Wednesday, June 1, 2011

History: Chesapeake vs. Shannon

With the War of 1812 already a year old, the U.S. Navy was doing well for itself. Far better, in fact, than the Royal Navy could ever have imagined. Up to May of 1813, the U.S. had taken four British warships in single combat, which was certainly four more than the superpowers of the world would have imagined them capable of. Add to that the devastation of the British merchant service in the Atlantic and one might almost feel that Captain James Lawrence was rightfully smug as he prepared his new command to leave Boston Harbor. The Captain would have done well to remember that pride goeth before a fall.

Lawrence had taken command of the three-masted frigate of war USS Chesapeake in May and now, on June 1, 1813 he was preparing to run the British blockade of Boston and get her out into the open ocean. The beautiful ship was well armed with 48 guns and well crewed with 340 men aboard her. Everyone in Chesapeake’s compliment was ready to meet the British head-on. So much so in fact that as they caught the breeze out of the harbor they raised a flag which bore the American slogan for the War of 1812: Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights.

Lawrence was sailing with a handicap, however. Not only was Chesapeake new to him but she was new to almost every man aboard her, the majority of whom were new recruits. On top of this, her officers, aside from Lawrence, were unusually green and had not had time to work their men – particularly their gun crews – as any fighting officer would have wanted to. Though it must have seemed like a lucky meet to Lawrence, who had little respect for British warships, to immediately happen upon HMS Shannon just out of Boston that sunny afternoon was in fact a horrible omen.

Both ships were over 1,000 tons, with Shannon being the slightly lighter. Shannon carried a considerable number of guns with over 90 cannon on her gun deck and 8 swivels on her quarterdeck. Most formidably, however, she was manned by a crew of 280 veterans. Her captain, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was a fighting commander of the first order who worked his gun crews almost ruthlessly until their speed and accuracy could hardly be bested.

Broke offered a challenge to Lawrence at 4:00 PM and Shannon took in sail well off shore to allow Chesapeake to approach. Lawrence heaved his ship to with her larboard faced Shannon’s starboard. At a little before 6:00 PM, both ships opened fire. Casualties were mutual but Chesapeake’s were almost immediately devastating; all her officers were wounded or killed within ten minutes. Lawrence was hit by sniper fire and, taken below; his final order was the now famous phrase “Do not give up the ship.” He died in Chesapeake’s sick berth.

Shortly after Lawrence’s death, Chesapeake veered into Shannon’s bow. Broke, not one to miss an opportunity, ordered an immediate boarding. By 6:15 the U.S. flag had been taken down and Chesapeake was prize to the British.

Casualties were high on both sides with Shannon suffering 30 killed and 55 wounded. Chesapeake, however, saw almost 50 dead and nearly 100 wounded. The U.S. ship was taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia and her men paroled from there. The loss, with its shocking swiftness and carnage, was a huge blow to American morale particularly at sea. It would be another year before the U.S. Navy fully recovered.

Header: Chesapeake vs. Shannon, colored lithograph by L. Haghe c 1830


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! They actually mentioned this story and Lawrence's final “Don't give up the ship” order this morning on the rock station I listen to here in Anchorage (KWHL 106.5: And I am not making that up. Maybe they are reading your blog too?

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Tiimy! And now I say Huzzah! for Bob and Mark. And, of course, for the crews of Chesapeake and Shannon as well.