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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
Finally, the two ships were very well matched. The Chesapeake was launched in June, 1799, and got away to sea the same year. She was thus seven years older than the Shannon , but in all other respects she was as equal an opponent as could be found anywhere. Instead of being 145 feet on the keel as originally planned, she was 127 feet 5 inches, and her length between perpendiculars (English measurement) was 151 feet; the Shannon was 150 feet 1½ inches. The Chesapeake had a molded beam of 40 feet 4 inches, the Shannon 39 feet 3 inches. The Chesapeake carried fourteen long i8-pounder cannon each side of her main deck; so did the Shannon . The Chesapeake had ten carronades,‣ 32-pounders, either side of her spar deck, with one long 18-pounder which could be shifted to whichever broadside was required; the Shannon on her present cruise fought eight carronades, 32-pounders, each side of the upper deck (six on the quarter-deck and two on the forecastle), and in addition she had two long g-pounders; these were mounted at the after end of the forecastle and the forward end of the quarter-deck on special swivel brackets raised high above the deck to have a clear fire overall and with facility of elevation to 33°, especially for use either against the enemy’s tops‣ or to dismantle die wheel. Broke had also fitted a launch carronade 12-pounder in the starboard entry port, and a brass 6-pounder to port. Thus both ships had a broadside of fourteen long guns on the main deck and eleven carronades and others on the upper deck, although the Chesapeake had a small advantage in weight of shot from the upper deck.
Lawrence knew his men; he had every reason for confidence. The only thing he did not know was the exceptional quality of the opposition. And how should he have guessed that this Shannon , which had been flaunting herself before Boston and sending in verbal challenges for weeks, was not simply another lamb for the slaughter? How was he to know that she marked instead the final flowering and high point of the ancient art of broadside fire from carriage-mounted cannon, and that a more destructive vessel of her force had probably never existed in the history of naval warfare?
Lawrence had no idea. He had weighed what he did know in scales heavily weighted by his temperament, and had come to the inevitable conclusion. As he saw the Shannon teasing him on this bright morning with the wind fair in the west, he saw only his brilliant opportunity.
Expecting that the pilot boat’s report would be favorable, he had the quarter boats lowered and the women from the berth deck sent over the side with their scanty baggage; they expected to be back aboard that evening and cried no farewells—only shouts of encouragement. As they landed by the fort they waved and cheered the British frigate and yelled taunts, looking forward to a closer view when their brave, boastful menfolk brought her in.
The citizens of Boston were equally sanguine. The day’s work was forgotten as they rushed to the waterfront or the roofs of nearby buildings to view this latest British ship offering herself as a prize to their naval heroes. Fishermen filled their boats with sight-seers to follow the Chesapeake into action; the coffeehouses were abuzz with preparations for a great celebration supper to which it was proposed to invite the surviving officers of the Shannon together with Lawrence and his triumphant men. And at the navy yard a wharf was cleared to accommodate the Shannon ’s riven remains when she was brought in. Never was optimism about the result of apparently equal combat so unequivocal.
Even if he had wished, could Lawrence have refused to go out?
The Shannon meanwhile tacked and a call to quarters was sounded. The men went through the ritual of the great gun drill without firing. Broke, who had written his letter of challenge closely following his draft, sealed it, then wrote a postscript on the outside, “We have thirteen American persons on board which I shall give you for as many British sailors if you will send them out; otherwise, being privateersmen, they must be detained.” The day before, the Shannon had captured and burned an American fishing vessel and taken her captain, Eben Slocum, prisoner. Now Broke had Slocum unchained and brought up, and told him that he was a free man if he would agree to deliver the letter. Slocum agreed, and was shortly put into a fishing schooner that the Shannon ’s jolly boat‣ ran aboard.
As the schooner left her side and pointed inshore for Marblehead, Broke climbed the main shrouds with his long glass and settled himself in the top. He did not expect to have to wait for Slocum to reach the shore. Under the circumstances this morning, the letter should scarcely be necessary. He knew his man. The wind and the weather were fair for sailing; the chance of breaking the blockade in a single action in full view of the people of Boston would be too much for the spirited captain of the Chesapeake . In any case, it was obvious from the papers that the Americans were becoming quite too brash, and they would not expect Lawrence to refuse the challenge presented by the Shannon alone.