23 Aug 1819). Oliver Perry was born into the naval and military tradition. His family tree abounded with sailors and soldiers, and he could trace his lineage back to the Scottish rebel William Wallace. Young, aggressive and lucky, Perry distinguished himself during the War of 1812.

Perry’s Early Career

By his 14th birthday Perry was serving aboard ship. He served on his father’s vessel during the Quasi War with France, saw combat in 1800 off the coast of Haiti, and served in the First Barbary War onboard the USS Adams before taking command of the USS Nautilus during the capture of Derna. By 1812, he had built and commanded a squadron of gunboats for the Great Lakes, but knew that he would have to fight to get a better and more senior command. He got his wish, and was made commodore for the squadron on Lake Erie. He was told to set sail and bring his forces past the British defences at Fort Erie and into the lake itself. He was also given the authority to build two more vessels for his fleet. Perry’s luck with the first, and foresight with the latter, would clinch his victory against the British.

The War of 1812

The war on the Great Lakes was critical. Whoever commanded the lakes would be able to bring naval firepower and logistical support to the armies on either side of the waterways. Perry’s command distinguished itself in a series of naval engagements during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, where he was recorded to remark “if victory is to be gained, I will gain it.” His smaller fleet faced the British force under the command of Captain Robert H. Barclay. Also a career sailor, Barclay knew his position was tenuous and tried to make up for it. He pushed his superiors for land and naval support to keep Lake Erie free from American control. Barclay knew Perry had greater ship building facilities in Erie, Pennsylvania, but his requests to have them destroyed by British land forces were denied.

During the battle, Barclay miscalculated the Americans in his theatre of operations and provided Perry a golden opportunity to strike for victory. Perry’s ship, the USS Lawrence, had sustained such heavy damage that Barclay believed Perry would see reason and surrender his vessel for the sake of the crew. Barclay sent a vessel over, requesting Perry take down the flag. Instead, Perry fired his ship’s guns one last time before evacuating through a hail of British gunfire to continue the fight on the USS Niagara. He brought with him his battle flag, with the motto “DON’T GIVE UP THE SHIP.” From the Niagara, Perry pressed the fight to Barclay, forced the British to surrender the fleet, and secured a critical victory for the US in the war. Canada was now open to a sustained land assault with American naval supremacy on Lake Erie, and could not protect the Ohio territory. The surrender of the British fleet and total American victory on Lake Erie set the stage for another critical American success in the war, the Battle of the Thames under future US president William Henry Harrison, where the British were severely routed, and the First Nations leader Tecumseh was killed.

Heroic or Lucky?

Perry ended the war a hero, though many feel his bravado was helped inordinately by healthy dollops of luck, for if it were not for Barclay’s miscalculation the Battle of Lake Erie might well have swung into British hands and not become synonymous with the crushing American victory it became and is famous for. Nonetheless, Perry continued a life of naval adventure and success in South America and the Caribbean, on expeditions through Venezuela and devising strategies to combat piracy in Caribbean waters, before being stricken with yellow fever. He died on his 34th birthday. American reverence for Perry has led to many ships being commissioned with his name.

Author: Jason Ridler

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