- 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
Aft of them Lieutenant Ludlow had also received a cutlass wound, a severe one across the head, and he fell; the remnants of his party were fleeing before the blood-maddened Englishmen and the Irish, wild with excitement. James Bulger’s American boarding pike was red at the tip; he charged into the forecastle fray cursing, “And then did I not spit them, bejasusl”
Lacking officers, lacking support from below, and driven back by the irresistible fury of the boarders, the American resistance fell apart. Some men bolted out of the carronade ports down over the side like the marine, others leaped for the fore hatchway and tumbled down.
N the gun deck below, Lieutenant Cox became aware of the commotion up forward as they clattered and fell off the ladder, while others from the gun deck, having removed the gratings from the hatchway to the berth deck below, jostled each other to get down. The panic was contagious. He ran toward them, drawing his sword.
“You damned cowardly sons of bitchesl What are you jumping below for?” A midshipman, Higginbotham, who was nearby, asked Cox if he should try to stop them by cutting a few down.
Cox looked at the stampede; they were too tightly crowded and too terrorized. “No, sir,” he said sadly. “It is of no use.”
By this time the American frigate’s topsails had filled and torn her away from the lashings that Stevens had been securing when he was struck in the arm by grape from the American’s mizzentop swivel. Now, leaving some of her port quarter gallery on the fluke of the Shannon ’s work anchor, the Chesapeake walked away forward. As her port side crunched against the British forecastle, the after end of her foreyard, which was still braced up sharp, came in contact with the forward end of the Shannon ’s foreyard, which was also braced up sharp, and the midshipman from the Shannon’s, foretop, John Smith, seeing the splitsecond opportunity presented, ran out along the yard and over onto the Chesapeake ’s. By this time most of the American foretopmen, seeing their forecastle virtually overrun, were fleeing down the shrouds; the sight of Smith storming toward them along their own yard, with a French cavalry saber he had acquired from a captured privateer, was enough to panic the rest, and they scampered over the weather side. The last to escape was a large midshipman wearing enormous fisherman’s boots; he jumped for a backstay which had been cut by shot and was dangling over the forecastle, and slid down it. Smith jumped on the same backstay and followed him down so closely that they fell on deck together, with the American underneath. Broke was nearby and he put out an arm to restrain Smith as the terrified American tumbled away.
Meanwhile Midshipman Cosnahan, stationed in the Shannon ’s maintop, had found his aim impaired by the lower corner of the topsail, and had scrambled down and seated himself astride the main yard. From here he had a splendid view of the American mizzentop, whose seven occupants were keeping up a spirited fire on the British boarders below them. Cosnahan started picking them off one by one, passing his empty musket up through the lubber’s hole‣ into the top after each shot and receiving another loaded one. He dispatched three Americans in this way; three others fled, but one man, hidden from him by the timber of the lower mast and topmast together, remained firing down on the English boarders. He could not be removed until a Shannon came running up the shrouds and grappled him with bare hands. After a short struggle, the Britisher, who was a large, muscular fellow, shouted, “Stand from underl” and the American sailed from the top and crashed into the starboard quarter boat.
Now, as the Chesapeake forged across the Shannon ’s bows, carrying away the British jib stay, jib, flying jib boom,‣ spritsail‣ yard, and rigging, she ceased to touch die side at any point, and the marines and others preparing to follow the first boarders found a widening gap of sea preventing them. In all, sixty men, perhaps less, had gained the enemy’s deck in the minute or so available. But they were enough. The American organization had been completely shattered by the grape and musketry sweeping the deck prior to the boarding, and the gun crews of the main deck had been demoralized by the raking fire to which most of them had been unable to reply; they had consequently lacked the cool discipline necessary to resist the ferocious British charge. And when both the surviving officers were hit, all cohesion was lost. The Americans became simply individuals trying to save their lives. As the American frigate sailed herself away from the Shannon her upper deck was virtually a British possession.