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A wreck that changed history

Diver team says it has found Navy hero's lost ship

Jan. 20, 2011 - 02:14PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 20, 2011 - 02:14PM  |  
This 2006 photo, publicaly released Jan. 6, show a submerged cannon that divers say is one of the remains of the schooner Revenge, commanded by Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry.
This 2006 photo, publicaly released Jan. 6, show a submerged cannon that divers say is one of the remains of the schooner Revenge, commanded by Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry. (The Associated Press)

Divers say they have discovered the remains of the schooner Revenge, commanded by Navy hero Oliver Hazard Perry and wrecked off Rhode Island on Jan. 9, 1811.

Perry is known for being the first U.S. naval commander to defeat a British squadron, which he did in the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812.

He is also immortalized for his 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.

Buffum said he has been interested in finding the remains of 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 Revenge hit a reef in a storm in heavy fog off Watch Hill in Westerly, R.I., 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.

Buffum and Harger, 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 one cannon, then another.

"Thrilling," Harger said.

They made their first discovery in August 2005 and kept it secret as they continued to explore the area. They've since found four more 42-inch cannons, an anchor, canister shot and other metal objects that they are almost certain are from Revenge.

Buffum and Harger say the items fit the time period that Revenge sank, the anchor seems to be the main one that is known to have been cut loose from the ship, and no other sinkings of military ships with cannons have been recorded in the area.

They have not discovered a ship's bell or anything else that positively identifies it, and all the wood has vanished, 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 have contacted the Naval History and Heritage Command, which oversees such operations, in hopes the Navy will salvage the remains. A command spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

If the Navy does not, the men said they hope to raise money for a salvage operation so the artifacts can be displayed at a historical society.

As for whether the wreck of the Revenge changed history, David Skaggs, a professor emeritus of history at Bowling Green State University in Ohio who has written two books on Perry, said the naval legend might not put it that way.

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.

Whether another officer could have done as well as Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie "is one of those ‘might-have-beens' that historians are not prone to ask," Skaggs said.

Still, he said he is intrigued by the discovery of Revenge, which he called "an interesting new find on the eve of the bicentennial of the War of 1812."

— The Associated Press

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