"Don't give up the ship" - The Capture of USS "Chesapeake" during the War of 1812

1 June 1813, off Boston during the War of 1812, the British frigate HMS “Shannon”, Cpt. Philip Broke, captured USS “Chesapeake”, Cpt. James Lawrence, in a brief, bloody action.

“As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea, I request you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. The Shannon mounts twenty-four guns upon her broadside and one light boat-gun; 18 pounders upon her maindeck, and 32-pounder carronades upon her quarterdeck and forecastle; and is manned with a complement of 300 men and boys, beside thirty seamen, boys, and passengers, who were taken out of recaptured vessels lately. 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 have both noble 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 convinced 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.”

(Philip Broke, original message to Captain James Lawrence, USN; edited by James and Chamier 1837)

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1783 - 1853): "The Fight between the English frigate Shannon and the American frigate "Chesapeake" (1836)

She was the ugly duckling of the original six frigates of the US Navy. A sturdy design, like that of Joshua Humphrey’s three battle-cruisers, more heavily armed than most European contemporaries of her rating and still, a bit of a lapse in tensions between the young United States and the Barbary Coast pirates ensured that her completion was challenged by the Naval Secretary. Her long keel and her scantlings lay at the Norfolk Navy Yard for two years, almost a stillbirth, when the Quasi-War with France broke out and “Frigate D” was launched in a hurry, but not commissioned until 1800, when the conflict was already resolved. And thus, USS “Chesapeake” became the only one of the 6 that bore a name not chosen by George Washington or even one with at least some reference to the US Constitution. She really did get up on the wrong side of the bed. Her baptism of fire would have been the US’ First Barbary War, “Chesapeake” left Hampton Roads in April 1802 to sail for the Med and had to seek shelter in Gibraltar because she ended her Atlantic crossing as half a wreck. Actually, she was supposed to blockade Tripoli, spent most of the time in port, either at the Rock, in Leghorn or Malta and finally was ordered back home without having fired a shot in anger. After being placed for five years in reserve, her career’s preliminary sad climax came when she was reactivated and promptly ran into HMS “Leopard”, a British 4th rate scouring American shipping for deserters. “Chesapeake’s” commander Barron refused to let a search party come aboard but somehow neglected to clear his frigate for action beforehand. “Leopard” fired a couple of broadsides into her, three American sailors were killed while Barron had to order live coals brought up from the ship’s galley to be able to fire at least one of his 32-pounder carronades, pour l'honneur du pavillon, before he struck his colours. “Chesapeake” was indeed searched, four men were dragged away, all of them deserters from the Royal Navy, but only one was a native Brit, one Jenkin Ratford, who was hanged in Halifax a couple of weeks later. The US exploded in outrage over the incident that became a nail in the coffin of Anglo-American relations, ending in the War of 1812. And while her bigger half-sisters USS “Constitution” and USS “United States” covered themselves in glory by taking three Royal Navy frigates in single-ship duels only weeks after war broke out, the “runt of the litter”, poor “Chesapeake”, set forth to fight the guerre de course with the British between Madeira and the Cape Verdes as well, was even moderately successful, but then her skipper fell ill, she had to head back to Boston for refitting anyway and only half of her prizes made it back to the States. “Frigate D” finally had acquired the reputation of being an unlucky ship. And then HMS “Shannon” turned up off Boston.

"The Brilliant Achievement of the Shannon ... in Boarding and Capturing the United States Frigate Chesapeake off Boston, June 1st 1813 in Fifteen Minutes (sic.!)" as imagined by W. Elmes, artist and engraver in August 1813

James Lawrence was 31 years old when he returned to the States in the sloop-of-war USS “Hornet” after a hugely successful cruise in the South Atlantic, learned that he had been promoted to Captain and was supposed to relieve ill Samuel Evans of his command of USS “Chesapeake” in Boston. Arriving there on 20 May 1813 he found his frigate in a dismal state, badly in need of repair and her crew close to open mutiny while HMS “Shannon” tacked in Massachusetts Bay, visible off the entrance of Boston Harbor often enough and issuing challenge after challenge. Her commander Philip Bowes Vere Broke was one of the best of the Royal Navy’s frigate captains and he had drilled his crew to perfection. “Shannon” herself was built along the lines of the French Hébé-class frigates designed by the master shipbuilder Jacques-Noël Sané, less sturdy and resilient than Joshua Humphrey’s ships, but smarter sailers and in 1813, after the experience of 5th rates loosing duels with USS “Constitution” and USS “United States” on a regular basis the year before, as heavily armed at least as “Chesapeake” was. The US Navy vessel could throw a broadside weight of 550 pounds and “Shannon” would answer with 512 pounds at close range, fired from her long guns and 32-pounder carronades. On 1 June then, Captain Lawrence could no longer endure to ignore Broke’s challenges. And while the good people of Boston cheered “Chesapeake” along, expecting another victory of an American frigate over her British opponent in a single-ship duel, the two captains arranged their men-of-war indeed quite like knights at the joust, allegedly, chivalrous Lawrence even ignored the opportunity to rake “Shannon’s” vulnerable stern before the two frigates came alongside and the battle began in earnest and, as usual in love and war, every bloody contrivance was considered fair. At a range of just 160’, they fired into each other, the Royal Marines in the fighting tops, trained by Broke to be expert sharpshooters, picked off the Yankee officers with muskets while the “Shannon’s” guns fired canister and grape to clear the “Chesapeake’s” decks from opposition before the British closed in to board. Lawrence was mortally wounded by a musket ball and still managed to utter his famous last words: "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks" while he was carried below and then the British jolly tars came, led by Captain Broke in person and overwhelmed her. Broke himself received severe wounds in close combat, 23 British sailors and marines were killed and 56 wounded of “Shannon’s” crew of 330 while 48 of the “Chesapeake’s” 379 men were dead and about a 100 injured, 23 would later die from their wounds, Captain Lawrence being one of them The engagement had lasted for just about 11 minutes until the “Chesapeake” struck her colours to a British man-of-war for the second time. The American run of victories at sea in the War of 1812 was broken, balm for the sore British national pride and the Royal Navy with victory actually being one of its traditions.

"Boarding and Taking the American Ship Chesapeake", a contemporary print by one M Doubourg

the temporary command of “Shannon’s” 1st Lieutenant, the British frigate and her prize sailed into Halifax on 6 June and were cheered by all around. Lawrence was buried with all military honours and those of both crews who had died en route of their injuries received in battle were laid side by side on the Royal Navy Burying Ground of what is now the CFB Halifax. When “Chesapeake’s” surviving officers who, giving their parole, were allowed on land started to riot after the locals played a patriotic song commemorating the event of their frigate’s capture, chivalric treatment came to a quick end, though. “Chesapeake” herself was bought into service of the Royal Navy, only to be found wanting in quite a lot of qualities demanded of a post-war frigate. The “runt of the litter” was finally sold to a timber merchant for breaking up in 1819 and Chesapeake Mill in Wickham, Hampshire, was built from her remains, to be wondered and marvelled at to this day. “Shannon” served until 1831, when she became a receiving ship and ended her life in 1859. One of her sister ships, HMS “Trincomalee”, survived the end of the Age of Sail and is now a museum ship in Hartlepool, County Durham. Broke recovered from his wounds but never went to sea again. He was knighted, served as a naval gunnery specialist and was promoted to rear-admiral in 1830, dying at the age of 64 eleven years later. His rival James Lawrence’s last words, though, lived on and became a byword in the US Navy and US naval legend ever since his friend Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry hoisted them in commemoration as his personal battle ensign during the Battle of Lake Erie three months after the duel between “Shannon” and “Chesapeake”. 

John Christian Schetky (1778- 1874): "H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour" (c. 1830)

And more about the Capture of USS “Chesapeake” on:


… while the song that enraged her captured officers in Halifax to a point that they wouldn’t mind their manners anymore, “The Shannon and the Chesapeake" might be heard below. Please don't riot if you are of the American persuasion.