Thursday, May 31, 2018


1 June 2018: 205 years ago, in 1813, a young, eager, and supremely self-confident James Lawrence, fresh from a brilliant (in his mind) victory over a more lightly armed British ship, HMS Peacock, off Brazil, takes his new command, Chesapeake, out of Boston with the intent of engaging the British frigate which had been cruising off and on the entrance to President Roads in Boston. His ship is short handed and many of the men aboard are disgruntled at not having been paid while many others are raw recruits. They have never trained together as a crew nor have they any experience with their new captain, James Lawrence. A few of his sailors and officers had transferred with him from his previous command, but they were not integrated with his new crew, nor were they trusted. And several of the older hands had deserted. A recipe for disaster you might think. And you would be right.

The British frigate which had been watching Boston Harbor, HMS Shannon, was under the command of Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, and was probably the crack British warship on the North American Station. Her crew had sailed and fought together for several years and her captain was highly experienced, a fine sailor, and brilliant tactician. Chesapeake mounted 50 guns, including 28 long 18 pounders on the gun deck, and on the spar deck two long 12 pounders, one long 18 pounder, and eighteen 32 - pound carronades, and one 12 pound carronade. Shannon was about equal in weight of metal.

On June 1st, 1813, at about noon, Chesapeake left Boston Harbor,   heading right for Shannon. It was said that Captain Broke had sent a note into Boston, challenging Lawrence to come out and fight, but the fact is, the note did not reach the harbor until Chesapeake had already left. The townspeople sat on hilltops and roofs, many with picnic baskets, to watch what would be the first frigate engagement within sight of land. It was sure to be a continuation of the brilliant American performances since the start of the war, they told each other. 

The British captain feared his enemy would pass under Shannon's stern and rake her deck with a devastating cannonade and maneuvered to prevent it, but for some reason Captain Lawrence overlooked his advantage. At 5:50 Captain Broke ordered his ship to open fire, and Chesapeake replied with her own broadside. Although the American broadsides were inflicting some damage on the British frigate, many of their shots flew high, over the deck, causing little damage. Chesapeake however suffered greatly from the British frigate's guns. Minutes later with her jib sheets and fore topsail furling lines shot away, the Chesapeake, unable to maneuver, was exposed to Shannon's continual broadsides. They inflicted heavy casualties on the American crew, but the Americans continued to exchange cannon fire with the British frigate.

At 6:00 p.m. the two frigates came together when the American's bowsprit fouled the backstay on Shannon's mizzen mast; the British captain ordered the two ships lashed together. On board Chesapeake there was mass confusion. Captain Lawrence while standing on deck giving orders to his crew was shot down; as he was carried below he exhorted his crew "Don't give up the ship, lads. Fight her as long as she swims!"

At 6:02 Captain Broke and 20 men boarded Cheaspeake, driving the American gun crews below deck. The only man that seemed to make a stand was the chaplain, Mr. Livermore, who came toward the British captain firing his pistol. Captain Broke stopped him with a swipe of his Toledo blade which nearly severed the chaplain's arm, he died later of his wounds.

The marines continued to defend Chesapeake bravely, but of the 44 of them, 14 were dead and 20 were wounded.

Lieutenant George Budd, a junior officer, tried, after the ships First Lieutenant, Augustus Ludlow, was struck down, to get the crew below to follow him up on deck to defend the ship, but only a few followed him. They repulsed the British briefly, and then surrendered. 
Captain Broke wrote of the fight, "The enemy fought desperately, but in disorder."

At 6:05 p.m. Chesapeake's colors were hauled down (by a British sailor) thus ending the battle, only 15 minutes after the first shot was fired.

The Americans suffered 61 killed and 85 wounded. Captain Broke lost 33 killed and 50 wounded. The British sailed the American frigate to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Chesapeake entering Halifax (note American flag below the British one)
 Both James Lawrence and his First Lieutenant, Augustus Ludlow died en route and were  buried with military honors. Both were later exhumed and reburied in Trinity Churchyard, New York (at the foot of Broadway).

Chesapeake was entered into the Royal Navy for a few years, later sold into private use and then broken up for scrap. Her timbers were used to construct the Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, Hampshire, England. The water mill was designed and constructed in 1820 using the timbers of the former HMS Chesapeake. John Prior paid the sum of £500 for the timbers sold at Portsmouth. The interior of the mill was designed around the dimensions of the deck beams. The mill remained in operation until 1976 and now serves as a retail centre for antique and gift sellers. It is a Grade II* listed building.

The ships timbers - or some of them anyway - live on in the Chesapeake Mill, but the words of her captain, James Lawrence, became the rallying cry and ultimately the motto of the United States Navy: "Don't give up the ship."

Until next time, 
                                Fair winds, 
                                    Old Salt

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