previous next

‘ [134] Lexington and Bunker Hill. The British, however, made no attempts to land, and the ‘Exempts’ had no other duties to perform than a few trainings, with liberal treats.’—J. B. R., Reminiscences.1


The Chesapeake and Shannon. A Reminiscence.

The announcement in the Boston papers of last week of the death of Mr. Hunt, and that he was the pilot that took the Chesapeake out of Boston harbor on the day of her memorable action with the Shannon, reminds me that this day is the fifty-seventh anniversary of that sanguinary battle. There is some mistake in the statement about Mr. Hunt's services on that occasion. The responsible pilot who took the Chesapeake out, and left her six leagues below the lighthouse, was Robert Knox. Mr. Hunt, then twenty-two years old, may have been with him, as an assistant or apprentice.

Although young at the time, living near the scene of action, I well remember the exciting events of that day. The action took place on a beautiful summer afternoon, between five and six o'clock, and was undoubtedly one of the most sanguinary that ever occurred between single frigates. It was really decided in eleven minutes, though there was some desultory firing afterwards. In that short space of time there were about two hundred killed and wounded on the Chesapeake and one hundred on the Shannon, or between twenty and thirty a minute! The Chesapeake, under Capt. Lawrence, lifted her anchor, near Fort Independence, about noon, and was gently wafted down the harbor, the Shannon then in sight, but slowly drawing off, so as to get plenty of sea-room for Manoeuvring. At five P. M. the Chesapeake fired her first gun of defiance, intimating that she would not be drawn out any further. The Shannon instantly and proudly hauled up, the ships approached each other, and the action commenced at scarcely pistol-shot distance.

Captain Broke of the Shannon, then in the prime of life, thirty-nine years old, was a noble officer and a strict disciplinarian. He had invented some improvement in ships' gun carriages, afterwards generally adopted in the British Navy, by which they were worked with great rapidity and efficiency. His ship was armed with long 24-pounders and 32-pound carronades. He paid particular attention to exercising his men with them, till the rapidity and accuracy of their fire was celebrated among British cruisers. As soon as he saw the Chesapeake loosen her sails, he exercised his men at their cannon (without firing), for two or three hours, as was stated by his officers some years afterwards. As the Chesapeake approached, the Shannon's carronades were filled with grapeshot, bullets and langridge, with orders to fire each gun the moment it would bear effectively on her antagonist, and her 24s were so depressed that every shot told; it was remarked that scarcely one went over, while her carronades swept the decks with a perfect storm of lead and iron. As the weather was calm, the sea smooth, and the ships hung foul of each other, the result was appalling, and in a few minutes the decks of the Chesapeake resembled a slaughter-pen; nearly one-half her crew being killed or wounded. Captain Lawrence, three lieutenants, three midshipmen, the sailing-master and boatswain were all killed or mortally wounded, and in less than fifteen minutes every officer on whom the command of the ship could devolve was either killed or wounded.

Capt. Lawrence was wounded in the leg and through the body by grape-shot. On being carried below, while his mind was wandering, and he in great agony, his frequent exclamation (since become memorable) was, ‘Don't give up the ship!’ He lived four days, and was then laid out on the quarter-deck gallery of his ship, and shrouded with the American flag. His first lieutenant, Ludlow, was mortally wounded in attempting to repel the hesitating boarders of the Shannon, his head and face being almost hewed to pieces by their cutlasses. They were both buried at Halifax with the honors of war. Soon after, Capt. Crowninshield of Salem volunteered to bring them home at his own expense; they were entombed at Salem with great parade, a eulogy being delivered on the occasion by Judge Story. They were afterwards removed to New York, where a monument was erected to their memory, in Trinity churchyard.

For a few minutes at the commencement of the action, the fire of the Shannon was vigorously returned by the Chesapeake, though she did not fire a gun till fairly alongside, when she poured in a broadside that sounded like one report. But Capt. Broke, in his official account, says he soon observed that her men were flinching from her guns, when he seized the favorable moment to lead his boarders on to the decks of the Chesapeake, where he was badly wounded, though the resistance was feeble and unavailing. In two minutes the decks were cleared. His first lieutenant was killed by a gun fired from his own ship; two lieutenants and several other officers of the Shannon were killed or wounded.

Capt. Lawrence, then 32 years old, and but recently returned from a successful cruise in the Hornet, had taken command of the Chesapeake but a short time previous to the action, and was a stranger to his officers and crew. A large part of the latter were a drunken, riotous set, and in a state of great insubordination and nearly mutinous, from not receiving some prize-money due them for previous captures. The officers were young and inexperienced, his first lieutenant (Ludlow) hardly twenty-one years old; but such was the confidence in the professional skill and bravery of Captain Lawrence, and in the prowess of our little navy (which had already captured three British frigates), that public opinion pressed (like the ‘On to Richmond’ which precipitated the defeat of Bull Run) and would not allow him to remain at anchor under any circumstances, while a British frigate of equal size lay insultingly off and on in the harbor. He went into the battle, doubtless, against his own judgment, and expressed a full sense of the difficulties of his position, in an interview with the late Rev. Dr. Lowell, the day before the action. His deportment was modest, but he said he should try to do his duty, notwithstanding the discouraging aspect of affairs on his ship.

The action was visible from the old fort at Hull, where the telegraph stood several years since, and was witnessed by hundreds on Look-out Hill, Gloucester; also by an immense number of people in the lower harbor, in sailing boats and small craft, every available boat being pressed into use on the occasion; the roof of the old Exchange Coffee House (7 stories high) was filled with people, who with glasses watched the course of the Chesapeake down the harbor. During that afternoon and night the public excitement in Boston and the neighboring towns was intense. The streets were thronged with people all night, and the air was full of rumors. It was only too certain that a sharp, desperate fight had taken place, and that both frigates had sailed out of the harbor, instead of coming in. The next day, to calm the public mind, Com. Bainbridge requested Mr. Knox, the pilot, to publish a statement of what he saw after leaving the Chesapeake, but it gave no satisfaction.

No action in the war of 1812 occasioned greater mortification to Americans, or more exultation in England. Capt. Broke was welcomed home with great distinction, and knighted. (He died in 1840.) The Chesapeake was a clumsy, unlucky old frigate, built at Baltimore or Norfolk in 1798, and had always been a source of trouble and expense to this country. From Halifax she was taken to England, broken up, and some of her timbers used in the construction of a grist-mill on a small stream that runs into the river Medway, the best use to which they were ever put The Shannon was used for a long time as an old hulk at a dock-yard. The British navy has now two fine heavy steam frigates named for the above. But the old belligerents have fought their last battle, and the new frigates have no other historic interest than what arises from their names.

J. B. R. (in Boston Transcript ). Washington, D. C., June 6, 1870.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
Sort people alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a person to search for him/her in this document.
Elizabeth Lawrence (5)
Samuel Hunt (3)
Broke (3)
Ludlow (2)
Robert Knox (2)
Story (1)
Shannon (1)
Lowell (1)
David Hill (1)
Crowninshield (1)
Bainbridge (1)
Americans (1)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
June 6th, 1870 AD (1)
1840 AD (1)
1812 AD (1)
1798 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: