Monday, January 2, 2012

Bicentennial year - and we're already celebrating the 200's!

Well, I've been away for some time now - and to the more or less devoted readers follow this blog, you have my apologies.  It's been a busy season, not just for the holidays but also here at NHS, where the point was far from lost on our staff that we are entering the first year of the War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations.  But 200 years ago, right now, one of the fastest ships in the American fleet was racing diplomats to and from Europe.  During the winter of 1811-1812, newly promoted Master Commandant James Lawrence would find himself at the proverbial spearhead of the United States’ entry into the conflict we’re about to commemorate.

Many will no doubt recall that Lawrence would go on to give the Navy its legendary motto "Don't Give Up The Ship".  But in 1812, he was already somewhat well known.  In fact, while most no doubt associate Lawrence with the capture of the frigate Chesapeake, he had quite a stellar - albeit curtailed - naval career which I feel significantly outweighs the 'glory' of his bravely fought end.

Three square a day, scenery changes, and they let you play with explosives.
Long before he rose to the rank of Captain and took command of Chesapeake, Lawrence was turning heads.  In 1804, during the first Barbary War, he served as First Lieutenant of the schooner Enterprise, and was Stephen Decatur's second-in-command in the famous raid on Tripoli to burn the captured USS Philadelphia - an act Horatio Nelson reportedly called "the most daring act of the age".  Though Decatur was most widely recognized, credited and associated with that action, Lawrence's name made all the papers, immediately below Decatur's.

Returning to the States, he was assigned the dubious distinction of commanding the small and frail Gunboat No. 6 - which he sailed across the Atlantic in an incredible act of seamanship (A British ship seriously mistook the tiny craft for a wreck passing through the Azores, and marveled at the feat).
Conquer the Atlantic, anyone?  Me neither.

As he climbed the ladder of seniority as a Lieutenant, he was assigned to command the brig Argus, with which he was pitted against Robert Fulton's first experimental torpedo.  When Lawrence rigged nets around his ship to prevent the device from impacting his hull, Fulton admitted the torpedo would be stopped (80 years and much torpedo-refinement later, anti-torpedo netting would become a standard defense on large navy vessels).
In the age of honor paramount, torpedoes were slowed dramatically to allow deck department a sporting chance to rig their defense.

Promoted to Master Commandant in 1811, he was assigned to command the newly overhauled Sloop of War Hornet.  Carrying the last diplomats to and from Europe, his return in May 1812 with unfavorable news became the 'last straw' in declaration of the War of 1812.  Despite a rocky return crossing, Lawrence had Hornet fit and ready to sail, and left New York with Rodgers' squadron in June.  Though the cruise of the squadron was less than stellar, Hornet bagged three prizes, including the first of the war for the Navy - the British privateer Dolphin on July 9th 1812.

Returning to Boston, Hornet rendezvoused with Constitution for an intended cruise of Southeast Asia.  Of course, they found ample hunting on the South American coast and never made it there, but both ships returned home with significant laurels - Constitution capturing Java and Hornet sinking Peacock in what may have been one of the most celebrated cruises of the war.  Lawrence was voted a Congressional Gold Medal for leading Hornet in the sinking of Peacock - a subject which I'll be discussing in much greater detail at the NHS Winter Retreat on January 14, when I publish my new research on it.

Suffice it to say, there will be much to discuss about James Lawrence in the coming weeks.  For now, those who subscribe to the NHS mailing list can read all about the 1811-12 diplomatic cruise of Lawrence in Hornet - and what a harrowing tale that actually was.  For those who don't subscribe visit and click on "Hoist Your Pennant" to join the list - it's free, and you don't need to be an NHS member.  If you missed this week's edition and would like a copy, email the NHS staff at and they'll be happy to send one to you.

Oh, and by the way, Chesapeake had more in common with Hornet than just sharing a famous commander.  But more on that later...

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