History Stories

In thick fog and heavy seas, the 14-gun naval schooner USS Revenge struck a reef off Watch Hill in Westerly, Rhode Island, on January 9, 1811. The ship’s commander, Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry, ordered his sailors to jettison weight—including the ship’s mast, anchor and eight of its guns—in an effort to float free, but the vessel remained ensnared.

After the Revenge broke into two pieces, the waves carried off the upper deck section, while the hull of the ship remained caught in the reef. Winter weather hampered the Navy’s efforts to salvage the hull—though they did manage to retrieve the remaining six guns aboard—and the wreck was lost to history for the better part of the next two centuries.

An official investigation of the incident found that Perry was not at fault, and blamed the wreck entirely on a navigation error by the ship’s pilot. All the same, the young lieutenant’s career stalled temporarily, until he was assigned command of the Lake Erie squadron. On September 10, 1813, during the War of 1812, Captain Perry famously led U.S. ships to a decisive victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, forcing a British squadron to surrender for the first time in history.

Charlie Buffum, the owner of Cottrell Brewery in Stonington, Connecticut, recalls reading a letter Perry wrote to his superior shortly after the Revenge’s wreck, reprinted in an old book about local shipwrecks he found in his parents’ attic. “His letter always intrigued me after I read it years and years and years ago,” Buffum told HISTORY. “I always thought—whatever happened to it, did anybody ever go out and salvage it? Did anybody ever pull any of the stuff up?”

Oliver Hazard Perry

Oliver Hazard Perry (Credit: U.S. Naval Academy Museum Collection)

In 2005, Buffum’s curiosity led him and Craig Harger, his longtime friend and carbon dioxide salesman, to use a metal detector to search for Perry’s wrecked ship, based on an approximate location taken from that very same old book, “Shipwrecks on the Shores of Westerly.” In the swift currents and choppy water just off Watch Hill, they soon found what they were looking for: two cannons matching the type used on the Revenge. Over the next several years, the pair continued diving at the site and found other artifacts, including several more cannons.

In January 2011, the bicentennial of the Revenge’s wreck, Buffum and Harger announced their findings in a news conference at the Ocean House, a hotel in Watch Hill. They also alerted the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, which is responsible for identifying and managing sunken naval vessels.

Over the next several years, Buffum and Harger worked in cooperation with the command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) to further investigate the site. In 2012, in partnership with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the UAB used an autonomous underwater vehicle to gather sonar data from the site. Two years later, the underwater archaeologists conducted a magnetometer survey, using Buffum’s own boat.

On May 24, Navy divers returned to Rhode Island to recover a gun from the suspected Revenge wreck. “The first thing we had to do was to dive with them and show them where everything was,” Buffum explained. “It’s nearly impossible to find anything down there without a metal detector…There’s so much weed that overgrows the site that it’s even hard for us to refind them every time.”

Craig Harger (left) and Charlie Buffum (right), who discovered the wreckage of the USS Revenge.

Craig Harger (left) and Charlie Buffum (right), who discovered the wreckage of the USS Revenge. (Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Heather Brown)

When the recovered cannon in the Navy’s 2,500-pound lift bag emerged from the ocean, Buffum and Harger were able to witness the culmination of their years of effort. “For us it’s the day we’ve been waiting for, really,” Buffum said. “Twelve years after we actually set eyes on the first cannon, this has finally happened for us.”

Two days after its retrieval, the cannon from the suspected Revenge wreck had made its way to a conservation lab at the Washington Navy Yard. After desalinating and stabilizing it—a process that may take as long as two years—naval archaeologists will look for foundry marks that might enable them to identify the weapon. George Schwarz, an underwater archaeologist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, wrote on the organization’s website that even without such marks, they could still corroborate its identity using historical documents.

Schwarz told the Associated Press that he’s highly confident the cannon does belong to the Revenge: “There aren’t any other U.S. Navy vessels lost, as far as we know, right in this area, and there aren’t too many other armed vessels, as far as we know, lost here.” The Navy plans to return to the wreck and continue excavations, as well as to further document the site, which is protected from unauthorized disturbance under the Sunken Military Craft Act.

As for Buffum, he told HISTORY he is “99.9 certain that it is the Revenge,” based on “all of the circumstantial historical evidence.” Asked whether he and Harger will continue searching for other ships lost to history, Buffum chuckled. “We always like to find the next new wreck, but I doubt that we’ll ever find anything quite like this again.”

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