Eleven minutes. The gruesome battle on June 1, 1813 between British HMS Shannon and America’s USS Chesapeake was fought and over in eleven minutes.
Aboard the frigate HMS Shannon, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke of the British Navy issued a challenge to the commander of the USS Chesapeake. The American vessel was in the Boston Harbour for refitting when Captain James Lawrence learned of the message. “The boat manned by a discharged American prisoner, Mr. Slocum, had not reached the shore with the challenge when Chesapeake was seen under way,” said Michael Philips’ in “Ships of the Old Navy” on Age of Nelson.
Guns Fired Grape and Round Shot
Sailing eastward just before 6 p.m.,, the vessels prepared for battle between Cape Cod and Cape Ann. The Chesapeake’s captain pulled his ship “port broadside” with the Shannon’s starboard gun battery. Commander Broke fired first. With that first shot, the clock started to tick on the battle.
The Shannon “struck the Chesapeake on one of its gun ports. Two or three further broadsides swept the Chesapeake’s decks with grape and round shot,” stated James Marsh in War of 1812. Heavy carronade and gun blasts rattled the atmosphere. Firing at the main deck through port holes, the Shannon’s troops killed and wounded many of the American ship’s crew. As the acrid gunpowder smoke dissipated, Broke and his men rushed aboard the Chesapeake.
Both Commanders Wounded
The Americans were not prepared for the sudden incursion with the dreadful hand-to-hand fighting. “After a few minutes of fierce fighting, the Americans rallied and counter attacked,” said Marsh. Captain Broke was attacked with a sabre and knocked down, his crew coming to his defence. Carrying their Commander out of harm’s reach, the British then killed the remaining troops. Captain Lawrence fared worse than Broke and was fatally wounded in the skirmish. Before Lawrence died, he “reportedly uttered the immortal words ‘Don’t give up the ship!’” His words were in vain. The British seized the USS Chesapeake. The whole bloody, ghastly fight was over in eleven minutes.
With a crew of British installed at the helm, the Chesapeake was escorted by the Shannon to Halifax, Nova Scotia, arriving on June 6, 1813.
Steep British and American Casualties
Damage was severe to both ships, the count of dead men was high, the count of wounded even higher. Along with Captain James Lawrence, several officers of the Chesapeake were killed along with dozens of sailors. A total of 60 were killed, and about another were 60 wounded. Aboard the Shannon, 23 were killed in battle and 56 more were wounded. Returning to England in October, Captain Broke recovered from his harsh sabre injuries. He was eventually promoted to Rear Admiral but due to the severity of his wounds, he did not return to the seas.
Shannon and Chesapeake: Armed Frigates
Frigates were considered sleek and dashing hunters, according to “Origins of the Leda Freight” on HMS Trincomalee 1817. “Frigates were the eyes of the fleet, expanding far into oceans to carry dispatches and orders to and from the sluggish squadrons, and locating and harassing enemy vessels until the bulk of the fleet could catch up and engage in battle proper.” Used around the world, appointments to frigates were a coveted post for up-and-coming commanders.
The Shannon and Chesapeake were similar in dimensions. The American vessel was a 38-gun frigate launched in 1799; 152.5 feet in length, a beam of 41 feet 3 inches, and a draft of 20 feet, the Chesapeake had a complement of 379 men, enlisted and officers. HMS Shannon’s deck was 150.2 feet long, the beam almost 40 feet across and the draft nearly 13 feet. A Leda-class frigate, the Shannon was manned during the battle with 270 men.
Although classed as 38-gun frigates, both vessels were armed with much more. The Shannon carried 10 x 9-pounder guns, 28 x 18-pounders, and 16 x 32-pounder carronades. As well as 29 x 18-pounder long guns, the Chesapeake was also outfitted with 2 x 12 pounder long guns, 1 x 12-pounder carronade, and 18 x 32-pounder carronades. (A large-calibre cannon, carronades were made of cast-iron. They were designed by the Carron Company in England for the Royal Navy.)
Experienced Naval Officers
Captain of the USS Chesapeake, James Lawrence of the United States Navy was buried with military honours in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His remains were later re-interred at a cemetery in New York. Born in New Jersey in October, 1781, Lawrence was 31 years old when he died in action. His vessel was taken to England where the Chesapeake was dismantled for the timbers.
Philip Broke, Captain of the HMS Shannon, was born in England in early September 1776. Educated at a military academy, Broke enlisted as a midshipman at age 26, noted H.F. Pullen in Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Married to Sarah Middleton, the Brokes raised 11 children. Among many prestigious awards, the career seaman was knighted in 1815. Broke died in London, England in 1841 at age 65. HMS Shannon was repaired in Britain and returned to duties. In 1830, the ship was renamed Saint Lawrence.
A spectacular coup for the British, the story of HMS Shannon during the War of 1812 was commemorated in June 2012 with a special $2 coin by the Canadian Mint. A plaque installed at Mount Pleasant Park in Halifax, Nova Scotia – “Shannon” — “Chesapeake” – also recalls the historical moment..
- Phillips, Michael, “Ships of the Old Navy,” Age of Nelson Accessed July 10, 2012
- Marsh, James, “HMS Shannon vs USS Chesapeake, War of 1812,” War of 1812 Accessed July 10, 2012
- “Origins of the Leda Freight,” HMS Trincomalee 1817 Accessed July 16, 2012
- Pullen, H.F., “Broke, Sir Philip Bowes Vere,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Accessed July 16, 2012