- Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy
Oliver Hazard Perry ranks among the best known War of 1812 naval heroes. He won the battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813 and coined the oft-repeated "We have met the enemy and they are ours." He also sailed into battle flying a burgee emblazoned with "Don't Give Up The Ship," the words uttered by his friend Captain James Lawrence just before his death in an earlier naval action.
Since 1813, historians and other writers have produced numerous books and articles about Perry. Here, David C. Skaggs aims to present "a serious biographical study" (p. xiv) which, he asserts, is missing from the historiography. Skaggs is an acknowledged Perry-expert, having written articles about him, as well as co-editing one book and co-authoring another dealing with the Lake Erie battle. His Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early Navy (2002) is part of the Library of Naval Biography series published by Naval Institute Press just as the Perry book is.
Skaggs follows Perry's life from the cradle to an early grave, concentrating on the main events in his career: the eight months he spent on Lake Erie; his bitter post-battle controversy with Jesse Elliott; and the problems caused when he slapped a marine officer in 1816. The endnotes have a fairly good balance between primary and secondary sources. Much wider use was made of the Perry papers at [End Page 568] the Clements Library at the University of Michigan than the extensive naval and military documents held by the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
For the general public and some scholars, this will be a pleasing read since it mixes praise and criticism and includes "inside" information about Perry's life and struggles. The author slips in some allegations that want examination, however. For example, Skaggs concludes that "Perry clearly accomplished his mission" (p. 215) on Lake Erie, and backs up this claim with a 2005 quote from Civil War historian Craig Symonds: "the Battle of Lake Erie was a Lilliputian Trafalgar fought on fresh water, with consequences every bit as profound for America's future as Trafalgar was for Britain's survival. Perry's victory secured the northwestern frontier for the United States" (pp. 215-16). Comparing the context and effects of Perry's battle to Trafalgar is hyperbolic enough, but the fact is that Perry left Lake Erie in October 1813 (giving up the ship, so to speak) before the job was done. In June 1814 President James Madison's government sent Captain Arthur Sinclair, USN, to complete the larger mission of winning control of the upper lakes. The British defeated the combined attack at Mackinac, however, captured two of Sinclair's vessels and established a naval post in Georgian Bay. They had gone through Lake Michigan earlier in the summer to seize Prairie du Chien on the headwaters of the Mississippi River in modern Wisconsin which they held until news of peace arrived in 1815. The British were already building new warships for Lake Erie by that time.
Perry emerges here as a temperamental, but generally devoted officer with limited command and control skills, as clearly shown in the battle chapter. Nevertheless, Skaggs emphasizes his "honor, courage and patriotism" (p. 217) and rightfully speculates about Perry's promising career, cut short by Yellow Fever in 1819. There is little doubt that historians will continue to debate Perry's importance at length, especially as we approach the bicentennial of his victory on Lake Erie.