Struggle for Sea Power - M. B. Synge

The Shannon and the Chesapeake

"Old England's sons are English yet, old England's hearts are strong,

And still she wears her coronet aflame with sword and song.

As in their pride our fathers died, if need be, so die we;

So wield we still, gainsay who will, the sceptre of the sea."


Napoleon had closed all European ports against British commerce. But as the fleet of Great Britain was supreme upon the seas, she made answer that henceforth no colonial goods should be obtainable in France except through British ships. The United States of America, as a new nation, taking neither the side of England, nor, of France in their terrific struggle, resented this action, for it stopped their direct trading with France. Indeed it paralysed all trade, and in June 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain.

It was a bold challenge. England indeed had her hands full with Napoleon in Europe; but even now her triumph was beginning. Napoleon was already on his fatal march to Moscow; Wellington had seized the two frontier fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz. But England had the greatest navy in the world—a thousand sail; and the United States had the smallest—about twenty ships. The young Republic was full of confidence in their newly found strength; they had lost the guiding hand of Washington, who always upheld peace with the mother country.

It was somewhat natural to find that England, rich in her traditions of Nelson and Trafalgar, thought but little of this challenge, until one day the startling news reached her, that five of her ships of war had been captured by the United States. Something must be done at once, to wipe out this unlooked-for disgrace, that had fallen on the British flag.

One strong unassuming English sailor now took the matter into his own hands. Captain Broke, of H.M.S. Shannon, had spent the winter off Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he heard of the declaration of war between the two countries. He at once began to drill his gunners more severely than ever, until he made every one of them a good shot. The discipline on board his ship was splendid. His crew had worked with him for the last seven years; they had shared hardships and dangers together; and there was complete understanding between master and man. All were alike burning with desire to meet the ships of the United States. The Shannon herself was not a large ship. She carried thirty-eight guns and 284 men. She bore the marks of her service in the icy regions of the north. "Her sides were rusty, her sails were weather-soiled; a solitary flag flew from her mizzen-peak, and even its blue had become bleached by sun and rain and wind to a dingy grey."

In May 1813 the Shannon lay off Boston. Captain Broke determined to end the naval dispute by a single challenge of ship to ship. As antagonist he chose the Chesapeake, a ship larger than the Shannon, and carrying more men. On Tuesday, June 1, he despatched a letter to Captain Lawrence of the Chesapeake, which had been lying for months past in Boston Harbour.

"As the Chesapeake appears now ready for sea," ran the challenge, "I request that you will do me the favour to meet the Shannon with her, ship to ship, to try the fortune of our respective flags. Choose your terms and place, and let us meet."

Captain Lawrence was a formidable foe. He had already captured the Peacock, an English battleship, and was known to be one of the most gallant of men.

Having sent the challenge, Captain Broke now went up to the mast-head of the Shannon and watched anxiously for any movement on the part of the hostile ship. A faint breeze rippled over the waters of the Boston Harbour, while the summer sun lit up the town beyond. Mid-day came, and Broke descended to the deck.

"She will surely be out to-day or to-morrow," he said, pointing over the gleaming waters. The hours passed on. Daylight was beginning to wane, when a cry rang out through the ship, "She is coming!"

It was true. Sail after sail spread forth, flag after flag unfurled, and with all speed the Chesapeake was seen bearing down on her expectant foe, attended by barges and pleasure-boats.

To the men of Boston, it seemed that Lawrence sailed forth to certain victory. They crowded house-tops and hills to see his success; they prepared a banquet to celebrate his triumphant return.

Slowly and in grim silence the Shannon and Chesapeake drew near. On board the Shannon, Broke was addressing his men.

[Illustration] from Struggle for Sea Power by M. B. Synge


"Shannons!" he cried, "the Americans have lately triumphed over the British flag; they have said that England had forgotten how to fight. You will let them see to-day, there are Englishmen in the Shannon who still know how to fight. Don't cheer. Go quietly to your posts. I know you will all do your duty."

As the Chesapeake moved on, a blaze of fluttering colours, one sailor looked sadly at the one faded blue flag above him.

"Mayn't we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?" he asked.

"No," answered the Captain; "we have always been an unassuming ship."

The fight soon began. Never was there a braver, shorter, or more deadly conflict. On both sides the fire was tremendous, but the well-trained British gunners on the Shannon fired with deadly aim; every shot told. The rigging of the Chesapeake was torn, her stern was beaten in, her decks were swept by fire. For six minutes the conflict raged. Lawrence had already fallen, mortally wounded. As the two ships ground together, Broke shouted above the din, "Follow me who can!" Then bounding on to the deck of the Chesapeake, over the bodies of dead and dying, the English sailors boarded the American ship, and thirteen minutes after the first shot had been fired, the British flag waved over the Chesapeake.

"Blow her up! blow her up!" cried the dying Lawrence.

But it was too late. The foe had yielded; resistance was over. Broke, now lying badly wounded, had won. He had restored confidence in his country's fleet, but at tremendous cost. 252 men from the two ships fell that day. It was characteristic of the Captain of the Shannon, that he should enter in his journal for that day only two words—"Took Chesapeake."

This ended the naval war, though fighting by land went on between the two countries till 1814, when peace was made, which has never been broken since.