Through the first year of the War of 1812, the infant United States Navy won a number of stunning victories in ship-to-ship engagements over Royal Navy vessels, including the capture of three British frigates. While this string of Yankee successes may not have surprised the American people, it startled, confounded, and angered the British nation which considered its sailors and warships more than a match for the upstart U.S. fleet.
One American officer who contributed to these early triumphs over the Royal Navy was James Lawrence. On 24 February 1813, Lawrence’s sloop of war Hornet reduced HM brig-sloop Peacock to a sinking state in the space of fifteen minutes, killing and wounding more than a quarter of its crew. In recognition of this win, Lawrence was promoted to captain and given command of the frigate Chesapeake, then lying at Boston. Among the missions the Navy Department contemplated for Chesapeake at this time was the seizure and destruction of British transports and supply ships en route from England to Canada.
When Lawrence arrived in Boston on 20 May to assume command of Chesapeake he found his ship short of men and still in need of refitting for its intended voyage. He also discovered two British frigates cruising in the waters off Boston Harbor, awaiting the opportunity to intercept and capture any American vessel attempting to enter or depart from that port. By the 25th, only one British warship, the frigate Shannon, remained in view blockading the harbor.
Lured by the prospect of laurels in another single-ship combat with the enemy, and anxious to engage Shannon before that ship was reinforced, Lawrence hastened to ready Chesapeake for battle. Although Chesapeake and Shannon were nearly evenly matched in size and power, the latter vessel held a decided advantage over its American counterpart in unit cohesiveness and training, especially gunnery. On 1 June when Lawrence sailed Chesapeake out to meet Shannon, he had directed his crew for less than two weeks, while Shannon’s captain, Philip Broke, had commanded his vessel for seven years.
This disparity in experience and service gave the well-trained Shannons the edge in the battle that ensued. After a hard-fought, bloody action lasting only a quarter of an hour, the American frigate struck her colors to Shannon. The victory earned Broke a host of honors including a knighthood, while defeat gained Lawrence fame and honor as a fallen naval hero. The words of Lawrence’s last spoken command soon became a battle cry throughout the American fleet, most famously as the motto emblazoning Oliver Hazard Perry’s battle flag at the Battle of Lake Erie: “Don’t Give Up The Ship.”