Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chesapeake Day - Part 2

In the last entry, we looked at the stereotype of USS Chesapeake as an inferior ship, and pointed out that she wasn't. Unlucky, yes - and Sailors get that, even today. But poorly designed, inferior, no. Chesapeake was pretty standard, possibly very pretty, but about comparable to what the British brought to the fight.

So if the two ships were so similar, what made the difference? Training. It's a simple matter of preparedness that ultimately decided the conflict before it even began. Here's a good example of what Broke and the Shannon were up to for months prior to the fight:

"The weekly routine at sea was for the watch on deck to be exercised at the great guns on Monday and Tuesday afternoons, and in the afternoons the first division of the watch was exercised at small arms. Wednesday and Thursday forenoons saw the watch on deck at the carronades, and in the afternoons the second division of the watch at small arms. Friday was reserved for the Midshipmen – great guns in the morning, small arms in the afternoon. Thus each man had one morning at the 18-pounders, one morning at the carronades and two afternoons with musquets in every week.
Saturdays were reserved for washing clothes and scrubbing the berth deck in the afternoon. Sunday, apart from Church service and any necessary evolutions with the sails, was free."

Chesapeake, meanwhile had been trapped in port for more than a year, her crew was generally a mixed bag of experienced sailors and new recruits - including her officers. None of these elements had been afforded a chance to exercise together. I'm not sure if Lawrence ran drills dockside, but it seems from many of the accounts to remind me of Chesapeake's 1807 run-in with HMS Leopard - unprepared, disorganized and thoroughly confused. At any rate, the two ships were near polar opposites in that regard.

So why, then, did Lawrence choose to fight - and he had a choice, he was in port while Shannon beckoned from open water - if he knew himself to be facing a superior foe in a ship that was nowhere near ready? The answer is the bite of hubris.

Earlier in the year, while still commander of Hornet, Lawrence discovered a British warship, the HMS Bonne Citoyenne (why do they so hate the French but love their language?) loading with gold in San Salvador, Brazil. Though Hornet was in company with Constitution at the time, Bainbridge pledged to keep Constitution out of action as Lawrence chided his prospective opponent to come out and fight. When the British commander, Pitt Barnaby Greene, refused on the grounds of responsibility to the gold over his own personal honor, Lawrence claimed a victory and touted his success to the American public - who saw it the same way. Now, Lawrence was under the honor microscope, and with dire consequences.

You have to remember, this was a time when personal honor was paramount in personal and professional life alike. I'm sure - though I have no evidence of it - that Greene took a ribbing from his fellow British officers, even though by all considerations he seems to have done the right thing by his duties. Lawrence played the coward card, and now unless he sailed out to meet Broke in combat, he would more than likely be painted with the stain he had so vigorously applied himself just months before. In the early 19th century navy, this was a no-brainer - he had to go, ready or not.

There is no piece of evidence that shows this resignation more than the maneuver with which Lawrence opened the fight. Broke had Shannon hove to, waiting for Lawrence, and rather than cut to windward and attempt to gain the weather gauge he remained hove to as Chesapeake barreled down on him. With the ships in this position, it would have been a customary offensive maneuver for Lawrence to sail past Shannon, firing into her stern as he passed - a maneuver known as raking. It would have had a devastating effect on his challenger and given him an early upper hand. But instead, Lawrence wore hard and ground to a near stop with his ship alongside of, parallel to and to weather of Shannon before unleashing his first ragged broadside.

From that moment, it was no contest. Shannon battered Chesapeake and eventually boarded her to complete the victory. It was a bloody battle, and Lawrence himself was mortally wounded. Carried from the deck early in the engagement, he gave the command "Tell the men to fire faster and don't give up the ship, fight her 'til she sinks!" And later "burn her." In context, it was quite clear (at least to me) that Lawrence knew he was doomed, but elected to fight on and go out with a bang - and under no circumstances humbly submit to the drubbing, but rather prevent the British taking the prize by destroying the ship. When you really think about it, it was a fanatical act of dedication to the concept of honor in refusing to surrender. It is a sign, I think, of knowing that it was the only way to avoid his tremendous hubris.

James Lawrence was certainly brave, definately had an influence on the early Navy, and absolutely knew how to get the public on his side. But he was also human, and I believe his engagement with Shannon was more akin to a sad, hollow thud at the end of a life and career rather than the triumphant ring of a patriotic soul, as it is so often thought of today. It should be a warning to us as professional Sailors and war fighters - beware of gloating over your advantage, it will bite you. Triumph with honor means a gracious victor.

In the end, Broke did capture Chesapeake, and led her into Halifax under British colors. Taken back to England, she was refitted, her lines and details recorded, and sent back to sea as HMS Chesapeake. In a final dose of irony, very likely intentional, she was sent to blockade Chesapeake Bay and Hampton Roads - where she had been built.

Ouch. Remember that burn.

In case you're wondering, those are Chesapeake's lines in the image, and they are the same as the background on this page - have been for some time.


1 comment:

The Vagabond said...

The Shannon was a Leda class frigate, essentially an English copy of the French Hebe class. What's interesting is that the Shannon was a good 200 tons lighter than the larger Chesapeake; she drew slightly less and may have been a bit more maneuverable. I find this interesting in light of the tradition that the American super-frigates were based on French practice, whereas the British had no problems copying the French altogether. For the most part, French ships of the 18th century were larger than comparable English ships. This began to change by the end of that period and going into the Napoleonic wars. The Shannon, as was typical with the Leda's, was a well made ship (indeed, two of her sisters are still afloat). The 200 ton difference aside, it was a very closely matched battle on paper.