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Oliver Hazard Perry crossing from the Lawrence to the Niagara.The following is a biography of Oliver Hazard Perry. Click on a manuscript number to be linked to a relevant letter in the collection.

Oliver Hazard Perry was born on August 23, 1785 in South Kingstown, Rhode Island. His father, Christopher Raymond Perry, was a naval officer; his mother, Sarah Perry, was accounted by those who knew her to be a fierce and courageous woman. Oliver Perry was the eldest of eight children, one of whom, Matthew Calbraith Perry, was well-known in his own right as the first American naval commodore to make contact with Japan.

Oliver Hazard Perry began his naval service in 1799 as a midshipman on the USS General Greene, then under the command of his father. [18000313] He participated in the blockade of Jacmel in which the General Greene assisted Touissant L'Ouverture, the general of Haiti, in the suppression of his rival, Andre Rigaud.

Soon after the success of this mission, however, the end of the Quasi-War and the election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency of the United States led to a scaling-back of the U. S. Navy. Christopher Perry was among the majority of naval captains who were thanked for their service and dismissed in this resizing; Oliver Perry was one of the midshipmen who were kept in the ranks.

Perturbed by the "Barbary pirates," antagonistic groups from Tunis, Algiers, Morocco, and Tripoli who attacked merchant vessels, the United States entered the First Barbary War in 1801. Oliver Perry sailed to join the struggle in 1802, serving on the Adams under Captain Hugh Campbell in a squadron commanded by Commodore Richard Morris. The Adams lay in harbor at Gibraltar to blockade a Tripolitan cruiser. During this time, Perry became an acting lieutenant. He returned home to Newport with Commodore Morris in 1803.

Perry was again ordered to the Mediterranean in 1804, this time aboard the USS Constellation, again under the command of Captain Hugh Campbell. [18040423] In September 1805, Oliver wrote to his mother to inform her of the progress of the United States' naval action, the overthrow of the former Dey of Algiers, and the offer he had received from the Captain to serve as lieutenant on the US Schooner Nautilus. [18050916] After serving as an officer on the Nautilus for a brief period, Perry transferred to the USS Constitution once again and, in 1806, returned to the United States aboard the Essex under Commodore John Rodgers. Aboard the Essex he made the acquaintance of Daniel Murray, who was to become his good friend. [18131120a]

In 1807 Perry experienced important events in both his personal and professional lives. He began his acquaintance with his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth Champlin Mason, received his official commission as a lieutenant, [18070420] and was directed by Secretary of the Navy Robert Smith to oversee the construction of gunboats. [18070706]

On June 22, 1807, the British ship Leopard attacked the USS Chesapeake, allegedly in search of British deserters. This incident sparked the discontent between the two nations into serious conflict and paved the way for the War of 1812. As Perry superintended the building of gunboats from 1807 into 1808, tension built between the two countries.

In April 1809, Perry received command of USS Revenge, and in 1810 he sailed the Revenge south, off of Charleston, South Carolina, to skirmish with British and French privateers. [18100623][18100804][18100804a] In that year, he recovered the American ship Diana, which had been captured by a British-born captain, and was much commended for his action. [18101114]

In December of 1810, Perry was ordered north by Commodore John Rodgers to participate in a wider effort to chart the coasts of Long Island, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. [18101222] In Perry's efforts to accomplish this mission, the USS Revenge ran aground in January 1811 and was lost. As the commander of the vessel, Perry was suspended from active duty and court-martialed. [18110117] However, he was soon exonerated, the blame for the wreck being laid upon the ship's pilot. Later that year, Perry asked for a leave of absence and returned to Newport, marrying Elizabeth Champlin Mason that May after a four-year engagement. Perry remained away from active duty for almost a year.

However, in June 1812, war was declared against Britain, and Perry applied for active duty. At that time ranked a master commandant, he was directed to coordinate a flotilla of gunboats stationed near Newport. The war escalated quickly. [18120906][18xxxxxx_2][18130528] In 1813, Perry was given command of the naval forces on Lake Erie and given orders to complete the construction of two heavy brigs with which to meet the enemy. His forces were small and he suffered from a lack of resources due to the difficulty of transporting materials to the area. He corresponded with Colonel Rees Hill of the U.S. Army to request reinforcements, but Hill was unable to comply immediately due to the difficulty of transporting his men to Perry's fleet. [18130810]

Lake Erie was a crucial area to be maintained if the American forces wished to continue resisting the enemy in that sector. Knowing this, the British commander, R. H. Barclay, blockaded Presque Isle in July 1813. However, due to a lack of supplies, the blockade was difficult to maintain. Master Commandant Perry moved his forces across the sandbar at Presque Isle and forced the British commander to retreat until the British ship under construction, the Detroit, was completed. On September 10, 1813, in a battle that set five American schooners, three brigs and one sloop against two British brigs, two ships, one schooner, and one sloop, Oliver Hazard Perry and his men defeated and captured the British forces on Lake Erie. The British Commander Barclay was taken into American custody. [18130912][18131025][18131120a] That victory changed the tide of the War of 1812 and is known to this day as one of the deciding battles of the war. Master Commandant Perry's short declaration of victory, "We have met the enemy and they are ours," has gained fame as an expression of military triumph.

The Battle of Lake Erie also sparked a lifelong conflict between Perry and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Elliot. Elliot was in command of the 20-gun US Brig Niagara; Perry was in command of the 20-gun US Brig Lawrence. Though the Lawrence was being decimated by British forces, Elliot did not bring the Niagara into action to come to the Lawrence's aid. This may have been a result of lack of maneuverability but was held by supporters of Perry to be an unpardonable lack of character. When the Lawrence was damaged too badly to continue to fight, Perry rowed to the Niagara and led the battle from that ship himself, taking with him a flag reading, "Don't give up the ship," in memoriam of naval officer James Lawrence, who had died earlier that year in an engagement with the British. Later, Perry blamed Elliot for not bringing the Niagara into action.

Supporters of Elliot and supporters of Perry argued which man was in the right for years. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie's biography of Perry, written after Perry's death and commissioned by his family, was in part directed at minimizing criticism of Perry from the Elliot camp. [18390812]

Following the engagement at Lake Erie, Commander Perry was a national hero and received commendations from many friends and admirers. [18131120a][18140114] In 1814, Perry spent time at home with his children, writing to his brother Matthew Calbraith Perry that his son Grant was beginning to talk. [18140126] In March of 1814, Oliver Perry received his commission as a captain as well as a Congressional gold medal [18140314]; in April of 1814, he received notification that he was entitled to $5000 for his service in addition to his share of the prize money from the sale of the British ships captured on Lake Erie. [18140418]

In July of 1814, as the war continued, Captain Perry was offered command of the USS Java and directed to superintend the equipment of his new vessel. [18140706] As the Java was being outfitted, Captain Perry assisted in the defenses of Baltimore. Despite Perry's efforts to prepare the USS Java for battle, the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, was signed before the Java was ready to sail.

The Java was sent to engage in the Second Barbary War in 1815, sailing to the Mediterranean. [18161211] It was during this voyage that Captain Perry became involved in a conflict with a Marine officer, John Heath, and slapped him, violating the naval code of conduct. This led to both a court-martial and a duel between the two men. The duel was fought in October of 1817; after Heath shot and missed, Perry refused to fire. The court-martial did not punish either man severely, and after the duel resulted in no casualties the issue seemed to settle. However, Lieutenant Elliot still maintained his claims against Captain Perry.

In 1819, Oliver Perry was summoned to Washington to discuss something confidential and of great importance with Secretary of the Navy Smith Thompson. [18190329] He was ordered to take a squadron of ships south on a diplomatic mission to Angostura (now called Ciudad Bolivar) in Venezuela. [18190528a][18190604] He arrived in Venezuela and completed his mission, but fell prey to yellow fever in August and passed away on his thirty-fourth birthday, August 23, 1819. [18190826][18190828]

After Oliver's death, his brother Matthew Calbraith Perry and other members of his family gathered correspondence and anecdotes from people who had served alongside Oliver for the purpose of constructing a comprehensive biography. [18191120][18390812] The biography was completed in 1840 by Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, Oliver's brother-in-law.

Oliver Hazard Perry was honored widely in the century following his death. To learn more about our nation's commemoration of the commodore, please click through to Perry Remembered.

Please note that this is a digital collection only; the Dartmouth College Library does not have the original documents, which remain in a private collection.

Last Updated: 5/7/13