Wednesday, June 1, 2011
History: Chesapeake vs. Shannon
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