The commodore ordered the young lieutenant to conduct an accurate survey of an important stretch of the New England coast. It was a plum assignment for such a junior officer, given to him because he had already demonstrated much ability and even more potential. The young man’s future looked bright.
For the task, the lieutenant commanded the schooner Revenge. Someone prone to omens might have read something into the fact that two previous American naval vessels bearing that name had come to unhappy ends during the American Revolution. But if this lieutenant had any such misgivings, he kept them to himself and went about his task with fervor.
Unfortunately, it was the dead of winter, and the weather impeded the survey such that it soon became apparent that it could not be completed by the deadline the commodore had imposed. Communications were frustratingly slow and unreliable in those early days of the 19th century, so the lieutenant decided to sail from his base of operations at Newport, Rhode Island, to New London, Connecticut, to ask the commodore for an extension.
Near the end of the midwatch on 9 January 1811, the young commanding officer weighed anchor and with the aid of a northeastern breeze, set sail for New London. The morning watch had barely begun when a heavy fog blanketed Narragansett Bay, but the lieutenant was confident that his pilot had things under control, so he retired to his cabin to rest.
All was quiet for the next several hours, but at about 0900, the lieutenant heard the leadsman call out “ten fathoms.” By the time he arrived on deck, the leadsman had called out “five fathoms,” and the lieutenant knew his ship was in serious danger. A flurry of orders and actions followed, but it was too late. With a sickening crunch, the Revenge ran aground.
This was not the first vessel to run aground on Watch Hill Reef, nor would it be the last, but that was of little consolation to this promising young lieutenant whose bright future had suddenly dimmed. Demonstrating remarkable composure and presence of mind, he jettisoned his guns, tried to kedge his way off, cut down the mainmast and foremast, and sent word ashore of his plight in hopes of getting towed off. But worsening weather compounded the situation, and the Revenge remained steadfastly attached to the reef as mounting swells eventually filled her with water. Finally, facing the inevitable, the lieutenant removed what equipment he could and ordered the crew to abandon ship.
The inevitable court of enquiry ensued, and although Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton concluded that “my confidence in him has not been in any degree diminished” and assigned blame to the pilot, the lieutenant took full responsibility for the disaster.
Although he was excluded from a coveted major seagoing command at the onset of the War of 1812, his obvious potential was not completely ignored and the lieutenant was eventually promoted to master commandant and given command of the American squadron at Lake Erie. As fate (and the wisdom of those who continued to see great potential in this young officer, despite the serious blemish on his career) would have it, he won a now-famous victory there that was of great strategic significance and made Oliver Hazard Perry one of the U.S. Navy’s greatest heroes.