Monday, October 3, 2011

People: Chesapeake's Valliant Commander

October 1st was the 230th anniversary of the birth of Captain James Lawrence, USN. Lawrence, whose famous urging to his crewmen “Don’t give up the ship” has been a Navy rallying cry since he spoke those fateful words, is unfortunately not as famous as his utterance. Though he died young at only 31 years of age, Lawrence had as impressive a career as far more noted naval heroes of his time.

Lawrence was born during the Revolutionary War. His mother, Martha, was apparently a supporter of the rebellious colonies in which she lived. Her husband, John, had Loyalist leanings to the point of preparing to move his family from Burlington, New Jersey to Nova Scotia. Martha died shortly after James’ birth and John, apparently not the steadfast type that his son would grow into, left the infant with his half-sister and fled to Canada. Father and son would never meet face to face.

James grew up in Woodbury with his aunt’s family, not knowing until later that he was not one of the clan. Though he had begun to study law in his early teens, James took a sudden inclination to go to sea and joined the newly rebuilding U.S. Navy as a Midshipman in 1798.

The Quasi-War with France was in the offing, and James had plenty of opportunity to show his aptitude for sailing. He was first placed aboard the brig USS Ganges and then transferred to the frigate USS John Adams. His capabilities brought him a Lieutenant’s commission in 1802, just in time for the First Barbary War. Lawrence was aboard USS Enterprise as Second Lieutenant when USS Philadelphia was captured by the Tripolitans. The timing was perfect; James distinguished himself as second in command under Stephen Decatur in the daring raid that destroyed Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor in 1804. The following year he would command Gunboat No. 6 on a political mission to Italy and then take up the position of First Lieutenant aboard John Adams.

With the First Barbary War over, Lawrence – still with the rank of Lieutenant – took command of first the sloop Vixen and then Wasp. By 1807 he was back home in the U.S. in the port of New York. It was probably during this period by land that young James Lawrence met the daughter of a French merchant in the city, Julia Montaudevert. She was only seven years younger than Lawrence and, in fact, a virtual old maid by the standards of the day at nineteen years old. She was said to have a quiet charm and beautiful dark eyes. Lieutenant Lawrence was smitten; the pair married in 1808.

Lawrence was promoted to Master Commandant while in command of the brig Argus late in 1810. At this time he was given command of the sloop Hornet, a fast runner who carried a remarkable armament for her size. Lawrence was immediately dispatched “… to Europe on a diplomatic mission” according to his biography at the Naval History Center website. They do not say what the diplomatic mission concerned, however.

With the onset of the War of 1812, Lawrence took Hornet all over the Atlantic to hunt for British ships. He captured the privateers Dolphin and Bonne Citoyenne in 1812, following up with the capture of HMS Peacock in 1813. When he returned to Boston with his prize in March of the same year, Lawrence found himself promoted to Captain and put in command of one of the finest ships in the U.S. service, Chesapeake. He also found he was a father when Julia presented him with their nearly two year old daughter Mary Neill Lawrence.

James had precious little time to spend with his new family. His orders as Captain of Chesapeake were to approach and engage HMS Shannon. Captained by the veteran Philip Bowes Vere Broke, Shannon had been blockading Boston harbor with great success. Lawrence took Chesapeake out on June 1, 1813. Unknown to him, Julia was again with child when he sailed.

Lawrence engaged Vere Broke almost immediately upon getting underway. Chesapeake and Shannon began firing at 4:00 PM and Vere Broke’s highly trained crew got the upper hand almost immediately. All of Chesapeake’s officers were either wounded or killed. Captain James Lawrence was struck several times by sniper fire. As men picked him up from the deck to carry him below, he shouted: “Tell them to fire faster; don’t give up the ship!” Some sources give the quote as: “Don’t give up the ship! Fight her till she sinks!” Either way, Chesapeake would only fight for a quarter of an hour; Shannon’s angry boarding party overwhelmed her only minutes after Lawrence expired.

Chesapeake was taken as prize to Halifax, Nova Scotia where Lawrence and his officers were laid to rest with honors. The news of Chesapeake’s defeat cheered the British, who had suffered – and continued to suffer – heavy losses at sea against the Americans.

Paroled Chesapeakes brought the news of Lawrence’s brave last words home. His close friend and colleague, Oliver Hazard Perry, had a blue flag made with white lettering proclaiming “Don’t give up the ship”. This he flew on his flagship during his victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813. A replica of the flag is now on display in the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

Julia Lawrence gave birth to her son James after his father’s death. The boy died in infancy. Mary Neill Lawrence went on to marry another naval officer in 1838, William Preston Griffin. Julia successfully had her husband’s remains transferred to New York. The Lawrences are now interred in Trinity Churchyard in Manhattan.

Header: Lawrence’s grave, Trinity Churchyard via Wikipedia


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Wow, you are right, Lawrence did have quite an impressive career. I wish I could say that I already knew that, but thanks to you, now I do... Thankee, Cap'n.

Pauline said...

It's true. Considering his short life, he really got a lot done.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Sad, and what a waste - throwing away a fine ship and crew, not to mention a very promising skipper. And to what effect?

Whomever dreamed that mission up just wasn't thinking, and sometimes that happens, but whilst they retire to their drawing room by the fire with a nice, hot toddy, others sleep coldly in Davy Jones' locker.

Thank you, Pauline. This was a good read on one of our lesser-known heroes. Our lesser knowledge does not make Captain Lawrence any less a hero.

Pauline said...

I absolutely agree, C. Perry's rememberence of his friend does him proud as well.

Anonymous said...

Hi Pauline

I was interested to read your write up on “Chesapeake's Valliant Commander”. You may be interested to that the timbers from the USS Chesapeake are still in use at an old grain Mill in Southern England.

The building in Wickham was constructed using timbers from the USS Chesapeake. The ship was taken apart and large pieces were used to build the mill. The massive gun-deck beams from the USS Chesapeake support the upper floors of the mill, and they still bear the signs of cracks and splinter damage caused by cannon fire. All the lintels that span the openings of doors and windows are from the ship. The Mill stopped operating commercially in the 1970s and is now a listed building.

I have also read that when the Chesapeake was broken up, the figurehead was mounted on a summer house in the garden of Arford House. It was said to be a bird, perhaps an eagle, and a portion of it was said to be part of a lamp bracket in the house.

My interest in the battle is because I have an a oil painting of the battle in my living room which I had commissioned in 1974.

Pauline said...

Thank you for the added info, Anon. Very intersting stuff and much appreciated.

Patricia said...

I am related to the Lawrences and have done extensive research on them. Concerning James Lawrence's mother, Martha Tallman Lawrence, little is known of her and certainly there is no indication of her own political leanings. Her brother Peter Tallman was on a Committee of prosecuting Loyalist.

James Lawrence did live with sisters Elizabeth and Anne Lawrence, but was under his brother care in 1795 when his father died. Immediately James left studying to be a lawyer and entered the navy.

James' father, John Brown Lawrence, as a poplar Mayor of Burlington, NJ. He try to negotiate a truce with the German mercenaries not to bombard and pillage the City of Burlington, but Mayor J B Lawrence was instead fired upon by an American vessel. John Brown Lawrence, Esq. is instead a hero Burlington, NJ. Later Mayor Lawrence was imprisoned and one of his fellow prisoners was the English General, John Graves Simcoe, who would later become the Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario).

One of Mayor Lawrence plans was to build a Utopian settlement on the banks of the Ohio but the Revolution put that on hold. Ten years after the Revolution, Gov. Simcoe called on his old jail cell mate, to come join him to help establishing Simcoe's own new settlement in Toronto to be based on his hopes of a perfect society. Unfortunately neither Governor Simcoe nor John B Lawrence, Esq. would live very long to see this through.

It is in this very same dedication to loyalty and service to people that his son James Lawrence died valiantly.

Sincerely, P J Ahlberg

Pauline said...

Thank you for adding so much to this post, Patricia. I very much appreciate your taking the time to enlighten those who might drop by in the future. Obviously, your excellent information is the result of a lot of hard work, and it is a great privilege to have you share it here. Please do stop by again if you see something you have more information on.