December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
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.
Broke Hall stands four square and baulemented, dose by the river Orwell below the little village of Nacton in Suffolk. It is an unpretending house. The main gates are plain. The drive leads straight, shadowed and scented by limes either side, a long way before the plain oak front door. To the right the sun (lashes off broad reaches of the river; ahead the ground rises and folds around the square house, the old flagstones, and the lawns. Oak trees and evergreens complete its shelter from sea winds. Birds sing among them.
From the gentle high ground beneath these trees the view of the river and the far bank breathes England; there is nothing harsh, nothing swift, no feverish rapids, no sparkling pools, only the broad, easy stream leading in laxy curves to the sea. The far bank about a mile away rises alternately wooded and swelling with green and rich brown Relds, pointed up with white houses, more trees, graceful village churches, nothing to jar nature.
The only strange notes in all this peare are provided by the gulls; they pipe as shrilly and excitedly as ever a swarm of boatswain’s mates, mingling their sea noises with the land birds. For this is a meeting place—rural Suffolk with-maritime England. A hundred sail and more—Britannia’s shield—have been anchored between those green banks within cannon shot of the house; their canvas-clouded masts have thrilled generations of slow farmers and laborers and villagers of Nacton, and their great guns in salute have startled the gentlemen’s deer in those fields and caused pheasants to rise and drum away like Frenchmen.
Leading from Broke Hall down to the river is another avenue of lime trees. It ends at a sand beach scattered with shingle which runs along the shore, narrowly dividing the grass banks and knotted roots of Suffolk from the mud Hats at low tide. Sea wrack in the maxy indentations. Salt smell of estuaries. Here is a silence and peace that is not of the twentieth century.
Here we can drift back through the years without intrusion, through generations of Brokcs, through this century and the last until we come upon a boy wandering this same sand, his eyes filled with this expanse of water, his mind with great thoughts of the ships that pass upon it. He is dreaming of the day he can get to sea himself—of the high, giddy adventure and romance of life tinder those raking spars, the far ports, the Indies, the skirmishes with AI. Crapaud, the epaulets of an ollicer of the king, those tall ships! It was not unusual for East Coast boys to be seized in that way.
The boy was Philip Howes Vere Broke (pronounced Brook ), elder son of Philip Bowes Broke, Esquire, n solid, landed gentleman with literary tastes—not wealthy, I)Ut able to maintain his seat and his station comfortably from the few farms in Essex and Sullulk which went with the Broke estate. He had ambitions for a liberal education for his sons—Winchester, his old school, perhaps, or Klon. But Philip was under the spell of the ships. Young Philip had red hair from his mother, who was a parson’s daughter, and lroin her also a firm religious grounding which admitted of no uncertainties; he was representative, perhaps, ol the last generation of educated Knglishmen who could go through lue without doubt. From his mother and lather and the extensive library at Broke Hall he had a taste for books and the Latin poets in their own tongue. He would cany with him through life this love of literature, these classical ideas, this absolute faith in one God, all mixed in with the quiet beauty of Suffolk, the wild flowers along the edges of the fields and narrow, windy, tree-hung lanes, the slow herds- the sea wind, keen from across the Orwell. He would also carry the stability and sense of station of a Broke descended from countless landed Brokes tracing back to Saxon times. Young Philip would feel the privilege of his position and the responsibilities that this privilege carried, one of which was to set an example in defense of his country—even with his life.
We have moved on from the boy on the sand. He had not comprehended all this yet, and was concerned only with persuading his father that there was really but one career tor him, His Majesty’s Navy. His father, disappointed, made a compromise: young Philip might attend the naval academy at Portsmouth; this, although a most unfashionable way of entering the sea service and frowned upon by stalwarts of the old school as “a sink of vice and abomination,” was probably a kinder introduction for a lad than the fearful squalor of the gunroom in a man-of-war—certainly more likely to encourage study.
So from the age of twelve until he was fifteen, Philip studied the theory and high art of seamanship under canvas and obtained some glimpses into the new principles of gunnery, which had been propounded recently by an Englishman named Benjamin Robins, and which brought the light of science to this hitherto mysterious art. The flight of a ball does not conform to a parabola, because the ball is continuously retarded by the air it pushes; and most surprising, the spin imparted to a ball by contact with the side of the bore as it leaves the muzzle will cause it to curve toward that side during its flight.
The naval college instructors were not convinced of the practicality of this science, knowing well that the art of naval gunnery consisted in laying the ship so close to the enemy that the shot could not miss, however it left the barrel and whatever it did thereafter. More important was the composition of the gunpowder and its preservation in the damp magazines below the water line. Young Philip learned that the explosive force of the powder derives from its endeavors to expand when transformed into a gaseous substance by the application of a lighted match or—the very latest innovation in the naval service—a spark struck from a flintlock.
Philip’s mind was fired by the details of his future profession. The ships he saw riding the Orwell, formerly just brave, graceful symbols of adventure over wider horizons than the Broke estate, took on added interest now that he could see the bones and vital organs beneath their fair curves and canvas. His was an essentially practical mind; his lessons in the craft of seamanship and gunnery had given it something to bite on. Now we can see him down by the river fitting out a fleet of wooden model ships and staging a general action, experimenting with gunpowder to fire their cannon, or, on another occasion, constructing a raft and setting out upon the tide to visit a ship at anchor. This fascination with the mechanics of seamanship and gunnery, this bent for experiment awakened at the naval college, would last him throughout his life.
The years passed quickly while he was learning; then, in 1792, at the age of fifteen, he was appointed midshipman in the Bulldog sloop-of-war, and nothing was seen of him at the Hall. But his letters arrived frequently. They were long with descriptions of the strange, brutal, yet intensely stimulating new life he had been plunged into. He was a little lonely when he found the time, for there were not too many lads of similar interests and education in His Majesty’s ships. But his eagerness to acquire knowledge and master every smallest detail of the profession soon made him a favorite, and his captain, George Hope, later a good friend at the Admiralty, took him under his wing; when Hope was appointed to another vessel, he took young Philip with him.
But before that—war. The French had beheaded their king, and a number of good naval officers besides, and were attempting to spread their hateful revolutionary doctrine through Europe and the world. Young Philip was not only a seaman now but a crusader, convinced with all the fervor of a romantic youth—and heir to a landed estate—that the war with France was a “sacred cause.” At the same time, his letters home came alive with more tales of adventure than he had ever dreamed of by the quiet Orwell, stories of the chase and cutting-out parties in small boats, of boarding merchantmen and being placed in command of prizes, of hunting down sharp privateers, or sailing in close to the enemy’s batteries as the eyes of the fleet. As a fighting sailor he was fortunate; almost with his first deep draughts of sea air he was breathing in the trade of war, which no peacetime exercises could have simulated. He was learning naturally and barely consciously the disciplines and aggressive attitudes that went to make the men of the British Navy the most formidable sea-fighters in all Europe.
After three years of small-ship time as midshipman, Philip Broke received a commission as third lieutenant of the Southampton ; he remained absent from the Hall except in letters. He was cruising in the Mediterranean with Nelson’s squadron. At the battle off Cape St. Vincent his frigate was employed towing the Spaniards off when they could stand the pounding no longer. But the French had not yet been driven into their harbors, and there was excitement aplenty in which the frigates took a more active part almost every week.
At last, after more than five years’ continuous absence, Philip returned to Nacton for his twenty-first birthday, received to a hero’s welcome—and rightly so, for he was now a seasoned fighting officer. The great portraits in the Hall looked down on him with approval—and some expectation, perhaps.
After some months breathing the quiet of Suffolk and feeling his pulses slowing to the old, familiar beat of the country, Philip—always a small-ship man and proud of it—was appointed to the Amelia frigate, Captain the Honorable C. Herbert. Herbert was a man of some literary taste and talent, and Philip found the atmosphere congenial. He served two years here, experiencing another general fleet engagement and many other excitements before obtaining his promotion to commander.
Now, while his father, who was a staunch Tory party worker, schemed with his political friends to ensure his son’s promotion to post rank, young Broke experienced his first independent commands—some inconsequential fire brigs and convoy sloops—before his father’s “interest” gained him the coveted step to post captain in February, 1801. Now his career was assured; at twentyfour, he had his foot unshakably on the promotion ladder and could look forward, with or without ships to command, to a steady ascent by seniority up the captain’s list, and stage by stage through the rear admirals and the viceadmirals to the very top of his profession—if he could survive that long.
He returned to Broke Hall on half pay, a well-built young man over six feet tall. His weathered face wore a pleasant expression; his speech was assured, and he carried himself with a confidence born of ten years of very active service and the knowledge of his own capabilities this had brought. There was no vanity, though. The anecdotes of the chase and capture, of storms and foreign ports, with which he entertained his avid family were modestly understated. His red hair hung naturally and showed no powder; his dress was unassuming. In company he went out of his way to be pleasant and cheerful.
And now he was often down by the river with his young friend Sarah Louisa, second daughter of Sir William Middleton, Baronet, of Shrubland Park, not far from Ipswich; she was a fair-haired girl with a delicate complexion and very blue eyes—a shy creature in company, but it was obvious that she was very much in love with the naval hero, and he with her. They married in November, 1802.
They were ideally happy together, but as the months on half pay lengthened into years, Philip became increasingly nostalgic about those fine, free days at sea and increasingly impatient of idleness. He wrote to Lord Melville at the Admiralty to remind him of his presence and his eagerness to take advantage of any post command that might fall vacant. While he waited for a reply, he satisfied his restless mind by forming and training a body of local peasantry to arms against the day when old “Boney” might attempt an invasion of the last free country in Europe.
At last, in the spring of 1805, after Broke had been four years on half pay, Lord Melville found him a frigate, not a new or imposing one to be sure, and grossly undermanned like so many of His Majesty’s ships in those hard times. It was certain also that no volunteers would come flying to join at the sound of her new captain’s name, as they would for Lord Cochrane or one of the other glamorous frigate commanders.
Broke, sir? Who is he?
But for Philip, the Druid , a worn sieve of a frigate rated 32 guns, was a ship beyond all ships—his first post command. He was nearly twenty-nine years old, in the prime of manhood, and his brilliant prospects were all before him. Elated by the thought, but suddenly very sad at having to leave his delightful “Looloo” and the two children she had borne him, Philip entered the coach for London, his cases packed with a new captain’s uniform, table service, and various flints and locks and sights for the great guns, with which he had been experimenting at home.
And again, for an even longer period, almost nothing was seen of him by the Orwell—only Louisa coming down to the beach with their children in the summer to read his letters: My dear, beloved Looloo … My Sunday devotions bear me home to my Loo: I wish I could pray by her side. Alas! I shall see no primroses this May to remind me of my gentle Loo. When shall I sit and read to her again in the shade whilst she ties up the violets? Poor Nacton. ‘Tis far away; I must not think of it till I am on my return.
But I must close up this and attend to my wooden mistress. She is a great tyrant! Give my love to the dear little cherubs around you and Heaven protect you all!
In September, 1806, Captain Broke was posted to a brand-new frigate, the Shannon , fresh from the builder’s yard. During the next few years, most of which the Shannon spent on the French blockade, it became apparent to Broke that many British captains were beginning to grow complacent because of the ease with which they had handled the French Navy. He never permitted this attitude to develop in his ship; indeed, he seemed to regard French impotence as a spur to show what could be done with scientific gunnery, of which he had always been an enthusiast.
He was one of a small band of officers who recognized that the improvements in the manufacture and equipment of the great guns which came about during the previous century had made accurate fire a possibility, at least for close action. The tools were there, and Broke’s first action on taking command of the Shannon was to fit his guns with sights, then to set about training his officers, and through them the men, in their use.
He considered as a fault in gunnery any shot that went above or below the men on the enemy’s gun decks. Dismasting or unrigging practice he regarded with contempt unless effected by the special dismantling service guns which he ordered on the enemy’s wheel or yards. Each shot, each charge of grape or canister from his main batteries, he considered wasted unless coolly aimed to kill men.
During the next five years, as the Shannon ranged up and down the French coast, he had little opportunity to put his theories into practice in combat. But Broke kept his gun crews practicing nearly every day at sea until the use of sights became as much a habit as any other part of the loading and firing procedure and was unlikely to fail in the test of action. As a fighting unit his frigate was among the best ships in His Majesty’s fleet.
In 1811, as war between Britain and the United States drew nearer, the Shannon was ordered to Halifax, headquarters for the North American station. In June of 1812 war finally came, and during the next six months, in a series of single-ship actions, the tiny United States fleet put the Royal Navy to shame: the Constitution bested the Guerrière ; the Wasp defeated the Frolic ; the United States subdued the Macedonian ; and the Constitution , scoring a second victory, destroyed the British frigate Java off the coast of Brazil. In February, 1813, Broke had a letter from his former skipper, Sir George Hope, at the Admiralty: “Why don’t you get a look at these Yankees,” the Admiral wrote, “and not allow them to bully us in this way.” In less than four months, Captain Broke would have his chance for revenge.
In 1813 Captain.James Lawrence of the United States Navy was just thirty-one, and like Broke he burned with ambition for glory in action. Like Broke also, he consistently trained his people for that action at the great guns, and was a strict disciplinarian without ever crossing the border to needless brutality or sadism; indeed, he commanded the same respect from some of his midshipmen that Broke did from his Shannons. But whereas Broke was calm and good-humored almost to the point of phlegm, Lawrence was impulsive and passionate.
His ancestors were of English stock, but his immediate forebears were American citizens of some prominence in Burlington, New Jersey, where he was born in October, 1781. Like Broke, he early showed a desire to go to sea, despite his parents’ endeavors to put him to the law, and eventually he had his way, attended a three months’ course in theoretical navigation, and entered the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1798.
Commissioned a full lieutenant in 1802, he distinguished himself in the war against the Barbary pirates by taking a small boat into the heavily armed harbor of Tripoli and helping to burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia . In 1808, the year of his marriage to Julia Montaudevert, he was appointed first lieutenant of the Constitution , and after only seven months, still a lieutenant, got his first sizable command, the 12gun brig-of-war Vixen . He briefly commanded the sloop Wasp and the brig Argus , and in October of 1811, promoted to master commandant— roughly the equivalent of a present-day commander—he took over the Hornet , 18 guns. It was on her quarter-deck that he was to make his reputation.
On the afternoon of February 14, 1812, the Hornet , on a southward cruise looking for British prizes, sighted off Guiana near the mouth of the Demerara River the smartly turned out but indifferently commanded British brig-of-war Peacock . After one inconclusive exchange of broadsides, Lawrence came down on the Peacock from to windward, placed himself close alongside her starboard quarter, and proceeded to cut her to pieces with the superior weight of carronade served by his expert gunners. With water flooding in through shot holes, she hoisted her ensign downward.
It was an infinitely sad day for the Royal Navy. And as one British officer subsequently described the contest, “if the Peacock had been moored for the purpose of experiment she could not have sunk sooner.” Lawrence remarked to an acquaintance that his clerk had reported the time of the action as eleven minutes, “but I thought fifteen minutes was short enough so I made it that in my report.” This, if truly recollected, is a remarkable coincidence—as will appear.
Lawrence immediately became the latest in the growing line of U.S. naval heroes. He had suddenly become “Captain Jim,” the toast of the eastern seaboard, whose Hornet had stung the Peacock to death in less time than any previous engagement in the war. After a year of shore duty, Captain Lawrence was posted in May, 1813, to the Chesapeake , a fast and exceedingly handsome frigate then at Boston preparing to go out and test the British blockade. Fart of the blockade was the frigate H.M.S. Shannon , Captain Philip Broke.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Broke fought down his mounting excitement and turned to Watt. “I hope to have the pleasure of shaking hands with Captain Lawrence today.” Watt smiled.
They wasted little time discussing the immediate situation because it was obvious to both that the Shannon was far too close to Boston and that if by mischance they were dismasted or otherwise crippled they would be in danger from boarding parties from the shore. The helm was put up to wear∗ ship, the jib set, and when they were around on a southeasterly course the topgallants and the forecourse were dropped and sheeted home. The Chesapeake meanwhile set all her studding sails‣ alow and aloft and walked out after them, a splendid, tapering mass of white sunlit and shadowed canvas against the green land.
All the officers were up on the quarter-deck now, and those marines and waisters‣ on deck were talking with hushed excitement. Broke called them to silence. Then he went below to his great cabin for the last time before it was dismantled for action. He fell to his knees and committed to God’s care his beloved Louisa and his dear children and the Shannon and all her people, and he prayed earnestly that he might not fail any of them when the moment of trial came. And if it were God’s will—let it be the Shannon to raise the proud old union flag again.
IS servant was stowing his gear ready for carrying below, and the carpenters were banging away at the timber partitions that formed his suite of rooms. They soon had them apart and carried them down to the holds with his few pieces of furniture and his books; now the gun deck presented an unbroken sweep of planking down each side inboard of the cannon: from the manger‣ forward where the goats were tethered, down past the main hatch coaming, which was surrounded by 18pounder balls like strings of black beads in their shot racks, past the foot of the mainmast [see mast ‣] with its cluster of stanchions, up again to the great windows at the stern through which the sun was striking in diagonals. Dappled reflections off the water rippled along the beams overhead.
The chase to seaward continued slowly down the fitful afternoon breeze. Broke had the carpenters erect a table on the quarter-deck and a canvas screen just forward to shield it from the men’s gaze, and invited his commissioned officers to dine with him. They gathered around the white cloth gleaming with his silver service and glassware, claret in decanters making a splash of color between their shadows—Watt and Wallis, Falkiner and the two marine officers, Johns and Law, each backed by his own servant, each a little constrained by the occasion and by an effort at unconcern. And whenever they stood up to glance over the starboard-quarter hammocks, there, like fate itself, was the towering spread of the Chesapeake ’s canvas, always just a fraction closer, the sun molding white highlights on the starboard side of her studding sails, and the ripple at her bow. A picture for an artist against the clear blue of the skyl The small craft accompanying her were straggling now; only the schooner seemed able to stay the pace in the light breeze.
When they had finished eating and the servants had cleared the plates, but while the port remained, Broke rose to his feet and looked at his officers in turn. “Well, gentlemen, no doubt we shall shortly be in action,” he started, as if announcing nothing more serious than a gun drill. “It will be a satisfaction to me if we all take wine with each other—and shake hands all round before we go to our quarters.” This was an old custom which had fallen into disuse. The chairs scraped back; the officers stood with him and raised their glasses across the table, then bowed, straightened up, and drank deeply to their friendship.
Below decks all was ready for the action. In the steamy, dark cockpit below the steerage the surgeon and his mate had laid out their armament o saws, knives, probes, drills, and forceps, which glistened dully in the candlelight from the heavy lanterns hung around the cockpit. The deck below was spread with old, scrubbed canvas; half-tubs gleaming with water stood ready to receive amputated limbs, others were placed near the sponges and bandages and tourniquets, still another half-tub was filled with warm water to take the coldness from the instruments before they entered flesh.
Forward the old gunner, having seen to the damp brushwood screens all around the hatchways up which his cartridges would be passed, and more damp screens before the entrance to the magazines themselves, was busy filling flannel cartridges with powder, helped by a little band of his mates, stacking them carefully inside the copper-lined door.
Above on the main deck, alternate cannon had been loaded with one ball in addition to the one they always had in them at sea; the others had one round of shot, one of grape. By the side between each gun port was a halftub of salt water in case of fire, and by each breech, but placed out of range of possible leaping, stood another halftub of water with lighted slow matches stuck in the rim in case the lock failed. A third bucket contained fresh water for refreshing the crew. Nettings of wads were placed handy between the guns, and the rammers, sponges, and worms‣ laid in parallel on the deck, handles inboard as if at drill; the ends of all the tackles were neatly flaked,‣ the flints carefully placed and adjusted in the locks, the tampions‣ removed from the mouths that poked outboard; all that was needed now before firing was the correct adjustment to the quoins‣ for horizontal aim. The deck had been wet and sprinkled with sand, hoses were uncoiled like snakes over the hatch gratings, the pumps were rigged.
Similar preparations were visible on the forecastle and quarter-deck for the carronade batteries, and the small arms had been laid inboard of them for the boarders. Above, the yards had been slung with chains and further secured against falling by stoppers to their halyards so that if cut below the stoppers by shot they would still hold. Buckets of water had been prepared on hoists so that the sails could be wet down just before the action.
Meanwhile Lawrence, fearing once more that he might be following the Shannon into a trap, rounded to and lay pointing northwesterly toward Salem, and fired a gun. Broke had the Shannon brought to in the same direction and hove all aback, and fired a gun in reply. He discussed with the officers whether they were far enough from the harbor, but decided that as there was still plenty of daylight it would be advisable to try to draw the Chesapeake still farther out. So when Lawrence, apparently satisfied with Broke’s action, put his helm up and filled again, standing toward him, Broke did the same.
By this time, about 4:00, the Shannon had run some fifteen miles from Boston, which was out of sight astern. Broke, his table and canvas screen cleared from the quarter-deck, shortly decided that the time was suitable for allowing the Chesapeake to close, and he ordered the topgallants to be taken in and the staysails‣ lowered. The hands were piped to grog. The kids were brought up from the manger and thrown overboard. Broke watched them struggling as they drifted astern.
The Chesapeake was barely four miles away and was steadily closing the gap of blue water. Her cloud of canvas was broken gaily by the red and blue splashes of three ensigns from the main and mizzen, and still at the foreroyal was the white flag with “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights” emblazoned across it. This was what they were fighting for—not the economists’ definition but simply the freedom to trade with whatever country they wished, without the fear of impressment.
By 4:50 the Chesapeake was some two miles astern and Lawrence ordered his studding sails to be taken in, the royals furled, and the royal yards sent down on deck. Broke noted this, but kept his own royal yards across, as he expected that the light breeze might die away with the evening. At 5:10 he asked Watt to have the drum beat to quarters; the men assembled and stood quiet and grim in double rows between the cannon, looking almost as they had at the morning’s drill—but with a tension about them which had been lacking then. The quiet was intense.
CARVES hung casually about their shoulders ready to be tied around their ears to protect them against the shattering blasts in action; some men were bare-chested with another scarf holding their white or blue duck trousers around their waists, others had striped shirts tucked in or hanging outside like smocks. Everything was clean in case a ball plowed the cloth into their flesh.
The officers had donned worn old uniforms and their fighting swords for the fray, and Broke had adorned himself with a top hat as better protection for his head than the uniform cocked hat. When the men were all assembled, Broke went to the break of the quarterdeck. The men of the upper-deck quarters and the marines, brilliant in their scarlet and white-crossed tunics, drew up on either side along the gangways; the men of the main deck looked upward from below the boats and spars across the open hatchway.
“Shannons,” he started when they were still. “Shannons, the time has come to show the superiority you have acquired in managing your guns and in marksmanship. You know the Americans have lately triumphed on several occasions over the British flag. But this will not daunt you—we all know the truth—'twas disparity of force that enabled them to do so.” He paused. “But they have gone further—they have said and published in their newspapers that the English have forgotten how to fight.” He looked around at them. “Shannons, you will let them know today that there are Englishmen in this frigate who still know how to fight. You have drilled long and earnestly. You have acquired such skill with the great guns that I believe no frigate afloat can stand beside you. Now is the time to put that drill to the test of action. Throw no shot away. Aim every one. Keep cool. Work steadily. Fire into her quarters—main deck to main deck, quarter-deck to quarterdeck. Don’t try to dismast her. Kill the men and the ship is yours.”
The sailors growled their appreciation. Broke held up a hand.
“And if it comes to close quarters, don’t hit them about the head for they have steel caps on. Give it them through the body.”
The low growl broke out again. Broke raised his voice. “You know the day—'tis the Glorious First of June.† And I have great hopes of adding another shining laurel to it, for I have no doubts that we will triumph. Remember your comrades—from the Guerrière , from the Macedonian and from the Java —you have the blood of hundreds to avenge today. The eyes of all Europe are upon you.”
†The Glorious First of June was the last day of a British-French sea battle fought in 1794, at a point over 400 miles from the French coast. The British, trying to intercept a convoy of corn that the French had bought in America and were transporting home, won a brilliant victory, although they failed to capture the convoy.
There was complete silence as Broke mentioned the three British frigates that had been lost, and now several of these sturdy sailormen around him wept openly with emotion.
One of them, named Jacob West, who had been in the Guerrière when she was taken and had subsequently been repatriated and drafted to the Shannon , raised his voice, “Sir, I hope you will give us revenge for the Guerrière today.” 47
“You shall have it, my man,” Broke replied. “Now go quietly to your quarters. And don’t cheer!”
The men dispersed back to their guns, the waisters and idlers‣ to their stations for manning the braces, and the marines along either gangway, muskets held loosely. Broke stationed two of the Shannon ’s quartermasters at the weather‣ spokes of the wheel, and a man named James Reader, alias Adam Read (a recaptured sailor), at the lee wheel, making certain that a chance shot would not leave the steering unattended. Then he walked forward to his g-pounder swivel crews and instructed them to concentrate on the American wheel. “She must not get away!”
The Chesapeake was well within range now, but Lawrence was careful to keep just clear of the Shannon ’s wake so that no guns would bear on her. She had shortened to fighting canvas and was coming on at between three and four knots under full topsails, foretopmast staysail, and jib. Lawrence’s men were waiting quietly at their quarters. Their earlier grumbling about the prize money owing them had been quieted when Lawrence sent them down to the purser by twos and threes to collect checks. Now, calling them together, he addressed them from the quarter-deck as Broke had addressed his people. After stirring their imagination and confidence by reciting the unbroken list of American frigate successes, he ended with a telling reference to his own latest victory. “ Peacock her, my lads,” he had finished. “ Peacock her!” The Americans stood to their guns, certain that they would do just that. And it was very plain that “Captain Jim” intended to go in to close quarters immediately, for he had instructed his lieutenants to add canister and bar shot to the one round, one grape, already in the guns.
Broke now shortened to single reefed topsails and jib and lay the Shannon to with the wind just forward of the starboard beam. The jib was allowed to shiver, and, the main yard being braced square, the maintopsail was shivering so that she had bare steerage way under the fore and mizzen topsails alone. The spanker‣ was held simply by the throat brail,‣ ready to drop in an instant should they need leverage at the stern to turn her up into the wind quickly, and the cr’jack‣ braces were manned. She lay like a wary fighter waiting to respond to whatever her opponent attempted.
The quiet minutes drew out agonizingly. The Chesapeake ’s masts stood taller as she walked down toward the Shannon ’s, taffrail‣ at a fine angle from the starboard quarter. Ever)' detail was bright and clear. Her three ensigns and the motto flew gaily to leeward. The sun picked out the barrels of the marines’ rifles along the spar deck, and more rifles in the tops, which were crowded with faces peering toward the Shannon . The rigging was taut and through its maze of lines and furled canvas there was a clear view to the quarter-deck and the wheel and Captain Lawrence standing high on a gunslide, tall and unmistakable in cocked hat, heavy gold epaulets, snowy shirt above his best blue coat laced with gold and buttoned across his chest; he had dressed himself carefully for the occasion, his haid braided in a queue and tied with black ribbon. His first lieutenant, sailing master, and midshipmen aides stood nearby.
Broke in his tall hat, with Watt close beside him, stood right aft at the Shannon ’s taffrail watching the American vessel closely and trying to fathom which side she would attack. There were three courses open to her. First and most unlikely, she could luff up suddenly and bring her port broadside to bear before the Shannon could answer with her full broadside—but she was coming too slowly to do this without risk of hanging in irons,‣ especially if a chance shot carried away some vital rigging. Her most likely course would be to put her wheel up and come under the Shannon ’s stern to rake. Alternatively she could come fairly alongside with her port bow ranging up the Shannon ’s starboard quarter.
Broke’s best plan, according to accepted doctrine, was to wear while she made her approach, and to try to half rake with the port broadside as she conformed to his movement. Broke dismissed this plan; he knew the value of keeping his ship steady for the gunners to take good aim, and he had little faith in a raking fire from a ship under way and swinging. Besides, this would throw the ships into action at comparatively long range, and the last thing he wanted was a maneuvering match which might leave him dismasted so close to his enemy’s base and at this late hour. He wanted to draw Lawrence alongside, yardarm to yardarm, where the ferocity of the close action would tell in favor of the ship with superior drill and discipline; this must be the Shannon .
“Close quarters was always Captain Broke’s teaching—his wish—his hope and his principle,” one of the Shannon ’s midshipmen recalled later. “It is then that every element in a sea fight even to the noise, the smoke and confusion has its greatest effect to weaken the energies and overpower the martial faculties of the enemy.”
So he left his wheel steady and his jib and mainsail shivering, offering his barely moving frigate to Lawrence from whichever side he chose to take her, challenging him similarly to dispense with opening maneuvers—but watching closely nevertheless, ready to meet whatever movement he chose.
“Sir, may’nt we have three ensigns”—it was one of the carronade hands nearby, his voice tight with suppressed excitement—"like she has sir?”
Broke turned and glanced briefly up at the Shannon ’s single, faded blue ensign fluttering from the gaff.‣
“No. One is sufficient.” He added, “We have ever been an unpretending ship.” But he called out to the Scot who was captain of the mizzentop, “Make fast a stop at each side of the flag!”
When he turned to observe the American frigate again it appeared that she had put her helm up. Watt said, “She’s bearing up‣ to rake!” Broke called out for the jib to be sheeted in and the wheel starboarded. Walking forward with his speaking trumpet, he called down to the gun deck through the open skylight which normally served his cabin, telling the men to lie down on deck. “Stand by for raking fire from aft!”
Whether Lawrence intended to rake but thought better of it when he saw the Shannon coming around to answer him, or whether it was just a temporary adjustment in his line of approach, he almost immediately resumed his former course. Broke, watching carefully, did likewise. Now he knew he had his man. Lawrence had accepted the challenge; he was going to run alongside! To make their speeds more nearly equal, therefore, he ordered the maintopsail braced sharp up so that it would fill like the fore and mizzen, and then, walking to his skylight again, he called out to his main-deck gunners to fire when they bore on the Chesapeake ’s second main-deck port from forward. Wallis at the after quarters and Falkiner, forward, had the quoins of the starboard battery set to give horizontal fire to windward under the present easv press of the toosails.
Broke, meanwhile, walked forward to the starboard gangway and stood at the entrance port, where he had a clear view around the vessel over the waist hammocks and would be able to see his first guns taking effect. His every action had been under the keenest surveillance from the silent, waiting men of the upper deck quarters. Now one of these, named Rowlands, who had been in the Guerrière when taken and was craning over the canvas screen around the maintop to get a better view, was so delighted with Brake’s calm and self-possession and the precision of his orders that he ejaculated, “Ah! That’s the man for mel” And picking up his musket from where he had laid it, he concentrated on the American frigate, now nearly upon them.
Lawrence was bringing her up in fine style. Aware of all eyes from the small spectator craft which had caught up to within a mile or two while the ‣ frigates shortened sail, conscious of their admiration and support, he carried his ship up and almost aboard the Shannon ’s quarter. This was how the Hornet had made her approach to the kill—“ Peacock her, my ladsl”—but he swas coming in closer even than that, buoyed up by thoughts of another quick and shattering victory. His marines were waiting in orderly ranks. He aimed to give them every opportunity with their rifles.
“He had no talk, but he inspired all about him with ardor,” one of his colleagues, Stephen Decatur, recalled. “He always saw the best thing to be done, and he knew the best way to execute it, and he had no more dodge in him than the mainmast.”
Lawrence held on as close as good seamanship allowed without danger of accidental collision; his bowsprit reached out almost to the Shannon ’s taffrail. He noted the peeling paint, the streaks of rust down her sides, the patched sails, the faded union flag at the foreroyal, the old blue ensign at the gaff, the jolly boat swaying slowly in the smooth of her wake—another tired craft, too long on the station?
He called out, “Luff her!”
The quartermaster lent his weight to the spokes. The Chesapeake ’s bow swung up into the wind paralleling the Shannon ’s course with only forty yards separating them laterally. The American company roared out three exultant cheers across the small gap of water.
The Shannons gave no reply; it was one of Broke’s peculiarities to insist on silence in action as well as in drill so that orders could be heard clearly. They waited quietly, screwing up their courage in the awful moment before the holocaust broke, holding tight lips, tight nerves, expecting a fierce contest but determined not to submit. Scarves drawn tightly about their ears, they watched the gun captains bending over the sights all down the starboard battery, all the guns laid precisely horizontal for the slight list—"Throw no shot away. Aim every one. Keep cool. Work steadily. Fire into her quarters—main deck to main deck, quarter-deck to quarter-deck. Don’t try to dismast her. Kill the men and the ship is yours. The eyes of all Europe are upon you.…”
The ripple of water from the bow of the American vessel could be heard distinctly through the ports as they waited. Bill Mindham, captain of the aftermost main-deck gun, suddenly saw her martingales‣ down to the dolphin striker‣ showing very close against the bright afternoon, passing slowly forward across his sights. Next he saw the dark stem, with leaves picked out in gold chasing, up to the proud black scroll of the fiddlehead, then the broad yellow band leading down from it around the curve of the bow, down to the level of the gun port sills as she came on—he could see each plank and fastening clearly, even each scratch in the fresh paint. As the first bridle port‣ moved across the barrel of his piece the dispart‣ stood fairly in its center. He felt a tight ball of excitement in his throat; they had her! The Shannon was quite steady under the easy canvas, the guns were exactly lined for height—this was ten times easier than practice at a mark.
He could see the second port with the muzzle of its gun poking through—now! He jerked the lanyard, the lock snapped, splutter of powder, sparks upward, and the great breech came leaping toward him like thunder, smoke clouding back through the port and blinding all view. As the trucks thumped to the deck and the tackle men heaved frantically taut, he heard the aftermost carronade go off just above his head, and then a fraction of a second later there was a roar from his left hand as the thirteenth maindeck gun came on target. There was a choking smell in his nostrils, fighting blood rushing to his head.
Broke, standing above in the open gangway port, watched the shadow of the Chesapeake cross his beloved Shannon ’s weathered quarter and saw his first two main-deck shots splintering home right on target. He was aware of the crackling of small arms from the American marines and the scream of a ball through the air. Then his own twelfth main-deck gun went off and almost simultaneously the second carronade from the stern. He left the entrance port and walked back to the quarter-deck, satisfied that his broadside was horizontal and all guns would be effective; as he went he noticed the Chesapeake ’s jib suddenly lose its wind and shiver slack—the sheet had already bsen cut.
Forward in the American frigate the slaughter was dreadful. Most of the gun’s crew standing by the right of the foremost gun, which was the point of the Shannon ’s aim, were dead or injured. Some had been laid flat against the timbers of the manger, pieces of others were blown straight across to the opposite port. The lieutenant of the first division, Budd, together with other survivors, pulled the bodies clear so that the gun could be fired, dispatched the wounded down to the cockpit, the dead into the sea.
S the Chesapeake ranged up with almost a knot superior speed, the destruction spread aft. The two balls or ball and grape from each British gun, travelling comparatively slowly before their charges of old and often damp and clogging powder, smashed through the side timbers, spreading jagged splinters and mowing down the guns’ crews. Above them the British carronades, loaded with one round and one grape each, were spreading equal destruction along the Chesapeake ’s upper deck and gangway, and the g-pounders detailed by Broke for dismantling the wheel had already dispatched the original quartermaster. Another had taken his place. Captain Lawrence himself had a musket ball in his leg from a marksman in the top; one knee of his snowy white breeches was spreading with red.
He realized that he had too much speed, a situation aggravated by the fact that his canvas was now blanketing the Shannon ’s and further increasing the difference in their rates of sailing. He ordered the wheel put down for a pilot’s luff, a temporary yaw into the wind to shiver the sails and take the way off. This maneuver was helped by the loss of wind from his jib, and the Chesapeake turned away, veering her stern half toward the Shannon . All of the American ship’s guns were in bearing by now, and the comparatively unhurt midships and after crews had begun firing with an energy equalling the Shannon ’s own; but as they were manning lee guns and were without the meticulous arrangements for horizontal fire that the British ship could boast, too many shots hit below the main deck and banged against the copper exposed above the water line. A number took effect among the guns’ crews, however, bringing death and splinters, the sudden shock of wounds —smashed bone and muscle, limbs flying, and blood pulsing through clean cloth, spreading, tacky underfoot.
The immaculate silence which had been observed as at drill disintegrated into a grunting, cursing, even cheering confusion of sound as the crews reloaded feverishly and the tackle men hauled the great pieces out with a run.
In brief intervals when the piled-up smoke blew clear, the marksmen in the Shannon ’s tops had vivid glimpses down to the Chesapeake ’s upper deck; the planking was scarcely visible—"the hammocks, splinters and wreck of all kinds driven across the deck formed a complete cloud.” The American marine officer, Lieutenant James Broom, and the sailing master, William White, were taken off, as were also two midshipmen and a number of marines; Lawrence, having limped down from his gun slide, leaned on the binnacle for support. Two of his helmsmen had been killed and a third was at the wheel. The easy Peacock had turned into a hawk with red claws.
Down below in his gun deck the fourth lieutenant, Ballard, fell mortally wounded, and forward in the first division, whose guns were now out of bearing, Lieutenant Budd realized with a shock of horror that out of some one hundred and fifty men who had started the action on the gun deck only about fifty were still on their feet, able to work their pieces.
S the Chesapeake continued to turn up into the wind most of her shot struck forward in the Shannon . Thomas Selby, able seaman on the forecastle, had his head smashed from his body. Neil Gilchrist was cut in two by a 32pounder ball. Thomas Barry, a young lad, was taken off by a star shot across his middle. A gs-pounder carronade ball struck a case of shot for the Shannon ’s i2-pounder, which was stowed in the main chains, and drove it through the timbers to scatter like lead hail across the gun deck. The Shannons moved their wounded from the dangerous space near the leaping cannon and into the arms of the sick-bay party, pitched the lifeless through the ports, and found themselves caught up in a primeval lust for killing which swept the quarters like a red cloud, turning them berserk. They cheered and yelled obscenities, dripping sweat as they worked with superhuman frenzy, mindlessly handling the tackles and sponges and rammers whose feel and motion they knew as well as their own leathery palms.
The Shannon reeled and shook to the discharge of her own guns and the occasional staggering shock of the enemy’s blows as the Chesapeake ’s welldrilled crews, decimated as some were, still poured in a ragged volley from the midships and after guns.
On the American quarter-deck the third helmsman fell, and the wheel it-self was smashed and the tiller ropes cut by Broke’s dismantling guns. The Chesapeake , out of control and with the helm still slightly a-lee, continued to luff into the wind, helped around by her spanker, whose brails had been shot away so that the canvas blew out and flattened against the mizzeii rigging. The fore-topsail halyard had also been cut by a shot, and the yard having no chain slings‣ or preventers‣ —a sign of careless overconfidence perhaps—had fallen on the lifts‣ and shivered the canvas; her head turned farther from the Shannon .
Broke, seeing this, and thinking that she was trying to disengage under cover of the smoke and deafening confusion, ordered the wheel down to chase her, then walked forward to direct the two 9-pounders to aim for the Chesapeake ’s head yards, not realizing that these had already been disabled. As he passed by the main shrouds, lifting one leg high over an obstacle on deck, a 32-pounder ball from the Chesapeake knocked a monkeytail‣ from the g-pounder swivel, and flew on, according to witnesses, between his legs. The captain of the gun, Driscoll, fell to the deck with both knee caps fractured by the flying metal. He was carried to the mainmast, where he sat weeping with mortification at being out of the fight. The loader of the same gun received a grape shot just below his stomach, an agonizing wound. He loaded the gun nevertheless, then fell to the deck in torment, beseeching anyone nearby to put a hand into the wound and remove the shot. “I shall do well enough if you will only do that.” He died later.
By now all the Shannon ’s aftermost guns were out of bearing, since the Chesapeake , despite her luff, had surged on past them. The carronade crews from the quarter-deck had consequently left their pieces at a word from Broke, picked up muskets, and swarmed forward onto the booms and the boats, from where they started firing over the heads of their own marines, drawn up along the gangway, into the blue mass of the opposing marines.
Their fire winged diagonally across the American decks as the Chesapeake ’s totally unbalanced canvas accelerated her turn into the wind. Her yards were caught aback. The canvas slapped loosely against the masts and she lost way, then started drifting astern, back toward her eager adversary. Broke’s second lieutenant of marines, John Law, saw her approaching through the smoke clouding up from the forward guns and, hoping to get some orders for his division, which was still drawn up out of the fight on the disengaged gangway, observed to Broke that she was preparing to board.
“No, sir,” Broke replied. “She is crippled and cannot help herself.” Nevertheless he ordered Law to move his men onto the forecastle. Then, directing his forward carronades to fire among the massed American marines, he ordered the helm up and the mizzen topsail to be shivered, in an attempt to throw the Shannon away from the approaching stern of the other. The American ship was helpless in irons and he wanted to pour in more shot before there was any question of boarding. Unfortunately, the Shannon ’s jibstay was parted by a shot at this moment, and she fell off very slowly.
On the wreck-strewn quarter-deck of the Chesapeake Lawrence realized that his ship was falling foul of the Britisher and ordered the boarders up. Lieutenant Ludlow yelled down through the hatchway; Midshipman William E. McKinney, a bare fourteen years old, scampered down the main ladders and went forward to tell Lieutenant Budd of the first division; then he worked his way aft, piping out instructions to Lieutenant Cox of the second division, and calling out to the third division, whose aftermost guns were still in bearing and were firing. Meanwhile, another of Lawrence’s aides, Curtis, was trying to find the bugler, William Brown. This man, who had no duty in action save to stand by with his bugle at the break of the quarter-deck, a passive spectator of the wreck and carnage, had not unnaturally tried to find shelter from the musketry sweeping the deck. He was crouching under the disengaged side of the longboat, which was stowed in its chocks just three feet forward of his duty position. When Curtis at last found him, he yelled at him to blow —blow for the boarders—but the wretched man was so terrified or stupefied by the noise and frantic confusion that he just crouched there, trembling. Curtis left and ran down the main hatchway to call the boarders by word of mouth.
The confusion was, if anything, worse below. The Shannon ’s main-deck fire was half raking from the port quarter as the Chesapeake hung in the wind, drifting down toward the muzzles. Lawrence’s stern windows had been beaten in and the fir beams and timbers had been shivered into clouds of splinters that brought death and terror to the men of the after quarters, who had been virtually untouched at the commencement of the action. The men of the first division, up forward, who had taken the first brutal, methodical assault of the Shannon ’s guns and whose own pieces had been out of bearing for some minutes, had no work to take their minds off the crashes and screams from aft; they were either lying on the deck to try to escape the fire or were crowding over to the disengaged starboard side, where they took refuge by the galley. A few men from the comparatively unhurt second division in the waist followed their lieutenant, Cox, as he rushed with drawn sword for the main hatchway, crying, “Boarders away!” but most retired to starboard and mingled with the beaten men of the first division.
There was also a steady stream of wounded being taken below to the cockpit. Lieutenant Ludlow, hit by a musket ball, was among them, leaving Lawrence the only officer on the upper deck—apart from some midshipmen forward. Already Lieutenant Ballard of the third division, which was now taking the hardest pounding, had been carried below by his midshipman.
Lieutenant Cox meanwhile gained the quarter-deck only to find that his captain had been hit with a second musket ball—this time it was a desperate wound just above the groin—and, in pain, was clinging to the binnacle to keep himself upright. Cox, who had been with Lawrence all his sea life and who had the same respect and affection for him as Broke’s men had for him, sheathed his sword and, ordering the men to “rush on,” hurried to hold up his captain. Lawrence asked him to show him the way to the cockpit, and Cox, helped by two sailors, took the Captain painfully to the ladder and down. As they reached the gun deck Lawrence recognized his young aide McKinney, and called out to him to hurry up the boarders.
On the Chesapeake ’s forecastle the boatswain, Adams, had been mortally wounded; midshipman John D. Fisher had rushed aft on hearing the call for boarders. But he saw no signs of an organized body of men there, simply a few leaderless individuals held in an enfilading fire from the whole length of the Shannon , and a few carronade men valiantly working their pieces through the roar and the smoke. He thought a mistake must have been made and once more went forward. Here he found that an order had been passed to board the fore tack and haul aft the head sheets to shoot the ship clear. The wounded Adams growled, “They are shot awayl”
But it was too late anyway. The Chesapeake had been increasing her pace astern, and now her wrecked port quarter gallery crunched against the Shannon ’s timbers. The fluke of the Shannon ’s working anchor, which had been stowed on a gangway to be out of the way, tore in and held. At the same time the Americans’ spanker boom swung over the Shannon ’s marines, who were lined up two or three deep and still firing as fast as they could load. Broke’s boatswain, Stevens, hurried to lash the boom inboard to keep the ships together.
Broke meanwhile was leading a charmed life. Having narrowly escaped the ball that put Driscoll out of the fight, and having been untouched by all the American marines’ bullets aimed for his tall hat, he was standing beside his clerk, John Dunn, his purser, George Aldham, and the marine sergeant, Molyneux. A shot from one of the Chesapeake ’s after carronades struck the bow of the launch just forward of him and knocked a cloud of splinters away to leeward, temporarily halting the marines of the second division, who were moving along the port gangway in orderly fashion to take up station on the forecastle. Almost immediately afterward another of the American carronades erupted only feet away, knocking in the hammocks just beside him and smashing both Dunn and Aldham to the deck with pockets of grape across their lower stomachs and hips. They lived for scarcely an hour.
Broke was not conscious of his escapes as, standing on a forecastle carronade slide, he peered over to try to ascertain the situation on the Chesapeake ’s decks. He himself had no intention of boarding, but he suddenly realized that there was no one to oppose him. The American marines had long been in an intolerable position. They were massed on the gangways under the concentrated, half-raking fire of grape from the Shannon ’s forward carronades. Also, they were exposed to fire from the Shannon ’s first division of marines, from the gun crews of the after quarters in the boats above them, and from the expert and chosen marksmen in the tops; now those American marines that remained, their officers dead, were falling back on the forecastle. The gun crews of the Chesapeake ’s after carronades were also fleeing forward in the smoke caused by a grenade which had exploded the arms chest by the Americans’ mizzen and spread flame briefly up the luff of the spanker.
Now the quarter-deck lay just four feet from him—practically desertedl
As he saw all this through the thinning smoke, a sailor just forward came to the same conclusion and leaped up on to the forecastle hammock cloth, shouting, “Captain Broke, now is a fine time to board her, for damn the man that’s alive on her quarter-deck!” He crossed over to the Chesapeake ’s bulwarks, but a shot from an American marine dropped him.
Broke realized that the opportunity to board was fleeting: the ships were touching at a small point only, and the Chesapeake ’s head was being blown around before the wind. Her yards were still braced sharp up and as soon as her sails filled she would tear herself away from the lashings Stevens was putting on the spanker boom. There was not a moment to be lost; he must get as many men over as possible in the brief time they had. He was the nearest.
Dropping his speaking trumpet, he drew his sword and cried, “Follow me who canl” He climbed to the working anchor, thence over the hammocks just abaft‣ the forecastle bulwarks, and down onto the protruding muzzle of the Chesapeake ’s deserted aftermost carronade, using it as a step up to the hammocks atop her bulwarks. Then he dropped down on to the enemy quarter-deck.
Sergeant Molyneux followed close behind, with William Stack, his coxswain, and Bill Mindham; several others were swarming over the bulwarks with cutlasses, and more were creeping and running along the spanker boom from out of the boats where they had been firing muskets. An Irish sailor named James Bulger leaped over without any weapons at all, then realized his mistake and grabbed the first thing he saw on the enemy’s deck—a boarding pike. Wielding it, he went roaring after the others who were following the shiny black hat of their captain. Lieutenant Charles Falkiner, who had come up from the gun deck as the ships crashed together, saw his opportunity and jumped across. So did Lieutenant Watt, after seizing the white ensign which he always laid ready at hand across the capstan before going into action.
Broke, running forward on the deserted, blood- and wreck-strewn quarter-deck, saw a lone figure by the mizzen standing his ground and pointing a pistol at him. He brought his sword up in a swinging, backhand cut and laid the man’s pistol arm open against the mast, then ran on toward the port gangway, toward the inert forms of marines and others who were lying wounded and had thrown their arms from them.
OME way ahead of him a small party of Americans gathered on the forecastle and prepared to face the attack. Below in the stench, blood, and dim, wavering light, mutilated men groaned and uttered involuntary sharp cries as they were carried to the entrance of the cockpit to await medical attention. The surgeon, John Dix, hurried to Captain Lawrence as he was supported in great pain down to the stanchions at die foot of the ladder. Lawrence called for his aides. “Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the shipl” They carried him straight to the operating table. “Doctor,” he said, “go on deck and tell the commanding officer to fight the ship till she sinks.” He countermanded the order immediately and told the surgeon’s assistant to send the loblolly boy‣ instead.
Lieutenant Cox, having left him at the ladder, returned to the main deck fired by his spirit, and seeing that the after guns still bore against the Shannon ’s side, helped Midshipman Russell, alone at the thirteenth gun, to depress and fire it. Then they both went to the fourteenth gun and fired that. There was no one else; the men had either been driven from their quarters by the terrible pounding and splinters or had gone up at the cry of boarders.
Lieutenant Ludlow, although he was wounded and receiving attention in the cockpit as the ships fell together, led a number of the Americans in a rally up the main hatchway and succeeded in pushing a party of Shannons back as far as the binnacle before another wave of the cursing, yelling Englishmen came storming over the hammocks with pikes and cutlasses and forced them to retreat again. Foremost in the British charge was John Collier. He saw an American marine pointing a rifle as he rushed him, heard the explosion, and felt the blast as the ball flew by his ear. There was a cry behind as the next man took the shot in the throat and fell. Collier came on. The marine threw down his useless rifle and turned and ran. Collier followed him down the starboard gangway toward the forecastle, where Brake’s small party of boarders, having pressed through a disorderly volley of smallarms fire, was meeting spirited cutlass and bayonet resistance from some American marines. A number of former British sailors who had previously deserted to the American service were fighting with the defenders. These men knew they would be promptly hanged if they were captured. Lieutenant Budd had rallied another small party from the gun deck up the fore hatchway, and the fighting was hot.
Then the second wave of English led by Collier came rushing into them. The marine whom Collier was chasing jumped through one of the bow ports and climbed down to enter his ship again by the main-deck bridle port; others followed him. Lieutenant Budd received a saber cut across the arm and fell back down the hatchway he had emerged from.
Aft of them Lieutenant Ludlow had also received a cutlass wound, a severe one across the head, and he fell; the remnants of his party were fleeing before the blood-maddened Englishmen and the Irish, wild with excitement. James Bulger’s American boarding pike was red at the tip; he charged into the forecastle fray cursing, “And then did I not spit them, bejasusl”
Lacking officers, lacking support from below, and driven back by the irresistible fury of the boarders, the American resistance fell apart. Some men bolted out of the carronade ports down over the side like the marine, others leaped for the fore hatchway and tumbled down.
N the gun deck below, Lieutenant Cox became aware of the commotion up forward as they clattered and fell off the ladder, while others from the gun deck, having removed the gratings from the hatchway to the berth deck below, jostled each other to get down. The panic was contagious. He ran toward them, drawing his sword.
“You damned cowardly sons of bitchesl What are you jumping below for?” A midshipman, Higginbotham, who was nearby, asked Cox if he should try to stop them by cutting a few down.
Cox looked at the stampede; they were too tightly crowded and too terrorized. “No, sir,” he said sadly. “It is of no use.”
By this time the American frigate’s topsails had filled and torn her away from the lashings that Stevens had been securing when he was struck in the arm by grape from the American’s mizzentop swivel. Now, leaving some of her port quarter gallery on the fluke of the Shannon ’s work anchor, the Chesapeake walked away forward. As her port side crunched against the British forecastle, the after end of her foreyard, which was still braced up sharp, came in contact with the forward end of the Shannon ’s foreyard, which was also braced up sharp, and the midshipman from the Shannon’s, foretop, John Smith, seeing the splitsecond opportunity presented, ran out along the yard and over onto the Chesapeake ’s. By this time most of the American foretopmen, seeing their forecastle virtually overrun, were fleeing down the shrouds; the sight of Smith storming toward them along their own yard, with a French cavalry saber he had acquired from a captured privateer, was enough to panic the rest, and they scampered over the weather side. The last to escape was a large midshipman wearing enormous fisherman’s boots; he jumped for a backstay which had been cut by shot and was dangling over the forecastle, and slid down it. Smith jumped on the same backstay and followed him down so closely that they fell on deck together, with the American underneath. Broke was nearby and he put out an arm to restrain Smith as the terrified American tumbled away.
Meanwhile Midshipman Cosnahan, stationed in the Shannon ’s maintop, had found his aim impaired by the lower corner of the topsail, and had scrambled down and seated himself astride the main yard. From here he had a splendid view of the American mizzentop, whose seven occupants were keeping up a spirited fire on the British boarders below them. Cosnahan started picking them off one by one, passing his empty musket up through the lubber’s hole‣ into the top after each shot and receiving another loaded one. He dispatched three Americans in this way; three others fled, but one man, hidden from him by the timber of the lower mast and topmast together, remained firing down on the English boarders. He could not be removed until a Shannon came running up the shrouds and grappled him with bare hands. After a short struggle, the Britisher, who was a large, muscular fellow, shouted, “Stand from underl” and the American sailed from the top and crashed into the starboard quarter boat.
Now, as the Chesapeake forged across the Shannon ’s bows, carrying away the British jib stay, jib, flying jib boom,‣ spritsail‣ yard, and rigging, she ceased to touch die side at any point, and the marines and others preparing to follow the first boarders found a widening gap of sea preventing them. In all, sixty men, perhaps less, had gained the enemy’s deck in the minute or so available. But they were enough. The American organization had been completely shattered by the grape and musketry sweeping the deck prior to the boarding, and the gun crews of the main deck had been demoralized by the raking fire to which most of them had been unable to reply; they had consequently lacked the cool discipline necessary to resist the ferocious British charge. And when both the surviving officers were hit, all cohesion was lost. The Americans became simply individuals trying to save their lives. As the American frigate sailed herself away from the Shannon her upper deck was virtually a British possession.
Broke saw the victory as clear cut. He tried to tear his frenzied men from slaughtering the few outnumbered Americans and British deserters who still fought for their lives on the forecastle, but as he was concentrating on this, three other Chesapeakes, probably those chased down from the foretop by Smith, rushed on him from behind with weapons picked up from the deck. Collier, fortunately nearby, yelled a warning, and Broke turned in time to knock aside the first thrust from a boarding pike, and put his sword through the man. Before he could recover, however, the second assailant swung a clubbed musket which knocked off his hat and crashed down on his shoulder, and the third dealt him a ferocious saber cut from half behind on his left, parting his skull down to the brain cavity. Broke, stunned, fell to the deck with blood welling from the wound and down the side of his face and neck. The American was about to finish him off on the deck when a British marine, John Hill, ran the man through with a bayonet. The other two Americans were making off as the British rallied to their captain’s aid. Collier yelled, “One of them fellows has cut the Captain’s head!” and William Stack, Broke’s coxswain, chased the nearest over the booms and dispatched him from behind as he was going below. The other was hacked to death by Collier and other enraged Shannons.
Broke, faint and weak, tried to pull himself into a sitting position. The whole side of his face, muffler, shirt, and uniform was red with his own blood, and on the deck where he had fallen, blood was mixed with the contents of a burst cask of quicklime. Midshipman Smith hurried to help him, as did Bill Mindham.
Meanwhile another tragedy had overtaken the British on the quarterdeck. Watt, who had boarded with his white ensign, had temporarily been halted by a shot through the foot as he dropped onto the American deck. By the time he recovered himself and went to the mizzen halyards to haul down the American flag and raise his ensign over it, he found that some other Shannon had beaten him to it, and a small blue ensign was already waving a’bove the Stars and Stripes. Determined to raise his larger flag, however, he ordered both to be hauled down and was about to bend on the white ensign when a charge of grape from the Shannon ’s seventh main-deck gun carried off the top of his head and killed or wounded five others among his party. This gun had been engaging the Chesapeake through Lawrence’s Stern windows while the ships had been locked together, and it seems likely that it was elevated and fired into Watt’s group as the ships separated because the gunners saw the blue ensign descending and assumed the men hauling it down must be Americans. Or it may simply have been a case of excitement, the lock tripped before the quoin was properly home.
The British recovered quickly from the shock and hauled up the blue ensign again over the Stars and Stripes. Lieutenant Wallis in the Shannon ’s main deck ordered the cease fire, and went up to the quarter-deck to try to ascertain the position. Forward on the Chesapeake , Bill Mindham, binding Brake’s head with the neckerchief he had been wearing about his own head, drew his captain’s attention to the symbol of victory.
“Look there, sir. There goes the old ensign up over the Yankee colors!” Then, with Smith’s help, he lifted Broke to his feet and supported him slowly along the gangway to the quarter-deck. He eased the Captain down on a carronade slide with his back against the bulwarks.
Meanwhile the boarders had rushed down the main hatchway, chasing a few Americans before them. These had fled on down the steerage ladders while the British rushed ahead to where the last of the forecastle party were squeezing down the fore hatchway to the berth deck. Some of these faced them and there was a ragged volley of rifle fire, but the British were frenzied with the excitement of victory, and once again the fury of their onslaught drove the unorganized, leaderless Americans back. Both Lieutenants Budd and Ludlow had, by then, been taken to the cockpit; after the first few shots there was little resistance.
Captain Lawrence, lying below, heard the rush down the ladders and asked what was happening. On being told that this was the enemy boarding he cried in an agony of the spirit, “Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!”
Two decks above, Broke sat dizzily on the carronade slide, suddenly cold in the shade of the bulwarks and taint from loss of blood. He was still hazily aware, through the confusion of shouting and pounding feet, the press of movement, light and color, and the deep, throbbing pain splitting his skull, that they had won— won! The old blue ensign flew proudly over the Yankee flag—he was sitting on the Yankee quarter-deck. He remembered coming aboard—over the hammocks, dropping down on the planks —deserted—only that one strange fellow aiming his pistol at him—it seemed but a moment ago.…
Midshipman Smith had left him. After cutting the halyards to the main peak so that the last American flag fluttered down from aloft, he had gone below in the wake of the tumultuous boarders. The main deck that greeted his eyes was a terrible scene of ravage. The rays of the low evening sun were striking diagonally from the port quarter, through the great, shattered windows which had received most of the fire, glinting along the muzzles of the deserted guns, all awry on their split carriages and missing trucks, ropes and side tackles astraggle—sunlight lighting Jagged holes in the side timbers where solid shot had entered, brightening the splinters of raw wood. Below, the scuppers were dark with blood; patches of blood stained the deck and even the beams overhead, and fragments of flesh, scalp skin with pigtails, unrecognizable pieces of gore, slivers of flesh, were plastered loosely about the timbers. On the starboard side forward, the fingers of a dismembered hand were sticking above a port as if their owner had pushed them through from outboard. Pieces of limbs still covered with blood-soaked clothing were scattered among the wreckage and loose ropes on deck as if kicked out of the way, and among them were the still forms of those who had been killed in the rush of boarders, and others lying, moving faintly.
Amid this ghastly scene, highlighted by the bright sun and contrasting shadow, the Shannons moved like tigers, indifferent or unaware of the carnage, exulting in their success. There wasn’t a Chesapeake to be seen on his feet. All the Americans had fled or been driven below; the British were securing the gratings over them. Smith, glad of the opportunity to get back into the fresh air, was about to mount the ladder and convey the stirring news to Broke—while he still lived- when one of the Shannon ’s main-deck guns went off (by accident, it was later learned) and the ball mowed straight across the deck and through the port side timbers, fortunately without wounding anyone. Smith ran to a gun port and shouted, “Cease fire! This ship is secured!”
As if to disprove it, there was a rifle shot from the berth deck below, and a British marine, William Young, who was standing guard over the main hatchway, fell, mortally wounded. Fury welled up in the Shannons, and they began firing their muskets among the penned Americans below them.
This fresh outbreak of shots and screams shattered the calm of the upper deck. Broke, now barely conscious from loss of blood, and wavering, ashen-faced, on his carronade slide, asked what was happening. On being told, he directed that the Americans be driven into the hold. It was his last order in the battle; he fainted.
Lieutenant Falkiner, who had been resting on the booms between the gangways to recover his breath after the heady rush and excitement of the fighting, had jumped to his feet at the noise and rushed below. Seeing his men out of control and firing down at the helpless prisoners, he lined his pistol at the head of the nearest and shouted that he would blow out the brains of the next man to fire a shot. In the quiet that followed this announcement, he called to the Americans to send up the man who had killed William Young.
“The Chesapeake is taken,” he added. “We have three hundred men aboard. If there is another act of hostility, you will be called up on deck one by one—and shot.”
The contest was over. From the time of the first Shannon gun until the last, mistaken shot across the maindeck, it had lasted eleven minutes by Lieutenant Wallis’ watch. Wallis had handed it to the gunner, Richard Meehan, as they went to quarters, and the gunner had timed the shots in the security of his magazine below decks.
Both ships had swung around before the wind now and were heading easterly within easy hail of each other, the Chesapeake drifting out of control, the Shannon , under the command of Lieutenant Wallis, coming up under her lee. The Shannon ’s jolly boat was hove alongside, a party of marines and sailors embarked, and they pulled across the short space of water and scrambled up the side of the defeated Chesapeake , shouting greetings and congratulations. As they reached the deck they fell silent. Broke was lying propped against the bulkhead with a quiet group around him. His face was white beneath its weathering; Mindham’s neckerchief, dark with blood over the left side, covered his forehead, and beneath it his red hair was matted. Patches of white lime looked like a crude powdering over it.
“He breathes yet,” someone said.
They lifted him gently and, slinging ropes under him, eased him down into the jolly boat, then pulled back to the Shannon and carefully lifted him aboard. His cot was rigged up in the space which had been his cabin, and a canvas screen hurriedly erected around it as a temporary shelter before the partitions were restored. The Shannon ’s surgeon left his wounded in charge of the assistant surgeon, and came up to attend him. Wallis hovered anxiously nearby. They removed Broke’s stained coat and muffler, his formerly white shirt, and Mindham’s stiff neckerchief. The doctor washed the blood off his face and neck and, parting the tangle of matted hair, gradually revealed a deep cleavage extending for some four inches over his left ear toward the corner of his mouth. Between the depressed sides of the wound at the top of his head they could see the outer membrane of his brain pulsing gently.
Wallis was appalled at the severity of the gash; it seemed impossible that Broke could survive. And the doctor gave him no hope. Strong as he was, the Captain had but a slim chance indeed.
While undressing him they found a delicate chain with a blue satin satchel, now sticky with blood, hanging around his neck. Inside was a lock of blonde hair. When they had put clean bandages around his head and settled him back in his cot, Wallis took the keepsake down to his cabin and stowed it carefully. He would deliver it to Louisa after Broke died.
On June 2, the day after the battle, a light breeze from the southwest sprang up, and the Shannon , with the captured Chesapeake , filled to it and set course northward for Halifax. During the next few days Lawrence, stricken in mind by the remembrance of his ship being boarded and taken, and suffering acute pain from peritonitis resulting from the musket ball embedded in his vitals, sank into a delirious coma. He tossed and waved his arms, crying out again and again the everremembered words: “Don’t give up the ship!” He died on June 4 off the Sambro Light at the entrance to Halifax.
A few days later, as Broke still lay motionless between sheets at the home of a friend in Halifax, the body of his gallant rival was lowered over the side of the Chesapeake in a mahogany coffin draped with the colors he had defended with such spirit, his sword placed on top. A twelve-oared barge received the coffin, then pulled for shore with slow strokes to a discharge of minute guns; the barge was followed by a convoy of gigs and pinnaces containing naval and garrison officers. Arrived at King’s Wharf, the party disembarked and re-formed in solemn procession on shore behind a funeral firing party, each man with a black band on his left arm. Following the coffin came the surviving American officers and midshipmen from the Chesapeake , then British garrison officers, post captains of the Royal Navy, staff officers, and finally the dignitaries and citizens of Halifax. “Six of the oldest [Royal] Navy Captains carried the pall, which was one of the colours of the Chesapeake ,” wrote an eyewitness. “This, they said, was considered a particular mark of respect by naval men, as it was a token that he had defended his colours bravely, and that at this time they should not be parted from him. The procession was very long, and everything was conducted in the most solemn manner… . There was not the least mark of exultation that I saw, even amongst the commonest people.”
A few days after the burial service, First Lieutenant Ludlow was interred near his captain; later both coffins were removed to the United States.
Meanwhile the critically wounded Broke had begun to make a slow recovery, and before long he was able to dictate a report of the battle. It is an interesting coincidence that although the Shannon ’s logbook recorded the time of the action as ten minutes, and Lieutenant Wallis’ watch had recorded it as eleven minutes, exactly as Lawrence’s clerk had recorded the time of his Peacock action, Broke, like Lawrence, thought fifteen minutes quite short enough and made it so in his official dispatch. As he later confided to a midshipman, “I stated fifteen minutes that there might not be any disputes. I thought I could give them the difference.”
Captain Broke returned to England in November to scenes of wild excitement and the news that he had been raised to the rank of a baronet of the United Kingdom. The long-awaited reunion with his family was almost too much for him to bear with composure. Louisa was crying with happiness, and the children—so much bigger than he remembered—bounded and bubbled around them.
In 1815, after peace had been made with the Americans, he settled finally at Broke Hall and took up the duties of country gentleman and fond husband and father, to which he had been so looking forward. He never went to sea again. For the next twenty-six years he and Louisa lived simply at Nacton, visited occasionally by old Shannons, Sir Philip reliving his days of glory through the distinguished naval careers of two of his sons. He died peacefully in his sleep at six in the evening of January 2, 1841. The following day his coffin was borne to the tomb of his ancestors in the little parish church close by. Two years later his beloved Louisa followed him there.
And now, if you make the journey to Nacton on the river Orwell just below Ipswich you will still see the church where they lie; and in the Broke Chapel there is a white marble plaque inscribed: “To the memory of SIR PHILIP BOWES VERE BROKE, Baronet & K.C.B., Rear Admiral of the Red, who died on the 2nd of Jany 1841 in the 05th year of his age. … In his profession which was his choice from infancy he was ardent and persevering. After a long period of service at sea his professional skill was signally exhibited on the ist June, 1813… . Also of SARAH LOUISA his wife.”