A desperate struggle is exactly what was taking place when Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake made those words his final order – 200 years ago today.
The United States had been at war with Britain for nearly a year when Lawrence sailed his frigate out of Boston. Waiting for him outside the harbor was HMS Shannon, whose Captain was disobeying orders by preparing to engage an American ship one on one.
Britain’s navy, the most powerful military force of its time, had not fared well in the first year of the War of 1812. The frigate Constitution had sunk HMS Guerriere that August, earning the nickname “Old Ironsides,” in the process. Later that year, Constitution sank HMS Java, while the frigate United States captured HMS Macedonian. Captain Lawrence himself, in command of the brig Hornet, sank HMS Peacock, earning promotion to the much larger Chesapeake.
The Admiralty’s response was to use overwhelming force. More than 100 British vessels were stationed off the coast, assigned to blockade American ports, and no ship was allowed to engage an American vessel in single-ship combat.
Shannon’s Captain, Philip Broke, believing his gunners the best trained in the Royal Navy, was about to ignore the prohibition on single-ship combat.
As Chesapeake approached, she had the chance to rake the enemy’s stern with a broadside, but instead pulled alongside for the kind of cannon exchange at which the Americans had proven so adept. It was a mistake. Cannon fire erupted from both ships. Chesapeake soon lost her steering, the ships locked together, and Captain Lawrence was shot by an enemy marine firing from the rigging above. As he was carried below decks, mortally wounded, Lawrence issued the brave command – “Don’t give up the ship!” But it was too late. A British boarding party was already on deck, and the Chesapeake’s only remaining officer was forced to surrender the vessel.
Lawrence died of his wounds three days later, as his ship was being towed to Halifax.
It might have ended there, in the dank hold of a vanquished warship being towed to captivity. With it, a wonderful part of our language might have been lost to history – a small incident in an inconclusive war. But news of Lawrence’s final command reached another naval officer, Oliver Hazard Perry, who was building a fleet to challenge the British force controlling Lake Erie.
Perry named his flagship the Lawrence, in honor of his dead friend. He also had a special battle pennant sewn by local seamstresses, with those five famous words emblazoned on it.
By September, Perry had assembled a small fleet of nine ships, ready to challenge a British fleet of roughly equal strength, for command of Lake Erie. With it came control of the vast interior of the North American continent.
Commander Robert Heriot Barclay had fought with Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, and lost an arm in action four years later. Battle-hardened, he now commanded the British force on Lake Erie.
When the two fleets met on September 10, things did not begin well for the Americans. The two largest British ships engaged the Lawrence directly, pounding her with long-range cannon fire, while Perry’s backup ship, the Niagara, lagged out of range.
After two hours, the Lawrence could no longer fight. Every cannon on her engaged side had been knocked out of commission and more than 80 percent of her crew killed or wounded.
In desperation, Perry ordered a boat lowered, so he could be rowed over to Niagara and resume the fight. He left the American flag flying – to do otherwise would signal surrender. But he had his special battle pennant lowered, to take with him.
The British knew who the nine men in the rowboat were, and their purpose. A rain of deadly cannon fire fell around them as they rowed across half a mile of open water, but none struck its mark.
Reaching Niagara, Perry assumed command. Raising that battle flag on his new ship, he sailed right into the middle of the British line, where he could fire broadsides from both sides. Within half an hour, the British ships could no longer fight, and were forced to strike their flags in surrender.
As his sailors began repairing their ships and tending the wounded of both sides, Perry jotted a report to General William Henry Harrison, back on land. “Dear General,” it read- “We have met the enemy, and he is ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry.”
A fleet of nine American ships had captured a fleet of six British ships, on a freshwater lake about a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. But no British fleet, no matter the size, had ever been surrendered to the enemy before.
The British position on Lake Erie was now untenable. General Harrison moved to recapture Detroit. It was abandoned by the British, who began a retreat along with their Indian allies, led by Tecumseh. On October 5, Tecumseh convinced the fleeing British forces to make a stand near Moraviantown. He died there, possibly at the hands of Richard Johnson, a future Vice President. With him went the dream of a united Indian nation.
James Lawrence was 31 when he died. He is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. He left much in his passing.
Perry’s battle flag is on exhibit at the Naval Academy Museum, and a replica displayed in the Academy’s Memorial Hall. But it continues to inspire far more than naval cadets.
The next time you hear someone exclaim “Don’t give up the ship,” consider what it meant 200 years ago.
Illustration: The Chesapeake.