- 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
On the American quarter-deck the third helmsman fell, and the wheel it-self was smashed and the tiller ropes cut by Broke’s dismantling guns. The Chesapeake , out of control and with the helm still slightly a-lee, continued to luff into the wind, helped around by her spanker, whose brails had been shot away so that the canvas blew out and flattened against the mizzeii rigging. The fore-topsail halyard had also been cut by a shot, and the yard having no chain slings‣ or preventers‣ —a sign of careless overconfidence perhaps—had fallen on the lifts‣ and shivered the canvas; her head turned farther from the Shannon .
Broke, seeing this, and thinking that she was trying to disengage under cover of the smoke and deafening confusion, ordered the wheel down to chase her, then walked forward to direct the two 9-pounders to aim for the Chesapeake ’s head yards, not realizing that these had already been disabled. As he passed by the main shrouds, lifting one leg high over an obstacle on deck, a 32-pounder ball from the Chesapeake knocked a monkeytail‣ from the g-pounder swivel, and flew on, according to witnesses, between his legs. The captain of the gun, Driscoll, fell to the deck with both knee caps fractured by the flying metal. He was carried to the mainmast, where he sat weeping with mortification at being out of the fight. The loader of the same gun received a grape shot just below his stomach, an agonizing wound. He loaded the gun nevertheless, then fell to the deck in torment, beseeching anyone nearby to put a hand into the wound and remove the shot. “I shall do well enough if you will only do that.” He died later.
By now all the Shannon ’s aftermost guns were out of bearing, since the Chesapeake , despite her luff, had surged on past them. The carronade crews from the quarter-deck had consequently left their pieces at a word from Broke, picked up muskets, and swarmed forward onto the booms and the boats, from where they started firing over the heads of their own marines, drawn up along the gangway, into the blue mass of the opposing marines.
Their fire winged diagonally across the American decks as the Chesapeake ’s totally unbalanced canvas accelerated her turn into the wind. Her yards were caught aback. The canvas slapped loosely against the masts and she lost way, then started drifting astern, back toward her eager adversary. Broke’s second lieutenant of marines, John Law, saw her approaching through the smoke clouding up from the forward guns and, hoping to get some orders for his division, which was still drawn up out of the fight on the disengaged gangway, observed to Broke that she was preparing to board.
“No, sir,” Broke replied. “She is crippled and cannot help herself.” Nevertheless he ordered Law to move his men onto the forecastle. Then, directing his forward carronades to fire among the massed American marines, he ordered the helm up and the mizzen topsail to be shivered, in an attempt to throw the Shannon away from the approaching stern of the other. The American ship was helpless in irons and he wanted to pour in more shot before there was any question of boarding. Unfortunately, the Shannon ’s jibstay was parted by a shot at this moment, and she fell off very slowly.
On the wreck-strewn quarter-deck of the Chesapeake Lawrence realized that his ship was falling foul of the Britisher and ordered the boarders up. Lieutenant Ludlow yelled down through the hatchway; Midshipman William E. McKinney, a bare fourteen years old, scampered down the main ladders and went forward to tell Lieutenant Budd of the first division; then he worked his way aft, piping out instructions to Lieutenant Cox of the second division, and calling out to the third division, whose aftermost guns were still in bearing and were firing. Meanwhile, another of Lawrence’s aides, Curtis, was trying to find the bugler, William Brown. This man, who had no duty in action save to stand by with his bugle at the break of the quarter-deck, a passive spectator of the wreck and carnage, had not unnaturally tried to find shelter from the musketry sweeping the deck. He was crouching under the disengaged side of the longboat, which was stowed in its chocks just three feet forward of his duty position. When Curtis at last found him, he yelled at him to blow —blow for the boarders—but the wretched man was so terrified or stupefied by the noise and frantic confusion that he just crouched there, trembling. Curtis left and ran down the main hatchway to call the boarders by word of mouth.