Born into an accomplished naval family in South Kingston, Rhode Island on August 23, 1785, Oliver Hazard Perry’s life would be dominated by maritime pursuits. Perry’s father, Christopher Raymond Perry, served as a privateer during the American Revolution and as a captain in the U.S. Navy during the Quasi War with France. Matthew Perry, his brother, played a crucial role in sailing to Japan and opening it to trade with the West. Perry, himself, spent his youth sailing with his father and became a midshipman at the early age of 13.
Perry continued his naval career, serving in many of the main wars of the early nineteenth century. He first saw combat off the coast of Haiti during the height of the Haitian Revolution. He subsequently participated in the Quasi War, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812, in which he earned renown for his naval victories in the Great Lakes region.
On September 10, 1813, Perry solidified his reputation as a brilliant naval commander and American hero at the Battle of Lake Erie, also known as the Battle of Put-in-Bay. In the early morning hours of the 10th, Perry caught sight of a squadron of British Royal Navy vessels off of Lake Erie’s Rattlesnake Island. The commodore brazenly ordered his men to set sail and engage the British immediately. Edged on by a favorable wind, Perry, stationed on the flagship Lawrence, attacked the British line head on. The British ship Detroit crippled the flagship, forcing Perry to transfer his men to the Niagara. Before leaving, Perry made sure to bring his battle flag emblazoned with the words: “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” the famous last words of fellow captain and friend James Lawrence. Despite losing his flagship, Perry managed to disable and scatter most of the Royal vessels. He received the British back onboard the tattered Lawrence to discuss terms of surrender; a deliberate move to force the British to confront the damage they had caused. After the battle, Perry dispatched a letter to William Henry Harrison, saying, “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”
For securing one of the most important triumphs of the war, Perry became known as the “Hero of Lake Erie.” The victory at Lake Erie confirmed U.S. control of the lake and possession of Fort Malden, and led directly to the U.S. victory at the Battle of Thames, which established U.S. sovereignty over the Ohio and Michigan territories. Perry’s accomplishments did not go unrecognized: he was promoted to the rank of Captain and bestowed with a Congressional Gold Medal and the Thanks of Congress.
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