- 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
Above on the main deck, alternate cannon had been loaded with one ball in addition to the one they always had in them at sea; the others had one round of shot, one of grape. By the side between each gun port was a halftub of salt water in case of fire, and by each breech, but placed out of range of possible leaping, stood another halftub of water with lighted slow matches stuck in the rim in case the lock failed. A third bucket contained fresh water for refreshing the crew. Nettings of wads were placed handy between the guns, and the rammers, sponges, and worms‣ laid in parallel on the deck, handles inboard as if at drill; the ends of all the tackles were neatly flaked,‣ the flints carefully placed and adjusted in the locks, the tampions‣ removed from the mouths that poked outboard; all that was needed now before firing was the correct adjustment to the quoins‣ for horizontal aim. The deck had been wet and sprinkled with sand, hoses were uncoiled like snakes over the hatch gratings, the pumps were rigged.
Similar preparations were visible on the forecastle and quarter-deck for the carronade batteries, and the small arms had been laid inboard of them for the boarders. Above, the yards had been slung with chains and further secured against falling by stoppers to their halyards so that if cut below the stoppers by shot they would still hold. Buckets of water had been prepared on hoists so that the sails could be wet down just before the action.
Meanwhile Lawrence, fearing once more that he might be following the Shannon into a trap, rounded to and lay pointing northwesterly toward Salem, and fired a gun. Broke had the Shannon brought to in the same direction and hove all aback, and fired a gun in reply. He discussed with the officers whether they were far enough from the harbor, but decided that as there was still plenty of daylight it would be advisable to try to draw the Chesapeake still farther out. So when Lawrence, apparently satisfied with Broke’s action, put his helm up and filled again, standing toward him, Broke did the same.
By this time, about 4:00, the Shannon had run some fifteen miles from Boston, which was out of sight astern. Broke, his table and canvas screen cleared from the quarter-deck, shortly decided that the time was suitable for allowing the Chesapeake to close, and he ordered the topgallants to be taken in and the staysails‣ lowered. The hands were piped to grog. The kids were brought up from the manger and thrown overboard. Broke watched them struggling as they drifted astern.
The Chesapeake was barely four miles away and was steadily closing the gap of blue water. Her cloud of canvas was broken gaily by the red and blue splashes of three ensigns from the main and mizzen, and still at the foreroyal was the white flag with “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” emblazoned across it. This was what they were fighting for—not the economists’ definition but simply the freedom to trade with whatever country they wished, without the fear of impressment.
By 4:50 the Chesapeake was some two miles astern and Lawrence ordered his studding sails to be taken in, the royals furled, and the royal yards sent down on deck. Broke noted this, but kept his own royal yards across, as he expected that the light breeze might die away with the evening. At 5:10 he asked Watt to have the drum beat to quarters; the men assembled and stood quiet and grim in double rows between the cannon, looking almost as they had at the morning’s drill—but with a tension about them which had been lacking then. The quiet was intense.
CARVES hung casually about their shoulders ready to be tied around their ears to protect them against the shattering blasts in action; some men were bare-chested with another scarf holding their white or blue duck trousers around their waists, others had striped shirts tucked in or hanging outside like smocks. Everything was clean in case a ball plowed the cloth into their flesh.
The officers had donned worn old uniforms and their fighting swords for the fray, and Broke had adorned himself with a top hat as better protection for his head than the uniform cocked hat. When the men were all assembled, Broke went to the break of the quarterdeck. The men of the upper-deck quarters and the marines, brilliant in their scarlet and white-crossed tunics, drew up on either side along the gangways; the men of the main deck looked upward from below the boats and spars across the open hatchway.