When Washington burned

American historians have long claimed victory for their country over Britain in the War of 1812. However, as the 200th anniversary comes around, Andrew Lambert argues that it was the British who had greater reason to rejoice

An American privateer is shown repelling a British attack during the War of 1812. Despite some notable successes, the British regarded the entire conflict as a sideshow and quickly forgot it. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

Late in the afternoon on 1 June 1813, some 20 miles outside Boston harbour, two fifth-rate frigates met in single combat. On board HMS Shannon Captain Philip Broke led a well-drilled veteran crew. He had been preparing them for this moment for seven long years, anxiously seeking a suitable occasion to secure honour and glory. His opponent, Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, had earned his promotion in battle only months before.

While Lawrence’s crew was significantly larger than Broke’s, he had only been in command for a few weeks. Lawrence had orders to destroy the troopships and transports supplying the British army in Canada. The previous day Broke had sent a written challenge to Boston, offering Lawrence the chance of glory in equal combat, and implying a stain on his honour if he refused. Lawrence never received the challenge; he needed no prompting.

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