Following a challenge issued by British Captain Philip Broke, the USS Chesapeake, under Captain James Lawrence, met the HMS Shannon in a single-battle off Boston on June 1, 1813. After a brief-but-savage gunnery exchange, the crew of the Shannon boarded and captured the Chesapeake, with much loss of life.
This casualty list was compiled by the Chesapeake’s purser, Thomas Chew, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, and clearly reflects the bloody nature of the engagement. The names and ranks of the seamen who were killed are given first, followed by the twelve marines who lost their lives. The wounded occupy the following four columns. When first compiled the document listed the names and ranks of 48 killed and 98 wounded, including Captain Lawrence, numerous other officers and the ship’s chaplain Samuel Simmons. The toll grew worse as the captured vessel made its way to the British base at Halifax, with “D.D.” notes in red or black ink indicating that fourteen of the wounded succumbed, including Lawrence, who died on June 4.
That the document was created on June 1, 1813 can be established by the inclusion of Peter Adams, who was wounded in the battle and died later that same day: He is listed as “Wounded”, with an emendation in red ink (“D.D.”) noting his death.
It is interesting to compare the information on the present document with the exaggerated American death tally contained in the official account of the battle sent out by Halifax station chief Thomas Bladen Capel (who was permitted to sign it under the name of the ailing Captain Broke of the Shannon). The latter document, dated June 6, 1813, is highly laudatory of the British sailors, describing them as “gallant bands … driving every thing before them with irresistible fury.” The Americans are described as putting up a “desperate, but Disorderly resistance,” finally resulting in a “loss of the Enemy [of] about Seventy killed, and One hundred Wounded.” Indeed, the bloody hand-to-hand combat yielded a total of 228 men casualties from both sides, though badly lopsided in the Shannon’s favor, and was the bloodiest frigate action of the War of 1812.
The USS Chesapeake
The Chesapeake was a 38-gun, three-masted frigate, one of six such vessels commissioned by the Naval Act of 1794, and the only one not named by George Washington. She performed well in the Quasi-War with France and middlingly in the First Barbary War, but by 1807 her fortunes began to turn. Encountering the HMS Leopard just off the coast of Virginia, Captain Barron of the Chesapeake refused to allow the British to search his ship for deserters from the Royal Navy. The Leopard responded with force, and the unprepared Chesapeake surrendered without a fight. Several American soldiers died in the engagement, and public outrage against Britain was swift and fervent. While President Jefferson avoided a war in the short term, the Chesapeake–Leopard Incident led directly to the passage of the Embargo Act of 1807 and, through it, the War of 1812.
Earlier in the War of 1812, the Chesapeake found some success by capturing six British trading ships around South America and the West Indies. She returned to Boston in April 1813 for refitting, and on May 20 command was assumed by Captain James Lawrence. On June 1, Lawrence left Boston to challenge the HMS Shannon, then stationed near Boston Light. The Shannon was commanded by Philip B. V. Broke, justly remembered today for being a gunnery fanatic: He had introduced a number of innovations to the Shannon’s guns that greatly improved their aiming, even in the heat of battle, and had drilled their crews to an extremely high standard of efficiency.
The two frigates met in battle at 5pm on June 1, some 20 miles east of Boston Light. The better-trained and more experienced British gunners dealt had much the better of the initial exchanges, and after just a few broadsides the Chesapeake lost her ability to maneuver and caught on a fluke of one of the Shannon’s anchors. The Shannon’s boatswain lashed the two ships together, after which Broke ordered a boarding action. It was around this time that Lawrence was mortally wounded and taken below. Although Broke, too, was wounded in the assault, the British quickly overwhelmed the panicked and badly-depleted American crew.
Coming as it did after a series of humiliating losses in ship-to-ship actions against the American Navy, the Shannon’s victory was a tonic to the British Navy and British morale. The Chesapeake was taken in by the British Royal Navy and operated around Halifax as the HMS Chesapeake for the rest of the war. She remained in British hands, with her flag on display in London, until she was broken down and sold for scrap in 1819. Some of the timbers of the Chesapeake were repurposed as a flour mill built in Wickham, England in 1820, and that structure remains intact to this day.
The battle became immortalized in the American mind thanks in part to the attribution to Lawrence—possibly apocryphal—of a final order, Don’t give up the ship!”, before he was taken below, mortally wounded. Thus was another defeat for the Chesapeake transformed into a moral victory and a parable of American naval heroism. It was fixed in the public’s imagination by Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s “Don’t give up the ship” flag flown on the brig USS Lawrence during his decisive victory in the Battle of Lake Erie later in 1813.
Thomas J. Chew
The document offered here, though not signed, is written in the hand of Thomas J. Chew, purser aboard the Chesapeake and formerly a member of the crew of the USS Constitution. Chew was a native of New London who began his naval career at the outbreak of the Quasi-War. He joined the Constitution‘s crew in June 1812 and received a Congressional Silver Medal for his role in that ship’s victory over the Guerriere, and shortly afterward was transferred to the Chesapeake. Chew was known for his rather expensive tastes in fashion and luxury items, and his corset (stays) and other personal items are now held at the USS Constitution Museum in Charlestown, Massachusetts.
A remarkable manuscript from one of the most famous battles in the history of the U.S. Navy, with powerful immediacy to the event itself.
Dietrich American Foundation, acquired in the 1960s.