HMS Shannon Captures the USS Chesapeake, 1 June 1813.

Admiral Sir John Warren took command of Royal Navy forces in North America and the Caribbean in September 1812. By the end of March 1813 he had blockaded the Chesapeake and the Delaware. On 23 March the Admiralty sent him orders to expand the blockade to cover all the American coast.

The British objectives were to defend their trade and to end the war by economic means. Warren would soon have ten 74 gun ships of the line, 30 frigates and 80 smaller ships, which the Admiralty believed would allow him to carry out these tasks, allowing for a third of his ships being under repair and refit at any time. An attack on New Orleans would have made strategic sense, but Warren had only two battalions of Royal Marines, each of 6-700 men. [1]

The British did carry out limited amphibious operations; an attack on the Delaware from 29-31 May resulted in the capture of destruction of over 20 ships.

The US 44 gun frigates were more powerful than any of Warren’s frigates, but would have stood no chance against a British 74. This meant that much of the United States Navy was trapped in harbour. In April the USS President and Congress managed to exit Boston in fog, but had taken only a dozen prizes by September, when they returned to Newport; much of British commerce was sailing in well escorted convoys. In late May the USS United States, Macedonian and Hornet tried and failed to get out of New York

James Lawrence had commanded the USS Hornet when she sailed with the USS Constitution in the cruise that resulted in the capture of HMS Java. On 24 February 1813 the Hornet encountered the brig HMS Peacock. Both ships were armed principally with carronades, which were very powerful but short range guns, so a short range battle ensued.

As with most naval actions in the War of 1812, the more powerful ship won; in this case it was the Hornet, which carried 32 pound carronades; the Peacock had 24 pounders.  Lawrence was promoted from Master Commandant to Captain. He was initially promised command of the 44 gun frigate USS Constitution, then under refit, but this was changed to the 38 gun frigate USS Chesapeake, then at Boston. Lawrence was annoyed at being switched to a smaller ship, but the Chesapeake was ready for sea. Andrew Lambert notes that her crew was ‘a remarkably experienced team of deep-sea mariners.’[2]

Lawrence took command on 20 May, and spent the next 11 days exercising his gun crews. He also replaced some of the weaker officers. He was aware that there was a British frigate off Boston, so the Chesapeake prepared for action on 31 May before sailing the next day.

The British ship was the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Broke. He had carefully studied naval tactics, realising the importance of accurate gunnery and skilful manoeuvre. His gun crews were trained to a high level of efficiency; they could target the masts to immobilise the enemy ship or the decks to kill the crew. He paid for adjustments to the guns with his own money ; the decks were marked to enable every gun to concentrate fire on the same point.

Broke had sent a challenge to Lawrence to a single ship contest. Lawrence had himself challenged HMS Bonne Citoyenne to combat whilst commanding the Hornet, but did not receive Broke’s letter as he had sailed before it arrived.

Shannon had been accompanied by another frigate, HMS Tenedos, but Broke, realising that the Chesapeake would not engage two frigates, had detached her to guard another exit in case Chesapeake tried to slip out under cover of fog.

The two ships were evenly balanced, so the battle would depend on luck and skill.

Shannon had 52 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders, four 9 pounders, one 6 pounder, 16 32 pound carronades and three 12 pound carronades. Her crew was 330, 30 of them raw.

The Chesapeake had 50 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders firing on the broadside and one ahead, two 12 pounders, 18 32 pound carronades and one 12 pound carronade. Her crew was 379.

The US ship had a slight advantage in nominal weight of fire, but was outgunned by a little if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was about 7 per cent less than its nominal value is accepted. Either way, the advantage was not decisive.[3]

The Chesapeake left Boston at 1 pm on 1 June, heading towards Shannon; the visibility was excellent, so both ships could see the other clearly.  In previous frigate actions the Americans had fired at long range, not closing until the enemy was badly damaged. However, the Chesapeake did not have the firepower advantage that the 44 gun US frigates enjoyed. Getting in close had worked for Lawrence when the Hornet had defeated HMS Peacock.

Broke did not want to fight close to Boston, where US gunboats might join in, so moved further away, stopping once Shannon was 15 miles away from Boston and out of sight. The Chesapeake was then 4 miles away and closing. At 5:10 Broke spoke to his crew, encouraging them and ordering his gunners to fire into the enemy hull to kill the American gunners and destroy the guns, rather than trying to dismast her.

At 5:30 it appeared that the Chesapeake might try to cross Shannon’s stern, allowing her to rake the British ship, which would result in devastating damage to her hull. Broke reacted quickly to prevent this happening, but Lawrence was probably intending to fight broadside to broadside; he had loaded his guns with ammunition suitable for destroying the Shannon’s rigging rather firing into her hull.

At 5:40 the American crew gave three cheers, but the British remained silent. Broke believed in fighting as quietly as possible, so that orders could be heard clearly. Lawrence, assuming that he intended to use the tactics that had worked against HMS Peacock, would have aimed to destroy Shannon’s lower rigging. The Chesapeake could then have sat on Shannon’s quarter, firing all her broadside against only a few of the immobilised British ship’s guns. Broke moved to forestall this, and brought his ship broadside to broadside with the American, 40-50 yards apart.

The British opened fire at 5:50; the Americans quickly replied, but many of their gunners were already dead. The Americans scored hits on Shannon, notably on her lower rigging, but were having the worse of the battle. The Chesapeake was sailing faster, with the result that she exposed her stern to the British; her wheel was shot away, and she suffered heavy casualties amongst her officers and petty officers. At one stage it seemed as if the Chesapeake might escape, but she then lost way. A cartridge box exploded on her deck at 5:58.

A boarding action was risky, but Lawrence realised that it was his last option. However, heavy casualties meant that few men answered his call for boarders. He was then mortally wounded, saying ‘Don’t give up the ship’ as he fell.[4]

At 6:00 the ships collided, with one of the British anchors attaching itself to the American port quarter. William Stevens, the British boatswain tied the ships together, losing an arm in the process.

At 6:02 pm Broke led a boarding party onto the Chesapeake; the US Marines tried to resist, but 14 out of 44 had been killed and 20 wounded. Lieutenant George Budd tried to rally the American crew, but was wounded. Broke said that the Americans ‘fought desperately, but in disorder.’[5]

The fighting was apparently over in a couple of minutes. However, three US sailors, perhaps RN deserters who would be executed if taken alive, attacked Broke, inflicting a severe head wound on him. The trio were quickly killed. Broke fell into some quicklime, which had leaked from a barrel hit by a cannon ball. It was used by the Americans as a disinfectant, and this probably saved Broke’s life.

According to Lambert, the dying Captain Lawrence realised that his ship had been taken and exclaimed ‘Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!’[6] The ships had now drifted apart. A small British ensign was raised on the Chesapeake, but was then lowered, before a larger one was raised. This confused one of Shannon’s gun crews, who re-opened fire, killing George Watt, Shannon’s first lieutenant, and killing or wounding five other British sailors.

The British now held the gun deck, but there were only 70 of them, far fewer than the number of Americans below decks. The ships were less than 20 miles off the US coast. Charles Falkiner, Shannon’s fourth lieutenant, told the Americans that there were 300 British on board, and a boat full of Shannon’s marines arrived, making the prize secure.

The ships were of similar size and firepower, with the Chesapeake having the larger crew. Both had brave captains and experienced crews. The main difference was that Lawrence took over his command 12 days before the action whilst Broke had commanded his ship for seven years, bringing it to a high level of efficiency. Lambert argues that:

‘The Americans had nothing to be ashamed of, their gunnery was good, and they fought bravely, but they were beaten by better men, perhaps the best fighting crew that ever went to sea.’[7]

Theodore Roosevelt gives American casualties as 61 killed and 85 wounded and British as 33 killed and 50 wounded.[8] Lambert says that 48 Americans were killed, 99 wounded and 325, including the wounded, captured. Some, probably British deserters, jumped overboard. He gives British casualties as 26 killed and 58 wounded.[9] Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, and was struck 158 times in return.[10]

The two ships, under the command of Provo Wallis, Shannon’s third lieutenant, were repaired before heading for Halifax, Wallis’s home town, arriving on 4 June. Lawrence died just before the ships entered harbour. Delirious, he had exclaimed ‘Don’t give up the ship’ several times during the voyage.[11]

Lawrence and Augustus Ludlow, one of his lieutenants, were buried in Halifax with full military honours, but were soon moved and reburied in first Salem and then New York.[12]

The Chesapeake became HMS Chesapeake, and served in the RN until 1819. Broke was made a Baronet, but did not serve again at sea because of the severity of his wound, which caused him pain for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on the grounds of seniority in 1830, dying in 1841. Wallis and Falkner were both promoted to Commander.

Wallis, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 12 April 1791, was borne on the books of HMS Oiseau in 1795. The importance of seniority in RN promotion meant influential fathers whose sons intended to join the RN often had them listed on the books of warships years before they went to sea.

Wallis actually went to sea for the first time on HMS Cleopatra in 1805. His last sea going appointment, as C-in-C on the south east coast of South American, ended in 1857. However, he was technically still a serving officer until he died on 13 February 1892, by then Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was on the active list for 96 years, with 52 years of actual service, and was the last surviving British officer to have commanded a warship during the Napoleonic Wars.


[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 2455-90

[2] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 2802.

[3] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 220-21.

[4] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 225.

[5] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 227.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, locations 3352-53.

[7] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3574.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 228.

[9] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 3419-20.

[10] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3579.

[11] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3435-36

[12] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3457-58.

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One response to “HMS Shannon Captures the USS Chesapeake, 1 June 1813.

  1. Pingback: The End of the War of 1812 | War and Security

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