By Frank R. Stockton
Originally published in 1896
This Web version, edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2003
A few months after the battle between the "Hornet" and the " Peacock," Lawrence was again the hero of a great sea fight. The coast of New England was blockaded by a British fleet, and in the harbor of Boston lay the frigate "Chesapeake," commanded by Captain Lawrence. He had been recently appointed to this vessel, and in fact had been in command only ten days when he received a challenge to fight a naval duel.
This proposition came from the captain of the British frigate "Shannon," one of the blockading fleet, about the same size and strength as the "Chesapeake." The British captain sent a very polite letter to Captain Lawrence; for when people propose to fight duels, whether on land or sea, they are always extremely courteous before they begin to try to kill each other. The British captain said, that, as he understood the "Chesapeake" was now ready to go to sea, he would like her to come out and fight the "Shannon" for the honor of their respective flags. He offered the American captain choice of fighting ground inside of certain limits, and promised that the rest of the British fleet should keep far away, so that Captain Lawrence need have no fear of being troubled by any vessel except the "Shannon."
When Captain Lawrence read this challenge, he was as willing to go out and fight the duel as the British captain was anxious to have him do so; but he knew that his vessel was not nearly so well prepared as was the "Shannon." The British ship had been at sea for a long time, she was manned by a crew of brave sailors, and her captain was well acquainted with his ship and his men.
The case was very different with the "Chesapeake." Lawrence had been on board scarcely long enough to find out what sort of a ship she was, but he had been on board long enough to discover that her crew was a very poor one. Many of them were Portuguese, they had not been well drilled, and, worse than that, they did not want to fight. Few of them had been in the service long enough to have a taste for naval warfare; and if they had had their way, they would have let the "Shannon" lie outside until her captain grew gray, before they would go out and accept his challenge. The harbor was much more to their mind.
But Captain Lawrence had no such idea. He accepted the challenge without hesitation, and prepared to go out and fight the duel. He would have been glad enough if he had had a good crew, but he would do his best with the crew he had. He put his ship in fighting trim, and his men in the best order possible, and early on a summer afternoon the "Chesapeake" went out to meet the "Shannon," which was boldly flying the flag of St. George.
In those days, when men-of-war, as well as all other ships, were sailing vessels, the tactics of naval combats were very different from what they are now. Each of the commanders of vessels was obliged to think, not only of what his enemy was about, but what the wind was about. A steamer can take what position she pleases; she can steam far away from her enemy, or she can use her long-range guns, or dash down upon her to break in her sides with her ram. But in the old sailing times, maneuvers were very much more difficult, and if the winds ever desired to stop a sea fight, it often happened that they could do it simply by dying away themselves.
The two ships sailed this way and that, each trying to get a position which would be good for herself and bad for the other; and at last, when they were very close, so near that their captains might have talked with each other, their cannon began to speak. From their mouths came rolling of thunder. From each ship, volleys of great shot swept the decks of the other, while the rattle of musketry became incessant. This tremendous fire was kept up for nearly ten minutes, and in this short time the "Chesapeake" lost nearly one hundred men, killed and wounded, on her upper deck.
Still she had the best of the fight, for in a few minutes she would have taken a position in which she could have raked the decks of the enemy. But unfortunately some of her rigging was shot away, and she could not take advantage of the wind, and did not obey her helm. Nothing could be worse than this; for, with sails flapping wildly in the wind, precision of sailing, so necessary in a sea fight, was absolutely impossible. But not only was the "Chesapeake" unable to take the position she wanted, but she could not get out of the way, and she drifted against the "Shannon;" and the rigging of the two vessels became entangled, with the "Chesapeake" exposed to the full fire of the guns of the other ship. In this case there was only one thing to be done, and Captain Lawrence was the brave man to do it. He must board the "Shannon," and he and his men must fight her captain and his men hand to hand. There was no use trying to fight any longer with the "Chesapeake's" cannon.
Instantly Lawrence ordered the boarders to be called on deck, and he was ready to put himself at their head and dash on board the " Shannon." He was slightly wounded, but he did not care for that. But now came another misfortune. The man who should have called the boarders to action by the roll of the drum was not on duty, and the bugler was ordered to sound the call. He was so frightened by this awful fight that he ran and hid himself, and when he was pulled out from his retreat, he had not breath enough to blow his bugle. Some of the men were sent below to shout for the boarders and call them on deck,-a very slow procedure at such a time; but before any of them arrived, the brave Lawrence was stretched upon the deck by a musket ball.
The captain of the "Chesapeake" was not immediately killed, but he was mortally wounded ; and when he was carried below, he showed that, near death as he was, he was still the bravest man on board. He thought nothing of himself, he thought only of his country and his ship; and his last orders were, "Don't give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks."
But it was not much use trying to fight the "Shannon" any longer; there were no officers on the deck of the "Chesapeake," except two midshipmen, and the British captain saw that he had a good chance to board his enemy. So his crew were soon clambering over the sides of the American vessel. Some wounded officers rushed up from below to help repel this attack. Many of the American sailors fought bravely even at these great odds; but some of the crew, especially the Portuguese, basely deserted their comrades and hurried below. The fight on the deck of the "Chesapeake" was not a long one; and very soon the stars and stripes were hauled down from her masthead, and the British colors hoisted in their place.
So ended the great duel between the "Chesapeake" and the "Shannon," and the last words of the brave Lawrence were never forgotten. "Don't give up the ship" became the watchword of the navy.
After this bloody sea fight, which lasted only fifteen minutes, but in which nearly two hundred and fifty men were killed and wounded, the "Shannon" sailed away for Halifax, taking with her the "Chesapeake," with the dead body of its brave commander on board. When the two vessels entered the harbor, Lawrence lay upon the quarter-deck, wrapped in the great flag of the "Chesapeake," while all the men on the British vessels in the harbor manned their yards, and shouted a wild welcome to the victorious "Shannon." But the flag which floated from the masthead of the British frigate held no more honorable position than that which covered the dead body of the American hero.
"History of the United States Navy." J. F. Cooper.
"Field Book of the Revolution." B. J. Lossing.