Oliver Hazard Perry

Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry in naval uniform: jacket with epaulets
Naval portrait of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, 1917
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Quick Facts

Significance:
Naval leader
Place of Birth:
South Kingston, Rhode Island
Date of Birth:
August 23, 1785
Place of Death:
Port of Spain, Trinidad
Date of Death:
August 23, 1819

The commodore who led the Lake Erie fleet to victory during the War of 1812 had the sea in his blood. His father, Christopher Raymond Perry, was a Navy captain, and growing up in the seaside town of South Kingston, Rhode Island, Perry anticipated his future career from an early age. His opportunity arrived in 1799 when the frigate General Greene was commissioned and in search for crew. As the son of a prominent captain, Perry received a coveted midshipman appointment.   

For the next six years, Perry served on the renowned ships Constellation, Nautilus, and Constitution, but never saw any of the action that made them famous. This luck ran dry in April 1809 when Perry received his first command, the schooner Revenge. After an uneventful year patrolling northern waters, en route to Charleston, South Carolina the Revenge was caught in and damaged by storms, and Perry fell ill by the heat and humidity of a southern summer. Revenge set course back to Newport, Rhode Island, but ran aground and sunk near Watch Hill, a mere 40 miles from its destination. The still-ailing Perry seized the opportunity to take a leave of absence, marrying Elizabeth Champlin Mason on May 5, 1811 and enjoying a leisurely honeymoon.  

When war was declared on June 18, 1812, the honeymoon was literally over. Perry was recalled to active service, and seeking glory petitioned for a posting at sea. Although he was promoted to master commandant, he was assigned not to the high seas, but to command the flotilla then under construction on Lake Erie. Although somewhat of a disappointment, this turned out to be fortuitous, giving Perry at last his opportunity for victory. Perry famously commanded the successful American navy at the Battle of Lake Erie, and for the first time in history ordered the surrender of an entire British naval squadron.

Perry was promoted to captain, and offered command of the Java, a new frigate under construction in Baltimore. Waiting for its fittings, Perry participated in the defense of both Washington and Baltimore during the late summer British invasion of the Chesapeake Bay region, but ironically these land engagements would be Perry's swan song; peace was declared before the new captain could get his ship to sea.

After the war, Perry’s short temper embroiled him in several controversies, including a narrowly avoided duel with another Lake Erie hero, Captain Jesse Duncan Elliott. To placate and distract this impetuous young hero, Perry was promoted to the rank of commodore, and sent on a diplomatic mission to Venezuela. There, the heat and humidity which plagued Perry on his first voyage south returned, but this time paired fatally with yellow fever. Perry died on his ship of the disease on his way back to safe harbor in Trinidad. 

Tags: war of 1812, Navy, americans