- 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
Forward in the American frigate the slaughter was dreadful. Most of the gun’s crew standing by the right of the foremost gun, which was the point of the Shannon ’s aim, were dead or injured. Some had been laid flat against the timbers of the manger, pieces of others were blown straight across to the opposite port. The lieutenant of the first division, Budd, together with other survivors, pulled the bodies clear so that the gun could be fired, dispatched the wounded down to the cockpit, the dead into the sea.
S the Chesapeake ranged up with almost a knot superior speed, the destruction spread aft. The two balls or ball and grape from each British gun, travelling comparatively slowly before their charges of old and often damp and clogging powder, smashed through the side timbers, spreading jagged splinters and mowing down the guns’ crews. Above them the British carronades, loaded with one round and one grape each, were spreading equal destruction along the Chesapeake ’s upper deck and gangway, and the g-pounders detailed by Broke for dismantling the wheel had already dispatched the original quartermaster. Another had taken his place. Captain Lawrence himself had a musket ball in his leg from a marksman in the top; one knee of his snowy white breeches was spreading with red.
He realized that he had too much speed, a situation aggravated by the fact that his canvas was now blanketing the Shannon ’s and further increasing the difference in their rates of sailing. He ordered the wheel put down for a pilot’s luff, a temporary yaw into the wind to shiver the sails and take the way off. This maneuver was helped by the loss of wind from his jib, and the Chesapeake turned away, veering her stern half toward the Shannon . All of the American ship’s guns were in bearing by now, and the comparatively unhurt midships and after crews had begun firing with an energy equalling the Shannon ’s own; but as they were manning lee guns and were without the meticulous arrangements for horizontal fire that the British ship could boast, too many shots hit below the main deck and banged against the copper exposed above the water line. A number took effect among the guns’ crews, however, bringing death and splinters, the sudden shock of wounds —smashed bone and muscle, limbs flying, and blood pulsing through clean cloth, spreading, tacky underfoot.
The immaculate silence which had been observed as at drill disintegrated into a grunting, cursing, even cheering confusion of sound as the crews reloaded feverishly and the tackle men hauled the great pieces out with a run.
In brief intervals when the piled-up smoke blew clear, the marksmen in the Shannon ’s tops had vivid glimpses down to the Chesapeake ’s upper deck; the planking was scarcely visible—"the hammocks, splinters and wreck of all kinds driven across the deck formed a complete cloud.” The American marine officer, Lieutenant James Broom, and the sailing master, William White, were taken off, as were also two midshipmen and a number of marines; Lawrence, having limped down from his gun slide, leaned on the binnacle for support. Two of his helmsmen had been killed and a third was at the wheel. The easy Peacock had turned into a hawk with red claws.
Down below in his gun deck the fourth lieutenant, Ballard, fell mortally wounded, and forward in the first division, whose guns were now out of bearing, Lieutenant Budd realized with a shock of horror that out of some one hundred and fifty men who had started the action on the gun deck only about fifty were still on their feet, able to work their pieces.
S the Chesapeake continued to turn up into the wind most of her shot struck forward in the Shannon . Thomas Selby, able seaman on the forecastle, had his head smashed from his body. Neil Gilchrist was cut in two by a 32pounder ball. Thomas Barry, a young lad, was taken off by a star shot across his middle. A gs-pounder carronade ball struck a case of shot for the Shannon ’s i2-pounder, which was stowed in the main chains, and drove it through the timbers to scatter like lead hail across the gun deck. The Shannons moved their wounded from the dangerous space near the leaping cannon and into the arms of the sick-bay party, pitched the lifeless through the ports, and found themselves caught up in a primeval lust for killing which swept the quarters like a red cloud, turning them berserk. They cheered and yelled obscenities, dripping sweat as they worked with superhuman frenzy, mindlessly handling the tackles and sponges and rammers whose feel and motion they knew as well as their own leathery palms.
The Shannon reeled and shook to the discharge of her own guns and the occasional staggering shock of the enemy’s blows as the Chesapeake ’s welldrilled crews, decimated as some were, still poured in a ragged volley from the midships and after guns.