The capture of the Chesapeake: how the British Royal Navy rescued its reputation in the War of 1812

The Royal Navy needed a victory to boost flagging morale during the War of 1812, and in a brief, violent battle, it got one. Historian Julian Humphrys tells the story of how, at the Battle of Boston Harbor, the British captured the USS Chesapeake in less than 15 minutes

Captain James Lawrence of the Chesapeake is wounded

For a British public accustomed to hearing regular reports of naval triumphs over the French, the opening 12 months of the War of 1812 came as a profound shock. When the young US declared war on Britain in 1812, it had no great ships of the line and instead relied on privateers and a small fleet of heavy frigates to take the war to the British.

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Frigates were smaller, faster types of warship normally used for attacking or protecting commerce, raiding or scouting. But the US’s were the best in the business, stronger than their British counterparts and manned by well-trained crews. What’s more, the Royal Navy had grown complacent after years of victory and had let their standards slip, particularly when it came to gunnery.

The British soon paid the price. The powerful American frigates proved far superior and in a series of single-ship actions, the USS Constitution captured the British ships HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, while the USS United States seized the HMS Macedonian.

In reality, as humiliating as these setbacks were for the British, they had little impact on the war as a whole. By March 1813, the Royal Navy had no fewer than 50 warships and frigates blockading the  eastern seaboard of the US. They trapped most of the enemy in their harbours and gradually stifled American maritime trade. Even so, the string of individual defeats had dealt a severe blow both to the prestige of the Royal Navy and to the morale of the British public. Something had to be done.

Shannon versus Chesapeake

Enter Philip Bowes Vere Broke. One of the British captains assigned to the North American station, the Suffolk-born Broke had commanded HMS Shannon since 1806, and had spent years making alterations to the ship’s guns to improve aiming, and turning his crew into some of the best gunners in the Royal Navy.

Believing that practice made perfect, he held regular gunnery competitions for his men by setting up floating targets made of barrels. He circumvented Admiralty restrictions on the expenditure of ammunition in training by paying for the shot himself. His men were no slouches when it came to hand-to-hand combat either, for Broke had introduced a range of musket and cutlass drills to hone their fighting skills. He was determined to restore the honour of the Royal Navy in a single action – and he was soon to get the opportunity.

Cruising outside Boston, Broke knew that the American frigate, USS Chesapeake, was in the harbour there and made up his mind to fight her. Although Chesapeake was preparing to put to sea, Broke was worried his food and water supplies would run out beforehand, forcing him to return to the British base at Halifax. So on 1 June 1813, he sent a letter to James Lawrence, the new captain of the Chesapeake, issuing a formal (and extremely polite) challenge of ship-to-ship combat.

What was the War of 1812?

A conflict between the US and Britain that confusingly – given this war’s name – lasted from mid 1812 until early 1815.

The US declared war on Britain in June 1812, the root cause was the Royal Navy’s pressing of allegedly British seamen from US ships, and the seizure of merchant vessels attempting to break the British blockade of France during the Napoleonic Wars.

Disputes over the border with Canada heightened tensions, as some Americans saw Britain’s ongoing war with France as an opportunity to extend territory northwards. Two attempts to invade Canada were made in 1812; the following year, the US captured and burned York (Toronto).

Another American incursion in 1814 was stopped at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara, but British plans to advance south were also scuppered by an American naval victory on Lake Champlain.

While the war at sea began badly for the Royal Navy, Britain soon flexed its maritime muscles. US commerce was strangled and, in August 1814, an amphibious force landed in Maryland. The British marched on Washington and burned the White House. At the end of the year, a peace treaty was signed at Ghent, but before news of it reached North America the British mounted another attack, this time a doomed assault on New Orleans.

Although naval issues became less pressing, the treaty settled very little. The border controversy rumbled on until 1846, when the 49th parallel was finally accepted as the boundary line between Canada and the US.

Lawrence, who became captain in May 1813 after he had achieved a victory over HMS Peacock, never received the letter, but it made no difference. Before it could even be delivered, he had sailed out of Boston that very day with the express intention of taking on Shannon.

Although Lawrence had been ordered to avoid contact with the British, slip through their blockade and attack shipping in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, he saw no reason why he shouldn’t first claim another prize for the US. The Shannon had been at sea for weeks but his, the Chesapeake, although older, had been refitted. Not to mention that previous successes had made him confident of victory, a view shared by the inhabitants of Boston. A space at the docks for Shannon was already waiting, and Americans lined the rooftops or took to their boats to cheer their frigate out of the harbour.

The Battle of Boston Harbor

In fact the Chesapeake had the reputation of being an unlucky ship. In June 1807, she had set off from Norfolk, Virginia, for the Mediterranean. Shortly into the voyage, she ran into a British naval squadron, which demanded some Royal Navy deserters on board be handed over.

When her then-commander James Barron had refused, HMS Leopard unleashed three broadsides, killing three and wounding another 18, one of whom later died. Barron himself was among the wounded. Completely unprepared, the Chesapeake only managed a single token shot before hauling down her colours, handing over the deserters and skulking back to port.

A painting of the Shannon and the Chesapeake in battle
The Shannon and the Chesapeake were evenly matched in size and weapons, but the battle was far from a close contest. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

The US authorities were furious, both with the British – the incident brought the two countries to the verge of war – and Barron. He was court-martialled and suspended from the US Navy.

Yet in the eyes of Lawrence he was sure that the ship’s luck was about to change. Shannon and Chesapeake were fairly evenly matched. They were about the same size and both had around 50 guns of a variety of calibres. Much then would depend on the skill and courage of their crews. The Chesapeake had 379 men on board, to the Shannon’s 330, but although most of the Americans were experienced mariners, many were new to the ship.

As the battle grew closer that afternoon, their crews ‘cleared for action’, removing anything that might get in the way, dousing flammable materials with water and scattering sand to prevent the men from slipping on the blood that grim experience told them would soon be covering the decks. Meanwhile, down below, the ships’ surgeons prepared temporary hospitals and laid out the tools of their trade.

When the ships were near each other, one of Broke’s men noted that the Chesapeake was flying three ensigns and a large flag with the motto “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”, whereas the Shannon had just one faded flag. He asked his captain, “Mayn’t we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?” It’s tempting to think that had Nelson been there, he would have come up with something suitably flamboyant. Broke was a completely different character, though. “No”, he said, “we have always been an unassuming ship.”

Broke was more concerned that Lawrence would manoeuvre the Chesapeake behind the Shannon, sail past his stern and rake him. This was a situation every captain wanted to avoid. The enemy could fire a broadside down the length of his ship, while his gunners would have nothing to fire at. Broke needn’t have worried. Lawrence wanted a trial of strength and, disdaining manoeuvre, simply came alongside the Shannon.

The British board and capture the Chesapeake
The British boarding and taking the American ship Chesapeake (Photo by CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

At around 6pm, the well trained British gunners opened fire, unleashing a devastating and perfectly timed rolling broadside at a range of just 35 metres. A hail of iron smashed into the Chesapeake, disabling guns and tearing off splinters of wood that caused terrible injuries. The Americans fired back and although her broadside caused casualties and damaged rigging, it was nowhere near as effective an opening salvo.

Realising his ship’s speed would take him past the Shannon, Lawrence ordered a pilot’s luff (a small turn into the wind) to slow down. Broke ordered a second broadside and, again, the effect was destructive. The Chesapeake’s boatswain, fourth lieutenant and sailing master were all killed, and the men around the ship’s wheel cut down. The wheel itself was shot away, as were key parts of rigging. The gunners fired back – killing a number of men, disabling a gun and even destroying the ship’s bell – but the Chesapeake was already in serious trouble.

Losing all forward momentum and impossible to control due to damage sustained, she drifted backwards until her port stern (rear left) quarter collided with Shannon’s starboard side and became hooked on one of the British ship’s anchors. Trapped at an angle that allowed few of her guns to hit anything and unable to sail away, the Chesapeake was now a sitting duck. Her exposed stern was swept by raking fire and further damage was caused when an ammunition chest on her quarterdeck blew up.

Who said “Don’t give up the ship”?

Seizing the moment, Broke ordered his gunners to cease firing and assembled a boarding party to capture the Chesapeake. His boatswain, William Stevens, leaned across to lash the ships together, only to fall back with his arm severed by a cutlass blow. But there was no stopping the British now, and they streamed across with Broke at their head.

Meanwhile, Lawrence had been shot and carried below, mortally wounded. His final exhortation – “Don’t give up the ship!” – would become a motto for the US Navy, but his words couldn’t be heeded. The battered Americans were left in no position to offer much resistance to the British boarders. Still, three sailors, possibly Royal Navy deserters who knew they faced execution if taken alive, made a desperate attempt to kill Broke. He parried a pike thrust and slew one of his assailants before another hit him with a musket and a third sliced open his skull with a cutlass before they were killed.

What happened to the Chesapeake?

The Royal Navy repaired the captured ship and briefly took her into service but, in July 1819, the Chesapeake was broken up in Portsmouth and her timbers sold off for building material. Many were used for the interior of a new watermill at Wickham, Hampshire, where they can still be seen today. Some have carpenter’s marks while others bear the scars of battle.

Chesapeake Mill, as it’s known, finally stopped operating in the 1970s and now houses an antiques emporium and vegan café. The timbers that once reverberated to the sound of gunfire now echo to the chink of china and slurping of soy lattes.

In a final twist, when George Watt, Shannon’s first lieutenant, attempted to run up the British colours on the Chesapeake, he hoisted them below the stars and stripes in the confusion. Thinking the Americans had regained the ship, some of the Shannon’s gunners opened fire again. By the time the mistake was rectified, Watt lay dead and half a dozen sailors had been killed or wounded. Not that it changed anything. The Chesapeake’s upper decks were cleared and when the British shot down the companionway at the crewmen sheltering on the lower deck, resistance ceased altogether. It was 6.15pm. The battle had lasted less than 15 minutes.

With Broke badly injured and Watt dead, it fell to Lieutenant Provo Wallis to sail the Shannon and her prize back to a jubilant Halifax. When the news reached Britain, the nation went wild with joy. The strategic impact of the victory was, like the earlier American triumphs, negligible, but honour had been restored. Yet the price had been high, with 23 Shannon crewmen dead and 56 wounded.

American losses were even greater: 48 killed and 99 wounded, some mortally. Lawrence died and was buried with full military honours. Broke survived, although he never fully recovered or commanded another ship. He died, a rear admiral, in 1841.

Julian Humphrys is a historian and development officer at the Battlefields Trust

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This content first appeared in the March 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed