USS Chesapeake, 1813
USS Chesapeake was one of the original six frigates authorized by Congress as part of the newly established United States Navy in 1794. The ship served in the brief naval war with France known as the Quasi-War and in the First Barbary War in the Mediterranean. In 1807 it was involved in an incident with the British frigate Leopard, in which Leopard fired into Chesapeake when the latter failed to allow itself to be boarded and searched for British deserters. This event helped foster the War of 1812.
In December of 1812, Chesapeake commenced a cruise which resulted in the ship inflicting almost a quarter of a million dollars of damage to British commerce (almost $4.5 million today), through the capture and destruction of British shipping. In May of 1813 James Lawrence assumed command of the ship in Boston, where it was refitting. Lawrence had difficulty filling his crew for the next voyage and Chesapeake was manned by sailors from many nations, many of them inexperienced in a man-of-war.
Outside of Boston patrolled HMS Shannon, a crack British frigate which had been commanded by Philip Broke since 1806. When Lawrence heard of Shannon’s presence he sailed from Boston determined to capture the English ship, motivated in part by the series of successes by American ships against their British adversaries the previous year.
In the engagement in the early evening of May 31, 1813, Shannon quickly outgunned Chesapeake, and after rendering his opponent unmanageable Broke personally led a boarding party to effect its capture. Both Broke and Lawrence were severely wounded during the battle, with Lawrence giving his final order, “Don’t give up the ship,” before being carried below. He died while his captured ship was being escorted to the British naval base at Halifax. Broke survived and was knighted for his victory.
The loss of Chesapeake changed the approach of the US Navy, which up until then had enjoyed a string of victories against the British. American frigates largely remained in port for the remainder of the war, rather than being sent out on commerce raiding cruises. Chesapeake remained in British service until 1819. After the ship was sold some of its timbers were used to build the Chesapeake Mill, still standing in Wickham, England.