Americans remember the American Revolution as the war of independence, but we often forget there was a “second war of independence” as well. It is now known as the War of 1812. The war largely resulted from England’s continued treatment of the U.S. as if it was still part of the British Empire, most egregiously evidenced by the Royal Navy’s impressment, or forced recruitment, of American sailors. Added to various trade restrictions imposed on the U.S. during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, outrage at these offenses led the U.S. to declare war on Britain in June 1812. The war initially appeared to favor the British, the foremost naval power in the world, particularly in the Great Lakes region. By mid-1813 British forces controlled all of modern Michigan and were poised to lay claim to the enormous area known as the Northwest Territory. It was at this moment a fearless young naval officer stepped forward to save the country. He was a Rhode Islander who had seen combat at home and abroad. His name was Oliver Hazard Perry. This is the story of how he achieved a smashing victory against British forces at the Battle of Lake Erie.
From the time he was a young boy, Oliver Hazard Perry desired nothing more than to serve his country as a naval officer. He was born in South Kingstown, Rhode Island in August 1785 to a former sailor in the Continental Navy, and he spent his childhood in nearby Newport. There he enviously monitored the comings and goings of U.S. frigates, like the Constitution, and dreamed of the day he could stand aboard one. Determined to achieve his goal, Oliver dedicated himself to studying navigation, mastering constellations, and sailing small boats in Narragansett Bay. In 1799 his dream became reality when his father was commissioned captain of the USS General Greene and secured thirteen-year-old Oliver’s appointment as a midshipman, effective April 7, 1799. Their mission was to patrol the Caribbean, attacking and capturing French ships as part of the U.S.’s Quasi-War with France. In January 1800 he witnessed firsthand how bold action resulted in victory when his father took his ship directly under enemy guns at Jacmel, Haiti to destroy the town’s defenses. With the rest of the General Greene’s crew, he returned to Newport in May 1800, only to discover the ship would be decommissioned. To Oliver’s delight, however, he learned he would remain in the service, and soon after, he received the opportunity to serve his country overseas.
Throughout the first decade of the 1800s, Oliver H. Perry participated in operations vital to preserving American interests. In 1802 he sailed to the Mediterranean aboard the USS Adams to combat the North African Barbary States of Morocco, Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, which were plundering American merchant ships. The Adams was primarily responsible for blockading Tripoli Harbor, but Perry did see action in mid-1803 when he fired on Tripolitans in support of a landing party’s attack on twelve boats filled with grain, called feluccas. Despite his best efforts, the Tripolitans saved the boats and drove the American party back to their ships. In response to increasing hostilities, President Thomas Jefferson dispatched the largest American naval force to date to the Mediterranean. As part of the force, nineteen-year-old Oliver assumed command of the USS Nautilus in July 1805. With the Marines storming “the shores of Tripoli,” the Barbary state was ultimately compelled to cease all hostile action against the United States. In the aftermath of the expedition, Perry joined Commodore John Rogers’ eighteen-ship squadron to force a similar resolution to the standoff between America and Tunis.
With American commerce temporarily secure, Perry returned to the U.S. in late 1806 to find tensions brewing with Great Britain. Shortly after his promotion to lieutenant in 1807, HMS Leopard fired on USS Chesapeake while it was inside Chesapeake Bay. Adding insult to injury, British officers seized four alleged British deserters off of the Chesapeake, killing or wounding twenty-one Americans in the process. Infuriated at this affront to national honor, Oliver threw himself into constructing gunboats for the defense of American coastal waters. He commanded a division of such boats in New York before transferring to the schooner Revenge. He diligently trained his crew in naval gunnery and small arms warfare. He was more than willing to employ such tactics, as proven by his readiness to board HMS Goree off Cumberland Island, Georgia in July 1810 if it attempted to fire on him. Fortunately, the British captain backed down. By the time war erupted between the U.S. and Britain in June 1812, it was clear to friend and foe alike that Master Commandant Oliver Perry was fully committed to protecting his country’s rights as a sovereign nation.
Following the war’s outbreak, Oliver petitioned the Navy Department for an active-duty assignment, and within months, he was dispatched to the Great Lakes to curb British aggression. Control of the entire region was at stake, and the situation was dire. Perry would find British squadrons in control of Lake Erie, with new warships about to join them. The U.S., on the other hand, had no real naval resources in the area to combat them. Perry arrived in Erie, Pennsylvania in late March 1813 and immediately set to work constructing gunboats and brigs. He outfitted five commercial ships for battle. He also ensured he had superior firepower to that of the British by obtaining larger caliber guns, which would enable them to deliver a crushing broadside. As the work neared completion, however, Perry feared the British would be waiting to destroy the squadron as it exited Erie’s sandbar protected harbor. Indeed the British did set up a blockade in June, but to Oliver’s joy, the blockade was lifted on July 31st when the ships ran low on supplies. Realizing he had to act, he ordered the squadron ready to sail the next morning. On August 1st the gunboats sailed over the sandbar into the lake for the first time. The painstaking process to get the larger vessels over required long wooden beams to be inserted through sweep ports on each ship with the beams’ ends resting on huge boxes, called “camels” — an ingenious system developed by the Dutch. Water could then be pumped in or out of the camels to raise or lower the ship as necessary. After several failed attempts, Perry’s flagship, USS Lawrence, was stripped to a virtual shell and finally eased over the bar. All vessels were on the lake by mid-day August 4th.
At the same time Perry’s last ship entered the lake, British Commander Robert Barclay’s fleet appeared on the horizon. The British officer saw the Americans were not just preparing for action but obviously outnumbered him nine ships to six. Rather than engage, Barclay departed for his base at Amherstburg, Canada. Perry pursued him, but after reconnoitering the British anchorage, he decided to lure Barclay out into open water. Once this was done, Perry intended to form his ships in a line of battle, allowing him to exert maximum firepower while keeping the enemy from engaging individual ships and increasing the likelihood of defeat. To pressure the British into giving battle, Oliver stationed the squadron at the entrance to the Detroit River and then regularly sailed up the river towards Barclay, essentially daring the enemy to come out and fight. As August turned into September, British forces began running low on supplies and many of their Native American allies were deserting. Finally, on the night of September 9th, Barclay ventured out to meet Perry.
At 5:00 AM on September 10, 1813 the enemy was spotted off Rattlesnake Island, and Commander Perry ordered his squadron into a line of battle. He attempted to gain the island’s windward side but was denied this advantageous position due to a steady southwesterly breeze. Undaunted, the young officer cried out he would fight the British, even at a disadvantage. As if in answer to his declaration, the wind shifted direction and began blowing from the southeast, in favor of the Americans. The two fleets drew closer to one another until they were just over 300 yards apart. It was then that Barclay’s flagship Detroit opened fire on Perry’s Lawrence, and the American ship returned fire. The supporting British and American warships commenced firing as well. American gunners imparted some lethal blows against their British counterparts, killing or wounding several senior officers, including Barclay who was hit in the thigh. Nonetheless, despite the damage to British ships, it appeared the Royal Navy was gaining the upper hand. But the battle was not over yet.
After two hours of fighting, the Lawrence was all but a floating wreck with nearly all its guns destroyed. Despite the carnage, Perry remained calm and cool as he strode the decks urging his men to keep firing, even manning a cannon himself. He knew, however, his flagship could not last much longer — forcing him to choose between surrender and transferring to another ship. He chose the latter and boarded the USS Niagara. He directed Jesse Duncan Elliott, the ship’s commander, to assume command of the gunboats. Within moments, the boats sailed past the crippled Lawrence. Seeing HMS Little Belt fleeing, one gunboat took off in pursuit while the others fired on the remaining British ships. Simultaneously, Oliver ordered the Niagara to close with Detroit. While attempting to turn 180 degrees to meet the American ship, Detroit became interlocked with HMS Queen Charlotte. Unable to bring their guns to bear, they were helpless to stop the Niagara from sailing into the center of the British line and firing on them and their sister ship HMS Lady Prevost. Onboard Detroit, Royal Lieutenant George Inglis, who had replaced the injured Barclay, quickly saw the impending death blow and determined further resistance to be futile, firing a cannon from the ship’s unengaged side to signal surrender. The rest of the British squadron soon followed. In a startling turn of events and at the cost of only one American ship, the U.S. Navy had crushed the British presence on Lake Erie. Perry celebrated the totality of the victory with his famous dispatch — “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” In the weeks to come, word of the triumph spread across the country, and Oliver Hazard Perry became a national hero.
In the years following his victory, Captain Oliver Perry’s reputation continued to rise as he defended his country on land and sea. Following the capture of Barclay’s fleet, he assisted in General William Henry Harrison’s campaign to retake Detroit, and in October he fought beside Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, which ended the British and Indian threat to the Northwest Territory for good. A year later he was called on to command a squad of naval gunners charged with delaying the British advance on Baltimore. After halting the advance for four days, he and his crew entered the city to join their fellow defenders — though illness prevented Perry from participating in the subsequent Battle of Fort McHenry, inspiration for Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner.” When the war ended in 1815, Oliver assumed command of the USS Java and returned to the Mediterranean to forcefully compel Algiers’ dey (ruler) to comply with the terms of a newly negotiated treaty with the U.S. In recognition of his service, he received a coveted promotion to Commodore and was assigned to South America to combat pirates and end the countries’ commissioning of American privateers in their wars of independence against Spain. It was his final act of service. In late summer 1819, his star still rising, Oliver contracted a debilitating fever, and on August 23rd, his thirty-fourth birthday, the “Hero of Lake Erie” died where he was always most comfortable — onboard a U.S. Navy ship.
Oliver Hazard Perry’s life of national service was a testament to the patriotic zeal that filled Americans during the early years of the United States. Barely a teenager when he first joined the U.S. Navy, he fought to protect America’s honor and independence around the world, and his bravery in the face of danger resulted in growing respect for himself, the fledgling naval force, and his nation. That admiration exploded on the afternoon of September 10, 1813 when the intrepid young commander and his sailors took on and utterly defeated the mightiest sea power in the world. His victory gave the infant navy one of its first and greatest examples of heroism. Despite his untimely passing, Oliver Perry remains a shining example to all those who courageously serve.