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Friday, April 22, 2016

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry: The Hero of Lake Erie

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, often simply referred to as Commodore Perry is a name that sounds familiar to many, but who few know anything about. First off, he is not to be confused with his younger brother Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Oliver Perry was a distinguished U.S. naval man whose career extends back to 1797 when at the tender age of 12, he sailed with his father, USN Captain Christopher Raymond Perry, to the West Indies. By early 1799 he was made a midshipman in the Navy on his father's ship the USS General Greene, and saw combat the very next year during the slave rebellion in Haiti, then a French colony. He would continue to serve in the Barbary Wars and in the Caribbean against pirates, but is best known for his actions during the War of 1812 when he earned the nickname "The Hero of Lake Erie."

Lot 3120: Historic Early 19th Century Tailcoat, Waistcoat, War Trousers, Hat, Dirk, and Eagle Head-Pommel Sword with Documentation Attributed to Hero of Lake Erie Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry
The British, as is well-known, had the world's most powerful navy at the turn of the 18th century, a position it would hold until World War II. At the beginning of that conflict, the Brits were using that naval muscle to control most of the Great Lakes, in addition to many of the connecting rivers and advantageous cities along the coasts. The Americans, with their tiny, yet frantically growing navy, was in no position to stop them. Their only hope was to either capture British ships, bring in ships from other parts of the country, or purchase already built ships and convert them into warships. No one could expect to build ships in the presence of the British Navy, could they?

It would take a miracle for a rag-tag fleet to go against the British Navy with any notion of success. Unfortunately, the problems were more widespread than a lack of able vessels. The British controlled the Great Lakes with the exception of Lake Huron, men were scarce and inexperienced, shipbuilders were absent, essentials such as rope and rigging were nonexistent, a single cannon was available, the chain of command was frustrating at best, and British and Native American enemies could attack whenever they saw fit. The scenario would be nearly comical were the consequences not so great. It was this scenario that Oliver Hazard Perry was placed in command, headquartered at the recently established naval base at Presque Isle Bay by Erie, Pennsylvania.

Oliver Hazard Perry, 1818
Perry took the helm in March of 1813, but thankfully two short months earlier William Jones had replaced Paul Hamilton as the Secretary of the Navy. Simultaneously serving as the Secretary of the Treasury, Jones had recognized the bleak situation at Presque Bay and was beginning to make the necessary changes. He ordered two corvette ships built and brought in the necessary shipwrights to oversee the task. However, even these ships were being completed under less than ideal conditions with wooden pegs being used in construction instead of scarce nails, and hulls were much thinner than standard construction warships. Haste was a necessity and it came at the price of quality ships. Cannons were en route all the way from Chesapeake Bay and not a moment too soon, as the British soon thereafter raided the foundry from whence they came.

The assignment to Lake Erie was not a dream assignment for Perry. He undoubtedly hoped for an assignment on the vast and mighty oceans to face the best the British had to offer. Instead he was shipped inland to serve as master commandant under the timid Commodore Isaac Chauncey, who was based in Sackett's Harbor, New York on Lake Ontario. With his commanding officer over 200 miles away and with no canals yet built around the daunting Niagra Falls, Perry was relatively independent. Such autonomy was an acceptable consolation for the young officer, or likely would have been until he saw the conditions of Presque Isle. His half-finished ships were there, as was the aforementioned single cannon, but the carpenters and guards he had requested had fled in fear of the British and Native American threat, or so he believed. The town of Presque Isle had deserted as well, so he was unable to recruit local workers. Taking control of Lake Erie from the British was a prerequisite for other American goals in the War of 1812, but the situation would be enough to dishearten even the stoutest optimist.

The first act for the 27-year old Perry was to set up defenses for the Isle, and send for men and supplies. Unfortunately, Commodore Chauncey has a reputation far from that of a battle-hardened sailor. Known more as mild-mannered and cautious, Chauncey often gave responses to Perry's requests that he was too busy defending Ontario, if he responded at all. As if giving no assistance to Perry was infuriating enough, Chauncey also commandeered approximately 150 of Perry's personally trained and loyal sailors, that had accompanied him from his previous command in Rhode Island. Also poaching men from Perry was a fellow Master Commandant Jesse Duncan Elliot, a "fat, sloppy, Mary-land born navy officer," who would serve as Perry's Moriarty for  the entirety of his short career. Perry had been given command on Lake Erie, a position Elliot felt entitled to not only because of a recent victory, but because Lake Erie was the venue of a prior great success. Watching the position go to Perry embittered Elliot tremendously against him. The lack of response from Perry's superiors and the undermining of his requested manpower must have been endlessly exasperating for the young man, yet he persisted. He begged, borrowed, prodded and pleaded, before eventually traveling to Pittsburgh to visit with a naval agent under the pretense of receiving supplies such as rope, canvas, and cannons. In a stroke of luck, Perry found the 50 shipbuilders and carpenters that were to be in Presque upon his arrival, but on the way back, the Navy shipped their tools on a different route that tripled their transit time. Bad luck seemed to vex him at every turn, but as every good sailor knows, winds can quickly change. After all, he had also convinced a leader of the Pennsylvania militia to assign him 500 men to guard his burgeoning shipyard.

Perry's need was dire, so when Chauncey requested his help to attack the British-held Ft. George on the Niagra River, he obliged, no doubt hoping that the Commodore would look more favorably on his situation. The United States won the battle with Perry personally leading a charge of the marines, earning the praise of Chauncey. While he could spare no new men for Perry, he did allow Perry to utilize the spoils of the battle, namely five former merchant vessels with seven cannons between them. Perry, along with 250 men and a team of oxen, were forced to lug the ships into Lake Erie against the current of the Niagra River. It took six days of exhausting, backbreaking work pulling into the wind with three British ships nipping at their heels, but the ships were hauled into the relative safety of Presque Isle Bay before the British ships could stop them. Perry noted his as "one of the hardest tasks I have ever faced," and he owed part of it to fate. At one point, a fog surrounded the ships when British crafts coming to intercept the incoming ships were only a half mile way, the natural shroud hid the newly captured fleet and the British sailed harmlessly past. By July of 1813, five short months after Perry arrived, he had his fleet. Noah Brown, the shipbuilder sent by the Navy, along with 200 men, had finished the 100-foot schooners Niagra and Lawrence, each with twenty guns, along with three other gunboats and a pilot boat. All this in a time without power tools and during the harsh winter months makes this an incredible feat. After adding cannons to the five re-purposed merchant ships, Perry now outgunned the British fleet, but lacked the 740-750 men to operate his vessels.

It was two short months prior, on June 1, 1813, that Perry's dear friend Captain James Lawrence was killed in battle when his ship the USS Chesapeake was captured by the HMS Shannon. It was his death that inspired Perry to name his flagship the USS Lawrence, and to commission a flag emblazoned with the late captain's dying words, "Don't give up the ship."

He had the motivation, he had the guns, he had the opportunities, but Perry did not have the men no matter how many impassioned letters he sent to Chauncey. Even with General William Henry Harrison imploring Perry to fight, he could only humbly reply that he would had he the men. Quotes of frequent letters from Perry to Chauncey show Perry's desperation to fight and win over the outgunned and outnumbered British fleet.

Jul 20: ‘The enemy’s fleet of six sail are now off the bar of this harbor. What a golden opportunity should we have men.’

July 23: "For God's sake and yours and mine, send me men and officers...send me officers and men and honour is within our grasp.’"

He even offered to let Chauncey take command so the Commodore might claim the victory as his own. The letters had some effect, but not as powerfully as Perry might have hoped. Several days later 70 men arrived on a ship commanded by his cousin. Comprised mostly of African-Americans and militia members, hardly any had any maritime experience. By the end of the month another 60 arrived, but many were too sick to fight. The men had come from Black Rock, home to his rival Elliot, who had been skimming the best men from the troop detachments and sending the rest on to Perry, if he sent any at all. Even the Pennsylvania militiamen who had come to guard the harbor now refused to do so, meaning Perry couldn't fight and he couldn't protect his ships while he waited. It was in this helplessness that Perry experienced a bit of luck.

The British fleet that had been taunting Perry just outside the sandbar of the Presque Isle, and simultaneously serving as a blockade, had vanished. It was July 31 when Perry was roused from slumber, received the word, and flew on deck to verify the news for himself. Only upon seeing it with his own eyes did Perry remember someone mentioning that his British counterpart, Captain Barclay, had been invited to a dinner in his honor at Port Dover, Canada. Normally, Barclay never would have given up the advantage of his blockade, but all of Perry's ships were safely behind a large sand bar that guarded Presque Isle. Barclay figured that it would be impossible for Perry to lift his 500-ton ships over the bar and into the main body of the lake. He is even quoted at his dinner as saying, "...the Yankee brigs [will be] hard and fast on the bar when I return, in which predicament it will be but a small job to destroy them." Barclay was familiar with those waters, knew the height of the bar, and assumed that Perry would never be able to raise his boats, or the water, high enough to permit escape.

What Barclay did not count on were devices called "camels." These were large, 90-foot long, rectangular pontoons that could be fastened to a ship. Much like ballast tanks on a submarine, when they are filled they descend, and when pumped empty they float, taking the ship they are attached to with it. Perry quickly positioned his fleet at the mouth of the harbor, but began work on getting his two massive brigs into the lake. It was only a difference of a few feet, the sand bar was shallowest at four and a half feet and deepest at six, but the mighty brigs needed nine.  The camels would need to lift the ships five feet at a minimum.

They frantically got to work, first attempting to lift the Lawrence with no success. Perry ordered the cannons and supplies off of the ship, but to no avail. Men in boats and on shore struggled greatly to pull the ship free, but the ship had only risen three feet. The next day, more camels were used and even the Pennsylvania militiamen came to assist, but again the Lawrence remained stuck. It would be the next morning that the flagship of the Erie fleet would finally lurch free of the mud and sand and into the Great Lake. Guns and supplies were hurriedly returned to the flagship.

The men were exhausted from the past three days' effort, but they knew Barclay could return at any moment to destroy their poorly positioned fleet. The Niagra had to be freed as well or the Americans would be outgunned. With the bad luck that could only belong to Perry, the sails of Barclay's fleet were seen on the horizon! The Lawrence had virtually no crew on it, the Niagra was lodged in the bar about to be fitted with camels, and the rest of the fleet was no match for the mighty ship. All Barclay had to do was begin their attack and the Americans were doomed. However, in the string of unbelievable miracles that also followed Perry, a wind rose in the West and turned the bow of the Lawrence and the Niagra toward Barclay's fleet, leading him to believe the Americans were attacking. To further this naval feint, Perry ordered his ships the Ariel (1/5 the size of the Lawrence) and a schooner known as the Scorpion to fire long range shots at the British, and formed the rest of the ships into a battle line, while the signal drummer aboard the Lawrence was ordered to beat the cadence to bring the men to their quarters. To the British, it certainly would have appeared and sounded as if the Americans had been lying in wait for their return. Barclay, knowing that he too was short on men, and expecting another superior warship, wisely retreated. How an experienced seaman like Barclay did not see the Niagra still stuck in the sandbar is unknown.

Imagine Perry's surprise when he suddenly received 130 sailors from Chauncey, some of them even were even experienced sailors! He was elated enough to ignore the fact that the men were under the command of rival Elliot, that the inexperienced men were "wretched," and that Elliot was taking all the best men for himself aboard the Niagra. Soon Perry would have his fight! He sailed his newly freed fleet of nine ships to Sandusky and received further manpower from Major General William Henry Harrison's Army of the Northwest before finally anchoring at Put-in-Bay, Ohio. Barclay's fleet was essentially blockaded, but he was largely OK with this as his new warship HMS Detroit still needed to be fit with cannons, sails, and rigging. The delay worked in the favor of Perry as well, whose men were racked with illness apparently brought by the new recruits.

However, the blockaded British were quickly running out of supplies, for both themselves and their 14,000 native American allies. After receiving several dozen reinforcements, Barclay's hand was forced and he sailed out into Lake Erie in search of the American fleet. Just the night before, September 9, Perry called together his officers to ensure that the tactics for the battle was well-known to all, a strategy he adopted from Admiral Horatio Nelson. It is often said that the British had superior long range guns than the American fleet, however in sheer numbers, that is not a historical fact. In terms of sheer poundage for long-guns, the British had a total broadside weight of 196 pounds compared to the American 264 pounds. However, the experienced British gunmen and the thin hulls of the American ships meant that Perry's ships would be at a distinct disadvantage in a long range fight. It was when the short range cannonades came into play that the American fleet could truly do some damage. The short range poundage of the British was a total broadside weight of 459 pounds, compared to the Americans' 936 pounds, 600 of which was in their two new ships. Perry's plan was easy to guess: get in close and let the large guns of his brigs do their deadly work. He assigned each ship its own British vessel to attack and went to bed with his ships prepped for battle.

Perry was awoken the next day to pounding on his door. Barclay's fleet had been spotted! At 0700 the fleet was ordered to hoist anchor and sail into open water, but the winds would not cooperate. Two boats were ordered to tow the Lawrence out while final preparations were made: cannon balls and canisters were prepared, wetted sand was scattered on deck to help absorb blood, while swords and guns were stationed around each of the nine ships. What breeze that did exist favored the British, but Perry was determined to fight. By 1000 the breeze now favored the Americans, though his five formerly merchant ships were a good two miles behind him. At 1100, with the British close, Perry fed his men, served a double ration of grog (a rum-based drink), raised his battle flag, and continued toward the British fleet.

The first shots were fired by Barclay at 1145 and the experienced gunners of the British fleet soon showed their prowess. The Americans, unable to close the distance with the lackluster wind, were at their mercy. The Brits picked away at the Americans for nearly an hour before the Lawrence closed the distance by 1220 and the fighting could truly begin. It started as a slugfest as the Lawrence engaged 3 British ships, but before long it did not look good for the American ship. It was soaking up enormous amounts of damage and the rapidity with which it was built soon began to play a factor. The walls were thin and the wood was green, giving little resistance to the British shot that was penetrating the hull, tearing men apart and throwing shrapnel inwards.

As the Lawrence was being torn to shreds, it was frantically throwing up every sail she had in order to close the distance so her cannonades could be brought to bare. Several desperate shots fell short of the British fleet.  Meanwhile, the Niagra, piloted by Elliot, was adhering strictly to her battle plan, engaging her designated British ship, the Queen Charlotte, with his long-range 12 pound guns. Out ranged by the Niagra, it wouldn't take long for the Charlotte to break away from the Niagra and to join the Detroit's assault on the Lawrence.

Those two ships wreaked havoc on the Lawrence for over two hours, killing dozens of American sailors. While the superior American guns aboard the flagship devastated the Detroit, the Kentucky rifleman acquired from Harrison perched in the rigging rained down terrible and accurate fire on the men aboard Barclay's vessels. Men died all around Perry while he miraculously remained unharmed and directing fire. Men who remained alive asked, "Where is the Niagra?!"  It was a question that Perry had thought to himself more than once, and that historians debate to this day. Elliot had held back the Niagra leaving it virtually untouched. Was he adhering to Perry's strict battle plan? Was he so inexperienced he could not take initiative to assist the clearly endangered ship? Or was he sacrificing the Lawrence and all her hands to settle a personal score?

The men aboard the doomed ship fought their losing battle valiantly. After three hours Sailing Master William Taylor reported that, "22 men and officers lay dead on decks and 66 wounded, every gun dismounted, carriages knocked to pieces, every strand of rigging cut off, mast and spars shot and tottering overhead in just an unimaginable wreck." Surgeons worked frantically in the belly of the ship helping men the best they could. Dr. (some sources say Surgeon's Mate) Usher Parsons wrote in his diary, "Cut off 6 legs in the cockpit, which were nearly divided by cannon balls.” Men begged to die, and others complained aloud, "Why does she (the Niagra) hang back so, out of the battle?" A midshipman had just had a tourniquet placed on a badly damaged arm when a cannonball punched through his chest. Out of  approximately 103 able bodied men, only 18 remained. By 1430 hours, Perry himself fired the final shot from the wreck that was formerly the Lawrence. After that gun was destroyed, defeat loomed large for the flagship. The British thought so too, and ceased firing to allow the ship to strike its colors.  Perry had other ideas.

He was likely filled with rage and staring at the Niagra when the brig came near the Lawrence, but did not sail between it and the British fleet. The smaller Caledonia instead made the gesture, with Elliot later ordering it out of the way so he could pass behind to fight - a futile effort that reeks of Elliot's guilty conscience. Perry placed two lieutenants and his Sailing Master in charge of the ship with full authority to do whatever it takes to save the dying and wounded. He then lowered his battle flag, but not the colors of surrender, and headed to a miraculously undamaged gig. Even with a deck littered with corpses and drenched in blood, his men cried out when they saw the flag lowered, vocalizing their opposition to what they thought was surrender. Barclay too must have breathed a sigh of relief when he saw the battle flag lowered, but the relief was to be short lived. Soon he saw Perry, flag wrapped around his shoulders, with a small number of crew men headed in the direction of the Niagra.

Had the hesitant Niagra turned and ran, the British would easily have won the battle, but with Perry showing no desire to cease the fight, Barclay had to stop him from reaching that ship. The British opened up every cannon not smashed by the Lawrence and her support ships. Shot, canister, and ball whistled past Perry's boat and splashed menacingly around her. It must have seemed like an eon to the men in that boat, but finally they reached the Niagra. Two things had finally given out: the accuracy of the British long-guns, and Perry's bad luck. Exhausted and certainly covered in gunpowder and gore, Perry climbed aboard the ship and was greeted by Elliot saying, "How is the day going?"

Perry showed great restraint in not killing the man, after watching his men slaughtered and his flagship splintered. He instead likely snarled the order to bring up the gunboats, and Elliot, all to happy to remove himself from Perry's presence, readily obliged the command that could have easily been performed by a junior officer. Elliot was likely surprised to even see Perry alive after the pounding taken by the Lawrence. The command given by Perry was more about conveying a message to Elliot: "Your ship now belongs to me." Elliot vanished for the rest of the battle by pretending to be ill in bed.

The British certainly expected Perry to surrender aboard the functional ship, but instead soon saw the gunboats moving into position around the Niagra, now headed directly at their fleet. Nearly all of the British first line of command had been injured or killed in the fighting, including Barclay, who having received two injuries, was finally taken down below on the Detroit after a long range shot from one of the American schooners sent shrapnel into his back. When the lesser-experienced 2LT George Inglis, who had assumed command from Barclay, saw the Niagra inbound nearly perpendicular to their line, he thought it best to present his broadside to the incoming ship. However, the remaining rigging did not cooperate and instead sent the Detroit into a collision with the Queen Charlotte where the remaining rigging bound the ships together. They were sitting ducks as the Niagra's bow crossed their own, and spewed death from each broadside into the hulls of the British ships from less than 100-yards. The 32-pounders loaded with ball and grapeshot mercilessly punched ragged holes in ship and man alike, as the Niagra slowed down to increase its time spent in optimum range. Kentucky sharpshooters again riddled British sailors with musketfire. After passing through the British line, Niagra turned its attention to the other ships, her broadsides still blazing and pouring hellfire from her gunports. The cannon fire was so devestating that the crew aboard the HMS Lady Prevost deserted her deck, leaving only commanding officer Lt. Edward Buchan to face the American ship.

"Wounded and driven temporarily insane, Buchan leaned over the rail, screaming. Seeing that, Perry ordered his gunners to avoid Lady Prevost."

Running low on ammunition, Perry decided to go for the knockout blow. Intending to board the Queen Charlotte, he decided to take advantage of its entanglement with the Detroit, which could not fire at the Niagra without first hitting the Charlotte that lay between them. Instead of boarding, he poured shots into the sides of the Charlotte, which had the added benefit of passing through that ship and carrying their destruction into the gravely wounded Detroit.  The Queen Charlotte soon lowered her flag in surrender, and the Detroit, already impaired by the Lawrence, was all but adrift after the subsequent punishment from Niagra.

Greatly outgunned, other ships surrendered in turn or fled. Those that ran, were soon captured by the American schooners. The battle had taken just shy of four hours, but in roughly fifteen minutes Perry had claimed victory out of almost certain defeat at the hands of the greatest navy on the planet. In a famously brief message to General Harrison, Perry wrote the following on the back of a torn envelope:

"We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner, & one sloop. Yours, with very great respect and esteem O.H. Perry."

The battle was intense and hard fought on each side. The condition of each participant's ships was met with horror by those who saw them the next morning, but Perry became a national hero. Without their fleet on the Great Lakes, the British presence in Michigan was able to be pushed out by Harrison's army into Canada. Songs were written of Perry, towns named after him, a memorial eventually raised, and Perry even received his own quarter in 2013.

The items offered in the lot by Rock Island Auction Company are the tailcoat, waistcoat, trousers, bicorn hat, dirk, and sword attributed to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. They are accompanied by documentation stating that they were procured from direct descendants of the Perry family, who possessed them until 1989. Our official description states that at that time they were "sold to Revolutionary War documents collector Stuart Goldman who immediately sold and delivered the items to Charles Sanderson who has retained the items since March 3, 1989. They were stored for many years in the Newport Public Library." As with all items, we encourage collectors to do their own research and come to their own conclusions, but this incredible set of  artifacts has a history tied to one of the most important names in American naval history and arguably the top hero of the War of 1812.

- Written by Joel R. Kolander



  1. As a High Power Rifle competitor at Camp Perry, Ohio, I read this with great interest! Thank you!

  2. Amazing piece of history. Thank you for providing such a detailed account. The Navy has a class of guided missile frigates called "Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates."