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The real, shameful story behind ‘Don’t give up the ship!’

Behind the iconic American slogan, a military loss—and a PR win

Dan Zedek

200 years ago, on June 1, 1813, in the midst of a bloody sea battle between an American and a British frigate a few miles north of Boston, one of America’s most memorable wartime slogans was born. As the mortally wounded Captain James Lawrence of the US frigate Chesapeake lay dying in his cabin, his crew locked in hand-to-hand combat on the quarterdeck above, he is alleged to have uttered the memorable words: “Don’t give up the ship!”

His rallying cry, published a few weeks later in a Baltimore newspaper, became the unofficial motto of the US Navy for decades thereafter, long predating “Remember the Maine” or “Remember Pearl Harbor.” Just two months after the battle, a bright blue banner emblazoned with Lawrence’s words flew at the masthead of a namesake vessel, USS Lawrence. Its captain, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, won a decisive victory on Sept. 10 over British naval forces in the Battle of Lake Erie.

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Given the way it has echoed through the years, you might think Lawrence’s memorable plea marked a heroic moment in the history of American armed forces. It didn’t. Not only did Lawrence’s surviving crew give up the ship almost immediately after his exhortation, but historians and military analysts would later conclude that Lawrence had disobeyed orders to avoid combat in the first place, then committed a series of tactical blunders that all but guaranteed he and his ship would lose.

Rather than a heroic stand, what took place that day and after was one of the most spectacular—and fraudulent—public relations coups in American military history. It was carried out with the full support of the public. And to look back on what really happened, as it has been pieced together by historians since, is to appreciate how little has changed about one aspect of war: our need to transform even the most pointless losses into a noble, defiant message.

***

If television had existed, the battle between the Shannon and the Chesapeake would have been a prime-time event. The skirmish took place about a year into the War of 1812, which had broken out over several grievances with Britain, including onerous trade restrictions imposed by the British and the illegal boarding of American vessels in search of British deserters. Once war was declared, the British Royal Navy began hobbling American trade by blockading ports, including Boston, with warships based in Nova Scotia.

In late May 1813, Captain Philip Broke sailed the HMS Shannon, flagship of the blockading British squadron, into Massachusetts Bay alone, knowing the Americans had only one frigate ready for sea in Boston. On June 1, the Chesapeake rose to the bait.

Engraving: "Treacherous Attack on Captain Broke by Three of the Chesapeake's Men."

Unlike most sea battles, which take place far from land, the whole encounter seemed made for public consumption. Spectators lined the rooftops in Boston and along the North Shore, and commanders of both ships repeatedly had to warn a boisterous spectator fleet of yachts and small boats to stay clear.

The first shot was fired at 6 p.m., the last at 6:11. The colors were struck at 6:15. The roar of cannon fire, the stabbing flames from the cannons’ mouths, and the smoke of battle could be heard and seen all along the coast.

Nearly every American observing the preparation for battle was confident the Americans would win. American ships had astonished the world in recent months by repeatedly defeating supposedly superior British naval forces, starting when the US frigate Constitution defeated the HMS Guerrière.

In Boston, plans were laid for a banquet to celebrate the anticipated victory of the Chesapeake over the Shannon, including places at the table for the defeated British officers. But none of the guests ever arrived.

It should have been clear at the outset that Lawrence was terribly outmatched. He had taken command of the Chesapeake only two weeks before, and that reluctantly; he had wanted and felt he deserved command of the famous Constitution, then in drydock for repairs, and had no experience working with the young officers, who were new to the ship. Half his crew was also new, untrained in working together, and all were angry that they had not been paid for weeks. Some reports asserted that many in the crew were drunk on June 1.

Broke, by contrast, had had command of the Shannon for more than seven years. His crew knew him so well that they could work the ship with scarcely a command being uttered. Their gunnery, enhanced by special sights designed by Broke himself, was among the best in the fleet.

So, despite the Americans’ confidence, the stage was set for their crushing defeat. Broke provided it, but he got plenty of help from the American captain. Broke brought the Shannon within a few miles of Boston, and then hove to, waiting for the Chesapeake to come out. Lawrence came down upon the near-stationary Shannon from upwind, and, in what can only be interpreted as an act of bravado, swung the Chesapeake around to lie parallel to the Shannon, giving both ships an opportunity to exchange lethal broadsides.

The carnage was enormous. In less than 15 minutes, 40 members of the Chesapeake’s crew were killed and 96 wounded, while the Shannon had 34 killed and 56 wounded.

The Chesapeake’s headsail sheets and wheel were quickly shot away and she drifted helplessly downwind toward the Shannon, where sharpshooters in the Shannon’s fighting tops could rain down fire on the American frigate’s deck. A shot felled Captain Lawrence, who was taken below, where he uttered the famous words, according to the doctor who was attending him.

As the ships collided, Broke seized the opportunity to lead a boarding party onto the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck. In the hand-to-hand fighting that followed, Broke, too, was badly wounded by a saber cut to his skull. But the Americans’ colors were soon hauled down, the Royal ensign raised above them, and the battle was over.

***

By any normal measure, Lawrence should have been held responsible for a costly and unnecessary defeat. He had had strict orders to avoid contact with the enemy and instead to slip through their blockade in order to harass enemy merchant ships in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. These he totally disobeyed, losing a frigate and his life in the process.

His famous exhortation, too, was breached immediately. With no American officers on deck to formally surrender, the British officers now in command of the Chesapeake’s quarterdeck simply declared the fighting over, raised the British colors over the American flag, and imprisoned the surviving American crewmen below decks. The two ships sailed off in tandem to the British naval headquarters in Halifax, Nova Scotia, leaving the American spectators dumbfounded.

No American heroes emerged from the engagement. The first and second lieutenants were wounded, the fourth lieutenant killed. Third Lieutenant William Cox was never able to regain the deck after taking Lawrence below, and was therefore made the scapegoat, convicted of leaving his place of duty, and dismissed from the Navy in disgrace. (His family and descendants tried for years to clear his name. Finally, in 1952, President Truman pardoned Cox and posthumously restored him to his former rank.)

Lawrence died en route to Halifax. Having committed a succession of bad decisions that all but guaranteed the loss of his ship and many of her crew, he should have been disgraced. Instead, he was lionized: given a funeral in Canada with full military honors, buried there, then disinterred and brought back to Boston for another funeral, reburied in Salem, dug up once more, and finally buried for good at Trinity Church in New York.

Though the true disgrace was Lawrence’s, the American public would not allow it. They had wanted a victory on June 1, and if they could not have a victory, at least they wanted a hero—and a story that helped them find nobility in defeat. The details of the war might seem distant, but the impulse to create heroes in the wake of pointless loss is as familiar as Custer’s Last Stand or the saga of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. Two centuries ago, we were already seeing the picture we wanted—and, in that spirit, Lawrence’s failures were forgotten and his memory reshaped to position him as the hero he always wanted to be.

Tom Halsted, a Gloucester writer and sailor, is the great-great-grandson of James Curtis, a midshipman who, as a 15-year-old, was Lawrence’s aide-de-camp on the Chesapeake.
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