THOMAS M. M. HEMY (1852-1937) - PAGE 23
THE 1813 SEA BATTLE BETWEEN
H.M.S. SHANNON AND U.S.S. CHESAPEAKE
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It is truly presumptuous for the webmaster to provide any kind of a description of the famous, Jun. 1, 1813, sea battle, between the British frigate H.M.S. Shannon & the American frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake. Historians over almost 2 centuries have researched all possible sources of data. They, & authors generally, have produced what surely must be whole libraries full of material about the subject. And artists by the score have produced artworks about this short but significant battle off the port of Boston in the summer of 1813.
So in this page, I can only tickle the surface. And provide but the barest of outlines of the circumstances & the story. And why do I even try? Solely because Thomas Hemy chose to paint the battle, (site page 22) as artists both before & after his time have done though the decades.
There is now a modest third page on the subject, page 24 available here.
There will be visitors who wish to read about the battle & the circumstances in great detail. Of the causes of the war of 1812. Of the Napoleonic war in Europe. Of the early American naval successes. Of the 'challenge' which the Shannon sent to the Chesapeake which 'challenge' was not received by time of sailing. Etc. etc. Such detail is beyond the scope & purpose of these pages & I direct you to other sources, including, most likely, your own city's library or reference library.
For those who just wish to read a summation, it was a very short battle indeed. Just 15 minutes elapsed from the very first shot to the surrender of the American ship! A blink of an eye really. Captain Lawrence expected to defeat the British handily. People watched the spectacle from vantage points on shore & from a flotilla of small 'pleasure' boats. They thought that they would witness another splendid defeat of the British. But it was not to be.
The antagonist captains. Images both I believe from the U.S. Navy Historical Centre but from exactly where in their vast site, I do not yet know. At left Captain P. V. B. Broke, R.N., later Rear Admiral, of the Shannon. (1778/1841, 36 years old at the time of the engagement). At right, Captain James Lawrence, American naval hero of the war of 1812, of the Chesapeake. (1781/1813, 31 years old at the time of the engagement).
The antagonists were on paper at least substantially evenly matched. The ships were of much the same size, were similarly armed & similarly manned, numerically at least. The British vessel, however, had a battle hardened & seasoned crew, well trained in gunnery, with competent officers, &d all things considered was a well experienced & formidable opponent. Even if, apparently, shabby & sea-worn in appearance! Its captain since Jun. 1806 was Captain P. B. V. Broke, R.N., (Philip Bowes Vere) who was an exception even in the British Navy. He provided leadership, created a first class fighting ship, trained his crews continuously in gunnery, in musketry, & in cutlass & boarding-pike drill. Not the norm with British vessels of the time, it would appear. He had to pay for the powder consumed in gunnery practice himself since the permitted allowance was too small! The U.S. vessel? It was being repaired & refitted in Boston Harbour when Captain James Lawrence, U.S.N., joined it on May 20, 1813. A quarter of its crew were new & inexperienced, as were its officers. It was not, it would seem, a happy ship. While Lawrence commenced gunnery & other training, the crew lacked the gunnery practice, skills & experience of the British. Captain Lawrence would seem to be an officer who had had achieved significant & easy success in previous naval engagements but was misled by the ease of his success & in all truth was naive & lacking in judgment. It would appear that that Captain Lawrence, a most famous Captain indeed in U.S. history, even today, was over confident, almost contemptuous of the British. Alas he paid for his error with his life, & with the lives of many of his officers & crew.
The Chesapeake did not need to leave harbour when it did. The Shannon, at sea since Mar. 21, so about nine weeks on station, was short of water & provisions & would soon have had to return to Halifax to re-supply the vessel.
But the Chesapeake did come out of Boston Harbour to face the British antagonist at 12:30 p.m. on Jun. 1, 1813.
Image from this fine Navy Historical Centre site. They describe it with these words - 'Print painted, engraved and published by W. Elmes, London, August 1813. It depicts the capture of Chesapeake off Boston, Massachusetts, after a sharp engagement and boarding by Shannon's crew. Boston light house is shown in the left background. Courtesy of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. Beverly R. Robinson Collection, March 1937. The print would seem to have the following words: 'The Brilliant Achievement of the SHANNON. Frigate. CAPT: BROKE in boarding and capturing the United States Frigate CHESAPEAKE off Boston June 1st 1813 in Fifteen Minutes.' I note however that the action actually took place quite a distance away from Boston lighthouse - maybe by as many as 18 miles!
A perfect summer day it would seem, with a gentle westerly breeze. The ships manoeuvred to gain tactical advantage through the afternoon. The Shannon fired the first shot at 5:50 p.m. And the firing then became general. The Chesapeake closed with too much speed, soon suffered significant damage & went into the wind losing her speed. The Shannon's after guns raked the Chesapeake while the forward guns ravaged the rest of the vessel. Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake was wounded as were a number of his officers. At 6:00 p.m. the ships became entangled & Captain Broke of the Shannon ordered the two ships to be lashed together. With a cry 'Follow me who can!' Broke, sword in hand, lead a party of 60 or maybe 70 men aboard the Chesapeake. At this point Captain Lawrence was struck down by a musket ball, & he and his first lieutenant, both badly wounded, were carried below. Lawrence's words, remembered today & doubtless to be remembered for ever were 'Don't Give Up the Ship'. (I need to check that out. I have also read that he said 'Tell the men to fire faster and not to give up the ship; fight her till she sinks!' And that those words were paraphrased as 'Don’t Give Up the Ship'). Anyway, hand to hand battle ensued. Bloody and brutal. But not for long. The hand to hand battle was over in a few minutes & the Chesapeake surrendered - 15 minutes after the first shot & four minutes after the Chesapeake was boarded.
The assembled 'audience' was dismayed. No victory celebration that night in Boston!
An English engraving entitled 'BOARDING and TAKING the AMERICAN SHIP CHESAPEAKE. by the Officers and Crew of H. M. Ship Shannon. Commanded by Capt. Broke.- June 1813' Photo # NH 65811-KN from this splendid Department of the Navy. Navy Historical Centre site who describe it as being a 'Colored lithograph by M. Dubourg after a drawing by Heath, published in England circa 1813. It depicts the officers and crew of Shannon, commanded by Captain Broke, boarding and capturing the Chesapeake.'
The vessels proceeded to Halifax Harbour. And from what I have read, the Chesapeake never again entered U.S. waters. But its timbers live on to this day. See below.
The next image is a part only of what is available on the website of Mr. Ryan Moore - of the Shannon and the Chesapeake entering Halifax Harbour on June 6, 1813. The true origin of the very fine image is not stated by Ryan (that I can see) and is therefore unknown to the webmaster. But there is a somewhat similar image available here.
That image puzzled me when I first saw it. These are two vessels that fought a major sea battle? They do not look damaged in any way. Some words attributed to Captain Broke however explain - Both ships came out of the action in the most beautiful order, their rigging appearing as perfect as if they had only been exchanging a salute. So there!
Captain Lawrence (Oct. 1, 1781/ Jun. 4, 1813) died on the evening of Jun. 4, 1813, two days before the vessels entered Halifax harbour. On Jun. 8, 1813 he was rowed from the Chesapeake & in a solemn funeral ceremony carried to a burial in St. Paul's cemetery, Halifax. Not for long, however. His remains & the remains of his first lieutenant, Lieutenant Augustus C. Ludlow were removed & re-buried in Salem, Massachusetts. But that was not the end. They were moved again & on Sep. 16, 1813 both men were buried in Trinity Churchyard, New York, where they rest to this very day.
Captain Broke (Sep. 9, 1776/Jan. 2, 1841)? He was seriously injured, knocked down by a blow from a butt of a musket, but was saved from attacks by men armed with cutlass & boarding pike. Command of the Shannon passed to Lieutenant P. W. P. Wallis (Provo William Parry). While Broke never fully recovered from his injuries, he did recover enough to command the Shannon on its return trip to England on Oct. 4, 1813. He was made a baronet & received other awards. While he continued to be involved in gunnery & other naval matters, he never went to sea again & the severity of his injury precluded active Naval employment. His final years were unfortunate. He fell from his horse in 1820 & was semi-paralysed, while his wife, Lady Broke, became an invalid. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1830. He died on Jan. 2, 1841 & was laid to rest in St. Martin's Church, at Nacton, near Ipswich, U.K. At least one volume I have seen has an image of the crypt & his coffin.
An English engraving entitled 'TREACHEROUS ATTACK ON CAPTAIN BROKE, BY THREE OF THE CHESAPEAKE'S MEN, ON HER FORECASTLE.' Photo # NH 56770 from this splendid Navy Historical Centre site who describe it as being a 'Engraving from the "Memoirs of Admiral Broke", entitled "Trecherous Attack on Captain Broke", depicting the wounding of Shannon's Commanding Officer, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, during the boarding and capture of USS Chesapeake.' Would Captain Broke have been dressed as depicted, I wonder? The engraving is presented elsewhere in colour, I know. I will need to read more to understand what 'treachery' was involved! But... Don Hutchison, of Sudbury Massachusetts, has written in (thanks!) to indicate that several of the Americans had actually surrendered but resumed fighting Captain Broke & his men when they saw only a few British on the deck. Hence the word 'treacherous'.
The casualty list on both sides was long. Nine officers of the Chesapeake died either in the action or later in hospital, as did 53 of the men. 85 were wounded. Five officers similarly died from the Shannon along with 25 men. 43 were wounded.
And the ships?
The Chesapeake became a British Navy vessel, commissioned on Jul. 14, 1813. It sailed for England on Aug. 22, 1914. It was 'paid off' at Portsmouth in Sep. 1815 & in 1820 was sold to a gentleman named Joshua Holmes for £500 for her timber & copper & he in turn sold the timber of the gun decks to John Prior in 1820 for £3,450. I find it interesting to read that those timbers were built into 'The Chesapeake Mill' (see here & here) a water mill on the west bank of the river Meon at Wickham, Hampshire, U.K., where they can still be seen today. It is no longer a mill, however. Rather it is, today, an antiques & home furnishing centre. The Shannon? It was refitted & placed in reserve. For almost 3 years she served in the West Indies Station. Then 13 more years in reserve. In 1844 she became a 'receiving ship' & her name was changed to the 'St. Lawrence'. She was broken up in Nov. 1859.
a) It would appear that there was a Court of Enquiry held relative to the loss of the Chesapeake. It was (a typed copy) in the Library of the U.S. Navy Department. It might well be most interesting to read.
b) After the boarding, both Captain Lawrence & First Lieutenant Ludlow of the Chesapeake were badly wounded & were carried below. When his Captain was taken below, William S. Cox also went below with him. He was presumably, however, next in the line of command. A court martial was later held & he was sentenced to 'be cashiered with a perpetual incapacity to serve in the Navy of the United States.' - Guilty of neglect of duty & un-officer-like conduct. He should, in the opinion of the court, have correctly stayed on deck. But in 1952 he was granted by the President of the United States (Truman) a commission as a third lieutenant in the United States Navy, effective on the date of his death, as a result of a private bill passed by the U.S. Congress. At the time of the battle he may have been 'Acting Lieutenant' but I am not sure of that fact since what I have read is a bit vague on the matter. I wonder whether there is anything published about the court martial & the later events of 1952?
There are a number of websites which I now find discuss the matter. I read that William Sitgreaves Cox (1790/1874) was just 21 years of age at the time & quite inexperienced. Accepting the various words at face value .... He was on a final training cruise prior to receiving his commission, with the rank of Temporary Third Lieutenant. And Cox would seem to have been one of the bearers who physically carried Lawrence below decks. Without permission to leave the deck, however. He did not know that those senior to him were not any longer able to assume command.
I read that Captain James Lawrence was under direct orders NOT to engage the enemy under any circumstances due to the fact that he had an extremely green crew on board. Is that correct? I had not read that before. Questions, & more questions? Everything I read leads to more questions! What I have so far read indicates that that statement is incorrect. That Captain Lawrence 'inherited' orders earlier issued to Captain Samuel Evans, the previous captain of the Chesapeake, which essentially were to destroy British shipping in an area that broadly could be called the Gulf of St. Lawrence - & proceed to sea as soon as conditions permitted.
The 1952 decision was in large part the result of the efforts, over a great many years, of Electus D. Litchfield (1872/1952) of Fairview Village, New York. William S. Cox was his great-grandfather.
Sources of additional data
I'll add in the titles of books on the subject. But just one at this moment.
1 'The Shannon and the Chesapeake' by H. F. Pullen (Hugh Francis), published in 1970 by McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto, Canada
More splendid images from the Department of the Navy site.
In assembling a page such as this, one tries to find existing material available on the WWW. Some of what I see and read, is troubling to me. I have read, as an example that Captain Lawrence was 'goaded' into battle by Captain Broke. He was? An image above on this page refers to the 'treacherous attack' on Captain Broke. Which treacherous attack? If I can add more detail to the above text I will do so respecting both of those matters, which seem to me to be examples of literary excess or perhaps artistic licence!
If YOU could add any data re the subject matter of this page, or provide corrections, or indeed add anything re the artist generally, I invite you to be in touch. Your contribution would be much appreciated.
Thomas M. M. Hemy datapages 01, 02 & 03 are now on site. Plus all of the other image pages, accessible though the index on page 05.
Page 24 is now available, a modest third page just started on the same subject.
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