Chesapeake and the Shannon (I), The [Laws J20]
DESCRIPTION: The U.S.S. Chesapeake sails out of Boston Harbor, confident of victory, to engage H.M.S. Shannon. The well-trained British crew of Captain Broke quickly defeats the American ship and takes it as a prize
EARLIEST DATE: 1928 (Mackenzie)
KEYWORDS: war navy ship political battle
June 1, 1813 - Battle between the Chesapeake and the Shannon
FOUND IN: Canada(Mar) Britain
REFERENCES (14 citations):
Laws J20, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon I"
Logan, pp. 69-72, "Chesapeake and Shannon" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 293, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke/Johnston, pp. 24-25, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 68-70, "The 'Chesapeake' and the 'Shannon'" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mackenzie 79, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Harlow, pp. 187-188, "Shannon and Chesapeake" (1 text, 1 tune)
Finger, pp. 159-160, "'Shannon' and 'Chesapeake'" (1 text, 1 tune)
Palmer-Sea 85, "Shannon and Chesapeake" (1 text, 1 tune)
Shay-SeaSongs, p. 165-166, "The Shannon and the Chesapeake" (1 text, 1 tune)
Scott-BoA, pp. 111-112, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 96-97, "The Chesapeake and the Shannon" (1 text)
DT 398, CHESSHAN*
ADDITIONAL: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 311, "Shannon and Chesapeake" (1 text)
ST LJ20 (Full)
Bodleian, 2806 c.17(383), "Shanon & Chesapeak" ("The Chesapeake, quite bold")[title not entirely legible], unknown, n.d.
cf. "The Constitution and the Guerriere" [Laws A6] (historical setting)
cf. "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (II), (III), (IV), (V)" (plot)
NOTES [1028 words]: The victory of the Constitution over the Guerriere (for background, see "The Constitution and the Guerriere," Laws A6) significantly improved the morale of the American navy. Other victories followed, giving the Americans still more confidence.
One of these confidence-building victories was the fateful meeting between U.S.S. Hornet and H.M.S. Peacock, for which see "The Hornet and the Peacock." The Hornet was commanded by a bold up-and-comer by the name of James Lawrence. That earned Lawrence, who was still only 31 in 1813, command of the Chesapeake, one of only half a dozen frigates in hte U. S. Navy at the time (Borneman, p. 113).
Sadly, confidence, in Lawrence at least, quickly turned into overconfidence. In the late spring of 1813, a "single combat" was arranged between Lawrence's U.S.S. Chesapeake and Captain Philip-Bowes-Vere Broke's H.M.S. Shannon. (The challenge was supposedly written, though it's said that Lawrence did not receive the actual written challenge; Borneman, p. 115; Hickey, p. 154; Pratt, p. 83.)
The American decision was not wise. Chesapeake was already a hard-luck ship; in 1807, H. M. S. Leopard had demanded the right to search her for deserters (the right to reclaim deserters was one of the key issues of the War of 1812); being refused, Leopard fired into the American ship -- which was manned by an inexperienced and largely incompetent crew -- and had their way. (Borneman, pp. 22-24; Paine, pp. 108-109. Berton, pp. 35-36, describes the men's theft of property when they deserted and thinks that the whole thing started because the British ship commander, although he didn't want an incident, had said too much to back down. Hickey, p. 17, notes the irony that the British would disclaim the Leopard's action and returned three impressed sailors, though Berton, p. 37, adds that one was hanged at Halifax.) This led to increased tension between Britain and the U. S., but not open war -- yet.
By 1812, Chesapeake was of course seaworthy again, but her crew was hastily-assembled (many veteran sailors had refused to re-enlist due to arguments over prize money; Hickey, p. 155), and Lawrence didn't know them; only one officer had served aboard her for any length of time (Borneman, p. 115). Many of the crew weren't even English-speakers; Pratt, p. 88, reports that about three dozen were Portugese. It should have been obvious that Chesapeake's sailors were no match for an experienced British crew. The ship had had some success early in the war taking small British prizes, but that was with Samuel Evans in command.
Captain Broke, by contrast, had commanded the Shannon since 1806, and he had turned his ship and crew into one of the best in the British fleet -- and, unlike some officers, he insisted on target practice, so his gunners were unusually good shots (Pratt, p. 83). He in fact worked to improve fire control methods (inventing some sort of device to make this easier), and -- unlike most officers below the rank of admiral -- also devoted considerable attention to naval tactics (Rodger, p. 568).
The battle took place on June 1, 1813. Apparently the Chesapeake failed to clear for action properly (Rodger, p. 568), and Lawrence failed to take his one chance to cross the T on Shannon's stern, and that effectively ended the battle. Within minutes Lawrence had been mortally wounded (his last words were, "Don't give up the ship! Fight her till she sinks," but they did little good, the more so since the bugler refused to relay them; (Borneman, p. 117) and the British were boarding the Chesapeake.
The American ship's executive officer was also wounded, but survived, and he needed a scapegoat, so he filed charges blaming the defeat on the probationary officer William S. Cox, who had moved Lawrence out of the line of fire and then found himself commanding the ship after all the other officers were disabled -- though there really wasn't much Cox could have done by then. Cox was dishonorably discharged, dying 62 years later without his case being re-examined; he finally was exonerated by act of congress in 1953 (Mahon, pp. 124-125). As far as I know, no one has had the guts to formally blame Lawrence for his folly.
It was a truly brutal defeat for the Americans: Not only did they lose the ship and Captain Lawrence, but also the first lieutenant and fourth lieutenants mortally wounded, as was the marine commander, and the second and third lieutenants wounded. Total losses were 47 killed, 14 mortally wounded, and 85 with lesser wounds. The Shannon had 24 killed and 59 wounded, some mortally; Captain Broke, who had himself led the boarding parties, was too wounded to return to sea. The whole battle had taken 15 minutes. (Hickey, p. 155; Henderson, pp. 154-160, although this account is very pro-British and ignores the rather sorry state of the Chesapeake).
It is odd to note that neither Chesaapeake nor Shannon was badly damaged (they came together so quickly that both ships still had all their masts). The British had raked Chesapeake repeatedly (Rodger, p. 568), but while this caused many casualties, it did little structural damage. The British probably could have taken Chesapeake into the Royal Navy -- and, given the general quality of American ships, might have been well-advised to do so. But the Napoleonic Wars were winding down, so she was sent to England and broken up (Borneman, p. 118); according to Hickey, p. 155, her timber eventually was used to build a flour mill.
The victory meant that the British, who had been stung by the popular broadside "The Constitution and the Guerriere," finally had something to celebrate out of the naval war. The promptly produced this piece, reported by Logan to be sung to the tune of "Yankee Doodle" but usually printed with the tune "Landlady of France"or "Pretty Peggy of Derby, O."
To tell this song from the other "Chesapeake" ballads, consider this stanza:
The Chesapeake so bold out of Boston we've been told
Came to take the British frigate neat and handy, O.
All the people of the port they came out to see the sport,
And the bands were playing Yankee Doodle Dandy, O. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.4
- Berton: Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada [Volume I], 1812-1813, Atlantic-Little Brown, 1980
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Henderson: James Henderson, The Frigates, 1970 (I use the 1998 Wordsworth paperback edition)
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- Mahon: John K. Mahon, The War of 1812, Da Capo, 1972
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
- Rodger: N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, Norton, 2004
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.