Theodore Roosevelt.

The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; online

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quently have a cask thrown overboard and sud-
denly order some one gun to be manned to sink
the cask. In short, the Shannon was very greatly
superior, thanks to her careful training, to the
average British frigate of her rate, while the
Chesapeake, owing to her having a raw and in-
experienced crew, was decidedly inferior to the
average American frigate of the same strength.

In force, the two frigates compared pretty
equally,' the American being the superior in just
about the same proportion that the Wasp was to
the Frolic, or, at a later date, the Hornet to the
Penguin. The Chesapeake carried 50 guns (26 in
broadside), twenty-eight long i8's on the gun-
deck, and on the spar-deck two long 12's, one long
18, eighteen 32-pound carronades, and one 12-
pound carronade (which was not used in the fight,
however). Her broadside, allowing for the short
weight of metal, was 542 lbs. ; her complement,
379 men. The Shannon carried 52 guns (26 in
broadside), twenty -eight long iS's on the gun-
deck, and on the spar-deck four long 9's, one long
6, sixteen 32-pound carronades, and three 12-
pound carronades (two of which were not used in
the fight). Her broadside was 550 lbs. ; her crew
' Taking each commander's account for his own force.

Naval War of 1 812 221

consisted of 330 men, 30 of whom were raw hands.
Early on the morning of June ist, Captain Broke
sent in to Captain Lawrence, by an American
prisoner, a letter of challenge which, for courteous-
ness, manliness, and candor, is the very model of
what such an epistle should be. Before it reached
Boston, however. Captain Lawrence had weighed
anchor to attack the Shannon, which frigate was
in full sight in the offing. It has been often said
that he engaged against his judgment, but this
may be doubted. His experience with the Bonne
Citoyenne, Espiegle, and Peacock had not tended
to give him a very high idea of the navy to which
he was opposed, and there is no doubt that he was
confident of capturing the Shannon.^ It was
most unfortunate that he did not receive Broke's
letter, as the latter in it expressed himself willing
to meet Lawrence in any latitude and longitude he
might appoint; and there would thus have been
some chance of the American crew having time
enough to get into shape.

At midday of June i, 18 13, the Chesapeake
weighed anchor, stood out of Boston Harbor, and

' In his letter written just before sailing (already quoted on
p. 218), he says; "An English frigate is now in sight from our
deck. ... I am in hopes to give a good account of her
before night." My account of the action is mainly taken
from James's Naval History and Brighton's Memoir of Ad-
miral Broke (according to which the official letter of Captain
Broke was tampered with) ; see also the letter of Lieutenant

222 Naval War of 1812

at I P.M. rounded the Light-house. The Shannon
stood off under easy sail, and at 3.40 hauled up
and reefed topsails. At 4 p.m., she again bore
away with her foresail brailed up, and her main-
topsail braced flat and shivering, that the Chesa-
peake might overtake her. An hour later, Boston
Light-house bearing west distant about six leagues,
she again hauled up, with her head to the south-
east, and lay to under topsails, topgallantsails,
jib, and spanker. Meanwhile, as the breeze
freshened, the Chesapeake took in her studding-
sails, topgallantsails, and royals, got her royal
yards on deck, and came down very fast under
topsails and jib. At 5.00, to keep under com-
mand and be able to wear if necessary, the
Shannon filled her main-topsail and kept a close
luff, and then again let the sail shiver. At 5.25
the Chesapeake hauled up her foresail, and, with
three ensigns flying, steered straight for the
Shannon's starboard quarter. Broke was afraid
that Lawrence would pass under the Shannon's
stern, rake her, and engage her on the quarter;
but, either overlooking or waiving this advantage,
the American captain luffed up within 50 yards
upon the Shannon's starboard quarter, and

George Budd, June 15, 181 3; the report of the Court of In-
quiry, Commodore Bainbridge presiding, and the Court-
martial held on board frigate United States, April 15, 1814,
Commodore Docatur prcsitiins-

Naval War of 1 812 223

squared his main-yard. On board the Shannon,
the captain of the 14th gun, WilHam Mindham,
had been ordered not to fire till it bore into the
second main-deck port forward; at 5.50 it was
fired, and then the other guns in quick succession
from aft forward, the Chesapeake replying with
her whole broadside. At 5.53 Lawrence, finding
he was forging ahead, hauled up a little. The
Chesapeake's broadsides were doing great damage,
but she herself was suffering even more than her
foe; the men in the Shannon's tops could hardly
see the deck of the American frigate through the
cloud of splinters, hammocks, and other wreck
that was flying across it. Man after man was
killed at the wheel; the fourth lieutenant, the
master, and the boatswain were slain ; and at 5.56
having had her jib-sheet and fore-topsail tie shot
away, and her spanker brails loosened so that the
sail blew out, the Chesapeake came up into the
wind somewhat, so as to expose her quarter to her
antagonist's broadside, which beat in her stern-
ports and swept the men from the after guns.
One of the arm-chests on the quarter-deck was
blown up by a hand-grenade thrown from the
Shannon.^ The Chesapeake was now seen to have

^ This explosion may have had more effect than is com-
monly supposed in the capture of the Chesapeake. Commo-
dore Bainbridge, writing from Charlestown, Mass., on June 2,
1813 (see Captains' Letters, vol. xxix., No. 10), says: "Mr,

224 Naval War of 1 812

stern-way on and to be paying slowly off; so the
Shannon put her helm a-starboard and shivered
her mizzen-topsail, so as to keep off the wind and
delay the boarding. But at that moment her jib-
stay was shot away, and, her headsails becoming
becalmed, she went off very slowly. In conse-
quence, at 6 P.M. the two frigates fell aboard, the
Chesapeake's quarter pressing upon the Shannon s
side just forward the starboard main-chains, and
the frigates were kept in this position by the fluke
of the Shannon's anchor catching in the Chesa-
peake's quarter port.

The Shannon's crew had suffered severely, but
not the least panic or disorder existed among
them. Broke ran forward, and seeing his foes
flinching from the quarterdeck guns, he ordered
the ships to be lashed together, the great guns to
cease firing, and the boarders to be called. The
boatswain, who had fought in Rodney's action,

Knox, the pilot on board, left the Chesapeake at 5 p.m. . . ,
At 6 P.M., Mr. Knox informs me, the fire opened, and at 12
minutes past six both ships were laying alongside one another
as if in the act of boarding: at that moment an explosion took
place on board the Chesapeake, which spread a fire on her
upper deck from the foremast to the mizzen-mast, as high as
her tops, and enveloped both ships in smoke for several min-
utes. After it cleared away, they were seen separate, with the
British flag hoisted on board the Chesapeake over the Amer-
ican." James denies that the explosion was caused by a
hand-grenade, though he says there were some of these
aboard the Shannon. It is a point of no interest.

Naval War of 1 812 225

set about fastening the vessels together, which the
grim veteran succeeded in doing, though his right
arm was Hterally hacked off by a blow from a cut-
lass. All was confusion and dismay on board the
Chesapeake. Lieutenant Ludlow had been mor-
tally wounded and carried below ; Lawrence him-
self, while standing on the quarter-deck, fatally
conspicuous by his full-dress uniform and com-
manding stature, was shot down, as the vessels
closed, by Lieutenant Law of the British marines.
He fell dying, and was carried below, exclaiming:
"Don't give up the ship!" — a phrase that has
since become proverbial among his countrymen.
The third heutenant, Mr. W. S. Cox, came on
deck, but, utterly demoralized by the aspect of
affairs, he basely ran below without staying to
rally the men, and was court-martialled afterward
for so doing. At 6.02, Captain Broke stepped
from the Shannon's gangway rail on to the muzzle
of the Chesapeake' s aftermost carronade, and
thence over the bulwark on to her quarter-deck,
followed by about twenty men. As they came
aboard, the Chesapeake' s foreign mercenaries and
the raw natives of the crew deserted their quarters ;
the Portuguese boatswain's mate removed the
gratings of the berth-deck, and he ran below, fol-
lowed by many of the crew, among them one of
the midshipmen named Deforest. On the quar-
ter-deck almost the only man that made any

VOL. I.— 15.

2 26 Naval War of 1812

resistance was the chaplain, Mr. Livermore, who
advanced, firing his pistol at Broke, and in return
nearly had his arm hewed off by a stroke from the
latter' s broad Toledo blade. On the upper deck
the only men who behaved well were the marines,
but of their original number of 44 men, 14, includ-
ing Lieutenant James Broom and Corporal Dixon,
were dead, and 20, including Sergeants Twin and
Harris, wounded, so that there were left but one
corporal and nine men, several of whom had been
knocked down and bruised, though reported un-
wounded. There was thus hardly any resistance,
Captain Broke stopping his men for a moment till
they were joined by the rest of the boarders under
Lieutenants Watt and Falkiner. The Chesa-
peake's mizzen-topmen began firing at the board-
ers, mortally wounding a midshipman, Mr.
Samwell, and killing Lieutenant Watt ; but one of
the Shannon's long 9's was pointed at the top and
cleared it out, being assisted by the English main-
topmen, under Midshipman Coshnahan. At the
same time the men in the Chesapeake' s maintop
were driven out of it by the fire of the Shannon's
fore-topmen, under Midshipman Smith. Lieuten-
ant George Budd, who was on the main-deck, now
for the first time learned that the English had
boarded, as the upper-deck men came crowding
down, and at once called on his people to follow
him; but the foreigners and novices held back.

Naval War of 1812 227

and only a few of the veterans followed him up.
As soon as he reached the spar-deck, Budd, fol-
lowed by only a dozen men, attacked the British
as they came along the gangways, repulsing them
for a moment, and kilHng the British purser. Aid-
ham, and captain's clerk, Dunn ; but the handful
of Americans were at once cut down or dispersed.
Lieutenant Budd being wounded and knocked
down the main hatchway. "The enemy," writes
Captain Broke, "fought desperately, but in dis-
order." Lieutenant Ludlow, already mortally
wounded, struggled up on deck, followed by two
or three men, but was at once disabled by a sabre
cut. On the forecastle a few seamen and marines
turned to bay. Captain Broke was still leading
his men with the same brilliant personal courage
he had all along shown . Attacking the first Amer-
ican, who was armed with a pike, he parried a blow
from it, and cut down the man; attacking an-
other he was himself cut down, and only saved by
the seaman Mindham, already mentioned, who
slew his assailant. One of the American marines,
using his clubbed musket, killed an Englishman,
and so stubborn was the resistance of the little
group that for a moment the assailants gave back,
having lost several killed and wounded; but im-
mediately afterward they closed in and slew their
foes to the last man. The British fired a volley
or two down the hatchway, in response to a couple

2 28 Naval War of 1812

of shots fired up ; all resistance was at an end, and
at 6.05, just fifteen minutes after the first gun had
been fired, and not five after Captain Broke had
come aboard, the colors of the Chesapeake were
struck. Of her crew of 379 men, 61 were killed or
mortally woimded, including her captain, her
first and fourth lieutenants, the lieutenant of
marines, the master (White), boatswain (Adams),
and three midshipmen, and 85 severely and
slightly wounded, including ■ both her other lieu-
tenants, 5 midshipmen, and the chaplain; total,
148; the loss falling almost entirely upon the
American portion of the crew.

Of the Shannon's men, 33 were killed outright
or died of their wounds, including her first
lieutenant, purser, captain's clerk, and one mid-
shipman, and 50 wounded, including the captain
himself and the boatswain; total, 83.

The Chesapeake was taken into Halifax, where
Captain Lawrence and Lieutenant Ludlow were
both buried with military honors. Captain Broke
was made a baronet, very deservedly, and Lieu-
tenants Wallis and Falkiner were both made

The British writers accuse some of the American
crew of treachery; the Americans, in turn, accuse
the British of revolting brutality. Of course, in
such a fight, things are not managed with urbane
courtesy, and, moreover writers are prejudiced.

Naval War of 1812


Those who would Hke to hear one side, are referred
to James ; if they wish to hear the other, to the
various letters from officers published in Niles's
Register, especially vol. v., p. 142.

Neither ship had lost a spar, but all the lower
masts, especially the two mizzen-masts, were
badly wounded. The Americans at that period
were fond of using bar shot, which were of very
questionable benefit, being useless against a ship's
hull, though said to be sometimes of great help in
unrigging an antagonist from whom one was de-
sirous of escaping, as in the case of the President
and Endymion.













Chesapeake struck by
29 eighteen-pound shot,
25 thirty-two-pound shot,
2 nine-pound shot,
306 grape,

362 shot.



Shannon struck by

12 eighteen-pound shot,

13 thirty- two-pound shot,

14 bar shot,
119 grape,

158 shot.

It is thus seen that the Shannon received from
shot alone only about half the damage the

230 Naval War of 181 2

Chesapeake did ; the latter was thoroughly
beaten at the guns, in spite of what some
American authors say to the contrary. And
her victory was not in the slightest degree to
be attributed to, though it may have been slightly
hastened by, accident. Training and discipline
won the victory, as often before; only in this
instance the training and discipline were against

It is interesting to notice that the Chesapeake
battered the Shannon's hull far more than either
the Java, Guerriere, or Macedonian did the hulls
of their opponents, and that she suffered less in
return (not in loss but in damage) than they did.
The Chesapeake was a better fighter than either the
Java, Guerriere, or Macedonian, and could have
captured any one of them. The Shannon, of
course, did less damage than any of the American
44's, probably just about in the proportion of the
difference in force.

Almost all American writers have treated the
capture of the Chesapeake as if it was due simply
to a succession of unfortunate accidents; for ex-
ample, Cooper, with his usual cheerful optimism,
says that the incidents of the battle, excepting its
short duration, are "altogether the results of the
chances of war," and that it was mainly decided
by "fortuitous events as unconnected with any
particular merit on the one side as they are with

Naval War of 1 812 231

any particular demerit on the other." ' Most
naval men consider it a species of treason to re-
gard the defeat as due to anything but extraor-
dinary ill-fortune. And yet no disinterested
reader can help acknowledging that the true
reason of the defeat was the very simple one that
the Shannon fought better than the Chesapeake.
It has often been said that up to the moment
when the ships came together the loss and damage
suffered by each were about the same. This is
not true, and even if it was, would not affect the
question. The heavy loss on board the Shannon
did not confuse or terrify the thoroughly trained
men, with their implicit reliance on their leaders ;
and the experienced officers were ready to defend
any point that was menaced. An equal or greater
amount of loss aboard the Chesapeake disheartened
and confused the raw crew, who simply had not
had the time or chance to become well disciplined.
Many of the old hands, of course, kept their wits
and their pluck, but the novices and the disaffected
did not. Similarly with the officers; some, as the
Court of Inquiry found, had not kept to their
posts, and all being new to each other and the

^ The worth of such an explanation is very aptly gauged in
General Alexander S. Webb's The Peninsula; McClellans
Campaign of 1S62 (New York, 1881), p. 35, where he speaks
of "those unforeseen or uncontrollable agencies which are
vaguely described as the 'fortune of war,' but which usually
prove to be the superior ability or resources of the antagonist."

232 Naval War of 1812

ship, could not show to their best. There is no
doubt that the Chesapeake was beaten at the guns
before she was boarded. Had the ships not come
together, the fight would have been longer, the
loss greater, and more nearly equal; but the re-
sult would have been the same. Cooper says that
the enemy entered with great caution, and so
slowly that twenty resolute men could have re-
pulsed him. It was no proof of caution for Cap-
tain Broke and his few followers to leap on board,
unsupported, and then they only waited for the
main body to come up ; and no twenty men could
have repulsed such boarders as followed Broke.
The fight was another lesson, with the parties re-
versed, to the effect that want of training and
discipline is a bad handicap. Had the Chesa-
peake's crew been in service as many' months as
the Shannon s had been years, such a captain as
Lawrence would have had his men perfectly in
hand; they would not have been cowed by their
losses, nor some of the officers too demoralized to
act properly, and the material advantages which
the Chesapeake possessed, although not very great,
would probably have been enough to give her a
good chance of victory. It is well worth noticing
that the only thoroughly disciplined set of men
aboard (all according to James himself, by the
way, native Americans), namely, the marines, did
excellently, as shown by the fact that three

Naval War of 1 812 233

fourths of their number were among the killed and
wounded. The foreigners aboard the Chesapeake
did not do as well as the Americans, but it is non-
sense to ascribe the defeat in any way to them ; it
was only rendered rather more disastrous by
their actions. Most of the English authors give
very fair accounts of the battle, except that they
hardly allude to the peculiar disadvantages under
which the Chesapeake suffered when she entered
into it. Thus, James thinks the Java was un-
prepared because she had only been to sea six
weeks; but does not lay any weight on the fact
that the Chesapeake had been out only as many

Altogether the best criticism on the fight is that
written by M. de la Graviere.' " It is impossible
to avoid seeing in the capture of the Chesapeake a
new proof of the enormous power of a good organi-
zation, when it has received the consecration of a
few years' actual service on the sea. On this oc-
casion, in effect, two captains equally renowned,
the honor of two navies, were opposed to each
other on two ships of the same tonnage and num-
ber of guns. Never had the chances seemed better
balanced, but Sir Philip Broke had commanded
the Shannon for nearly seven years, while Captain
Lawrence had only commanded the Chesapeake
for a few days. The first of these frigates had

' Guerres Maritimes, ii., 272.

234 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

cruised for eighteen months on the coast of
America; the second was leaving port. One had
a crew long accustomed to habits of strict obedi-
ence; the other was manned by men who had
just been engaged in mutiny. The Americans
were wrong to accuse fortune on this occasion.
Fortune was not fickle; she was merely logical.
The Shannon captured the Chesapeake on the ist
of June, 1813, but on the 14th of September, 1806,
the day when he took command of his frigate.
Captain Broke had begun to prepare the glorious
termination to this bloody affair."

Hard as it is to breathe a word against such a
man as Lawrence, a very Bayard of the seas, who
was admired as much for his dauntless bravery as
he was loved for his gentleness and uprightness, it
must be confessed that he acted rashly. And
after he had sailed, it was, as Lord Howard Doug-
lass had pointed out, a tactical error, however
chivalric, to neglect the chance of luffing across the
Shannon's stern to rake her; exactly as it was a
tactical error of his equally chivalrous antagonist
to have let him have such an opportunity. Hull
would not have committed either error, and would,
for the matter of that, have been an overmatch
for either commander. But it must always be
remembered that Lawrence's encounters with the
English had not been such as to give him a high
opinion of them. The only foe he had fought had

Naval War of 1 812 235

been inferior in strength, it is true, but had hardly
made any effective resistance. Another sloop, of
equal, if not superior force, had tamely submitted
to blockade for several days, and had absolutely
refused to fight. And there can be no doubt that
the Chesapeake, unprepared though she was, would
have been an overmatch for the Guerriere, Mace-
donian, or Java. Altogether, it is hard to blame
Lawrence for going out, and in every other re-
spect his actions have never been, nor will be,
mentioned, by either friend or foe, without the
warmest respect. But that is no reason for in-
sisting that he was ruined purely by an adverse
fate. We will do far better to recollect that as
much can be learned from reverses as from vic-
tories. Instead of flattering ourselves by saying
the defeat was due to chance, let us try to find out
what the real cause was, and then take care that it
does not have an opportunity to act again. A
little less rashness would have saved Lawrence's
life and his frigate, while a little more audacity
on one occasion would have made Commodore
Chauncy famous forever. And whether a lesson
is to be learned or not, a historian should remem-
ber that his profession is not that of a panegyrist.
The facts of the case unquestionably are: that
Captain Broke, in fair fight, within sight of the en-
emy's harbor, proved conqueror over a nominally
equal and in reality slightly superior force ; and

236 Naval War of 181 2

that this is the only single-ship action of the war
in which the victor was weaker in force than his
opponent. So much can be gathered by reading
only the American accounts. Moreover, accident
had little or nothing to do with the gaining of the
victory. The explanation is perfectly easy : Law-
rence and Broke were probably exactly equal in
almost everything that goes to make up a first-
class commander, but one had trained his crew for
seven years, and the other was new to the ship, to
the officers, and to the men, and the last to each
other. The Chesapeake's crew must have been of
fine material, or they would not have fought so
well as they did.

So much for the American accounts. On the
other hand, the capture of the Chesapeake was,
and is, held by many British historians to " con-
clusively prove" a good many different things;
such as, that if the odds were anything like equal,
a British frigate could always whip an American,
that in a hand-to-hand conflict such would in-
variably be the case, etc. ; and as this was the
only single-ship action of the war in which the
victor was the inferior in force, most British writers
insist that it reflected more honor on them than all
the frigate actions of 181 2 put together did on the

These assertions can be best appreciated by
reference to a victory won by the French in the

Naval War of 1812 237

year of the battle of the Nile. On the 14th of
December, 1798, after two hours' conflict, the
French 24-gun corvette Bayonnaise captured, by-
boarding, the English 3 2 -gun frigate Ambuscade.
According to James, the Ambuscade threw at a
broadside 262 pounds of shot, and was manned by
190 men, while the Bayonnaise threw 150 pounds,
and had on board supernumeraries and passenger
soldiers enough to make in all 250 men. According
to the French historian Rouvier,' the broadside
force was 246 pounds against 80 pounds; accord-
ing- to Troude,^ it was 270 pounds against 112.

Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; → online text (page 15 of 42)