Monday, October 3, 2011
People: Chesapeake's Valliant Commander
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