Written by Mariam Touba, Reference Librarian for Printed Collections
Such a challenge seems unheard of in modern warfare, but, nearly a year into the War of 1812, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke of the British frigate Shannon wrote to Captain James Lawrence of the United States frigate Chesapeake promising that their ships could duel outside of Boston without interference from any vessel. The ships could even sail out under a flag of truce; “choose your terms, but let us meet.” To goad his subject, Broke went on to write that, after all, these single-ship actions are all that “your little navy” can accomplish. The statement stung on both ends because the small U.S. Navy had indeed won a series of stunning one-on-one actions against the Royal Navy. The 31-year-old Lawrence, commanding another vessel, the Hornet, had been one of those victors, feted as “Captain Jim” in New York and Philadelphia.
In Captain Broke of the Shannon, Lawrence would find his match, as the ships were evenly gunned and manned. The Shannon, having plied the waters on routine patrol, was not much to look at, but her experienced crew was superbly trained in gunnery and its sighting equipment was state-of-the-art, having been supplied at Broke’s own expense. Lawrence, a New Jersey native, had originally requested to remain near his pregnant wife, Julia, at his post at the New York Navy Yard but was eager now for the glory: He set out at noon on June 1 even before receiving Broke’s written message, and here in his rushed hand ends his last letter, written to his brother-in-law, “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…” with the added post script, “10 A M the frigate is plain in sight from our deck and we are now getting underway.”
There was gallantry even in the way the ships approached each other, with the captains at first refusing to maneuver in the most advantageous manner. With the first gun, Lawrence had a white banner with the slogan “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” run up the foremast. Once the broadsides began, however, the action was as bloody and desperate as battle can be: In the less than fifteen minutes of fighting, 228 men were killed or wounded in the bloodiest frigate action of the War of 1812. The Shannon’s gunnery did make the difference, inflicting enough initial damage on the Chesapeake’s officers, gun crews, rigging, and maneuverability as to leave her vulnerable to the Shannon’s men, who, as the ships collided, boarded right onto the quarterdeck.
Captain Lawrence, standing conspicuously in full-dress uniform on deck, had seen the midshipmen serving alongside him killed instantly. He was already nursing a pistol ball in the leg when he received his fatal wound from the enemy’s swivel gun in their maintop. It was here that he gave, repeatedly, his famous command, “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks” and “Tell them to fire faster, don’t give up the ship.” Once helped below, lying on the surgeon’s table and informed of the British sailors boarding above, he then called out, “Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!”
Defeated and captured, Lawrence died in agony three days later and was buried with full honors by his captors in Halifax. His body was transferred first to Salem, Massachusetts before coming that September to its final prominent resting place in Trinity Churchyard in his adopted city. He became even more of a hero in defeat as his command became a rallying cry throughout the war and the enduring motto for the United States Navy. Philip Broke, who had led the Shannon’s boarders onto the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck, suffered a severe head wound but recovered enough to live out his life as a baronet and British hero.
As is common in the chaos of warfare, painful ironies accompany Lawrence’s famous order: For one thing, it was not the Americans who formally “gave up the ship,” but rather the Shannon’s borders who had gained control of the main deck and raised the blue British colors over the Stars and Stripes. Arriving among them was the Shannon’s First Lieutenant George Watt who then wanted to raise an even showier white British ensign on the mizzen halyards. As he went about doing this, he and his men were killed by a Shannon gun whose crew most likely thought the momentary lowering of the blue flag was the work of straggling American survivors.
A further paradox is obscured by engravings such as this one, evoking Lawrence’s heroism by depicting him grievously wounded and held up by his men on the quarterdeck. At this point he had reportedly asked his Third Lieutenant, the recently-promoted William S. Cox, to “bear a hand” and help him below to the ship’s surgeon. Cox assisted his commander down the hatchway ladder where he left him to the surgeon and raced back to his post with his guns. However, the following year it was young Cox who was brought before a court martial and convicted of unofficer-like conduct, in part because he “accompanied his disabled commander, James Lawrence, Esq., from the quarter-deck while the enemy was boarding.” Cox, cashiered from the Navy, chose to enlist for the duration of the war as a private in the Army. Convinced that Lieutenant Cox was being scapegoated for the Chesapeake’s defeat, his family and others would eventually convince Congress and the President to restore Cox’s Navy commission posthumously. This took quite a while, but persistence paid off as this order was signed by Harry S. Truman in 1952.
Captain Lawrence’s original Trinity Churchyard tombstone can be seen in the New-York Historical Society’s Luce Center. It reveals that Lawrence’s son was born but five weeks after his father’s death; he died in infancy and was buried with his father. A wealth of additional material about Lawrence, the Chesapeake, and the Shannon has come to the Society from his great-great nephew as The Eugene H. Pool Collection of Captain James Lawrence.