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Perry Street and the Battle of Lake Erie

Battle of Lake Erie by William Henry Powell, painted 1865, shows Oliver Hazard Perry transferring from the USS Lawrence to the USS Niagara.

Quiet, reserved Perry Street has been home to some very not-quiet and reserved types over the years, including Frank Serpico, Margaret Mead, James Agee, Margaret Sanger, and Dawn Powell. Appropriately enough, the street’s namesake was also someone who was not afraid to make a little noise and shake things up either. And he did a lot of that, earning a street naming in his honor, on September 10, 1813.

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (b. August 23rd, 1785) was destined for a career in the Navy. He was the son of Sarah Wallace Alexander and United States Navy Captain Christopher Raymond Perry, and older brother of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, famous for opening up trade with Japan in 1854. Born in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, Perry found himself several thousand miles away serving in the West Indies during the Quasi War of 1798–1800 against France, in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars of 1801–1815, and in the Caribbean fighting piracy and the slave trade. His legacy, however, would be cemented in the War of 1812.

Portrait of Oliver Hazard Perry, painted by Gilbert Stuart, 1818.

It was at the beginning of that war’s Battle of Lake Erie that Perry famously announced, “If a victory is to be gained, I will gain it.” Initially, the British forces had gained the upper hand, their six massive warships were nearly invincible compared to the American fleet of nine weaker vessels. Perry’s flagship, the USS Lawrence, was disabled early. Even the British commander Robert Heriot Barclay believed the injured vessel would surrender, and sent a smaller boat to request that the American pull down its flag from the mainmast. Faithful to the words of his battle flag, “Don’t Give Up The Ship” (a paraphrase of the dying words of Captain James Lawrence, the ship’s namesake and Perry’s friend), Perry, with Lawrence’s chaplain and steward as the remaining able-bodied crew, personally fired the final salvo.

He and his men rowed nearly a half-mile through heavy gunfire to transfer Perry’s command to the USS Niagara. He dispatched the Niagara’s commander, Captain Jesse Elliott, to bring the other vessels closer into the fray while he steered Niagara toward the damaged British ships. The Niagara somehow broke through the opposing line, and Perry’s force pounded Barclay’s ships until they could offer no effective resistance, and surrendered. Although he had won the battle aboard Niagara, he received the British surrender on the deck of the recaptured Lawrence, to allow the British to see the terrible price his men had paid (27 killed and 96 wounded).

Perry’s battle report to General William Henry Harrison was famously brief: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” The Battle of Lake Erie forced the British to abandon Detroit, ensuring U.S. control over Lake Erie and the territorial northwest. The U.S. had faired poorly in the War of 1812 and suffered many defeats at the hands of the British, including the burning of Washington D.C. and the sacking of the White House. The Battle of Lake Erie was a crucial turning point in the war for America, and turned Perry into an national hero.

After the war, in 1819, Perry traveled to Venezuela to negotiate an anti-piracy agreement with President Simón Bolívar. After a favorable treaty was signed on August 11, Perry sailed downriver to return home, but was suddenly stricken with yellow fever. His crew rushed his vessel towards Trinidad in order to find medical assistance. But sadly Perry died on board, on his 34th birthday.

A U.S. postage stamp memorializing Commodore Perry in 1894.

For his accomplishments in the War of 1812 and elsewhere, Perry is memorialized throughout the United States, with schools, government buildings, numerous statues, and towns throughout the U.S. honoring him, including the hamlet of Perrysburg and the Village of Perry in New York state. The western end of Perry Street was originally known as Monument Lane, in honor of a statue portraying General James Wolfe (1727-1759), a hero of the French and Indian War, in which he won the Battle of Quebec only to be shot and killed. The monument disappeared during the Revolutionary War.

Perry Street, facing northeast, as it is today.

Today, on Perry Street, there are no cannons, no cries of victory, no marble statues. In the early 2000s, you might have seen Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, filming a scene from Sex and the City at 66 Perry Street, the character’s home. Or, in the 1910s, at 4 Perry Street, Margaret Sanger, the birth control activist, sex educator, writer, and nurse, might have been your neighbor. Even Frank Serpico, a New York City Police detective famous for exposing corruption within multiple precincts, could have been walking his famous Old English Sheepdog past his apartment on 116 Perry Street in the 1970s. While Perry himself never lived in Manhattan, the street that bears his name has been home to revolutionaries of all sorts, people who, like him, were unwilling to “give up the ship.”

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