- 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
The quiet minutes drew out agonizingly. The Chesapeake ’s masts stood taller as she walked down toward the Shannon ’s, taffrail‣ at a fine angle from the starboard quarter. Ever)' detail was bright and clear. Her three ensigns and the motto flew gaily to leeward. The sun picked out the barrels of the marines’ rifles along the spar deck, and more rifles in the tops, which were crowded with faces peering toward the Shannon . The rigging was taut and through its maze of lines and furled canvas there was a clear view to the quarter-deck and the wheel and Captain Lawrence standing high on a gunslide, tall and unmistakable in cocked hat, heavy gold epaulets, snowy shirt above his best blue coat laced with gold and buttoned across his chest; he had dressed himself carefully for the occasion, his haid braided in a queue and tied with black ribbon. His first lieutenant, sailing master, and midshipmen aides stood nearby.
Broke in his tall hat, with Watt close beside him, stood right aft at the Shannon ’s taffrail watching the American vessel closely and trying to fathom which side she would attack. There were three courses open to her. First and most unlikely, she could luff up suddenly and bring her port broadside to bear before the Shannon could answer with her full broadside—but she was coming too slowly to do this without risk of hanging in irons,‣ especially if a chance shot carried away some vital rigging. Her most likely course would be to put her wheel up and come under the Shannon ’s stern to rake. Alternatively she could come fairly alongside with her port bow ranging up the Shannon ’s starboard quarter.
Broke’s best plan, according to accepted doctrine, was to wear while she made her approach, and to try to half rake with the port broadside as she conformed to his movement. Broke dismissed this plan; he knew the value of keeping his ship steady for the gunners to take good aim, and he had little faith in a raking fire from a ship under way and swinging. Besides, this would throw the ships into action at comparatively long range, and the last thing he wanted was a maneuvering match which might leave him dismasted so close to his enemy’s base and at this late hour. He wanted to draw Lawrence alongside, yardarm to yardarm, where the ferocity of the close action would tell in favor of the ship with superior drill and discipline; this must be the Shannon .
“Close quarters was always Captain Broke’s teaching—his wish—his hope and his principle,” one of the Shannon ’s midshipmen recalled later. “It is then that every element in a sea fight even to the noise, the smoke and confusion has its greatest effect to weaken the energies and overpower the martial faculties of the enemy.”
So he left his wheel steady and his jib and mainsail shivering, offering his barely moving frigate to Lawrence from whichever side he chose to take her, challenging him similarly to dispense with opening maneuvers—but watching closely nevertheless, ready to meet whatever movement he chose.
“Sir, may’nt we have three ensigns”—it was one of the carronade hands nearby, his voice tight with suppressed excitement—"like she has sir?”
Broke turned and glanced briefly up at the Shannon ’s single, faded blue ensign fluttering from the gaff.‣
“No. One is sufficient.” He added, “We have ever been an unpretending ship.” But he called out to the Scot who was captain of the mizzentop, “Make fast a stop at each side of the flag!”
When he turned to observe the American frigate again it appeared that she had put her helm up. Watt said, “She’s bearing up‣ to rake!” Broke called out for the jib to be sheeted in and the wheel starboarded. Walking forward with his speaking trumpet, he called down to the gun deck through the open skylight which normally served his cabin, telling the men to lie down on deck. “Stand by for raking fire from aft!”
Whether Lawrence intended to rake but thought better of it when he saw the Shannon coming around to answer him, or whether it was just a temporary adjustment in his line of approach, he almost immediately resumed his former course. Broke, watching carefully, did likewise. Now he knew he had his man. Lawrence had accepted the challenge; he was going to run alongside! To make their speeds more nearly equal, therefore, he ordered the maintopsail braced sharp up so that it would fill like the fore and mizzen, and then, walking to his skylight again, he called out to his main-deck gunners to fire when they bore on the Chesapeake ’s second main-deck port from forward. Wallis at the after quarters and Falkiner, forward, had the quoins of the starboard battery set to give horizontal fire to windward under the present easv press of the toosails.