Captain Oliver H. Perry

Oliver H. Perry was born August 23, 1785 in South Kingstown, Rhode Island and died on August 23, 1819 in Trinidad, South America. He was a American navy officer during the War of 1812

Oliver H Perry
Perry, Oliver Hazard
August 23, 1785
South Kingstown, Rhode Island
August 23, 1819
Trinidad, South America

Perry was the son of a sea captain. The eldest of 5 sons and 3 daughters born to Christopher Raymond and Sarah Alexander Perry, the first son was named after his paternal grandmother's father, Oliver Hazard, and also for his uncle, Oliver Hazard Perry, who had recently been lost at sea.

At age 13, Perry decided on a naval career. In the days before the naval academy, a young officer aspirant was required to obtain a midshipman's warrant from the Secretary of the Navy, and such an appointment was rendered much easier if the candidate possessed influence. During the early months of 1799, the frigate USS General Greene was in the process of fitting out for service against France following the "X,Y,Z affair," and her captain, Christopher Perry, recommended his son for one of the coveted midshipman appointments.

Perry was warranted a midshipman in the U.S. Navy on April 7, 1799. Over the next 6 years, he participated in the Quasi-War with France and the Tripolitan War against the Barbary pirates. During that period Perry served on such famous ships as the USS Adams, USS Constellation, USS Nautilus, USS Essex, and USS Constitution, but he was not involved in any of the memorable engagements of those little known wars.

By his early twenties, Perry had been promoted to lieutenant. He served with the American fleet during the Tripolitan War in the Mediterranean Sea from 1802-03. He then returned to the United States to build and command gunboats at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson. After an extended leave in 1806-07, he superintended construction of a flotilla of small gunboats in Rhode Island and Connecticut, a duty he considered tedious, until April of 1809. He received his first seagoing command, the 14-gun schooner USS Revenge.

In July of 1812, Perry was given command of a small defense fleet based in Newport, Rhode Island. His great fame came at the Battle at Lake Erie in 1813, where the American ships under Perry's command defeated British forces, a turning point in the War of 1812. Perry's flagship, the USS Lawrence, was incapacitated, but he went back and got the smaller USS Niagara, transferred the flag that read "Don't Give Up The Ship," (honoring the last words of Capt. James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake) then went back and beat the British ships under the command of Capt. Robert Heriot Barclay.

Perry was the first in history to defeat an entire British squadron and successfully bring back every ship to his base as a prize of war. Perry, at the age of 28, was hailed by the public as a national hero for his victory on Lake Erie. After the battle, his message to Brig. Gen. William Henry Harrison, waiting to advance into Canada, became famous: "We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner, one sloop."
After the War of 1812, Perry was promoted to captain and fought again in the Mediterranean, from 1816-17. In 1819, Perry was sent on a diplomatic mission to Venezuela, where he contracted a fatal case of malaria. He died of the yellow fever aboard ship off Trinidad.

For Perry, the post war years were marred by controversy. The USS Java cruised to the Mediterranean in 1815 to help quell continuing problems with the Barbary pirates. While anchored in Naples, an unseemly incident induced Perry to slap the Java's Marine officer, John Heath. He and Heath were both court-martialed and found guilty, but they received only mild reprimands. After the Java returned to home waters, Heath challenged Perry to a duel. The duel was fought on October 19, 1817 on the same field where Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Heath fired first from 4 paces and missed; honor was satisfied when Perry refused to pull the trigger.

The Secretary of the Navy was dismayed by Perry's charges. President James Monroe, desiring to defuse the quarrel and unwilling to expose the Navy or the country to what he envisioned would be a deleterious encounter for all concerned, opted to suppress the whole matter. Thus ended the final opportunity to unearth the circumstances surrounding the "Perry-Elliott" controversy.

To placate and distract Perry, Monroe selected him to preside over an important diplomatic mission to South America. He sailed on board the American frigate USS John Adams in June, 1819, arriving off the mouth of the Orinoco River on July 15. From there, he transferred his flag to the USS Nonsuch. The Nonsuch would carry him up the Orinoco River to Angostura, the capital of Venezuela, where yellow fever was said to be a problem.

Perry arrived at Angostura on July 27. He maintained quarters ashore during the next 2 1/2 weeks, and while he managed to maintain his own health, 20 crewmen attracted yellow fever, 5 of whom died. With his mission successfully completed, Perry rejoined the Nonsuch, confident that he had escaped the fever and anxious for a quick passage back to the fresh breezes at Port of Spain, Trinidad.

On the evening of Sunday, August 15, the USS Nonsuch catted its anchor and rapidly floated downstream on the Orinoco River. Two days later, Perry woke abruptly at 4:00 A.M. with chills and a fever. Always susceptible to illness, his condition rapidly deteriorated. The crew of the Nonsuch frantically pushed themselves and their ship in an effort to reach Port of Spain, but their efforts fell short by only a few miles. At 3:00 P.M. on Monday, August 23, on his 34th birthday, he died from yellow fever as the ship was nearing Port of Spain.. 

He was 34 years old. After being buried in Port of Spain, his remains were later taken back to the United States and interred in Newport, Rhode Island. After resting briefly in the Old Common Burial Ground, his body was finally moved to Newport's Island Cemetery, where his brother Matthew C. Perry is also interred.

Site Map | Copyright © 2012,