- Historic Sites
The Great Sea Battle
Battle can never be civilized, but in a century of total war and almost total barbarism it is refreshing to look back upon chivalrous combat. If it is gallantry and honor, even quixotism, you thirst for in a barren time, they are at their highest in the duel between His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Shannon and the United States frigate Chesapeake , which met off Boston in the calm, early evening of June 1, 1813. Here is an authoritative and totally absorbing description of that famous encounter, together with an account of the principals, Captain P. B. V. Broke and Captain James Lawrence.
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
Broke fought down his mounting excitement and turned to Watt. “I hope to have the pleasure of shaking hands with Captain Lawrence today.” Watt smiled.
They wasted little time discussing the immediate situation because it was obvious to both that the Shannon was far too close to Boston and that if by mischance they were dismasted or otherwise crippled they would be in danger from boarding parties from the shore. The helm was put up to wear∗ ship, the jib set, and when they were around on a southeasterly course the topgallants and the forecourse were dropped and sheeted home. The Chesapeake meanwhile set all her studding sails‣ alow and aloft and walked out after them, a splendid, tapering mass of white sunlit and shadowed canvas against the green land.
All the officers were up on the quarter-deck now, and those marines and waisters‣ on deck were talking with hushed excitement. Broke called them to silence. Then he went below to his great cabin for the last time before it was dismantled for action. He fell to his knees and committed to God’s care his beloved Louisa and his dear children and the Shannon and all her people, and he prayed earnestly that he might not fail any of them when the moment of trial came. And if it were God’s will—let it be the Shannon to raise the proud old union flag again.
IS servant was stowing his gear ready for carrying below, and the carpenters were banging away at the timber partitions that formed his suite of rooms. They soon had them apart and carried them down to the holds with his few pieces of furniture and his books; now the gun deck presented an unbroken sweep of planking down each side inboard of the cannon: from the manger‣ forward where the goats were tethered, down past the main hatch coaming, which was surrounded by 18pounder balls like strings of black beads in their shot racks, past the foot of the mainmast [see mast ‣] with its cluster of stanchions, up again to the great windows at the stern through which the sun was striking in diagonals. Dappled reflections off the water rippled along the beams overhead.
The chase to seaward continued slowly down the fitful afternoon breeze. Broke had the carpenters erect a table on the quarter-deck and a canvas screen just forward to shield it from the men’s gaze, and invited his commissioned officers to dine with him. They gathered around the white cloth gleaming with his silver service and glassware, claret in decanters making a splash of color between their shadows—Watt and Wallis, Falkiner and the two marine officers, Johns and Law, each backed by his own servant, each a little constrained by the occasion and by an effort at unconcern. And whenever they stood up to glance over the starboard-quarter hammocks, there, like fate itself, was the towering spread of the Chesapeake ’s canvas, always just a fraction closer, the sun molding white highlights on the starboard side of her studding sails, and the ripple at her bow. A picture for an artist against the clear blue of the skyl The small craft accompanying her were straggling now; only the schooner seemed able to stay the pace in the light breeze.
When they had finished eating and the servants had cleared the plates, but while the port remained, Broke rose to his feet and looked at his officers in turn. “Well, gentlemen, no doubt we shall shortly be in action,” he started, as if announcing nothing more serious than a gun drill. “It will be a satisfaction to me if we all take wine with each other—and shake hands all round before we go to our quarters.” This was an old custom which had fallen into disuse. The chairs scraped back; the officers stood with him and raised their glasses across the table, then bowed, straightened up, and drank deeply to their friendship.
Below decks all was ready for the action. In the steamy, dark cockpit below the steerage the surgeon and his mate had laid out their armament o saws, knives, probes, drills, and forceps, which glistened dully in the candlelight from the heavy lanterns hung around the cockpit. The deck below was spread with old, scrubbed canvas; half-tubs gleaming with water stood ready to receive amputated limbs, others were placed near the sponges and bandages and tourniquets, still another half-tub was filled with warm water to take the coldness from the instruments before they entered flesh.
Forward the old gunner, having seen to the damp brushwood screens all around the hatchways up which his cartridges would be passed, and more damp screens before the entrance to the magazines themselves, was busy filling flannel cartridges with powder, helped by a little band of his mates, stacking them carefully inside the copper-lined door.