It took only 10 minutes for the HMS Shannon to defeat the USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812.
With nearly half its crew dead or wounded, its helm destroyed, and its fore-topsail halyard shot away, the Chesapeake — one of the original six frigates of the United States Navy — was dead in the water. Its captain, James Lawrence, lay belowdecks, mortally wounded by a British sharpshooter. Knowing the enemy would soon try to board his crippled vessel, Lawrence uttered a final order, “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.”
Lawrence’s bold command would be forever remembered as the encapsulation of the fighting spirit of American sailors. “Don’t give up the ship” remains an unofficial motto within the Navy, reminding sailors deployed around the globe that they should fight to the last and never surrender. But while many service members might know of Lawrence’s defiant last words, few likely know the real story of what happened after he uttered them, and why that slogan is a more fitting tribute to US Marines than to sailors.
By the time the HMS Shannon was bearing down on the Chesapeake on the evening of June 1, 1813, the United States and Great Britain were already a year into the War of 1812. During that first year of conflict, American and British ships faced off at sea in five major engagements. Each one of those engagements culminated in an American victory. The Royal Navy had underestimated America’s newer, faster fleet of frigates at the start of the war.
So in June 1813, when British Capt. Philip Broke set sail from Nova Scotia in the heavily armed HMS Shannon, he was determined to end America’s winning streak and prove that the Royal Navy still dominated the sea. Capitalizing on America’s overconfidence, Broke sailed the Shannon — a ship he’d already captained for seven years, which sported 38 cannons recently upgraded with new sights — straight for Boston Harbor. He knew the Chesapeake, with its largely inexperienced crew and new captain, would attempt to interdict them.
Citizens of Boston were so confident that the battle would be another American victory that they lined up on the shore to watch the show. But what they witnessed instead was the Shannon destroying the Chesapeake in a matter of minutes.
Lawrence sailed the Chesapeake straight for the British, bringing her parallel with the Shannon. The two frigates exchanged full broadsides. Fire from the British cannons proved overwhelming, immobilizing the Chesapeake and killing much of her crew. In the brief exchange, the Americans suffered 148 casualties, including 61 killed or mortally wounded. Among them were Lawrence, the first and fourth lieutenants, the commander of the ship’s Marines, the master, the boatswain, three midshipmen, and the chaplain. Both of the remaining lieutenants were wounded. As the Chesapeake lay crippled with her crew reeling, Broke led a boarding party to capture the American ship.
When British troops began boarding Chesapeake just after six in the evening on June 1, 1813, Lawrence was nearly dead and most of the remaining crew was preparing to surrender. Of the 44 Marines assigned to the Chesapeake, 14 were already dead and 20 more were wounded. Only a single noncommissioned officer and nine junior-enlisted Marines remained able to fight. Remaining faithful to Lawrence’s final command, the Marines attacked the British boarding party while the American sailors stood by and offered no resistance.
In his book The Naval War of 1812, Theodore Roosevelt described the disparity between the actions of the Marines and those of the Chesapeake’s sailors.
“On the upper deck the only men who behaved well were the marines,” Roosevelt, the future US president, wrote. “One of the American marines, using his clubbed musket, killed an Englishman, and so stubborn was the resistance of the little group that for a moment the assailants gave back, having lost several killed and wounded; but immediately afterward they closed in and slew their foes to the last man.”
Despite their courageous actions and steadfast adherence to Lawrence’s orders, the 10 fighting Marines were killed, and the Chesapeake was captured by the British. The loss marked the first American naval defeat of the war. Three months later, Capt. Oliver Hazard Perry captained a new American ship, the USS Lawrence, against the Royal Navy during the Battle of Lake Erie. Flying the now-iconic ensign stitched with the words “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” Perry and his comrades defeated the British, seizing all six of their vessels.
It’s been 209 years since Perry’s victory at Lake Erie, and Lawrence’s final command continues to inspire American service members. The very flag that flew atop the USS Lawrence still hangs in Bancroft Hall at the US Naval Academy — where 73 Medal of Honor recipients have earned their commissions — and serves as a daily reminder to midshipmen of the big shoes they have to fill. And although the mantra is a reminder of the Navy’s reputation for courage in the face of great odds, history shows it’s a more fitting tribute to the 10 Marines who actually refused to give up the ship.