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At Sea 1813

Boarding of the Chesapeake
Boarding of the Chesapeake (1916)

Shannon - Chesapeake

Over the course of 1813, the British navy under the direction of Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren extended its blockade of American ports up the coast, stopping just short of New England. The blockade interrupted but did not shut down U.S. commercial and military traffic completely. The Royal Navy never devoted enough ships to accomplish that end, and what ships did enforce the blockade endured hard use and had to return to England for any major repairs.

Early in 1813, United States Secretary of the Navy William Jones ordered American ships to patrol the Atlantic individually in an effort to interfere with British commercial traffic. He did not forbid military engagement with the British navy, but the intention was clearly to avoid major sea battles that could devastate the smaller American navy. Similarly, the British were meant to focus on the blockade, not battles. And yet, navies exist to fight and the British gained their first major victory at sea in the war in a battle that by some measures never should have happened.

In the early summer of 1813, Captain Philip Broke of the H. M. Ship Shannon sent away the rest of his squadron in hopes of luring out to sea the U.S. Frigate Chesapeake, newly refitted and under the command of Captain James Lawrence. The two ships met on June 1 somewhere south of Cape Cod and exchanged several broadsides. Captain Broke was unusual in the British Navy for his diligent focus on gunnery and his crew’s training paid off in the fight with Lawrence’s less experienced officers who had served together on the Chesapeake only a few weeks. British marines and sailors boarded the Chesapeake and very bloody hand-to-hand combat left Captain Lawrence dying and his ship in British hands. Despite his loss in battle, Lawrence became idolized as a hero, forever associated with the apocryphal last words: “Don’t give up the ship.”