- 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
He trained his glass over the masts and yards of the frigate standing up so boldly, searching for another sign of movement. Below him the great cannon went rumbling and thudding against their port sills, then back again —then out. The only other sounds were made by the water plashing gently against the bow, and the occasional hoarse orders from the officers of the quarters. The sun was warm against his neck and the breeze full in his face.
But after that first response from the Chesapeake , nothing further seemed to happen. She just lay there with the topsail flapping unsheeted. In the other direction Slocum’s small boat was making slow progress against the offshore breeze; he could not reach Salem for some time yet—but surely, surely Lawrence would never need a paper challenge… .
At 11:30 Broke shut his telescope and climbed down to the officer of the watch on the quarter-deck, who happened to be Provo Wallis, the second lieutenant. “Beat the retreat if you please,” he said with the disappointment obvious in his voice. “But, Wallis, I don’t mean this for a general quarters. She will surely be out today or tomorrow.”
The Shannon beat back and forth across the harbor entrance under easy sail to the light and variable breeze, making little way, towing her jolly boat astern from a short painter. The small boat had been left down in the water after capturing the fishing schooner so that she would not obstruct the fire of the stern chase guns. She yawed across the smooth green shadows in the frigate’s wake.
At midday Wallis ordered meridian.‣ The marine sentinel on the quarter-deck upturned his half-hour sandglass, and from the belfry forward came the four double peals followed immediately by the pipes shrilling for dinner. The men, animated by the pleasant weather and their close view right into the heart of enemy territory, excited by the prospect of a wild break in routine when the American frigate came out, clattered down to their mess tables.
On the quarter-deck Lieutenant Charles Falkiner relieved Wallis for the afternoon watch. They both stood gazing over toward the Chesapeake ’s spars and hanging topsail over the bright land. The barometer was high and rising. The wind had blown the clouds off and the sky was a clear, blue bowl of summer.
“She has not moved yet?” Falkiner asked.
“The Captain is sure she will come out.”
Presently the marine at the sandglass called out the half hour and the bell was struck once. The pipes shrilled for grog and the rough pitch of the men’s voices from below swelled and grew more frenzied as the watered rum loosened their tongues. The noise struck up through the gratings over the hatchway—roaring laughter, snatches of song, stage-Irish obscenities to rile the new Paddys who were too stupid to understand anyway, all mixed with coarse boasts of what they were going to do to the Yankees when they dared come out. They knew they could. If anyone could turn the trick it was their flaming redheaded captain. A tartar at the great guns; but they knew they could handle them now and shoot straight across the surface whatever the roll on her—none of your dismasting games—into the hull and give it to the men and never mind about the rigging, the Captain said. They knew that if he could get her alongside yardarm to yardarm, they could flush the boasting Yankees from their pride. If anyone could do it, the Shannons could.
The babble of sound floated up to Broke, who had taken his position with a telescope in the maintop again. But why wouldn’t she move? Every minute gone by was a minute of this fine day wasted—and would it eventually be just another day to add to his six and a half undistinguished years?
He could see that Slocum’s boat had still not reached shore.
As he looked back toward the Chesapeake his blood stopped momentarily, and then pumped hard. There was a cry from the lookout, “She comes! Sir, the frigate has made sail!”
What a picture she made! She had sheeted home‣ all together and was walking‣ out over her short cable helped by the ebbing tide. He watched her through his glass for a moment to make sure there could be no mistake, then hurried down on deck.
The voices from below had ceased as the word spread like a thunderclap among the men. They were all on deck lining the bulwarks and hammock nettings and even in the lower shrouds, straining to get a better sight. And they were quiet. Now that the moment was upon them their high spirits gave way to a sort of awe. The Yankee frigate was coming for them.
Broke felt their eyes on him, and knew that Watt close by was waiting for a word. He stepped back to the main shrouds and levelled his telescope again. There could be no doubt. She was walking down steadily toward the lighthouse with the tide and the wind behind her—she was surrounded by a clutch of small craft like ducklings in her wake, and among them some fairsized cutters and a large schooner, probably armed, and all of them crowded with Americans coming out to see the sport. What a spectacle they made with their gay sails and myriad colors against the land! He could imagine his opponent, Lawrence, on the frigate’s quarterdeck, a large, handsome, willful fellow by all accounts- and confident, too. He would expect to give those people of his a show.