An extremely rare War of 1812-era manuscript signal book from the USS Chesapeake, captured when the Chesapeake was taken by the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813.
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 signal book, compiled by an unknown member of the Chesapeake’s crew, was then scooped up as a prize by an unknown member of the Shannon’s. It was acquired and retained by Captain Thomas Bladen Capel (1776-1853), the senior port officer at Halifax, then commanding the 74-gun La Hogue. This acquisition is recorded by Capel on the front of the booklet:
“Taken in the Chesapeake, Tho. Bladen Capel, Capt.”
Capel commanded a British squadron operating in New England, where the Chesapeake was captured, and based at Halifax, where she was brought afterward. Though not an eyewitness to the action between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, Capel interviewed the Shannon’s officers and actually penned the official account of the naval battle on June 6, as Captain Philip B. V. Broke of the Shannon was incapacitated by his injuries. Capel was a close personal friend of Admiral Nelson and distinguished himself in the French Revolutionary War, the Napoleonic Wars, and in the War of 1812.
The signal book records the daily and special signals to be used on board the American vessel and primarily consists of practical instructions on the use of signals as well as tables recording the given signals for each day of the year, including both the number of the signal and the number of the answer. Horizontally written text on some pages provides detailed instructions on how certain signals should be sent, including a series of “special signals” involving the use of canvas balls painted black. Another note instructs when to use a red pendant as a signal, and the use of lanterns as signals at night. On the inner front wrapper are written the brief directions: “Hail – ‘Ohio’ / Answer ‘Ohio.’”
Such manuscript signal books used aboard early American ships are incredibly rare in the market. I find no sale records of early American signal books from the War of 1812, let alone such a superlative example as offered here.
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.
An amazing survival from one of the most famous battles in the history of the U.S. Navy, with powerful immediacy to the event itself.
Provenance and reference
Dietrich American Foundation, acquired in the 1960s. Philip B. V. Broke [i.e. Thomas Bladen Capel] to John Borlase Warren, June 6, 1813 [in:] The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence (2013), pp. 256-259.