Builders of our Country Vol. II - G. Southworth
A sailor himself, Christopher Perry destined his son, Oliver, for the sea. The boy was born in South Kingston, Rhode Island, was sent to school in Newport, and lived the life of all boys until he was nearly fourteen.
At this time his father was given command of the United States ship General Greene, bound for Cuba. What better chance for Oliver to become a sailor? The General Greene put out to sea in the spring of 1799, with Oliver Hazard Perry acting as her midshipman.
It was on this West Indian cruise that the lad first learned practical seamanship, satisfying even his father by his readiness. Thanks to Christopher Perry's training and his own aptness, Oliver, when he left his father's service, was fitted for the seaman's life that lay before him.
Now came years when England and France were at war with each other. England needed all the sailors she could get. She even went so far as to stop American ships on the high seas to search them for Englishmen sailing under the American flag. "Once an Englishman, always an Englishman," she said. " If we find native born Englishmen on your vessels, we shall treat them as deserters to be returned to the English navy."
Once aboard an American vessel, the British officers commanded the crew to be drawn up for inspection. Then began the selecting of sailors, who, the intruders insisted, should be serving England's king. It mattered little that many of these sailors said they were American born. They were able-bodied men; England wanted them, and they were made to board the English ships and were carried off.
Not only did British men-of-war stop our vessels on the open sea. They were so bold as to he in wait near the entrance of our harbors. When over six thousand sailors had been seized, and hundreds of vessels had been overhauled, the end of American endurance was reached. And in 1812 war was declared on England.
At the beginning of the War of 1812, Perry was stationed at Newport. Since the days of his first cruise on the General Greene, he had had a hand in putting down the pirates of the Mediterranean. He was no longer a midshipman, but was in command of a flotilla of American gunboats. Seeing little prospect of actual fighting if he stayed at Newport, Perry asked to be transferred. And, according to his wish, he was sent to the Great Lakes, where Commodore Chauncey put him in command of the forces on Lake Erie.
By the capture of Detroit the English had gained control of Lake Erie, where they had a fleet which was a serious menace to the Americans. It was Perry's task to rid the country of this danger.
Perry was a man who believed in doing things; and from the time of his arrival on the lakes, things began to happen. When he reached Erie in March, 1813, he found two brigs, two gunboats, and a small schooner being built from the green timber of the forest trees. Leaving the shipbuilders to complete their work, Perry rushed to Pittsburg to hurry up the equipment for his little fleet. He hastened to get additional boats. He hurried them to Erie before the English could intercept them. And such was his alacrity that, by the end of July, his fleet was ready, except for the crews. These arrived slowly. Perry named his flagship the Lawrence in honor of a gallant American captain who had recently died in battle, calling to his men, "Don't give up the ship!"
August went by, and the first days of September. Then on the 10th of September, I813, Perry met the English fleet near Put-In Bay. In the American fleet were nine boats, large and small. In the English there were six. But the English six carried more guns than the American nine.
WHERE THE BATTLE OF LAKE ERIE WAS FOUGHT.
Running up a blue flag bearing the brave words of Captain Lawrence, "Don't give up the ship," Perry ordered his fleet to advance toward the approaching English. The Lawrence with two little schooners forged ahead. The rest of the fleet was delayed in starting, so the first of the English attack fell upon the flagship. Her masts were shot away, her guns were disabled, and she was completely crippled. The English had wrecked Perry's ship. Had they conquered the commander? No! Flag in hand, he slipped over the Lawrence's side, dropped into a small boat, and amidst the whizzing balls of the enemy was rowed to the Niagara.
PERRY LEAVING THE "LAWRENCE".
Taking command at once on this second ship, Perry sailed straight into the enemy's line and raked the vessels with a deadly fire. The English could not endure long under such conditions, and one by one they struck their flags.
With his victory won, Perry went back to the deck of the Lawrence and there received the English surrender. His message to General Harrison was written on the back of an old letter. It read in part, "We have met the enemy, and they are ours."
This victory gave the United States the control of Lake Erie, and the English abandoned Detroit. Commodore Perry lived only six years to enjoy the fame earned through his triumph. In 1819 he was sent to protect American commerce from attack by the privateers of Venezuela. He sailed up the Orinoco River and settled with Venezuela the disputes that had arisen. But on his return voyage, the brave young seaman was stricken with yellow fever; and as his ship was entering the harbor of Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, he died.