- 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
The Shannon slid easily through the now friendly blue water southward toward Boston. Cape Ann receded gradually on the quarter‣ stretching around as far as the eye could see to starboard lay the green and peaceful countryside of New England with its tall beeches and pines clustering thickly down to the dry, pinkish rock by the shore. Smoke curled lazily from the chimneys of timber frame houses, small fishing boats were putting out from the coastal towns—snuggling roofs and narrow, twisting streets like the West Country of England—and beyond lay all the English names, Bradford, Georgetown, Broke’s own Ipswich, Haverhill (the same distance away as the Suffolk Haverhill from the Suffolk Ipswich), Andover, Gloucester, Weymouth, Braintree, Abington, Bridgewater, Kingston, Plymouth, Wareham, Sandwich—and Boston itself. Strange to be fighting these half-countrymen of theirs.…
‣The asterisks that appear throughout this article indicate terms that are defined in the Glossary on page 51.
Presently, beyond the spur of Nahant and the cluster of fishing craft after cod and halibut, perch or haddock just south of Pea Island, the far view of the city presented itself clear in the morning light. The clustering masts and spars of scores of blockaded vessels marked the outline of wharves stretching down to Boston Neck and Dorchester, and behind them the houses and public buildings rose to Beacon Hill, bright sun glinting oil paintwork and windows and white stone, monuments to a wealthy mercantile community.
Then, as the Shannon slipped nearer and got an open view into President’s Roads between the trees on Deer Island and Long Island, they saw her—a sleek frigate showing gun ports along her side and a fresh bright band of yellow paint below them extending right up in the bows to her fiddlehead,‣ her rigging above set taut, her royals [see sail‣] crossed and her furled white sails stopped with rope yarns‣ ready to drop on the instant.
There she lay!
Broke’s heart pounded. Up until that moment there had always been the chance that she might somehow have slipped out unnoticed and unreported. But there she was—the Chesapeake —and ready for sea. He had not realized quite how much he depended on her—his passport to glory, above all his release in action for all the warlike tension built up over seven years of gunnery planning and improvements and drill—like a spring wound tight his company demanded release. And so did he. He shuddered at the violence of his feelings.
He stood the Shannon closer in toward the Boston lighthouse, closehauled to the light breeze which was backing ever more westerly, until within about two miles he luffed‣ up and fired a gun. Could the Chesapeake resist this challenge?
Here was a British frigate entirely alone, her weathered sides streaked down from the gun ports and chains with the signs of long cruising, flaunting a faded blue ensign at the very mouth of a United States Navy base, firing a single, teasing gun. What American commander could submit to this in the present mood of the Navy and the country?
Of course Lawrence had no option. His fiery spirit demanded that he accept this plain challenge; the confidence inspired by his recent easy victory over the Peacock and all the American frigate successes to date left no room for doubts, his own ambition left no time for hesitation. That is—if the Shannon was truly alone. So long as this was not just a trick to draw him out on this fine westerly breeze and into the arms of one or two of the Shannon ’s, consorts ready to appear in the offing.
Lawrence’s attention had first been called to the strange sail between eight and nine o’clock that morning. Lieutenant George Budd, the officer of the deck, had sent a midshipman down to report, as he supposed, a frigate. Lawrence had gone on deck and then ascended the main shrouds for a better view, soon coming to the conclusion that she was a large frigate. Returning to the deck he hailed a passing pilot boat and directed her to reconnoiter outside the harbor and report back to him if the strange sail was alone, meanwhile ordering all hands to prepare the ship for sailing and to heave short on the anchor cable. Afterward he went below to his cabin and wrote a short letter to the Secretary of the Navy to acquaint him with his decision: Since I had the honour of addressing you last, I have been detained for want of men. I am now getting under way to carry into execution the instructions you have honoured me with. An English frigalc is now in plain sight from my deck; I have sent a pilot boat out to reconnoitre &: should she be alone I am in hopes to give a good account of her before night. My crew appear to be in fine spirits, & I trust will do their duty.
Lieutenant Page [the Chesapeake ’s first lieutenant] is so ill as to be unable to go to sea in the ship… . Commodore Bainbiidge has ordered midshipmen Cox and Ballard to act until your pleasure is known. They are both fine young men, and I am confident from their long service, will do everything that can be expected from any commissioned lieutenant.