- 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
They lifted him gently and, slinging ropes under him, eased him down into the jolly boat, then pulled back to the Shannon and carefully lifted him aboard. His cot was rigged up in the space which had been his cabin, and a canvas screen hurriedly erected around it as a temporary shelter before the partitions were restored. The Shannon ’s surgeon left his wounded in charge of the assistant surgeon, and came up to attend him. Wallis hovered anxiously nearby. They removed Broke’s stained coat and muffler, his formerly white shirt, and Mindham’s stiff neckerchief. The doctor washed the blood off his face and neck and, parting the tangle of matted hair, gradually revealed a deep cleavage extending for some four inches over his left ear toward the corner of his mouth. Between the depressed sides of the wound at the top of his head they could see the outer membrane of his brain pulsing gently.
Wallis was appalled at the severity of the gash; it seemed impossible that Broke could survive. And the doctor gave him no hope. Strong as he was, the Captain had but a slim chance indeed.
While undressing him they found a delicate chain with a blue satin satchel, now sticky with blood, hanging around his neck. Inside was a lock of blonde hair. When they had put clean bandages around his head and settled him back in his cot, Wallis took the keepsake down to his cabin and stowed it carefully. He would deliver it to Louisa after Broke died.
On June 2, the day after the battle, a light breeze from the southwest sprang up, and the Shannon , with the captured Chesapeake , filled to it and set course northward for Halifax. During the next few days Lawrence, stricken in mind by the remembrance of his ship being boarded and taken, and suffering acute pain from peritonitis resulting from the musket ball embedded in his vitals, sank into a delirious coma. He tossed and waved his arms, crying out again and again the everremembered words: “Don’t give up the ship!” He died on June 4 off the Sambro Light at the entrance to Halifax.
A few days later, as Broke still lay motionless between sheets at the home of a friend in Halifax, the body of his gallant rival was lowered over the side of the Chesapeake in a mahogany coffin draped with the colors he had defended with such spirit, his sword placed on top. A twelve-oared barge received the coffin, then pulled for shore with slow strokes to a discharge of minute guns; the barge was followed by a convoy of gigs and pinnaces containing naval and garrison officers. Arrived at King’s Wharf, the party disembarked and re-formed in solemn procession on shore behind a funeral firing party, each man with a black band on his left arm. Following the coffin came the surviving American officers and midshipmen from the Chesapeake , then British garrison officers, post captains of the Royal Navy, staff officers, and finally the dignitaries and citizens of Halifax. “Six of the oldest [Royal] Navy Captains carried the pall, which was one of the colours of the Chesapeake ,” wrote an eyewitness. “This, they said, was considered a particular mark of respect by naval men, as it was a token that he had defended his colours bravely, and that at this time they should not be parted from him. The procession was very long, and everything was conducted in the most solemn manner… . There was not the least mark of exultation that I saw, even amongst the commonest people.”
A few days after the burial service, First Lieutenant Ludlow was interred near his captain; later both coffins were removed to the United States.
Meanwhile the critically wounded Broke had begun to make a slow recovery, and before long he was able to dictate a report of the battle. It is an interesting coincidence that although the Shannon ’s logbook recorded the time of the action as ten minutes, and Lieutenant Wallis’ watch had recorded it as eleven minutes, exactly as Lawrence’s clerk had recorded the time of his Peacock action, Broke, like Lawrence, thought fifteen minutes quite short enough and made it so in his official dispatch. As he later confided to a midshipman, “I stated fifteen minutes that there might not be any disputes. I thought I could give them the difference.”
Captain Broke returned to England in November to scenes of wild excitement and the news that he had been raised to the rank of a baronet of the United Kingdom. The long-awaited reunion with his family was almost too much for him to bear with composure. Louisa was crying with happiness, and the children—so much bigger than he remembered—bounded and bubbled around them.