Thursday, September 23, 2010

Oliver Hazard Perry, Fighting Sailor

"We have met the enemy and they are ours: two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop." So reported Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to General William Henry Harrison after defeating British forces on Lake Erie in September, 1813.
Six craft? It sounds like a bathtub battle, instead of the very important naval conflict that it was.
It took place during the War of 1812. a conflict that was a muddle to the school children of my time, and that probably has not even been heard of by today's students. The British wanted to accomplish two things. First, they wanted to prevent American forces from advancing deeply into Canada (if memory serves, we had already burned Hamilton, Ontario, and British forces had burned Washington, DC). Second, they wanted to block the United States from advancing into the West and taking over the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys.
Perry's little fleet, and Harrison's army, were dedicated toward opening the West and Canada for their side--and they won as far as the West was concerned. Americans did not, of course, extend their reach into Canada.
Harrison won an important land battle--Tippecanoe--and later became President of the United States. But who was this Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of the Battle of Lake Erie?
The young commodore--he was in his late 20s at the time of the battle--had been born in 1785 in South Kingston, Rhode Island. He died of yellow fever in Trinidad on August 23, 1819--his 34th birthday.
Perry had seen important naval action long before his encounter with the British on Lake Erie. As one of Commodore Edward Preble's "boys", he took part in the so-called First Barbary War--against North African pirates who had been plundering American shipping and enslaving American seamen. One of his fellow officers was James Lawrence, who died of wounds suffered when the ship he was commanding at the time, the USS Chesapeake, was roundly defeated by a British ship.
Lawrence's admonition to his crew had been, "Don't give up the ship." Perry had this slogan placed on his personal battle flag, and named his flagship the Lawrence. But when the battle was joined on the Lake, the Lawrence was hit hard and didn't last long. Grasping his battle flag, Perry had himself rowed half a mile to the brig Niagara, which became his new flagship--the moment is commemorated in a famous painting. The Niagara took a pounding similar to that which had destroyed the Lawrence; but it survived and compelled the surrender of the British flagship.
The battle was over. One day that had helped shape the destiny of two nations. One day that conveyed historical immortality on a young man destined not to become too much older.
One day that gave us a slogan that Pennsylvania, and the United States, and for that matter the world, seem to need now more than ever.
"Don't give up the ship."

No comments:

Post a Comment