USS Revenge and Oliver Hazard Perry

In May of 2006 I got a call from Craig Harger and Charlie Buffum of Conn. They had just visited me at NWC to attend my elective class “Shipwrecks and Naval History” and had apparently decided that I was not a stuffy and self-righteous academic. They asked if I would dive on an apparent shipwreck site they had recently located in Westerly, R.I. and of course I said yes.

First dive on the Revenge site, note the shallow water. Bob Cembrola observes the action, diver on the right holds a metal detector.

The site is in very shallow water on Watch Hill reef close to the CT. border, in fact the marina their dive boat was kept is in Stonington, CT. The area is comprised of reefs not far from shore and of course had seen scores of shipwrecks in the last 300 years, so I wasn’t too optimistic about their discovery being very significant. Once I hit the water the surge immediately demonstrated how destructive it could be to the human body as this is my first dive in forty years where I almost got seasick underwater. 

Map of Narragansett Bay, note the location of Watch Hill reef in the center. 

My malaise was soon forgotten after Craig and Charlie pointed out large objects on the bottom nestled amongst the rocks. These were immediately recognized as a cannon and the unmistakable profile of a stubby carronade, a naval weapon designed for close in combat. It was evident that this was a late 18th or early 19th century wreck site because the carronade was not introduced until approximately 1780. Also visible were a broken anchor and other signs that a sailing vessel had struck here and jettisoned heavy items to float off this treacherous reef. The presence of such items is not surprising, a former lighthouse keeper at Watch Hill claimed to have witnessed forty-five wrecks in his twenty years of service. This density of shipwrecks often makes quick identification of a site impossible, but the absence of other artifacts nearby kept telling me that they had indeed found remnants of USS Revenge, known to have struck the reef on January 8, 1811. They had been inspired to search for her by several books about local shipwrecks and by folklore common to all coastal communities which pass tales of disasters from generation to generation.

One of the Revenge's anchors, still sitting atop the reef that broke her back. 

I told Craig and Charlie that since Revenge was a US Navy vessel, she is subject to the Sunken Military Craft Act of 2004. This act gave management responsibility of over 17,000 sunken ships and aircraft around the world to the Underwater Archaeology Branch of Naval History and Heritage Command, which is the parent command of all Navy museums including the NWC museum. They had found diagnostic artifacts in 2005 and kept the discovery a closely guarded secret only letting a few close friends in on the thrilling find. I felt honored to be among the chosen few and knew that the site must be protected and that only the federal government is authorized to conduct research and recovery of military craft.

Somehow Craig and Charlie managed to keep their secret until the 200th anniversary of Revenges’ sinking when they announced to the world their discovery on January 6, 2011. This announcement was made from the Ocean House in Watch Hill, within sight of the reef that claimed the Revenge. That day the NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch learned of the discovery and thus ensued a relationship with Craig and Charlie which is still full steam ahead.

The Newport Mercury also made an announcement in their January 12, 1811 edition: 

We learn with regret the U.S. schooner REVENGE, Lieut. Perry, which sailed from this port on Tuesday afternoon last for New London, went ashore on Wednesday morning on Watch Hill reef, and soon afterwards went to pieces. The officers and crew were saved.”

The Mercury of January 19, 1811 gave more information:

"We are sorry to find that the report mentioned in our last, of the loss of the U.S. schooner REVENGE, is confirmed by the following extract from the New-London Gazette of Wednesday last. “Loss of the U.S. schooner REVENGE, of 14 guns, Lieut. Perry in proceeding from Newport for this port, unfortunately struck on Watch Hill Reef and in a few hours went to pieces. The sails, rigging, 6 cannon and almost every article of value was saved. The remainder of the cannon, it is said will be got up without much difficulty. At the time REVENGE struck, the fog was so thick that the jibboom could not be seen from the quarter deck. There was a branch pilot on board”

Court of Enquiry. OHP was resolved of guilt for the loss. 

The question is what was Revenge doing in such shallow water in January and why does anyone care about a couple of cannons and carronades which have limited monetary value? The answer to this lies in the short but momentous carrier of her captain, Oliver Hazard Perry, (OHP) of Newport, who along with his younger brother Matthew Calbratih Perry had perhaps more influence on American naval history than any other sibling combination.

OHP was born on August 23, 1785 in South Kingston, R.I. and his father Christopher was a well-placed naval officer and not surprisingly, Oliver chose to follow in his footsteps. At just 13 years of age, OHP received his midshipman’s warrant from the Secretary of the Navy, a necessary step for those aspiring to become a naval officer before the US Naval Academy was founded in 1845. He received this warrant on April 7, 1799.

For the next six years he served on some famous vessels including Constellation and Constitution but missed out on some of their famous engagements. His next assignment was to oversee the construction of a fleet of gunboats in Rhode Island and Connecticut, a tedious task which he performed until he received his first seagoing command in April of 1809 on the USS Revenge. That tedious task however would serve him well on Lake Erie in 1813 when he acquired the fame that still surrounds him today.

The Revenge was a fourteen gun 70-foot schooner built in 1805 and originally named Ranger, she was sold to the Navy in December of 1806 and first served on the Mississippi under Commodore John Shaw. OHP then took command of Revenge in 1809 as a 26-year-old lieutenant and spent much of that year sailing the US east coast. In December she returned to Newport and on the 22 of that month OHP was instructed to conduct a survey of New London, Newport and Gardiners Bay including depth soundings.

Revenge cannon undergoing cleaning.
Carronade ready for action! 

That order almost ended the career of OHP when on January 8, 1811 the Revenge under Perry’s command left Newport at midnight to begin this sounding and charting mission. His departure was timed to allow safe sailing through Watch Hill Passage and avoid the treacherous currents between Fisher’s Island and Long Island in daylight. After about an hour sailing, fog set in and Perry asked his pilot Peter Dagget if they should proceed and OHP was assured things were under control due to Daggett’s extensive experience. Perry nevertheless had an anchor readied just in case conditions deteriorated further. By 6 a.m., Revenge passed Point Judith and the next hazardous point of land was Watch Hill approximately thirty miles west. Making just 3 knots, Revenge would take hours to reach there but a favorable current pushed her faster than expected while Perry caught up on his sleep below decks. At 9 a.m. Perry heard the leadsman report a depth of ten fathoms and this brought him to the main deck where he encountered heavy fog “so thick as to envelop all on board Revenge in almost total darkness and was accompanied with a heavy swell.” He saw the depth rapidly decreasing so he ordered the anchor dropped but at the same instance the stern struck the reef.

Perry realized Revenge was doomed when her bow was swung onto the reef by the strong high tide which meant that low tide would leave her high and dry. He ordered 8 of the guns thrown overboard with other heavy items in a futile effort to float her off the reef. After cutting down both masts, just twenty minutes after striking, her seams opened in two places and Perry knew all hope was lost. His actions in saving all the crew set the tone for his subsequent exoneration for this loss as Peter Daggett accepted total responsibility for the sinking. Perry calmly directed the rescue of all 78 crew members along with sails, rigging and small arms and as might be expected he was the last to leave the stricken vessel. Perry's composure demonstrated his coolness in tense situations, demonstrated many times later in his career.

Following the obligatory investigation of the loss of any US Navy vessel, Perry was cleared and then enjoyed a leave of absence in Newport where he was married on May 5, 1811. He remained unemployed until May of 1812 when war with England seemed certain and was declared officially on June 18, 1812. He was again put in command of the gunboat flotilla in Newport while his friends sailed in harm’s way on vessels such as Constitution and Hornet. This letter reveals the frustration that OHP felt at being left in a backwater of the conflict with England:

Lieutenant Oliver H. Perry to Secretary of the Navy Hamilton
New Port June 6, 1812


As war appears now to be inevitable and not far distant, I hope and earnestly entreat that I may in the event be called immediately into actual service. I am highly sensible Sir, of the very great favor which you have shown in suffering me to remain the last twelve months with my family-although this indulgence has been the source of much happiness: in case of war it would cease to be so, on the contrary I should consider it the greatest mortification and misfortune.
Pardon me for troubling you Sir, on this subject, as I solicited this station some time since when there was no prospect of war, I am desirous should such a thing take place to prevent the possibility of a thought entering your mind it would be agreeable to continue at home. The time appears near when I shall have it in my power to convince you Sir, that the observation in your letter Comr. Rodgers relative to the loss of the Revenge viz. “an officer just to himself, and to his country will not be depressed by defeat, or misfortune, but will be stimulated by either cause, to greater exertions” has made a proper impression on my mind. I have the honor."

O.H. Perry

This letter initially resulted in Perry being promoted to master commandant on 6 October 1812, but it was not until February 8, 1813 that he received orders to report to old friend Isaac Chauncey who was in command of naval forces on the Great Lakes.Before he left Newport and achieved great fame, Perry was once again involved with a shipwreck, thankfully not his own vessel. On September 29, 1812 US gunboat no. 46, under the command of Lieutenant Samuel Blodget sank in a violent storm on the eastern shore of Jamestown, with the loss of Blodget and eight of her crew. As commander of all the ten Newport gunboats, Perry assumed the responsibility for retrieving what he could from # 46.

 Perry, in a November 10, letter to Secretary of the Navy Hamilton reports:


With the assistance of Mr. Palmer, the proprietor of the Diving-bell, I have been so fortunate as to regain gun, anchors, cables and small quantity of the shot of the late US Gunboat No. 46. Mr. Palmer charges the department with one-third of the value for salvage, which with your permission I will cause to be paid to him-his vessel was considerably exposed in this business, and he has exerted himself to save as much of the public property as possible-the gun above referred to us a 32 pounder, and is at present on Fort Wolcott, loaned to the US-for which I have the commanding officer’s receipt until your pleasure is known.

Respectfully, O.H. Perry

Once he arrived at Lake Erie, Perry was given command of the American naval forces there but also had to assist with the construction of the fleet, a task that was under the supervision of Daniel Dobbins. Perry distinguished himself before the battles even began with his enthusiasm and leadership as nine vessels were constructed and ready for battle by August. Knowing his adversary Commodore Robert Barclay was at least experienced as himself, having served with Nelson at Trafalgar, Perry issued these Nelson inspired instructions to his captains:

Commanding officers are particularly enjoined to pay attention in preserving their stations in the Line, and in all cases to keep as near the Lawrence as possible. Engage your designated adversary, in close action at half cable’s length” (approximately 100 meters)

Oliver H. Perry, General Order, USS Lawrence.

USS Lawrence was named by Perry after Captain James Lawrence who died after being wounded by enemy fire on June 1, 1813. Lawrence uttered the immortal battle cry “ Don’t give up the ship” and when Perry learned of this, he had a battle flag made with that famous command which he would carry into the now immortal fight against Barclay’s fleet.

OHP statue in the Naval War College Museum collection. 

Finally, the day for battle arrived on September 10, 1813 and Perry’s determination and courage resulted in one of the most important victories for American naval forces in the 19th century. Perry’s after-action report to General William Henry Harrison is now famous: “we have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop”

Though a small one, this is the first time that an entire British squadron had surrendered. Perry’s sailing master, William Vigneron Taylor penned a letter on 15 September which captures the intensity of the battle: “ The Lawrence alone received the fire of the whole British squadron 2 /12 hours within pistol shot-we were not supported as we ought to have been. Captain Perry led the Lawrence into action and sustained the most destructive fire with the most gallant spirit perhaps that was ever witnessed under similar circumstances”
As if that was not enough action, Perry volunteered to assist General William Henry Harrison at the battle of the Thames in Lake Ontario on October 5, 1813. This victory gave Harrison a legacy which propelled him to become the 9th US president and further cemented Perry’s legacy.

After this intense action Perry requested a transfer back to more peaceful Newport and in November 1813, he resumed duties with the gunboat flotilla. Perry had been promoted to captain on September 10, 1813 while still on Lake Erie.

This promotion resulted in Perry getting command of the still under construction 44 gun frigate Java. He took Java for a relatively peaceful cruise to the Mediterranean to deal with Barbary pirates and was then sent on a diplomatic mission to Venezuela by President Monroe in June of 1819. The mission was of minor significance, but Perry as always threw himself into the tasks assigned to him but rampant yellow fever in the hot humid jungle eventually claimed his life on August 23, 1819, his thirty-fourth birthday.

President Monroe upon hearing of Perry’s death: “It is with deep regret I have to state the loss which has been sustained by the death of Commodore Perry. His gallantry in the late war added to the renown of his country. His death is deplored as a national misfortune.” 

OHP statue graces Washington Square in Newport, Rhode Island. 

As he lay dying on his way to Trinidad, having completed his mission, Perry once again displayed his courage with these words: “ few persons have greater inducements to make them wish to live than I, but I am perfectly ready to go if it pleases the Almighty to take me, the debt of nature must be paid”

Carronade in situ on Watch Hill Reef. 

Thus, ended the short but momentous career of OHP, but his legacy is being cared for by the Naval History and Heritage Command who have recovered artifacts from Revenge which are currently being conserved. His beloved Newport is graced with a fitting statue in Washington Square and hopefully the Naval War College Museum will be the future home of a Revenge carronade.

Sail training vessel the Oliver Hazard Perry. 

Reminders of OHP are also fittingly sailing around in the form of the largest sail training vessel in the US, aptly named and Newport based Oliver Hazard Perry, cruising the same waters as her namesake.

Bob Cembrola
Naval War College Museum
Exhibitions Manager

#Navy #USNavy #History #NavalHistory #NavalWarCollege #OliverHazardPerry #Diving #Newport #Museum #USNWCM #NavyReadiness


Popular Posts