- 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
“Shannons,” he started when they were still. “Shannons, the time has come to show the superiority you have acquired in managing your guns and in marksmanship. You know the Americans have lately triumphed on several occasions over the British flag. But this will not daunt you—we all know the truth—'twas disparity of force that enabled them to do so.” He paused. “But they have gone further—they have said and published in their newspapers that the English have forgotten how to fight.” He looked around at them. “Shannons, you will let them know today that there are Englishmen in this frigate who still know how to fight. You have drilled long and earnestly. You have acquired such skill with the great guns that I believe no frigate afloat can stand beside you. Now is the time to put that drill to the test of action. Throw no shot away. Aim every one. Keep cool. Work steadily. Fire into her quarters—main deck to main deck, quarter-deck to quarterdeck. Don’t try to dismast her. Kill the men and the ship is yours.”
The sailors growled their appreciation. Broke held up a hand.
“And if it comes to close quarters, don’t hit them about the head for they have steel caps on. Give it them through the body.”
The low growl broke out again. Broke raised his voice. “You know the day—'tis the Glorious First of June.† And I have great hopes of adding another shining laurel to it, for I have no doubts that we will triumph. Remember your comrades—from the Guerrière , from the Macedonian and from the Java —you have the blood of hundreds to avenge today. The eyes of all Europe are upon you.”
†The Glorious First of June was the last day of a British-French sea battle fought in 1794, at a point over 400 miles from the French coast. The British, trying to intercept a convoy of corn that the French had bought in America and were transporting home, won a brilliant victory, although they failed to capture the convoy.
There was complete silence as Broke mentioned the three British frigates that had been lost, and now several of these sturdy sailormen around him wept openly with emotion.
One of them, named Jacob West, who had been in the Guerrière when she was taken and had subsequently been repatriated and drafted to the Shannon , raised his voice, “Sir, I hope you will give us revenge for the Guerrière today.” 47
“You shall have it, my man,” Broke replied. “Now go quietly to your quarters. And don’t cheer!”
The men dispersed back to their guns, the waisters and idlers‣ to their stations for manning the braces, and the marines along either gangway, muskets held loosely. Broke stationed two of the Shannon ’s quartermasters at the weather‣ spokes of the wheel, and a man named James Reader, alias Adam Read (a recaptured sailor), at the lee wheel, making certain that a chance shot would not leave the steering unattended. Then he walked forward to his g-pounder swivel crews and instructed them to concentrate on the American wheel. “She must not get away!”
The Chesapeake was well within range now, but Lawrence was careful to keep just clear of the Shannon ’s wake so that no guns would bear on her. She had shortened to fighting canvas and was coming on at between three and four knots under full topsails, foretopmast staysail, and jib. Lawrence’s men were waiting quietly at their quarters. Their earlier grumbling about the prize money owing them had been quieted when Lawrence sent them down to the purser by twos and threes to collect checks. Now, calling them together, he addressed them from the quarter-deck as Broke had addressed his people. After stirring their imagination and confidence by reciting the unbroken list of American frigate successes, he ended with a telling reference to his own latest victory. “ Peacock her, my lads,” he had finished. “ Peacock her!” The Americans stood to their guns, certain that they would do just that. And it was very plain that “Captain Jim” intended to go in to close quarters immediately, for he had instructed his lieutenants to add canister and bar shot to the one round, one grape, already in the guns.
Broke now shortened to single reefed topsails and jib and lay the Shannon to with the wind just forward of the starboard beam. The jib was allowed to shiver, and, the main yard being braced square, the maintopsail was shivering so that she had bare steerage way under the fore and mizzen topsails alone. The spanker‣ was held simply by the throat brail,‣ ready to drop in an instant should they need leverage at the stern to turn her up into the wind quickly, and the cr’jack‣ braces were manned. She lay like a wary fighter waiting to respond to whatever her opponent attempted.