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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
In 1811, as war between Britain and the United States drew nearer, the Shannon was ordered to Halifax, headquarters for the North American station. In June of 1812 war finally came, and during the next six months, in a series of single-ship actions, the tiny United States fleet put the Royal Navy to shame: the Constitution bested the Guerrière ; the Wasp defeated the Frolic ; the United States subdued the Macedonian ; and the Constitution , scoring a second victory, destroyed the British frigate Java off the coast of Brazil. In February, 1813, Broke had a letter from his former skipper, Sir George Hope, at the Admiralty: “Why don’t you get a look at these Yankees,” the Admiral wrote, “and not allow them to bully us in this way.” In less than four months, Captain Broke would have his chance for revenge.
In 1813 Captain.James Lawrence of the United States Navy was just thirty-one, and like Broke he burned with ambition for glory in action. Like Broke also, he consistently trained his people for that action at the great guns, and was a strict disciplinarian without ever crossing the border to needless brutality or sadism; indeed, he commanded the same respect from some of his midshipmen that Broke did from his Shannons. But whereas Broke was calm and good-humored almost to the point of phlegm, Lawrence was impulsive and passionate.
His ancestors were of English stock, but his immediate forebears were American citizens of some prominence in Burlington, New Jersey, where he was born in October, 1781. Like Broke, he early showed a desire to go to sea, despite his parents’ endeavors to put him to the law, and eventually he had his way, attended a three months’ course in theoretical navigation, and entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1798.
Commissioned a full lieutenant in 1802, he distinguished himself in the war against the Barbary pirates by taking a small boat into the heavily armed harbor of Tripoli and helping to burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia . In 1808, the year of his marriage to Julia Montaudevert, he was appointed first lieutenant of the Constitution , and after only seven months, still a lieutenant, got his first sizable command, the 12gun brig-of-war Vixen . He briefly commanded the sloop Wasp and the brig Argus , and in October of 1811, promoted to master commandant— roughly the equivalent of a present-day commander—he took over the Hornet , 18 guns. It was on her quarter-deck that he was to make his reputation.
On the afternoon of February 14, 1812, the Hornet , on a southward cruise looking for British prizes, sighted off Guiana near the mouth of the Demerara River the smartly turned out but indifferently commanded British brig-of-war Peacock . After one inconclusive exchange of broadsides, Lawrence came down on the Peacock from to windward, placed himself close alongside her starboard quarter, and proceeded to cut her to pieces with the superior weight of carronade served by his expert gunners. With water flooding in through shot holes, she hoisted her ensign downward.
It was an infinitely sad day for the Royal Navy. And as one British officer subsequently described the contest, “if the Peacock had been moored for the purpose of experiment she could not have sunk sooner.” Lawrence remarked to an acquaintance that his clerk had reported the time of the action as eleven minutes, “but I thought fifteen minutes was short enough so I made it that in my report.” This, if truly recollected, is a remarkable coincidence—as will appear.
Lawrence immediately became the latest in the growing line of U.S. naval heroes. He had suddenly become “Captain Jim,” the toast of the eastern seaboard, whose Hornet had stung the Peacock to death in less time than any previous engagement in the war. After a year of shore duty, Captain Lawrence was posted in May, 1813, to the Chesapeake , a fast and exceedingly handsome frigate then at Boston preparing to go out and test the British blockade. Fart of the blockade was the frigate H.M.S. Shannon , Captain Philip Broke.