The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 5: December 2006
The Commodore and I: a Cruise with Oliver Hazard Perry
David Curtis Skaggs
For the past twenty years I’ve been on a scholarly cruise with Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819). It’s been a strange relationship since I have little in common with the Hero of Lake Erie.
Born in Topeka and raised in a small town in western Kansas, I grew up about as far from any of America’s four coasts as one could. It was not merely a physical distance from the sea; it involved a family whose military experience was entirely with the Army. For three generations the Skaggses have been soldiers, mostly artillerymen. After completing my education at the University of Kansas I joined the Army to see the world and received orders to report to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Riley, Kansas. This peach-fuzzed lieutenant certainly had no inclination of any association with the Navy or the Great Lakes. Later, in 1965 as I was completing a Ph.D. at Georgetown University, Bowling Green State University offered me a position to teach early U.S. history.
Although I knew of the Battle of Lake Erie and even mentioned it in an early national period course, my first true experience with the engagement came when I heard a lecture by Colonel Farrar Cobb, manager of the BGSU Student Union, on the battle. He introduced me to the problem of Jesse Duncan Elliott’s failure to adequately support Perry during the battle. Still this was of minor interest, I was busy trying to update my dissertation into a book on revolutionary Maryland politics and to study the homiletics and poetics of a colonial Chesapeake Anglican minister. But I kept a side interest in the military and began a slow climb in the Army Reserve which involved several interesting assignments related to military history—teaching at the School for Military Assistance at Fort Bragg and later at West Point, summer duty with the Center for Military History in Washington, “summer camps” at NATO headquarters in Brussels and the headquarters of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, and membership on the consulting faculty of the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. In the early 1970s, about the time I became a major, my chairman, Gary Hess, came to my office with a proposition. Changing student interest and state teacher certification requirements reduced the demand for history courses and he was seeking a series of new courses designed to appeal to non-majors—American medical history, World War II, and the bible as history were among the ones that emerged at this time. Gary asked me to teach a course on American Military History. It became a departmental mainstay for over a quarter century. This resulted in a change in some of my research interests.
Then in 1986 one of my graduate students, Larry Nelson, site manager at Fort Meigs State Memorial, suggested we do something to commemorate the 175th anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1988. With another former graduate student, Jeffrey Welsh then teaching at Firelands College of Bowling Green State University, and a host of others including Ian Pemberton of the University of Windsor, Harry Bosveld of Fort Malden National Historic Park in Amherstburg, Ontario, and above all, Gerard Altoff of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial at Put-in-Bay, we cobbled together a conference at Windsor and Put-in-Bay that attracted Canadian and American scholars and a large group of interested citizens to a two-day gathering. Jeff Welsh and I edited several of the better papers for a book entitled War on the Great Lakes which was published by Kent State University Press in 1991 in both hardback and paperback editions.
The experience hooked me on the battle of Lake Erie and its American commander. Oliver Hazard Perry took me under his command and I began a tour of duty on the scholarship Perry that would last for two decades. Initially I saw the Perry work as a chapter on army-navy cooperation in a book I tentatively titled “William Henry Harrison and the Art of Frontier Warfare.” But as the conference proceedings went to press, I decided to approach Gerry Altoff about our doing a jointly authored detailed history of the battle. Gerry had written a couple of short books about the battle and its naval personnel, but none of these had achieved much notice in the scholarly world. Over the years as the National Park Service historian at Put-in-Bay he had collected documentation regarding the engagement. During the winters when there were no visitors at the Perry Monument, he went to Ann Arbor and made typescript copies of Perry’s correspondence relating to the battle at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library. Copies of these he made available to me along with his notes on the crews of Perry’s vessels. I would conduct further research and integrate his published material into a final draft. Although this partnership was sometimes tension-filled, we finally completed a manuscript.
The next question was who should publish it? Gerry had no preference, I knew that the Kent State University Press wanted it, but I hoped for a more widely distributed imprint. I explored the possible interest of the Naval Institute Press, the publication arm of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland. The Institute describes itself “a private, self-supporting, not-for-profit professional society” that is best known for its monthly Proceedings magazine that it calls “The Independent Forum on National Defense.” As part of its publication effort, the Institute Press produces books on navigation, current strategic policy, and naval history. Its executive editor, Paul Wilderson, indicated an interest in the book and, after reading the manuscript, accepted it for publication in 1997.
Its title A Signal Victory comes from Perry’s report to the Secretary of the Navy—“It has pleased the Almighty to give the arms of the United States a signal victory over their enemies on this lake." While this phrase is forgotten when compared with his famous note to General William Henry Harrison—“We have met the enemy and they are ours”—it most precisely depicted what Perry and his contemporaries thought about the consequences of what had been done on Lake Erie. In Perry’s context, “signal” meant what the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a visible sign; a badge or symbol.” Perry also imitated Horatio Lord Nelson who described his triumph at the Nile as a “signal victory.” Using this definition, the Battle of Lake Erie was truly a signal one--it signaled the defeat of a Royal Navy squadron and opened the Midwest for the re-conquest of the territories lost to the British the previous year; it signaled the emergence of the U.S. Navy as force capable of fighting the Mistress of the Seas in a fleet action; it signaled a turning point in a war that had gone badly for the Americans to that point in time; it signaled the emergence of young men who had been born after American independence and were about to replace the revolutionary generation as the political, economic, intellectual, and military leaders of the young republic.
For Gerry Altoff and David Skaggs A Signal Victory represented a turning point in their careers. The book received academic and popular praise and it became an alternate selection of the History Book Club. A press run of 2,500 became 5,000 and a paperback edition appeared in 2000 as one of the Press’s “Bluejacket Books.” The North American Society for Oceanic History designated it the best book on United States naval history for 1997 and the Naval Institute Press became interested in having more books from the authors. The William Henry Harrison study went on a back burner and the Perry research became the center of my scholarly research.
Meanwhile, I went off on a second visiting professorship at the Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1995-6. There my office mate was James Bradford, a visiting history professor from Texas A&M University. Jim was well known for his work as an editor of numerous books dealing with American naval history and he had just been named the editor of the new “Library of Naval Biography” series to be published by the Naval Institute Press. Word had filtered down from Annapolis about the forthcoming A Signal Victory and Jim wanted me to sign on to write a biography of Perry for this series of brief biographies. But I was a little tired of Perry and made a counter proposal for a joint biography of Perry and Thomas Macdonough, commander of the American naval victory on Lake Champlain a year and a day after Perry’s triumph. Most serious students of the War of 1812 consider Macdonough’s victory more important tactically and strategically than Perry’s. But I knew there was no treasure trove of Macdonough papers like Perry’s at the Clements Library and that a full length Macdonough book would be difficult. Hence, the proposed joint biography to which Jim agreed, although he preferred to have one on each man.
Throughout the period of my involvement with Perry I read papers at scholarly conferences and wrote articles for scholarly journals and book chapters that appeared from the late 1980s throughout the 90s. These allowed other scholars to comment on my work, suggest improvements and new directions for research and analysis, and learn of my interest in the subject area. Two of these dealt with one of the most puzzling aspects of Perry’s career—his relationship with Jesse Duncan Elliott and Elliott’s state of mind during and after the engagement. My Bowling Green colleague Larry Friedman and I presented a paper and wrote an article on Elliott that received an honor as the outstanding article of U.S. Naval History for 1990. I subsequently wrote an article on James Fenimore Cooper’s defense of Elliott in the 1840s. This prompted comments by a Cooper scholar that reinforced what I had said. A chapter on the Battle of Lake Erie in collection of articles on major U.S. naval engagements received a number of compliments from reviewers.
Another way of achieving a reputation is by writing entries for the burgeoning number of encyclopedia that publishers produce for libraries. My articles covered a variety of War of 1812 topics, mostly dealing with warfare in the Great Lakes region. By the late-1990s I was known as a competent scholar dealing with the last Anglo-American war. Many of these commentaries could be expanded or condensed into portions of the forthcoming biography.
The 1990s also marked a change in my career. My sons had graduated from college and Margo and I could spend more time away from Bowling Green. The Air War College beckoned me to visiting professorships three times in a decade. In 1991 Colonel Skaggs completed thirty-two years of Army Reserve service. Seven years later Bowling Green State University made an early retirement offer that was hard to turn down. Officially I retired in 1998, but there were three semesters of post-retirement teaching in the years following. As my Bowling Green career ended in 2001, Margo and I had to decide just where to live. We definitely wanted to make our summer home on Burt Lake, Michigan, our permanent residence. Should we keep the Bowling Green home? After much discussion we decided to sell it and build a winter-spring home in New Bern, North Carolina, the colonial capital of the state.
Few knew how much reserve duty took from my schedule and how it impaired my production of scholarly writings. The fifteen years since USAR retirement have seen the production of more academic work than in those that preceded it. My parting contribution to BGSU was an international scholarly conference on what were called “The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814.” It brought an international group of scholars to Bowling Green for a lively forum concerning war and peace in the region from the French and Indian War through the War of 1812. We had a active committee to organize the group and one of our most successful ventures was securing a visit by the US Brig Niagara, a replica of Perry’s relief flagship, to Toledo. Mid-American Bank graciously provided funds for Alabama historic artist Dean Mosher paint a picture of the battle at its critical moment and another of Perry transferring his flag from the Lawrence to the Niagara. For Mosher this was the beginning of several commissions for artistic work in Ohio. In addition, Larry Nelson and I edited twenty of the most important talks at the conference in a book published by the Michigan State University Press, which included part of Mosher’s painting of the battle on the cover.
Meanwhile I began research on the Perry-Macdonough biography. Early in the research I consulted with a number of scholars about the proposal and received important suggestions from many, most importantly from Christopher McKee of Grinnell College, perhaps the world’s most noted scholar on the early navy officer corps. He sent me to two institutions I might not have consulted, the Lilly Library at Indiana University and the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library at Hyde Park, New York. Both proved useful. At BGSU’s Jerome Library and on the internet I searched relevant articles and books for primary and secondary sources. Early on I determined to concentrate on the Macdonough material since it was the most scarce and I knew would be the most difficult to find.
As all of this came after my retirement and I was thus without institutional support for the travel needed to visit various archives. The John Nicholas Brown Center for the Study of American Civilization at Brown University provided travel assistance to Providence so I might research that university’s John Hay Library and John Carter Brown Library. The Brown Center also provided an office and a very critical free parking place. The Naval Historical Center in Washington provided two Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper research grants that assisted in travels to Washington and elsewhere.
And so we began research on the Macdonough portion of the book. At the Lilly Library we found several documents concerning both Perry and Macdonough. Next we went to the FDR Library where we located documents relating to both officers. The Plattsburgh State University’s library contained a treasure of materials relevant to the Battle of Lake Champlain. We then crossed the lake and visited the University of Vermont’s Bailey-Howe Library whose holdings included some relatively unused records and local newspapers relative to Macdonough’s career. At his marital home in Middletown, Connecticut, were probate records that provided critical insights into his domestic life. In Macdonough’s home state of Delaware we located several documents relative to his family and we saw his boyhood home.
But the crucial records were in Washington. One cannot say enough about the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard. There under the leadership of Dr. Michael Crawford a staff was working on The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History series that now has published three of its four volumes. To decide which documents should be included the Center’s Early Naval History Branch assembled thousands of documents in rolls of microfilm and reams of photocopies relating to the war. I was given complete access to these documents, which saved hundreds of hours of work and thousands of miles of travel. The staff at the Naval Historical Center was exceptionally cooperative in the research effort.
Work at the National Archives and the Library of Congress brought several collections to our attention, but it was my wife, Margo, who made a critical discovery. The Library of Congress manuscript room records listed a single item on Macdonough and she requested it while I labored through the boxes of Commodore John Rodgers papers to find a nugget here and there. When the item appeared on our desk it turned out to be Macdonough’s post-war letterbook, 1815-25, containing his personal copies of his outgoing letters in this timespan. Suddenly we had a set of documents which gave extensive insight into his post-war career unexplored anywhere else. This opened up the possibility of a single volume on Macdonough instead of a joint biography.
But before discussing this, I must pay tribute to Margo, my companion for forty-five years who serves as co-driver, chief arranger of lodging and meals, research assistant in often dingy archives, critic of my opinions and copy editor of my manuscripts, and above all, the Skaggses CINCFAM—commander-in-chief family. Now I admit she’s gotten a lot of interesting travel out of the research endeavors we’ve engaged in—from Edinburgh to London, from Newport to Williamsburg, from Annapolis to Columbus, from Ottawa to Washington, from the Cotswolds to the Blue Ridge—but it’s taken a lot of effort to follow the changing scholarly interests of a wandering historian for over four decades. She too has sailed with Commodore Perry. Margo’s find brought the question of whether the Naval Institute Press would accept a biography of Macdonough alone. With Jim Bradford’s endorsement, they did and it was published in 2003.
Now I could devote full attention to the Perry biography. I had to read some of the best literature on the early navy and the young republic— Alexander S. Mackenzie’s old but still useful Perry biography of 1840, Chris McKee’s A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815 (1991), Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (1982) which discussed the theme of honor that played an important role in Perry’s life, Joyce Appleby’s Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (2001) concerning Perry’s age cohort, Stephen Watt’s The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America (1987) on the contribution of our early wars to national identity, and numerous studies of the War of 1812. The two major printed primary documentary sources were the Naval War of 1812 and a collection of British documents relating to Canada in the War of 1812. I returned to the unpublished primary documents at the closest institutions—the Center for Archival Collections in the Jerome Library of Bowling Green State University and the Ann Arbor’s Clements Library. For A Signal Victory Gerry Altoff and I concentrated on the documents of 1812-13, now I had to secure more information on Perry’s early life and his post-battle career. Many of the materials collected in the Macdonough research proved useful in the Perry biography. I scoured local history journals that provided various documents and articles often neglected by historians.
Again we returned to various historical societies from Newport to Newport News, concentrating on Washington’s extensive collections. We probably would never have been able to utilize the Naval War College library except for my retired military identification card which allowed me to pass the increased security after 9/11. One trip to the District of Columbia was rudely interrupted by a hurricane that cut off the city’s electricity and closed down the governmental libraries we hoped to visit. Letters and e-mails to scholars from Chico, California, to Gainesville, Florida, to Ithaca, New York, elicited responses relating to tangential incidents and personalities in Perry’s life. Interlibrary loan librarians at Bowling Green, the Air University Library, and East Carolina University (where I taught two semesters) found themselves deluged with strange requests to which they promptly responded. Copies of documents and articles filled two filing cabinets and my personal library had half a dozen shelves devoted to War of 1812 materials.
It was time to sit down and write. As I conducted the research three themes emerged as dominant aspects of Perry’s personality and outlook—honor, courage, and patriotism. Bertram Wyatt-Brown defines the term in his Southern Honor: "Honor resides in the individual as his understanding of who he is and where he belongs in the ordered ranks of society. In other words, honor is reputation." Often the code is equated to its most conspicuous and violent manifestation--the duel. But this ignores the daily obligations it conferred upon the honorable man. The gentleman must be restrained in his passions, exemplify the ideals of trust, honesty, and integrity. In a Pulitzer Prize-winning study of the Revolutionary Era, Gordon Wood writes: "Honor was a stimulus for ambition…. [O]nly the restless-minded, the great-souled, the extraordinary few, had ambition--the overflowing desire to excel, to have precedence, and to achieve fame. Honor is closely allied with one of the most important of military virtues--courage. Most commonly it denotes physical bravery, especially in battle; it demands masculine aggressiveness. In this sense, courage has a gender connotation. On the other hand, courage is also moral; it demands facing value choices responsibly and with integrity. Moral courage requires recognition of what is good and evil and a willingness to make the right decision regardless of the consequences. Military service provided more opportunities to achieve honor and fame than almost any other form of endeavor. Honor was closely tied to heroism. Martial honor required one to place one's life at risk; in the navy the risk required one to face not only the visible foe of an enemy combatant, but also dangers of storms, lee shores, natural obstacles, and disease, especially tropical illness. Courage involved audacity combined with professionalism--the acquisition of skills of seamanship, gunnery, tactics, and strategy. Patriotism is hardly a military-exclusive value, but the armed services place a particularly high significance to it because they pledge to risk their lives in national defense. In a country where nationalism was nascent, where loyalties were often local or state-centered, the military constituted the one institution which valued national ties over parochial ones. Sectionalism in the Young Republic was not merely northern versus southern; it also involved Yankee versus Yorker, urban versus rural, easterner versus westerner. The daily rituals at the raising and lowering of the flag on naval vessels and at army encampments were among the few nationalistic exercises in the young republic.
Patriotism for Oliver Perry’s generation was quite different that that of his father’s. Oliver Hazard Perry and his siblings were part of a new cohort in the national heritage. This generation, writes historian Joyce Appleby, were inheritors of the Revolution; they “took on the self-conscious task of elaborating the meaning of the American Revolution.” While their parents’ generation fought to establish American independence, Oliver Perry’s cohort would fight to maintain it. Unlike their parents, they knew the nation’s political boundaries; they accepted the massive territorial dimensions the United States encompassed which made it one of the largest nations on the globe. Many felt a mission to expand the Republic north and south and farther west and saw their “empire of liberty” as a beacon to the rest of the world. “Republicanism” a radical idea in their parents’ generation became accepted governmental practice by the time they came of age.
Theirs was a generation that created new symbols of nationhood; one of its members wrote the National Anthem, while others created a national literature and school of artists. Others would become symbols of martial heroism—Isaac Hull, Stephen Decatur, Winfield Scott, William Henry Harrison, Thomas Macdonough, Andrew Jackson, and, yes, Oliver Hazard Perry. Stephen Decatur's often quoted toast--"My country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong"--epitomized a value system ingrained in this generation of naval officers.
These three values—honor, courage, patriotism—became the themes of the book. But I did not want this to be a hagiographic treatment; Oliver Hazard Perry was not a saint. He made mistakes, misjudgments, and misbehaviors that should not be overlooked. A responsible life study had to confront these aspects of his personality and to weigh them against his other attributes. Thus I expected to present his biography “warts and all.”
There were four critical events in Perry’s life upon which the book concentrates. The first was the loss of the Revenge off the Rhode Island coast in 1811. Although a naval board of inquiry placed the blame on the pilot, clearly Perry had serious responsibility in the event—he commanded the vessel, he ordered a nighttime cruise in a fog along a dangerous coast, he was asleep when the schooner struck Watch Hill Reef. Prior to this Perry seemed destined to receive a significant command should the impending troubles with Britain lead to warfare. Instead when war broke out, he found himself commanding a gunboat flotilla at Newport. While many of his contemporaries went to sea and achieved considerable honor and promotion, he languished in Rhode Island. His decision to petition Commodore Isaac Chauncey for a Great Lakes assignment, one which neither he nor his contemporaries desired, came out of frustration at being denied salt water duty by a Navy Department that thought him a tainted commander.
The second event of importance is the command and control of his small squadron during the Battle of Lake Erie. Here the twenty-eight year-old master commandant (equivalent of a commander today) has to be praised for his success in directing the first squadron battle in the history of the U.S. Navy. But it came at a high cost because he did not bring the full force of his superior weight of metal against his foe, a failure that undoubtedly contributed to additional casualties on both sides. The subsequent dispute with Jesse Duncan Elliott revolves around command and control issues and who was supposed to do what on that fatal tenth of September.
The third incident involves the slapping of Marine Captain John Heath in 1817 while Perry commanded the U.S. Frigate Java. No occurrence in his life brought out the problems of “honor” than this one. Honor as a downside—it can cause people to become irrational at supposed slights and insults to one’s reputation and status. This event—taking place off Sicily near where General George Patton slapped an U.S. soldier a century and a quarter later—forced Perry to accept a duel with Heath even though resorts to the code duello repulsed Perry. The Lake Erie hero braved Heath’s fire (the marine missed) without returning it and then turned over his unused pistol to his second. Talk about physical and moral courage! His conduct in this event restored his reputation as an honorable man.
The final event concerns the quarter-century paper war between Perry’s partisans and Elliott and his principal supporter, novelist-turned-historian James Fenimore Cooper. The Epilogue to the book is devoted to this episode and it may be its most original contribution to Perry studies. No one has ever gone through the turgid documentation of this rancorous event as thoroughly as is found here. But it resulted in a 447-page manuscript that was much longer than desired for the “Library of Naval Biography” series. I want to thank Jim Bradford and the editorial staff of the Naval Institute Press for allowing me the latitude to include this additional material which I hope will be well received by the readers.
With the book’s publication my twenty years tour of duty on the scholarship Perry ended. Now Professor and Mrs. Skaggs can respectfully request permission to “lay ashore.”Notes:
 William Jeffrey Welsh and David Curtis Skaggs, eds., War on the Great Lakes: Essays Commemorating the 175th Anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press1991)
 On the Naval Institute see Fred L. Schultz, “For Those Who Dare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, 132 (October 2006): 28-33.
 Skaggs and Gerard T. Altoff, A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1997).
 “Jesse Duncan Elliott and the Battle of Lake Erie: The Issue of Mental Stability,” Journal of the Early Republic, 10 (Winter 1990): 497-516, co-author with L. J. Friedman; “Aiming at the Truth: James Fenimore Cooper and the Battle of Lake Erie,” Journal of Military History, 59 (April 1995): 237-256; “Creating Small Unit Cohesion: Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie,” Armed Forces and Society, 23 (Summer 1997): 633-668; “Joint Operations During the Detroit-Lake Erie Campaign, 1813,” in William Cogar, ed., New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Eighth Naval History Symposium of the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1989): 121-138; “The Battle of Lake Erie,” in Jack Sweetman, ed., Famous American Naval Battles (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998): 65-84; British Personnel at the Battle of Lake Erie,” Inland Seas, 54 (Winter 1998): 298-314, co-author with D. L. Henry and C. C. Morrisey.
 Frank. N. Magill, ed., Great Lives from History: A Biographical Survey (Los Angeles: Salem Press, 1987); Robert A. Rutland, ed., James Madison and the New Nation: An Encyclopedia (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); David S. and Jeanne T. Heider, eds., The War of 1812: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC Clio, 1997); Peter J. Parish, ed., Reader’s Guide to American History (London, Eng.: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997), Spencer C. Tucker, ed., Naval Warfare: An International Encyclopedia, 3 vols (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC Clio, 2002); James C. Bradford, ed., International Encyclopedia of Military History, 2 vols. (Abington, Eng.: Routledge, 2006).
 Skaggs & Larry L. Nelson, eds., The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814 (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2001).
 Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2003).
 William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, 3 vols. to date (Washington: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1985- ); William Wood, ed., Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812, 4 vols. (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1920-28).
 Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism in the Early U.S. Navy (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2006).
© Copyright 1995-2009, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.