- 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
Midshipman Smith had left him. After cutting the halyards to the main peak so that the last American flag fluttered down from aloft, he had gone below in the wake of the tumultuous boarders. The main deck that greeted his eyes was a terrible scene of ravage. The rays of the low evening sun were striking diagonally from the port quarter, through the great, shattered windows which had received most of the fire, glinting along the muzzles of the deserted guns, all awry on their split carriages and missing trucks, ropes and side tackles astraggle—sunlight lighting Jagged holes in the side timbers where solid shot had entered, brightening the splinters of raw wood. Below, the scuppers were dark with blood; patches of blood stained the deck and even the beams overhead, and fragments of flesh, scalp skin with pigtails, unrecognizable pieces of gore, slivers of flesh, were plastered loosely about the timbers. On the starboard side forward, the fingers of a dismembered hand were sticking above a port as if their owner had pushed them through from outboard. Pieces of limbs still covered with blood-soaked clothing were scattered among the wreckage and loose ropes on deck as if kicked out of the way, and among them were the still forms of those who had been killed in the rush of boarders, and others lying, moving faintly.
Amid this ghastly scene, highlighted by the bright sun and contrasting shadow, the Shannons moved like tigers, indifferent or unaware of the carnage, exulting in their success. There wasn’t a Chesapeake to be seen on his feet. All the Americans had fled or been driven below; the British were securing the gratings over them. Smith, glad of the opportunity to get back into the fresh air, was about to mount the ladder and convey the stirring news to Broke—while he still lived- when one of the Shannon ’s main-deck guns went off (by accident, it was later learned) and the ball mowed straight across the deck and through the port side timbers, fortunately without wounding anyone. Smith ran to a gun port and shouted, “Cease fire! This ship is secured!”
As if to disprove it, there was a rifle shot from the berth deck below, and a British marine, William Young, who was standing guard over the main hatchway, fell, mortally wounded. Fury welled up in the Shannons, and they began firing their muskets among the penned Americans below them.
This fresh outbreak of shots and screams shattered the calm of the upper deck. Broke, now barely conscious from loss of blood, and wavering, ashen-faced, on his carronade slide, asked what was happening. On being told, he directed that the Americans be driven into the hold. It was his last order in the battle; he fainted.
Lieutenant Falkiner, who had been resting on the booms between the gangways to recover his breath after the heady rush and excitement of the fighting, had jumped to his feet at the noise and rushed below. Seeing his men out of control and firing down at the helpless prisoners, he lined his pistol at the head of the nearest and shouted that he would blow out the brains of the next man to fire a shot. In the quiet that followed this announcement, he called to the Americans to send up the man who had killed William Young.
“The Chesapeake is taken,” he added. “We have three hundred men aboard. If there is another act of hostility, you will be called up on deck one by one—and shot.”
The contest was over. From the time of the first Shannon gun until the last, mistaken shot across the maindeck, it had lasted eleven minutes by Lieutenant Wallis’ watch. Wallis had handed it to the gunner, Richard Meehan, as they went to quarters, and the gunner had timed the shots in the security of his magazine below decks.
Both ships had swung around before the wind now and were heading easterly within easy hail of each other, the Chesapeake drifting out of control, the Shannon , under the command of Lieutenant Wallis, coming up under her lee. The Shannon ’s jolly boat was hove alongside, a party of marines and sailors embarked, and they pulled across the short space of water and scrambled up the side of the defeated Chesapeake , shouting greetings and congratulations. As they reached the deck they fell silent. Broke was lying propped against the bulkhead with a quiet group around him. His face was white beneath its weathering; Mindham’s neckerchief, dark with blood over the left side, covered his forehead, and beneath it his red hair was matted. Patches of white lime looked like a crude powdering over it.
“He breathes yet,” someone said.