- 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
Broke saw the victory as clear cut. He tried to tear his frenzied men from slaughtering the few outnumbered Americans and British deserters who still fought for their lives on the forecastle, but as he was concentrating on this, three other Chesapeakes, probably those chased down from the foretop by Smith, rushed on him from behind with weapons picked up from the deck. Collier, fortunately nearby, yelled a warning, and Broke turned in time to knock aside the first thrust from a boarding pike, and put his sword through the man. Before he could recover, however, the second assailant swung a clubbed musket which knocked off his hat and crashed down on his shoulder, and the third dealt him a ferocious saber cut from half behind on his left, parting his skull down to the brain cavity. Broke, stunned, fell to the deck with blood welling from the wound and down the side of his face and neck. The American was about to finish him off on the deck when a British marine, John Hill, ran the man through with a bayonet. The other two Americans were making off as the British rallied to their captain’s aid. Collier yelled, “One of them fellows has cut the Captain’s head!” and William Stack, Broke’s coxswain, chased the nearest over the booms and dispatched him from behind as he was going below. The other was hacked to death by Collier and other enraged Shannons.
Broke, faint and weak, tried to pull himself into a sitting position. The whole side of his face, muffler, shirt, and uniform was red with his own blood, and on the deck where he had fallen, blood was mixed with the contents of a burst cask of quicklime. Midshipman Smith hurried to help him, as did Bill Mindham.
Meanwhile another tragedy had overtaken the British on the quarterdeck. Watt, who had boarded with his white ensign, had temporarily been halted by a shot through the foot as he dropped onto the American deck. By the time he recovered himself and went to the mizzen halyards to haul down the American flag and raise his ensign over it, he found that some other Shannon had beaten him to it, and a small blue ensign was already waving a’bove the Stars and Stripes. Determined to raise his larger flag, however, he ordered both to be hauled down and was about to bend on the white ensign when a charge of grape from the Shannon ’s seventh main-deck gun carried off the top of his head and killed or wounded five others among his party. This gun had been engaging the Chesapeake through Lawrence’s Stern windows while the ships had been locked together, and it seems likely that it was elevated and fired into Watt’s group as the ships separated because the gunners saw the blue ensign descending and assumed the men hauling it down must be Americans. Or it may simply have been a case of excitement, the lock tripped before the quoin was properly home.
The British recovered quickly from the shock and hauled up the blue ensign again over the Stars and Stripes. Lieutenant Wallis in the Shannon ’s main deck ordered the cease fire, and went up to the quarter-deck to try to ascertain the position. Forward on the Chesapeake , Bill Mindham, binding Brake’s head with the neckerchief he had been wearing about his own head, drew his captain’s attention to the symbol of victory.
“Look there, sir. There goes the old ensign up over the Yankee colors!” Then, with Smith’s help, he lifted Broke to his feet and supported him slowly along the gangway to the quarter-deck. He eased the Captain down on a carronade slide with his back against the bulwarks.
Meanwhile the boarders had rushed down the main hatchway, chasing a few Americans before them. These had fled on down the steerage ladders while the British rushed ahead to where the last of the forecastle party were squeezing down the fore hatchway to the berth deck. Some of these faced them and there was a ragged volley of rifle fire, but the British were frenzied with the excitement of victory, and once again the fury of their onslaught drove the unorganized, leaderless Americans back. Both Lieutenants Budd and Ludlow had, by then, been taken to the cockpit; after the first few shots there was little resistance.
Captain Lawrence, lying below, heard the rush down the ladders and asked what was happening. On being told that this was the enemy boarding he cried in an agony of the spirit, “Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!”
Two decks above, Broke sat dizzily on the carronade slide, suddenly cold in the shade of the bulwarks and taint from loss of blood. He was still hazily aware, through the confusion of shouting and pounding feet, the press of movement, light and color, and the deep, throbbing pain splitting his skull, that they had won— won! The old blue ensign flew proudly over the Yankee flag—he was sitting on the Yankee quarter-deck. He remembered coming aboard—over the hammocks, dropping down on the planks —deserted—only that one strange fellow aiming his pistol at him—it seemed but a moment ago.…