At midday of June 1, 1812, the Chesapeake weighed anchor, stood out of Boston Harbor, and at 1 P.M. rounded the Lighthouse. 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 maintopsail braced flat and shivering, that the Chesapeake might overtake her. An hour later, Boston Lighthouse bearing west distant about six leagues, she again hauled up, with her head to the southeast, and lay to under topsails, topgallantsails, jib, and spanker. Meanwhile, as the breeze freshened the Chesapeake took in her studdingsails, topgallant sails, and royals, got her royal-yards on deck, and came down very fast under topsails and jib. At 5:30, to keep under command and be able to wear if necessary, the Shannon filled her maintopsail 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 fifty yard, upon the Shannon's starboard quarter, and squared his main-yard. On board the Shannon the captain of the 14th gun, William 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 foretop-sail 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 stem-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 sternway on and to be paying slowly off; so the Shannon put her helm a-starboard and shivered her mizzentopsail, 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 consequence, 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 Chesapeake'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 quarter-deck guns, he ordered the ships to be lasht together, the great guns to cease firing, and the boarders to be called. The boatswain, who had fought in Rodney's action, set about fastening the vessels together, which the grim veteran succeeded in doing, tho his right arm was literally hacked off by a blow from a cutlass. All was confusion and dismay on board the Chesapeake. Lieutenant Ludlow had been mortally wounded and carried below; Lawrence himself, while standing on the quarter-deck, fatally conspicuous by his full-dress uniform, and commanding 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 lieutenant, 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, followed by many of the crew, among them one of the midshipmen named Deforest. On the quarter-deck almost the only man that made any 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, fourteen, including Lieutenant James Broom and Corporal Dixon, were dead, and twenty, 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, tho reported unwounded.
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 Chesapeake's mizzentopmen began firing at the boarders, mortally wounding a midshipman, Mr. Samwell, and killing Lieutenant Watt; but one of the Shannon's long mines was pointed at the top and cleared it out, being assisted by the English maintopmen, 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 foretopmen, under Midshipman Smith. Lieutenant 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, and only a few of the veterans followed him up.
As soon as he reached the spar-deck, Budd, followed by only a dozen men, attacked the British as they came along the gangways, repulsing them for a moment, and killing the British purser, Aldham, 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 disorder." Lieutenant Ludlow, already mortally wounded, struggled up on deck, followed by two or three men, but was at once disabled by a saber 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 American, who was armed with a pike, he parried a blow from it, and cut down the man; attacking another 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 immediately 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 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 wounded, 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 lieutenants, five 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 lientenant, purser, captain's clerk, and one midshipman, 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 Lieutenants Wallis and Falkiner were both made commanders.
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. Those who would like to hear one side are referred to James; if they wish to hear the other, to the various letters from officers published in "Niles' Register," especially Vol. V, p. 142.
Neither ship had lost a spar, but all the lower masts, especially the two mizzenmasts, 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 bull, tho said to be sometimes of great help in unrigging an antagonist from whom one was desirous of escaping, as in the case of the President and Endymion.
It is thus seen that the Shannon received from shot alone only about half the damage the 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, tho 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 us.
1 From Roosevelt's "Naval War of 1812." By permission of the publishers, G. P. Putnam's Sons. Copyright, 1882.
PERRY'S VICTORY ON LAKE ERIE