Battle between the Shannon and the Chesapeake

HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake: Duel off Cape Ann

Portrait of Captain Philip Broke
Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke
Portrait of Captain James Lawrence
Captain James Lawrence

His Britannic Majesty's Ship, the Shannon, was patrolling off Boston. Shannon, under the command of Philip Broke, was one of the best frigates in the Royal Navy. On June 1st 1813, she had sailed daringly close inshore to reconnoitre. In port, the fine American frigate, Chesapeake, under the command of Captain James Lawrence, had accepted the challenge and put to sea.

Both ships, on paper at least, were equally matched and the Shannon sailed about eighteen miles off the hostile coast and awaited the Chesapeake. By 4 pm, the ships were approximately seven miles apart. Captain Lawrence brought his ship down in brilliant style, bearing straight for the Shannon's quarter, just abaft her line of fire. The Shannon waited for the Chesapeake. Captain Broke, as challenger, felt it his burdened duty to give Captain Lawrence every possible advantage. He watched and waited anxiously to see what course the American would take. Hardly a sound rose from the two ships, as they sailed across the summer sea, broken only by the gurgle of water around the Chesapeake's rudderposts and the ripple of waves against her bow. Occasionally, the creaking of rigging could be heard and the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun cast long shadows over the ocean swells.

The action began at 5.50 pm, when the Chesapeake, spurning the advantage she could've had, ranged up on the starboard side at less than fifty yards. The action became a furious cannonade at close range. Chesapeake was slowly ranging ahead. At 5.53 pm, judging that his ship had too much way, Captain Lawrence gave her a pilot's luff*, a measure calculated to reduce her way, but tending to cause the forward guns not to bear. At about this moment, Chesapeake's foretopsail tie was cut, the yard coming down on the lifts, her jib sheet was cut and the brails of the spanker were cut, causing the sail to blow out against the mizzen rigging. Under the resulting unbalanced spread of sail, she rotated and lost way, then gathered stern way, colliding with the Shannon. The two ships, now locked in a lethal embrace, were locked together by the British, who boarded. Fierce and terrible hand-to-hand fighting took place on the Chesapeake's decks and within fifteen minutes, she had surrendered. It was one of the bloodiest single ship actions, with heavy loss of life. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded and on being carried down to the cockpit, bravely called out the famous words, "Donít give up the ship". That night and the following day, the true extent of the awful carnage became apparent. The ships made repairs and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving to a tumultuous welcome. Captain Lawrence was to die within three days, on 4th June. Broke himself was severely wounded, but became a hero and in spite of his terrible wounds, lived to the age of 65 and died on 2nd January 1841.

*To give a ship a pilot's luff (also termed 'making a half board') was to luff until the sails were shivering; then to right the helm and let the ship advance until the object proposed had been accomplished or until the ship had materially lost way. The helm was then put up and the sails filled.

The Chesapeake was sailed back to England. The Royal Navy were so impressed by the sailing qualities of this handsome ship, that she was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Chesapeake. Her lines were taken off in Plymouth Dockyard in 1814.

Diagram of the Chesapeake

She had a reputation for being a very fast and handsome ship. Chesapeake measured 152 feet 6 inches between perpendiculars. She was rated as a thirty six gun frigate in the American navy. Her armament was 28 long 18's on the main deck, 1632 PDR carronades on the quarter deck and 4 carronade 32 PDR's on the forecastle.

She was finally sold to be broken up on 18th August 1819, to a Mr Holmes of Portsmouth.

Newspaper heading
Newspaper article: sale of Chesapeake timber

The Hampshire Telegraph,
15th November 1819

To Gentlemen, Farmers, Builders, Smiths and Others
The hull of His Majesty's late frigate Chesapeake is now breaking up at the above yard, where there is for sale, on reasonable terms, a large quantity of most superior ship timbers, consisting of 3, 3½, 4 and 5 inch pitch pine deck deals, from 12 to 47 feet long and oak plank from 3 to 6 inch of long lengths prime beams, from 8 by 10 to 13 by 15 inches, being from 30 to 40 feet long; timbers, knees, purlins, ledges with a large quantity of other ship timbers, including some very superior cabin fittings and also about 30 tons of Swedish Iron in bolts and spikes.

An extract from a newspaper advert for the sale of the Chesapeake timber 1820,

This once proud ship might've slipped into the mists of time, had it not been for the owner of a mill, a Mr John Prior, in the village of Wickham in Hampshire. Wickham had had a mill, dating back to the times of the Domesday Book. Mr Prior decided to pull down the then existing mill to build a new one and he purchased the bulk of the Chesapeake's timber to do this. That mill still stands today, known as the Chesapeake Mill and is the only substantial accumulation of original timber from a vessel of the early American Navy.

HMS Shannon

For several years after the famous duel with the Chesapeake, the Shannon was something of a show ship, but she saw little active service and later her name was changed to St Lawrence. She was broken up at Chatham in 1859.

Model of the Shannon
A rigged model of the Shannon, 38-gun frigate. The size of the model overall is 66" with a main yard of 19" and a height of 48". This model was made for and presented to Captain Sir Philip Broke after the capture of the U.S.S. Chesapeake. The photo is from the Henry Huddleston Rogers collection of ship models, published by the Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland 1954.

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