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During only six of these,
accepting James' times, was she on equal gunnery terms. During four
tenths--nearly one half--of the gunnery contest she was at a great
disadvantage. The necessity of manoeuvring, which Lawrence tried to
avoid, was forced upon him; and the ship's company, or her
circumstances, proved unequal to meeting it. Nevertheless, though
little more than half the time on equal terms of position with her
opponent, half her own loss was inflicted upon him. How great her
subsequent disadvantage is best stated in the words of James, whom no
one will accuse of making points in favor of Americans. "At 5.56,
having had her jib-sheet and foretopsail tie shot away, and her helm,
probably from the death of the men stationed at it, being at the
moment unattended to, the 'Chesapeake' came so sharp to the wind as
completely to deaden her way." How extreme this deviation from her
course is shown by the impression made on Broke. "As the manoeuvres of
the 'Chesapeake' indicated an intention to haul away, Captain Broke
ordered the helm to be put a-lee, as the 'Shannon' had fallen off a
little." The "Chesapeake's" way being deadened, "the ship lay with
her stern and quarter exposed to her opponent's broadside. The shot
from the 'Shannon's' aftermost guns now took a diagonal direction
_along_[138] the decks of the 'Chesapeake,' beating in her stern
ports, and sweeping the men from their quarters. The shot from the
'Shannon's' foremost guns, at the same time, entering the
'Chesapeake's' ports from the mainmast aft, did considerable
execution." This describes a semi-raking fire, which lasted four
minutes, from 5.56 to 6 P.M., when the ships came together.

The manner of collision and the injuries received bear out the above
account. The quarter of the "Chesapeake" came against the side of the
"Shannon," the angle at the moment, as represented in James' diagram,
being such as to make it impossible that any of the "Chesapeake's"
guns, save one or two of the after ones, could then bear; and as she
was already paying off, they had been in worse position before. "She
was severely battered in the hull, on the larboard quarter
particularly; and several shot entered the stern windows.... Her three
lower masts were badly wounded, the main and mizzen especially. The
bowsprit received no injury." All these details show that the sum
total of the "Shannon's" fire was directed most effectively upon the
after part of the ship, in the manner described by James; and coupled
with the fact that the British first broadside, always reckoned the
most deadly, would naturally take effect chiefly on the fore part of
the "Chesapeake," as she advanced from the "Shannon's" stern to her
bow,[139] we are justified in the inference that the worst of her
loss was suffered after accident had taken her movements out of
Lawrence's instant control. Under these circumstances it may be
claimed for him that the artillery duel, to which he sought to confine
the battle, was not so entirely a desperate chance as has been

It may therefore be said that, having resolved upon a risk which
cannot be justified at the bar of dispassionate professional judgment,
Captain Lawrence did not commit the further unpardonable error of not
maturely weighing and judiciously choosing his course. That the crew
was not organized and exercised at the guns, as far as his time and
opportunity permitted, is disproved by incidental mention in the
courts martial that followed, as well as by the execution done. Within
ten minutes at the utmost, within six of equal terms, the
"Chesapeake," an 18-pounder frigate, killed and wounded of the
"Shannon's" ship's company as many as the "Constitution" with her 24's
did of the "Guerrière's" in over twenty;[140] and the "Constitution"
not only was a much heavier ship than her opponent, but had been six
weeks almost continuously at sea. When her crew had been together four
months longer, the loss inflicted by her upon the "Java," in a contest
spread over two hours, did not greatly exceed in proportion that
suffered by the "Shannon"; and the circumstances of that engagement,
being largely manoeuvring, justified Lawrence's decision, under his
circumstances, to have none of it. His reliance upon the marksmanship
of his men is further vindicated by Broke's report that neither vessel
suffered much aloft. The American and best British tradition of firing
low was sustained by both ships. Finally, although the organization of
the "Chesapeake" was not matured sufficiently to hold the people
together, without leaders, after a tremendous punishment by the
enemy's battery, and in the face of well-trained and rapidly supported
boarders, it had so far progressed in cohesion that they did not
flinch from their guns through a severe raking fire. What further
shows this is that the boatswain of the "Shannon," lashing the ships
together in preparation for boarding, was mortally wounded, not by
musketry only but by sabre. When thus attacked he doubtless was
supported by a body of fighters as well as a gang of workers. In fact,
Broke was himself close by.

Under thus much of preparation, certainly not sufficient, Lawrence
chose for action a smooth sea, a royal breeze, an artillery duel, and
a close range. "No manoeuvring, but downright fighting," as Nelson
said of his most critical battle; critical, just because his
opponents, though raw tyros compared to his own crews, had nothing to
do but to work their guns. The American captain took the most
promising method open to him for achieving success, and carried into
the fight a ship's company which was not so untrained but that, had
some luck favored him, instead of going the other way, there was a
fighting chance of victory. More cannot be claimed for him. He had no
right, under the conditions, voluntarily to seek the odds against him,
established by Broke's seven years of faithful and skilful command.
Except in material force, the "Chesapeake" was a ship much inferior to
the "Shannon," as a regiment newly enlisted is to one that has seen
service; and the moment things went seriously wrong she could not
retrieve herself. This her captain must have known; and to the
accusation of his country and his service that he brought upon them a
mortification which endures to this day, the only reply is that he
died "sword in hand." This covers the error of the dead, but cannot
justify the example to the living.

As is customary in such cases, a Court of Inquiry was ordered to
investigate the defeat of the "Chesapeake," and sat from February 2 to
February 8, 1814. Little can be gleaned from the evidence concerning
the manoeuvring of the ship; the only two commissioned officers
surviving, having been stationed on the gun deck, could not see what
passed above. Incidental statements by midshipmen examined confirm
substantially the account above given. One mentions the particular
that, when the head sheets were shot away, "the bow of the 'Shannon'
was abreast of the 'Chesapeake's' midships, and she came into the
wind;" he adds that the mizzen-topsail was a-back, as well as the
main. This is the only important contribution to the determination of
the relative positions and handling of the vessels. As far as it goes,
it confirms a general impression that Lawrence's eagerness prevented
his making due allowance for the way of the "Chesapeake," causing him
to overshoot his aim; an error of judgment, which the accidents to the
headsails converted into irretrievable disaster. The general testimony
agrees that the crew, though dissatisfied at non-receipt of pay and
prize money, behaved well until the moment of boarding. Four
witnesses, all officers, stated as of their own observation that the
"Shannon" received several shot between wind and water, and used her
pumps continuously on the way to Halifax. Budd, the second lieutenant,
"was informed by an officer of the 'Shannon' that she was in a sinking
condition." "The 'Chesapeake' was not injured below her quarters,
except by one or two shot." "The 'Chesapeake' made no water; but the
'Shannon' had hands at the pumps continually." A good deal of pumping
in a ship seven years in commission did not necessarily indicate
injuries in action; Midshipman Curtis, however, who was transferred to
the "Shannon," testified that "the British officers were encouraging
the men by cheering to work at the pumps," which looks more serious.
The purser of the "Chesapeake" swore that she had shot plugs at the
water-line, and that "her sailing master said she had three shot holes
below." The repetition of remarks made by the "Shannon's" officers is
of course only hearsay testimony; but as regards the shots below the
water-line,--as distinguished from the general body of the ship,--this
on the one hand shows that the "Shannon" had her share of bad luck,
for in the smoke of the battle this result is not attributable to nice
precision of aiming. On the other hand it strongly re-enforces the
proof of the excellent marksmanship of the American frigate, deducible
from the killed and wounded of her opponent, and it confirms the
inference that her own disproportionate loss was at least partly due
to the raking fire and her simultaneous disability to reply. Upon the
whole, the conclusion to the writer is clear that, while Lawrence
should not have courted action, the condition of the "Chesapeake" as a
fighting ship was far better than has commonly been supposed. It may
be added that an irresponsible contemporary statement, that his
"orders were peremptory," is disproved by the Department's letter,
which forms part of the Court's record. He was to "proceed to sea as
soon as weather, and the force and position of the enemy, will admit."
Even a successful action must be expected to compel return to port,
preventing his proceeding; and there is an obvious difference between
fighting an enemy when met, and going out especially to fight him. The
orders were discretional.

Whether, by paying attention to favoring conditions, Captain Lawrence
could have repeated the success of Commodore Rodgers in gaining the
sea a month before, must remain uncertain.

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