- 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 confusion was, if anything, worse below. The Shannon ’s main-deck fire was half raking from the port quarter as the Chesapeake hung in the wind, drifting down toward the muzzles. Lawrence’s stern windows had been beaten in and the fir beams and timbers had been shivered into clouds of splinters that brought death and terror to the men of the after quarters, who had been virtually untouched at the commencement of the action. The men of the first division, up forward, who had taken the first brutal, methodical assault of the Shannon ’s guns and whose own pieces had been out of bearing for some minutes, had no work to take their minds off the crashes and screams from aft; they were either lying on the deck to try to escape the fire or were crowding over to the disengaged starboard side, where they took refuge by the galley. A few men from the comparatively unhurt second division in the waist followed their lieutenant, Cox, as he rushed with drawn sword for the main hatchway, crying, “Boarders away!” but most retired to starboard and mingled with the beaten men of the first division.
There was also a steady stream of wounded being taken below to the cockpit. Lieutenant Ludlow, hit by a musket ball, was among them, leaving Lawrence the only officer on the upper deck—apart from some midshipmen forward. Already Lieutenant Ballard of the third division, which was now taking the hardest pounding, had been carried below by his midshipman.
Lieutenant Cox meanwhile gained the quarter-deck only to find that his captain had been hit with a second musket ball—this time it was a desperate wound just above the groin—and, in pain, was clinging to the binnacle to keep himself upright. Cox, who had been with Lawrence all his sea life and who had the same respect and affection for him as Broke’s men had for him, sheathed his sword and, ordering the men to “rush on,” hurried to hold up his captain. Lawrence asked him to show him the way to the cockpit, and Cox, helped by two sailors, took the Captain painfully to the ladder and down. As they reached the gun deck Lawrence recognized his young aide McKinney, and called out to him to hurry up the boarders.
On the Chesapeake ’s forecastle the boatswain, Adams, had been mortally wounded; midshipman John D. Fisher had rushed aft on hearing the call for boarders. But he saw no signs of an organized body of men there, simply a few leaderless individuals held in an enfilading fire from the whole length of the Shannon , and a few carronade men valiantly working their pieces through the roar and the smoke. He thought a mistake must have been made and once more went forward. Here he found that an order had been passed to board the fore tack and haul aft the head sheets to shoot the ship clear. The wounded Adams growled, “They are shot awayl”
But it was too late anyway. The Chesapeake had been increasing her pace astern, and now her wrecked port quarter gallery crunched against the Shannon ’s timbers. The fluke of the Shannon ’s working anchor, which had been stowed on a gangway to be out of the way, tore in and held. At the same time the Americans’ spanker boom swung over the Shannon ’s marines, who were lined up two or three deep and still firing as fast as they could load. Broke’s boatswain, Stevens, hurried to lash the boom inboard to keep the ships together.
Broke meanwhile was leading a charmed life. Having narrowly escaped the ball that put Driscoll out of the fight, and having been untouched by all the American marines’ bullets aimed for his tall hat, he was standing beside his clerk, John Dunn, his purser, George Aldham, and the marine sergeant, Molyneux. A shot from one of the Chesapeake ’s after carronades struck the bow of the launch just forward of him and knocked a cloud of splinters away to leeward, temporarily halting the marines of the second division, who were moving along the port gangway in orderly fashion to take up station on the forecastle. Almost immediately afterward another of the American carronades erupted only feet away, knocking in the hammocks just beside him and smashing both Dunn and Aldham to the deck with pockets of grape across their lower stomachs and hips. They lived for scarcely an hour.
Broke was not conscious of his escapes as, standing on a forecastle carronade slide, he peered over to try to ascertain the situation on the Chesapeake ’s decks. He himself had no intention of boarding, but he suddenly realized that there was no one to oppose him. The American marines had long been in an intolerable position. They were massed on the gangways under the concentrated, half-raking fire of grape from the Shannon ’s forward carronades. Also, they were exposed to fire from the Shannon ’s first division of marines, from the gun crews of the after quarters in the boats above them, and from the expert and chosen marksmen in the tops; now those American marines that remained, their officers dead, were falling back on the forecastle. The gun crews of the Chesapeake ’s after carronades were also fleeing forward in the smoke caused by a grenade which had exploded the arms chest by the Americans’ mizzen and spread flame briefly up the luff of the spanker.
Now the quarter-deck lay just four feet from him—practically desertedl