- 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
Then he wrote a short note to his brother-in-law about prize money due for captures during the last cruise, ending: … An English frigate is close in with the lighthouse, & we are now clearing ship for action. Should I be so unfortunate as to be taken off, I leave my wife and children to your care, and feel confident you will behave to them the same as if they were your own. Remember me affectionately to your good mother, Mary and Cox and believe me, Sincerely yours, J. L AWRENCE P.S. 10 A.M. the frigate is in plain sight from our deck and we are now getting under way.
As the Shannon fired her gun, Lawrence ordered one of his own to reply, and had the fore-topsail loosed so that it hung shivering in the breeze. One of the sailors hoisted a white flag bearing the words “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” to the foreroyal masthead. Then they waited for the pilot boat to return.
Certainly Lawrence could have rationalized his decision: the British blockade was tightening every day; now that the British government realized that the war was more than a simple misunderstanding, and the Admiralty was awakened to the need for more ships of force to contain the U.S. Navy and the scores of privateers preying on trade, it was only a matter of time before it would be impossible to break their blockade in fair weather. That might mean waiting for the winter gales before he could get out. His orders, which left him great freedom to exercise his own judgment, were to proceed to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and attack the troop convoys and supplies going to the relief of the British Army in Canada; they contained the unarguable assertion that “it is impossible to conceive a naval service of a higher order in a national point of view than the destruction of the enemy’s vessels with supplies for his army in Canada and his fleets on this station.” But if he had to await the winter gales he might be too late. The supplies and reinforcements would have arrived. And what was the alternative? Simply to go out now while the wind and the opportunity favored, bring in this insolent British frigate while she lay unsupported, quickly make good whatever damage was sustained in the process, and then sail safely in obedience to his orders before the British realized the blockade was broken and dispatched a squadron or a ship of the line‣ to contain him. Perhaps this was his reasoning; but undoubtedly the decision to fight also came from deeper sources than reason.
Many and varied have been the criticisms levelled at Lawrence for going out with an allegedly untrained crew and raw officers and fighting before he had worked his men up into a team. It is true that Page, his new first lieutenant, was ill in the hospital, and the other lieutenants had been moved up one. It is also true that these officers were young and one had not drilled before the day of action with the men he commanded. But again Lawrence had to face the alternative: what chance would he have if he waited until he was outnumbered or outgunned? Besides, he had faith in his lieutenants; the first, Augustus Ludlow, had been nine years at sea, having entered as a midshipman at twelve years old; he was exceptionally able and together with Budd, the second, had been with the Chesapeake during her last cruise and obviously knew her well. The two juniors, Cox and Ballard, had both sailed with him in his previous commands and had been promoted from midshipmen on his recommendation. He had no reason to doubt their capabilities; quite the reverse. Age was no bar; Lawrence himself had been about Cox’s age when he had his first taste of hand-to-hand fighting in the Mediterranean, and only a year older when he was first lieutenant at Decatur’s brilliant Philadelphia exploit. As for experience in action, that could come only in action, and no amount of working up could provide more of it than they had had while sailing on the Hornet .
HE other criticisms are per- haps even less valid. The men were not raw; of the 388 officers, men, and marines on the Chesapeake ’s pay list on June i, 279, or nearly three quarters, had served during the ship’s previous cruise. There were no landsmen among them; the lowest rating apart from boys (thirteen in all) was ordinary seaman. They were exceptionally well trained at the great guns, as Lawrence had found during his drills in harbor. Although they were, it is true, dissatisfied about not having the money due for six prizes captured during the ship’s last cruise, it is impossible to believe that they were drunk, as some writers have stated, or that they included a large number of foreigners, as other critics would have it. Lawrence had observed them for nearly a fortnight; he knew them to be first-rate American sailors and gunners, many of whom had learned their trade in the British service—a few of whom were in fact British deserters. There was also a detachment of volunteers from the dockyard, possibly from the Constitution , which was still under repair; these came aboard at the last moment and their hammocks and gear lay in the boats and across the booms when the frigate sailed. These men too, however, were seasoned sailors and fighters who had already been the victors in two frigate actions, and they were possessed of a splendid morale.