On March 21, 1813, Royal Navy Captain Philip Broke sailed from Halifax to Boston Harbor aboard HMS Shannon, accompanied by HMS Tenedos. The two 38-gun frigates started lurking outside the harbour on April 2, intent on engaging any American warships that attempted to pass them.
Thick mists on April 30 allowed USS President and Congress to evade them. That left USS Constitution, which was undergoing a major overhaul, and USS Chesapeake, another 38-gun frigate in the harbour. On May 25, realizing Chesapeake was unlikely to venture forth while two ships waited, Broke resupplied Shannon from Tenedos and ordered the latter back to Halifax.
Broke was spoiling to fight Chesapeake. He had commanded Shannon since Aug. 31, 1806. The ship’s previous record had been mediocre, but Broke instituted an exacting training program that transformed its crew into a highly efficient fighting force. While Royal Navy gunnery was often poor, Broke led his sailors in daily gun drills and personally paid for sufficient powder to allow twice weekly live-fire exercises. In action, Broke insisted on the crew’s absolute silence so they would quickly hear and act on his orders. Discipline, precision and obedience dictated the routine.
Broke was spoiling to fight Chesapeake.
After seeing Chesapeake preparing to sail on June 1, Broke sent a written challenge to its commander, Captain James Lawrence. “I request you will do the favour to meet the Shannon…to try the fortune of our respective flags.”
Before the message reached Chesapeake, however, Lawrence sailed. Instead of running seaward, the American sought to engage. Several hours passed before Chesapeake closed on Shannon’s starboard quarter. At 5:50 p.m., Broke fired a devastating broadside that tore away sails and killed the sailors at Chesapeake’s wheel. The two ships collided, and Shannon’s forward guns raked the American with grapeshot. Broke led a boarding party onto Chesapeake. After a fierce close-combat fight left Lawrence mortally wounded and half his crew casualties, the Americans surrendered. Broke, meanwhile, had been felled by a blow to the head from a musket butt. The action lasted just 11 minutes.
“I request you will do the favour to meet the Shannon.”
—Captain Philip Broke
Chesapeake was returned as a prize to Halifax where Broke was awarded a hero’s welcome for delivering a victory after a string of American successes over the Royal Navy. Broke returned Shannon to England in fall 1813. The repercussions of his wound prevented a return to active duty. He was promoted to rear admiral on July 22, 1830. Broke died on Jan. 2, 1841, when surgery to address his injury failed.
Captain James Lawrence assumed command of USS Chesapeake in mid-May 1813. Lawrence’s exploits commanding the sloop USS Hornet in actions against British ships had made him an American hero.
For its part, Chesapeake was renowned for providing one of the sparks that eventually ignited the War of 1812: on June 22, 1807, HMS Leopard had engaged Chesapeake when its commander refused to allow the British to search the frigate for Royal Navy deserters. Chesapeake had been seized after a 10-minute action that left three of its crew dead and 18, including the captain, wounded. The British removed four supposed deserters.
Since open hostilities broke out in 1812, Chesapeake had served in a U.S. squadron that captured several British merchantmen before sailing to Boston for a refit.
Promoted to captain in March 1813 with assignment to command the New York Navy Yard, Lawrence reluctantly accepted new orders to helm Chesapeake. Many of its sailors were refusing to re-enlist due to a dispute about the distribution of prize money for ships they had captured.
Ordered by Secretary of the Navy William Jones to quickly put to sea to patrol for British supply ships, Lawrence replaced a quarter of the crew with raw recruits—many who had never fired cannons or small arms. He and half the officers were also new to Chesapeake. Yet, just weeks later, on June 1, Lawrence set sail.
So far, Lawrence had always prevailed against British adversaries.
As a general rule, U.S. naval ships avoided engaging the Royal Navy because their primary mission was to prey on British shipping. Accordingly, Lawrence could have been expected to try evading Shannon. Hoping to goad Lawrence to give battle, Captain Broke issued the challenge never received.
So far, Lawrence had always prevailed against British adversaries. He emerged from the harbour confident of another victory. The ensuing fight was a disaster for the Americans. Lawrence was fatally wounded by a gunshot. Carried to the surgery below decks, he cried, “Don’t give up the ship.” Then, when it became apparent the battle was lost, he ordered, “Fight her till she sinks.”
“Don’t give up
the ship. Fight her
till she sinks.”
—Captain James Lawrence
The war’s bloodiest naval battle by then had already ended with the American flag struck. Between them, the two ships suffered some 250 men killed or wounded, including nearly 150 Americans. Lawrence died four days later as Chesapeake was sailed to Halifax. Upon arrival on June 6, his body was wrapped in an ensign and given full military honours.