Throughout his career, however, the Hero of Lake Erie exhibited two serious character flaws: a tendency to forgive subordinates of serious faults—and live to regret it later—and a temper that could explode to cause some rash action. Both of these exhibited themselves during a port call in Messina in September 1816.
Commanded by Commodore Isaac Chauncey, the Mediterranean Squadron consisted of the new 74-gun ship-of-the-line and flagship Washington (John O. Creighton, flag captain), the frigates United States (John Shaw), Java (Perry), and Constellation (Charles Gordon), and sloop of war Erie (William Crane). Shaw had been the squadron commodore before Chauncey's arrival in summer 1816.
In the midst of a layover in Naples, Perry's trusted friend, Captain Gordon, died. His death left the Hero of Lake Erie without a confidant just when he needed one. Moreover, the funeral took place on the third anniversary of the Battle of Lake Erie, usually a time of celebration and conviviality among the veterans of that encounter who were in the squadron. Perry was not in a good mood.
The Slapping Incident
Marine Captain John Heath served as commander of the Java 's Marine detachment. Midshipman Alexander Slidell Mackenzie remembered the Marine officer as "a good-natured, rather fat, unmilitary-looking, and exceedingly indolent man, who wore his hands in his pockets on the quarter-deck, and his hat on one side, less with a view apparently of annoying the captain than for the comfort of being at his ease." For some time Heath's inattention to duty bothered Perry. After the ship moored in the Bay of Naples in July, Perry found a Marine guard untidy and distinctly in contrast with the rest of the crew. When Perry brought the matter to his Marine officer's attention, Heath responded with what the ever-sensitive Java captain thought was a disrespectful and contemptuous answer.
In a highly critical officer's efficiency report to Chauncey, Perry wrote: "The general deportment of Captain Heath towards me, so contrary to the usual address of my officers, and, moreover, his marked insolence to me in many instances, induced me to believe that his conduct proceeded from a premeditated determination to insult me." Still, Perry neither publicly nor privately disciplined Heath.
On the evening of 16 September 1816 two Marines jumped ship and began swimming toward shore. Alerted about the incident, Perry bounded to the deck and sent a ship's boat to recover the men and a message for Heath to report on deck. Heath, who should have been most concerned about this incident by men of his detachment, sent a message that he was indisposed in his cabin. Perry repeated the order, and when the delinquent Marine captain finally appeared, the Java 's commander ordered him to muster the Marines. This Heath did in a lackadaisical manner and, in a breach of protocol, he failed to report which men were missing until Perry ordered him to do so.
Up to this point Perry acted in a controlled and legal fashion, and he had a fine case for Heath's relief by the squadron's commodore. But Perry, who demonstrated coolness under fire and in times of danger, lost his temper. He ordered Heath to go below and told him he should do no more duty on the Java . This was Perry's first mistake; Heath's appointment to the Java was from the Secretary of the Navy, and it was the manifest duty of the commodore to judge in such matters, not a ship's captain.
Two days later, with the Java anchored in the harbor at Messina, Perry returned late in the evening and found the following note on his cabin desk:
On the evening of the sixteenth instant, I was ordered below by you from the quarter-deck, with these words, or to that effect: "I have no farther use for your services on board this ship." I have waited till this moment to know why I have been thus treated and, being ignorant of the cause, request my arrest and charges.
Very respectfully, &c.,
Perry found the language impudent and disrespectful. Perhaps he placed too much emphasis on the "being ignorant of the cause" phrase, because it is hard to imagine Heath did not know the reason for his confinement.
Unable or unwilling to collect his thoughts and to cool his temper, Perry sent for Heath as his passions rose. When the Marine entered his cabin, Perry demanded why he had so addressed him and at such an improper hour. Every answer Heath provided Perry considered insulting and contemptuous. At some point in all this Perry allegedly said Heath was a "damned rascal and scoundrel and had not acted as a gentleman."
Perry requested the Marine Corps detachment's second ranking officer, 2nd Lieutenant Parke G. Howle, to report to his cabin. Howle witnessed the subsequent incidents and noted that Perry contemplated putting Heath in irons.
When Perry told the Marine captain to consider himself under arrest, he replied: "Very well, sir!" Perry heard a slur of insolence in the answer. When ordered to be silent, Heath answered with the same words in the same tone and made what his ship's captain described as "a contemptuous smile." Perry repeated the order for silence; Heath made the same reply. Perry could not control his passions; in what must be considered the most ill-conceived, intemperate act of his career, Perry struck Heath.
The Marine captain controlled his emotions and did nothing; Lieutenant Howle stepped between them. Before the lieutenant left to take the captain to his quarters, he heard Perry call Heath a "puppy." Had Heath replied in kind the incident might have been forgotten as a private quarrel or become mere gossip at the wardroom mess.
Instead, Perry's slap became a cause célèbre . Heath retired from Perry's presence under arrest. Initially, Perry considered placing him in irons and having a guard stand over him. These instructions he cancelled.
At the same time, Heath understood the Java 's captain had disgraced himself, having overstepped the bounds of propriety. The Hero of Lake Erie violated one of the cardinal rules of conduct among gentlemen; he dishonored the seal of state inherent in Captain Heath's commission and the majesty of the office Perry held as a ship's captain.
Now Perry found himself entangled in a web of intrigue that might require him to violate another of his principles—never engage in a duel. He was entrapped and he knew it; he was without Captain Gordon; his closest friend in the Navy, Purser Samuel Hambleton, was in the United States.
Ironically, his fate rested in the hands of Commodore Chauncey, with whom he had quarreled during the Great Lakes campaign and who had shared the Lake Erie prize money as the lakes commodore. (Although most of his contemporaries referred to him as a "commodore" after the victory, Perry was not authorized to fly the broad pendant symbolic of that rank.) Perry had written a few months before he "would see the navy to the ______ before I would ever again be the means of putting money in Chauncey's pocket." Now he was serving again under Chauncey's command.
On board the Washington was former U.S. attorney general and inbound envoy to Naples William Pinkney and his family. Apparently, Pinkney took an additional diplomatic duty upon himself while in Gibraltar—healing the breach between Perry and Chauncey.
Perry's resentment toward Chauncey lingered after the war. On the other hand, Chauncey had every reason to be grateful for the large prize money the Lake Erie victory provided him and that Perry had not opposed his award of 1/20th of the total. 1 Now Perry could only hope the mediation of Ambassador Pinkney had smoothed misunderstandings between the two enough for him to come out of this situation in better shape than he had gone into it.
According to Midshipman Mackenzie, "The following day was a gloomy one on board the Java . The officers and crew had the most profound respect for their commander and were strongly attached to his person; the victim of uncontrolled passion, he became an object of their pity; he was himself overcome with shame and mortification." He sought the advice of Captain Crane of the Constellation and Lieutenant J. S. Macpherson, the executive officer of the Java . With Perry's concurrence, the two wrote a letter to Heath expressing the deep regret Perry had in offering violence to the Marine officer and expressing his perfect "readiness to make an honourable and personal apology, such as would be proper for Captain Heath to receive and for Captain Perry to make."
This was not going to be enough to satisfy either Heath or his fellow Marine officers in the squadron, who met frequently in the Java 's wardroom and who felt Perry had offended the whole Corps, not just a single individual. Following their somewhat injudicious advice, Heath answered: "The injuries which have been inflicted upon me by Captain Perry are of such a nature that I cannot receive any apology he can offer as an atonement, but rely upon the laws of my country for justice."
Perry charged Heath with a series of offenses and requested a court-martial to investigate his behavior in the incident. The adjudication of the whole affair now fell into Chauncey's lap.
As Chauncey's disposition of the cases became apparent, outrage among the junior officers rose. Heath was under arrest and confined to quarters and the wardroom (without guard) for more than three months; Perry continued to command the Java . To compound the matter, Chauncey appointed Perry commander of a squadron consisting of the Java , Constellation , and Erie that sailed off Cape Passero, Sicily, until the Washington joined them.
Chauncey kept postponing a trial on the grounds that the squadron was never together long enough in port to allow it to be conducted. To the younger officers the unwritten rule that post captains were above the law appeared valid.
Perry preferred three charges against Heath: (1) disrespectful, insolent, and contemptuous conduct; (2) neglect of duty; and (3) disobedience of orders. To each of these were a series of specifications arising out of the unkempt Marine, the deserters' incident, and the slapping affair.
In the midst of all this, the squadron continued on its Mediterranean duties, sailing over the next several weeks to Tripoli, Tunis, Algiers, Málaga, Gibraltar, and Minorca. The court-martial therefore could not be held until 31 December 1816, when it convened in Port Mahon and lasted every afternoon, Sundays excepted, until 9 January 1817. For Heath's trial, the court consisted of Captain John Shaw, president, Captains William Crane, John Creighton, and John Downes, and George W. Rodgers (Perry's brother-in-law), and Thomas Gamble; representing the Marine Corps were Major John Hall and Captains H. B. Breckenridge and William Hall. In the small Navy of this day, among men who had been sailing around the Mediterranean with one another for nearly a year in several instances, it was impossible to constitute a court in which the principals and their personalities were not well known.
In the record between that of the two trials is a long "vindication of my character" from Captain Heath defending his position that appears to be his final plea before the court. The Marine acknowledged there might be a casualness in his walk ("I am not remarkable for walking in a handsome manner"), sloppiness in his dress (particularly in cocking his hat on one side of his head), and unmilitary appearance by standing with his hands in his pocket. Yet, he said, none of this was intended to be disrespectful or contemptuous of Perry. Heath failed to understand why, as one specification charged, when a Marine came on deck in a dirty uniform his commanding officer was to be charged for an enlisted man's misconduct. If Perry had been so excited about this situation, why did he not arrest and charge Heath in July when it happened instead of waiting until October? "Did it not appear then," argued the Marine officer, "that Captain Perry overlooked my conduct on that day? It was passed over."
Regarding the letter of 18 September, Heath argued that being below deck for two days placed him "under feelings the most mortifying—I was not longer able to bear the indignity" of not knowing the nature of his crime. Hence, he wrote the letter that he did not believe Perry would find offensive. Instead, he found himself called into Perry's cabin, facing a commander who harangued him with "harsh and improper language" when "I did not deserve such treatment." Following this, he received "a wanton and outrageous attack" by an "arbitrary Power" against which he felt himself without "the privilege of self defence which is guaranteed to us all by the Laws of God." He concluded, with false innocence: "I never intended any disrespect to Captain Perry."
The court found the Marine captain guilty on the charges of disrespectful, insolent, and contemptuous conduct and disobedience of orders, but not of neglect of duty. Since the specifications of the neglect of duty charge revolved around the slow mustering of the Marines during the desertion attempt, it is obvious the court did not find Heath's conduct of such a nature to sustain the charge. The sentence was exceptionally mild; he was to receive a verbal reprimand from the squadron commodore. It is apparent from this that the court decided on Perry's guilt and on his punishment before he defended himself.
For Perry's trial the court consisted of Captains Shaw (again president), Crane, Creighton, Downes, and Gamble. The entire case revolved around the slapping incident and Perry's conduct before and afterward. Heath wanted to make as clear as possible that Perry used abusive language to a commissioned officer, that he struck his Marine detachment commander, and that he ordered the Marine officer clapped in irons (a most unusual punishment for someone holding commission rank). Perry did not contest the slapping incident; he only defended his conduct as having been provoked by Heath's misbehavior. Besides the accuser and the accused, Marine Lieutenant Howle, Navy Lieutenant Edward McCall, Marine Corporal Usher Philpott, and Marine Private John Coleman testified. Because the case was tried in Port Mahon, Perry could not secure the evidence of the U.S. consul in Messina, who was a guest in Perry's cabin during the incident.
The witnesses generally corroborated Heath's version of the incident, although they could neither testify to the Marine captain's insolence nor his facial expressions and gestures because they either partially heard the talk through the door or came into the room after the incident. The single exception was Lieutenant Howle, who did witness the slap, although not the whole provocation. Perry provided a weak defense: "altho' I do not absolutely defend this mode of redress, yet I insist the consequences were produced by a Sufficient provocation."
The court found that Perry used improper language toward a fellow officer and that he did strike Captain Heath. The court took into consideration "the honourable overtures made to Captain Heath for a reconciliation" and required only he "receive a private reprimand from" Chauncey.
Even Mackenzie agreed "the respective punishments were certainly not proportional to the offences; and Perry having been tried on so flagrant a charge, should have been more severely dealt with." But as Secretary of the Navy S. L. Southard wrote several years later: "The presumption is certainly in favor of the Commanding Officer whose duty it was to insist upon respect for himself and rigid discipline and subordination in those under his Command."
This lenient treatment for what many considered a serious offense created great excitement among the Mediterranean Squadron's junior officers, the Navy as a whole, and many in the general public. Such a modest rebuke so outraged 41 naval and Marine officers, pursers, and surgeons that they undertook a most unusual effort and petitioned the Senate (not the Navy Department or the Board of Navy Commissioners) to "institute an inquiry into the proceedings" of this court-martial.
They complained that the "proceedings were such as to impair their confidence in the tribunals which have been established by the laws of the country for the protection of the rights of all who are connected with the naval establishment." In effect, they argued that the senior naval captains who dominated the Heath and Perry courts-martial deliberately engaged in a cover-up that merely slapped Perry on the wrist. Consequently, these subaltern officers felt they were in physical danger from their commanders. In a bit of hyperbole, they wrote the Senate that they no longer had a "guarantee for the safety of their persons, but the use of those arms, which the laws of their country have placed in their hands, and that personal strength which nature has blessed them."
At the same time nine of the Marine officers, headed by John Hall, commandant of the Mediterranean Marines, memorialized both houses of Congress and sought the establishment of "established rules and regulations" for the Marines when on board a ship. The absence of such regulations, they argued, "have always been productive of serious ills, and have, too frequently, occasioned unavoidable and unhappy disturbances." They also sought a congressional investigation of the decision of the court-martial of Perry "under the charges of outraging the rights, feelings, and persons of the commanding officer of the marines" on the Java .
It is interesting to note that neither Heath nor Howle, nor any naval officer of the Java signed either of these documents. The signers of the first included three lieutenants who subsequently would achieve considerable distinction in the Navy: Thomas ap Catesby Jones, William B. Shubrick, and Robert F. Stockton.
Concurrently, Commodore Chauncey concurred with and forwarded to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin W. Crowninshield a letter from six of the squadron's vessel commanders, but not Perry, regretting the petition to the Senate on the grounds that it was "calculated to excite disaffection and insubordination in the navy." They were so disturbed by the implication that four of them as court-martial members were prejudiced that they requested Chauncey remove all the petitioners from their command as soon as the "public service will admit of the same." Chauncey agreed to comply with their request as soon as possible. Obviously the cohesion of the senior officers required the commodore to support his one-time somewhat insubordinate subordinate.
Congress ignored these petitions as being without foundation, and the Board of Naval Commissioners sent Commodore Charles Stewart to enforce strict discipline on the Mediterranean Squadron's officers. But for Perry, his dispute with John Heath had a long way to run before it reached its climax.
These trials being over, the Java completed her Mediterranean tour and sailed for home, arriving in early March 1817. It was just more than two years since Perry returned to Newport as a hero. While in his hometown he was still idolized, he knew his reputation was damaged.
In a letter to Purser Hambleton he said the cruise "afforded both pleasure and pain. . . . I have by some means or another made out to get a host of enemies around me, but as I was not capsized by the clamor of popular applause, the stinking breath of the envious and malicious will affect me but little."
The Controversy Continues
A few weeks after landing at Newport, Perry sailed the Java to Boston, where she underwent fitting out and repair work. As he left, the officers handed him a letter signed by all except for Marine Captain John Heath. In part, it said that it was "in moments of adversity, that human nature rises superior to its common attributes, and partakes the qualities of a higher order of intelligence. The poisoned shafts of calumny will in vain be directed against the rock of conscientious rectitude." As he left the Java , they wanted him to know how they felt they were losing not only "a beloved commander," but also "a zealous disinterested friend." That friendship included "a promptness to perceive, and diligence to reward the merits of your officers." Above all, it included his being "the watchful monitor of our errors, as well as the faithful rewarder of our good conduct." 2
Such a description of him as "rock of conscientious rectitude" undoubtedly brought pleasure to one who found himself under considerable criticism in the public press. The fact that Marine Second Lieutenant Howle was one of the signers conveyed a particular satisfaction to his commander. Rather than being dismissed from the service, as were many who signed the petition to the Senate, Howle received a promotion to first lieutenant in April 1817. He remained on active duty for the next 40 years.
The outrage over Perry's striking Captain Heath and the lenient punishment received was front-page news in the United States. Perry seemed surprised, confused, and indignant over such coverage. His service did not think too much of Heath, either. The Marines dismissed him shortly after the Java's return.
In summer 1817 this "Late Captain of the Marine Corps" published a pamphlet—"Serious Charges against Captain Oliver H. Perry." Heath claimed that "unexampled injury" was done him by one of the Navy's "most distinguished officers." Central to his argument was the allegation: "It is difficult, nay it is almost impossible to believe, that a man who has excited the applause of millions for his courage and intrepidity, could nevertheless be the slave of the most violent and vindictive passions, and could descend to acts of revenge and cruelty, which in one less distinguished would consign him to the odium and execration of every good man." Perry's appearance of modesty and mildness concealed "the most consummate arrogance, and . . . a spirit of the rankest malevolence."
As bad as he deemed Perry, Heath reserved his greatest condemnation for the squadron's commodore. In Perry, one "might find some sort of shelter in human weakness and the pride of obstinacy—but . . . [the commodore] is a volunteer in crime, coolly rancorous and deliberately unjust. Commodore Chauncey has studiously labored to keep the whole transaction as secret as possible." Chauncey allegedly prohibited all officers from sending information about the affair to their friends at home, suppressed the publication of the sentences of the court-martial, and denied Heath's request for a copy of the court-martial record. On describing the private rebuke of Perry by Chauncey, Heath's prose reached heights of sarcastic imagery: "Hogarth might well have employed his pencil to depict the interview between these gallant gentlemen when this formidable censure was pronounced!"
Something must be done about this, Heath demanded. There was a time when military officers were deemed "dangerous to liberty, and naval officers were entitled to no greater priviledges [sic] than other men. That time has however passed—and the popular current runs so strongly in their favor, that their faults and even crimes, like the spots on the sun, are scarcely distinguished in the luster of their characters." Captain Perry "as well as others must have possessed more that mortal firmness to have withstood the extravagant and almost idolatrous applause bestowed on them in every part of the union. And perhaps it is not altogether to be wondered at, that intoxicated with so much praise, in the plentitude of fancied greatness, they should occasionally have forgotten themselves." He concluded with the notice that Perry never offered recourse to the field of honor over the incident. 3
When he read the pamphlet, Perry described Heath as being "destitute of truth, of honor & of spirit. . .. His book is a total distortion of truth and in many instances contains infamous falsehoods." Perry regretted that he was the cause "of bringing Commodore Chauncey's name before the public in the manner it has been by this wretch. I shall take no notice of this book, but hold myself ready to answer any call the Government may have to make."
For Perry this note provided an opportunity to open a topic of discussion that bothered him. He wanted to talk with Commodore John Rodgers and the other naval commissioners about the relaxed state of naval discipline. "Subordination and respect to rank is altogether unknown among us, and an attempt to introduce that order and regularity which was formerly the pride of the navy is resisted on the grounds of tyranny and combinations are formed which strike at the very root of naval existence." He urged Rodgers and the other commissioners to pay attention to how naval vessels are to be officered. 4 None of this absolved Perry of his personal misconduct.
Pressure continued to mount regarding a resort to the field of honor. Perry finally gave in to the indignation and noted in a letter to Decatur that should Heath challenge him he would consent to a meeting but that he would not return fire. Perry considered dueling a reprehensible practice and sought other solutions to settling personal quarrels. Now he found himself drawn into one because of his having violated rules of the service. Soon negotiations between the two sides began amid popular uproar. Friends counseled against a meeting in which one participant was willing to expose his life without engaging in self-defense.
So well known was the prospective duel that authorities tried to stop it. Finding a location became difficult. During a visit to Boston Perry found that Heath and a second were there also. Authorities arrested the Heath entourage and only released them after they promised not to disturb the peace and to leave the commonwealth. At the same time, Perry made arrangements to meet Heath near Washington on 10 October 1818.
On the back of the agreement between the two parties Perry wrote: "Captain Perry desires it to be explicitly understood, that, in according to Captain Heath the personal satisfaction he has demanded, he is influenced entirely by a sense of what he considers due from him, as an atonement to the violated rules of the service, and not by any consideration of the claims which Captain Heath, may have for making such a demand, which he totally denies; as such claims have been forfeited by the measures of a public character which Captain Heath has adopted towards him." And if "the civil authority shall produce an impossibility of meeting at the time and place designated," which Perry promised to "take every precaution to prevent," Perry would then "consider himself absolutely exonerated from any responsibility to Captain Heath touching their present cause of difference."
The duel took place on 19 October, above Hoboken, New Jersey, scene of the tragic resolution of many "affairs of honor." Accompanied by Decatur and Major James Hamilton, Perry met Heath and his second Marine Lieutenant Robert M. Desha. The principals were placed back to back and after the seconds withdrew marched five measured paces and wheeled. Heath fired; he missed. Perry handed his unfired weapon to Decatur who declared Perry's intention of not firing and that he assumed Heath was satisfied. A somewhat crestfallen Heath admitted through Desha that the injury was atoned. The affair ended as the charge in Perry's pistol was removed and the weapons were returned to their case. 5
Like General Patton, Oliver Hazard Perry is better remembered for his martial valor than his indiscretions. The U.S. Naval Academy enshrined Perry's battleflag in Memorial Hall, and "We have met the enemy and they are ours" remains one of the best known quotations in American history. Still, the Perry-Heath episode reminds us that even the most honored among us has weaknesses that should not be forgotten as we evaluate the whole character of an individual.
Dr. Skaggs, a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel, is professor emeritus of history at Bowling Green State University. Among his dozen books are A Signal Victory: The Lake Erie Campaign, 1812-1813 and Thomas Macdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy , both published by the Naval Institute Press. He is currently writing a biography of Oliver Hazard Perry.
1. Still the best biography of Perry is Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, The Life of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1843). The trials of Perry and Heath are reprinted in American State Papers: Naval Affairs (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1834-1861), 1:453-56. back to article
2. Newport Mercury, 12 July 1817. back to article
3. John Heath, "Serious Charges against Captain Oliver H. Perry" (Washington, DC, 1817). On the general poor quality of Marine Corps officers in this period see Joseph G., Dawson, III, "With Fidelity and Effectiveness: Archibald Henderson's Lasting Legacy to the U.S. Marine Corps," Journal of Military History 62 (October 1998): 727-753. back to article
4. Oliver Hazard Perry to Rodgers, 17 July 1817, Rodgers Papers, Library of Congress. back to article
5. Oliver Hazard Perry to Decatur, 7 April 1818, Perry Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Mackenzie, Commodore, 363-65, 384-87. back to article