Painting of the Battle of Boston Harbor

The initial exchange of gunfire. Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg, 1836

How A Ship Was Lost And A Mythology Was Born In Boston Harbor

June 10, 2016

Even as she sits up on scaffolding in dry dock, undergoing extensive repair and renovation, the USS Constitution is still the undisputed centerpiece of the Charlestown Navy Yard. As I stand, watching the craftsmen, tourists amble up to watch and read the nearby placards, a school group gathers to learn about her tales. It makes sense. Today Old Ironsides stands alone, the last of the US Navy’s original six frigates. We lost the first of them, just a few scant miles from here. It was 1813, and the United States was at war.

"The War of 1812 in terms of a lot of the action that took place was not going particularly well for the United States," explained The Boston Marine Society’s David Longshore, a Navy Vet and naval historian. Like all wars, the reasons for it were complex: Land in Canada, free and safe trade on the high seas, and the fact that the British were capturing our sailors and pressing them into duty in the British Navy. But Longshore says there was also something larger, more fundamental at play.

"Here we are as an upstart nation and we’re not doing this about political necessarily or economic reasons," he said. "We’re doing it because of an ideal."

It was the pursuit of that ideal that might explain the events of June 1, when Captain James Lawrence sailed the USS Chesapeake out into Boston Harbor with orders to capture British merchant vessels.

"And he had orders from the secretary of the Navy not to go out and fight British warships," said Michael Crawford, senior historian at the US Navy’s History and Heritage Command. And, so, with strict and clear orders, what did Captain Lawrence do?

"Lawrence ignored those orders and decided he was going to out and fight the Shannon," said Crawford.

The HMS Shannon: A British warship of similar size and armament, but with a hidden advantage.

"The commander of the Shannon was a real stickler," said Crawford. "He designed special sites on the guns and special gunnery improvements, and he had honed the fighting ability of the Shannon's [crew] to a fine pitch."

The Chesapeake struck the first blow, but the Shannon and her men quickly got the better of Lawrence and his crew. 15 minutes after the first shots were fired it was over. After destroying the Chesapeake's wheel and rudder, the British boarded the crippled American ship. The USS Chesapeake and her men were theirs. 

In the fighting, 23 Brits and 48 American were killed, including Captain Lawrence. But as the mortally wounded captain was being carried away he issued one final order, five words that would outlive the children and children’s children of every man involved in the battle that fateful day.

DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP.

Despite the fact that the ship was actually taken, the spirit of Captain Lawrence’s statement became a rallying cry for the nascent US Navy.

"The phrase was taken up as soon as it was known. It kind of encapsulated the fighting spirit of the Navy," said Crawford.

"Don't give up the ship" also took deep root in the American consciousness. It remains today a vital motto for the US Navy, appearing on everything from poster to flags, T-shirts to the US Naval Academy's sports teams' uniforms.

"Out of it came a code of conduct that is something that we should keep in mind, that even when dealing with the greatest of odds we still can triumph," said Longshore. 

This was, of course, just one battle in a war that – when over – saw all sides claim victory. Canada lost no land to the US. The British remained dominant on the high seas. But for the Americans, the War of 1812 helped forge a national identity in crucial the early years of the great experiment; an identity encapsulated by Captain Lawrence’s dying words.

"It helped forge nationalism, national feelings among the Americans," said Crawford. "Before the war of 1812 we were 'The United States are...' and after the War of 1812 it was more like “The United States is...'"

"It really helped give us an ethos," said Longshore. "It establishes a can-do attitude that has always been the hallmark of the American way of life."

The Chesapeake Mill in England
Caption
Photo Credit: Richard Thomas

If not always, at least since that fateful day, when the USS Chesapeake was lost and an American mythology was born as cannonballs raged in Boston Harbor, 203 years ago this month. 

CODA: After the USS Chesapeake was captured, the British pressed her into service as the HMS Chesapeake. In 1819, she was put up for sale by the Royal Navy in – of all places – Plymouth, England. She was purchased by a timber merchant and her wood was used in the construction of the Chesapeake Mill, a watermill in Wickham, Hampshire, England, which still stands today.

If you have a tale of hidden Massachusetts history to share, or there is something you're just plain curious about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org.


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