Jun 1

Don’t Give Up The Ship

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 12:29 AM


Captain James Lawrence, USN, (1781-1813)

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.”

  • Margaret

    I made a special trip into NYC last fall for the sole purpose of visiting Captain Lawrence’s tomb – said a prayer and had a good cry. One could argue that he was the one captain in the early US Navy unluckier than Bainbridge (Lawrence was held captive along with Bainbridge in Tripoli) but at least he, Lawrence, died a hero.

  • Jim Valle

    Captain Brooke had made a careful study of the tactics needed for a successful frigate-to-frigate combat. He placed lots of sharpshooters in his tops and trained them and his carronade gunners to keep the ( American ) quarterdeck swept with musket balls and cannister. Meanwhile his lower deck gunners were drilled in rapid fire techniques. The result was that not only Lawrence but all his senior officers were quickily eliminated, the Chesapeake’s wheel shot away and a path opened for the Shannon’s to board via the Chesapeake’s virtually deserted spar deck. It was an early version of “decapitation” strategy and it worked very well indeed. Lawrence might have given a better account of himself if he had taken the trouble to find out more about his enemy and not rushed his ship headlong into the battle.

  • Roy E Sullivan

    I have always wondered why Lawrence, when he had the golden opportunity to do at the start of the action, did not turn to port and cross the stern of Shannon, thus affording himself a perfect raking position with no chance of reply from the British vessel. That first, unopposed, broadside from Chesapeake might have made a good deal of difference and perhaps given the Americans a better chance, although, truth be told, I suspect Broke and his well-trained, highly-disciplined crew would have prevailed under any circumstances against Lawrence’s new untrained crew. Theodre Roosevelt, A.T. Mahan and other historians have wondered this as well. One of the prevailing thoughts is that Lawrence was being “chivalrous” (not uncommon in late 18th-early 19th century ship-to-ship combat) and wanted a broadside-to-broadside, head-knocking duel. Then too, the prevailing wisdom, then and now, is that Lawrence was over-confident and took too much for granted. In an unbroken string of five American victories in ship-to-ship open-ocean duels (three of them frigate battles) Lawrence likely assumed his engagement with Shannon would be no different. Naval historians say Lawrence had no business taking on Shannon–it was not in his orders. he was actually under orders from the Navy Department to break out of Boston harbor and raid British merchant shipping in the Atlantic, not engage in single-ship battles. Additionally, had he had time to learn more about his opponent prior to the action, he might have been a little less rash in running at Broke full-tilt. All this being said, it was one of the bloodiest single ship actions in the 1793-1815 period, especially to be only a 15-minute battle.

  • Albert Parker

    It has always been my understanding, just reinforced by William Laird Clowes, _The Royal Navy_ (chapter written by Theodore Roosevelt) and William James, _The Naval History of Great Britain_, that Broke was created a baronet as a reward for his victory; he was not knighted. A baronetcy has been described as a “hereditary knighthood”: the recipient *and one male heir at a time* are referred to and addressed as “Sir,” like a knight, but with “Bart.” or “Bt.” after the name in circumstances in which the initials of a specific order would be given for a knight. It is a higher honor than a knighthood, intermediate between a knighthood and a peerage or title of nobility, the lowest rank of which is “baron.” Socially, baronets outrank knights. Although I can think of at least one precedent, it was a fairly extravagant honor for a single-ship victory, indicating the enthusiasm in Britain for the breaking of the string of American victories. Broke never fully recovered from his own wounds and, although promoted to rear-admiral in due course in 1830, did not have any further active service. At the end of the war, Broke was one of many officers made commanders of the Order of the Bath (K.C.B.). *That* is a knighthood, but for a baronet it was a subsidiary honor. I don’t know whether Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke, Bt., had any male heirs, but the baronetcy seems to have expired for lack of them at some time since his death in 1841.

  • Steven Silverman

    Your brief history acknowledges a correction to what many people mistakenly attribute the command “Don’t Give Up The Ship” to Oliver Hazard Perry. The command was given by the dying James Lawrence aboard the USS Chesapeake in its encounter with the HMS Shannon.

    Oliver Hazard Perry had the statement stiched on his flag which was carried aboard his ship during the Battle of Lake Erie. Ironically, the ship that carried this flag was the brig Lawrence. After the Lawrence sustained extensive battle damage, Perry transferred the to the brig Niagara bringing the flag with him. Later,Perry returned to the Lawrence & wrote “We met the enemy and they are ours”. Furthermore, Perry’s battle flag is currently on display in Memorial Hall(located in Bancroft Hall)at the U.S. Naval Academy.

  • The Jack Benny (Lucky Strikes) Program from Corona Naval Base, 19 Nov 1944, had some debate to the source of the “Don’t Give Up the Ship” quote. John Paul Jones and Capt. Lawrence were mentioned. Benny thought it was Jones in December 1812.