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The third squadron sent to cruise against British commerce during the War of 1812 was placed under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, and consisted of three ships, the Constitution, 44 guns, flagship; the Essex, 32 guns, Captain David Porter; and the sloop Hornet, 18 guns, Master-Commandant James Lawrence. The Hornet and the Constitution left Boston together on October 26, 1812, but the Essex, which was fitting in the Delaware, was unable to get to sea till the 28th.
The orders for this little squadron were, to sail first for the Cape Verde Islands, where fresh water could be procured; thence, by November 27, to Fernando Noronha, an island •about 200 miles off the coast of Brazil; and thence along the coast to Rio de Janeiro. From this port the course was to be laid directly across the neighborhood of St. Helena, where the home-coming English East Indiamen frequently touched. These plans were never carried out.
In the first place, the Essex, which Porter characterized as the "worst frigate in the service," was unable to catch up with the other two; and when Porter arrived at Fernando he found that the Constitution and the Hornet had already gone to Bahia, but that Bainbridge had left orders for him to proceed to Rio. There, finding no sign of his commodore, Porter struck out on his own authority and began his famous roving cruise in the Pacific. Meanwhile the actions between the Constitution p127 and the Java, and between the Hornet and the Peacock, compelled the Constitution and the Hornet to give up the intended cruise, and repair to the United States.
On the 13th of December, the Constitution and the Hornet arrived at Bahia, where they found a British sloop, the Bonne Citoyenne, with a large amount of specie aboard. The American vessels kept her blockaded for some time, during which Lawrence challenged the British commander to come out to single combat, Bainbridge pledging his honor not to interfere. The Englishman, however, declined, excusing himself on the ground that he did not believe the American commodore would keep his hands off. Finally on the 26th of the month, Bainbridge made sail for open sea, hoping thereby to tempt the Bonne Citoyenne to come out and meet the Hornet.
At nine o'clock, on the morning of the 29th, Bainbridge discovered two sails to the northeast, which proved to be a British frigate, the Java,1 and an American prize. On sighting the American frigate, the Englishman directed his prize to make for Bahia, while he himself made all sail to come up with the Constitution. Captain Bainbridge responded by tacking and heading southeast, in order to draw the other to a safe distance beyond neutral waters. The Java came on at a ten‑knot gait, and rapidly overhauled the Constitution till about 1.30, when Bainbridge put his ship about, shortened sail, and headed for the enemy. The Java now held off, trying for an opportunity to rake, which the Constitution prevented by wearing and resuming her course to the southeast. A half hour later, with the Java in a windward position and •a half mile distant, Bainbridge fired ahead of the enemy to make her display her colors. The response was p128 an instant hoisting of the ensign to the gaff, followed by a broadside, and the contest was on.
The earlier part of the battle consisted of maneuvering on the part of the Java to get a raking position, and the simultaneous wearing of the Constitution to avoid it, accompanied by heavy firing on both sides. The Java was a better sailer than the Constitution, and Bainbridge had his hands full to match her movements, particularly as at 2.30 a round shot from the Java smashed the Constitution's wheel, and the ship had to be steered thereafter by relieving tackles, handled two decks below. Earlier in the action, Commodore Bainbridge had received a musket ball in his hip, and the shot that smashed the wheel also p129 drove a copper bolt deep into his thigh. In spite of these painful wounds, he kept the deck throughout the battle.
Plan of Engagement
Shortly after the disaster to his wheel, he determined to close with his adversary even at the risk of being raked, and luffed up. For some reason, however, the Java missed the opportunity to rake as she passed under the Constitution's stern (see diagram, 1), for she fired only one 9‑pounder. She then luffed up and crossed the wake of the Constitution again, delivering a semi-raking fire which was not effective on account of the distance (2). Bainbridge then set the courses and luffed up again in order to close with his nimble adversary. At this point the Java had the end of her bowsprit with the jib and jib‑boom shot away, and with this sudden loss of her head sails she pointed up into the winds, where she lay for a few moments helpless (3). The Constitution instantly wore and, passing under the Java's stern, raked with great effect. The American wore again, and the English ship attempted to save the day by laying alongside and boarding; but she lost her foremast at the outset of the maneuver and succeeded only in running the stump of her bowsprit into the mizzen shrouds of the Constitution (4).
From this moment on, though the Java maintained a heroic defense, she was a beaten ship. The Constitution sailed round her, pouring in an accurate fire at close quarters that shot away every spar but the mainmast, and that went by the board a few minutes before the surrender.
Meanwhile, American gunners had been also sweeping the Java's decks with a diagonal fire, seconded by a deadly sharp-shooting of the marines in the tops. It was a musket bullet from the maintop that gave Captain Lambert his mortal wound, shortly after the two vessels came in contact. The command then devolved upon his first lieutenant, Chads, who continued the hopeless fight with great spirit.
p130 At five minutes after four,2 the fire from the Java had been completely silenced, and she rolled on the seas a dismasted hulk, her decks lumbered with the fallen spars, sails, and rigging. As she displayed no colors, Captain Bainbridge took it for granted that she had struck; and, hauling down his courses, he shot ahead to repair his badly cut rigging. On his return, at about 5.30, he found that the enemy had his colors flying again; but, as the Constitution drew across the Java's bow, ready to rake, they were instantly struck.
The Constitution had about the same superiority in metal over the Java as she had had over the Guerrière; but, as in the action with the latter frigate, the relative damage inflicted was wholly disproportionate to the respective armaments. It must be remembered also that the Java had one considerable advantage in her superior speed. The British frigate3 was so thoroughly shot to pieces that Bainbridge had no alternative but to blow her up, while the Constitution was in condition to make a long voyage back to the United States without refitting. The American loss in this engagement amounted to nine killed and twenty-five wounded, three mortally. Chads's official report of the British casualties gave twenty‑two killed and 102 wounded.4
In 1804 Captain Lambert distinguished himself, in a p131 heavy action at close quarters, by beating off a French ship with a broadside of 240 pounds opposed to his own total of 99 pounds. But the crew he then commanded had just been under a captain known as a "crank" in gunnery, and Lambert got the benefit of his predecessor's work. During the six weeks he was in command of the Java, he had held gun drill only once, and then with blank cartridges. In seamanship he was probably unsurpassed, for the Java was expertly handled; but, like so many of his brother-officers, he had small interest in gunnery. The Java's firing grew wilder as the battle progressed, while that of the Constitution steadily improved.
Among the American wounded was Lieutenant Alwyn, who had been shot through the shoulder in the engagement with the Guerrière. When the Java's bowsprit fouled the mizzen rigging of the Constitution, and boarders were called away, he leaped upon the hammock nettings to lead the party, and was shot through the very shoulder that had been wounded before. Despite the painful character of the wound, he kept at his station till the enemy had struck, but died on the voyage home.
While at Bahia, where the Constitution put in after the battle, Commodore Bainbridge, himself suffering severely, was brought before the dying Lambert; and, with the stately courtesy of the time, returned to him his sword with the expression of an earnest hope for his recovery. There are also letters from General Hyslop, a passenger on the Java, to Commodore Bainbridge, which bear grateful testimony to the chivalrous bearing of the victorious commander. Later, General Hyslop presented Bainbridge with a gold-mounted sword in token of appreciation.
Of the engagement with the Java, Admiral Mahan says: "This battle was not merely an artillery duel, like p132 those of the Constitution and the Guerrière, the Wasp and the Frolic, nor yet one in which a principal maneuver, by its decisive effect upon the use of artillery, played the determining part, as was the case with the United States and the Macedonian. Here it was a combination of the two factors, a succession of evolutions resembling the changes of position, the retreats and advances, of a fencing or a boxing match, in which the opponents work round the ring; accompanied by a continual play of the guns, answering to the thrusts and blows of individual encounter."
This victory can hardly be passed without some mention of its personal significance to Commodore Bainbridge. Up to this time, though he was admittedly an excellent officer, his professional career had been marked by the most trying misfortunes that can befall a commander. In the French War he had been taken by a superior force and imprisoned, with the mortifying knowledge that his was the only American man-of‑war to strike to the tricolor. Scarcely was he again on the quarter-deck, when he was forced by the Dey of Algiers to submit to the worst humiliation ever suffered by an American naval officer. During the war with Tripoli, the greatest disaster to the American cause was the loss of his ship, the Philadelphia, and, while his brother officers were winning distinction and applause, he was compelled to remain a prisoner. He had been sharply criticised on more than one occasion, and, even his own crew, the men who under Hull had worked the ship free from Broke's squadron and recently beaten the Guerrière, apparently felt little confidence in their new commander, as is shown by the long list of punishments for infractions of discipline. To all this criticism and distrust, Bainbridge's conduct in the battle with the Java was a sufficient answer.
In spite of the fact that Commodore Bainbridge left the Hornet alone to blockade the Bonne Citoyenne, Captain Greene of the British sloop still refused Lawrence's challenge. This was taken by Lawrence as cowardice, and he did not avoid saying what he thought. His criticism of Greene on this occasion put him on his mettle, when, six months later, the situation was exactly reversed and Captain Broke, with the Shannon, blockaded alone the young American commander in the ill‑fated Chesapeake.
Lawrence's relations with the Bonne Citoyenne were suddenly cut short by the arrival of a ship-of‑the‑line that chased him into port. By immediately standing out to sea, under cover of the night, he escaped the new enemy, and headed north. During this cruise he made his famous capture of the sloop Peacock. On the 24th of March, 1813, he reached New York and discharged his prisoners, after a cruise of 145 days, during which he had captured one ship, two brigs, one schooner, and one man-of‑war, a record that none of his brother officers could equal.
Lawrence, already the most popular officer in the service, became at once the toast of the nation. By this time, his rank5 would not permit his retaining command of the sloop Hornet, though he requested to be allowed to do so; and the Department appointed him to command a frigate, the Chesapeake, then refitting at the Boston Navy Yard. Lawrence would have preferred the Constitution, but, as his orders were not changed, he took command of the Chesapeake on May 20, 1813.
Lawrence was under orders to put to sea at the earliest p134 opportunity, and to head north to strike at the British fisheries on the Banks. On this cruise he was to meet, at Cape Breton, Master-Commandant Biddle, commanding the Hornet, and the two vessels were to act together in a commerce-destroying cruise. Although in the early months of the war the Admiralty had left the coast of New England alone, in order to encourage the hostile attitude of that section toward the war, by the spring of 1813 it had abandoned this policy and instituted a blockade from New York to Nova Scotia. Early in April the Shannon and the Tenedos appeared off Boston Light and maintained as close a blockade as the weather conditions would permit. Shortly before Lawrence arrived, the frigates President and Congress ran the blockade in a fog, leaving the Constitution, which was undergoing repairs, and the Chesapeake, which was nearly ready for sea.
On taking command, Lawrence notified the Department that he found the Chesapeake "ready for sea," lacking only a small number of men and a few supplies. On May 30, ten days later, he cast loose from Long Wharf and dropped down to the Roads, "with the intention of lying there a few days and shaking down before going to sea."6 The following afternoon, while dining with a friend in Boston, he received news that only one English frigate was in sight off the port, and he immediately returned to his ship to prepare for action. Between eight and nine o'clock the next morning, June 1, 1813, the British frigate was again sighted, and Lawrence made instant preparations for going out to meet her. The p135 stranger was the 38‑gun7 frigate Shannon; and it happened that while Lawrence was making ready to slip his moorings, her commander, Captain Philip B. V. Broke, was writing a lengthy but courteous challenge to Lawrence, inviting him to single-ship combat, "wherever it is most convenient to you." This challenge was sent ashore by a discharged prisoner, but by the time it reached Boston, the beaten Chesapeake was already on her way to Halifax.
The American commander was under orders to strike a blow at a definite area of the enemy's commerce, but, with the memory of the Bonne Citoyenne fresh in his mind, Lawrence was not the man to hesitate an hour in the face of an opportunity for single-ship combat. That one ship should attempt to maintain the blockade was enough to call him out as soon as he could trip his anchor and swing his yards. The Chesapeake was not, however, in the best condition to meet a seasoned enemy. Her first lieutenant, Octavius Page, was lying ill with pneumonia in the hospital ashore, where he died a few days after the battle. Two other officers were on leave, so that Lieutenant Ludlow, then only twenty‑one, became first lieutenant, and two midshipmen, Cox and Ballard, were promoted to the position of acting lieutenants. These officers were new to their duties and to the men, and the crew, for the most part, were as yet unorganized and undisciplined.
On the other hand, their antagonist, the Shannon, was manned by a veteran crew, some of them men who had fought under Rodney and Nelson, and who had been drilled together aboard the same ship, and under the same captain, for about seven years. Her commander, though only five years older than Lawrence, had seen active service since his midshipman days. He had been a lieutenant p136 in the great victory off St. Vincent, and had become post captain8 at the age of twenty-five.
In 1806 he was given the Shannon, and it was not long before he made her famous as a "crack" ship. At a time when most of the British officers echoed Nelson's contemptuous remark on gun‑sights, Broke fitted out at his own expense dispart sights and quadrants for every gun on his ship. Behind each gun he cut out arcs of circles on the deck, with degrees notched in, and filled with putty, so that all the fire of a broadside could be concentrated accurately upon a target. Nor were the devices idle. Twice a day, except Saturdays and Sundays, the watch below were exercised at the guns, not merely in practice with the side-tackles, but in actual firing at a barrel floating three or four hundred yards away.
When hostilities broke out, Broke was the senior British officer on the American station. Early in the war, he had endured the chagrin of seeing the Constitution slip away from his squadron when he was so sure of her that he had told off a prize crew from his Shannon to bring her into Halifax. Then followed the mortifying captures of the Guerrière, the Macedonian, the Frolic, the Java, and the Peacock, without a single British naval success to offset them. Confident of his own ship and her crew, he dismissed the Tenedos from the blockade of Boston in order that he might meet the Chesapeake alone, and restore the prestige of the British Navy by a victory.
His opponent, James Lawrence, was now in his thirty- p137 second year. Like most of the naval heroes of the War of 1812, he had entered the navy as a midshipman in 1798, at the outbreak of the war with France, and he had received his early training under Captain Tingey on the Ganges. He had won distinction in the war with Tripoli, notably as Decatur's lieutenant in the burning of the Philadelphia, and had reached the height of his fame by his recent capture of the Peacock. Handsome, impetuous, and winning, he was perhaps, next to Decatur, the most romantic figure in the navy.
Before unmooring ship to meet the Shannon, Lawrence mustered his crew aft, and made the customary patriotic speech before an action. At the end two members stepped forward, requesting the prize money which had long been due them. Lawrence sent them below to the purser to get checks for the amount due, and then retired to his cabin to write last letters to his wife and the Secretary of the Navy.
By noon, the Chesapeake was heading for the Shannon, and Broke, seeing that Lawrence intended to fight, led the way some distance to sea, and then hove to, awaiting his approach. The Englishman made no effort to maneuver, allowing Lawrence to choose his own method of attack. For his part, the American commander refused the opportunity of securing a raking position under the Shannon's quarter, but rounded‑to to run alongside and fight "yard‑arm to yard‑arm."
The Chesapeake and the Shannon
At 5.50, as the Chesapeake's bows doubled on the Shannon's starboard quarter, the British gunners struck the first blow. As soon as each gun of the Shannon bore on the Chesapeake, it was fired, rapidly reloaded, and fired again. The effect was terrible at such close quarters, but the American gunners responded smartly, and for five or six minutes the two frigates sailed on parallel courses, pounding each other at a range of about fifty yards.
p138 Lawrence, however, had made the mistake of coming up with too much headway, and he saw that his ship would soon forge too far ahead. Accordingly, he tried to luff her, but as her sails blanketed those of her enemy, her headway carried her still farther till she lay on the Shannon's weather bow. At this critical point the two upon whom the safety of the vessel most depended were disabled, Lawrence was wounded, and his sailing-master killed. Disasters then crowded each other in rapid succession. The cutting of the fore-topsail tye by the enemy's fire let fall the yard, so that the foresail became useless; at the same time the wheel was disabled and the brails of the spanker and the jib‑sheet were shot away. The combined result was that, as the ship had no head sails left, and her wheel was useless, she pointed up into the wind, and lay helpless in the most desperate position imaginable; that is, with her quarters exposed to her p139 enemy's broadside only about seventy yards distant. The Shannon took instant advantage of the opportunity by a terrible diagonal fire that swept the Chesapeake. To add to the confusion, about this time a grenade tossed from the Shannon's mainyard exploded an arms chest on her enemy's deck.
Seeing that the Chesapeake was now gaining sternboard, and would soon foul the Shannon, Lawrence called the boarders away. But the negro bugler, whose duty it was to sound the call, had hidden himself in terror, and the word was passed with difficulty by word of mouth. Just before the two ships touched, Lawrence received his second and mortal wound, and was carried below. Like Lambert of the Java, he had been picked off by one of his enemy's marines.
As the Chesapeake's stern fouled the main chains of the Shannon, the two ships were lashed together by the British, who made instant preparation to carry the American frigate by boarding. Meanwhile, at Lawrence's call for boarders, the Chesapeake's men had responded promptly, but found no leaders. Lawrence was being carried below; and, of the officers on the spar deck, first lieutenant, sailing-master, captain of marines, and boatswain had already received their death wounds, leaving none but a few midshipmen.
The second lieutenant was at the forward end of the gun deck with no idea of what was happening on the quarter-deck; the fourth lieutenant had been mortally wounded at the first fire; and the third lieutenant, on hearing the call for boarders, led his men on deck, but stopped to help his beloved commander down to the steerage ladder; and when he attempted to get back again, found the hatch battened down by the enemy's boarders.
Left wholly without officers, the crew, already demoralized by a raking fire at close quarters, made an ineffectual p140 attempt to resist the British boarding party, and then a large number actually broke and ran below into the hold. The marines, however, under their sergeant, made a gallant defense; out of a total of forty-four they lost twelve killed and twenty wounded.
Shortly after Captain Broke and his men boarded the quarter-deck of the Chesapeake, the American frigate fell off sufficiently to catch the wind. The lashings parted and the Chesapeake broke away with the enemy's boarders on her deck. Here was a chance for the Americans to save the day, but there were no officers to rally the panic-stricken crew. Second Lieutenant Budd, who had gained the forecastle and begun a desperate resistance, was twice severely wounded, and thrown to the deck below. In a few minutes the last effort at defense was abandoned.
In this hand-to‑hand struggle on the forecastle, Captain Broke himself received a sabre cut on the head that very nearly proved mortal, and incapacitated him for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, his first lieutenant, Watts, lost his life by a blunder; soon after boarding the Chesapeake he had lowered his colors, and bent on an English ensign, but in his excitement he stopped the English colors under, instead of over, the American. At this, the "Shannons," thinking that the Americans must have regained the quarter-deck, fired one of the main deck guns, killing Watts and four or five of his men.
It was only fifteen minutes from the first shot of the battle to the final rout of the American crew, just the time it took Lawrence to destroy the Peacock a few months before. Unfortunately, the brutality of the young English lieutenants and their men on taking possession bears no such parallel with the magnanimity of Lawrence on a similar occasion, and it is the most discreditable feature of the Shannon's victory. No blame, however, can be attached to the gallant Broke, whose wound had already rendered him unconscious.
p141 For four days, Lawrence lingered in great agony, repeating in his delirium, the words that have since become the motto of the navy, "Don't give up the ship!" His kindness to the men of the Peacock had won him friendly regard among all Englishmen, and no honor was spared him in the subsequent funeral ceremonies at Halifax.
Naturally, the victory of the Shannon caused the greatest exultation in England, and corresponding gloom in the United States. The fact that the Shannon had captured the Chesapeake in fifteen minutes with an unprecedented slaughter of officers and men was mortifying, and it was not long before a "patriotic" legend twined around the ugly fact. This legend reports, in brief, that the Chesapeake's crew was made up of landlubbers and foreigners, and those were either dead drunk during the battle, or mutinous and cowardly. The muster roll, however, proves that there was not one "landsman" on board, and gives only fifteen foreign names out of a total of 340. Just two men were reported drunk, and the idea of a mutinous spirit is based wholly on the request for prize money made just before going out. This request was reasonable enough. The money was long overdue, and the men wanted it to their credit on the eve of battle. The purser expressly testified before the court of inquiry, that there was nothing disorderly or mutinous in the conduct of the crew as they came to him for the prize checks. Lawrence, in writing to the Secretary of the Navy after this incident, says, "My crew appear to be in fine spirits, and I trust will do their duty."
While it is true that many of the crew became panic-stricken at the end when they had no leaders, yet of their own accord they gave three hearty cheers when the Chesapeake swung alongside the enemy; and they stood splendidly by their guns in that terrible first broadside from the Shannon. In fact, during those six minutes p142 when the two vessels were running on parallel courses, the slaughter on board the Shannon was apparently as bad as that on board the Chesapeake. During those minutes, the Chesapeake killed and wounded more on the Shannon than the Constitution — a much heavier frigate — did in thirty minutes' pounding of the Guerrière. It was when the Chesapeake hung in irons, unable to reply to a diagonal fire, that the American loss grew to such a terrible disproportion.
In his official report of the action, Lieutenant Budd gave a loss of forty-eight killed and ninety-seven wounded, and of the latter fourteen died after the battle. The British loss was given as forty-three killed (including those who died shortly after the engagement) and twenty-nine wounded.9 In this brief action the victor suffered more than the vanquished Guerrière or Macedonian. "The total loss of both ships [Chesapeake and Shannon] was only forty-five less than the combined losses of the French and English fleets at Cape St. Vincent where forty‑two ships were engaged."10
The defeat was partly due to the fact that "the Chesapeake was a ship much inferior to the Shannon, as a regiment newly enlisted is to one that has seen service, and the moment things went wrong seriously, she could not retrieve herself."11 But, equally it can be attributed to what may be called "the fortune of war," in the unprecedented slaughter of the Chesapeake's officers at the outset of the battle, with a simultaneous destruction of her wheel and head sails. The fact may be accepted, however, that it was a fair fight and fairly won.
It was fortunate for Lawrence that he died a hero, for the defeat was a severe blow to our national pride. p143 As it was, Midshipman Cox — acting third lieutenant — who made the mistake of assisting his commander to the deck below, was expelled from the service with the burden of the defeat laid on his shoulders; and this, despite the fact that it was he who trained and discharged the last gun in defense of the flag.
Much has been written concerning Captain Lawrence's judgment in going out to fight the Shannon, and the opinion is widely accepted that he acted rashly and impulsively; with great gallantry, but with inexcusable lack of judgment. And yet, it is hard to see how a brave officer could have done otherwise. For months the harbor had been blockaded by two frigates; and, as far as Lawrence knew, at any moment the blockade of two or even three frigates, would be renewed. The fact that the Shannon alone stood on blockade meant an opportunity to get to sea, and win honor besides. It is clear, from his letter to the Secretary of the Navy, that he regarded his ship as ready for sea, and he knew that if he delayed a week, or even a day or two, simply to get his ship's organization into better shape, he ran the risk of never having another chance to leave port. As it turned out, the Constitution, which was then undergoing repairs after her battle with the Java, was blockaded until late in 1814, when the war was practically over. Had the Chesapeake also remained, she would have shared the same fate. It must be added to Lawrence's credit, that when he did offer battle, he chose the style of fighting that was best adapted to an unpracticed crew, namely, close quarters. At all events, he did not strike his colors; and the harshest critic must be gentle in the face of his heroic death.
1 Like the Guerrière, the Java was a French prize, originally named the Renommée, and captured only the year before.
2 According to the British account, 4.35. There is such a wide discrepancy in the matter of time between the two reports that an English writer suggests that "perhaps someone's watch or clock was adrift." (Famous Duels of the Fleet, p261.)
3 A relic of the Java that for a long time remained on the Constitution's quarter-deck was her wheel, which replaced the one shot away early in the action.
4 Captain Bainbridge, inclosing as evidence a letter written by one of the British officers and accidentally left on board the Constitution, gives the figures of that officer, which are sixty killed and 170 wounded.
5 Lawrence had been promoted in March from Master-Commandant to Captain.
6 Gleaves, Life of James Lawrence, p172.
7 Although the Chesapeake was rated as a "36," she carried two more carronades than the "38‑gun" Shannon, and fifty more men in her crew.
8 Post captain: "A designation formerly applied . . . to a naval officer holding a commission as captain, to distinguish him from an officer of inferior rank, to whom the courtesy title of captain was often given, either as being an acting captain, or as being master and commander of a vessel not rated to be commanded by a full-grade captain, and so not said to 'give post.' " New English Dictionary.
9 Figures from Gleaves's Life of James Lawrence, p209.
10 Ibid., p210.
11 Mahan, War of 1812, II, 145.
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