Where would you expect to find an impressive statue of Captain Oliver Hazard Perry? Erie, Pennsylvania, of course! Perry, in the spring of 1813, was selected to be the commander of the fleet of nine ships that Daniel Dobbins and Noah Brown were building into Erie’s harbor to fight the British fleet on Lake Erie.
President Madison—with approval from the Senate by just one vote—declared war against England in June, 1812. He was very upset with the manner the British and their Navy impeded US ships on the high seas, impressed United States sailors into service for the British Navy and attempted to tax and control United States commerce with European customers. He presumed that, during the summer of 1812, the United States could easily invade Canada at three sites: from Detroit, from the Niagara frontier and from northern New York State near Montréal. Once the United States had firm control of Canada, he assumed the British would quickly sue for peace and he—President Madison—would successfully be able to dictate favorable terms.
It did not work out that way. The American force scheduled to invade from the Buffalo area never got organized enough to carry out any invasion in the summer of 1812. Their leaders feared a strong British force stationed in Ontario. General William Hull—who also served as Michigan’s territorial governor—led United States forces across the Detroit River butquickly turned around since he feared an overwhelming British force stationed at Fort Malden which is now known as Amherstburg. Furthermore, Hull promptly surrendered Detroit to the British in August, 1812 without firing a shot. And another American base, Fort Michillimackinac, was also surrendered to English troops in July, 1812 without any military action. In the summer of 1812, the American forces in the West were rendered useless by the British military.
To preserve the Union, the federal government decided to build a fleet at Erie since they knew the British were constructing ships at Fort Malden. Presumably, there would be a decisive naval battle on Lake Erie in the summer of 1813 and the winner would control the western front in the War of 1812; likely a definitive advantage for the victor in that battle. Indeed, the outcome of President Madison’s war depended upon battle to be fought on Lake Erie.
By the end of August, 1813, the shipwrights—notably Daniel Dobbins and Noah Brown—had completed nine ships for Commander Perry. He sailed west from Erie and stopped in Sandusky to meet with future president William Henry Harrison who had been appointed by President Madison to replace the disgraced and court martialed William Hull. Perry then sailed forth to engage the British fleet of six vessels. Perry located the British ships on September 13, 1813 near South Bass Island’s Put-In-Bay. The definitive battle of the War of 1812 ensued and within three hours, Perry completely defeated the British ships led by Captain Roger Harriot Barclay. This was, perhaps, the most devastating and one-sided defeat the British Navy experienced up to that time. This website includes a page describing the Captain Oliver Hazard Perry Memorial located on Erie’s Presque Isle. More information about the life of Captain Perry and his numerous accomplishments may be found there.
After the vanquishing of the British Navy, General Harrison led forces that recaptured Detroit for the United States in September, 1813. The following month, he defeated British and Native American forces in the Battle of the Themes in southwestern Ontario. This effectively terminated British military activity on the western front.
The statue shown here is neither new nor original. Captain Perry was born in South Kingston, Rhode Island in August, 1785. His father was also a naval captain who served in the Revolutionary War and during the quasi naval war that the United States sort of fought with the French in the Caribbean in the final years of the Eighteenth Century. Residents of Newport, Rhode Island sought to commemorate the accomplishments of Captain Perry that saved our nation. They commissioned the sculptor, William Greene Turner, to design and execute an impressive statue showing Perry in action vanquishing the British fleet at Put-In-Bay. What you see pictured here is the statue he achieved. It was dedicated in Newport 72 years after the naval battle that gave Capitan Perry his historical significance and saved the United States from reimposition of British rule. It is located in Eisenhower Park in Newport between Washington Square and Tuoro Street.
William Greene Turner is an interesting American sculptor born in 1833. His father was a doctor in Newport, Rhode Island. As a young man, Turner apparently expressed an interest in becoming a sculptor but learned that he had impaired eye sight so he became a dentist. He practiced that profession for some time, but with the declaration of the Civil War, he joined the military and rose to the rank of captain. He was injured and mustered out of service in 1863. His family thought that his recovery would be speeded if he went from cold and wet Rhode Island to sunny warm Italy. He left and did not return for 38 years. In Italy, he turned to sculpture rather than fixing cavities and became recognized for the quality of his work. That explains why when the Newport dignitaries desired a statue of Oliver Hazard Perry; they turned to their native son who made this statue in Florence. The statue you see here is the most famous Turner creation on display in this country.
About one hundred years later, the citizens of Erie wanted to honor Perry in the central park that bears his name. They had an exact replica created and installed it here in 1985. Perry Square in Erie is bounded by Peach Street on the west; by Park Row South on the south, by Park Row North on the north and by French Street on the East. Incidentally, several of the cannons Perry used to render the British ships useless are preserved in Detroit on the grounds of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle. There is a web page on this site describing those guns.
Sculpture for original statue: William Greene Turner
Date of installation of original statue in Newport Rhode Island: 1885
Date of installation of replica status in Erie: 1985
Use in 2016: Public Art
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