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The
ship had returned from her last cruise April 9, and had been so far
prepared for sea by her former commander that, as has been seen, her
sailing orders were issued May 6. It would appear from the statement
of the British naval historian James,[133] based upon a paper captured
in the ship, that the enlistments of her crew expired in April.
Although there were many reshipments, and a nucleus of naval seamen,
there was a large infusion of new and untrained men, amounting to a
reconstitution of the ship's company. More important still was the
fact that both the captain and first lieutenant were just appointed;
her former first lying fatally ill at the time she sailed. The third
and fourth lieutenants were also strange to her, and in a manner to
their positions; being in fact midshipmen, to whom acting appointments
as lieutenants were issued at Lawrence's request, by Commodore
Bainbridge of the navy yard, on May 27, five days before the action.
The third took charge of his division for the first time the day of
the battle, and the men were personally unknown to him. The first
lieutenant himself was extremely young.

The bearing of these facts is not to excuse the defeat, but to enforce
the lesson that a grave military enterprise is not to be hazarded on a
side issue, or on a point of pride, without adequate preparation. The
"Chesapeake" was ordered to a service of very particular importance at
the moment--May, 1813--when the Canada campaign was about to open. She
was to act against the communications of the enemy; and while it is
upon the whole more expedient, for the _morale_ of a service, that
battle with an equal should not be declined, quite as necessarily
action should not be sought when it will materially interfere with the
discharge of a duty intrinsically of greater consequence. The capture
of a single enemy's frigate is not to be confounded with, or inflated
to, that destruction of an enemy's organized force which is the prime
object of all military effort. Indeed, the very purpose to which the
"Chesapeake" was designated was to cripple the organized force of the
British, either the army in Canada, or the navy on the lakes. The
chance of a disabling blow by unexpected action in the St. Lawrence
much exceeded any gain to be anticipated, even by a victorious ship
duel, which would not improbably entail return to port to refit; while
officers new to their duties, and unknown to their men, detracted
greatly from the chances of success, should momentary disaster or
confusion occur.

The blockade of Boston Harbor at this moment was conducted by Captain
Philip Vere Broke of the "Shannon", a 38-gun frigate, which he had
then commanded for seven years. His was one of those cases where
singular merit as an officer, and an attention to duty altogether
exceptional, had not yet obtained opportunity for distinction. It
would probably be safe to say that no more thoroughly efficient ship
of her class had been seen in the British navy during the twenty
years' war with France, then drawing towards its close; but after
Trafalgar Napoleon's policy, while steadily directed towards
increasing the number of his ships, had more and more tended to
husbanding them against a future occasion, which in the end never
came. The result was a great diminution in naval combats. Hence, the
outbreak of the American war, followed by three frigate actions in
rapid succession, opened out a new prospect, which was none the less
stimulative because of the British reverses suffered. Captain Broke
was justly confident in his own leadership and in the efficiency of a
ship's company, which, whatever individual changes it may have
undergone, had retained its identity of organization through so many
years of his personal and energetic supervision. He now reasonably
hoped to demonstrate what could be done by officers and men so
carefully trained. Captain Pechell of the "Santo Domingo," the
flagship on the American station, wrote: "The 'Shannon's' men were
better trained, and understood gunnery better, than any men I ever
saw;" nevertheless, he added, "In the action with the 'Chesapeake' the
guns were all laid by Captain Broke's directions, consequently the
fire was all thrown in one horizontal line, not a shot going over the
'Chesapeake.'"[134]

The escape of the "President" and "Congress" early in May, while the
"Shannon" and her consort, the "Tenedos," were temporarily off shore
in consequence of easterly weather, put Broke still more upon his
mettle; and, fearing a similar mishap with the "Chesapeake," he sent
Lawrence a challenge.[135] It has been said, by both Americans and
English, that this letter was a model of courtesy. Undoubtedly it was
in all respects such as a gentleman might write; but the courtesy was
that of the French duellist, nervously anxious lest he should misplace
an accent in the name of the man whom he intended to force into fight,
and to kill. It was provocative to the last degree, which, for the end
in view, it was probably meant to be. In it Broke showed himself as
adroit with his pen--the adroitness of Canning--as he was to prove
himself in battle. Not to speak of other points of irritation, the
underlining of the words, "even combat," involved an imputation, none
the less stinging because founded in truth, upon the previous frigate
actions, and upon Lawrence's own capture of the "Peacock." In guns,
the "Chesapeake" and "Shannon" were practically of equal force; but in
the engagement the American frigate carried fifty more men than her
adversary. To an invitation couched as was Broke's Lawrence was doubly
vulnerable, for only six months had elapsed since he himself had sent
a challenge to the "Bonne Citoyenne." With his temperament he could
scarcely have resisted the innuendo, had he received the letter; but
this he did not. It passed him on the way out and was delivered to
Bainbridge, by whom it was forwarded to the Navy Department.

[Illustration: CAPTAIN PHILIP BOWES VERE BROKE.
_From the mezzotint by Charles Turner after the painting by
Samuel Lane in the possession of Lady Saumarez._]

Although Broke's letter did not reach him, Captain Lawrence made no
attempt to get to sea without engagement. The "Shannon's" running
close to Boston Light, showing her colors, and heaving-to in defiance,
served the purpose of a challenge. Cooper, who was in full touch with
the naval tradition of the time, has transmitted that Lawrence went
into the action with great reluctance. This could have proceeded only
from consciousness of defective organization, for the heroic temper of
the man was notorious, and there is no hint of that mysterious
presentiment so frequent in the annals of military services. The wind
being fair from the westward, the "Chesapeake," which had unmoored at
8 A.M., lifted her last anchor at noon, June 1, and made sail. The
"Shannon," seeing at hand the combat she had provoked, stood out to
sea until on the line between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, where she hove-to
on the starboard tack, heading to the southeast. The "Chesapeake"
followed under all sail until 5 P.M., when she took in her light
canvas, sending the loftier--royal--yards on deck; and at 5.30 hauled
up her courses, thus reducing herself to the fighting trim already
assumed by her adversary. The "Shannon," which had been lying stopped
for a long time, at this same moment filled her sails, to regain
headway with which to manoeuvre, in case her opponent's action should
require it; but, after gathering speed sufficient for this purpose,
the British captain again slowed his ship, by so bracing the
maintopsail that it was kept shaking in the wind. Its effect being
thus lost, though readily recoverable, her forward movement depended
upon the sails of the fore and mizzen masts (1). In this attitude, and
steering southeast by the wind, she awaited her antagonist, who was
running for her weather--starboard--quarter, and whose approach, thus
seconded, became now very rapid. Broke made no further change in the
ship's direction, leaving the choice of windward or leeward side to
Lawrence, who took the former, discarding all tactical advantages, and
preferring a simple artillery duel between the vessels.

Just before she closed, the "Chesapeake" rounded-to, taking a parallel
course, and backing the maintopsail (1) to reduce her speed to that of
the enemy. Captain Lawrence in his eagerness had made the serious
error of coming up under too great headway. At 5.50, as her bows
doubled on the quarter of the "Shannon" (1), at the distance of fifty
yards, the British ship opened fire, beginning with the after gun, and
continuing thence forward, as each in succession bore upon the
advancing American frigate. The latter replied after the second
British discharge, and the combat at once became furious. The previous
history of the two vessels makes it probable that the British gunnery
was the better; but it is impossible, seeing the course the action
finally took, so far to disentangle the effects of the fire while they
were on equal terms of position, from the totals afterwards
ascertained, as to say where the advantage, if any, lay during those
few minutes. The testimony of the "Chesapeake's" second lieutenant,
that his division--the forward one on the gun deck--fired three rounds
before their guns ceased to bear, agrees with Broke's report that two
or three broadsides were exchanged; and the time needed by
well-drilled men to do this is well within, yet accords fairly with,
James' statement, that from the first gun to the second stage in the
action six minutes elapsed. During the first of this period the
"Chesapeake" kept moving parallel at fifty yards distance, but gaining
continually, threatening thus to pass wholly ahead, so that her guns
would bear no longer. To prevent this Lawrence luffed closer to the
wind to shake her sails, but in vain; the movement increased her
distance, but she still ranged ahead, so that she finally reached much
further than abreast of the enemy. To use the nautical expression, she
was on the "Shannon's" weather bow (2). While this was happening her
sailing master was killed and Lawrence wounded; these being the two
officers chiefly concerned in the handling of the ship.

[Illustration: Diagram of the Chesapeake vs.



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