Early in the War of 1812, there was a bloody battle between two evenly matched frigates that established long-lasting traditions for both the American and the British navies. This was the single most violent ship-to-ship action in naval history up to that date, and probably the finest action of its kind in the history of sail.
Both ships were carrying long 18-pounder cannons on their gun decks with additional 32-pound carronades (heavy short-range cannons nicknamed, "Smashers"), on the main deck. Captain James Lawrence, while new to the USS Chesapeake, was an experienced captain who knew he had a good ship and a superb crew. Unfortunately for Lawrence, the British had a good ship with a good crew as well. British Captain Philip Broke was a superb leader who had just spent the last seven years preparing his crew and ship for just such a battle. For those seven years he had sought absolute mastery of naval gunnery and what he called naval honor.
A decade earlier, the British Navy had excelled in naval gunnery—in no small part due to constant gunnery drills conducted on all ships. After the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Admiralty ordered the gun drills halted to save on the cost of gunpowder. At the time, the Admiralty believed that there were no more enemies left to defeat, effectively electing to take a “Peace Dividend”.
Captain Broke ignored that order. His crew were taught to fire their guns as fast as possible, to hit their targets, and to do it all in absolute silence so that the crew could hear shouted orders. From his own pocket, he equipped his ship’s guns with sights, a relatively new innovation that had not yet been adopted by most of the world’s navies. Long before it became standard practice, he developed an effective fire control system that was capable of concentrating fire on a single point on an enemy ship. Broke also mounted 9-pound guns on his quarterdeck so he could sweep the decks of an enemy, and in particular, blast away a ship’s wheel. If a ship loses their wheel, it cannot control the rudder, which means the ship cannot be effectively steered or controlled.
Remember, at the time, the main armament of these floating wooden castles were the ships main guns which fired broadsides directly to the port and starboard. You aimed these guns by turning the entire ship.
Captain Broke had spent his entire naval career practicing for a ship-to-ship action. During the first months of the war, he had deliberately refrained from capturing American merchant vessels so he would not have to split his crew, despite the fact that taking good prize ship could make a captain and his crew independently wealthy.
The battle started on June 1, 1813 with the Chesapeake in harbor and the Shannon waiting just outside the harbor. When the Chesapeake came out, the Shannon withdrew out to sea to await the American vessel. Due to the ponderously slow nature of warships under sail, both ships had to agree to the fight or it would be almost impossible for it to take place (should one ship be attacked and not wish to fight, it could—unless disabled—simply sail away). In many ways this kind of battle was actually a duel. Broke had sent a challenge ashore for Lawrence, but the American ship had sailed before it was delivered. Even without the challenge, Lawrence had wanted to engage the English ship: before leaving port, he had written to his brother-in-law, entrusting his wife and children to that man's care if he should fall in battle.
This battle should never have taken place—the American navy consisted of only a handful of frigates, each of which was far too valuable to be risked in single ship-to-ship actions. President Madison had ordered Lawrence to attack the merchant vessels supplying the British Army in Quebec, in support of Madison’s planned invasion of Canada. The odds were, that should Lawrence capture or sink the Shannon, his ship would be too damaged to accomplish his mission.
The Shannon moved about 20 miles off shore and awaited the Chesapeake. The British ship lowered her sails, leaving just her jib aloft in order to steer. The American ship had the weather gage—meaning she was upwind and had a tactical advantage. As his ship approached, Lawrence could have turned at the last moment and passed behind the lightly-armed stern of the Shannon, allowing him to fire a devastating broadside down the length of the ship—a blow that would have almost certainly given him victory over the British ship. Either Lawrence did not realize his opportunity or felt some misplaced gallantry, for he steered his ship to come alongside the Shannon, which was only a little more than a hundred feet away.
Unfortunately, the Chesapeake came in a little too fast and at an angle from which she could not fire at the British ship as she moved into position. In most naval actions, this would not matter significantly since a single broadside was not that devastating. But a broadside from Broke’s excellent crew was different. Every other gun was loaded with double shot, while those in between were loaded with a single cannon ball and a bag of shot.
As the American vessel moved forward, one by one the British guns carefully fired. Starting with the stern-most gun, every British gun crew fired and hit an American gun port, while the deck carronades all but destroyed the forecastle. On both ships, the Marines in the rigging poured deadly musket fire down onto the deck of the opposing ship.
Lawrence, wounded in the leg from one of the first volleys, realized his mistake, and turned his ship into the wind to halt the forward motion. Finally, the Chesapeake fired back. Since the ship was upwind and had just turned, she was heeled over, leaning towards the enemy vessel, lowering her port-side gun ports. The British fired into the gun ports while the Americans aimed much lower, striking the Shannon at the waterline.
Both crews fired rapidly, but well-placed carronades from the Shannon took a toll. The Chesapeake deck was a slaughter house, with almost everyone either dead or wounded and only a third of her gun crews still working. Every one of Chesapeake's officers on deck was either killed or wounded, but a far more crippling casualty was the ship's wheel, which accurate British fire had shot away, thus leaving her unable to be steered.
The Shannon was also suffering, but by chance, most of her officers were still capable of serving, and the ship could still be steered.
With no wheel to stop her turn, the Chesapeake’s bow continued to turn into the wind and away from the Shannon, exposing her stern to even more devastating fire. Finally, heading directly into the wind, the Chesapeake lost speed and started moving slowly back towards the Shannon.
Now, had you been Captain Broke, you would have wanted to keep away from the Chesapeake, firing round after round into the ship until either she struck or you decided to board her. And I’m sure this is what Broke would have done had a lucky shot from the American vessel had not shot away the Shannon’s jib.
Captain Lawrence, still desperately trying to win this battle, prepared his crew to board the Shannon. He ordered his men up from the gun deck to the quarterdeck to prepare to board….when he was shot again, by a lucky pistol shot from the Shannon’s chaplain, this time he is hit in the groin. Lawrence called for help, and Third Lieutenant William S. Cox helped the Captain below decks to the surgeon. Cox did not realize that he was actually in command of the ship, since every other officer had been either killed or wounded and incapacitated—four levels of command had been wiped out in less than ten minutes!
Without an officer in charge, and with no one left to order the men to board the Shannon, the men on deck panicked and began to flee below deck. By the time Lieutenant Cox realized his mistake, the press of men rushing to safety prevented him from returning to the deck.
Lawrence, as he was carried below, yelled encouragement to his men, “Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the ship!”
Now, the Shannon was still firing her guns right into the stern of the Chesapeake, wiping out what was left of the gun deck while her carronades and muskets were delivering pure hell to the upper decks. Powder monkeys—young boys whose job it was to bring powder up from the hold to the guns—desperately spread buckets of sand on the wooden decks slippery with blood so the men could fight back even as the British ship continued to fire her cannons at an ever dwindling range.
Finally, the Chesapeake crashed stern first into the side of the Shannon, about 50 feet back from the bow, and was stuck there on a fluke of the Shannon’s anchor. Captain Broke had never really considered boarding the Chesapeake, but he saw his opportunity and as the only British officer nearby who was still standing, he ordered his men to follow him as he jumped to the Chesapeake.
The outnumbered Americans were driven back along the deck to the forecastle, where they broke and sought cover below deck. Then the two ships broke apart and separated leaving about 60 Englishmen on the upper deck of the American frigate.
Even though this fight was pretty much over, three Americans, probably from the tops (high rigging), attacked Captain Broke. Broke killed the first with his sword, but the second sailor clubbed the captain with a musket as the third swung a cutlass that slashed the Captains head. In retaliation, the British boarding party hacked the two sailors to death with their swords.
As a small British ensign was hoisted from the Chesapeake, the Shannon stopped firing. Ironically, when the Shannon’s first lieutenant hauled down the small ensign so he could raise a larger version, a gun captain on the Shannon, believing that the Americans were retaking the ship, fired a round of grapeshot that killed the lieutenant and three other British sailors, putting British Second Lieutenant Provo Wallis in command of the Shannon.
The remaining American crewmen were driven below and the gratings secured over the hatches to keep them there. Captain Lawrence, mortally wounded, called out for the crew to blow up the ship, but no one carried out his order.
This whole battle took eleven minutes and the butcher's bill was 147 American and 79 British casualties—over a third of the men present. While the HMS Victory, after the six-hour Battle of Trafalgar, had a few more casualties, the percent of men falling casualty in this battle was much higher.. Captain Lawrence died after three agonizing days of peritonitis, becoming a national hero and his cry of “Don’t give up the ship!” became a motto for the US Navy.
Under the command of Lieutenant Wallis, the Shannon towed the Chesapeake back to Halifax, where both ships were repaired. Now a ship of the British Navy, the HMS Chesapeake returned to Portsmouth where she was broken up and sold for scrap lumber. Her American flag, bullet-riddled and caked with dried blood is on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
While Captain Lawrence, despite his poor judgement, became a national hero, Third Lieutenant Cox was court-martialed for abandoning his command. Charged with dereliction of duty, he was discharged from the navy in disgrace. Protesting his innocence, he joined the army and fought in the war as a private. For decades, his family campaigned to overturn this conviction, and after 139 years they were finally successful. Lieutenant Cox’s rank was restored by President Truman in 1952.