Back in the day when I was a kid…crap that sounded so old manish…an Ohio kid couldn’t make it through the seventh grade without knowing who Oliver Hazard Perry was.
Ohio History was a 7th grade required course, Mr. Longman was my teacher, and I looked forward to that hour every day of the week.
Mr. Longman was one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in my life, and he made history real. And he made Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie very, very real.
Commodore Perry wasn’t an Ohioan, but that didn’t matter. He was the “Hero of Lake Erie” in the War of 1812, and Ohio claimed him. Perry was born in Rhode Island in 1785 on August 23.
Perry had heroism in his blood. He was a direct descendant of William Wallace – you know, the Braveheart dude – and he was the younger brother of Commodore Matthew Perry who opened Japan to the West by force, and he was only 27 years old when he won the decisive battle of Lake Erie.
Piloting the flagship, USS Lawrence, named for his friend James Lawrence of “don’t give UP the ship” fame, Perry kicked some limey butt on the bay.
Mr. Longman made that battle come to life for us even though some of us didn’t care or pretended not to. He told of how Perry’s ship was so badly damaged that the British actually sent a boat over to demand the Americans pull down their flag and surrender the ship, and that Perry’s response was to fire a salvo, flip him the bird, and have his men row his ship to the USS Niagra where he took command and finished the business at hand.
Perry’s defeat of the British was the first time in history that an entire British squadron had ever surrendered! And even though it was a small battle as far as naval battles go, it was important because it protected the entire Ohio Valley and opened Canada for invasion. The Battle of Lake Erie was one of the few real victories of the War of 1812, a war we were actually losing when the British decided it just wasn’t worth it any longer.
Of course times being what they were when I was in the 7th grade, Mr. Longman left the scandal out of the story.
And there was scandal!
Perry and Elliot, the commander of the USS Niagra ended UP in a battle of wills and wits that out-lived them. Many of Elliot’s men implied that Elliot stayed away from the battle and waited until he thought Perry was dead before he jumped in the fray. Although both men were considered heroes immediatley after the battle, Elliot was eventually branded as a bad officer, and the shit hit the fan once again.
Once the War of 1812 ended, and after Perry came back from the Second Barbary War in the Mediterranean, his feud with Elliot reheated. Letters were exchanged, comments were made, everyone got all pissy, and Elliot challenged Perry to a duel. Perry, much smarter that Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, hell to the no declined. So, Elliot and his cadre of supporters started a campaign that lasted 30 years, stretching long after each man had died, which left Elliot’s reputation in shreds. No, Willie Longman didn’t tell us that. Willie had too much else to cover.
Perry died at the age of 34 from yellow fever after being bitten by misquitoes aboard his ship the USS Nonsuch while on Venezuela’s Orinoco River. South American health care being what it is was, he died before his ship made it to the Port of Spain in Trinidad where the doctors waited. And we thought Hugo Chavez was the only bad thing in Venezuela!!
So, Ohioan or not, celebrate Commodore Perry today, and every time you see Perry St., Perry County, or a town named Perry, think of him, because there’s a pretty good chance it was named for the Hero of Lake Erie!