- 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
As he saw all this through the thinning smoke, a sailor just forward came to the same conclusion and leaped up on to the forecastle hammock cloth, shouting, “Captain Broke, now is a fine time to board her, for damn the man that’s alive on her quarter-deck!” He crossed over to the Chesapeake ’s bulwarks, but a shot from an American marine dropped him.
Broke realized that the opportunity to board was fleeting: the ships were touching at a small point only, and the Chesapeake ’s head was being blown around before the wind. Her yards were still braced sharp up and as soon as her sails filled she would tear herself away from the lashings Stevens was putting on the spanker boom. There was not a moment to be lost; he must get as many men over as possible in the brief time they had. He was the nearest.
Dropping his speaking trumpet, he drew his sword and cried, “Follow me who canl” He climbed to the working anchor, thence over the hammocks just abaft‣ the forecastle bulwarks, and down onto the protruding muzzle of the Chesapeake ’s deserted aftermost carronade, using it as a step up to the hammocks atop her bulwarks. Then he dropped down on to the enemy quarter-deck.
Sergeant Molyneux followed close behind, with William Stack, his coxswain, and Bill Mindham; several others were swarming over the bulwarks with cutlasses, and more were creeping and running along the spanker boom from out of the boats where they had been firing muskets. An Irish sailor named James Bulger leaped over without any weapons at all, then realized his mistake and grabbed the first thing he saw on the enemy’s deck—a boarding pike. Wielding it, he went roaring after the others who were following the shiny black hat of their captain. Lieutenant Charles Falkiner, who had come up from the gun deck as the ships crashed together, saw his opportunity and jumped across. So did Lieutenant Watt, after seizing the white ensign which he always laid ready at hand across the capstan before going into action.
Broke, running forward on the deserted, blood- and wreck-strewn quarter-deck, saw a lone figure by the mizzen standing his ground and pointing a pistol at him. He brought his sword up in a swinging, backhand cut and laid the man’s pistol arm open against the mast, then ran on toward the port gangway, toward the inert forms of marines and others who were lying wounded and had thrown their arms from them.
OME way ahead of him a small party of Americans gathered on the forecastle and prepared to face the attack. Below in the stench, blood, and dim, wavering light, mutilated men groaned and uttered involuntary sharp cries as they were carried to the entrance of the cockpit to await medical attention. The surgeon, John Dix, hurried to Captain Lawrence as he was supported in great pain down to the stanchions at die foot of the ladder. Lawrence called for his aides. “Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the shipl” They carried him straight to the operating table. “Doctor,” he said, “go on deck and tell the commanding officer to fight the ship till she sinks.” He countermanded the order immediately and told the surgeon’s assistant to send the loblolly boy‣ instead.
Lieutenant Cox, having left him at the ladder, returned to the main deck fired by his spirit, and seeing that the after guns still bore against the Shannon ’s side, helped Midshipman Russell, alone at the thirteenth gun, to depress and fire it. Then they both went to the fourteenth gun and fired that. There was no one else; the men had either been driven from their quarters by the terrible pounding and splinters or had gone up at the cry of boarders.
Lieutenant Ludlow, although he was wounded and receiving attention in the cockpit as the ships fell together, led a number of the Americans in a rally up the main hatchway and succeeded in pushing a party of Shannons back as far as the binnacle before another wave of the cursing, yelling Englishmen came storming over the hammocks with pikes and cutlasses and forced them to retreat again. Foremost in the British charge was John Collier. He saw an American marine pointing a rifle as he rushed him, heard the explosion, and felt the blast as the ball flew by his ear. There was a cry behind as the next man took the shot in the throat and fell. Collier came on. The marine threw down his useless rifle and turned and ran. Collier followed him down the starboard gangway toward the forecastle, where Brake’s small party of boarders, having pressed through a disorderly volley of smallarms fire, was meeting spirited cutlass and bayonet resistance from some American marines. A number of former British sailors who had previously deserted to the American service were fighting with the defenders. These men knew they would be promptly hanged if they were captured. Lieutenant Budd had rallied another small party from the gun deck up the fore hatchway, and the fighting was hot.
Then the second wave of English led by Collier came rushing into them. The marine whom Collier was chasing jumped through one of the bow ports and climbed down to enter his ship again by the main-deck bridle port; others followed him. Lieutenant Budd received a saber cut across the arm and fell back down the hatchway he had emerged from.