- 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
Shortly before his victory over the Peacock , Lawrence had sent a challenge to H.M. sloop-of-war Bonne Citoyenne , lying at anchor in the harbor of San Salvador. The British captain, carrying a valuable cargo of specie, had refused to fight, and the incident had received wide publicity on both sides of the Atlantic. Now, on Monday, May 31, 1813, Captain Broke, cruising off Boston, decided to pay Lawrence off in his own coin: he had sent in verbal challenges via fishermen; now he started drafting a careful letter challenging him to single combat. He took infinite pains. The impression it would make on Lawrence might mean the difference between action or a dull end to his career. “Sir, As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request that you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. To an officer of your character, it requires some apology to proceed to further particulars. Be assured, sir, that it is not from any doubt I can entertain of your wishing to close with my proposal, but merely to provide an answer to any objection which might be made, and very reasonably, upon the chance of our receiving unfair support. … I assure you that what I write, I pledge my honor to perform to the utmost of my power. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat gun- eighteen pounders upon her maindeck, and thirty twopound carronades on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys (a large proportion of the latter), besides thirty seamen, boys and passengers who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. … I will send all other ships beyond the power of interfering with us, and meet you wherever it is most agreeable to you, within the limits of the undermentioned rendezvous, viz. from six to ten leagues East of Cape Cod lighthouse; from eight to ten leagues East of Cape Anne’s Light; on Cashe’s ledge, in latitude 43 North; at any bearing and distance you please to fix, off the South breakers of Nantucket, or the shoal on St. George’s Bank. If you will favor me with any plan of signals or telegraph, I will warn you (if sailing under this promise) should any of my friends be too nigh, or anywhere in sight, until I can detach them out of my way; or I would sail with you under a flag of truce, to any place you think safest from our cruisers, hauling it down when fair to begin hostilities.
“You must, sir, be aware that my proposals are highly advantageous to you, as you cannot proceed to sea singly in the Chasapeake without imminent risk of being crushed by the superior force of the numerous British squadrons which are now abroad, where all your efforts, in case of a rencontre , would, however gallant, be perfectly hopeless. I entreat you, sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake , or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for your acceding to this invitation; we both have nobler motives.
“You will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful service I can render to my country; and, I doubt not, that you, equally confident of success, will feel that it is only by repeated triumphs, in even combats , that your little navy can now hope to console your country for the loss of that trade it can no longer protect. Favour me with a speedy reply.
“We are short of provisions and water, and cannot stay long here.
“N.B. For the general service of watching your coast it is requisite for me to keep another ship in company to support me with her guns and boats, when employed near the land, and particularly to aid each other if either ship, in chase, should get on shore. You must be aware that I cannot, consistent with my duty, waive so great an advantage for this general service by detaching my consort without an assurance on your part of meeting me directly, and that you will neither seek nor admit aid from any other of your armed vessels if I despatch mine expressly for the sake of meeting you.
“Should any special order restrain you from thus answering a formal challenge, you may yet oblige me by keeping my proposal a secret, and appointing any place you like to meet us (within 300 miles ot Boston) in a given number oi days after you sail; as unless you agree to an interview, I may be busied on some other service, and perhaps be at a distance from Boston whenyou get to sea. Choose your terms, but let us meet.”
The morning of June 1 broke splendidly. The damp fogs and rain of the last few days had given way to blue sky with puffy clouds over the land. The sun rose brilliantly and shone and sparked off the gently heaving ocean, its surface creased with a cool, invigorating breeze from northward. Broke tapped his barometer and noted it was still rising. Promise of a fair summer’s day. But more than that if he had judged Lawrence aright—much more.
He went on deck and acknowledged the salute of his first lieutenant. James Watt, too, had been lifted by the sun. The big man’s face was animated and there was a glint in his eye which entirely matched Broke’s mood. No need to express it; on such a morning words were superfluous.