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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 naval college instructors were not convinced of the practicality of this science, knowing well that the art of naval gunnery consisted in laying the ship so close to the enemy that the shot could not miss, however it left the barrel and whatever it did thereafter. More important was the composition of the gunpowder and its preservation in the damp magazines below the water line. Young Philip learned that the explosive force of the powder derives from its endeavors to expand when transformed into a gaseous substance by the application of a lighted match or—the very latest innovation in the naval service—a spark struck from a flintlock.
Philip’s mind was fired by the details of his future profession. The ships he saw riding the Orwell, formerly just brave, graceful symbols of adventure over wider horizons than the Broke estate, took on added interest now that he could see the bones and vital organs beneath their fair curves and canvas. His was an essentially practical mind; his lessons in the craft of seamanship and gunnery had given it something to bite on. Now we can see him down by the river fitting out a fleet of wooden model ships and staging a general action, experimenting with gunpowder to fire their cannon, or, on another occasion, constructing a raft and setting out upon the tide to visit a ship at anchor. This fascination with the mechanics of seamanship and gunnery, this bent for experiment awakened at the naval college, would last him throughout his life.
The years passed quickly while he was learning; then, in 1792, at the age of fifteen, he was appointed midshipman in the Bulldog sloop-of-war, and nothing was seen of him at the Hall. But his letters arrived frequently. They were long with descriptions of the strange, brutal, yet intensely stimulating new life he had been plunged into. He was a little lonely when he found the time, for there were not too many lads of similar interests and education in His Majesty’s ships. But his eagerness to acquire knowledge and master every smallest detail of the profession soon made him a favorite, and his captain, George Hope, later a good friend at the Admiralty, took him under his wing; when Hope was appointed to another vessel, he took young Philip with him.
But before that—war. The French had beheaded their king, and a number of good naval officers besides, and were attempting to spread their hateful revolutionary doctrine through Europe and the world. Young Philip was not only a seaman now but a crusader, convinced with all the fervor of a romantic youth—and heir to a landed estate—that the war with France was a “sacred cause.” At the same time, his letters home came alive with more tales of adventure than he had ever dreamed of by the quiet Orwell, stories of the chase and cutting-out parties in small boats, of boarding merchantmen and being placed in command of prizes, of hunting down sharp privateers, or sailing in close to the enemy’s batteries as the eyes of the fleet. As a fighting sailor he was fortunate; almost with his first deep draughts of sea air he was breathing in the trade of war, which no peacetime exercises could have simulated. He was learning naturally and barely consciously the disciplines and aggressive attitudes that went to make the men of the British Navy the most formidable sea-fighters in all Europe.
After three years of small-ship time as midshipman, Philip Broke received a commission as third lieutenant of the Southampton ; he remained absent from the Hall except in letters. He was cruising in the Mediterranean with Nelson’s squadron. At the battle off Cape St. Vincent his frigate was employed towing the Spaniards off when they could stand the pounding no longer. But the French had not yet been driven into their harbors, and there was excitement aplenty in which the frigates took a more active part almost every week.
At last, after more than five years’ continuous absence, Philip returned to Nacton for his twenty-first birthday, received to a hero’s welcome—and rightly so, for he was now a seasoned fighting officer. The great portraits in the Hall looked down on him with approval—and some expectation, perhaps.
After some months breathing the quiet of Suffolk and feeling his pulses slowing to the old, familiar beat of the country, Philip—always a small-ship man and proud of it—was appointed to the Amelia frigate, Captain the Honorable C. Herbert. Herbert was a man of some literary taste and talent, and Philip found the atmosphere congenial. He served two years here, experiencing another general fleet engagement and many other excitements before obtaining his promotion to commander.
Now, while his father, who was a staunch Tory party worker, schemed with his political friends to ensure his son’s promotion to post rank, young Broke experienced his first independent commands—some inconsequential fire brigs and convoy sloops—before his father’s “interest” gained him the coveted step to post captain in February, 1801. Now his career was assured; at twentyfour, he had his foot unshakably on the promotion ladder and could look forward, with or without ships to command, to a steady ascent by seniority up the captain’s list, and stage by stage through the rear admirals and the viceadmirals to the very top of his profession—if he could survive that long.