When HMS Shannon captured the U.S. Navy’s frigate Chesapeake in June 1813, the people of Halifax, Nova Scotia, rejoiced. Four hundred miles down the coast, the Bostonians, many of whom had witnessed the battle, wept in the streets. What had gone wrong?
Immediately, the news of Chesapeake’s capture became a focal point of public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic. The story, then, is about much more than what happened in the waters outside of Boston on 1 June 1813. It is also about people’s attempts to make meaning out of the War of 1812—an enigmatic and ambivalent, yet decisive, moment in the history of the early American republic.
The loss of Chesapeake is significant in two respects. First, there is the incident itself––its causes and its lessons for the Navy. But, there is also the bigger question of the meaning of the event to contemporaries in the United States, British North America, and Great Britain, for the loss of Chesapeake had as its greatest impact a set of stories people told about the war: why it started, what it was supposed to accomplish, and whether it could be won.
The Navy assigned Captain James Lawrence to Chesapeake in early May 1813. A few months earlier, Lawrence had achieved fame for his actions on board the sloop Hornet, which engaged and ultimately sank HMS Peacock near Georgetown, Guiana.
His status as national hero notwithstanding, Lawrence now faced an inauspicious challenge when it came to manning Chesapeake. Much of the crew was refusing to re-enlist until a dispute about the distribution of prize money could be resolved. In their stead, Lawrence took a less-seasoned cohort of recruits.
Lawrence was in a hurry: Secretary of the Navy William Jones wanted Chesapeake underway and patrolling for British supply ships as soon as possible. Beyond that objective, Jones’s orders become less precise: “If in the course of your cruise you should derive such information of the force of the enemy, or other sufficient cause, as to render a strict adherence to my instructions prejudicial to the Public Service, you are at liberty to exercise your own judgment.”
Lawrence exercised such judgment on 1 June 1813 when he decided to engage Shannon off the coast of Massachusetts. It was barely two weeks since Lawrence had taken command of Chesapeake.
Approaching Shannon on the afternoon of 1 June 1813, Chesapeake attempted to rake her, but the commanding officer of Shannon, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, managed to pull his ship parallel to Chesapeake. Broke then ordered the captain of his No. 14 gun to fire, and the battle began. Chesapeake fired, too, but to little effect.
Almost immediately, Shannon’s guns severed Chesapeake’s foretopsail ties, and the sail’s yard came crashing down. The American frigate’s ability to maneuver was now compromised. (Her boatswain had not secured the topsail yards, standard practice in the preparations for battle.) Losing speed, she was exposed to repeated broadsides. Most of her officers fell.
A musket ball lodged itself in Lawrence’s leg, but he remained in command long enough to be able to order his men to prepare to board Shannon, the ships now nearing collision. When Lawrence was hit by another projectile, one of his officers carried him below decks.
At some point in this sequence of events, Lawrence was heard to cry to his men, “Don’t give up the ship!”—the phrase that won him posthumous glory.
Next, one of Shannon’s 9-pounders smashed Chesapeake’s wheel. And although Chesapeake’s gunners did manage to sever Shannon’s jibsheet, the American ship could not manage much more before she plowed into Shannon’s side. With fewer casualties and a still-capable captain, Shannon had every advantage in the rush to board the enemy vessel.
An arms chest exploded on the stricken frigate’s quarterdeck, the result of a well-aimed grenade, just as Broke’s boarders were climbing aboard. Some of Chesapeake’s men remained at their stations in what became a bloodbath. Others fled to the relative safety of the lower deck. The defense collapsed, and Chesapeake was lost.
Chesapeake’s crew had been routed in less than a quarter of an hour. A witness described the scene after nightfall:
The moon shone bright and revealed a horrible sight to the decks, the bulwarks, torn hammocks and pieces of rope all stained with blood, while there could be heard the groans and cries of the wounded below in the cockpit.
Sources differ on casualty figures, but the initial counts had Chesapeake’s death toll at 23 and Shannon’s at 24. But some days later, it appeared that American deaths far exceeded British ones as Sailors began to die of their wounds.
Captain Broke survived but with serious wounds, including a deep laceration to the head. The only Royal Navy officer to escape serious injury was Lieutenant Provo Wallis, who now had to direct the difficult work of getting both ships underway and into friendlier waters.
Shannon and her captives arrived in Halifax on 6 June. In foreign soil, then, a group of British army personnel buried Lawrence and one of his lieutenants. Later that summer, U.S. officials arranged for Lawrence’s remains to be exhumed and transported to New York for a public funeral. Thousands attended.
The Navy’s Perspective
From Halifax on 15 June 1813, some two weeks after he had been captured, Lieutenant George Budd wrote the Secretary of the Navy to explain what had happened. His account reflects a series of mistakes and misfortunes that culminated in the loss of Chesapeake. As Budd’s letter describes it, the sense of Chesapeake’s immediate descent into chaos is palpable. And then, about 12 minutes into the fight, the confusion reached its height. The explosion of the arms chest on Chesapeake’s quarterdeck accompanied a breakdown of command with multiple, conflicting orders issued at once. Budd remembers hearing someone—another officer—ordering that Shannon be boarded, but Budd, who knew better, “called the boarders away and proceeded to the Spar deck, where I found that the enemy had succeeded in boarding us.” Budd ordered that Chesapeake fire her way clear of Shannon, but it was too late.
On trying again to regain the quarterdeck, Budd was “thrown on to the gun deck.” Wounded, Budd now saw that “the enemy had gained complete possession of the Ship.”
The disaster that befell her belies the fact that Chesapeake as a vessel was actually a good match for Shannon. This was not at all a case of one side’s technological advantage. Some of the chaos, therefore, had to have been due to the inexperience of the Sailors on board Chesapeake and the negative effects of Lawrence having had fewer than two weeks to accustom himself to the frigate before its encounter with Shannon.
Yet Chesapeake’s capture was also a function of superior practices on board Shannon. Captain Broke, it turned out, was a commanding officer of unparalleled competence.
Broke had captained Shannon since 1806, and his naval service went all the way back to 1792, when he had finished his training at the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth. (As was customary but perhaps disadvantageous, all of Lawrence’s training had happened on the job, the United States not yet having established a school for Navy officers.) Broke put his training to good use on board Shannon. Four of his practices in particular combined to produce a decisive advantage over Lawrence:
Broke oversaw personally the mounting of his guns, which were adjusted in such a way as to fire in a straight line, thus counteracting the effects of the ship’s curvature. The result: Broke’s guns were ready to fire with maximum effect.
For an hour each day, Broke led his men in gunnery drills. The result: Broke’s crew was better at gunnery.
Twice a week, Broke put his men to target practice, the money for extra powder coming directly from his personal income. The result: Broke’s crew had better aim.
During these drills, at practice, and in actual battle, Broke insisted on his crew’s absolute silence. The result: Broke’s crew was faster to act on the captain’s exact orders.
Broke’s crew had thus settled into a routine that prized discipline, precision, and obedience. Conversely, Lawrence’s crew, most of them new to the ship, had yet to settle into routines. The chaos in face of Broke’s fighting force, superior in every way, was inevitable.
A Navy court of inquiry convened in February 1814 to make sense of what had happened. As a result of that investigation, and in keeping with the process whereby the Navy came to terms with the loss of a vessel, a court-martial built a case against Lieutenant William Sitgreaves Cox, one of Chesapeake’s two surviving officers. His charges were “cowardice, disobedience of orders, desertion from quarters, neglect of duty, and unofficer-like conduct.”
The evidence for conviction was scant—the testimony of just one witness, the ship’s other surviving officer. Nevertheless, the court-martial found Cox guilty on two charges—unofficer-like conduct (for failing to order that American Sailors in flight from their quarters be cut down with swords) and neglect of duty (for responding to Lawrence’s calls for help).
Cox understood himself as “a sacrifice to heal the wounded honor and reinstate the naval pride of the nation,” he said. It took 138 years for the U.S. government to agree. In May 1952, the House Armed Services Committee exonerated Cox and corrected the Navy Department’s records to show “William S. Cox as a third lieutenant, United States Navy, at the time of his death on October 17, 1874.”
Cox was not the only officer to be scapegoated in the aftermath of Chesapeake’s capture, but his was the only court-martial. The apparent need to allocate blame attended a particularly difficult moment in the war and must be seen in the context of pervasive anxiety about the future of the republic as it descended into a protracted conflict with the most powerful empire on earth. And it was in the context of this harrowing second half of the war that people made sense of Chesapeake’s capture.
President James Madison praised the “auspicious triumph” of U.S. naval endeavors in the first five months of the war in his annual message to Congress on 4 November 1812. By the time of Chesapeake’s capture on 1 June of the following year, however, the tide had turned.
Whereas the naval war had been the only bright spot in the sorry account of military disappointments that made up the first part of the war, the next phase of hostilities saw U.S. sea power sharply reduced. Chesapeake’s misfortune laid bare for all what was already known—that the Americans were not winning this war.
In a 28 December 1812 letter to the next Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, Congressman Jonathan Roberts summed up the national mood most succinctly: The “incompetency of the heads of the War & Navy Offices” was among “the strongest convictions of the public mind.” The war and its prosecutors had become the subject of public complaint and disquiet among Americans, few of whom had supported the war even at the outset.
It was hard to support a war, the causes and aims of which were indeterminate—both at the time and today. A recent history argues that the casus belli was the impressment controversy and the unsettled nature of the settlement that ended the Revolutionary War back in 1783. Certain marginal subjects of the British crown—the Irish, British North Americans (and French people living in British North America), Native Americans, and even loyalists still resident in the United States—found themselves animated to fight for diverse reasons in the course of a war about individual rights, on the one hand, or allegiance to the monarch, on the other.
A rival interpretation is less circumspect about what caused the war: American avarice—that is, the culmination of a longstanding desire to conquer and annex Canada outright.
Other historians have found a middle ground by acknowledging U.S. plans to take Canada, but place more emphasis on the Madison administration’s war aims, which entailed securing a treaty from Great Britain that recognized the full legitimacy of the American state and, by extension, its citizens’ right to trade in Canada and on the high seas without hindrance.
Whatever the war aims, however, the United States did not achieve them at war’s end, which reestablished the status quo ante bellum—the very outcome for which the British had been fighting all along.
British victory seemed increasingly likely at the time of Chesapeake’s capture in June 1813. The warning signs were everywhere. An unpopular Secretary of the Navy resigned only to be replaced by someone whose program of naval expansion the Senate refused to fund. The senators’ constituents would not support the attendant increase in taxes. Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin, too, began to worry about spiraling costs and admonished the Navy Department to make deep cuts. For the federal government, credit was getting harder to obtain. In February 1813, Gallatin floated $16 million in loans but managed to scrounge less than a quarter of that sum. The United States was now a bad bet, according to one of its principal financiers, John Jacob Astor.
Moreover, the British blockade of the eastern seaboard, never very effective, nonetheless saw increasing success in 1813. In fact, just hours before capturing Chesapeake, Captain Broke’s crew had interdicted and burned an American merchant ship. Incidents such as these were mounting.
Worst of all, as Lawrence was readying Chesapeake for action in May 1813, British forces commenced with raiding American plantations and communities up and down the Chesapeake, filching their possessions and supplies, and helping their enslaved workers to free themselves and defend that freedom with arms. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the northwest, the U.S. Army’s land war against Britain and allied Native Americans was collapsing.
When Bostonians mourned Lawrence, his crew, and Chesapeake, they also mourned a victory they had once taken for granted. Lawrence’s cry––“Don’t give up the ship!”––resonated with an American public in the throes of what might become their country’s first major defeat.
One year and several catastrophic routs later, the British occupied, sacked, and burned the U.S. capital and set it ablaze. A sudden rainstorm was the only mitigating factor in a disaster that the U.S. war effort had failed to forestall.
The Sailors’ Perspective
As she sailed out to meet Shannon, Chesapeake flew a banner emblazoned with the words “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.”  A cryptic message to today’s readers, it meant a good deal to the seamen aboard Chesapeake and provides a window into how they understood the stakes of the battle against Shannon on 1 June 1813.
The slogan implied that the British were violating sailors’ rights, and sailors’ at the time would have understood that violation as having to do with impressment on the high seas and press gangs on British territory. These press gangs descended on British towns and cities in order to round up seamen, which the Royal Navy desperately needed in the existential fight against Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French. This was a coercive practice that often involved violence. British-born seamen fled in droves to the American merchant marine and even to the U.S. Navy.
Beyond British territory, in the waters off the United States, Royal Navy captains, in trying to round up what they saw as shirkers, cast a wide net that also picked up American-born seamen (for this, the United Kingdom had no sound legal argument) as well as British-born men who had emigrated and now saw themselves as American.
In some cases, these British-born sailors had pursued legal naturalization in the United States. In others, they eschewed this costly process and got a tattoo that established national belonging: the eagle, the American flag, or the year 1776. However, in the eyes of the British state, in keeping with the laws and precedents defining subjecthood there, American citizenship should not necessarily protect a U.S. sailor from impressment into the Royal Navy. The British state, in fact, had no legal mechanism for denaturalization—once the king’s subject, always the king’s subject. Therefore, a British sailor who had fled the press gangs and claimed American citizenship was still his majesty’s subject and still fair game.
To the Chesapeake’s crew on 1 June 1813, then, the motto “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” meant two things: the right to serve aboard a merchant ship of one’s choosing and, crucially, the right to claim U.S. citizenship as a means of refusing to serve in the Royal Navy.
These stakes were high for Chesapeake’s Sailors: Defeat Shannon, or be forced to serve like so many men before you; defeat Britain, or continue to live in fear of impressment. Tragically, this fear was about to become reality for the men on board Chesapeake, who were woefully unprepared for what awaited them.
—Adam Bisno, Ph.D., NHHC Communication and Outreach Division, May 2019
 William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1992), 2:126.
 Arthur Larsen, “Scapegoat of the Chesapeake-Shannon Battle,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 79 (May, 1953): 529.
 Jon Latimer, 1812: War with America (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2007), 164.
 Dudley, Naval War, 2:126; Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 529.
 Jones to Lawrence, letter of May 1813, quoted in Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 529. Larsen points out that it had been the custom for commanding officers to take the widest interpretations of their orders.
 Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, RN, commanding officer of Shannon, sent Lawrence a challenge just before 1 June 1813, but the letter did not reach Chesapeake before Lawrence’s decision to attack. See summary and letter from Broke to Lawrence (undated), in Dudley, Naval War, 2:126–28.
 Ibid., 2:126.
 See Broke to Capel, letter of 6 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:129; Peter Padfield, Broke and the Shannon (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1968), 27; and Latimer, 1812, 165.
 Lieutenant George Budd to Secretary of the Navy William Jones, letter of 15 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:134; and Latimer, 1812, 166.
 Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 530.
 Ibid., 166.
 Broke to Capel, letter of 6 June 1813, and Budd to Jones, letter of 15 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:129 and 2:134.
 Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 530.
 Charles Roche, “Dockyard Reminiscences: An Account of the Action between the ‘Chesapeake’ and the ‘Shannon,’” Collections of the Nova Scotia Historical Society 18 (1919): 66, quoted in Latimer, 1812, 166–67.
 See Broke to Capel, letter of 6 June 1813, and Budd to Jones, letter of 15 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:132–34; cf. Latimer, 1812, 167, who puts the final count of American dead and wounded at 61 and 85, respectively.
 Latimer, 1812, 166.
 Padfield, Broke and the Shannon, 188–89.
 “Lawrence, James,” Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed 23 May 2019. See also Robert E. Cray Jr., “The Death and Burials of Captain James Lawrence: Wartime Mourning in the Early Republic,” New York History 83 (Spring 2002): 133–64.
 Budd to Jones, letter of 15 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:132. Although there is reason to doubt Budd’s subsequent accounts of the capture (see Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 529–30), this initial report matches other testimony. See also Captain Broke (or, more likely, one of his officers) to Captain Thomas Bladen Capel, RN, senior naval officer at Halifax, letter of 6 June 1813, in Dudley, Naval War, 2:129–33.
 See Latimer, 1812, 164–65. See also Lambert, War at Sea in the Age of Sail, 1650–1850 (London: Cassels, 2000), 198.
 Larsen, “Scapegoat,” 529.
 There was some disagreement in court over whether Lawrence had ordered Cox to help him. See ibid., 530.
 Quoted in ibid.
 Quoted in ibid.
 Latimer, 1812, 168.
 Annual message to Congress of 4 November 1812, quoted in J. C. A. Stagg, The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 79.
 Roberts to Jones, letter of 28 December 1812, in Dudley, Naval War, 1:635.
 Stagg, War of 1812, 83.
 Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (New York: Knopf, 2011), 4, 21, and 9–10. See also Laura Benton and Lisa Ford, Rage for Order: The British Empire and International Law, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 149, who find that this dynamic existed elsewhere in and around the British Empire, where “British subjects. . . struggled to establish extraterritorial legal rights while calling for the protection of their interests by an inconsistently supportive imperial government.” Although Benton and Ford ascribe this dynamic to China, Japan, Russia, the Pacific Islands, the United States, Latin America, and the Ottoman Empire, it applies, too, to the Canadian context in 1812–14.
 Latimer, 1812, 3.
 Stagg, War of 1812, 16 and 83–84.
 Ibid., 81–83.
 Dudley, Naval War, 2:134–35.
 Latimer, 1812, 165.
 Stagg, War of 1812, 95–96.
 Ibid., 9–10, 88–91.
 “Burning of Washington,” Senate Historical Office, United States Senate, accessed 22 May 2019 at https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/August_Burning_Washington.htm.
 Latimer, 1812, 165.
 The phrase burst onto the scene when Captain David Porter flew it over his man-of-war Essex while departing New York Harbor early in the war, on 2 July 1812, to capture what turned out to be ten prizes in ten weeks. Historian Paul A. Gilje, in “‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’: The Rhetoric of the War of 1812,” Journal of the Early Republic 30 (Spring 2010): 16, has shown that the slogan “not only summed up the aims of the war but also became a shorthand to remind the rest of the world that sailors, too, were citizens who were central to the identity of the United States”; cf. Simon P. Newman, “Reading the Bodies of Early American Seafarers,” William and Mary Quarterly (January 1998): 79.
 Taylor, Civil War, 105. The Royal Navy impressed a large number of American-born sailors and placed the burden of proof of nationality on the victim of impressment. Most impressed Americans, however, were British-born, and the Royal Navy refused categorically to return them to the United States.
 Newman, “Reading the Bodies,” 76.
 Taylor, Civil War, 102–103 and 123, who argues that “American naturalization defied the British concept of the perpetual subject. In the republic, free men chose citizenship, as the Patriots had done by rejecting British rule during the revolution. Immigrants reenacted that revolution by choosing to become American citizens, renouncing their birth allegiances as Britons.” This “implication that Americans remained colonists whenever they passed beyond the republic’s terrestrial boundaries,” Taylor argues, was the principal catalyst for the American declaration of war in 1812. See also Hindraker, Elusive Empires, 260–61; Kettner, American Citizenship, 173.