Divers say they’ve found wreck of Oliver Hazard Perry’s ship off Westerly

A team of Connecticut scuba divers say they’ve discovered off the Westerly coast the wreck of a ship once commanded by Rhode Island naval war hero Oliver Hazard Perry, whose actions helped the United States defeat the British during the War of 1812.
It was after the naval victory at Lake Erie in September 1813 — during which Perry had one ship founder beneath him before transferring to another and continuing the battle — that his message to his commanders would become immortalized: “We have met the enemy and they are ours ...”

Now, divers Charles Buffum and Craig Harger say Perry would have never been at the Battle of Lake Erie had his schooner not sunk off the reefs of Watch Hill.
Buffum, the owner of a Pawcatuck brewery, declined to name the ship they’ve discovered until a planned announcement Friday afternoon in Westerly. But local marine archeologists, who have heard of the find, identified the vessel as the Revenge, a schooner that sank on Jan. 8, 1811 –– exactly 200 years ago Saturday.
Rhode Island marine archaeologist D.K. “Kathy” Abbass wrote a history of Rhode Island’s early navy for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., and is leading much of the underwater mapping of sunken ships in Rhode Island waters. She is familiar with the Revenge.

She says it’s a “long stretch” to say, as the divers have, that the vessel’s sinking “changed the course of U.S. history” merely because Perry ended up on Lake Erie two years later.

Further, because of how the Revenge sank –– and the likelihood that hundreds of other wooden vessels have fallen victim to the rocks and rip currents in the area known as The Race — she wonders if the divers have definitive proof they’ve found the Revenge.
According to Abbass, the Revenge, which was conducting the all-important task of charting coastal waters — went aground in fog off Watch Hill. Sailors transferred much of her cargo to other vessels before starting to tow her off the rocks. During the towing, the cable parted and the Revenge began drifting and, eventually, went down.
“If you knew the direction of the wind that day and the tide, you might get a trajectory of where she might be” now, said Abbass. “But it’s a very complicated thing. So, if [the divers] haven’t done the analysis, I’d question if that is really her.”

Buffum said Thursday the divers did not find anything at the wreck that positively identified the ship as the Revenge. Still he said they were confident of their findings.
If the ship is the Revenge, it remains the property of the Navy, said Abbass, and cannot be salvaged by treasure hunters. Buffum said there was little of the ship left. The divers hope a government-funded archeological excavation might mine some historic value.
Perry was born in South Kingstown on Aug. 23, 1785. A biography written by the National Parks Service says that a court-martial proceeding exonerated Perry of the sinking, blaming the Revenge’s loss on the ship’s pilot who had assured Perry he could navigate Block Island Sound.

Still, the sinking blemished Perry’s career. He ended up cooling his heels in Newport for a time, unemployed, until the threat of war in 1812 earned him an assignment of leading a squadron of small gunboats in Newport Harbor.

Dissatisfied that he did not have a high-seas sloop-of-war at his command, he petitioned the Navy Department several times for postings at sea. Finally, as a last resort, he called upon a friend who commanded warships on Lake Erie for a command.
On Sept. 10, 1813, the American and British fleets prepared to do battle. Perry began the fight aboard his flagship, the Lawrence. Just before its sinking, he boarded a lifeboat and rowed with a few remaining sailors to the Niagara, considered an extremely brave action, and carried on the fight to victory.

By Tom Mooney

Journal Staff Writer


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