- 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
He returned to Broke Hall on half pay, a well-built young man over six feet tall. His weathered face wore a pleasant expression; his speech was assured, and he carried himself with a confidence born of ten years of very active service and the knowledge of his own capabilities this had brought. There was no vanity, though. The anecdotes of the chase and capture, of storms and foreign ports, with which he entertained his avid family were modestly understated. His red hair hung naturally and showed no powder; his dress was unassuming. In company he went out of his way to be pleasant and cheerful.
And now he was often down by the river with his young friend Sarah Louisa, second daughter of Sir William Middleton, Baronet, of Shrubland Park, not far from Ipswich; she was a fair-haired girl with a delicate complexion and very blue eyes—a shy creature in company, but it was obvious that she was very much in love with the naval hero, and he with her. They married in November, 1802.
They were ideally happy together, but as the months on half pay lengthened into years, Philip became increasingly nostalgic about those fine, free days at sea and increasingly impatient of idleness. He wrote to Lord Melville at the Admiralty to remind him of his presence and his eagerness to take advantage of any post command that might fall vacant. While he waited for a reply, he satisfied his restless mind by forming and training a body of local peasantry to arms against the day when old “Boney” might attempt an invasion of the last free country in Europe.
At last, in the spring of 1805, after Broke had been four years on half pay, Lord Melville found him a frigate, not a new or imposing one to be sure, and grossly undermanned like so many of His Majesty’s ships in those hard times. It was certain also that no volunteers would come flying to join at the sound of her new captain’s name, as they would for Lord Cochrane or one of the other glamorous frigate commanders.
Broke, sir? Who is he?
But for Philip, the Druid , a worn sieve of a frigate rated 32 guns, was a ship beyond all ships—his first post command. He was nearly twenty-nine years old, in the prime of manhood, and his brilliant prospects were all before him. Elated by the thought, but suddenly very sad at having to leave his delightful “Looloo” and the two children she had borne him, Philip entered the coach for London, his cases packed with a new captain’s uniform, table service, and various flints and locks and sights for the great guns, with which he had been experimenting at home.
And again, for an even longer period, almost nothing was seen of him by the Orwell—only Louisa coming down to the beach with their children in the summer to read his letters: My dear, beloved Looloo … My Sunday devotions bear me home to my Loo: I wish I could pray by her side. Alas! I shall see no primroses this May to remind me of my gentle Loo. When shall I sit and read to her again in the shade whilst she ties up the violets? Poor Nacton. ‘Tis far away; I must not think of it till I am on my return.
But I must close up this and attend to my wooden mistress. She is a great tyrant! Give my love to the dear little cherubs around you and Heaven protect you all!
In September, 1806, Captain Broke was posted to a brand-new frigate, the Shannon , fresh from the builder’s yard. During the next few years, most of which the Shannon spent on the French blockade, it became apparent to Broke that many British captains were beginning to grow complacent because of the ease with which they had handled the French Navy. He never permitted this attitude to develop in his ship; indeed, he seemed to regard French impotence as a spur to show what could be done with scientific gunnery, of which he had always been an enthusiast.
He was one of a small band of officers who recognized that the improvements in the manufacture and equipment of the great guns which came about during the previous century had made accurate fire a possibility, at least for close action. The tools were there, and Broke’s first action on taking command of the Shannon was to fit his guns with sights, then to set about training his officers, and through them the men, in their use.
He considered as a fault in gunnery any shot that went above or below the men on the enemy’s gun decks. Dismasting or unrigging practice he regarded with contempt unless effected by the special dismantling service guns which he ordered on the enemy’s wheel or yards. Each shot, each charge of grape or canister from his main batteries, he considered wasted unless coolly aimed to kill men.
During the next five years, as the Shannon ranged up and down the French coast, he had little opportunity to put his theories into practice in combat. But Broke kept his gun crews practicing nearly every day at sea until the use of sights became as much a habit as any other part of the loading and firing procedure and was unlikely to fail in the test of action. As a fighting unit his frigate was among the best ships in His Majesty’s fleet.