PROVIDENCE, R.I. >> A team of divers say they’ve discovered the remains of the USS Revenge, a ship commanded by U.S. Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry and wrecked off Rhode Island in 1811.
Perry is known for defeating the British in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie off the shores of Ohio, Michigan and Ontario in the War of 1812 and for the line “I have met the enemy and they are ours.” His battle flag bore the phrase “Don’t give up the ship,” and to this day is a symbol of the Navy.
The divers, Charles Buffum, a brewery owner from Stonington, Conn., and Craig Harger, a carbon dioxide salesman from Colchester, Conn., say the wreck changed the course of history because Perry likely would not have been sent to Lake Erie otherwise. Sunday is the 200th anniversary of the wreck.
Buffum said he’s been interested in finding the remains of the Revenge ever since his mother several years ago gave him the book “Shipwrecks on the Shores of Westerly.” The book includes Perry’s account of the wreck, which happened when it hit a reef in a storm in heavy fog off Watch Hill in Westerly as Perry was bringing the ship from Newport to New London, Conn.
“I always thought to myself we ought to go out and have a look and just see if there’s anything left,” Buffum said.
The two, along with a third man, Mike Fournier, set out to find it with the aid of a metal detector. After several dives, they came across a cannon, then another.
“It was just thrilling,” Harger said.
They made their first discovery in August 2005, and kept it secret as they continued to explore the area and make additional discoveries. Since then, they have found four more 42-inch-long cannons, an anchor, canister shot, and other metal objects that they say they’re 99 percent sure were from the Revenge.
Buffum and Harger say the items fit into the time period that the Revenge sank, the anchor appears to be the main one that is known to have been cut loose from the ship, and that no other military ships with cannons have been recorded as sinking in the area.
They have not discovered a ship’s bell or anything else that identifies it as the Revenge, and all the wood has disappeared, which is not unusual for a wreck that old, they said.
The Navy has a right to salvage its shipwrecks, and the two say they’ve contacted the Naval History & Heritage Command, which oversees such operations, in hopes the Navy will salvage the remains. A spokesman for the command did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
If the Navy does not, they said they hope to raise the money for a salvage operation so the artifacts can be displayed at a historical society.
They say they are concerned now that they are going public that other divers might try to remove objects from the site, which is a violation of the law. Many of the objects they found are in only 15 feet of water, although the area is difficult to dive because of currents, they said.
As for whether the wreck of the Revenge changed the course of history, David Skaggs, a professor emeritus of history at Bowling Green State University, said Perry might not put it that way. Skaggs has written two books on Perry, “A Signal Victory,” about the Lake Erie campaign, which he co-authored, and a biography, “Oliver Hazard Perry: Honor, Courage, and Patriotism in the Early U.S Navy.”
While Harger and Buffum say Perry was effectively demoted by being sent to the Great Lakes rather than getting another high seas command, Skaggs said the Great Lakes commission still gave Perry great prestige. Perry, a Rhode Island native, became known as the “Hero of Lake Erie” after he defeated a British squadron, becoming the first U.S. commander to do so.
“Whether or not there is another officer that could have done as well as Perry did is one of those ‘might-have-beens’ that historians are not prone to ask,” Skaggs said.
Still, Skaggs said he was intrigued by the discovery.
“It is certainly an interesting new find on the eve of the bicentennial of the War of 1812,” he said.